"Unsex me here..."
The aims of this essay
"I am sick to death of this particular self. I want another." - Orlando (Virginia Woolf, 1928)
"Thanks to Barbie, all problems of feminism have been solved." - Barbie (Gerwig and Baumbach, 2023)
Our sense of self and our pathway through life from birth are influenced, amongst many other things, by our sex. To suffer negative feelings because of the expectations, constraints and biochemistry of our sex is a centuries-old phenomenon that many people have to cope with, mostly in private. Suffering can be caused by how we see and feel about ourselves, or through being treated prejudicially or abusively by others.
equality and non-discrimination laws, and organisational policies on diversity and inclusion
diverse cultural representations of masculinity and femininity, both disrupting and reinforcing traditional stereotypes
a proliferation in the terminology used to express gender identity and sexual orientation in non-binary ways
clinical assessment of gender diversity, along with medical, surgical, psychological and cosmetic treatments
These have each introduced new opportunities. They have also introduced new questions, complexities, prejudicial attitudes and harmful behaviours. Everyone with responsibilities for children will be aware of at least some of the risks arising from these developments.
Sometimes fluid and quirky shifts in the usage of key words can have profound and unintended consequences. Gender is one of those key words. Without the precision and consistency we need from language, this leaves us feeling confused and insecure. As a one-time English teacher, I feel an obligation to try to make sense of why it has become so tricky (and sometimes dangerous) for people of all ages to talk about gender identity.
It is often considered to be a marginal issue, one that can be conveniently avoided because it is too complicated and only affects a small minority of people. But it is a multi-dimensional topic that punches well above its perceived weight. It is not restricted to questions of gender diversity rights. Directly or indirectly it affects more people than we realise. It raises important questions (and hopefully some answers) about human relations, behavioural boundaries, the integrity of research, freedom of expression, and fairness in society.
So, as a modest linguistic contribution to the anticipated government guidance for schools on gender and identity, I'd like to reflect upon the role played by teachers in this unfolding area of social evolution. Some of my comments and observations are tentative rather than authoritative. I have strived to present a balanced, conciliatory and non-judgemental picture. My sincere hope is that what I have written may be useful:
to promote generative dialogue (explained below), and
What problems are people trying to solve?
Sometimes people respond to what I write by saying that I haven't provided any solutions. This is a fair criticism. Rather than prescribing solutions, my approach is to challenge the way problems are presented in the hope that, with deeper understanding and dialogue, the 'problems' will diminish and seem less relevant or less contentious. The way forward may then seem clearer. This tends to happen at a local and contextual level, not through theorising and centrally prescribing one-size-fits-all solutions. In deeply entrenched arguments, being too confident or dogmatic about the solutions can just make each side become more resistant.
Broadly speaking there are two problems: the first relates to uncertainty and misunderstanding; the second is rooted in disagreement.
Problem 1 - uncertainty and misunderstanding
Compared with when I was teaching 10 years ago, there is now much greater awareness, though not necessarily a greater understanding, of gender diversity and gender non-conformity. These are broad terms used to describe the experience or expression of a gender identity that does not conform with a 'binary norm'.
The first problem to deal with is that our perceptions and understanding of gender diversity can be quite narrow and shallow. This may be caused by stereotypical media representations of gender diverse people, or by the very misleading and unhelpful presumption that non-conformity leads directly to medical intervention and surgical transition.
Sometimes referred to as 'pathologisation', gender diversity can be medically or psychologically categorised as being abnormal and, implicitly or explicitly, indicative of some kind of malfunctioning. Gender dysphoria, also referred to as gender incongruence, are the pathological terms currently used to describe the strong negative feeling of a mismatch between a person's sex (as registered at birth) and their gender identity.
Pathologising gender diversity creates a presumption that a medical remedy is required, but many gender diverse people do not have a diagnosis. This could be because they do not feel they need a diagnosis, or because the diagnostic process is inaccessible or unreliable. As a transgender colleague expressed to me recently, 'dysphoria isn't shorthand for the existence of trans people.' In any event, the openness, understanding, tolerance and compassion of other people can sometimes be the more powerful 'remedy'.
Research is often inconclusive and there have been some serious shortcomings in clinical standards in the treatment of young sufferers. This is summarised in the section below: What happened at 'the Tavistock'.
Problem 2 - disagreement
The second problem people are wrestling with is rooted in scientific, political and ideological tensions, especially in reconciling emerging gender identity theory with gender-critical beliefs. These are addressed in Appendix 1 - The definition of 'woman', and Appendix 2 - The end of the TERF war.
Disagreements centre on the scientific basis of sex and gender, the relationship between these words, and the extent to which (for individual human beings) they are fixed for life or changeable. Words and and their meanings really matter here, they have consequences for people's lives. But words do not always have secure and mutually agreed meanings. They shift over time, as described below in the section: Some essential etymology.
Gender diversity disrupts the prevailing binary presumptions of sex and gender. One large aspect of the problem might be sumarised as follows: (i) in the ages-old ‘battle of the sexes’, women’s rights have strengthened over the past century to a point where some might say, in some contexts, that equality has been achieved; (ii) sadly, there appears to have been no corresponding decline in misogyny and violence towards women; (iii) as a result there is resistance to legal and cultural changes in language which have real consequences for those hard-fought rights and protections; (iv) such resistance is a perceived obstacle to the acceptance of trans people, and trans women in particular, thereby creating a perceived conflict. I repeat the word 'perceived' because I feel that the reconcilable disagreements in this area have become entrenched conflicts through unhelpful media representation.
Government guidance and media reporting
Unsurprisingly, the Department for Education is wrestling with both the curriculum and the welfare aspects (for pupils and staff) of gender diversity. New guidance is expected by the end of 2023. Meanwhile teachers and education leaders are continuing to use their discretion in responding to instances of gender diversity and monitoring attitudes in their schools and communities.
Gender diversity is highly vulnerable to being reported in ways that support particular political or ideological positions. This then increases the risk of public scepticism and 'moral panic', especially regarding the impact on children. Consequently the topic gets narrowed, simplified and reported in provocative and polarising ways that can be commercially valuable for media exploitation. I understand and share at least some of the anxiety, but some opinions and media coverage of recent years remind me of the homophobia the UK witnessed back the 1980s. Back then, the consequence was 'section 28', a statute which was in effect for 15 years until it was removed in 2003, and for which Prime Minister David Cameron formally apologised in 2009. I do not raise the ghost of section 28 lightly. Nor do I believe we are in real danger of heading back to such times (at least not in the UK). But the parallels with the stigmatisation of homosexuality are worth bearing in mind as we move forward.
Stigmatisation has consequences that compound suffering. Amongst other things it leads to gender diverse people being much more likely to suffer abuse, homelessness, unemployment and imprisonment. For all these reasons it helps to frame discussions of gender identity in the context of cultural and political developments as well as medical developments, and to examine the language we use for those discussions.
But first let's start with some numbers to get an idea of the scale of what we are talking about.
The 2021 Census (England and Wales)
The national census is held every 10 years. In the 2021 census, all people over 16 years-old were asked: 'Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?' Although it is compulsory to respond to the census, and most questions are mandatory, this particular question was voluntary.
