The Difficulty of Gender Issues 323

It should go without saying that an important part of the approach to this debate should be not to hate anybody, on any side of the argument. Looking through the comments below I am very surprised that several people seem unable to do this.

I write as somebody who has spent virtually his whole life doing things other than think deeply about the rights of transgender people. The subject has however inserted itself centrally into Scottish political debate and particularly preoccupies sections of the leadership of the Independence movement. With the banning of the twitter account of Wings Over Scotland for what are judged by Twitter to be “transphobic” tweets, and the same day publication of the new Gender Recognition Reform Bill by the Scottish Government – and the coincidence of those two happenings worries me – I need to set down rather more coherent thoughts on the subject than I have previously.

To start from first principles, I believe that people should be treated as they wish to be treated. If somebody wishes to be treated as female I will treat them as female. That seems to me good manners. It seems the height of bad manners to do otherwise. If I meet someone who tells me they are a woman, I would not dream of querying them or demanding evidence. I would treat them as female. In my life so far, that is how I have always in practice dealt with people I have met whom I suspected might be transgender or transvestite. I treat them as the gender they present themselves as. (I do not care in the slightest for the latest fashion in politically correct jargon for these things). The same also obviously applies to people who wish to be treated as male.

I therefore support the principle of self-declaration that appears to be the basis of the Scottish government’s new bill. People should be what they wish to be, not what a doctor or psychiatrist tells them they are. Please note possession of genitalia does not factor in my thinking at all, in normal social situations.

We then come to the difficult bits. It appears to me plainly daft for a man simply to be able to declare themselves a woman and then to compete in elite sport in women only events. Men have natural competitive advantages from the effects on physique of testosterone. That is simply true, although I do find it rather ironic that feminists are now so insistent upon the fact, as it is precisely to adopt the arguments of Bobby Riggs against those of Billie Jean King. In non-elite, mixed ability sport – which is 99% of all sport that actually happens – I can see no reason why people cannot participate as the gender of their choice, and indeed I do not know why non-elite sport is gender specific at all. I am yet to play the woman who cannot beat me at squash. I suspect our cat could beat me at squash.

The attitudes towards these things change over time. When I went to primary school we had a segregated playground. There are still plenty of old Victorian schools around Edinburgh where the marking for boys’ and girls’ entrances survive in the brickwork. Though while talking of schools, I would add that I think gender re- assignment of children under 16 should almost never be allowed, as they are over-susceptible to adult influence.

Having lived so much of my life abroad, I have never quite understood the British obsession with gender segregated toilets anyway.

When it comes to prison, I have no doubt that Chelsea Manning should be in a female prison and treated as a female. Equally, there was a case highlighted on Wings over Scotland some months ago of a man convicted of sexual offences who had obtained admittance to a women’s prison after claiming female gender, who proceeded to carry out sexual assaults there. Plainly a convicted male sexual assailant ought not to be put in a women’s prison, even if they now claim gender re-identity.

So I quite accept that the right of self-declaration cannot be absolute and there are situations – highly unusual situations like prisons for violent offenders – where authorities should decide on its applicability in gender segregated areas. There are two things to say here. The first is that the entire debate so far elevates dogma on both sides above commonsense. The second is that to make law from extreme examples is foolish. We don’t make building codes for the general population on the basis of specifying the banning of the methods of Fred and Rosemary West.

Personally, I quite accept the view that a woman who arrives at a beauty salon ought to be able to refuse to have her intimate parts waxed by somebody she does not feel comfortable is the same sex as her, without being accused of “hate crime”. Others might not object at all and trans people ought not to be banned from working in beauty salons. These problems seem to me best solved by societal interaction and minimal intrusion of the state.

I realise that both sides of a currently heated debate will find my folksy take on this, based on empathy and tolerance not on rigid application of first principles, to be entirely wrong. Some will object to my lack of the latest PC jargon. One side will insist that being male or female is a simple physical thing and choice does not come into it. Some argue that men are violent, dangerous creatures from whom women need loads of safe spaces into which they can securely retreat, without fear of infiltration by “pretend women”. Others argue that identity is an entirely personal matter that nobody else can decide, and that the law should compel society to accept self-declared identity in every circumstance, and to do otherwise is a hate crime.

My own view is that, irrespective of whether gender is a binary divide, the question of how we treat trans people ought not to be a binary divide. It is a question of complex social interactions at a time of changing mores, and different factors are crucial in different situations. The safety of women is a crucial factor in the case of the male sex offender declaring themselves into a women’s prison. But the safety of women is not in imminent danger in the large majority of social interactions. The large majority of people, including the large majority of trans people, are decent and kind. Let us order relations on that basis, with safeguards in place for the unusual.

