Photo: VADC

Mandy Romero

I’ve been looking for examples of the gender debate in my locality so that I discover the real issues involved and to get a glimpse of the contenders for truth, if truth is what we are seeking here.

An artist and activist I know is also a university lecturer and she is now in conflict with a number of her students about ideas she has supported through her Twitter account, which was originally set up to disseminate information about a housing regeneration project. Her lectures have been suspended as a result of complaints by students that she is transphobic, and a TERF. The students also have a Twitter account which they use to promote their artistic initiatives, and their critique is disseminated through this account.

Perhaps the major consequence of this confrontation is that someone has lost contracted work and others have lost some input into their study. This has not just been a war of words, but the words have been fierce and sometimes abusive. The battleground is now a familiar one, even if it also reflects the long-established friction between students and academic institutions. The friction comes and goes, and here it has returned in force. The students’ self-avowed cause is thus, - “outing TERF tutors, pushing for transparency in funding and calling out institutions”. “If we can’t put people (particularly those who are marginalised) ahead of entrenched institutional relationships,” the group tweets, “what kind of community are we?”

The lecturers and university administration are accused of institutional gender-bias against trans-people and their rights to self-determine their gender-identity. The students are accused of supporting a philosophically-feeble definition of femininity which, if applied widely, would weaken the feminist cause. The dispute is focused on Male-To-Female self-identification, and legislation which makes this easier. As ever the other aspects of the current Transgender emergence have been neglected. It is as if women and trans are the only functioning human beings in existence. There is some scapegoating here, in the sense of the lecturer being used as a token of an unacceptable tendency, but both sides are splashing about in a pool of ego-vulnerabilities. To both sides in the dispute we might quote Eleanor Roosevelt, - “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.


Someone - a student? A feminist supporter? I can’t remember which - asserts the prevalence of “hateful opinions”. I paused at this. Where is the hate? The opinions are apparently full of it, but the sense suggests that someone hates the opinions. This is then a self-perpetuating tangle. It is becoming commoner recently to point out that a failure of “empathy” underlies current social relations, but the tone of these counterblasts suggests that lack of empathy is now a fetish. It reinforces antipathy as something which confers a magic strength to a self-doubting soul. And the doubt? For the students, maybe, it’s a need to find a point of influence in the current political turmoil. For the lecturer and her supporters, by no means all female, do I sense feminism’s sense of a lost voice?

The Gender Recognition Act is currently in the process of amendment and, as with a lot of legislation in these edgy times, (Section 28 in the UK was the most extreme and notorious example) it is the perceived threat of the implications of that amendment which are occupying people. Is it, as a step forward for some, a step backward for others? It has been asserted that transgender rights would not over-ride situations, e.g., single-sex services, where it was legally advisable to exclude transgender individuals. The concerned feminists want self-definition by gender to be separate from a recognition defined by sex.

I quote (and these quotes are taken from the social media domain from people I do not know) - ‘In seeking to redefine what "woman" means, trans activists are trying to shift emphasis away from our reproductive systems. What, then, does "being a woman" mean? As far as I can see, the progressive movement supporting this believe it means "standing in opposition to cis men."’

Well, let’s start there - What is the term of dispute? “woman”.

Something that has bemused me for a while is the way we have become so pre-occupied with the symbolic expression of things, and that includes verbal language. We are alert to signifiers to the exclusion of our somatic ability to verify experiences. So much of the present dispute is about terms and names and definitions, and in areas where we actually share a reality. Suddenly a word or a phrase becomes a flashpoint- it is loaded with intentions, feelings and prejudices which do not connect with actuality, but which serve the impulse to confront and dispute. The problem goes wider than this particular dispute, though. Society is sickening itself with its attachment to symbolism.


Various of the post-modern thinkers would avow that there is nothing but signifiers, that language is our interface with the world and the body knows no more than we tell it. I wonder. But this descent into philosophy is taking us away from the point. I spend so much of my time urging people to calm down and explore common ground, and somewhere in all this is a common word that needs to be looked into. That word is “woman”.

I’m going to take myself out of this for a while – and be deliberately abstract. When a person says, “I am a woman”, - what do they mean? My body is a woman’s body? Not only that, surely. Don’t they have sense of other things – their role in society (and history), their sensibility which they have learned to distinguish from that of people who say, “I am a man,”? They have embraced the idea of “woman”, prompted by sensations and bodily functions, by instinctive behaviour all of which is associated with that word. If they say, “I am a woman”, there is also, isn’t there, the idea that others, a whole subsection of humanity, have the same identifications? To say, “I am a woman”, is an act of self-identification. For someone else to say, “You are (a) woman”, is confirmation but not definitive in any sense.

Crucially, I identify myself. It is up to others to recognize me for what I say I am. Someone in the online debate says, “No-one is disputing the fact that trans men and women are our allies. But surely we have to be able to say that there are some women’s issues that don’t affect some transwomen?” I would say so.

