Smoke, fire and recognising transphobia

It’s not the case that where there’s smoke there’s fire – nonetheless, the two correlate strongly. The more people smell smoke, the wiser it is to investigate; the more you spot, the likelier you are to find something alight, and anyone so fire-agnostic they refuse to make enquiries till presented with a room in flames can reasonably be suspected of anything from ambivalence on fire safety to being a furtive arsonist.

Misogyny has been the great fire of atheism. 2012 saw a pitched fight for smoke detectors to be used at cons, in which, as thick plumes billowed from every window, DJ Grothe said TAM was totally fire-free, no one having caught so much as a whiff of smoke, and women shouldn’t assume too much from the sky high column of it over the building. Later, Reinhardt et al decided piles of soot and ash wherever some male skeptics went didn’t conclusively prove fire damage, and so there was no reason at all to check for any.

People who defend sexism tend to think there are only two ways to handle complaints: either with absolute credulity, treating women’s claims as infallible, or with absolute agnosticism, throwing out anything short of airtight legal proof. Women who file reports are said to want their word taken as law, but complaints are supposed to prompt investigations, not foreclose them. In the first instance, all most plaintiffs want is for their claims to be looked into – something an all-or-nothing epistemology prevents.

The agnostic response to bigotry says we can never know enough to act. If we don’t have all the facts, we have none; if not everything has been proved, nothing can be, and if the curtains haven’t yet caught fire, no amount of smoke is cause for action. Claims with mountains of evidence are dismissed before any can be sought, responsible parties painting requests for them to find things out as demands for unquestioning belief.

I bring this up because of late, I’ve seen Ophelia say similar things. [Read more…]

Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom

When Lindsay Lohan is declared homecoming queen in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls – a film about how beauty standards, inter alia, tear women down – she uses her speech to tell all her classmates they look nice. Jessica Lopez, who uses a wheelchair, has an amazing dress; plus-size Emma Gerber must have spent hours on her hair; Regina George, queen bee before a bus hit her, is wearing her neck brace like a rock star.

If complimenting women’s looks on dressed-up occasions is sexism, a patronising well done for being acceptable, Fey suggests it can also be a gesture of solidarity, acknowledging the girls’ efforts to navigate beauty-policing’s impossible demands. (The ‘plastics’, it turns out, are more afraid than anyone.) When Lohan tells her peers they all look like royalty, breaking her tiara and dividing the pieces equally, it’s a statement of affirmation and sorority. I see you, big girls, butch girls, girls on meds. I see the best-and-worst-dressed culture and the pressure and the fear and how you’ve handled them. Here’s to us all for surviving.

000Not unlike Lohan’s character, Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom, negotiating for the first time the fraught terrain of acceptable public femaleness. Prior to her profile in Vanity Fair, featuring Annie Leibovitz’s photographs, Jenner was called an unconvincing imitation of womanhood. Post-bustier, having presumably sped through the goldilocks region of femininity sometime during hair and makeup, she will almost certainly be called an offensive parody of it. And so my guess would be that when someone at Jezebel wrote ‘You look great, Caitlyn! Can’t wait to see more,’ this – not the adequacy of her attractiveness – was the context.

With all the surgery, beauty treatments and airbrushing her millions can buy, Jenner certainly meets standards of gendered beauty few trans women can; it’s also true that lauding her for being pretty rather than brave displays a wide array of bigotries, and that trans activists may just have better goals than inroads with the GOP. Meeting an expectation, though, doesn’t make it less smothering. If feminist media is complimenting Jenner, my guess is that the aim might be to put someone agonisingly self-aware at ease, letting the anxious nerd at the spring fling know she looks nice when she arrives: not ‘You look great’ as in ‘Well done’, but as in ‘Don’t let them say otherwise.’ [Read more…]

TEF-LON and transmisogyny: about that Terry MacDonald piece in the New Statesman

In case you haven’t paid attention for the last two years, a clique of UK writers connected via skeptic groups and the New Statesman – Suzanne Moore, Sarah Ditum, Gia Milinovich, Helen Lewis, Caroline Criado-Perez, Martin Robbins and Julies Bindel and Burchill – periodically say unhelpful things on trans women’s issues. Some have recent histories of mealy-mouthed transphobia, while others object indignantly to the word ‘cis’, argue ‘TERF’ is a slur, defend trans women’s exclusion from abuse shelters and insistently misgender them. It’s a matter of great sadness to me that this London-based group of trans-exclusionary feminists has yet to form as an official club, partly because it would make keeping up with them easier, but mostly because I like imagining a shadowy collective called TEF-LON.

The newest member is pseudonymous, hitherto unknown columnist Terry MacDonald, whose guest article at the New StatesmanAre you now or have you ever been a TERF?’ has been circulating online this week. Both the title and MacDonald’s use of a pen name seem geared to suggest suppression, a lone voice typing truth to power with the Gestapo of the trans cabal outside the door, so fisking the post’s non-stick arguments seems only game.

[Read more…]

Q&A: What’s ‘queer’, why is ‘homosexual’ a slur and what’s being bisexual like?

A reader writes in:

I’d be grateful if you could clear some things up for me.

By all means.