For what it is worth, in general the Scottish Government’s proposals do not seem to me a bad stab at these difficult questions. Self declaration should be the basic rule, and then there should be specified rules to cover unusual situations where problems might arise from aberrant behaviour, which may be exhibited by either party.

Finally, less than one per cent of the population have prosthetic limbs. If I were writing about the subject I would not feel the need to refer to everyone who does not have a prosthetic limb as “organics” or some such antonym. The idea we have to refer to everyone who is not trans as cis deserves to be ridiculed. The truly pathetic intellectual level of what passes for academic or expert led debate on these questions is a matter of some concern. I blame deconstructionism as the root of much trivial thought.

This whole issue is one of those subjects where I am aware that I need to duck for cover after writing.


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323 thoughts on “The Difficulty of Gender Issues

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  • Cityeyrie

    Thanks for this Craig, a sensible and sensitive post. As a politically active feminist for 40 years I have done what I can to avoid the current arguments around gender, they seem to me almost like a psyop to get women arguing with each other over nothing. While we do this we can’t start demanding in a unified voice the kinds of economic demands which would help both women who insist on the primacy of their biology and those insisting it is completely a social construct. Which fundamentally is what this seems to be about if it’s about anything at all. To my mind, of course it’s both biology and socialisation, and you outline a good way forward.

    Back in the 1970s and 80s there was a strand of feminism which was separatist, insisting that it was impossible for women to co-exist with men at all. They also, however, were for increasing criminality around sex work, ignoring sex worker’s evidence that this actually makes women *more* unsafe, whether on the game or not. (And women I remember from this tendancy are now leading the campaign against self-id, which is a clue to why it’s become so bitter.) Others of us thought this was ridiculous, even as we also upheld the right to meet temporarily in women-only spaces to get away from certain male socialisations. Of course this didn’t stop the abuse that can happen between women, something never mentioned. But in terms of ‘gender’ our general take was that this is a continuum, with both women and men able to have and display characteristics of the opposite sex. What I find saddest about the current debate is the idea has been forgotten that whatever one’s biology one can be happy as a man with ‘female’ attributes or a woman with ‘male’ attributes.

    I find the constantly used example of the man being convicted of sexual assault being placed in a women’s prison almost laughable. Of course he shouldn’t have been sent to one on the basis of self-id, but it’s also been used to imply that violence and sexual abuse never happens *between* women in prison.

    I can totally understand the rejection by some younger people of either gender – common social norms both for ‘men’ and for ‘women’ suck big time. And some, putting blame on gender dysmorphia for what I think is a more general alienation. I also get the so-called Terfs worries about self-declaration in certain situations. But for the past five years or so I’ve watched the debate around this with increasing dismay, chasing our tails while the Borg takes all of our housing and income security away.

    • Rod Webb

      Yes to a psyops to get women arguing amongst themselves, but that is surely the purpose of all identity politics. But five years watching from the sidelines doesn’t seem to have helped deepen your understanding of the issue. The ‘trans ideology’ would have ‘women and men back in the boxes where they belong’, i.e. starting with boys playing with guns and girls playing with dolls. Forget everything else, that’s a very backward step.

  • A transgender woman

    As a transgender woman, I think this post of Craig’s is wonderful with one exception which I will mention further down.

    There is no transgender conspiracy. Its just a simple fact that some called ‘males’ are born knowing, thinking, feeling that they are ‘women’ and vice versa. It is also a fact that so called ‘males’ have different chromosomes from so called ‘females’ but that doesn’t change a thing. I think it is natural, part of Darwinism. Nature throws up all sorts of anomalies, just in case they just may be needed somehow in the future for human survival.

    It isnt a new ‘fad’ either, I have known that I was transgender for more than sixty years. I loved the bit in Craig’s post about being able to see signs from the past on the walls at the entrances of schools saying Boys and Girls. I spent my entire early school recess times standing on a line painted between the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ playgrounds.
    The reason for that was that from five ears old I know I was a ‘girl’ and should be in the ‘girl’s’ playground and desperately wanted to be allowed to play with my own kind.

    When I did play with the ‘boys’ it resulted in continuous bullying and ridicule. ‘Why do you cross your legs when you sit’ and ‘you run like a girl’ and ‘you throw the ball like a girl. When I would try out to be picked for the football team, The two jocks who did the picking would pick their teams and at the end there I would be standing humiliated while the were fighting over which one would have to have me on their team. There are hundreds more things like this and some are much worse, things like physical violence through to no one coming anywhere near me or talking to me.

