Allan Stratton: A call for nuance and clarity on trans terminology
Our inability to have sane discussions on this topic begins with academic redefinitions of language and concepts over the past 60 years.
By: Allan Stratton
Gender has become a third rail of politics, yet discussion of it is everywhere. From trans women in women’s sports, prisons and changing rooms; to puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and mastectomies for adolescents; to company policies on mandatory pronouns in email signatures — gender issues can be found in all aspects of life.
Yet we are also witnessing the beginning of a backlash toward some of the most extreme claims and demands of trans activists; in the United Kingdom, the National Health Service has closed the now-infamous Tavistock clinic, which oversaw a sharp growth of young people (and especially young women) who sought irreversible treatments to change their bodies. (Those children will now be referred to smaller, local clinics to receive extensive psychological assessments and other care, prior to medical interventions.) Tavistock itself may be sued by more than 1,000 families claiming that their children had been rushed through medical transition. Canada, take note.
Given how quickly trans issues came to dominate the cultural landscape, Canadians are understandably whiplashed, angry and concerned.
Whiplashed because, while we want an inclusive, diverse society, we are uneasy at the prospect that eliminating the difference between socially-constructed gender and biological sex will lead to an erosion of women’s hard won, sex-based rights. We are also wary of the danger of prescribing powerful off-label drugs on pre-pubescent children and teenagers.
Angry because some of us see bigots attacking a vulnerable and marginalized community, while others see a fringe movement running roughshod over competing interests.
And concerned by the push to swap gender for sex in language and law, and the serious consequences that follow from that, especially when gender identity and expression have long been recognized in federal and provincial human rights law.
Also by the fury of the populist backlash, amplified by populist politicians and social media: The term “groomer” is back in vogue, stoking the old fear of gay and trans people as pedophiles recruiting children. And some jurisdictions want to ban any mention of gays, lesbians and trans people from schools, which would directly discriminate against kids from LGBT families, and implicitly reinforce the shame of self-hate of closeted students.
From my perspective, much of the controversy stems from academic redefinitions of language and concepts over the past 60 years. As these changes affected a small subculture, mainstream society paid them no mind. But language has consequences.
I’m a gay man in his early seventies, who’s paid close attention to the decades of linguistic manipulations that have turned sense into nonsense. Once, words and concepts had clear understandings that helped to create widespread support for LGBT rights. More recently, they have been conflated and inverted, and threaten to negatively affect the rights of women, the safety of gender-nonconforming children, and the lives of gays, lesbians, and transexuals.
A quick primer on the change in key terms may help to clarify our current mess and suggest a way forward:
Today the trans umbrella is understood to be a single movement within the Alphabet alliance, but in 1960s North America, it referred to three specific groups: self-identified transsexuals, transvestites and transgenders. There was some overlap, but none of the three were specifically attached to the fight for gay rights at all.
Transsexuals gained public prominence thanks to American Christine Jorgensen. After serving in the United States Army, Jorgensen had a sex change operation in Denmark before returning to America in 1953. She never identified as homosexual, but, rather, said she had born in the wrong body. Jorgenson was extraordinarily popular. I urge you to watch these two interviews, one from the ‘60s and the other from the ‘80s. Her wit, charm, self-assurance and intelligence demonstrate the power of persuasion, especially notable at a time far less tolerant than our own.
Transvestites (a term now considered derogatory) dressed and used the pronouns of the opposite sex, but fully acknowledged the material reality of their biology. Some were gay like the legendary Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Norman, who co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Most, however, were straight men like Virginia Prince, who published Transvestia Magazine, founded the Society for the Second Self, and published the classic How to be Woman Though Male. They distanced themselves from the gay community, fearing the association hurt their image. “True transvestites,” Prince assured, “are exclusively heterosexual ... The transvestite values his male organs, enjoys using them and does not desire them removed.”
The term transgender, coined by psychiatrist John Oliven in 1965, was designed to distinguish transsexuals, who wanted to surgically change sex, from transvestites, whose inclinations were limited to gendered feelings and presentation. But its definition soon morphed to ungainly proportions. By the ‘90s, trans academic Susan Stryker had re-re-re-defined it as (deep breath) “all identities or practices that cross over, cut across, move between, or otherwise queer socially constructed sex/gender boundaries (including, but not limited to) transsexuality, heterosexual transvestism, gay drag, butch lesbianism, and such non-European identities as the Native American berdache (now 2 Spirit) or the Indian Hijra."