What is ‘queer’? I’ve only ever been aware of it for the most part as a slur.

Queer‘ is a complex term with a complex set of related ideas – that’s what makes it a useful and powerful term – but suffice to say it refers to everything non-heteronormative: everyone not cisgender-and-heterosexual, everyone excluded from straight society and everything that belongs to our communities and culture. Queer people are bisexual, pansexual, transgender, genderqueer, agender, a rainbow of other things – and, yes, gay.

Some of us also identify purely as queer, whether on political grounds, because we aren’t sure how else to identify or because we feel the details of what we are matter less than the fact of what we aren’t (that is, straight). That ‘queer’ a negative term allows it to be all-inclusive in this way: the difference between ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ is somewhat analogous to the difference between ‘African American’ (a specific identity) and ‘person of colour‘ (anyone non-white). [Read more…]

Gia Milinovich is still ignoring her transphobia’s critics

In February I wrote a lengthy post on why Gia Milinovich – of Soho Skeptics fame, and who admires Julie Bindel – was wrong to veil her view trans women are ‘male’ as scientific. (Everyone knows biological sex is a straightforward fact – except, as it turns out, scientists.)

That post, which has been tweeted over a hundred times including at Milinovich, refers explicitly to a long list of similar discussions it seems likely were also sent to her.

Thoughts herein were influenced by other writing – Anne Fausto-Sterling’s, Judith Butler’s and others’ at the best-known end, but more importantly by other blogs. Particularly since I’m cis(h), it seemed important to give credit:

Thanks, too, to Zinnia Jones for feedback and suggestions.

Amid heightened attention to trans issues, more articles like this have followed since, most prominently Mey Valdivia Rude’s at Autostraddle, ‘It’s Time For People to Stop Using the Social Construct of “Biological Sex” to Defend Their Transmisogyny’. (Less closely related but still relevant, Zinnia has also pulled apart transphobic atheist pseudoscience about biological sex.) Edit: Roz Kaveney tells me additionally that she sent this piece to Milinovich.

I can’t accept all this has simply passed Milinovich by: she must at this point have read or at least been pointed to critique of what she says, but nothing she’s said suggests this. A week ago on her secondary blog, she posted this, reigniting arguments:

Because over the past several months I have talked about gender and biological sex, I have got all kinds of crap from trans activists and their allies. Because I have publicly talked about getting abuse from trans activists and their allies, I have got abuse from trans activists and their allies. And because I dare to publicly state that there is an actual definition of ‘male’ and ‘female’ in biology which pertains to all mammals, I am now one of the many women who gets called ‘bigot’, ‘racist’, ‘cunt’ and told to ‘die in a fire’ . . . one can be called a TERF simply for stating ‘a penis is a male body part’ or saying that the patriarchy is sex-based oppression. I know. Shocking stuff.

Deliberately ignoring all criticism (except the rage provoked by her comments) and continuing to trot out tired, long-debunked fallacies is a tactic Bindel has employed for years. Milinovich appears to’ve learnt from her. It’s one thing rejecting a critique; pretending you haven’t heard any when rebuttals have been everywhere is arguing in bad faith.

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Recommended reading: Lena Dunham, (black) atheists, transphobia and Scotland

Time for some recent favourites from around the web.

  • ‘Why Lena Dunham’s Curves Make Me Feel Like Shit About My Own’, by Chelsea Leibow (Feminspire)
    The extremism against her form, the repulsion I’ve witnessed from not just random commenters hiding behind a handle, but real friends willing to screech about their need for a sick bag when they see her on screen, break my goddamn heart. Because god forbid I be so lucky as to have a career like this woman’s.
  • ‘Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris Are Old News: A Totally Different Atheism Is on the Rise’, by Chris Hall (AlterNet)
    When old-school atheists attempt to dismiss social justice issues as ‘mission drift,’ it seems like a betrayal of the very principle that was most attractive about standing up and identifying as an atheist in the first place.
  • ‘It’s Time For People to Stop Using the Social Construct of “Biological Sex” to Defend Their Transmisogyny’, by Mey (Autostraddle)
    Those who claim that sex is determined by chromosomes must not realize that sex is assigned at birth not by chromosomes, not even by gonads, but by genitals. In fact, the vast majority of us never learn what our sex chromosomes are. Sex isn’t something we’re actually born with, it’s something that doctors or our parents assign us at birth.
  • ‘Scotland should go it alone’, by Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach (The Oxford Student)
    Voting yes to independence is not anglophobic – it is a statement that the people who happen to live in Scotland deserve better than Westminster. Voting yes means voting no to nuclear weapons, no to the bedroom tax, no to the all-out assault on the welfare state which has become almost axiomatic within the London parties.
  • ‘Atheism has a big race problem that no one’s talking about’, by Sikivu Hutchinson (The Washington Post)
    When [black nonbelievers] look to atheist and humanist organizations for solidarity on these issues, there is a staggering lack of interest. And though some mainstream atheist organizations have jumped on the ‘diversity’ bandwagon, they haven’t seriously grappled with the issue. Simply trotting out atheists of color to speak about ‘diversity’ at overwhelmingly white conferences doesn’t cut it.

