I would like to suggest that the response to last week’s protests against philosophy professor Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex could mark a turning point in the argument over women’s and trans rights, which has become one of the political topics the most controversial. After activists put up posters calling for her dismissal and put up an “Out of Stock” sign on campus, the university’s vice-chancellor was among the prominent voices in her defense.
But while that would be tempting, especially for a gender-critical feminist like myself who shares Stock’s point of view, it would be silly. This is because the gap between the opinions of the protesters and those of the main politicians is not very large. It may sound like overkill. Neither Keir Starmer nor any other leader has called for the sacking of women because they do not share the goals of trans activists, such as reforming the law known as self-identification, which allows people to change legal sex without a medical diagnosis.
But Starmer’s recent comments on the Andrew Marr Show, as well as the remarks of new Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer, make it clear that they too believe the views of gender-critical feminists are beyond pallor. Asked by Marr if he is transphobic to say that only women have a cervix, a reference to a comment made by Labor MP Rosie Duffield last year, Starmer replied: ‘It’s something that shouldn’t be said. This is not correct. âNot only does Starmer disagree with Duffield’s use of the wordâ female âto refer to biological sex rather than gender identity; he believes that women who have such opinions should be silent, while Denyer called the gay and lesbian rights charity LGB Alliance a “hate group.”
Such illiberalism is all the more disappointing because after years of polarization, I had hoped that a more open discussion about sex and gender could begin. This optimism was mainly due to a recent court case. For a year and a half until this summer, anyone who wanted to speak out against a gender-critical feminist had only to grasp the words of Judge James Tayler. At a labor court in 2019, he ruled that Maya Forstater’s sexist beliefs were âincompatible with the human rights of othersâ, âabsolutistâ and ânot worthy of respectâ. But in June of this year, a higher court overturned it when it ruled that the belief – summed up by Judge Chowdhury as a belief that “biological sex is real, important, unchanging, and should not be confused with l ‘gender identity’ – is protected as a philosophy belief in British law.
Another hearing will decide whether Forstater was discriminated against when her contract with the Center for Global Development ended after colleagues accused her of transphobia. But in any case, granting protected status to a critical gender belief should have opened up space for negotiation. What happened instead was that the opponents doubled down. In June, Stonewall’s CEO Nancy Kelley compared gender-sensitive ideas to anti-Semitism. Last month, American philosopher Judith Butler grouped them together with “anti-gender ideology. [that] is one of the dominant strains of fascism âin an interview with The Guardian (edited after publication because one of the questions might mislead readers about an alleged crime).
Days later, Mridul Wadhwa, head of the Edinburgh Rape Crisis Center, echoed this, saying that opponents of self-identification are “very comfortable associating with fascists” . The hostility directed at Duffield was such that she decided not to attend her party conference – and instead went to an unofficial feminist fringe meeting. Then came the protests against Kathleen Stock.
None of this is exactly new. Over the past few years, women with views like mine have been consistently portrayed as hateful. This happened even when we made it clear that we oppose bigotry and support laws protecting transgender people from discrimination. But what is shocking is the escalation of language and threats, to the point that Stock – the author of a well-commented book on the subject – has been advised by the police to install CCTV.
For the avoidance of doubt, I understand that for transgender people it is essential to be accepted into the gender they have moved into. I know that is what the statements “trans men are men” and “trans women are women” mean. I also think it’s vital to have words that refer to people’s gender. Of course, it is true that trans men do have a cervix and in that sense Duffield’s remark was incorrect. But it is also true that for many people the words “man” and “woman” mean biological sex. And this link cannot be broken by diktat.
In some respects, the debate has progressed. New evidence-based guidelines from UK sports councils, for example, explain that there is no easy way to balance inclusion with fairness. Sports bodies are encouraged to seek ânewâ answers. It is also increasingly recognized that while inclusive language is important, the âgender-neutralâ terms that emerge from such efforts can be dehumanizing and inappropriate. When the Lancet recently described women as âbodies with vaginas,â a number of people objected.
On unisex spaces, however, there is little sign of a breakthrough. Trans activists argue that questioning the inclusion of trans women in prisons, shelters or women’s locker rooms is tantamount to engaging in a “moral panic.” Gender-sensitive feminists (who, it should be noted, also disagree among themselves) counter that the desire for female-only spaces is reasonable and that the fear of male abusers who might take advantage of self-identification rules is rooted in the facts. While non-binary, genderfluid and other trans people – such as the recently issued police officer with mandate cards under male and female names – may benefit from a situation in which borders are porous, allowing them to escape constraining gender roles, other people prefer the gender separation in certain places (like places where people are undressed) to be unambiguous.
Behind such practical considerations lie philosophical considerations. It seems easy, for some, to dismiss any resistance to the evolution of gender cultures as reactionary (or quasi-fascist). It is true that most of the MPs who have stood up for Kathleen Stock so far have been Conservatives. By not explicitly condemning the demands for her dismissal, while calling for an “investigation” into “institutional transphobia”, the university union, UCU, appeared to side with the campaign against her.
But it is a mistake to imagine that the only people for whom gender differences make sense are evolutionary biologists or religious conservatives. For gender-sensitive feminists, our policy is underpinned by an analysis of how the female body and reproductive work have historically been controlled and exploited. This is why we call women’s rights âgender-basedâ.
In common with others, including the philosopher Jane Clare Jones, I also see a connection with the environment. I think there are parallels between failure to address the implications of our planet’s finite resources and our dependence on it, and the idea that human potential is limitless. Even though I want people to be free to live as they see fit, I also believe that the human body has limits. And I worry about the influence on young people of the idea that with the help of medical technology, they can be transcended.
It seems clear that gender investigations have a long way to go and my own understanding is neither fixed nor complete. I don’t expect most people to agree with the thoughts I have laid out above and know that some will strongly oppose them. I also know that for some people their gender identity – the feeling of being male or female – means more than chromosomes or anatomy. I want to find a way for our different ideas to coexist. But I am very concerned about the lack of equivalent recognition of sexist beliefs. And I think the latest wave of attacks on feminists should alarm anyone who cares about pluralism.