On Monday 12 June, MPs gathered to debate changing the definition of ‘sex’ in the equality act to mean ‘biological sex’. This was in response to e-petitions 623243 and 627984 – for and against the change, respectively. Both received over 100,000 signatures.
As I’ve already reported for the Canary, the potential change would remove a swathe of legal protections from trans people. And, as UN independent expert Victor Madrigal-Borloz recognised, it would offer the government:
a formula through which it could carry out discriminatory distinctions currently unlawful under UK law, and that will remain so under international human rights law.
In part one of this article series, I want to talk about three things that are hovering behind this current culture war – honesty, belief, and complexity. In turn, these inflect and inform a great deal of what was said in the debate.
‘Trans men are men’
First, a bit of background. I’m trans. I’ve always been trans – a core part of me, even before I had the words to articulate it properly. This meant that people looking at me, assuming I was a man, and treating me as such were incorrect. The deep distress this causes is part of what we call gender dysphoria.
My transness is, fundamentally, something that I can’t prove to you. There’s no objective test. I can only tell you that I’m not a man, and this is central to my knowledge about myself. In my day-to-day life, everybody I know takes my word for it.
In the Equality Act debate, several MPs began by stating some variation on ‘trans men are men, trans women are women’. Transphobes and gender critical people have referred to this as a mantra or as dogma. This is incorrect.
Rather, it’s a statement that takes trans people, and their information about their experience of themselves, at their word. It doesn’t discount the other person’s belief about themselves – you still have your gender, I still have mine. Instead, it broadens it, adding new ways in which a person can be a given gender.
Equality Act: Confronting complexity
When someone hears about trans people for the first time, they’re faced with complexity where there was simplicity. Something that they previously held to be true – the body is identity – is now apparently false.
A person can then take the trans individual at their word in their description of their own internal life – a trans woman is a woman, she’s described herself. The world has cis women and trans women – it’s complex.
Again, this isn’t conclusively provable. That’s not to say it’s not hugely important, though. Our society and our interactions as people run on these unprovable statements about ourselves. For example, I have no way to prove to you that I’m gay, but most people are inclined to take my word for it, perhaps influenced by their observation of the way I live my life.
This assumes that people are, for the most part, honest when they tell you about who they are.
However, if you choose to reject my statement that I’m gay, there’s nothing I can really do. Maybe you think no gay people exist, or that I’m a liar. You’re simply incorrect. What’s more, a society which pretends that one can test whether someone is actually gay is likely to do something horrific – see the UK government’s foul and invasive treatment of queer refugees, for example.
Rejection and consequences
Alternatively, someone can reject this newfound complexity. They insist that the world is as simple as it was previously assumed to be – people are who they appear to be at birth, and always will be. 12 June’s debate was full of this kind of rejection. For example, Tory MP Jonathan Gullis insisted that:
Someone is not assigned their gender at birth; they are born male or female. A man is an adult human male and a woman is an adult human female. We should not be disputing those facts in the 21st century—these are the basics of biology that we talk about in our classrooms.
This, then, carries several assumptions. The trans woman who stated that she is a woman is one of two things: deeply deluded, to the point of apparent insanity, or else for some reason deliberately lying.
The former, here, is deeply infantilising. Other people can be trusted to make statements about themselves, but a trans person can’t. If you categorically insist that trans people can’t exist, then the simple assertion that I’m trans becomes proof that I’m deluded or insane, even if I give absolutely no other signs.
This relies on a circular assumption – people are always who they appear to be born as, so anyone who believes otherwise must be deluded. But then, the assertion that trans men are men is equally circular. However, and crucially, the assertion that trans people can’t exist is someone else making a claim about my life, whereas the opposite isn’t true.
Alternatively, if the trans person isn’t assumed to be deluded, then they must be lying about themselves. In this case, the belief is that the trans woman ‘knows’ that she is a man, and is simply lying about it. Then, suddenly, hostility and paranoia set in. If the trans woman is lying, she must to trying to achieve something nefarious.
It was abundantly clear that this was a central assumption of many of the speakers in the Equality Act debate. And, although Tonia Antoniazzi opened by calling for “respectful, adult conversation”, the tone was frequently anything but. Several MPs casually insinuated, or else outright stated, that trans women are predatory in nature.
The Conservatives’ Miriam Cates contended that:
While academic elites cave in to aggressive and misogynistic trans activism, ordinary women are frightened to go to hospital, ordinary men fear for the safety of their daughters in public toilets, ordinary children are subjected to a psychological experiment in which they are told they can choose their gender, and ordinary toddlers are used to satisfy the sexual fetish of adult men dressed as eroticised women.
Likewise, Tory Nick Fletcher implored:
Let us do what we need to do to clarify the Equality Act and ensure that no biological male can enter that six-year-old girl’s changing room. To me, that would be excellent legislation, and a must—a near miss reported to stop tragedy happening.
In both examples here, the central assumption is that a trans woman is a man. More specifically, she’s a man who should always be assumed to have a predatory nature.
Deeply held ideologies
Going forward into part two, the assumptions listed above will inform my coverage of the debate on the potential change to the Equality Act. People either react to trans people’s statements about themselves with either acceptance or rejection. Rejection, in turn, means that the trans person can’t be trusted – either they’re deluded, or lying.
The Equality Act debate was about whether ‘sex’ in the Equality Act should always mean ‘biological sex’. However, it was clear that the division in the House was not purely legislative. Instead, it became a matter of deeply held ideologies. As Cates blustered:
It is extraordinary that in 2023—a time of unprecedented knowledge—we are arguing about the definition of something that has been known since the dawn of time. The most contentious question of our day has famously become “What is a woman?”—a question that no previous society has felt the need to answer.
Of course, this pretends that the world is always as simple as we want it to be. Societies are frequently wrong, paradigms shift, knowledge of the world about us expands. It’s fundamentally conservative – small ‘c’ or capital – to see a world that is complex and messy, and despise it for failing to lie still in its proper place.
Personally, I believe that complexity is part of being human, and beautiful too. I can’t prove that to you, but my life is all the richer for it.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/David Woolfall, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license, resized to 1910*1000