I was born a female baby. I was not ‘assigned female at birth’, I was born female and this fact was noted: an F rather than an M went on my notes. The word ‘female’ in humans means the same as it does in other animals, that is: the sex which has the capacity to carry young and give birth. When people insist on using the phrase ‘assigned female at birth’ they are suggesting there is a choice being made, and that choice is dependent on belief systems, but actually, except in the very rare cases of people with some variations* of sexual development, there is no choice involved at all. Your sex simply is. The fact that it is ‘written down’ does not mean it has been ‘assigned’.
Now that’s been cleared up, let’s move on to gender. Gender is not sex: it is a set of characteristics commonly *associated* with your sex. Unlike sex, the meaning of gender is open to interpretation and its meaning can change, because it is a social construct rather than a biological fact, and social constructs are open to discussion and opinion. However, even if you mean gender and not sex when you are talking about being ‘assigned at birth’, this is still inaccurate. I was not ‘assigned a female gender’ at birth, I was simply born female, this was noted, and then I had gendered things thrown at me accordingly. It would be more accurate to say that I was ‘dressed in clothes which were assigned female’, and ‘given toys which were assigned female’, and ‘rewarded for exhibiting behaviours that were assigned female’. This is usually the way that gender is thrust upon you: it is done according to what is considered appropriate for the sex class you were born into.
Biological sex is dimorphic but gender exists on a spectrum, which has exclusively masculine at one end and exclusively feminine at the other. Whatever your biological sex, you can feel more comfortable at one end of the spectrum or the other, or anywhere in between, depending on your personality. In this sense it is obvious that one big difference between sex and gender is that sex is binary and gender is non-binary. Men can have qualities which are ‘assigned female’ and women can have qualities that are ‘assigned male’. In fact I would go so far as to assert that even the most ‘masculine’ of men still have a tiny bit of ‘feminine’ in them, and even the most ‘feminine’ of women still have a tiny bit of ‘masculine’ in them. We are all in fact ‘non-binary’ as regards gender. It gets confusing when people use ‘non-binary’ to mean a mixture of the two sexes or no sex at all, as this is impossible.
As a child I had a preference for toys and activities which at that time were assigned a masculine gender. I went through a phase of wanting to be a boy, and even pretended to be a boy, because all the boy stuff was so much more interesting to me than what was assigned for girls. I was genuinely ‘non-binary’, but in those days it was called ‘being a tomboy’. That was a possibility for girls at the time, although you were expected to grow out of it eventually. It was more difficult to remain gender-nonconforming as you got older. Suddenly it was labelled ‘being a feminist’ and that wasn’t quite as affectionately indulged as ‘being a tomboy’ was. Life can be made difficult for people whose gender identity does not match their biological sex: for women who present in a way that has been ‘assigned masculine’ or men who present in a way that has been ‘assigned feminine’ there is often resistance, or worse, from people more ‘matched’ in their sex and gender, who feel this non-conformity as a threat. One of the objections to the label ‘cis’ is the fact that it implies a conformity to gender that no individual in practice completely lives up to (or would want to).
Crucially, having a non-conforming gender identity does not mean you can change sex. You can present yourself as the opposite sex, usually by conforming to a different set of stereotypes from those associated with your own sex, but you cannot identify yourself out of the sex class into which you were born. Current transgender ideology has it that a combination of surgery and ‘identifying as’ makes you into the sex you want to be, but this is not the case: at best it can make it a possibility for you to ‘live as’ your preferred sex. You can change gender but you can’t change sex. It’s a nice idea, but when push comes to shove the truth will out. Maybe it’s a recognition of that truth which has led to a change from ‘transsexual’ to ‘transgender’ as a descriptor in the trans community.
When I was a student, the men who tried to rape me when I was hitch-hiking did not respect the rather masculine gender identity that I felt inside. They didn’t care that I had grown up preferring football and racing cars to dolls and make-up. They didn’t even care that I was wearing combat trousers and a donkey jacket! They just cared that I was female. Calling yourself ‘non-binary’ will not identify you out of that threat if you are a woman, and that is why we have sex-based rights for women: biological sex matters. When it comes to safety for women the way you ‘identify’ is a mere indulgence: it’s about as important as whether you consider yourself to be a Goth or a Punk for example, no more and no less. And, to be clear, people are not oppressed for being ‘non-binary’: they are oppressed by virtue of their female biology.
The current government inquiry on transgender rights is proposing to expand the rights of people in single-sex spaces, such as prisons, changing rooms, toilets and refuges, based on gender identity. At the same time, the definition of trans has been expanded to include ‘non-binary’ and ‘genderfluid’ people (which is great because that includes me!) (Hint: it includes everyone!). The recommendation is that gender identity should always be accepted as self-certified rather than proved by a medical opinion or a gender recognition certificate. In reality this means that women’s sex-based rights will disappear as gender-based rights will cancel them out: the two cannot co-exist. Male-bodied people (we used to call them ‘men’ when sex was the relevant criteria) will always be able to gain access to women-only spaces through the method of self-identifying as women. When you consider that women-only spaces have traditionally been fought for and implemented *because* of the threat of male violence, you can understand what a threat this is to women’s rights. Actually *being* a woman could be overridden by a man *claiming* to be a woman. What could possibly go wrong?
It is worrying that a government inquiry set up by the Women and Equalities committee can misunderstand so completely the connotations for women of the changes they are proposing. There were many submissions to the inquiry from women’s groups, which have clearly been ignored. We need to complain now, before the proposals become law, to try to get the message across before it’s too late. After all, we are all genderfluid, non-binary folk now and our voices deserve to be heard.
*Edited on 25/03/2019 to remove references to ‘intersex’ as it has become clear this is a misleading term. It has been increasingly used to suggest there is a third sex or that it is possible to be a mixture of the two sexes, which is not true. To make it more clear there is a move to replace the term with ‘disorders of sex development’ (DSD) or the less judgemental ‘variations in sex development’ (VSD) which I have chosen to use here.