262,000 respondents (0.5% of all respondents) answered No.
2.9 million people (6% of all respondents) did not answer the optional question.
Obviously we cannot infer anything from this non-response, but it does at least capture the size of the 'known unknown'. Personally, I don't believe we should read too much into it. Consider, hypothetically, how many more people might have answered 'yes' to a question such as:
'do you feel discomfort with the ways in which your sex (as registered at birth) defines you, or constrains your behaviour, your life chances and choices, or your relationships?'
That is clearly a different question, but the point I'm making is that the actual census phrase 'the gender you identify with' may well be too vague, broad in scope, intrusive, irksome, or even meaningless for many people. Any simple yes/no question is unlikely to contribute much to our understanding here. Many (perhaps most) of us resist binary imprints on our individuality in one way or another.
Putting aside the question of how inconsistently understood the concept is, social policy, the law, the healthcare profession and schools are all struggling to adapt to this growing phenomenon of people wanting to identify as a different gender from their sex as recorded at birth. A Civitas survey (May 2023) was widely reported as suggesting that a majority of those aged between 16 and 18 supported lowering the age of a gender-recognition certificate from 18 to 16. In that age group, 10% of people want to change gender, or have already done so.
That survey result of 10% is considerably larger than the 1.2% of 14-18 year-olds estimated as being gender diverse in the NHS Interim Service Specification (ISS) published in June 2023. The difference is an indicator of the proportion of young people who may be anxious, confused and wrestling with their adolescent feelings, and for whom gender diversity presents possibilities for exploration and remedy. Drawing superficial or hasty conclusions is reckless. The NHS England consultation that produced the ISS was a response to an area that is 'not well understood' and has 'a lack of clinical consensus, and polarised opinion on what the best model of care for children should be'.
In adults, some data suggests that there are more men wanting to be recognised as women than vice-versa. Amongst pre-pubescent children the same imbalance has been observed historically. But over the past decade, in adolescence, there has been a notable change in direction: i.e. more girls want to be boys, or at least they don't want to be girls. More research is required to properly understand the contributory factors to the maturity dimensions of dysphoria. Adolescent distress in dealing with puberty and sexuality is a familiar issue for many people, but other factors may include sexual, emotional and physical abuse, neglect, trauma, misogyny, internalised homophobia, homophobic bullying, and anxiety disorders such as body dysmorphia. It is important to remember that a lack of rigour or care, especially in the premature usage of diagnostic labels, can compound the anxiety and stigma suffered by those experiencing gender dysphoria.
Gender transition and reassignment are imprecise terms to describe a wide range of processes that can take place over months or years. Misunderstandings arise irrespective of whether or not people want medical or surgical interventions. The data is difficult to get hold of, but there are indications that it is only a minority of those seeking alternative gender recognition who are actively pursuing medical interventions. This important factor is often overlooked in media coverage which sometimes conflates the two goals. And in the growing surgical marketplace, the blurred line between gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia introduces even more opportunity for misunderstanding.
The wide scope and implications of gender diversity, combined with such a shortage of reliable data and research, make it a very difficult topic to talk about in an informed way. I would therefore recommend to anyone engaging in discussion about it that they are crystal clear about the particular issue(s) they are trying to address, and that they choose their words very carefully.
This brings me to the second problem: the lack of consistency and precision in the language we use to talk about it.
'Unsex me here..' Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 5
Let me begin my linguistic contribution on a cheery note with Shakespeare and Chaucer. When teaching these revered and beloved writers for A-level in 2013 to 2015, I found that they provided a 'safe space' for gender discussion, made safe perhaps precisely because of their chronological remoteness, over 400 and 600 years ago respectively. As I explain in the next section, the word gender did not have its current meaning back in those days. If it had, Shakespeare could have written 'Ungender me here..' and Lady Macbeth's most famous line, unleashing the violence in her nature and urging her husband to 'man-up' (in 21st century parlance), might have lost much of its impact.
Whilst Shakespeare has many playful and provocative examples of gender exploration (most memorably in Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and The Taming of the Shrew), my favourite literary character is the wonderful proto-feminist Alison, The Wife of Bath in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Alison's prologue and tale are full of humour, ironic contradictions, and metaphor-laden insights into the messiness of relationships between the sexes. Compared with the more troubling environment described below, they generated (for me, and I hope for my students) a counterbalancing reassurance that the negotiated aspects of human relations, such as resistance to oppressive gender-stereotypes, really are timeless. This perspective may provide some comfort to those who worry that gender dysphoria is some kind of 21st century pandemic.
Turning to the A-level language syllabus, the modules 'language and power' and 'language and gender' made me realise just how complex our society has become for youngsters. It gave me a premonition of cultural and political troubles brewing in the years ahead.
The official A-level texts I was using in 2013 tried to make a reasonably clear distinction between:
sex - a precise, verifiable and non-contentious biological classification (male and female),
gender - a culturally negotiable social construct, i.e. based on variable 'masculine' and 'feminine' roles, and on behaviours and expectations that result from evolving processes of socialisation.
The desire to move away from the traditional binary division and fixed expectations of gender is logical. From early childhood onwards, such expectations shape and often restrict individual freedom, opportunity and the development of personality. Consciously or unconsciously, young lives continue to be divided and guided along traditional gender lines by colours, clothes, hairstyles, access to books and stories, toys and games, hobbies, sports, role models, career expectations...etc. Of course these things are not necessarily problematic, but they do influence the gender experiences of children in powerful ways.
It is worth pointing out that the blue-pink distinction is mostly a result of 20th century marketing initiatives, which in their first 20 years (prior to 1940) were the reverse of the current dominance of pink for girls and blue for boys. This kind of variability is a good illustration of why we should be very careful not to read too much into a child's resistance to the simplistic gender stereotyping perpetuated by some aspects of our culture.
The expectations and constraints imposed by society upon girls and women were famously and powerfully expressed by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949):
'One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.'
Since that time, much progress has been made by the feminist movement to tackle misogyny, to diminish the gender inequity of language and to embed equality into law and social policy. My classes had some lively but constructive debates about it still being a man's world, but students did not seem interested in challenging the prevailing definitions of sex and gender. Gender dysphoria was not widely talked about, and masculinity had not yet been identified by mainstream media as being either 'toxic' or 'in crisis'.
In more recent years the complexity of gender as a topic has become more demanding: scientifically, legally and politically. Simone de Beauvoir's much cited line above has been interpreted in different ways to support different positions. Gender identity can also get entangled with sexual orientation, and with the rights and protections championed by feminists and by LGBTQ+ charities. The scope, priorities and terminology of those representing various interests are not always aligned. In all the confusion, opinions become polarised around simplifying and competing narratives.
In response to these developments, important practical questions arise, such as:
What should we teach our children, and when?
How should we define gender-based violence and adapt policies for those who need to be protected?
Political leaders struggle to express a clear and firm opinion on such questions, including on how much biological sex still matters. They worry that their views may be regarded by some in their parties as heresy, or that it may upset younger voters. Those who do put their heads above the parapet take a big risk.
