A controversy around the subject of trans-inclusion is currently rumbling in the Labour Party: the question of whether trans-identified males, with or without a Gender Recognition Certificate, should be able to access women-only shortlists or become Women’s Officers, or take advantage of initiatives such as the Jo Cox Women in Leadership programme to encourage women into politics. A crowdfunder has been set up to legally challenge the Labour Party’s acceptance (without consultation or debate) of trans self-ID, and there is now a counter-petition accusing all those involved of transphobia. This has been followed by what seems to be a hit-list giving details of Labour members with ‘transphobic’ Twitter accounts, and two women have already been suspended from the party based on this evidence.
What is sometimes forgotten in this argument is the reason that women-only initiatives exist in the first place. AWS and similar schemes are necessary in order to correct a historic imbalance in female representation, but it is not just about helping individual women to pursue a career in politics they may otherwise have been unable to do. The reason women need equal representation is that women have different needs to men and that these are often overlooked by male politicians: when male is the default setting women inevitably lose out.
The status of women as second class citizens is perpetuated by a majority male government who, with the best will in the world, do not always see or consider women’s perspectives on law, healthcare, science, education, crime, and all the other areas of policy which affect women and girls differently to men and boys. The reasons for the sex difference fall into two categories: female biology and female socialisation. Politically we need to talk about, amongst other things: the mental health and aspirations of girls, menstruation and the tampon tax, pregnancy and healthcare, reproductive rights, prostitution and porn, childcare and education, FGM and VAWG, emotional labour and caring, and the menopause and pensions. There is a component of female biology or socialisation, or both, in all these areas, and it is generally accepted that having men make all the policy is not best practice. Not all women feel the same way about any of these areas of policy, but the more women there are in positions of power the more likely it is that they will at least be addressed from a female perspective.
The difficulty when considering transwomen in these posts is that they do not share the two aspects of female experience which inform and prop up inequality – that is, biology and socialisation. However much the desire is there to support trans people within the party, to do so via the use of mechanisms designed to promote women must result in disadvantaging women. Female socialisation ensures that many women will support this, seeing transwomen as women and welcoming their inclusion, but is it fair to do this on behalf of the many other women who are trying to escape the socialisation which tells them to put other people’s needs first?
The mantra ‘transwomen are women’ has been used for years to silence the debate about trans inclusion, but now it is also being used as a form of gatekeeping over who is on the right side of the debate. ‘Do you believe transwomen are women?’ is increasingly being asked as a sort of test of your progressiveness, and there is only one right answer. Many women have been happy up till now to refer to trans-identified males as women, largely out of courtesy and respect, sometimes out of sympathy, but not because it’s actually true. Many of these women now feel that the courtesy and respect has been thrown back in their faces by transwomen acting with what looks suspiciously like a very male sense of entitlement.
The preoccupation with ‘passing’ is an indication that within the trans community itself it is actually acknowledged that transwomen usually look like men. The instinct to recognise sex difference lies very deep within us all, and despite the attempts to discredit feminists, there never was a call for, or a need to, examine someone’s genitals before letting them in to a women-only space. We all know what a man looks like: we can’t not know. It is asking a lot of women to pretend otherwise, but of course we will do so if treated with similar respect in return. What some of us won’t do is be bullied into it.
A good illustration of the attempt to bully women into it was the recent performance of India Willoughby on Celebrity Big Brother. India’s extreme rage and threatening body language, complete with jabbing finger, were very ‘male’ to a woman’s eye. The accompanying repetition of ‘I am … A WOMAN!’ was very like the mantra repeated endlessly on Twitter, and the response from the women was very much that of appeasement towards a violent man. Many of us will recognise that moment when a woman’s expression becomes slightly glazed over in an attempt to do nothing to provoke the man who is angry with her. All the women in the Big Brother House wore that expression. That kind of bullying is employed every day on social media towards gender-critical feminists, and also in real life when feminist meetings are violently disrupted.
If men who identify as women have to go to those lengths to procure compliance then it is very clear they don’t ‘pass’. This means that, when it comes to privilege, they have had the advantage of a lifetime of being seen as male and treated as male. However different you feel inside, the way you are treated depends on what other people can see. However much ‘gender’ is claimed as innate and real, it doesn’t show. Men can have no experience of what it’s like to be a girl growing up, either through socialisation or biology, and this limits how much they can understand the needs of girls and women, even if they identify as women themselves.
Ahead of the recent Women’s March Munroe Bergdorf admonished women for wearing pussy hats because ‘not all women have a vagina’. Bergdorf, a transwoman who ironically benefited from a platform on BBC Woman’s Hour recently to talk about ‘how women are silenced’, tweeted: ‘Centering reproductive systems at the heart of these demonstrations is reductive and exclusionary’. This is an opinion which is mainstream within the trans activist community. (Some of the march organisers tried to ban the wearing of pussy hats after last year’s complaints). If biology itself is seen as exclusionary amongst trans people, then it could be argued that transwomen are actually less useful even than men in representing women politically, because their needs are in direct opposition to women’s.
Coincidentally, it is not the case that transmen are spending much time publicly telling men which body parts they can or can’t talk about, almost as though transmen don’t feel a sense of entitlement over a whole other class of people.
There cannot be a clearer example of how ‘feeling like a woman’ does not necessarily give you a female perspective, and does not give you the ability or experience to represent women’s issues. Notwithstanding all the slogans and mantras in the world, sex will out. If it’s the case that ‘only trans people can talk about trans issues’ (a good reason for aiming for more trans-inclusion in the first place) then it is surely also true that we need more female representation to talk about women’s issues, and that this has to come from women born and socialised female, because otherwise we just defeat the object.