Litany Against Gender Criticism
by Karin Slater
Some combination of recency bias, internalised transphobia, and repeated exposure occasionally leads me to an uncomfortable experience in which I read the argument of a gender critical individual or organisation, and spend too many brain cycles considering that they may be correct.
Particularly, I fear that I am wrong, that I am unjustified in my belief that I am a woman, that I am eroding women’s rights, and all of the other disgusting things they accuse us of. They make me question arguments that I have overcome before. This is especially pronounced when discussed in seemingly intellectual terms by purportedly intellectual people, possibly even by people you previously respected (looking at you, Daniel Dennet).
At the bottom of this is a deep fear that derives from living in a society in which a large number of people fundamentally reject your existence or believe you to be evil. What if they’re right, and I am simply deluded? It feels unfair that I should have to repeatedly suffer these arguments internally, given that I spent so much of my life couched in this fear, and had to struggle with these arguments against myself.
Therefore, to help myself overcome these feelings in the future, I wanted to try to distill the fundamental essence of the gender critical argument, and to refute it. Hopefully, then, when I inevitably come across it again in another form, I can skip the worry. Maybe it can help you, too.
The Gender Critical Argument
Interestingly, it can be a little difficult to find a static definition of exactly what gender critical people believe about trans people. Increasingly, gender critical organisations are being legitimised as registered charities in the United Kingdom, and as such their language is couched in positivity, amity, and professionalism. As such, online manifestos tend to dance around the truth of their beliefs, which nonetheless become apparent through their more ephemeral communications on Twitter, harassment campaigns, and the like. In the interests of finding a static statement of belief to deconstruct, I found this screed on the ‘women are human’ website:
“Women are human beings. We believe the gender identity ideology movement dehumanizes women and girls. Women are not a concept in a man’s brain, a feeling a man has, a costume a man puts on, a type of performance, a state of nirvana a man can achieve through drugs, a dysphoria that haunts a man’s mind, or disease to be treated with pharmaceutical medicine or surgery. The human rights of women and girls on the one hand, and the rights of people born male who self-classify as women on the other, have been set up as a zero-sum game. Legal protection of women’s and girls’ human rights, including those fought for over centuries, and still being fought for in much of the world, are sacrificed in favor of the rights of men who declare themselves women.”
In a specious reading, it seems to make some sense. Trans women think that being a woman is something they can take for themselves, and allowing this erodes the rights of true women. The argument here is roughly:
1. Women are humans
2. Men cannot be women
3. The gender identity ideology claims:
a. Gender is an identity
b. Therefore, by identifying as a woman, a man can be a woman
4. Claiming that men can be women dehumanises women, because it conflicts with claim 1, that women are humans.
In any formal sense, the argument is incoherent, by virtue of its poor definition of ‘woman.’ The intended fulcrum of the argument is that the definition of gender as an identity conflicts with the humanity of women. However, the claim that ‘women are humans’ does not exclude the possibility that ‘woman’ is also an identity.
Being a little more charitable, I think the implication is a claim that it is necessary to the definition of ‘woman,’ that men cannot be women. This kind of statement tends to derive from the belief that ‘woman’ is sex-based class, disjoint from ‘man:’ a notion supposedly grounded in biology and empirical science (derived from the foggy memory of a secondary school lesson taken several decades ago as it may be). Thus, the claim that gender is an identity, and that people of a sex-based class can self-identify as members of another disjoint sex-based class conflicts with biological reality, and therefore erases the sex-based definition of the class ‘woman,’ thereby dehumanising women.
The argument is still not entirely valid in the philosophical sense (that is, if the premises are true, the conclusion is necessarily true), since it is not a given that claiming membership of another sex class is dehumanising to members of the ‘target’ class. I believe the implication is that such a claim erodes sex-based human rights, which is dehumanising. So, I think a valid argument looks something like this:
1. Sex-based rights are human rights.
2. Contravention of a person’s human rights is dehumanising.
3. ‘Woman’ and ‘man’ are disjoint sex-based classes.
4. To claim that a member of one sex class is a member of another sex class contravenes the sex-based rights of members of the targeted sex class.