Heated arguments tend to get stuck on difficult and provocative questions masquerading as simple ones, such as "is a trans woman really a woman?" Discussions with this starting point tend not to end well. So, further below, I identify six questions (highlighted in green) that can help structure a more balanced and reasoned debate. I do not present conclusive answers to these questions because such answers must be the outcome of robust institutional processes. My intent is simply to focus on relevant practical questions so as to reduce the risk of discussions being avoidably derailed by common misunderstandings. Sam Killermann's controversial Genderbread Person (pictured in the image carousel below) is a good example of how attempts to simplify language and concepts for use in schools can end-up provoking even more arguments.
So before I get to my six questions, let me try to disentangle the linguistic aspects of the knotty sex-gender problem so that they don't become a trip hazard.
Some essential etymology
For practical reasons, legal rights have typically attached to the relatively fixed concepts of biologically-defined sex, rather than the more fluid nature of socially-constructed gender. But over the course of my lifetime, the definitional boundaries of sex and gender have become blurred. Both sex and gender have expanded their range of meanings:
Sex. In its previously uncontested and much older biological definition, the word sex is used to identify organisms on the basis of their reproductive functions. A simple binary distinction of male and female has prevailed historically, exemplified by the phrase 'the opposite sex'. There are some rare and complicated biological exceptions to this binary construct for humans. Referred to as Disorders of Sex Development or Differentiation (DSDs), the definitions and numbers of people affected by these exceptions are sometimes disputed. I am not the right person to comment on that argument, but I feel safe in saying that the percentage is very small.
It is worth noting that the use of the phrase 'biological sex' is sometimes challenged, and that 'natal sex' or 'sex assigned at birth' are alternatives when seeking to challenge the presumption and authority of a binary sex distinction.
The botanical world is occasionally used to dispel any claim that independent binary sexual structures dominate throughout the natural world. According to Britannica.com, "most plants are monoecious, meaning that individuals have both female and male structures". Going further, the Queer Nature exhibition at London's world-famous Kew Gardens in October 2023 poses the question: "are we projecting onto plants the same normative ideas of gender and sexuality to which humans have been subject?" The exhibition "displays plants that challenge these binary ideas."
Moving away from biology and botany, in the second half of the 20th century, sex took on an additional popular meaning. It became more openly used as a synonym for sexual intercourse, i.e. having sex. This usage is commonly attributed to D.H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, first published privately in 1928 (in Italy), though not openly published in the UK until 1960.
Whilst these two usages of sex rarely confuse people, they are often exploited for comic effect. Perhaps a certain amount of prudishness, exemplified by the ironically titled 1973 play No Sex Please, We're British, has contributed to the definitional expansion of gender in order to avoid the sniggers and embarrassment triggered by the word sex.
Whatever the cause, many people now use gender as a synonym for the biological distinction of sex.
Gender. The origin of the word gender is the Latin genus i.e. a word supporting the classification of things, e.g. genre, generic. The history of its association with concepts of masculinity and femininity is more complicated, but in simple terms it is rooted in 'grammatical gender'. I have yet to find a satisfactory explanation for how it came to be that up to half the world's languages classify nouns as masculine or feminine in mostly arbitrary ways. In French, why are bananas and tomatoes feminine, but cucumbers and grapefruits masculine?
Grammatical gender places a significant burden on speakers and writers to ensure that adjectives, pronouns and other grammatical elements reflect the gender of their related nouns. Old English (the language we spoke before the Norman conquest of 1066) contained elements of grammatical gender, but we largely abandoned the gender distinction in the 14th century. This occurred just as the formal 'foreign' languages of power and oppression (French in our royal courts, and Latin in our churches) were replaced by the more organic vernacular of Middle English, i.e the language of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
Outside of this grammatical context, the use of the word gender was uncommon until the mid 20th century. Then, looking for meaningful ways to describe societal expectations and the stark imbalance of power between the sexes, 'second-wave' feminism embraced a socially-constructed view of gender as a rather useful collective term. It helped us to recognise that the many differences between men and women are not all biological. In doing so it refuted biological determinism: the idea that a woman's (or man's) personality, behaviour and life options are determined by biology. Traditional gender roles were challenged. Now decoupled from biology, gender identity became talked about as a private experience based on a psychologically internalised gender role. This understanding of gender quickly became accepted and embedded in reference texts such as the ones I was using to teach A-level in 2013.
Since then, common usage has shifted again. In its third and fourth waves, feminism has developed broader categories and versions of disempowerment and abuse. Embracing the diverse experiences of race, class and sexuality, it introduces more variables and challenges colonial bias. It promotes individualism and resists conformity. For some, gender identity has a performance dimension based more broadly on inner feelings.
Understanding the sources of dysphoria is easier than finding its remedies, so gender identity can now be talked about as being fluid rather than permanently fixed. A spectrum of gender possibilities to be explored can be more attractive than a binary choice. As early as 2014 there were 58 gender options on Facebook (according to ABC News).
To help reduce negative prejudice triggered by new terms for expressing gender identity, the term cisgender was coined in 1994 according to Wikipedia. Often shortened to 'cis' the term entered dictionaries in 2015. It is used to describe a person whose gender identity corresponds to their sex assigned at birth.
Whilst the liberal narrative of gender expression has gained considerable momentum, the legal and scientific presumptions of fluid gender identity theory remain contested (see Appendix 2). Unsurprisingly, given the curiosity and vulnerability of children, its emergence in school curricula and policies attract considerable controversy.
The influence of Romanticism
It is worth pausing to reflect (very briefly) on the evolutionary roots of the liberal narrative. Historically-speaking, there was an intellectual and artistic step-change in the value ascribed to feelings and individual freedom of expression over 200 years ago. It is generally attributed to the writers, artists and composers of the European Romantic movement. In Britain, the movement is most commonly associated with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Blake and Turner. Amongst other things, Romanticism celebrated sublime feelings as authentic sources of aesthetic value. It redefined the human relationship with the natural world and asserted the primacy of the individual experience (generally the masculine experience) over the conventions of aesthetic norms and institutionalised authority. Some argue that Romanticism originated in the liberating principles of the French Revolution. Others see it more as a response to the dehumanising effects of the Industrial Revolution, or to the rather cold and dispassionate scientific rigour of the Age of Reason. Whatever its source, thanks to the Romantics feelings were no longer, or at least not always, mere feelings.
Romanticism had a profound and complex impact, not just in art, music and literature, but in the political thinking of the 19th and 20th centuries. This included the enshrining of human rights and the growth of liberalism. In the 21st century the term hyper-individualism has emerged. It describes the observation that people in a liberal society tend to understand themselves more as disparate entities with self-defining preferences, rather than primarily as members of collectives or groups (where individual preferences tend to be subordinated to the common good). Following this train of thought, it should be no surprise that the empowering and culturally-embedded mantra 'you can be whoever you want to be' includes a gender identity that is unconstrained by biology or anatomy.
All of this leads us to the present-day linguistic dilemma. Sometimes used synonymously with biologically-defined sex, sometimes to describe collective social behaviours and expectations, and sometimes to express individual feelings of identity and personal choices, it is no surprise that the word 'gender' is so frequently the cause of serious misunderstandings between people. This is especially so when assertions of gender-recognition rights come into conflict with competing rights and protections.
