In a sexist society, the body’s sex is not a redundant category: a response to Bridget Chapman and Kirstie Paton

The following article, by Judith Green, was originally published in Labour Briefing in response to Gender recognition – support change by Bridget Chapman and Kirstie Paton.


I am a midwife and trade unionist. I never assign sex and find parents are quite capable of identifying their baby’s sex. My job includes documenting sex in the health record and sex is recorded in birth registration. Sex is only ‘assigned’ to babies when this is not obvious at birth – a rare occurrence. Recording of the sex of male and female newborns is important. There are health issues for newborn boys (such as undescended gonads) that do not exist for newborn girls (for whom internal gonads are healthy) and vice versa. Recording sex at birth, and various life junctures, is vital to the social and political health of us all. Every single claim that feminists and socialists have ever made about the representation and treatment of women is dependent upon this data. This includes that 100 million women were missing due to sex-selective abortion, infanticide and unequal treatment of girls first published in 1990. [1] Our efforts for a more just, equal and peaceful world starts with being able to accurately identify inequality, injustice and violence. Without recording sex we would not know that even more women (estimated 117 million) are missing today.[2]

Bridget Chapman and Kirstie Paton write that self-declaration will not render meaningless sex discrimination legislation or the category of woman. Yet, Stephen Whittle, a key activist for the Gender Recognition Act described how in that legislation

“gender identity transforms legal sex…there is no recourse to the sexed body which suggests that the body’s sex as a taxonomical tool has in some way become redundant… Changing sex for the purposes of legal recognition then, is … about changing how sex is legally defined.” [3]

The Equality Act placed limits on this disregard for the sexed body, setting out exceptions in Schedule 3, Paragraph 28. [4] These allow the provision of single-sex services provided they are a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. The passing of a self-declaration law together with a removal of these exceptions would see the current delicate balance of rights between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ in the Equality Act overturned.

Socialists who want ‘the body’s sex as a taxonomical tool’ made redundant should reflect on the violent exploitation of female bodies. Women have won services and organisations that meet our needs for safety, dignity, privacy and healing at times when our bodies and psyches are vulnerable.

Those confident that new legislation will not impact women’s rights should not fear full discussion of the proposals. The left must consider the impact of further changing how sex is defined.

Judith Green

References

  1. www.nybooks.com/articles/1990/12/20/more-than-100-million-women-are-missing
  2. www.unfpa.org/gender-biased-sex-selection
  3. www.socresonline.org.uk/12/1/whittle.html
  4. www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/schedule/3#schedule-3-paragraph-28-1

Open letter: we are appalled at the attacks on Kiri Tunks

We have been appalled at the attacks on Kiri Tunks following an article she wrote calling for discussion on the implications of proposals to change gender recognition legislation.

Kiri has been subjected to abuse and attacks on social media and a petition has even been launched calling for her removal as Vice President of her union, the National Union of Teachers.

We believe that this attempt to silence women’s voices does a disservice to us all. All women have a right to debate how any proposed measures may impact on women-only spaces, services such as women’s refuges, and on measures set up to monitor discrimination against women such as the pay gap.

As Kiri pointed out in her article, ‘to deny any group or individual in that group the right to be part of a discussion about their identity is insulting and will result in a failure of the great liberation we are all seeking.’

Sarah Colborne, NUT (personal capacity)
Lucy Masoud, London FBU Treasurer, Fire Brigade Union (PC)
Alex Gordon, former President, RMT (pc)
Philipa Harvey, NUT Ex-President (pc)
Lynne Walsh, NUJ (pc)
Meirian Jump, Archivist & Library Manager, Marx Memorial Library (pc)
Dana Mills, academic & activist
Judith Green, RCM (pc)
Ruth Serwotka, Unite (pc)
Sarah Johnson, ATL Executive (pc)
Vicky Knight, President Elect UCU (pc)
Janice Godrich, President, PCS (pc)
Professor Mary Davis
Charlie Dacke, Unison (pc)
Clare Solomon, Unite (pc)
Ann Field, Unite GPM & IT Sector
Steph Pike, Unite (pc)
Kristina Jayne Harrison, Transwoman & socialist
Emma Wilkes, PCS (pc)
Christina Purcell, UCU (pc)
Professor Marjorie Mayo, Marx Memorial Library
Jonathan White
Philipa Clark, Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial committee
Andrew Murray, Unite (pc)
Carole Regan, Past-President, NUT (pc)
Anita Wright, National Assembly of Women
Dr Louise Raw, Unite member (pc)
Finola Kelly PCS (pc)
John McGhee, retired national officer for equality FBU
Moz Greenshields, TUC Trades Unions Councils JCC (personal capacity)
Bill Greenshields, NUT past president
Liam McQuade, NUT (pc)

Originally published in The Morning Star on Wednesday 16th August 2017.

