The Twitterverse has been filled with much noise about Germaine Greer not fulfilling her speaking engagement at Cardiff University due to activists at the university campaigning to have her ‘disinvited’ from the speaking engagement there. Academic, heavyweights such as Richard Dawkins have entered the fray in support of Germaine Greer.
As usual the debate is unfortunately getting reduced to a simple ‘right’ vs ‘wrong’ position. With the various parties adopting entrenched positions and refusing to listen to what the other has to say. It seems that trans people on the one side of the debate seek to demonise anyone who does not embrace them and their cause, seemingly labeling anyone, who does not wholeheartedly support the cause some sort of closeted transphobe. This is not helpful and leads to us losing potential allies and muddies the waters rather than clarifying them. Whilst the Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists on the other side seek to ridicule transgender people and present them as psychologically damaged, self loathing beings. This too is unhelpful.
I find myself seeing kernels in truth in both arguments and I believe that it may be helpful to look deeper into them in an effort to resolve the tensions and get to the truth of the human condition. Dawkins is correct in saying that the argument is a semantic one. Please note that in academia this does not mean it is unimportant (in ‘normal’ society saying an argument is ‘semantic’ dismisses it as trivial an unimportant). This could not be furthere from the truth. Indeed semantics are the essence of academia. Semantics is the study of ‘meaning’. For a biologist such as Dawkins, ‘male’ and ‘female’ have distinct and real meanings. They denote which reproductive role each organism of a species plays. The female provides the ovum and may or may not be the host, letting the newly created organism grow in it. The male provides the sperm, pollen etc and this fertilises the egg/s. Please note these are sexes and are defined by actual biological functions; they are not assigned genders. Plants which as far as we can tell have no way of thinking, socialising etc are male, female or possibly both (or even neither). All sorts of primitive animals that also are incapable of thinking (and therefore of gendering themselves or others) are also male or female. Sex and gender are thus different. Chromosomes, hormones etc all play a role in determining the role the organism plays in sexual reproduction but ultimately (I believe) the biologist looks at the function the organism plays and calls it male or female. Biology is in many respects the study of function and structure. In the case of organisms that are clearly to young to reproduce but that have the necessary organs to realise reproductive potential they are denoted as being ‘immature’ males or ‘immature’ females.
In a purely biological sense gender does not exist. Sex (male or female) does, but not gender. A biologist explaining human behaviour would see males and females based on their function and would only then look at the physical attributes (organs, hormones, chromosomes etc) that allowed this function to occur. The presence of ovaries, a uterus and a vagina are necessary for females to conceive. Similarly testicles and a penis are required for a male to fertilise the egg in the female of the species. At no point is gender relevant to this biological discussion. Please note male plants are called ‘male’ but lack penises and testicles. Again it is the function they perform (creating and spreading pollen, which is analogous to sperm) that makes them male, not their primary sex characteristics.
Gender refers to masculinity and femininity.That is the roles that we assign to people. Somehow we manage to conflate this in our minds with primary and secondary sex characteristics because sexual organs (both primary and secondary) are highly correlated with gender and sadly human beings confuse correlation with causation all the time. This is a fallacious position. A biologist is not really all that concerned with gender. A sociologist is. Sociologists look at how and why society functions. Gender is hugely important to society because we are such social beings.
I am not all that sure that chromosomes are all that important biologically speaking. We know that the ‘XX’ vs ‘XY’ dichotomy is less ‘real’ than we at first thought. There is a wide range of individuals that do not display this model. Yet they are often able to reproduce and the person tends to play a role in reproduction that is highly analogous with ‘male’ or ‘female’ regardless of their actual chromosomal make up. Although some individuals with highly unusual chromosomal make ups may indeed be infertile.
Thus you can be female that displays masculine traits and behaviours or you can be a male that is highly feminine in orientation. Or you can be a male that displays highly masculine behaviours. The sex that you are does not change the gender that you have and the two are separate (although highly correlated) things. I think this blog post explains this very well.
So we can now see that biologically speaking we cannot (at least for now) speak of changing your sex. It is not possible for a male to become female and change role in sexual reproduction to that of a female. At best (for now) the male can become a neuter incapable of sexual reproduction. Our surgeons are incapable of creating a uterus or ovaries, nor can they create functioning testicles. Biologically speaking ‘sex change’ is a misnomer.