Engaging Andrew Sullivan’s transphobia

Andrew Sullivan, godfather of the GGGG movement, has decided it’s time to start ‘Engaging the T’. In his column at the Dish, he doesn’t so much engage with trans activists as engage them like Nelson engaged Spain.

The article, offset with a scrutinising photo of Laverne Cox’s ankles, gets most things wrong. I thought I’d have a go at cutting through the innuendo.

Introduction

There are few topics I feel nervous to write about on this blog, as you might have surmised over the years. But one of them is the question of transgender people.

‘It frightens me that trans people are capable of anger.’

It’s a fascinating topic…

‘Trans rights are an academic thought experiment to me.’

…but remains so completely fraught and riddled with p.c. neurosis that no writer wants to unleash the hounds of furious, touchy trans activism.

‘I want a free pass.’

And that’s the first thing to note here, I’d say. Any minority – especially a tiny one like gays or transgender people – has, at some point, to explain itself to the big, wide world. That’s not entirely fair but it’s unavoidable if you want a change in attitudes or an increase in understanding.

‘I can’t be bothered reading Wikipedia. Please do my homework for me. Why are you getting angry?’

And my view is that there is no need to be defensive about it.

‘I want to attack you with impunity.’

Most people are just completely ignorant, and have never met or engaged a trans person, and so their misconceptions and misunderstandings are inevitable…

‘People can’t be expected to know what they’re talking about.’

…and not self-evidently a matter of bigotry or prejudice.

‘It’s only bigotry if you’re doing it deliberately.’

I think we should be understanding of this, as open as we can be, and answer the kinds of questions some might feel inappropriate or offensive. That’s the basis for dialogue, empathy and progress.

‘Tell me about your genitals.’

Paragraph 2

But this has not, alas, been the way in which the transgender movement has largely sought to engage the wider world (with some exceptions). Kevin Williamson notes how Laverne Cox, appearing as a trans person on the cover of Time, nonetheless refused to answer a question about whether she had had her genitals reassigned as too “invasive’.

‘I think trans people are their genitals.’

Sorry, Laverne. But if you’re out there explaining yourself, you’ve gotta explain all of it. 

‘You can’t be in magazines and have boundaries.’

And the elaborate and neurotic fixation on language – will writing “transgender” rather than “transgendered” reveal my inner bigot? – is now so neurotic even RuPaul has been cast aside as politically incorrect.

‘Trans women owe men who play dress-up a free pass.’

The insistence that the question of transgender people is essentially the same as that of gay people…

‘What do you mean it’s not a question?’

…when they are quite clearly distinct populations with very different challenges…

‘Except RuPaul, a gay man I’m counting as trans.’

…is also why we have the umbrella term “LGBT”.

‘Trans people should leave the movement they started. (You too, bisexuals.) Look, stop getting so angry.’

And so Kevin Williamson is not wrong, I think, to note the way in which politics has eclipsed the English language here and that language itself has become enmeshed in a rigid ideology:

“The obsession with policing language on the theory that language mystically shapes reality is itself ancient — see the Old Testament — and sympathetic magic proceeds along similar lines, using imitation and related techniques as a means of controlling reality.”

‘I’m trying to distract you from what I just said.’

Paragraph 3

But Williamson is just as wrong in his brutal, even callous, denunciation of transgender people as acting out “delusions”.

‘Now you have to give me a free pass.’

And he’s wrong not because he[’s] politically incorrect, but because he’s empirically off-base. He too is creating his own reality. For Williamson, it seems, you can only have one sex and it is dictated by your genitals. End of story. Naturally, he doesn’t address the question of what biological sex is when you are born with indeterminate genitals that are not self-evidently male or female.

‘I’m calling sex a social construct and a scientific fact.’

The intersex are a small minority – from 0.1 to 1.7 percent, depending on your definition – but in a country of 300 million, that adds up. And the experience of those people – especially those [who] have been genitally mutilated to appear as one sex, while feeling themselves to be the other – is a vital part of understanding what sex and gender are.

Kevin may not like this – but it’s complicated.

‘I see trans people as straight people in the wrong bodies.’

Paragraph 4

We can see crucial differences between male and female brains, for example, and they do not always correspond to male and female genitals.

Citation needed.

Since by far the most important sexual organ is the brain, the possibilities of ambiguity are legion.

‘But I still think you binarily just are a man or woman.’

And this is not a matter of pomo language games. The experience of a conflict between self-understood gender and assigned gender is real, and a source of great anguish.

‘Treating trans people as an academic phenomenon is awful when other people do it.’

That human anguish is what we should seek to mitigate, it seems to me, rather than compound as Williamson does.

‘Seriously, where’s my free pass?’

Paragraph 5

And as J. Brian Lowder notes, the insistence of many transgendered people on the need to permanently reconcile their physical bodies with their mental states is in some ways a rather conservative impulse.

‘Transitioning makes you straight.’

There’s a reason that Iran’s theocrats allow for sex-change operations but not gay relationships.

‘Trans people aren’t real victims like gay cis men.’

The transgender desire not to be trans-gender but to be one gender physically and mentally is actually quite an affront to queer theorists for whom all gender and sex are social constructions. Many of these people want testosterone and estrogen and surgery to end their divided selves. And it doesn’t get more crudely biological and not-social than that.

