Last night Radio 4’s Analysis show ran a half hour program entitled “Who decides if I’m a woman?”. It features a number of interviewees, including actual trans people, the senior doctor from the Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic, and inevitably Julie Bindel. Star quality is provided by the delightfully genderqueer Richard O’Brien, who talks about his own issues with gender here.
All in all, I was pretty impressed. Trans people got a far better hearing than I expected, and the host, Jo Fidgen, saw through some of Bindel’s tricks. Even Dr. Barrett, who isn’t exactly flavor of the month with the trans community, was fairly sympathetic (though still very paternalistic).
That said, the tone of the program is quite breathless. The narrative that Fidgen spins is one of “Oh My God, Parliament has re-defined what it means to be a man or a woman, and no one told us, what does this mean?” Despite the supportive comments from most of the guests, your average Daily Mail reader may well come away from the program fearing a world full of bearded rapists in dresses, simply because people hear what they want to hear, and the tone of the program does encourage panic at times.
In addition there are specific issues raised by Bindel that could and should have been challenged. To her credit, Fidgen sees right through Bindel when she claims that trans people are supporting the gender binary, because Fidgen has been talking to a bunch of non-binary people, including O’Brien. Bindel, in fact, is obsessed with maintaining the binary, by insisting that people can never be anything other than the gender they were assigned at birth. What Fidgen misses is that Bindel simultaneously claims that trans people are obsessed with wanting to conform to gender stereotypes, and presents trans women as being obvious men in dresses using their newly granted rights to facilitate raping cis women. These claims are mutually contradictory.
The rape allegation is the part of the program that was most damaging, and it went totally unchallenged. It plays into all of the worst stereotypes about trans women: that they are “really” men; that they transition for sexual purposes, and that they are a danger to cis women, whom they will inevitably seek to rape. Bindel uses it in two specific settings.
The first is the possibility of a trans woman being convicted of rape of a cis woman and being sent to a women’s prison. Yes, it could happen. It is also true that all sorts of violent cis women get sent to prison. Some of them might be lesbians. And in any case, how prevalent is this going to be? The idea that all trans women are potential rapists only makes sense if, like Bindel, you believe that all trans woman are “really” men. If you no longer have a penis, no longer have testosterone flooding your body, and are sexually attracted to men, the idea that you are a potential rapist of cis women sounds desperately silly.
The other example concerns a sanctuary for sex workers where Bindel claims to have seen a trans woman (whom she describes in classic “man is a dress” terms) making a nuisance of herself and acting aggressively towards the cis women there. What Bindel does here is the classic tabloid tactic of saying, “here is someone from a minority group doing something bad, and there’s nothing that can be done because such people have ‘rights’ which make them immune to the law”. Well, actually, no. First of all if someone is making a nuisance of themselves then is doesn’t matter who they are, they can still be dealt with. The trans woman in question would only have had her rights breached if she was thrown out because she was trans. And actually the Equality Act makes specific exceptions in such cases. The example it gives is of a rape crisis center, where it is legal to throw a woman out solely for being trans, even if she has just been raped and is in obvious distress. Bindel and her friends campaigned for this sort of thing. I don’t believe that she doesn’t know about it.
Another area I want to address is that of trans kids. The program here is fairly balanced, but Bindel does get her oar in and as usual attempts to sow confusion. It is entirely true that many kids who exhibit gender confusion grow up to be gay or lesbian. It is also true that for best results from the treatment it is essential that hormone blockers be provided between the ages of 12 and 16. All that these do is delay the onset of puberty. They don’t cause cross-gender effects. Bindel’s contention is that the effect of this treatment will be to make kids who would otherwise have grown up gay or lesbian grow up trans instead. I’m highly dubious about this, but I don’t know enough about the medical issues to refute it, so I’m going to talk to my friends in Mermaids to see what they say. I certainly don’t fault Fidgen for not picking that up, because it is cutting edge of gender science stuff.
Finally one group of people who were totally left out of the program is intersex people. This is unfortunate, because they provide a very clear case for biological sex being on a continuum, not a binary condition. I find it disturbing to hear trans people arguing for the rights of the genderqueer and not standing up for intersex folks as well.
And while I’m here, Jane Fae has an article up at Gay Star News about the New Look story I blogged about last week. It sounds like lessons are not being learned.