Thank-you for reading this far. Attention spans are getting shorter as we get distracted and overwhelmed by all the claims on our time and attention. We struggle to read long-form text, to write and to speak with care, and to listen, process and reflect upon complex issues. This makes all of us more vulnerable to impatience, prejudice and bigotry.
To help reduce this risk, I encourage 'generative dialogue'. It is a loose reference to the model developed at MIT back in the 1990s. It recognises that difficult topics tend to evolve and resolve themselves through four stages, e.g. moving beyond politeness, through breakdown, to inquiry and hopefully to flow. The breakdown stage is the most difficult to manage successfully. In order to move forward, people sometimes need to be able to say out loud what's really on their mind, even if it is not fully developed or considered. This is part of the sensemaking process. The main obstacle in this breakdown phase is fear. In this context, fear seems to have three components:
Fear that speaking out or saying the wrong thing might cause offence or provoke an argument.
Fear that one's voice is being suppressed. Put another way: fear that an imbalance of power-relations between people in a particular setting, or in society at large, is standing in the way of rational and equitable outcomes.
Fear of the uncertain consequences when a previously secure understanding of the world is brought into question.
The first fear tends to silence people. The second and third fears make people shout louder. This can interfere with our disposition to listen and to trust others. For generative dialogue to proceed, such fears need to be acknowledged and addressed. People need to be able to say things without fear of walking on eggshells, i.e. that their comments will be misconstrued, and without fear of being judged or threatened.
Hoping that it may contribute in some small way to generative dialogue, I present six questions below.
As anatomy and identity become less presumptively linked, there are some difficult practical questions which need to be addressed through law and social policy.
I am aware that asking questions, and in particular the way in which they are asked, can sometimes be a form of indirect bigotry, i.e. an underhanded way of defining and limiting what is 'legitimately' discussible. I understand this risk and I have thought about it long and hard. On balance, I feel that to avoid these questions would block progress towards wider understanding and tolerance. My aim is not to present definitive answers, only to persuade people that these are important questions that we should be able to raise and discuss without falling out with each other.
So let me try to frame them in the least prejudicial way I can:
Should all rights and entitlements automatically transition when gender is changed? Media coverage tends to focus on areas where exceptions need careful consideration. For example: equity in sports participation and assurances and controls regarding access to toilets and changing rooms, prisons, shelters and other protections, especially for women. Complications are widespread, involving reconciliation with competing rights and protections.
What evidence and process should there be for legally validating the legitimacy of intent, and for recognising the change itself ? Assurance controls and processes are necessary, not to constrain individual rights, but to prevent decisions that may be:
medically or psychologically ill-informed, premature or harmful, or
made or interpreted cynically (e.g. where male prisoners want to undergo gender-reassignment and transfer to female prisons).
What rights and safeguards should there be for children? There is nothing new in children wanting to question or resist the expectations and constraints of what it means to grow up as a girl or a boy. It is important to explore these timeless aspects of growing up, and to discuss them in safe, constructive and inclusive ways.
In recent years concerns have been expressed that these things are more difficult to explore and discuss, and in particular that:
a child's behaviour may be prematurely interpreted or influenced by non-binary and transgender discourses to the exclusion of other avenues of developmental assessment and diagnostic inquiry,
unquestioning 'gender affirmation' support may not always be the compassionate response, nor always in the best interests of a child,
treatments may be commenced too soon, and without sufficient care, support and research,
and finally, that expressing the concerns above may, in some environments, be judged as transphobic.
The 2022 Cass Review interim report to NHS England on gender identity services for children stated that the lack of consistent data collection means that 'it is not possible to accurately track the outcomes and pathways for children'. It went on: 'there is a lack of consensus and open discussion about the nature of gender dysphoria and therefore about the appropriate clinical response.' It acknowledged that, to date, 'service design has not been subjected to some of the normal quality controls that are typically applied when new or innovative treatments are introduced.'
In the absence of conclusive research and expert support, what guidance and resources should we provide for schools to address these uncertainties for children? How much should be prescribed in law, and how much left to the discretion of schools, i.e within the existing statutory guidance on safeguarding and on relationships, sex and health education? Whatever the answers to those questions, we must take care not to interpret all challenges or resistance to gender-stereotyping in schools as behaviour which is inherently problematic, nor as an indicator of gender dysphoria which necessarily requires intervention. Equally, we should not be afraid of raising and discussing concerns if we believe that gender diversity and non-conformity are being covered in age-inappropriate or politicised ways in the classroom.
To what extent (and through what processes) should teachers be obliged to respect declared changes in the gender-identity of their pupils? Where they exist, school policies are variable and there have been reports of teachers quitting or being dismissed for not respecting the gender-identities of their pupils.
To be clear, the rare cases of Disorders of Sex Development (DSDs) or clinical referrals to the NHS Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS, or its successor organisations) are not the issue here. These need to be managed by expert multidisciplinary healthcare professionals. Teachers must respect these processes and be sensitive to the needs of the affected pupils.
As for the non-clinically referred instances of gender diversity (e.g. self-identification), before we leap to judgement we must consider some practicalities. The law provides protection against discrimination for those who already have some transgender status, i.e. where they have at least started a reassignment process. This includes the phrase 'proposing to undergo' a process, but interpretation of this aspect of the law is variable. It seems unlikely (in the foreseeable future) that the law will change to accept non-clinical gender self-identification for children. This means that much of the gender-diverse behaviour encountered by teachers will not be clarified by legislation.
Without such legal clarification, a combination of clear school policies and teacher judgement and discretion are required to navigate this grey area. Policy clarification includes practical issues such as uniforms, toilets and changing rooms, and participation in sports and physical education. It also includes more nuanced areas about the schools' position on how to respond to children self-diagnosing as transgender or as gender non-conforming. The development of such policies is no small undertaking. Schools need to be very clear about what issues and risks they are trying to address, and these may vary across local contexts.
On the specific question of pronouns, teachers are already expected to remember the names of (often hundreds) of pupils. The mental energy required in remembering to apply the right gender pronouns to gender-fluid and gender-dysphoric children should not be underestimated. This is especially so in cases of gender non-binary identities. The use of the third-person plural pronoun (they/them/their) as a neutral singular pronoun has long been in usage in non-discriminatory contexts where a gender-distinction is either not known or not needed. But those who have experience of needing to use they/them/their in reference to individual human beings who identify as non-binary can recount just how difficult this is in practice. Lapses in concentration should not be interpreted as intolerant or disrespectful. Avoiding gender pronouns altogether is the most pragmatic strategy and this may be the long-term consequence for the English language.
What rights do parents have to be informed about their child's gender-preference, whether disclosed privately to a teacher, or expressed more publicly in school? It is not clear the extent to which the concepts of Gillick Competency and the Fraser Guidelines are relevant in the case of gender recognition for young people. They were developed in the 1980s to address the question of whether a GP can give contraception advice or treatment to under 16s without parental consent.
The obligation to inform and consult with parents might seem self-evident, not least because an alternative expression of gender is often quite visible and teachers may assume that parents already know something about it. Sharing observations and insights between teachers and parents will generally contribute to a more holistic understanding of a child and to the identification of appropriate responses.
