A Woman’s Place is Standing her Ground: Heather Brunskell-Evans Newcastle upon Tyne 24th May 2018
Video of my talk at the the Womens Place UK meeting in Newcastle
A Woman’s Place is Standing Her Ground
As some of you may know, I have had to stand my ground publicly on a number of occasions since the publication, with my colleague Michele Moore, of our co-edited book in 2018: Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body
In fact, the necessity to stand my ground about transgenderism had already been pressed upon me on two previous occasions. It is these events, two years apart, that I would like to discuss here. In particular I want to describe their significance in the development of my own thought about the consequences for women and children of the proposed reform of The Gender Recognition Act (GRA) 2004. This reform would enshrine in law the fiction that transgender women are female.
The Academy and Freedom of Speech
The first event of standing my ground was in 2015. Unlike some other feminist philosophers, sociologists, and historians I had never written or even thought about transgenderism. I now find this curious, since at that time I was a research fellow at the University of Leicester, writing and teaching the philosophy of sex, gender, politics and medicine. As it happens, I also had a male transsexual friend who identifies as a woman and with whom I was and still am close. If someone had asked me for a view of Alice1 it would have been embedded in ideas about equality and diversity. I would have ferociously argued, and still do, that he has the absolute right, protected by law, to identify as a woman, to dress as a woman, and to surgically alter his body to make it match his inner feeling that he is indeed a woman. I would have also argued that Alice belongs to a small minority of persons, and that his decision to live as a woman, and the similar decisions made by other transgender/transsexual women, could have no impact on the rights of women and children.
At that time I wrote an article about an iconic front cover of Vanity Fair where Bruce Jenner ‘came out’ as a woman. Jenner was a father in the (in)famous Kardashian family, partook in their reality TV show, and is a one- time Olympic gold medallist. In the photograph, he performed hyper-
‘femininity’: he wore a basque which pinched in his waist and tucked in his genitals; he held his large hands out of sight; he wore a wig and lots of make-up. In ‘transitioning’ from Bruce to Caitlyn he had chosen to have reconstructive facial surgery, a trachea shave, female hormones, breast implants but no genital surgery. The visual representation of Jenner as a woman was accompanied by an article where he declared he had always been a woman, including when he had fathered six children and had successfully competed against other male-bodied athletes. He confessed that it was only in his mid-60s that he finally found the courage to tell his truth. Jenner said: “you can be born a woman with male genitalia, just as you can be born a man with female genitalia”.
1 Alice is not my friend’s real name.
In order to analyse the cultural meanings of Jenner’s ‘femininity’ and his claim that he was born female, I used the theoretical framework I had done countless times previously. My academic background is in continental philosophy, or what some people might understand as poststructuralism. In this framework, many of the truths about the body, sex and gender are understood as the product of language and discourse rather than nature. The philosopher Jacques Derrida describes the way language is made up of binary opposites: ‘femininity’ only makes sense in relation to ‘masculinity’;
‘masculinity’ only makes sense in relation to ‘femininity’. The philosopher Michel Foucault describes how the moment we are born – either male or female – society invests biological sex with discursive meaning and in that cultural investment hierarchical sexed and gendered ‘truths’ and power relations come into play. For example, heterosexuality has been historically privileged over homosexuality; men’s sexuality has been lauded, women’s sexuality has been controlled and disciplined; ‘masculinity’ is coded as active in contrast to ‘femininity’ coded as passive; heterosexual men’s bodies have been thought of as neutral, without meaning, whereas women’s bodies have either been pathologized (e.g. with regard to their reproductive functions – the menarche, menstruation, childbirth, the menopause) or sexually objectified. The philosopher Simone De Beauvoir demonstrates how historically Man has been constituted as the Norm and Woman his imperfect Other. She encapsulates the social construction of femininity thus: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman”.