5. The gender identity ideology claims:
a. ‘Woman’ and ‘man’ are identities, not sex-based classes
b. Therefore, by self-identifying as a woman, a man can be a woman
6. Therefore, gender identity ideology dehumanises women.
This argument is valid: its conclusions follow from its premises: if the first 5 statements are true, the 6th is also true. Moreover, through variations in form, style, and the exact nature of the disturbing accusations of the beliefs and behaviours of trans people, it seems to capture the fundamental essence of gender critical ideology (where there is any coherent ideology), from which most of their other beliefs derive. Therefore, I will henceforth refer to it as the gender critical argument.
We must also mention the reasons that are given for the belief that that falsely claiming membership of another sex-based class erodes the sex-based rights of that class. The basis of this belief is that many sex-based rights for women are based around protection and segregation from men in certain contexts, such as changing rooms or women’s refuges. As such, allowing a man into such an environment would erode the protection from men that the environment normally affords, thus eroding women’s sex-based rights.
So, where do we disagree? One of the problems of tackling this is that, in opposition to what gender critical organisations would have you believe, there is no homogeneous body of beliefs that trans and gender non-conforming people hold. I will discuss my beliefs, here, particularly in the context of two understandings of sex and gender that differ from those gender critical people hold, and influence the evaluation of the gender critical argument. It should be taken into account that some trans people believe one, the other, both, or neither, of these beliefs.
Inclusive Biologic Sex
I believe that trans women, non-binary people, and trans men, are fully biologically women, non-binary, and men, respectively. While I am not necessarily a hard materialist, I believe that for the most part, the phenotypes and manifestations that consist the experience of being transgender, are grounded in biology, and are features of biological sex. The existence of intersex people contravenes our understanding of sex as being two binary disjoint classes arbitrated by genitalia. Moreover, our growing understanding of biological sex increasingly supports the notion that even outside of intersex individuals, sex does not conform to two binary disjoint classes arbitrated by genetalia, and that persons of one assigned sex-based class may have primary, secondary, and tertiary sex characteristics of another.
I will not go into detail on this here, because I am not a biologist, and others have done so better than I. I believe that our scientific understanding will mature into one that includes a biological understanding of trans and gender non-conforming people as being people who belong to the sex-based class they identify with.
If we take this to be true, we can simply introduce another claim to the gender critical argument:
7. Trans women are members of the sex-based class ‘woman.’
We are saying here that trans women are not using the self-identification method associated with their definition of gender identity ideology. Rather, they are members of the biological sex class ‘woman.’ Therefore, the existence of trans women does not contravene women’s sex-based rights, as they are women. However, the erosion of the sex-based rights of trans women that gender critical people argue for, is in fact an erosion of women’s sex based rights: the very dehumanisation of women and girls they claim to fight.
The second category of belief more closely corresponds with the gender critical argument and its claims concerning the ‘gender identity ideology.’ In particular, that sex and gender are distinct, although heavily interlinked, concepts. I do not believe that this is mutually exclusive with the idea of inclusive biologic sex detailed above. Rather, it is exactly because our understanding of biological sex is so limited, and because it is almost certain that it will never reach a point where we can conclusively characterise a person’s sex in the context of two or more static disjoint classes, that an understanding of gender as separate from biological sex is necessary.
The concept of gender as distinct from sex is further necessitated by the difficulty in distinguishing between biologically and sociologically derived differences in phenotype and experience between men and women.