If it is something which has not been disclosed at at home, care should be taken. News of a gender-dysphoric child can produce tensions even in the most loving and supportive families. Statutory guidance regarding something disclosed in confidence must therefore avoid creating conflict with safeguarding guidelines. It should take care to accommodate teacher discretion and contextual evaluation. It should also allow for a distinction between:
(a) cases involving DSDs, including sensitivity around the use of the word 'disorder',
(b) the tentative and exploratory steps of young people, disclosed in confidence and possibly indicative of wider questions of sexuality, mental health concerns, or of bullying or abuse,
(c) more confident, resolute and demonstrable public expressions of a changed identity.
Along with the two previous questions, these are important issues that require effective consultation between the government and the teaching profession. Sadly these issues are eclipsed by the many other crises in the education sector.
To what extent should the general public be (or feel) obliged to disclose their sex and/or gender (whether 'cis' or 'trans')? Examples of official processes include identification documents (passports and driving licences) and data collection such as a national census. On a less formal level, the question may arise in the context of organisational or other cultural expectations to disclose gender identity. Explicitly designating one's pronouns alongside an email signature (e.g. "he/him/his") has become quite common. It arguably promotes gender inclusivity and avoids misgendering people. Others argue that it may unintentionally have an opposite and provocative effect. For example, if people feel pressured into disclosing their own pronouns, or if they are harshly judged for forgetting to use the disclosed pronouns of others.
These really are quite demanding questions to get our heads around. We should not bury our heads in the sand and ignore them simply because they are too difficult to talk about. Non-rigorous and emotive use of language in this sensitive area of the evolution of our species have, to-date, fuelled toxic public discourse. Whilst this may be linguistically fascinating for the sociologists, it has also been culturally and politically alarming, and downright dangerous for some people. 'The Tavistock crisis' is illustrative of some of those dangers.
What happened at 'the Tavistock'?
In the past 10 years annual gender-reassignment referrals for children to the national Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS), part of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust ("the Tavistock"), increased from 250 to 5,000, according to NHS England in 2022.
This 'twenty-fold increase' has been widely reported in the press with different angles of interpretation. In isolation from other factors, including an understanding of the evolution of this very specialist healthcare service from a very small base since it opened in 1989, we must be careful about extrapolating and drawing simple conclusions from the more recent rapid increase in 'demand'.
Following a considerable amount of controversy and widely reported allegations over several years, it was announced in 2022 that, after 30 years and around 10,000 referrals, GIDS would close. At the time of writing it is still open, but closed to new referrals. The intention is that it will be restructured/replaced with regional-based services.
What happened at the Tavistock has been described as a scandal and is a massive blow to the distinguished reputation of the Tavistock name, which is known internationally for a century of pioneering work in psychology and the study of human relations.
The independent review of GIDS, led by Dr Hilary Cass, reported in 2023 that in the period of its rapid growth 'there were marked changes in the types of patients being referred which are not well understood'. This included a notable shift from predominantly younger birth-registered males to predominantly adolescent birth-registered females. There were 'a significant number of children also presenting with neurodiversity and other mental health needs,' and 'scarce and inconclusive international evidence to support clinical decision making'.
Stories from GIDS, such as those reported in Hannah Barnes' 2023 book Time to Think, provide distressing accounts of just how difficult it is to reconcile the empathic desire to relieve individual suffering with the expected (but not yet secure) standards of evidence-based professional clinical practice in this evolving field. The accounts include examples of harmful consequences when competing and sometimes coercive narratives interfered with the holistic assessment and safeguarding of children, and with rigorous clinical debate. It appears that those who tried to voice legitimate concerns were sometimes demonised as being transphobic and their voices suppressed. Concerns included shortcomings in:
research practices and retention of records
the psychological and welfare assessment of patients,
the exploration of alternative diagnoses and avenues of treatment
the process for prescribing the dominant model of puberty-blockers and cross-sex hormone therapy.
In addition to the areas of clinical contention, the very challenging organisational issues faced by GIDS are familiar to anyone who has experience of trying to manage organisations with very rapid growth in a new 'market'. Perhaps the biggest failure at the Tavistock is its governance, and in the mechanisms for escalating and acting upon concerns which were consistently raised by clinicians over many years.
In summarising at such a high level I cannot possibly do justice to all of the many elements which contributed to the crisis. I imagine that it will take some years more for the full significance of what happened at GIDS to unfold. In the meantime Hannah Barnes' Time to Think is essential reading and makes a valuable contribution to understanding the scope and diversity of gender dysphoria. Whilst upsetting on many levels, it is an antidote to the narrow, oversimplified and polarising media coverage. I would recommend that anyone who wants to get a better understanding of the many aspects of gender dysphoria should read about the research challenges, ethical dilemmas and competing interests with which GIDS clinicians and decision-makers had, and still have, to wrestle.
As for the "why" rather than the "what" of the events at the Tavistock, it is difficult to sum up. The words which stay in my mind are from one contributor who said that GIDS was as much a "justice project" as a healthcare project. This simple label goes some way to explaining why patients and trans-rights-promoting charities were given more autonomy/influence in clinical treatment decisions than one would normally expect. That is to say, a suffering and otherwise unempowered minority were being given the power to take risks that clinicians would not be in a position to properly assess for many years.
The Cass Review is a milestone in promoting public awareness of the risks in the treatment of gender-dysphoria. GIDS is an important example of why there must be robust governance to assure the independence of clinical process and scientific research. This is especially so in contexts where multi-faceted medical and psychological conditions are not well understood, and where remedies, rights, ethics and professional responsibilities are contested.
At the time of writing it seems that GIDS' restructured services may not re-open for new referrals until 2024.
The way forward
Returning to the topic of gender recognition in schools, the Department for Education is taking its time to publish clear guidance. In the meantime, teachers are on the frontline of the minefield. In addition to all the other mental health, welfare and behavioural issues they face with their pupils, they have to cope sensitively with gender non-conforming behaviour, gender dysphoria and with changes in the names and pronouns of their pupils. In some rare cases they are encouraged to avoid the terms 'girls' and 'boys'. We must support them in ensuring that child-centred contextual common sense is never overridden by politics and ideology.
In all of the confusion and anxiety, teachers have an exceptionally important role to play in moderating the pace and balance of the discourse. It is not just the domain of the ludicrously overloaded PSHE/RSE curriculum, which struggles to get even 30 minutes in the weekly timetable. Nor is it just about safeguarding and other school policies. It touches some of the educational fundamentals: communication, empathy, critical-thinking and social skills.
Other than offering my six questions above as a framework for generative dialogue about rights, exceptions, assurances and safeguards, I have no simple prescriptive recommendations for coping with these developments. Solutions are better managed locally in response to contextual circumstances, rather than being nationally prescribed. I would however urge everyone to be patient and calm, and not to shy away from talking about gender identity simply because it is too complex (see Appendix 3) or too sensitive. Above all, we must not leap to judgement against those who, on any side of the discussion, are struggling to find the appropriate language and the practical solutions. Imprecise language and risk-aversion should not be confused with bigotry or intolerance.
