Why I’m with women for rights and autonomy for all
Kristina Jayne Harrison is a socialist Transwoman. She spoke at the Woman’s Place UK meeting in Manchester on 17th January
It’s a cliche but I really am honoured to be invited to speak at this meeting and to speak alongside socialists, feminists of the calibre of Ruth Serwotka and Bea Campbell.
As a transwoman I have identified not ‘as’ a girl or a woman but with girls and women for most of my life… I’m also a socialist who understands with absolute clarity, that there can be no progressive agenda that uses abuse and harassment to silence women; there can be no socialism of any kind, that tells women, we’re re-defining you, be quiet and submit; and there can absolutely, never be any human liberation without women’s liberation. As someone who understands that, I value women’s rights as highly as I value my own trans rights.
That is why I’ve not only marched through these very streets here in Manchester against section 28, not only stood tall as a proud and unapologetic transwoman, demanding rights, but I have also demonstrated and picketed in defence of women’s abortion rights and their right to control their own bodies. It’s also why I am implacably opposed to both the proposals for self-recognition of gender identity and the current ideology of I’m sad to say, the majority of transgender activists.
There’s simply too much to try and cover all the problematic aspects of the self-identity proposals and current trans ideology in this speech and hopefully much more can come out in the discussion so I’m just going to touch on a few issues but before I do I want to put these things into a wider context that I think is crucial to a fuller understanding of what’s going on in what I think are very complex issues of gender as well as I think, critical distinctions between everyday social sensitivities and status or even to a large extent legal protections on the one hand and on the other more fundamental political, biological and philosophical distinctions which must also be reflected in law.
So, context. As one of those troublesome Marxists, I’d argue that oppression is rooted not in individual prejudice but in systematic discrimination arising from the needs of various male dominated class societies, most recently, capitalism. One of those systemic aspects of discrimination are gender roles, their deliberate propagation and policing across generations. Such ideas are propagated through newspapers, film, TV and advertising industries and very much policed by right wing politicians, by corporate media, religious groups, by families influenced by the ongoing justification of these norms and still today here in Britain they are occasionally policed with violence by usually male bigots.
The idea that the extraordinary richness and diversity of human personality and interests can be adequately accommodated by two roles based upon a child’s genitals at birth is an absurd one. If it wasn’t such a deeply damaging and fundamentally inhumane notion it would be simply laughable, so why are we still subjected to these deeply restrictive rules that limit and suffocate the scope of girls aspirations, that tell girls they are weak, frivolous, vain and valued principally for their looks and boys that they must not cry, that tenderness, sensitivity and heaven forbid, playing with girls or with girls things is for cissies… and who wants to be one of those ?
The reason we are still subjected to these arcane and artificial roles is they serve an important purpose for our ruling elite. These ideas have evolved over centuries fundamentally to keep women in their place in a subordinate role that now seeks to control their ability to bear and raise children in ways that maintain, nurture and replenish a healthy and productive workforce at very low cost or no cost to big business or the state and to control and exploit women’s sexualised bodies to sell commodities, to titillate men and to further divide and divert working people from recognising our common interests and common humanity. The system benefits hugely from all that. That’s partly why many establishment politicians, the likes of the Daily Mail, the Sun and other right-wing forces constantly push these norms.
Another is the gender role for males which has also evolved in ways which attempt to control and shape men, in particular working-class men, preparing them for their exploitation at work or for war. Though occupying a more socially valued and higher status category the gender role for men is still fundamentally restrictive and exploitative, setting unrealisable standards of toughness and emotional constipation for instance.
When trans identitists talk about ‘cis’ people as individuals who are somehow congruent with their gender, not in conflict with it all, I have to stifle a little laugh. I think it’s fundamentally misleading. Even a man who sees no conflict with his gender role but ends up committing suicide as all too many young men do, because his ‘role’ and the rules he thinks he has to live by as a man render him incapable of addressing and dealing with his emotional needs or feelings is in fact in a very real and all too human sense, in conflict with his unhealthy, unnatural and mentally corrosive gender role even if he doesn’t know it.
Only a minority of adults fully conform to the gender stereotypes for their sex. Most people find that their real lives and real personalities are more complex than stereotypes and whilst most conform in broadly socially acceptable senses they do not do so fully.