    In secondary school the boys sat in the right tow rows of desks and the girls sat on the left. I would always get a seat as close as I could to the girls side. I remember when I was about ten years old our teacher said ‘Boys get on with your work, I’m just talking to the girl now’. I sat up and listened intently. ‘She said now girls never chase after a boy and a bus, there will be another along in a minute.’ As far as I was concerned, she was imparting information that girls like me could use in the future.

    As I got older and started to go to LGBT clubs where we were accepted life got slightly better but it was still incredibly dangerous. I would actually run from my car to the club so as not the be harassed and the police were often waiting outside at the end of the night and would search us and sometimes beat us up. And there are hundreds more incidents like this. I never say myself as gay, just female but these were the only somewhat safe places available.

    If there is a conspiracy, there are a few transgender people who have banded together for one sole purpose and that is to make life better for the young transgender people who come along after us. There are transgender from every part of the political spectrum and from every country and culture in the world. It just happens that the left seem to have more sympathy for allowing us to exist, so some transgender people see them as our best hope

    I agree that transwomen shouldn’t be competing with ‘cis’ women in sport. Its just about fairness and people with bigger bones shouldn’t be competing with people with smaller ones, which brings me to Craig saying that people under sixteen shouldn’t transition. I agree that they shouldn’t transition but they should be allowed puberty blockers until they are older and can decide. I wish with all my heart that I hadn’t had to go through ‘male’ puberty. I knew what I was when I was five and it has been born out to be true by how I have lived for all these years since.

    There is one thing that I know for sure and that is that if I hadn’t been able to find a way to live as I feel I am then I would have committed suicide. I went to a conference once and was late getting there. The hall was full of transgender people wanting to hear the latest medical information on our treatment. I was put on a table where the speakers and perhaps the top psychotherapist in the country was sitting. He asked me during the break about my situation and I told him and he said ‘you know what the treatment allowing the best outcome for being transgender is?’ and I said ‘no what?’ and he said ‘Get on with it.’ Meaning for the vast majority of transgender people transitioning leads to a happier life, as it has for me.

    Fast forward to today. I live with my lovely boyfriend of seven years. He is a macho straight outdoor worker and I love him very much. We live the suburban life and I am accepted in our town and have lots of friends and am in several local everyday community groups and clubs. After four years of being together my lovely boyfriend said to me one day. ‘I have finally worked you out. All you want out of life is to just be a normal everyday woman’. He was right. It’s not much to ask and it doesn’t harm anyone else.

    Thank you.

    • Hobo

      >Its just a simple fact that some called ‘males’ are born knowing, thinking, feeling that they are ‘women’ and vice versa.

      It’s a fact that babies can think like that? I do’nt think so.

      >from five ears old I know I was a ‘girl’

      If you’re using ‘male’ to mean considered an xy type of person at birth, or whatever, what do you mean by you were a ‘girl’ at five?

      • A transgender woman

        Thank you for your question.

        I desperately wanted to play with the girls at recess times. I used to get into so much trouble for being in the girls playground when I was five and six. I wanted to do skipping and hopscotch. I even got some girls swap cards from an older girl I knew so I could swap them with the other girls. At seven I tried on a girl’s dress with a girl who lived nearby. I was in heaven doing that. There are lots and lots more things like that. I just did not want to play with the boys. I wasnt like them. I knew that I was a girl on the inside and just didn’t know why I wasn’t one on he outside. You might find that hard to understand but no transgender person does.

        And the boys knew I wasn’t one of them too. They picked on me continuously for all the things I mentioned in my post above and treated me really badly as a result of me being what they called a ‘sissy’. I wasnt a sissy, I was a transgender girl, but that term hadnt been created then for people like me.

        But the important thing is that I never changed from that, I never grew out of it. I transitioned and went on to live my life as a happy ordinary heterosexual woman with a loving straight macho male partner.

        • Hobo

          Thank you for talking about your experience.

          A contrast strikes me of your difficult experience with the boy hierarchy compared to the loving adult relationship with a ‘macho’ person.

          I didn’t have problems as a boy but I didn’t develop some confidences through adolescence, so it is interesting.