On a related theme, and one which may be a consequence of the softening of binary gender distinctions, young people seem less secure about the behavioural expectations and tolerances within relationships. They are having to navigate and negotiate their way through an identity and relationship landscape that seems more lawless and chaotic than my generation had to cope with. This is the space exploited by the simplistic and polarising aspects of social media. The worst examples are the treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen misogyny and misandry of some notorious social media influencers. Andrew Tate steals the headlines, but there are plenty of others spreading noxious values. In one recent anecdote I heard, boys were refusing to read books by women or to be taught by a female teacher.
These developments are disturbingly reminiscent of attitudes in the medieval world of The Wife of Bath, but without Chaucer's comic irony. So to wrap things up, Alison should have the final word:
We love no man that taketh kepe or charge.
Wher that we goon, we wol ben at oure large.
The Wife of Bath's Prologue (lines 321-322) from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (c.1400)
Appendix 1 - The definition of 'woman'
The assertion of inalienable rights relating to gender identity and expression have created a new type of identity-politics. One consequence is that the word 'woman', including its definition as adult human female, is reported in some media channels as being problematic and provocative for some promoters of transgender rights. There are several aspects to this, but the main point of linguistic contention seems to be whether, and if so under what circumstances, a trans woman can entirely lose the prefix 'trans'.
Driven by the desire not to exclude, and perhaps to sidestep the argument, there has been a trend in recent times, notably amongst charities and healthcare institutions, to avoid or to replace many words that have female associations. These include changes such as breast-feeding being replaced with chest-feeding. More provocatively, the media loves to pick up on instances where the word 'woman' is being avoided or removed, sometimes replaced with dehumanising phrases such as 'bodies with vaginas' (the Lancet), 'birthing people' (a British hospital) or menstruating people' (a member of the US Congress).
It is difficult to get a clear and objective view of the extent and impact of this linguistic development. Personally, I hope that those with editorial authority for these decisions are thinking very carefully about the potential unintended consequences. These include risks that their actions:
are exploited by the media and weaponised against those promoting transgender rights (as is happening with some aspects of the NHS Rainbow Badge Scheme)
create taboos around ancient and widely understood words such as 'woman' and 'mother',
undermine decades of progress in women's rights.
When promoting more inclusive attitudes and solutions, trying to push change too quickly or too hard can be an own-goal. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon may have learnt this lesson after vowing to take the UK government to court over its blocking of her Gender-recognition Reform Bill. It may not have been the primary reason she resigned in February 2023, but her failure to bring enough people along with her views and priorities is likely to have played a part.
Moving too quickly on these things also provides opportunities for cynical exploitation by the media and politicians: to present the issue as bigger than it really is; to deepen divisions in society; and to stir up tensions amongst liberal alliances fighting for justice (e.g. LGBTQ+, feminism and BLM).
In the long-run, none of us can know what is in store for the sex and gender choices available to the human species. Some think that the gender identity developments of recent years are a fad, and one that is receiving disproportionate media attention. Others see a shift away from a binary world more as a long-term evolutionary phenomenon, and one that we must learn to adapt to. What matters right now is that we should be able to discuss these complicated things as a civilised society, without resorting to hostility, aggression and uninformed accusations of prejudice.
It is difficult to capture the balance of public opinion. I believe that, in general in this country, many (perhaps most) people want to be liberal and inclusive. Live and let live. Such feelings are rooted in a variable blend of tolerance and compassion. But there is also growing fear: fear about the mental health of the young, for whom gender uncertainty is not a new concept but is now a more anxiety-inducing source of confusion; fear of the consequences of the re-framing, blurring or avoidance of the word 'woman'; and fear of speaking-up, which can attract more hostility and menace than it used to do.
In Appendix 2, I comment on this hostility and menace in the context of the so-called 'TERF wars'. In anticipation of that, it is worth drawing attention to the depth of feeling and opposition to these developments in words with female associations. When teaching English A-level (both language and literature) I spent quite some time with pupils exploring what women have had to endure over many centuries. Whether we call it inequality, oppression, misogyny or some other name, it has been aided and abetted by religion, politics, law and language with the result that it is culturally embedded. For many men (and some women) it can be hard to see as a major problem because it is so normalised. It may not be as bad now as it was in the past. Many countries are on a trajectory towards equality, and some may argue they have already achieved it. But we still live with the risk that the trajectory could reverse.
I say all this because history and language cannot be overlooked when trying to achieve generative dialogue and genuine inclusivity. I recognise that language changes over time, and I celebrate this fascinating and organic feature of the English language. As someone with no public profile and as just one voice amongst the 1.5 billion of the English speakers on the planet, nothing I say or write will change the direction of language. Nevertheless, I feel that it is an error of misdirected inclusivity to avoid, replace or redefine some of the most common and well-understood words which define females. I do not hold this as an absolutist or ideological position, but as a strategic opinion in relation to the promotion of the kind of generative dialogue which is key to moving forward. The commitment of birth-registered women to defend their hard-won rights is deep-rooted and should not be underestimated. Antagonising women by avoiding or replacing the words that define them seems to me to be a highly questionable strategy for those genuinely trying to promote inclusivity.
Appendix 2 - The end of the TERF war
The acronym TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) emerged in the first decade of this century to describe feminists who were not welcoming towards trans women. Some feminists accept the label, but in recent years it has become a term of abuse applied more widely and often unfairly. It is sometimes used against people (however inclusive and respectful they try to be), who give voice to practical issues such as those I highlight in my Six questions above.
The label TERF is often applied to someone who has the goal of ensuring that existing rights and protections for cisgender women and girls are not weakened as a result of an expansion of gender-recognition rights. It has become a highly -charged topic in recent years in response to calls to relax gender-recognition laws, for example through non-clinical self-identification and lowering the age for obtaining a gender-recognition certificate from 18 to 16.
Problems tend to arise when the defence of cisgender women's rights is seen or felt to promote negative prejudice which casts doubt on the motives, character or authenticity of trans women, implicitly or explicitly. Media coverage regularly stokes the inflammatory issues of trans womens' access to prisons, rescue centres and shelters, toilets, changing rooms and sports participation. In extreme cases the TERF position is sometimes interpreted as seeking to deny the legal rights of trans people. Whether intended or not, these arguments often lead to accusations of transphobia.
The transphobic label is a blunt and (in my view) counterproductive weapon which does little to serve the goals for which it is intended. The more constructive approach is to dig into whether the issue really needs to be framed as a simple contest in which one side has to win. Sure, it makes the question more easily discussible, and some parts of the media love it. But the playing field is hardly level for the two teams, with the underdog trans community (roughly estimated as 0.5% of the population) being dwarfed by 'the opposition'. The sporting metaphor is not really appropriate here. When reading some of the offensive exchanges between people on this topic, it is easy to see why it has been described as a 'TERF war'. But unlike a military war, a metaphorical war does not have to be a zero-sum game, i.e. where the territorial gains of one side must be a loss to the other. Win-win outcomes are possible.
To understand why the TERF war is so deeply entrenched, and to look for possible ways to reframe the problem, it is helpful to go back to the Six questions section above. In particular, look at the first three questions and consider carefully the scope and practical application of the words rights, exceptions, assurances, safeguards and protections. These words are the keys which, used in the right combination and in the right contexts, might release the deadlock.
