Thursday, 23 November 2017

The transgender question

Yesterday, on LBC radio, I listened to an interview with a woman who is involved in helping schools to deal with the question of transgender students. I began listening after the interview had started so, unfortunately, I don’t know who she was. Apparently, she has recently been vilified by the Daily Mail for “telling teachers not to use the words ‘boy’ and ‘girl’”. The reality, as she explained, was that she advises teachers to address large groups of students as “people” rather than by using gender specific terms, since there might be some present who would feel excluded by such terms.

The presenter (James O’Brien, of course) opened up the phone lines to callers who might have questions they wished to put to this woman about her field of expertise, or areas of confusion she might be able to clarify for them. Unfortunately, I was listening from work so was not able to call the show, but had I been at home I would have been very tempted to call, since transgenderism is an area that I do have some confusion about and I would appreciate being able to discuss my questions with someone who knows more about it than I do. In the event, I had to tweet my question, which was, “If there were no socially prescribed gender roles, would there still be people who felt they were trapped in the wrong body?” Unfortunately, JO’B did not read out my question, but I did receive a number of “likes” and “retweets”. On investigating the twitter profiles of my likers and retweeters I found that the majority of them were women who identified as feminists and considered transgenderism as a threat to the safety, privacy and rights of women. My tweet, however, was not meant to be a condemnation of transgenderism. It was a genuine question which I have never heard properly addressed and would very much like to know the answer to so that I can formulate my own stance on transgender issues, particularly now that such issues have become so topical and politically relevant, with the government considering making it easier for people to legally change their gender.

If the answer to my question is 'yes, there would still be people who felt they were trapped in the wrong body even in the absence of socially prescribed gender roles' - in other words, if the reasons for people being transgender are not predominantly related to their identification (or lack of identification) with societal expectations of masculine or feminine behaviour - then what that would appear to indicate is that transgenderism is not actually about 'gender' at all. Rather, it is about biological sex and the straightforward desire to have a body of the opposite biological sex to that with which one was born. If that is the case, then what does it mean to be a man trapped in a woman's body, or vice versa? Wouldn't that seem to imply that being male or female is an ontological reality that goes beyond mere physical 'plumbing'? That there is something like a male or female 'soul' - a kind of gendered "ghost in the machine" - completely unrelated to either socially defined gender roles or to ones biological reproductive equipment, that resides within each one of us and occasionally finds itself residing in a body of the 'wrong' sex?

In other words, if transgenderism is something more than just people reacting to societal pressures for men and women to behave in certain ways (by changing their own bodies instead of trying to change society's prejudices), then it follows that the distinction between femaleness and maleness, far from being merely skin deep, must exist at a level that is deeper and more fundamental than mere physical differences in body shape or even brain structure.

It would seem, then, that when someone born female claims to be male, or vice versa, anyone who agrees with that claim is effectively taking the view that their is a real difference between a female and a male on a level which is far more fundamental than the obvious differences in bodily organs.

The issue of transgenderism, what it means and how it should be accommodated by society has certainly thrown up some interesting questions. While I would in no way support any policy that denied someone the right to identify themselves in whatever way they please, I'm not ashamed to say that there are many aspects of this sensitive and nuanced subject about which I do not yet have a clear and fully worked out view.

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