Trans: where both sides go wrong

As a social scientist, I’m approaching this topic with some trepidation.  There’s a lot of heat being generated on both sides and people are not just getting things wrong, they’re doing it at the top of their voices.

‘Gender’ and ‘sex’ are inter-related, but they’re not wholly equivalent.  We mainly use ‘sex’ to refer to biological males and females, while ‘gender’ refers, not just to physiology, but to a set of social facts.  It should be obvious enough what a ‘social fact’ is, but the debate has become muddied. We’re surrounded by social facts – things that are true because society is constructed to make them true.  Law, finance, morality and property ownership are all examples of social facts.  Gender is like that, too.  It’s based on a complex and extensive set of norms, developed through a well-established process of socialisation – education, upbringing, shared perceptions and socially defined norms.

The Scottish Goverment got itself in an awful muddle when it assumed that ‘gender’ is subjective and that ‘identity’ is something we choose.  Social facts aren’t subjective – they’re social.  You can present yourself however you please, but it won’t change the speed limit, the amount of money you have in your bank account  or your educational qualifications.  Nor will it change your gender.  That’s something that can only happen after a long, difficult process of re-socialisation, and some people are uncertain it can be done at all.

So, where do the protagonists go wrong?  On the gender-critical side, the protagonists have been driven to a point where they argue that it’s mainly about biology.  Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls is an example. Biology certainly plays a part, but Stock’s reductionism comes perilously close to a denial of gender roles.   I know there’s a school of thought in psychology that holds that everything we do is genetically determined – last week, for example, I came across a completely daft article that claimed that whether or not people have health insurance is down to their genes – but we need to understand that gender is highly socialised.  Take a simple example: in our society, men are more likely to interrupt women speaking than vice-versa.  This is not about biology. The point is that people raised as men have been socialised to behave in a different way to people raised as women.   And we might well note that some of the voices of trans women – people who’ve been raised as men – are still given to speaking over women.

On the other side of the argument, nominally pro-trans, there’s been a tendency to over-simplify in the opposite direction.  The most vocal advocates for trans  claim that ‘trans women are women’.  The underlying assumption seems to be that there are only two categories that matter, men and women.  That leads to the proposition that people who do not fit one binary category must be redefined in terms of its opposite – with the consequence that trans people are expected to perform gender-based roles that may be inconsistent with their circumstances or capacities.  There’s no space left along a wide spectrum, let alone an acceptance that quite a few people find themselves somewhere in the middle.

A valuable report for the Scottish Trans Alliance offers a different perspective.  It considers the experience of people who feel they fit neither category – people who are ‘non-binary’.   The respondents used a wide range of terms to describe their position, but more than 80% were concerned that their gender identity simply wasn’t valid.   The respondents expressed their discomfort about being pressed into the wrong categories: “I find that most services can just about cope with the idea that you are transgender … but being non-binary is still beyond a lot of people’s comprehension.”  Liberals should uphold the ‘dignity of difference’ – but the thing about being different is that people are different because  they’re not the same.   I suspect that, in time to come, the binary position that is being advocated by some activists will be seen as crude, reductionist and failing to represent diversity.

Note that I haven’t said anything about hate crime yet.  That’s for another blog.




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