‘Now I’m saying genitals do define gender.’

Paragraph 6

Which means that there are also divisions within the trans world between those who might be able to pass completely as another gender, after reassignment surgery, and those whose visual ambiguity or androgyny will remain.

‘Trans people just pretend to be the gender they say they are.’

Lowder quotes a trans artist thus:

“If you don’t wish to own [tranny] or any other word used to describe you other than “male” or “female” then I hope you are privileged enough to have been born with an appearance that will allow you to disappear into the passing world or that you or your generous, supportive family are able to afford the procedures which will make it possible for you to pass within the gender binary system you are catering your demands to. If you’re capable of doing that then GO ON AND DISAPPEAR INTO THE PASSING WORLD!

‘I’m arguing for this system and don’t even realise it.’

Coda

This is the perennial question of a minority’s anxiety about sell-outs – whether it be expressed in the fights over how light-skinned some African-Americans are or how “masculine” gay men are or how feminine lesbians appear. In other words, this is a very complicated and sensitive area.

‘I’m pontificating so I don’t have to examine what I’m saying.’

But if we are to make progress in understanding – and William’s piece shows how far we have yet to go – we have to let go of these insecurities and defensiveness and accept that no question about the transgendered is too dumb or too bigoted to answer.

‘Really, just tell me about your genitals.’

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Conchita Wurst never needed your acceptance

I didn’t want to like Conchita Wurst. Perhaps it was that Britain’s Eurovision act this year, our best for some time, was outperformed by busty Polish milkmaids, but as Austria stormed the vote and our stuffy Berlin bar cheered, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm. Try as I might, she’s grown on me.

Like Lordi and Dana International, Fr. Wurst will likely be remembered longer than her song. There’s an argument her win is a step backward for the contest: apart from Azerbaijan’s Ell and Nikki, of whose act I recall nothing, winners since 2009 have reaped the rewards of strong material. ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’, a sort of Shirley Bassey Bond pastiche, is as subtle as anything you’d expect of a drag queen with a beard; it’s not bad, but nor was it as well devised as Sweden’s song, as well performed as Spain’s or as unexpected as the Netherlands’.

Conchita’s irresistible narrative was what clinched her the win – attacked in native Austria, slandered by Russian ministers yet loved by Eurofans, a stubbly Cinderella in moist-eyed reaction shots. That story only ends one way: when the Danish host congratulated her, asking if she had any words, Conchita instantly replied she did. ‘This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are; we are unity, and we are unstoppable.’ Up in the air the trophy went, as it always had to.

Who was ‘we’, and on whose behalf did Wurst speak? While her enemies described her as a ‘clear hermaphrodite’, alter ego Tom Neuwirth calls himself a male drag artist with no urge to transition. If in-character, he’s made trans women’s next ambassador, anger – not least following recent tensions – will be understandable. On the night, she certainly played to that script, lyrics telling of transformation and a stranger in the mirror, lighting revealing her beard last of all. Even viewing Wurst simply as a gay man, we’ve watched the same scene on reality TV a thousand times, queer contestant humbled by accepting viewers’ generosity. It’s always rung hollow – but one senses Neuwirth, a veteran of such contests, is in on the act.

Eight years ago he rose to prominence on Starmania, Austria’s Idol-on-a-budget institution. In clips which resurfaced this week, his drag act’s crowdpleasing big notes and brassy camp are on show there, making up for his voice’s limitations. Conchita, who debuted on a primetime talent competition in 2011, seems to have been the logical end point of both: playing to Neuwirth’s strengths as well as being a talking point, she’s the persona his career needed. It’s not by chance Wurst first sought to compete at Eurovision mere months after this television breakthrough. If on camera she shows cultivated vulnerability, it’s because Neuwirth is shrewd at what he does.

‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ is a grander song by far than what she offered at the time: chances are if she’d won her country’s nomination then, she would have fallen at the semifinals. Moreover though, it casts her more perfectly as an object for sympathy than 2012’s disco anthem to self-love. The hostility – especially in Russia – that led voters to rally behind Conchita has escalated considerably since then. Might not Neuwirth, after giving 2013’s Contest a miss, have smelt an opportunity in it?

Provocation, he tells the newspaper Kurier in an interview, is the ‘whole point’ of his art. ‘The beard more than anything is a way for me to polarise people, to make them pay attention to me. The world reacts to a woman with facial hair. What I hope is that the less-than-ordinary way I look makes people think – about sexual orientation, but just as much about being different in itself. Sometimes you have to tell people plain and simple what’s what.’ Does this square with the helpless victim Europe saw fit to rescue?

Conchita never needed your acceptance: she played on the ego of her would-be saviours, as she played those behind the backlash against her. Their aggression, without which she would now amount to nothing, was part of the plan. How fragile, after all, can someone truly be who sings in heels, frock and facial hair for 120 million people?

Neuwirth’s character, while not possessing the best voice or song, will go down as a Eurovision sweetheart, but it’s the brain that’s won me over: I never could dislike a queen who knows so clearly how the game is played.

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Unsex me here! Gender, Julie Bindel and Gia Milinovich

Reference to all kinds of transphobia, be warned, ensues immediately.