Let me try to simplify my understanding of the TERF war arguments, an understanding which I acknowledge is not perfect.
The starting position of trans-rights promoters (TRPs) is that every human being has the inalienable right to autonomy over how they define their gender and to some appropriate expression of it. Gender diverse people should not have to suffer the prejudice, indignity and exhausting effort of constantly explaining, asserting and evidencing their existential reason for being. Nor should the risk that some transgender people behave badly or commit crimes be used as an excuse to deny the whole community its rights. This rule does not apply to cisgender people, so why should it apply to transgender people?
The starting point for the TERF position can broadly be summarised by the Declaration on Women's Sex-Based Rights (more on that below) which explicitly excludes trans women from the definition of women. This semantically exclusionary position does not necessarily mean that TERFs wish to deny trans women all the rights and freedoms they might reasonably expect, or that they currently have in law. What it does make clear is that if those rights encroach upon, and cannot be reconciled with the rights, freedoms and protections of birth-registered women and girls, the interests of the latter should prevail and will be robustly defended by TERFs.
Gender identity theory versus gender-critical beliefs
It is worth saying a little bit about the differing scientific and legal views of gender identity because they get entangled in the TERF war. The key question is essentially part of the wider 'nature versus nurture' debate. It centres on whether gender-identity is biologically-determined (pre-natally or in the first first few years of life), or whether it is a product of socialisation, i.e. influenced by external factors relating to the many contextual conditions in which a person grows up and lives. It is a question that has significant consequences for healthcare, legal rights and social policies.
The medical consensus in the late 20th century saw non-conforming gender presentation as a mental health issue termed “gender identity disorder.” Gender identity was considered malleable and socially-influenced. In the 21st century the consensus is less secure, with emerging evidence suggesting a durable biological element underlying gender identity. Although still not entirely understood, there is now consensus that being transgender is not a mental health disorder. There is some evidence (but not a consensus) which promotes gender identity theory i.e. that gender identity can be 'innate'. This lends support to the claims of rights of autonomy over how we define and express our gender identity as being 'inalienable', and to have these rights strengthened in law.
Uncomfortable with the politicising of some of these developments in gender identity theory, opposing gender-critical views are being expressed more loudly. These include the belief that sex is biological and immutable: people cannot change their sex, and sex is distinct from gender-identity. From this perspective, there is a tendency to see diversity in gender identity as a malleable outcome of social, cultural and specific contextual factors. There is also a tendency to highlight elements of choice, preference, variability and inconsistency in gender-identity. These elements support a position of caution when considering legislating for things that are so variably expressed and insecurely understood.
As with many of the most difficult dilemmas of the human condition, the intellectual ivory-tower answer is to suggest that both are reasonable and defensible positions and do not need to be set in opposition to each other. But of course there are practical considerations to deal with, such as the ones raised in my Six questions section.
The law has struggled in this area. Equality and discrimination law tends to evolve to protect the rights of well-defined minorities. The domain of gender identity is rather more difficult to pin down. In response to antagonism and potential discrimination towards people expressing gender-critical views, there has been a focus on whether those views count as “philosophical beliefs”. Philosophical beliefs are protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. To read more on this important question, follow this link to a summary of recent legal UK case law.
In principle, both the TERF and TRP positions allow for 'common-sense' reconciliation and concessions around rights, exceptions and assurance processes for safeguards and protection. However, the conditions for generative dialogue have thus far proved difficult to establish.
The need for compromise
Strategically speaking, 'process-light' gender self-identification (including for minors), along with complete non-differentiation (in language and law) between transgender and cisgender women, are goals which currently seem so provocative for many cisgender women (and men) that they seem unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future. Generative dialogue and agreement around practical solutions are necessary, and there is plenty of scope for win-win solutions if trust can be established in the process. Hannah Barnes' account of the problems at 'the Tavistock' (described earlier) serve to illustrate just how important balance and compromise are, i.e. to avoid practices in assessment and treatment of gender dysphoria being dominated by one approach to the exclusion of other approaches. To repeat my earlier point, this is not a zero-sum game.
Outside of a clinical setting, there is perhaps no better example of the ongoing hostile conditions for dialogue than the fury directed towards J.K. Rowling after tweeting on the topic in 2020. Accused by some of abusing her power, she is widely admired for refusing to be intimidated by quite horrific verbal threats, abuse and attempts to cancel her. The same can be said of Kathleen Stock. Reportedly ostracised by her academic colleagues for her gender-critical views, this contributed to the hostile accusations of transphobia from students and others. She ultimately resigned her position as a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sussex in 2021. Both of these events have received widespread coverage in traditional and social media.
A pause to reflect upon my own subjectivity and bias
I have only read a small fraction of the coverage on JK Rowling and Kathleen Stock (in mostly traditional media) but the dominant narrative seems to have been (to paraphrase) 'brave individuals speaking out for women's rights and being threatened by an irrational and violent trans-activist mob'. Having studied critical theory for my own doctoral research some years ago, I have reflected deeply on this narrative. Generally I find it persuasive. But I felt I was missing something, especially given that many young people I know seem much less concerned about the topic than my generation. I was also curious about the lack of coherence in the way 'the trans-activist mob' seemed to be expressing themselves.
It seemed an odd strategy to me that trans rights promoters would intentionally choose to be represented by language which is often vulgar, offensive, menacing and sometimes incoherent. Fighting for rights in this way surely only serves to compound the prejudice and stigma from which trans people suffer so much? I could not understand why those taking (in my view) balanced, well argued and respectful positions were being so viciously attacked. It did not feel quite right that one 'side' seemed so much better at articulating its position and to have the most coherent and eloquent writers. I presumed that my perceptions were being shaped by a combination of lack of balance in the media and the exploitation of unconscious bias in my own choices of what to read, watch and listen to.
So, since I began drafting this page on my website in the spring of 2023 I have expanded my reading in an attempt to try to gain a deeper understanding of the different positions and arguments, and how they are represented in public discourse. My still imperfect and subjective understanding has benefited from reading or listening to many sources. Amongst these, I would recommend the following serious works to anyone wanting to dig deeper: Shon Faye's The Transgender Issue - An Argument for Justice (2021); Megan Phelps-Roper's podcast The Witch Trials of J.K.Rowling (2023) and Kathleen Stock's Material Girls (2021).
In particular, Shon Faye's chapter 7 - The ugly sister: trans people in feminism made me think much more deeply about what Faye describes as the colonial aspects of British feminism, aspects which she feels are not necessarily shared internationally or cross-culturally. The chapter makes a valuable contribution to the reconciliation of trans rights with feminist ideals. It also reminds us that, in some senses, we are all non-binary.
A less conciliatory and somewhat darker angle on the events at the University of Sussex is provided by Grace Lavery's article (available on her website): The UK media has seriously bungled the Kathleen Stock story (2021). It is worthy of mention because it is a good (if unpleasant) example of just how far the TERF war currently is from engaging in generative dialogue.
