Queer | Feminist | Doctor

CW for mention of sexual violence, genital surgery and suicide, mention of trans-exclusionary viewpoints

I’ve been told multiple times this weekend that (“true”) women are oppressed because of their biology, that it is having a vagina that makes women targets of sexual violence, that it is not possible for a trans woman to be oppressed as a woman because she is “biologically male”.

I have already written a post on why the idea of “biologically male” is a bit more complicated than TERFs would have you believe, but one of the things that I got sent was a lot of links to scientific papers on brain differences between men and women. The people who sent me these links are adamant that there is no such thing as a “male brain” or “female brain”, but as usual, the reality is more complex than that.

In the past 50 years, there have been a lot of studies into what determines one’s gender identity. In the 1960s there was quite a concerted effort made to put forth the theory that we are born as a “blank slate”, and it is only the way that we are treated throughout our lives (“socialised”) that gives us a sense of what our own gender is.

There is one very famous study which was of a pair of identical twin boys, one of whom had his penis destroyed aged about 7 months, due to a surgical accident. Their names were Brian and David Reimer. Psychiatrist John Money saw this as an opportunity to do a case study in gender, which he hoped would prove his “blank slate” views were correct – he instructed that this baby have his name changed (from David to Brenda) and that he be raised as a girl.

The study was highly unethical for a large number of reasons which I will not go into here, but initially Dr Money reported that his experiment had been successful, and that the boy David had successfully been socialised as a girl. He did not report that David became more and more insistent that he was a boy, or that before age 18 he socially transitioned to live as a man.

The whole family was incredibly damaged by the study, and both boys killed themselves before age 40. In the end this case study showed that socialisation is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to gender.

This is a problem for trans-exclusionary radical feminists, as they claim that gender identity is not a real thing, that your internal sense of your own gender comes from the ideas patriarchy feeds you about what it is to be a man, or a woman, and that any sense of gender you have is due to your personality, not due to your gender.

Were this the case then transsexual people would be considered gender-atypical rather than transsexual. But if it really were true, then why would anyone be transsexual?

Many of the people that argue that trans women are “actually men” have no experience of gender dysphoria, how stressful and damaging it can be. In fact they try to use the fact that trans people are more likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety, as evidence that trans people are “just crazy”, that we are deluded in our sense of our own gender.

The fact that the levels of depression and anxiety, and suicide risk, improve dramatically with appropriate treatment of gender identity disorder (including but not limited to medical and surgical treatment) is an inconvenient truth they seem to ignore.

Gender IS socially constructed, in that there is no real reason why the activities and personality traits associated with a particular gender should be unavailable to someone of another gender. But gender is ALSO part of people’s identities, their sense of self.

Cis people claiming that their gender does not form part of their identity are speaking from a position of privilege, they have the luxury of viewing their experience of the world as the default. It takes emotional intelligence and empathy to realise that while you personally may not experience your gender as part of your identity, others do.

Many cis and trans people spend a lot of time reflecting on what their gender means to them, and how to interact with their deep seated sense of their own gender. For a cis person to object to being described as cis is comparable to a pale-skinned, brown haired person objecting to being called a brunette.

That person may not identify as a brunette, but since brunette is a descriptive term used to describe a particular complexion, it would not be factually incorrect to use that word to describe them.

Trans-exclusionary feminists claim that only “womyn born womyn” experience oppression as women. I find it difficult to understand why they believe this, as it is pretty clear to me that most people judge a person’s gender based on their appearance, and not their chromosome type or their genital or reproductive anatomy.

In a society that oppressed “womyn born womyn” due to their anatomy, it would be customary to examine someone’s genitals or take a DNA test on meeting them, so that you could tell their “true sex”. This is clearly not the case.

The VAST majority of people take a glance at what someone looks and sounds like, and instantly and subconsciously put them into a box, of “man” or “woman”. They then treat that person as the gender that they have guessed. Most of the time they are right.

Some people, cis and trans, do not “pass” as the gender that they are presenting themselves as. Some women are very tall and get mistaken for men. Some men have high voices and get misgendered over the telephone.

Being misgendered is something that happens a lot to trans people, but cis people do experience it too. A man trying to be polite by opening a door for a woman doesn’t ask for her full gender history first.

So, society does not treat women according to their biology, but according to the gendered behaviours in which they engage, plus their body shape, posture, and other factors which add up to their overall appearance to others. This is called “gender presentation”.

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