Overture

We are angry with ourselves’, Suzanne Moore of New Humanist and other zines wrote this time last year of women, ‘for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.’ The article, on female rage, was well received barring this line; friends recommending the piece bristled at it, if only as a caveat. They had cause to: so idolised are the bodies of trans women that hundreds are murdered yearly in Brazil, among them 39-year-old nightlife figure Madona, pelted with paving bricks until her skull fractured.

Moore might have copped to misjudging a punchline. Who hasn’t? Instead she aired on Twitter her ‘issues with trans anything’, accusing trans women of ‘fucking lopping bits of your body’ and ‘using “intersectionality” to shut down debate’, adding ‘People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.’

Julie Burchill, long time colleague and friend of Moore, promptly championed her in the Observer, declaring her in a piece titled ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’ to have been ‘driven from her chosen mode of time-wasting by a bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing’. ‘A gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write’, Burchill continued, ‘looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black & White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look.’ The two of them, she declared, were in a ‘stand-off with the trannies’ (‘they’re lucky I’m not calling them shemales. Or shims’), ‘a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs’.

The ensuing storm, in which the Observer withdrew the article, apologising, raged through the British press and global blogosphere. (Zinnia Jones’ partner Heather McNamara had this to say.) Days later, Soho Skeptics hosted Moore in a debate about press freedom. I arrived a quarter of an hour late, but despite the then-ongoing furore heard no mention of the issue – save Moore’s offhand quip at one point, ‘I can’t say anything.’ Laughter followed.

Elsewhere in her article, Burchill had written:

I must say that my only experience of the trans lobby thus far was hearing about the vile way they have persecuted another of my friends, the veteran women’s rights and anti-domestic violence activist Julie Bindel, picketing events where she is speaking about such minor issues as the rape of children and the trafficking of women just because she refuses to accept that their relationship with their phantom limb is the most pressing problem that women – real and imagined – are facing right now.

Bindel, whose columns on transgender themes have earned her infamy, seems as obsessed as Moore and Burchill with trans women’s nether regions, describing them in 2004 as ‘men disposing of their genitals’. (This is, needless to say, inaccurate in every possible sense. Vaginoplasty, which doesn’t discard the penis, is expensive, inaccessible and often withheld from those who want it. Many don’t.) Transitional surgery, she insists despite all this, ‘is the modern equivalent of aversion therapy for homosexuals’, thrust globally on unwilling gays and lesbians as it is in Iran to keep everyone suitably straight.

Regarding what’s wrong with this, it’s hard to know where to begin. It ignores:

  • the persistent denial of trans men and women’s gender, including by Bindel herself.
  • the unwillingness of countless health authorities to provide surgery or offer it at all.
  • the fact anyone might want it.
  • that seeking it is typically done after lengthy thought.
  • that not everyone transitioning does want surgery.
  • that those who do don’t always want normative-looking outcomes, or vaginoplasty specifically.
  • that not everyone trans, seeking surgery or not, identifies binarily as male or female.
  • that those who do aren’t, as a rule, any more gender-conforming than cis people.
  • that those who do aren’t, as a rule, heterosexual.

Like Burchill and Moore, Bindel is talking bollocks. No one with even surface-level knowledge here, and mine’s not hugely better, could think she had more to contribute than hot, poisonous air. Understandable, then, that hackles rose when Soho Skeptics – the group that hosted Moore months earlier – announced her as a speaker last September.

‘The Battle Over Gender’

‘Insults, threats and abuse have been hurled between trans activists and radical feminists for the past few years’, read their blurb promoting the event, chaired by Gia Milinovich with Bindel and trans panellists Adrian Dalton and Bethany Black. ‘Neither side is innocent.’

These statements and the title suggest equivalence, like clashes between the world’s Bindels, Burchills or Moores and trans communities were arbitrary fiascos with no victim or aggressor – like trans users on the business end of their abuse, however intemperate their response, were just as much at fault. The Bindelites claim, as Piers Morgan did this month, to be under attack, but their viewpoint rests on demonstrable falsehoods. They’re as qualified to hold forth on (trans) gender as Ken Ham is to address a conference of geologists, and Ham, despite his manifold shortcomings, hasn’t victimised his targets nearly as much.

The meeting, it appears, was devised in response to anger at Suzanne Moore. ‘One female writer’ whom she knew, Milinovich wrote in October, ‘got attacked for inadvertently saying things that offended people’ – no name is given, but Moore’s is a likely guess. ‘After [an] explosion of anger, I decided it might be interesting to have a public discussion about it. When I started to think about the panel discussion at Soho Skeptics, I was very clear that I wanted it to be a calm discussion . . . My aim [there] was to show that everyone is an emotional, passionate, genuine and sometimes flawed human being… i.e. “normal”. It was intended as bridge building and a night for everyone to learn. All positive, good intentions.’

You’d conclude from this Milinovich, established in the skeptic scene, linked to Bindel apparently through Moore and with views not far flung from the former’s (see below), was the architect of the event – conflicting, seemingly, with Soho Skeptics convenor Martin Robbins’ statements that ‘trans people [were] in a key role’, ‘in charge’ and ‘helped organise and select people’, and ‘Bindel was there because the trans people on the panel [Dalton and Black] wanted it’. The Pod Delusion’s audio upload also described it as being ‘put together by Gia Milinovich’, who comments therein, ‘I thought, oh my God, I have got to have this woman on the panel.’

