What is Transgender?


On the eve of a parliamentary debate on the government response to the Trans Enquiry, it might be useful to look at what people mean when they say Transgender. The rights of transgender people are up for debate, and the Women and Equalities Select Committee who hosted the initial inquiry obviously felt that the government’s response did not go far enough in updating these rights, and are seeking to push them further. The government was certainly cautious in its response, and I would suggest this might partly be due to the confusion over terminology. As it stands, trans rights (in terms of ‘gender identity’ becoming a protected characteristic) are in direct conflict with women’s rights (in terms of ‘sex’ being a protected characteristic). Now, we all know what a woman is. (Well, we used to know anyway: a woman is a female of the species, a grown-up one. A girl is an immature member of the female class). But nobody seems to agree on what a trans person is. It is hard to legislate on behalf of a group of people who seem to shape-shift in their own definition (or other people’s definitions) depending on the circumstances.

The difference between sex and gender is not always well understood, so here is the definition according to the World Health Organisation (with thanks to @sueveneer on Twitter for flagging this)


Some of us understandably struggle with the idea that a socially-constructed set of characteristics can be experienced as ‘innate’, but this is exactly what the notion of ‘gender identity’ asks us to believe. It becomes even more ludicrous when applied to children, who do not yet have the context in which to understand the world around them, and the way in which it operates to instill social norms. The whole notion of being ‘born in the wrong body’ only makes sense if you believe that certain personality traits are intrinsically linked to certain body types.

Trans activists argue that it is nothing to do with toy choices, hair styles etc, but that trans identity is deeply felt and believed and A REAL THING ON THE INSIDE. This is asserted, notwithstanding that all the kids showing up at gender identity clinics are doing so because they present with ‘non-typical gender behaviour’ ie boys with long hair wearing dresses and girls with short hair who don’t like playing with dolls. These children might also be convinced they should be (or in fact ARE) the opposite sex, but if this conviction alone is used as proof of genuine trans status then the obvious problem is HOW DO THE REST OF US KNOW? And if we can’t tell a genuine trans person from a simply gender non-conforming one, how can we legislate and, if we do legislate, how can we then stay within the law?

To illustrate the problem here are some pictures of men (I use the word to mean adult human male, obviously) who have unconventional gender identity or presentation.

These two people identify as women:


One of these two people identifies as a woman, the other as non-binary:


The two people here identify as male, but also transvestite, transsexual, cross-dressing or transgender as well:


And finally, these two people retain a sense of humour about the whole thing*:


With respect, can the Women and Equalities Commission tell me which of the above people, if any, I should be worried about if they were to enter a public toilet or changing room I was using? (I know which ones I would be worried about, but obviously, it’s not about me…) And can the trans lobbyists tell me which ones are ‘genuine’ trans people who come under the protection of the trans umbrella and which ones do not warrant this protection? And why? And when you say ‘Trans women are women’ which of the above are you talking about? And why?

Because if you can’t answer these questions (and probably, even if you can, because there will be disagreement depending on who you ask) the proposed change in legislation might just as well be “Anyone who feels like it can use the ladies toilet and if you object to that you’re a bigot!” That’s because if the law is changed we will all have to act *as if* the male-bodied person next to us in the changing room is a trans woman or girl, because we are the ones who will be in trouble if we get it wrong: we will be guilty of a hate crime. How to remove at a stroke the rights of women and girls to set boundaries and protect ourselves!

This has never been about demonising trans people, as the lobbyists would have you believe, but about defining trans anti-discrimination legislation in a way that is robust enough to minimise adverse effects and to take account of the risks of exploitation. The proposed changes to the laws surrounding trans equality leave women wide open to abuse, as they remove many of the sex-based protections that help to keep women safe in public life. The fact is that we are on the brink of taking a backwards step regarding the rights of women and nobody seems to be talking about it (except for radical feminists of course, particularly lesbians, who have seen the writing on the wall for a lot longer than most of us).

More details on the disproportionate effect on women that the proposed trans legislation will have can be found here.  And to the MPs who will be discussing this in the house next week: before you decide to remove women’s rights in favour of trans rights, please can you tell us what your definition of transgender is, what your criteria will be, and, most importantly, when we are in a public sex-segregated space and feel threatened by the presence of an unexpected male, HOW CAN WE TELL?

*Thanks to Miranda and Hope for letting me use their pictures

Edit: The World Health Organisation has removed its page on the differences between sex and gender so I have inserted the screenshot of the page as it was. I have asked them to show any new evidence which has necessitated a change of information but so far none is forthcoming.

7 thoughts on “What is Transgender?

  1. FairPlayForWomen (@fairplaywomen) November 27, 2016 / 12:06 am

    Thank you so much for getting to the heart of the issue 🙂 I wish it weren’t so incredibly hard to explain this isn’t about “transphobia” but about women and children. When one group’s rights demand the removal of those same rights from another group, there’s a problem.

  2. Rose M. Jordan November 27, 2016 / 2:52 pm

    Yes, this is great. If only the mps debating this would read it!

  3. abutterflysdiary November 27, 2016 / 2:54 pm

    Reblogged this on A butterfly's diary and commented:
    Great blog by Helen (I expect nothing else) on some important questions regarding proposed changes in law.

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