Roughly, this belief corresponds with statement 5 of the gender critical argument. The understanding behind gender identity is that there is a distinction between sex and gender. Your sex corresponds to the gender identity you were assigned at birth, usually one of the sex-based classes ‘male’ or ‘female’ (corresponding with the ‘man’ and ‘woman’ sex-based classes). Unfortunately, this is an area fraught with linguistic confusion: for example, many people use ‘woman’ and ‘man’ to mean both sex and gender. Depending on their opinion on inclusive biological sex, some may use ‘male’ to distinguish them, and others use ‘assigned x at birth.’ This is, again, a very complicated topic, but if we accept this separation between sex and gender, we can modify the 5th statement of the gender critical argument:
5. The gender identity ideology claims:
a. In addition to sex-based classes, there exist gender identity classes
b. A person may self-identify with a gender class that does not necessarily correspond with the gender they were assigned at birth
c. Therefore, a person who was assigned male at birth can be a woman
This was written using the ‘assigned male at birth’ language to be inclusive of people who believe gender identity is not described by biological sex. To tease out the tricky multiple use of terminology referring to different concepts, we can simply replace the mentions of the ‘man’ and ‘woman’ sex-based classes in the rest of the argument with ‘assigned male at birth’ and ‘assigned female at birth.’ In doing this, we see that neither does the ‘gender identity ideology’ claim that a man can be a woman. Instead, it claims that a person who was assigned male at birth may be a woman. The former term describes the sex class they were assigned at birth, and the latter describes their gender identity.
So, we have shown through multiple contradictions, that trans women are women, and that their existence does not erode women’s sex-based rights, or dehumanise women. This is the case, either because the sex-based rights of women are also the sex-based rights of trans women, or because a person in the gender class ‘woman’ does not assume the sex-based class ‘assigned female at birth.’
In addition to these clear arguments, we also have to take another look at the vehicle by which gender critical people say men identifying as women erodes the sex-based rights of women. Certain gender critical people allow that some trans people are genuine, but that laws and policy that allow self-identification essentially allow men to invade women’s spaces. This corresponds to the gender critical argument as we have stated it.
The problem with it is that trans women do not want to deny people who were assigned female at birth any rights or protections. I certainly do not. I believe that people who were assigned female at birth should have full access to rights that derive from necessary support and protection for social and healthcare issues that derive from belonging to that class. This includes trans men, some subset of which continue to require access to particular healthcare procedures, for example.
I also believe that people who were assigned female at birth should have access to spaces that keep them safe, as part of the general availability of spaces that shelter vulnerable people from influences that may harm them. This includes the availability of healthcare administered by people who were also assigned female at birth, and access to spaces without people who were not assigned female at birth. This is a pragmatic concern, particularly in the context of a deeply transphobic society in which many people cannot see a trans woman as anything other than a man. I accept that this may be uncomfortable or even triggering. However, I do not believe it should be the default to segregate trans people from cis people. Research shows that trans women, like cis women, face increased risks of sexual and physical violence (Factor and Rothblum, Connolly et al.). Research also shows that allowing trans women non-discriminatory access to women’s spaces does not increase risk of violence towards cis women (Hasenbush et al.). As such, I believe the majority of spaces for women should be open to all women.
Connolly, Dean, Aldridge, Alexandra, Davies, Emma, Maier, Larissa J., Gilchrist, Gail, and Adam Winstock. 2021. “Comparing Transgender and Cisgender Experiences of Being Taken Advantage of Sexually While Under the Influence of Alcohol and/or Other Drugs.” The Journal of Sex Research. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2021.1912692
Factor, Rhonda J., and Esther D. Rothblum. 2007. “A Study of Transgender Adults and Their Non-Transgender Siblings on Demographic Characteristics, Social Support, and Experiences of Violence.” Journal of LGBT Health Research 3, no. 3: 11-30. https://doi.org/10.1080/15574090802092879.
Hasenbush, Amira, Flores, Andrew R., and Jody L. Herman. 2019. “Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Laws in Public Accomodations: a Review of Evidence Regarding Safety and Privacy in Public Restrooms, Locker Rooms, and Changing Rooms.” Sexuality Research and Social Policy 16, no. 1: 70-83. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-018-0335-z.
Sun, Simón(e) D. 2019. “Stop Using Phony Science to Justify Transphobia.” The Scientific American, June 13, 2019. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/stop-using-phony-science-to-justify-transphobia/.
Women Are Human. n.d. “About Us.” Accessed August 19, 2021. https://www.womenarehuman.com/about-us.
Karin Slater researches biomedical logic. She is trans. She is new to writing about it. You can email her at dr_krn [at] protonmail.com