In this sense at least Germaine Greer and Richard Dawkins are correct in saying that transexual women are not female. However they have gone one step further and say that they cannot be ‘women’. This is a nonsense. There are lots of women in the world who cannot reproduce sexually. They may have had hysterectomies, may be infertile or may simply have experienced menopause. I do not think anyone would say that they have ceased to be female, they are simply females no longer capable of reproduction (in the same way that the immature female or male is incapable of reproduction) and I also cannot believe that anyone would say that they are not women simply because they are no longer capable of reproduction*. This seems to me to be unnecessarily reductionist.
‘Woman’ and ‘man’ are words we use to describe the adult people exhibiting a gender which, as we saw in Transavant’s blog post, is at best a conglomeration of traits and behaviours. We look at someone and based on physical markers, observed behaviour and a bit of gut feel and say ‘ah, she is a woman’ or ‘oh, he is a man’. We do not ask for people to show us their sex organs before doing this and we most certainly do not ask to see a full scan of their reproductive systems. Our concept of gender is in reality completely different to the role individuals play in sexual reproduction.
We gender people throughout their lives. Boys and girls are almost always treated differently, they dress differently and play differently. This despite the fact that objectively pre-pubescent children are not all that different to one another. We do this, I believe, because we realise at least sub-consciously that sex and gender are correlated but that gender is not caused by sex. Parents want their children to be happy and usually being happy requires ‘fitting in’ and conforming to societal norms. This further proves that gender and biological sex are entirely different things.
So if we accept that our concept of gender is inherently separate to our concept of sex we can see that whilst sex is immutable, gender is decidedly malleable and mutable. In this sense Germaine Greer and Richard Dawkins have made an elementary mistake in logic. If it is possible for people to remain ‘men’ and ‘women’ regardless of their changing roles in sexual reproduction as a result of age, injury or other medical conditions and interventions, then it is certainly possible for men to become women and vice versa as the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are based on gender as their biological sex is irrelevant in this context. Dawkins and Greer have missed this distinction by seemingly reducing gender and sex to the same thing or at the very least assigning a fallacious causal relationship between the two attributes.
If trans people and our allies would stop shouting at the likes of Greer and Hawkins and instead engaged them in debate we may have a chance of changing their views and minds. By adhering to a dogmatic (and false) view that sex can be changed we alienate those in the world for whom having a working definition of sex is an imperative and we fail to understand the nuances of others arguments. It is possible to accept that a transwoman can be a fully accepted and functioning woman whilst simultaneously accepting that she is not in fact female. Universities are a place of exploration, argument, discussion, debate, tension and resolution. They are not for the intellectually faint hearted (here I agree with Dawkins) and we should seek to ventilate all issues on campuses throughout the world. Even those guilty of spreading hate speech and hateful ideas should be allowed to voice their views so that they can be rigorously dealt with and exposed as fallacious (most hateful ideas are based on fallacies). By seeking to censor people we stifle debate erode values and drive dissenting opinions underground. At best the two parties shout at each other from their entrenched positions at worst they stop talking thus ironically validating each position in their own minds.
Lets debate and argue these issues in the open. Lets hear what others are saying acknowledge what truth they may be expressing but at the same time be prepared to expose the fallacies and present our own compelling arguments. Finally while males may not for now (or maybe ever) be able to become females (and vice versa) women most certainly can become men and men can become women. It all lies in what we mean by the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’. This is indeed a semantic argument and as such cuts right into what we mean and understand ourselves to be and thus what we understand our society to be. It is a fundamental argument and one that needs to be had. We are wrong to stifle debate anywhere, we are especially wrong to stifle debate in universities. We have nothing to fear.
Perhaps the real debate we should be having is why does sex and gender still matter so much? Why are institutions obsessed with knowing our sexes or genders? Why is society still set up in such a discriminatory way and how can we make society more open, equal and accepting and get to a point where an individual’s sex and gender is relevant only to themselves and their partners?
* The same argument obviously applies to men as well. A male who has been castrated or has had a vasectomy is still considered male and a man.