Three Books on Transgender Politics (3 of 4) – ‘An Argument for Justice’ based on the definition of Woman

Only in the last two chapters of her book does Faye really focus on the debate she said she would not engage, and when she starts, she says something startling.

“The effect of both division and consumerism is to encourage individual identity over and above commonality. A person’s sense of their own identity is certainly important for their psychological wellbeing – but as a political end point it leads to solipsism and detachment from others.  From this perspective, identity is understood as a set of immutable and finite categories with particular criteria for membership.  Yet the political justification for the LGBT coalition must begin with something different . . .”

This reads like a critique of the transgender politics she advances in the rest of the book and with them the impossibility of forging the unity she declares she wants.  Her definitions of being trans are however not always consistent, being feelings about one’s gender identity not being aligned with one’s body, to the female nature of trans women being the case “by virtue of her social, legal, political and sometimes medical reassignment or experience as a woman.”

Leaving aside the question begging of how being a transwoman can call on experience of being a woman to justify qualification of being one, the list might seem to put forward objective criteria, as opposed to the demand that the declared unverifiable feelings of a transwoman is sufficient to make one a woman.  What is missing however, and explicitly rejected, is any idea that being a female is determined by biological sex.

Less than twenty pages later this has changed somewhat and “accounts of colonial domination . . . demonstrate clearly that what it means to be a woman or man (or neither) is not a fixed and stable entity, but a complex constellation of biological, political, economic and cultural factors, which may shift over time.” (emphasis added)

Since this passage is in the context that “society’s understanding of gender can be changed as society itself changes” perhaps Faye is saying that being a man or woman is to be understood in terms of gender, as in one of the two definitions advanced by Kathleen Stock in her book ­– as one of social stereotypes or projected roles – but this would not support her argument that being trans is a product of a personal understanding.

This is because if this private understanding is itself the product of changing factors, that are objective factors, comprehension and analysis also shifts to how these objective factors create this personal understanding. But this leads to interrogating any claims that arise and this brings us back necessarily to a debate that she sees as consisting of ‘hostility’ and ‘misunderstanding’ of trans people.

It is possible that the passage is based on Stock’s remaining definition; on an understanding that gender is another word for sex (by supplanting it), which leads to claims that there are multiple sexes since it can easily be imagined that there are multiple gender types (ideas that people might have about their own sexuality).  As the passage argues these can change, presumably on an individual basis, and not as some societal view of what sex and gender are, so that someone might consider themself a woman one day and a man the next, or gender fluid as it is called.

However, on the same page (p237) as this passage Faye compares her “complex constellation” with the words now condemned as transphobic, the dictionary definition – ‘Woman, noun, an adult human female’ and goes on to say that “leaving aside the fact that dictionary definitions are a product of a culture and not its arbiter, the definition of ‘woman’  as used here focuses solely on the biological and entirely disregards a point that feminists have largely agreed upon: the idea that being a woman is defined by political experience, how you are treated by others, especially those with power over you.”  Another definition.

But all feminists do not define woman as a political experience, or where would be the debate?  Being a woman will involve a political experience but a woman is not any sort of experience.  To encounter some event, to have some practical contact with or observe some fact, and for this to leave some impression on you, there has to be some prior ‘you’ to begin with, and this ‘you’ may be a man or a woman.  Both a man and a woman might have the same political experience but this will not determine their sex.  As has also been argued – what political experience, in common with all other women, makes the British Queen a woman?

This hardly matters for Faye’s argument because she concludes that “the ‘common sense’ argument of the ‘adult human female’ billboards is specious: there are many ways of legitimately interpreting the brief dictionary definition that would, in fact, include a trans woman as an “adult human female.”

But so much hangs on the word “legitimately” in this sentence.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that such legitimate interpretation involves words meaning what their author chooses them to mean, “neither more nor less”, as one author placed in the words of his character – the real question being whether they are just tools to be mastered.

That there exists an objective biological reality which is real and observable, distinct from social concepts attaching to that biological reality is, for Faye, “an oversimplification.” And in any case, she argues that the “two separate sex categories” can be erased . . . “through medical modification” although, as she has already informed us, such interventions are not necessary for a trans woman to be female.

One problem with this approach is that you can end up ‘proving’ too much:

“. . . the increased populations of, for example trans women with a feminine appearance, body and breasts who have a penis, and trans men with chest hair, muscles, lowered voices, beards and a vagina, mean that it is possible to have a mixture of sex characteristics and signifiers on the same body . . . women who will date women with penises, lesbians with vulvas in relationships with women with penises; gay men in relationships with men with vulvas and (naturally) women with penises in relationship with men with vulvas.  Consequently, trans people’s challenge to the gender binary is as physical and sexual as it is intellectual or political.”

Unfortunately, this passage does not challenge the binary nature of sex since it still repeatedly categorises humans as men and women (and the demand for medical intervention certainly does).  What it does point to is that any combination of characteristics is consistent with categorisation as either sex, in which case there is no difference between the sexes.  So, in this sense then, it does erase the binary nature of sex; in which case there is really no need for separate words for humans who are male and humans who are female, or for transwomen and transmen.

The way out of this for those advocating gender ID is that it is the internal view in the mind that determines you are a certain sex, but this realistically requires perception of an objective world in which real sex differences exist and are observable, which is why language that reflects this – ‘men’ and ‘women’ – is employed, as in the passage above.  If these really were erased there would be nothing in the objective world that the mind could reference and thus no way of self-identifying one’s sex.

Opening up the objective world as an influence on your view of your sex, indeed the idea of sex in general and of the male and female sexes, invites inquiry into how this objective world has influenced your view.  And such interrogation, as we keep coming back to, is not permitted by certain trans gender activists for whom this identity is innate, which is an unprovable proposition.

So, the sexed body (that of a female or male) while not determinant of one’s sex as a trans person, is determinant of whether one is trans, because “to be trans, is on some level, to feel that this standardized relationship between one’s genitalia at birth and the assignment of one of two fixed gender identities that are supposed to accurately reflect your feelings about your own body has been interrupted’. So, your sexed body is determinant of being trans if only to determine you as the opposite, or rather different in perhaps multiple gender defined ways, from your natal sex.

Faye claims on page xiii of her book that “the central demands of trans liberation are not merely aligned with, and no threat to, gay rights and feminism, but are synonymous with the goals of those movements.”  The rest of the book and the polemic with those who disagree demonstrates that this is simply not the case.

Her central arguments are not necessary to defend trans people or to remove the prejudice and discrimination they suffer from.  In fact, these arguments are difficult to construct and maintain consistently and an obstacle to these objectives.

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

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