Are all those who say, “I am (a) woman”, are they equally “woman”? They belong to the classification “woman”, but they are individuals and their roles, their bodies, their sensibilities are often divergent, fulfilling the category “woman” in different degrees. Now for many people the defining, the definitive womanly aspect is the body and, in particular, its reproductive and childbearing features. Body is fundamental to existence but is it, - should it be, - the defining feature of humankind? When the body dies, it is assumed by the non-religious, the rest goes too. To the religious, - or if religion revolts you, the spiritually-minded, - there is something more enduring and essential which survives the death of the body. It has names, of which one is the “soul”, but here it might be the “idea” of us, and in relation to this debate it might it be what I called “the idea of “woman””?

Given such a plurality of definitional dimensions, might “I am a woman” be a way of saying, “I am some or all of those things some or all of the time”?

You know where I’m leading – though I’ve only just noticed it myself. It’s a question, isn’t it? Isn’t self-identification with the “idea of “woman”” valid as a way to find a place in a society in flux? To find yourself as a branch of that tree-like classification, “woman”? Makes sense to me.

But, you know, this is all a bit binary. A tree is not the opposite of anything, I grant you, - except another tree - but there must be people who say, “I am (a) man”. Well, there are, let’s not be coy about this, and although they may not assert in the same register as self-proclaiming “women”, and indeed may be deeply resentful at having to assert themselves at all, and even feel vested with a unique and unassailable authenticity which they yet feel called into doubt, although all that may be true (I surmise all this from public presentations more than from personal acquaintance, but I may be very lucky in my personal acquaintances) we are still here splayed across a divide which is debatable and, yes, divisive, in times when division plays to weakness not strength, particularly in relation to the survival of human life on earth. Gosh, that was a long sentence – it’s quite tired me out.

I am, you see, a bit of a “yin and yang” girl – from all that indulgent delving into books and from visits to the Far East I’ve come to see life as a bit of a roller-coaster, a balance, a slide-projector with a wayward focus, something which moves between extremes, neither or none of which ever go away. Like something called “homeostasis”, - is it? – when one principle reasserts to balance the excess of the other. And here’s the female principle, the feminine, reasserting itself, in a response to a long period in which the masculine has developed an increasing ability to screw up. And, now I think about it, I feel that feminine in me. It’s one of the realities I draw on when I need to recover a sense of myself, just to keep functioning as a human being.

How often, actually, do people say, “I am a woman”? It doesn’t sit well with me to find that I have been quoting Margaret Thatcher all these years when I remember that, Being Powerful Is Like Being A Lady - If You Have To Tell People You Are, You Aren’t, but there’s something in that. Many Male-to-Female trans-people (we call them transwomen) are not unduly interested in saying “I am a woman”. They do however feel a fulfilment in associating with the feminine, and would like to get on with the business of living their lives in that spirit. They have “self-identified self-hood”.

The other dimension which is relevant here is legitimation. Feminism has historically been concerned with claiming a legitimacy for the feminine, and recently with establishing a legalistic framework for women’s rights which is binding and effective. For such claims to be realistic they have to be recognized across the whole spectrum of society. And for a historically shorter but not insignificant period trans individuals have been seeking a similar recognition even as we are discovering ourselves as a community.


The trick to successful recognition is identification. Trans people have been waiting for a long time to achieve legitimation through recognition and it has begun to happen at a peculiar and very distinctive period of history, a period when the “individual” is asserting itself over the shared and common, when “me” is easier to promote than “we”. Transgender people have taken held in check by institutional resistance but now they have taken definition into their own hands, and, since the period is also a time of relativism and liminal space, have also chosen from a far wider range of self-definitions – and, in all of this, who can blame them?

There is of course the business of claiming rights. Being of a clearly-defined gender brings an easier access to some rights, but deep down most rights are not gender-specific. Nor are rights, so far as I know, measured by quantity. Lots of people can have a right to something without us running out of “right”. Exclusive rights (to discount, to access, to credit on your card) are the stuff of commerce not of lives held in common. Might transwomen not claim their due as humans?

And – yes, I’m back on my high horse – I am tired of debates about trans and gender which exclude (deliberately, accidentally or carelessly) the perspectives and experiences of transmen and non-Western individuals and intersex and androgyny. This is perhaps the most pressing reason for requesting a cessation of hostilities between trans-activists and the new feminists.

I started this thread to disentangle the current situation for myself, and others. So far I’ve ended up advocating “self-identified self-hood”. I am now even less in love with the combat-hunger of social-media-empowered adversaries, than I was when I started. As a debate It deserves one more go from me and then other trans-urgent issues must prevail for a while. I hope to end up next time with an answer to this question - What do we, as trans people, have a right to which will also support the rights of others? It pays to be positive.


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