Many people, especially women become aware of the oppressive nature of their gender norms and actively rebel against them. Feminists and socialists such as myself are for the complete removal of these artificially created rules and roles. However, whilst women in particular are oppressed by them, as well as in many other ways, some children discover that major or central aspects or our natural personalities and childhood interests are so completely incompatible with the gender role and norms inflicted on us that we find our core sense of self completely rejected and delegitimised as children.
The very same traits and interests that bring us shame and rejection seem to bring love and pride toward children of the opposite sex… and boy do we notice! In my opinion this is one of the major reasons children can begin to feel trapped by their bodies because it is our bodies that determine whether our personality is treated with love and approval or shame and illegitimacy.
Is it really surprising then if kids begin identifying with and especially in the age of social media and an increasingly connected and ideological trans bubble ‘as’ members of the opposite sex, yet really, we are trapped by our norms, not by our bodies. On reaching puberty there is also evidence that children can also be further driven or perhaps even begin to be driven towards trans identities in some cases by sudden homophobic rejection of emerging gay or lesbian sexualities and also by revulsion towards and/or attraction towards sexualised imagery and involuntary associations or bodily changes.
So, we are oppressed because as defenceless children we are invalidated and abused by the policing of norms which serve powerful elements of society and often by our own families and immediate social circle. This rejection is hugely damaging to children. If and when we find the courage to continue to act in ways which are true to our natural self-expression both as children or later as adults we are often abused as deviant transgressors of gender norms and even though our situation has improved significantly in the last few decades we are still subject to social rejection, ridicule, discrimination and even violence.
It shouldn’t be a surprise then that many gender-rejected children can form entrenched opposite-sex identification and see their only chance of having a life of free self-expression without all that rejection and social illegitimacy is to undergo gender reassignment and ‘pass’, that is to be taken for a member of the opposite sex. That in my opinion is why as long as society attempts to keep shoving children into suffocating straightjackets that for some are just too painful to bear, gender reassignment will remain a life-affirming, even life-saving option for some people.
I do though think that we need to give our children every possibility to be fully informed and supported so that they can be as sure as they can be in young adulthood that they are not mistaken in their trans identity and the drastic surgeries and life-long medication that follows are not unnecessary and simply adding to deeper underlying issues.
Clinicians should be free to help patients fully explore their underlying feelings, motivations and experiences to uncover the actual issues and whether a person is likely to benefit from reassignment treatment or not. We need more studies of the long-term outcomes for post-op transsexuals so that practice is evidence led, not ideology led.
All this of course would be uncontroversial in any other arena of healthcare but is blasphemy to the self-identity campaigners who argue that trans identities are fixed and innate, that such an approach amounts to conversion therapy. This is nonsense. There’s no credible evidence of innate opposite-sex, gender identity and we know it’s not fixed because the majority of children who identify as trans eventually desist from their once firmly held identity.
We also have a growing minority of de-transitioners who realise after largely irreversible treatments that they were mistaken in their identity after all and have come to reject it. Some are people who eventually realised that their issues were in unresolved abuse, many de-transitioners are women who now realise that they were butch lesbians all along, they had been without role models and facing a triple whammy of homophobia, deeply embarrassingly hetero-sexualisation of their bodies and a deeply repulsive ‘pink’ gender role that was hugely restrictive and demeaning to masculine women.
Yet, such is the extent of the liberal collapse before this trans ideology that according to Times journalist Janice Turner a recently approved NHS ‘memorandum of understanding’ states that questioning a patient’s declared gender or examining other underlying mental issues is equivalent to gay conversion therapy. Are young lesbians presenting as trans to be regarded as acceptable collateral damage then? That is not an ethical healthcare policy.
Gender Identity specialists themselves we are told, are afraid to speak out and afraid to do their job of actually exploring a patient’s underlying problems. In effect they can do little more than rubber stamp what may be a clear and good decision by one patient or a confused misreading of their thoughts and feelings by another. Self-identity will only ensure more vulnerable young people embark on treatments that will do them more harm than good. Trying to deconstruct, sex, gender and sexuality along with often many other issues is hugely complex. If understanding your own feelings and behaviour were so easy and obvious the fields of psychology and psychiatry would be pointless and redundant.
What this affirmation-only policy means then is that once young people self define as trans they will by default be on a conveyor belt towards irreversible treatment that for some will only compound their problems. This is a form of gross neglect and a burgeoning potential scandal. That this is being done in the name of trans rights to our children and young people when we already know these identities are often mistaken, makes me apoplectic with rage for the injustice and ideological blindness of it and the fact that in the very worst possible way this plays right into the hands of right-wing bigots and the gutter press who would love to return us to the days when calling trans people perverts and a danger to your kids is back in the mainstream.