It’s key to remember that, at this time, trans people typically considered themselves the opposite sex spiritually and socially, but not literally: To repeat, trans women like Virginia Price insisted they were straight male heterosexuals, and would have been outraged at the suggestion that they were lesbians. As a result, women’s rights were never infringed. No one insisted that “sexual attraction” and “biologically sexed bodies” be defined out of existence. Nor were “tomboys” and “sissies” expected to seek gender clinics or consider puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and surgery.
Under those circumstances, trans people gradually gained public support for human and civil rights protections. It’s easy to empathize with the distress of feeling trapped in the wrong body, and the horror of wanting to claw one’s way out. And how can a live-and-let-live world justify discrimination against people for simply wanting to imagine and present themselves as they wish? Progress, though imperfect and incomplete, was real.
But academic social-construction and queer theorists had been working since the ‘90s to change the terms of engagement. Their aim? To swap gender for sex in law and language.
They gained critical mass throughout the last decade; by 2016 or so, the chant “Trans women are women” was meant not as metaphor, but as reality. Long time LBG heroes and allies from Martina Navratilova to J.K. Rowling were denounced as transphobes; and transsexual pioneers like Buck Angel were demonized as quislings.
For anyone just tuning in, Social Construction began with French philosophers in the ‘60s. (Naturally.) It teaches that people are blank slates whose gendered behaviours are learned, imprinted through repetition, and passed on socially: Boys like to roughhouse and girls to play nice, not because they’re boys and girls, but because of socialization. Breaking these conventions (aka “queering”) will liberate our authentic selves to freely wander an infinite gender spectrum.
It’s true that we share a gift for mimicry with other primates, and adjust our behaviour depending on our environment and situation (“code-switching”). But blank slate theory suggests that, alone among mammals, our behaviours are free of biological influence. It’s a theory that sits comfortably with religious fundamentalism, if not evolution. And it’s an odd fit for Alphabetland: We’re living proof that instincts aren’t learned. And if we’re merely socially constructed, we can also be deconstructed, an obvious entry point for proponents of conversion therapy.
Nonetheless, social construction allowed queer theory to ignore biology. If we’re blank slates with natures untethered to biology, our body parts are mix and match, and whether we’re men or women is a matter of personal feeling: Literally, mind over matter.
Queer theorists were helped by sexologist Volkmar Sigusch, who decided we needed a word to describe the 99-per-cent-plus of us who are happy in our sexed bodies. He came up with the adjective “cis,” making “cis” and “trans” equal and opposite descriptors, like tall and short, heavy and thin. Through this feat of linguistic magic, “trans” now describes a different sort of woman, rather than two different categories of people.
This category error enables radical trans activists like ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio to tweet: “Women and girls who are trans are biological women and girls.” It sounds crazy — it is crazy — but think this through under the new terms of engagement: everyone has a biology. If trans women are women, it follows that they have a woman’s biology. Thus, restricting trans women from sexed change rooms, prisons, and sports competitions, is as bigoted as restricting women based on height or weight. And since lesbians are attracted to women, those who refuse sex with women who have a penis are transphobic.
All of this controversy around language has a pernicious effect. It cordons off legitimate dissent and critique of what is passing under the admittedly broad label of “gender ideology.” So far, this has worked. The mere assertion that biology is real has led to job-threatening investigations and charges of “transphobia,” a word now so broadly applied that it includes people who fully support trans civil and human rights. Too afraid of being considered bigoted, or on the wrong side of history, ordinarily liberal people have shied away from outcomes that they will privately admit concerns and worries them.
But outrage has been building as the logic of this movement is taken to its most radical extremes. Male sex offenders have suddenly self-identified as women and been put in women’s prisons on sentencing; formerly mediocre male athletes have dominated women’s sports events; drugs with serious side effects have been mass prescribed (off label) to teens, and mastectomies given to healthy girls; in some corners, women and mothers are now called “uterus havers,” “chest feeders” and people with “front holes.”
The ability to balance competing interests is a prerequisite to a functioning pluralistic society. But good faith discussions can only happen in an open atmosphere free of demagoguery and demonization. Shutting down open dialogue has not led to a safer, more equal world for trans people; in fact, the exact opposite has occurred. People who would normally consider themselves allies of trans rights have been turned off by the radical rhetoric, including threats of physical violence toward dissenting women.
This populist backlash, the outcome of imposed elite academic theory, threatens to destroy generations of hard-won social capital for minority communities, like my own. It must end. I have a few notions for how we can go about restoring some sanity to this conversation, which I am going to elaborate in a coming essay here at The Line.
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