Collectively, these theorists provide a means to understand how patriarchy gets ‘into our heads’. We perform gender as if it is inherent, and in our iterative performance we on the one hand experience our designated gender as founded in nature and on the other hand struggle to achieve it since none us, however orthodox, can fully comply with its restrictive norms. From this philosophical point of view, the ideology, philosophy and political strategies of transgenderism which promise gender fluidity and liberation from hetero- normativity inevitably fail. In describing gender as inherent they reproduce the very patriarchal ideas of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ from which we are allegedly released. The alternative political solution is to work towards dismantling gender, for example accepting and embracing the range of human abilities and emotions in each person, regardless of their biological sex. In doing so we can all – women and men – be released from the hetero- normative constraints of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ and this would help create a more equitable society.
In reflecting about Jenner’s performance of ‘femininity’ my intellectual focus was not him as a person (I was actually indifferent to his personal choices) but on how the simulacrum of ‘femininity’ stands in culturally for biological sex and how this simulacrum was taken up with alacrity by an audience quick to receive Jenner as a ‘true’ woman, despite his male body. I duly posted my article on a forum called Think-Leicester where academics share ideas internally. I was extremely disconcerted to discover that a transwoman academic from outside my institution wrote a letter of complaint alleging my
ideas breached the Equality Act 2010. He proposed that transgender students and staff at Leicester University, including the thousands not taught by me, would feel unsafe by my presence and that as a member of staff with such offensive views my tenured position could reasonably be reviewed. Needless to say, I was intimidated and frightened about losing my job. The offending article was duly taken down, sent to the university’s lawyers, and for the first time in my 25-year academic career I waited for 48 hours in trepidation at what disciplinary procedures might be applied for expressing ideas. It is to the University’s credit that in establishing my article was not in breach of the law, and indeed that it fully complied with scholarly criteria, it was immediately reinstated. My only ‘punishment’ was that the university requested I reply individually to the handful of mothers who had also written to insist my article was tantamount to a personal attack on them for transgendering their children.
At that time, I did not fully comprehend the reasons why I had offended transgender sensibilities. Since the 1990s and alleged post-feminism, if a feminist academic had come under fire it was usually from neo-liberal academics, quick to correct her muddled, irrational, bigoted, ‘man-hating’ proposition that patriarchy still exists! My critics were not challenging me on that ideological front; not only did they concede patriarchy’s existence but they described Jenner as a heroine who could help defeat it! Over the years I have come to understand my crime. I had not accepted as incontrovertible proof Jenner’s inner conviction he is a woman as evidence that he actually is a woman. Since I do not locate gender identity as an inherent property, by implication I had placed Jenner’s feeling of being a woman as a desire emerging out of a psycho-social context.
At that time, unbeknownst to me, two different models of transgenderism were competing with each other for dominance: one asserted that transgenderism is a psychological condition; the other asserted that transgenderism is a natural condition. Without realising it, I had put myself on the psychological side of the divide, and by implication called into question the central moral case for reform of the GRA 2004 – the claim that trans people are trans ‘by nature’. Intense political lobbying was taking place for a revision of the law so that those over 18 wishing to change their legally recognized sex would only need to make a statutory declaration they intend to live as their chosen sex until death. A man’s self-affirmation as female (no psychological counselling, no change in body or lifestyle, or any period of living ‘as a woman’) will be sufficient for him to be legally designated female and have his birth certificate changed to register his having been born female.
It was the response to my article about Jenner that first put transgenderism on my theoretical and political radar. Anonymous posts on social media described me as a TERF (Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist), a bigot and a transphobe. In contrast, I received personal emails from individuals within academia and the media thanking me for my bravery at speaking out. I also received an email from Canadian midwives alerting me to the statutory
change to permitted language in Canada. No longer could they talk about their patients as pregnant women but ‘pregnant people’, since to use the word women had been deemed discriminatory and exclusionary of transmen giving birth. An academic colleague warned: “don’t analyse transgenderism – you will be sucked into a vortex from which you’ll never escape”.
I did not heed my colleague’s advice. I was becoming aware that the ideology, philosophy and political strategies of transgenderism were crucially reshaping what it means to be a woman. There was thus a need for feminists to critically address the politics of meaning-making: Who gets to make meaning? Whose meaning-making is valorised? Who gets to do the valorising?