      • A transgender woman

        Hi again Hobo, The reason I my guy as ‘macho’ Hobo is that besides him actually being a macho male, a lot of people think that for a guy to be with a trans woman, then he must be gay. There is not the slightest thing gay about my man and he says as far as he is concerned I am a woman just like every other woman he has ever known. Before me he had only even been in relationships with genetic women. He never mentions my past and treats me wonderfully. We love each other and live happily together just like many other hetero couples do.

          • Hobo

            I did miss that reason btw, I thought straight meant straight, whether macho or effeminate in what seems to be the terminology.

          • Hobo

            Btw what does the amount of ‘gay’ mean in general, that you refer to? In the context of how macho a guy is identified as straight.

          • A transgender woman

            This study is interesting too Hobo. It was just published in the last 24 hours.

            “Transgender children sense true gender at young age, study finds.”

            “Transgender children may start to identify with toys and clothes typical of their gender identity from a very young age, a recent study suggests.

            And their confidence in their gender identity is generally as strong as that of cisgender children, whose identity matches their sex assigned at birth, researchers found.”


        • Hobo

          There’s no reply button your last comment so I’m just adding here, this seems to be the study, published last month

          Just to note the full text discloses it was part-funded by

          It doesn’t claim to actually causally address nature-nurture, it’s cross-sectional correlational research. The press article you linked to quotes a Dr Chipkin who implies it does, he seems to be an endocrinologist providing transition services in the US.

          Looks like the study found about 300 kids in basically ‘liberal’ (US context) groups/online for whom a different pronoun was being used for the kids, that’s how they categorized them as trans (they note some kids didn’t name their gender in line with that). It’s quite complex statistically but it doesn’t causally address the direction of influence (kids, parents, their surrounding culture) in gender ID and social transitioning?

          • Hobo

            (I mean they got some early from birth photos for some kids and rated the clothing etc given to them, on how stereotypically male to female (1 to 5 points) and found an overall mean average of 1 point difference in line with stereotypes, I didn’t notice them giving the distribution when I scanned through).

          • A transgender woman

            It is a very difficult thing to conduct a study on Hobo.

            Once again from my own perspective, if an adult had asked me who I thought I was at the time, I would have answered that I was a boy, why because I had learned that it caused me to get into so much trouble if I told the truth and said I was a girl. So the results can be skewed either way depending on the trans person being interviewed experiences , who’s asking the question and how confidential the situation is.

            An example was that I asked my parents for a a toy kitchen set with a little stove and a sink and pots and pans for Christmas. I would have been eight years old. I got them to stop at the toy shop one night so that I could show it to them, in the shop window.

            Also in the window was a army radar screen toy which they tried to get me interested in instead. Guess which one was under the Christmas tree, yes the Army radar screen. I cried so hard because I wanted the kitchen set so much. They were extremely disappointed in me. As far as they were concerned a boy, wanting the kitchen set, was wrong. It was an awful Christmas. Remember this was many years ago.

            People say that’s stereotypical female but that’s how I felt. When you are denied being who you know you are, the stereotypical things become important symbols.

            There was no chance that an adult would have got the truth from me then, on this subject.

  • aspnaz

    Laws should only be changed if they benefit society as a whole. For example, the divorce laws benefit society as a whole, regardless of whether you as an indivdual benefit from those laws – the majority of beneficiaries being divorcee women. Sex is one of the fundementals of society, and having children is one of the fundementals for the future of society. Messing with these concepts – which have been around for millions of years – is a huge risk to society.
    Can it be demonstrated that sex changes for children benefit society as a whole? Can it be demonstrated that sex changes for anybody benefits society as a whole? If not, then why are we changing such fundemetal laws simply to accommodate a medical condition?

  • Ben

    For me this all boils down to sex and gender not being the same thing. And that’s something that transactivists themselves are constantly saying, but few seem to actually understand what it means.

    Biological sex exists. It just does. Sexual dimorphism in humans is simply a physical reality. And it carries with it a number of distinctive features, like women having less lung capacity and less, and less dense, muscle tissue. Transactivists will scoff and belittle this kind of talk as ‘biological reductionism’, but sorry, the biology exists. It in fact does come down to chromosomes. The existence of some number of individuals who deviate from this bifurcation of humanity due to things like chromosomal dysfunctions doesn’t change that, anymore than someone being born with nine fingers changes the fact that the majority of humans have ten of them.

    Gender on the other hand is largely a social construct. It’s how a society collectively treats sex, how it decides it matters, or if it matters at all. When someone says girls ‘have’ to wear skirts and stay at home with the kids, or boys are expected to get into fights, or stereotypes about how females are kind and nurturing, while men are aggressive and driven, these are all cultural assumptions that can and do change.