Clarity would help, but it’s easy in any case to see why giving her equal – or any – time made Twitter’s so called “trans cabal” irate. Their very existence, trans women’s especially, is in Bindel’s eyes oppressive, mutilatory and wrong, a stance whose premises have been thoroughly tanked but which she broadcasts through global media.

Milinovich and Robbins balked when critics mauled them for debating trans people’s right to such existence – as if the only obstacles to it were outright demands for killing. Milinovich, specifically, cites my tweet to that effect, one from a storm of users’, in a blog post, handle and avatar blurred out. (What for, the original being public and a Google search away, I still can’t tell.) Both have insisted the meeting wasn’t ‘a debate’; accurate but beside the point. ‘Debate’ was a verb in the tweets at hand, slamming the academic examination of trans identities’ validity and legitimisation of Bindel’s concoctions.


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Defining terms

Milinovich is taking heat at present for insisting, since this event, on the adroitness of terms like ‘female biology’, arguing implicitly that feminism should devote itself to this by using sex-based definitions of ‘women’s bodies’, and explicitly that abortion access and vulval/clitoral genital mutilation are by definition ‘female’ issues due to the relevant anatomy. ‘Because I accept the scientific definition of Biological Sex’, she states in a blog post from last Thursday, ‘I am apparently transphobic.’

‘During the [Battle Over Gender] panel,’ she wrote back in October in a post making similar arguments, ‘I tried to use the words Male and Female when talking about sex and Woman and Man when talking about gender.’ There’s already a contradiction here: if ‘woman’ is a term of identity and not anatomy, Milinovich shouldn’t refer (as she does here) to ‘women’s bodies’ as physically distinct. Regardless, here’s what she said on introducing the event.

‘Sex’: we all know what it is, but I’m talking biology, so what sex are you? This is ‘male’ and ‘female’ (so, ‘male’ has XY chromosomes and ‘female’, XX chromosomes), so I’ve gone to a book called Developmental Biology, Sixth Edition – this is for a definition. They’re talking about mammals, and I think it’s important we always remember that we’re mammals, and not something special even though we think we are. A male mammal has a penis, seminal vesicles, a prostate gland; a female mammal has a vagina, cervix, uterus, oviducts and mammary glands. In many mammal species, each sex has a specific size, vocal cartilage and musculature. So we’re talking biology when we use the word ‘sex’. We’re talking biology.

Another word is ‘gender’. Quite often these two words are conflated, so I’ve gone to the World Health Organisation for a definition of this. The World Health Organisation says gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women. So in our society, traditionally and stereotypically, women wear a dress . . . and have long hair and men wear trousers and have short hair. Men go out to work and earn loads of money and women stay home, and are deeply fulfilled by looking after their children. (Can you see my cynicism coming in here?) If women work, they obviously will earn less than men. Women are caring and empathic, men are rational and they’re leaders. Women can’t do maths and men can.

Now, all of these things including the maths are social constructions. If you look at different cultures, you will see different things. Now, it’s really easy to understand this when you think about clothing, right? There’s no place in the brain that makes a female innately want to wear a dress or have long hair. Or there’s no place in a male brain that they innately want to wear trousers and have short hair. So that’s quite understandable, you know – we know that these are social constructions. It’s a little bit more difficult for some people to understand that things like personality traits or maths ability and things like that are social constructions, and they differ in different cultures. Very simply, you can think of gender as masculine and feminine, and all of the stereotypes.

Does anyone find any of those two definitions controversial? Anyone?

Yes.

For a start, neither of these defines ‘man’ or ‘woman’. Milinovich states ‘sex’ to mean anatomical ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’, and ‘gender’ to mean ‘roles . . . society considers appropriate for men and women’ – but doesn’t define manhood or womanhood itself.

What we have is confused and inconsistent use of several definitions.

What is consistent is her stance ‘that Biological Sex is A Real Thing and Gender is Culture’; that ‘male’ and ‘female’ sexes, with ‘male’ and ‘female’ anatomy, prediscursively exist like hydrogen or Pluto. The thought, whatever the views she draws from it, has been seconded in British skepticism’s blogosphere, amid insistence ‘discussing the basic facts of biology is not transphobia.’ It’s wrong: the claim gender’s between our ears and sex between our legs is one long since unravelled by better thinkers than me.

A framework, not a fact

In her monologue above, Milinovich actually gives four criteria (by my count) for male/female sex determination.

  • Chromosomes: ‘[A] male has XY chromosomes and female, XX’.
  • Penis/vagina: ‘A male mammal has a penis . . . a female mammal has a vagina’.
  • Other sex organs: ‘A male mammal has . . . seminal vesicles, a prostate gland; a female has a . . . cervix, uterus, oviducts’.
  • Secondary sex characteristics: ‘size, vocal cartilage and musculature’, ‘a female mammal has . . . mammary glands’, a male facial hair, etc.

