This is our truth, tell us yours
It seems to be the week for people who work at colleges formerly known as World of Carpets to make me roll my eyes on twitter. The week started with the University of Westminster lecturer in diversity informing me that sometimes you have to sacrifice the few for the needs of the many. Minority groups in her lectures must feel so welcomed. Yesterday it was the turn of Rupert
Bear, Read , apparently a philosopher at the University of East Transphobia to show what a pitiful state higher education is in the UK today.
I am suspect of any man who chooses to write on feminism, especially when they decide to take a side with extremists and bigots. When you do not belong to an oppressed group your role is to listen, a hard thing for a cis man I know, but we can all overcome our upbringings if we try hard enough. Rupert claims to be a philosopher though, and so I read his blog wondering exactly how he approached the idea of gender and gender identity. I found this pearl of wisdom amongst the below basic analysis of feminist thought.
1) That there is a genuine, complicated question within Feminism about whether trans-women can or should in every or all respects be regarded straightforwardly as women (They don’t have periods, they don’t experience menopause; they chose to be (to become) women rather than having been brought up gendered female; etc. etc). It is complicated. Does feeling psychologically as if you are a woman and making certain changes to your body as a consequence make you a woman? Or first, a more basic question: Is it enough, in order to BE a woman, to psychically identify as one? To this second question, we must surely answer: no. (It it were, then it would presumably be enough to be disabled to psychically identify as disabled; it would be enough to be black to psychically identify as black; etc.)
Now of course all of his biological arguments are to use the technical term, bunkum. I am a cis female and I dont have periods, nor have I experienced the menopause. There is a deeper point here however, about what we see gender as being. For Read it is about external signifiers, despite the fact that these signifiers differ from culture to culture, from person to person. My friend who has had a double mastectomy is no less a woman, nor is the cis woman born without a womb,vagina or cervix. What then is a woman?
I think we need to go back, way back, to Plato and the idea of forms to answer the question. Radical feminist thought attempted to claim “womaness” was determined by society, that gender is a construct of patriarchy. As always though they were stuck within their white eurocentric middle class idea of what the world is. The only society they considered was their own, and the only definition of woman they considered was that which fitted themselves.
How do you know a table is a table? Some might answer form, some might answer function. A table is something that looks like a table, or a table is something which you can put things upon. This is the line Read and his radical feminist chums take with gender. Gender is determined by form and function, a woman is a woman because she looks like a woman, and/or because she can fulfil the functions of a woman, as determined by patriarchal society. Of course this definition of gender merely serves to uphold the patriarchal norms norms which oppress women, which is why men like Read are so attracted to radical feminism. Sarah Brown explores this idea excellently here.
So according to a form and function idea of gender this is a table
This is also a table
Is this a table?
In form , it differs less from the first example than the second does, it has legs and a relatively flat top on which you can place things. However you probably struggle with the idea we should identify this as a table. This is because we have the concept of a table in our head, from which we determine the tableness of all table like things. The third picture does not fit, and therefore dismiss it as not -table.
This is Plato’s main thought throughout much of his work, that there exist, beyond us, and yet innate to us ideas which go beyond any actual physical table and to a concept we have of tableness. What on earth does this have to do with gender I hear you cry? We know form and function do not define gender, it is scientifically wrong, and based on a limited set of norms which put white western values as the only ones that matter in discussions of gender. I would argue that we have a Platonic concept of gender, an idea of womanness and manness that is not based on the form, or the function of a man or a woman, but on an innate, internal understanding of the concepts. (for the moment I am remaining in the binary, this is not to deliberately exclude non binary people but as a cis binary person I cannot comment on how their innate sense of gender/s works).
Read argues that he supports transphobic feminists because someone’s womanhood cannot be internal, but as I have argued a sense of gender can only be internal. Norms can and do vary, however, norms are about expression of gender, not about what gender someone is. For example, I like many, remember Boy George and Marilyn first appearing on TOTP. The common refrain was that “you could not tell if they were a girl or a boy” because both had long hair and wore make up. People were so used to one way of gender being expressed they were troubled, and confused by a different one. To the terfs, and Read, Boy george and Marilyn were women, since the way they chose to present themselves was one women generally used. The fact they identify as (ie have the platonic form of male as their ideal) men is irrelevant if gender is about externals and not internals. Or as Carter argued here, if someone cut off his cock, he would still be a man.
Once we exclude external signifiers of gender, and we must to be scientifically correct, then we are only left with that feeling of being a woman that Read dismisses as being not enough to determine womanhood. This internal feeling, which I believe correlates to a platonic ideal of gender, an idea existing outwith ourselves, yet also innate to ourselves, is the only signifier of gender which is neither culturally specific or scientifically inaccurate. Read of course, like so many men who wish to defend their privileged position in patriarchy, had seized on the dog whistles of transphobia to attack trans women. The comment about body integrity disorder is one of those dog whistles that say I belong in this camp when it comes to gender, a common attack on trans women that they are just mentally ill self harming men. He and the terfs are welcome to each other, however since he is a leading spokesman for the Greens, and standing in the election in May his transphobia must be highlighted, for we do not need more men in power who will use that power to oppress and harm women.