The Declaration on Women's Sex-Based Rights
In one of Grace Lavery's key arguments she refers to views expressed on a BBC politics programme by Amelia Jones, a student union officer at the university. Claims were made that transgender students on campus felt unsafe and intellectually threatened by Kathleen Stock. As evidence of Stock's alleged transphobia, Jones highlighted her signature of the Declaration on Women's Sex-Based Rights which, claims Jones, seeks to 'eliminate trans people in law'. Referring to clause 1(c) of the Declaration, Lavery supports Jones' interpretation of the Declaration as having this 'eliminationist' intent. She also refers to a 2020 UK Parliamentary submission by the Women's Human Rights Campaign, the authors of the Declaration. Whilst pointing out that it was not signed by Stock, Lavery provocatively uses the submission to explore whether the authors of the Declaration have genocidal intent, and by implication whether the Declaration has the same intent.
Both Jones and Lavery make serious claims about the Declaration which demand scrutiny. One published aim of the Declaration is 'the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and girls that result from the replacement of the category of sex with that of ‘gender identity’". To comment on this important issue I need to cite clause 1(c) in its entirety:
(c) States should “condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women’’. (CEDAW, Article 2). This should include the elimination of that act and practice of discrimination against women which comprises the inclusion of men who claim to have a female ‘gender identity’ in the category of women. Such inclusion erodes women’s rights to safety, dignity and equality.
Returning to an earlier question of whether there are circumstances in which trans women can drop the prefix 'trans', the Declaration is clearly saying 'no'.
It is easy to understand and sympathise with the concerns of trans people regarding this trans-exclusionary aspect of the Declaration. I find it more of a struggle to see how Jones and Lavery can extend this to a claim that the Declaration is seeking to 'eliminate trans people in law', and in Lavery's case to introduce an association with genocide. Nevertheless, Lavery states that it was libelous of Stock to tweet that Jones' statement was 'a lie'. Stock could have been more careful with her tweet. She might (for example) have opined that Jones' statement, rather than being a lie, was a flawed or unsubstantiated prejudicial interpretation of her (Stock's) views. In any event, I would encourage readers to come to their own conclusions: on the Declaration, on Stock's views, and on whether Lavery's assertion about Stock was reasonable, i.e. that her libelous behaviour 'warrants the termination of her contract' at the university. In the end, Stock took control of her own fate and resigned a few weeks after these events.
From these and other sources, I am now at least more aware that there is no shortage of intelligent and persuasive writers representing all sides and angles. I am trying to avoid taking sides myself, though I imagine some readers may feel I have already done so. They may question why I have highlighted the abuse directed towards Kathleen Stock and J.K. Rowling over examples of the many trans people who continue to suffer terrible prejudice and abuse. I highlight them simply because they are well-known and useful focal points for a constructive discussion that many people are fearful to engage in. I sympathise with everyone for whom gender-based prejudice is a cause of pain and suffering. I am also conscious that, compared with the trans community, cisgender women have two considerable advantages in getting their voices heard and their rights more fairly reflected in law:
the size of their constituency, and
a 50 year (or more) head-start.
My overriding interest is in trying to figure out the conditions under which we can reduce the fear and frustration that so many people are feeling in different ways. Sadly, public discourse and media in all its forms thrive on this fear, often promoting in-fighting, and shaping the narratives to attract our attention and to entrench our positions. I used to think that universities were sufficiently strong and independent to resist being intimidated by this kind of cultural and political fray. As most academics seem to be keeping their heads below the parapet on this topic, that view now seems naive.
A lesson from Brexit
It would also be naive to imagine that competing priorities and values can ever be reconciled to everyone's satisfaction. But we can learn something here from Brexit. Viewed from either side of the Brexit argument, the democratic process must be regarded as a fiasco. Immigration became an oversimplified binary topic which suppressed the expression of balanced arguments. It often provoked unjustified accusations of racism and xenophobia, glossing over rigorous analysis. This then fuelled an uninformed nationalist narrative that was seized upon by populist politicians, and likely tipped the balance in favour of the Brexiteers.
Let's not make the same mistake, i.e. by angrily prejudging and attacking the values and motives of anyone who voices sincerely-felt concerns, and by making the topic too risky for people to discuss openly. We can do better than this.
Appendix 3 - Aversion to complexity
Sometimes the assertion of one right or belief has problematic consequences for other rights and protections. Such dilemmas are part of the human condition. They sit at the heart of politics, philosophy and economics. When left unreconciled they are the cause of conflicts. In theory, they can be collectively reconciled through generative dialogue, deep listening and trust if the conditions are right. These conditions are not easy to achieve in a distracted world full of power imbalances and resource constraints.
Dilemmas can sometimes become more divisive and entrenched through media bias. I can recall quite vividly how, in the first decade of the 21st century as more voices became heard, it looked as though the internet and alternative media channels might contribute to a more equitable and pluralistic world. The so-called Arab Spring was a good example of this optimism. With hindsight it was over-optimistic. Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion (2011) provided a scathing critique of those who proclaimed the internet as an inherently democratizing phenomenon. His ample illustrations of the internet's susceptibility to corruption and abuse have proven sadly accurate.
Intellectual rigour and journalistic integrity are becoming harder to discern and do not naturally float to the surface in the swirling currents and myriad channels of the media ocean. Balance, complexity and nuance are for niche audiences and are not easy to commercialise. As a result, simplistic positions prevail and it sometimes feels like a world where if you are not loudly and unequivocally supporting a cause, then by presumption you must be opposing it. This is a naive, belligerent and highly divisive binary presumption. We should try to resist it.
The author F. Scott Fitzgerald famously stated that:
The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the "impossible", come true.
The Crack-Up (1936)
It is not irrational behaviour to avoid contradictory positions or multiple angles that have to be worked through, assessed and negotiated. Being averse to complexity is an understandable approach to life - we cannot engage everyday with all the unreconciled dilemmas and contests of the world. It can be intellectually and emotionally exhausting. We need to get on with our lives without wallowing in research and analysis, or becoming mired in endless political and philosophical discussion.
But we need to be aware of the consequences of choosing simplicity. 'Complexity aversion' is not necessarily a closed-minded position, but it can be simple-minded if we are not at least self-conscious of it. It rarely contributes to solutions, at least not in the long-term.
Campaigning for change demands a strategy. This includes a good understanding of alternative or opposing viewpoints, including the time and process required for people to adjust to change. The absence of these things can help to fuel (often inadvertently) a more polarised world. A world which then becomes vulnerable to populist politics and divisive authoritarian leaders. This consequence of complexity aversion was explored by Karen Stenner in The Authoritarian Dynamic (2005). She theorised that authoritarianism is a product of cognitive inhibitions and personality factors that reduce our patience and tolerance for ambiguity, complexity and diversity.
There is no clearer example of these polarising developments than the rise of new forms of tribalism and the decline of reasoned debate within civil society in the USA. Their freedom of speech, respect for the rule of law, and even their democracy itself now seem much more fragile to me than I could have imagined when I lived in America in the 1990s. It is too easy to persuade ourselves that Donald Trump is the cause. His rise to power is really only a symptom of fearmongering and the exploitation of disenfranchised tribal phenomena that are observable much more widely across the world.
Why have I taken this detour on complexity-aversion? Because if we don't recognise it in ourselves, we will not be able to address (in Fitzgerald's words) the "hopeless" things and "make them otherwise".
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