A longer, fuller list could look like this:

  • Chromosomes (XX/XY)
  • Penis/vagina
  • Gonads (testes/ovaries)
  • Other sex organs: seminal vesicle, prostate gland/oviducts, Skene’s gland, cervix, uterus
  • Secondary sex characteristics: facial hair, greater height and breadth, deeper voice/wider hips, breasts, etc.
  • Gametes: sperm production/menstruation
  • Hormone levels: high testosterone, low oestrogen/high oestrogen, low testosterone

Milinovich runs those traits she does name together, suggesting a male necessarily has XY chromosomes and a penis and a prostate gland and seminal vesicles and a distinct build and a deeper voice (her blog adds sperm production to this list) – that biological maleness requires all ‘male’ features to be present. Especially with others in the mix like those above, this co-presence is far from reliable.

Chromosomes, as Anne Fausto-Sterling details in Sexing the Body, can’t be relied on as indicators of the other traits here – sets exist beyond XX and XY, as do humans in whom both are found and outwardly ‘female-bodied’ people with the latter. Anatomy comes in endless combinations, such that estimates of ‘ambiguous’ sets’ commonness vary wildly, with some as high as one in twenty-five (John Money, cited in Fausto-Sterling’s work). Bodies with the ‘wrong’ features – height, hair, breast tissue, Adam’s apples – are common. Everyone preadolescent, postmenopausal or otherwise infertile is sexless judging by sperm and ova. Hormones, like most of these attributes, can be altered at will.

When not all these tests are passed, which overrule which? Milinovich describes people with ‘female’ anatomy and XY chromosomes as male, for example – suggesting, confusingly, that she doesn’t think maleness requires physical traits. What reason is there to choose genes rather than body parts when diagnosing sex, and not vice versa? In practice, things tend to go the other way: medics who judge a foetus’s sex via ultrasound, for instance, do so only by identifying outer sex organs, and I know nothing about my chromosomes, interior sex organs, hormones or fertility. The fact (or assumption) I have a penis is seen as enough, most of the time, to classify my sex as male, but why should it outweigh these unknown factors?

It’s common enough for adult cisgender men – deemed male at birth, with bodies read straightforwardly that way – not to grow facial hair. I know two or three who don’t; so probably do you. This isn’t seen to affect their physical sex. Why then, barring blunt intuition, should the absence of a penis? We can argue facial hair is only a secondary sex characteristic, and penises a primary one, but this relies itself on defining sex by reproductive role: the logic is circular. From that standpoint, moreover, why not make testes the sole determinant, so people possessing them and a vulva were ‘males’? Testes have, after all, the more distinct and self-contained function of sperm production. A penis, being a shell for the urethra, is just another pipe among the plumbing – we’ve no grounds except cultural ones to treat it differently from a vas deferens. So why is it more necessary for ‘maleness’?

Milinovich calls sex a static, stubborn fact, then moves inconsistently between ideas (see above) about what it is. If she herself can’t pick a definition, what does this suggest?

Sex is a framework, not a fact – a means of interpreting biology, but not a part of it. Of course menstruation, chromosomes and so on aren’t social constructs, but the argument isn’t over their existence, it’s over what they mean. That’s not about empirical reality. Vaginas are as real as Pluto is; defining them as female is like defining Pluto as a planet, a question of inscription not description.

The status of Pluto isn’t one on which the wellbeing of millions rests. We get to choose how we frame things, bodies included. If Milinovich can’t see why many people who’ve had lengthy fights to validate their gender feel attacked when told the (fe)maleness assigned to them at birth can’t be cast off, for once I’m unsure what to say. If that’s not cause enough to modify her model, surely coherence is?

‘If you want to reclassify Males and Females, and redefine Vaginas and Penises’, she tells her critics, ‘then you’re going to have to [do so] in over 5,000 different species of animals from Mammalia on down. So… good luck with that.’ Far be it from science ever to revise its thoughts or language, but in any case, her attitude to the latter doesn’t, in my view, hold water.

Sex is derived from gender

It’s just as ambitious trying to untether ‘male/female’ from ‘man/woman’, as Milinovich declares is necessary. When she writes in her October post of ‘two male comedians [and] one female writer’, she fails at this herself. It’s difficult to blame her: broadly, these terms just are synonymous.

Zoologists didn’t coin ‘male’ or ‘female’. The argument above, and her caution to ‘remember that we’re mammals’, suggest these designations fell to us from neighbours (or ancestors) in the animal kingdom. The reality is the reverse: said designations operated for humans millennia before we studied sex – chromosomes, internal organs, gametes, hormones – or exported that study to other species.

The ‘we’ here is a specific one. The models of sex that ruled till recently, for which Milinovich argues, grew up in gender-binary cultures. Had societies of more than men and women written the papers that inform popular thought – if views of anatomy today were based on theirs – would they have spoken of ‘male’ and ‘female’ bodies? Would we, now?

It should be clear we’re trying, through the model of male/female sex, to describe bodies in pre-existing terms. If, as was traditionally thought and seems to be the Bindel-Milinovich view, gender evolved to regulate sexed bodies, why does it account so badly for them? Why, if it evolved to correspond with anatomic traits, are some ‘ambiguous’ – inexplicable, that is, in terms of it? Why intersex, but no orthodox ‘intergender’ to match?