    To me this distinction is very bog standard, Second Wave feminism stuff. ‘Girls aren’t born; they’re made’.

    I have zero issue with calling people by whatever pronoun they want, and I have zero issue with people wearing whatever they want (women’s clothing is certainly far more varied and interesting). Where I draw the line is when gender expression starts running up against the biological needs and restrictions of people. You can identify as a woman all you want, but I’m not going to support you being allowed to compete against biological females in women-only sports because you will inevitably steamroll them (there are already numerous cases of this happening), and that isn’t to my mind fair or just.

    Similarly, with bathrooms, I’m not okay with taking away what should be sexually segregated safe spaces. Especially telling teenage girls they have to share with males who identify as women is something I’m not okay with (and not because I think sexual assault will happen, which is mostly a conservative boogeyman, but because, again, the bathrooms should be a safe space). By all means, build more unisex bathrooms that anyone can use, but don’t take away the existing male and female ones. It drives me crazy that the same people who are often pushing for intellectual safe spaces where someone can go to never have their views challenged are also pushing for the abolition of literal physical safe spaces.

    I also have a great fear that all of this is going to blowback on the left in a very bad way. With very few exceptions (Adolph Reed), the T part of LGBT seems to have just been blindly accepted by progressives. ‘All of this is perfectly fine, and if you dissent you must be some kind of idiot bigot. You couldn’t possibly have nuanced, reasoned views for disagreeing!’

    Internet searches for subjects like biological males dominating women’s sports almost invariably bring me to right-wing sites. They seem to be the only avenues of pushback. I view this as a massive dereliction of duty on the part of the left, and one that will probably bite us in the ass sooner or later.

    If it hasn’t already. In the US (I don’t know about the UK) people who identify as trans are something like 0.6% of the population. Even if the actual number is double this, plus a point or three for allies for whom trans rights are a decisive issue, that still gets you to less than 5% of the population. I don’t at all mean to say that something that effects a small minority doesn’t matter, but it certainly doesn’t warrant the sheer amount of attention and effort it gets. Certainly not when the rest of society is literally disintegrating. In my experience the majority of people don’t hate or fear transpeople. At worst they think they’re weirdos, but more often they don’t think about them at all. Making bathrooms and pronouns central platform pillars at best seems massively out of touch with the needs of voters.

    And then there’s the issue of supposed trans children. This is where my patience and tolerance completely runs out. Pumping children full of puberty delaying drugs, or transition hormones, or even worse, giving them surgery, is pure madness, driven by ideology. If a guardian is allowing any of these things to happen to their charge, that person needs to have the kids taken from them. In fifteen or twenty years I expect we’re going to see significant numbers of former ‘trans’ children who realize that they were, however earnestly, lied to and manipulated. And that is going to become a stick for the right to beat the left with. And on this issue the right will be thoroughly justified. There’s going to be so much psychological wreckage from all the literally mutilated people walking around.

    • Hobo

      >stereotypes about how females are kind and nurturing, while men are aggressive and driven, these are all cultural assumptions that can and do change. To me this distinction is very bog standard, Second Wave feminism stuff.

      It may be but what about scientific standards? Whatever the variation that’s undoubtedly possible, It doesn’t seem to be as simple as different sexes as standard having no different psychological (neurological beyond just bodily regulation) dispositions on averages.

      But the claim that that includes or adds up to an intuitive sense of being male or female, which can sometimes be mismatched to the body due to whatever natural genetic variation, I dunno.

  • Bob Leslie

    I couldn’t agree more. I’m seeing people I had some respect for, like Denise Findlay, on Twitter starting a pile-on because they haven’t read beyond the first paragraph. So many nowadays just skim a text till they see a trigger word they don’t like, then the writer is labelled “an antisemite” “a transphobe” or, worst of all, “a yoon”!
    What the Hell happened to intellectual discourse?
    I do have one problem with the piece in that is doesn’t look at the elephant in the room: WHY the SNP refuse to even discuss the minor, but important, reservations you, and many others, have about the detail of the GRA. If there had been any honesty in their approach, these could have been sorted out in 5 minutes. Instead, the shutters came down and the seeds of the unsightly flame war that now pollutes online discussion was born.
    This is the first reasonable statement about the GRA I’ve read in ages. I’m sick to death of the “toilet” issue (a five-year-old could suggest soluitions to that), and surely it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility to insert a few safeguards to ensure fair play in competitive sports and women’s safety in situations of vulnerability? Instead it’s Bluster’s Last Stand on all sides.

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