Listening to so many of the trans activists you would think the oppressors of transwomen are feminists, such is the hate directed at women who refuse to accept that identifying as a woman magically makes you one. How could it? Yet feminists explicitly oppose the gender roles that transpeople are oppressed for transgressing and feminists are explicitly against discrimination or violence towards us.
No, we’re oppressed, fundamentally by a male dominated system and the violence we suffer from is typically from men. Whilst individual women may support or try to enforce gender roles or be prejudiced and hold transphobic or homophobic views, sometimes in powerful roles as adults over children, as journalists or as employers, on the whole women as a sex are neither in control of this society, nor can they be fundamentally responsible for its oppression of transgender people.
I find it both illuminating and deeply disappointing that instead of directing their anger at bigoted Tories, the hard right and the likes of the Daily Mail the targets for the most venom are women who refuse to know their place or bow to demands that infringe on sex-based rights. T-shirts like “kill a TERF”, “Die TERF scum” glorify violence and hatred against women. They have no place in any progressive movement. Whilst this may be the sentiment of a highly vocal and abusive minority it is incumbent upon trans activists who claim to be progressive, especially those who claim to be women or even to be ‘feminists’ to denounce such misogyny and expel such people from their campaigning groups.
It points to a wider issue of sexism though and one that is intractable within the logic of the current ideology. Insisting that identifying as a woman makes you a woman, is intrinsically sexist in the true sense of the word. Why? because inevitably if you say being a woman is fundamentally about psychology not biology then at best you minimise biological sex, you minimise women’s biological reality, their every-day experiences and also their long history of struggle for reproductive rights, sexual health and sex based rights. If you are blind to sex you will be blind to sexism.
As we see with the neglected rights of young butch lesbians, the usurped rights of women in the labour party to specifically address their own political under-representation as a sex by having seats and posts reserved for them being undermined without debate or consent and as were already seeing in terms of the de-legitimising and harassment of women who show a shred of independence from this movement, the female sex is being sidelined, re-defined and being told to make room without even a pretence of consultation…. And for what? for an Orwellian charade that’s not honest, not progressive, not rooted in reason.
People can’t be reasonably asked to accept something that’s not real, especially when it minimises their lives, but they can be asked to accept the equal validity and worth of transwomen and transmen, that we deserve protection, safety, dignity and equality and that we can find respect, solidarity, love and a sense of belonging by respecting both women and accepting ourselves for who we are, trans people and essentially, gender role refugees.
Our interests lie in a reality based approach which seeks to advance both groups rights and services, whilst respecting women’s autonomy as well as our own, needing as we do our own health statistics, specialist services and political representation.
Whilst the current law is not without its flaws, it enjoys a fairly wide degree of credibility including I’d argue from women and it gives transsexuals who undergo gender reassignment, commonly understood to mean surgery and hormone treatment, protection in a legal category akin to a kind of legal manhood for transmen and a kind of legal womanhood for transwomen in most circumstances. In practice this gives us a wide degree of inclusion yet, at least in theory if not in practice, it maintains a distinction with biological sex and allows for sex based protections. This needs to be strengthened and simplified so that it is easy and practical to use where sex based protections are required by women.
Let me be clear, the final decisions on access to women’s spaces should lie with women but I am for arguing in defence of current laws which enable us to live broadly the way we want to live and with an everyday dignity previously denied to us. However, I am not for the status quo. I am for a drastically improved and fully resourced system of assessment and treatment which is far quicker and more supportive than the current one. Waiting for up to 5 years from referral to be diagnosed, start treatment and gain legal protection is cruelly long and totally unacceptable.
We need prompt treatment and fully funded services, a range of above all safe unisex and single sex toilet and changing room provision and legal protection for everyone’s right to free gender expression, whether at work, at home or elsewhere. Above all we need to fight gender norms and the systemic forces that benefit from them, but as a tiny minority we cannot win without allying with the women’s movement and the broader Labour movement and that will only happen through mutual respect. One way to destroy that respect is to ignore biology and demand that subjective gender identity should trump objective biological reality. No, we will never tolerate that sexism but we will continue to work for the voluntary unity of all oppressed people against our common oppressors. I urge transgender people to join us in that fight and to speak out against the sexism and misogyny in the self identity movement.
Kristina Jayne Harrison
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