‘Yes’, says Milinovich, ‘I know about intersex conditions’ – then leaves it there. She seems not to consider themes that follow logically:

  • why one anomaly makes someone intersex, another, just unusual.
  • whether if ‘intersex’ is taxing to define, sex might be too.
  • how the sex dyad, if less descriptive than once thought, became ubiquitous.
  • that the a priori (fe)maleness of body traits might be debatable.
  • why some, again, are sexed more strictly than others.

Milinovich’s stance and statements shift demonstrably. The impression I can’t help being left with is that her output, more certain of itself than it is well-informed, fits most definitions of ‘splaining’. If her goal is a feminism of ‘female’ (in her terms) anatomy, I’m further struck, she makes no obvious mention of how trans men might be included – suggesting, conceivably, that it is to her a movement for those marked physically and socially as female: that is, cis women.

The entire concept of “sex”’, to quote the Tranarchism blog, ‘is simply a way of attaching something social – gender – to bodies.’ The addendum, lastly, is quotable and appropriate:

The most sensible way to look at the question of sex now is this: a male body is a body belonging to a male – that is someone who identifies as male. A female body is a body belonging to a female – that is, someone who identifies as female. Genderqueer bodies belong to folks who are genderqueer, androgynous bodies belong to androgynes, and so forth, and so on.

Coda

Any number of thoughts herein were influenced by other writing – Anne Fausto-Sterling’s, Judith Butler’s and others’ at the best-known end, but more importantly by other blogs. Particularly since I’m cis(h), it seemed important to give credit:

Thanks, too, to Zinnia Jones for feedback and suggestions.

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Putting a rainbow on Sochi’s games changes nothing

Some years ago, the Asian Women’s Advisory Service on Mare Street, Hackney had to close. In 2009, the rebuilding was bought up, transformed into an upmarket café (£6 per halloumi-and-avocado burger). Joking ostensibly at their own expense, the management named it the Advisory, retaining the old sign and furnishing walls with ironic citizens’ advice slogans. The Twitterati fumed on getting word of this last summer, and the owners – keen social media watchers, no doubt – agreed to dispense with the sign. The progressive Third Estate and countless commenters called this ‘A victory against hipster colonialism’, but victory would have been the Asian women’s centre’s survival. Taking the sign down was a mitigated loss, but only in aesthetic terms.

Why mention this? Because commentary on Sochi’s current winter games brings it to mind.

Courtney Caldwell, of the Cult of Courtney blog:

There’s been a lot of virtual ink spilled since the Olympics opening ceremony about the supposed LGBT themes that run amok in Sochi. Slate wasn’t the only outlet to write an article detailing just how “gay” the opening ceremonies were. But amidst growing rumbles from the progressive journalists about Russia’s increasingly backwards treatment of LGBT citizens (if you’ve not read Jeff Sharlet’s heartbreaking piece, go do so now. It’s lengthy, but worth it), many bloggers and Tweeters seemed excited by Greece’s supposed display of support for LGBT rights:

And who wouldn’t be excited? The fingers on their gloves appear to be the colors of the rainbow, a universal symbol for LGBT pride, which would seem to be a direct attack on Putin’s extreme stances on homosexuality.

. . .

The gloves are available for purchase, but the money goes straight to the Sochi Olympics[.] You see, those aren’t rainbow-colored fingers. Those are the colors of the Olympic Rings. What seemed at first to be a big gay “middle finger” to Putin, is nothing more than an expression of Olympic pride. But the story was believable, wasn’t it?

Not just the gloves, and not just Slate. Google’s rainbow logo, more undeniably an anti-homophobic gesture, drew the liberal commentariat’s applause, as did endless memes that echoed Slate by mocking every irony in sight. (‘Before you criticise Vladimir Putin for spending $51 billion dollars’, an admittedly amusing one from Red State Dems declared, ‘try forming a 51-strong male chorus without a single gay man.’)

Last-laughism fills the subtext here. If the whole thing’s a bit gay, we’re encouraged to console ourselves, Putin is showing himself up – his policies, once rainbow flags festoon the place, can’t be taken seriously; he and his friends have failed. Progressive forces have come out on top: sit back, bolstered, and watch the curling.

While we pat ourselves, chuckling, on the back, queer people are assaulted brutally on Moscow’s streets. Protesters like Anastasia Smirnova are arrested, as those police thought may cause ‘disruption’ were two years ago, ‘preemptively’, in London. Trans athletes, as Caldwell writes, face ‘regressive policies’ – not Russia’s, but the IOC’s – demanding they complete the forms, surgeries and drug courses deemed necessary in order to compete.

Those of us skeptical of boycotts hoped the games might magnify all this. Can they, if spectators’ impulse is to laugh at their own clever jokes about Olympic camp, as if once multicoloured gloves are worn, the day is won?

The Twitter mob who cheered the Hackney Advisory’s change of sign were as guilty as its owners were of reducing grim-faced struggles to marketing: a politics taking triumph in such superficial things is exactly that of the halloumi hipster. Mock the Olympiad’s medievalists and demagogues, by all means, but putting a rainbow on it gains us nothing.