I’m immediately put on my guard when someone starts using the old zero-sum argument against acknowledging someone’s rights: “Giving them the same rights I have means my rights are diminished!” This is not a good argument. Granting someone else rights does not shrink the pool of possible rights we can allow. But this is exactly the argument Sarah Ditum makes, and she even says it right in the title: Trans rights should not come at the cost of women’s fragile gains.
With a lead like that, you might expect that she’d then give lots of substantial examples of “unavoidable conflicts between women’s rights and the current trans-activist agenda”, because otherwise, I’m not going to believe it. But here’s her case: “born women” have had to acknowledge the existence of trans women.
In June Cancer Research UK, a charity, tweeted: “Cervical screening (or the smear test) is relevant for everyone aged 25-64 with a cervix.” The odd phrasing—“everyone with a cervix” rather than “women”—was not accidental. The charity explained that it had deliberately chosen to use what it described as “inclusive language”. Similarly, the campaign Bloody Good Period, which donates tampons and sanitary towels to asylum-seekers, uses the word “menstruators” rather than “women”. And Green Party Women, an internal campaign group of the British Green Party, confirmed last year that its preferred designation for the constituency it represented was not, in fact, “women” but “non-men”.
OK, but if you’re a trans man with a cervix, shouldn’t you get cervical screening? And aren’t there plenty of women who do not menstruate for one reason or another, not just because they might be a trans woman but because they’re menopausal or taking pills? This is a rather odd complaint.
Ah, but you see, the problem is that these trends for accurate language are applied unequally. So clearly the trans activists are only targeting women’s causes for change.
It is notable that Cancer Research UK did not test its “inclusive” approach with a male-specific cancer. Its campaign messages about prostate and testicular cancer address “men”, rather than “everyone with a prostate” or “everyone with testicles”. (Addressing “people with a cervix” is, of course, only inclusive of people who know they have a cervix. Many women do not have that detailed knowledge of their internal anatomy. And those who speak English as a second language may well not know the word.) While organisations in the women’s sector have revised their language to avoid the word “women”, male-specific charities such as CALM (the Campaign against Living Miserably, a movement against male suicide) continue to refer uncomplicatedly to “men”. Women’s groups are aggressively picketed for being exclusionary; men’s clubs are left unmolested.
All right, that’s a good argument. She’s right that this asymmetry is a problem. It seems to me, though, that the problem is that trans activism hasn’t gone far enough — that we should be objecting to prostate and testicular screening campaigns that only address “men”, rather than “people with testicles and/or prostates”, and that we should aspire to greater inclusivity. It is particularly ironic that CALM doesn’t seem to recognize that discrimination against trans men and trans women increases their suicide rate. So shouldn’t Ditum be concerned about this habit of “uncomplicatedly” referring to “men” and “women”?
But no. She’s instead arguing that we should return to the lack of complicatedness of just ignoring the existence of trans individuals. It’s really weird. Her entire essay should be read as an argument for the importance of using inclusive language for all, and that society has fallen short in many instances, but her conclusion is that we should fall even shorter, to make things fair.
I don’t get it. Be worse for greater justice! It’s not a very appealing slogan.