Sex Matters

Proposed changes to the law on gender self-identity have huge implications for all of us. There should be room in our movement for greater understanding and dialogue, writes KIRI TUNKS.


The government’s announcement that it will consult on a change in the law on gender self-identity means that a fierce debate that has, until now, been taking place off-stage is being thrust into the public arena.

One argument is that a change in the law is not up for debate and that anyone raising concerns or challenging the proposal is transphobic.

Such a position will not help to accommodate the discussions which are vital for any social, political or legal shift.

The relaxing of any legal definition of what it is to be a man or a woman could render sex discrimination law meaningless and any imposition of change without winning people to it is likely to cause a counter-productive backlash.

Neither is it helpful to say that these proposed changes only affect the trans community because it fundamentally isn’t true.

The ability to define one’s own “gender” will undermine the legal characteristic of “sex” and could lead to serious implications for women and their ability to fight sex discrimination and oppression.

It is also likely to impact on society’s ability to plan for and accommodate the needs of its population and the way it attempts to even out inequality.

Concerns about access to single-sex spaces are often dismissed as unjustified moral panic. The truth is that this society has failed to ensure equality of treatment for women and girls: single-sex spaces exist to try to ameliorate the oppression women face.

Removing legal exceptions will mean that services already under attack from austerity politics will be further hampered in their ability to deliver for the people they were created to serve.

If necessary, where services do not exist for a specific group then they must be created and we must all fight for that.

The demand for self-identity has huge implications for all of us and how we are defined. And, because women are an oppressed group (whose fight for equality has never been won or sustained) it is women who are most affected by the proposals.

It is also the women who have raised concerns who have been attacked as bigots for speaking out — often by men whose rights are simply not affected in the same way.

This debate about identity is one that necessarily affects everyone in society. Unless you are someone who thinks there is no such thing…

The growth in identity politics is becoming an atomising force, creating division among groups of people who have much in common and could be a common force for change.

My belief is that our individual identities are made up of many complex parts — self-expression and self-identity are part of that. But individuals are also part of society and the terms we use to describe ourselves necessarily involve some level of common agreement.

Terms that are used to describe people of and from specific groups must be determined by all the people in those groups. But the term “woman” is now being defined in several ways. For the majority of women it is still determined by biology; for many transwomen it is by a strongly held belief or “knowing.” In this context, how can the term mean the same thing to both?

Natally born women now find any number of terms being used to define them (most of which have not involved any discussion inside the women’s movement): “cis,” “non-men,” “non-transwomen,” “vagina owners,” “menstruators,” “non-prostate owners.”

There is also a growth in the substitution of “queer” for “lesbian” or “dyke.” These terms, we are told, are being applied in an attempt to be inclusive. The term “vagina owners” was used in a recent article on anal sex in Teen Vogue, a magazine primarily catering to teenage girls and young women.

The diagrams accompanying the article had removed the clitoris and the vulva — a journalistic excision that symbolises the erasure that women are starting to feel. This doesn’t feel very inclusive.

Words that exclude and erase women’s experience and opinions cannot ever hope to be universally adopted. They are more likely to insult and offend.

For a movement that prides itself on inclusivity, it feels like, once again, women are the exception. When we express our disquiet, we are abused or silenced, like the FGM campaigner who was called a Terf (trans exclusionary radical feminist) for referencing female genitalia.

Terms and definitions must be based in some kind of material reality that is apparent to more than just an individual. If “woman” or “man” mean different things to different people then the terms become meaningless — and useless. Women, who are told that our biology is not female when we feel that is what makes us female, are left with no term to describe ourselves. And yet, the sex oppression we face does not disappear.

Another trend is the casual substitution of “gender” for “sex” when they mean very different things. At the very least, this is a misrepresentation of the law under which “sex” is a protected characteristic because of the discrimination and oppression which women face. Yet the debate around identity often dismisses “sex” and insists on the term “gender.” This is certainly the case in lots of the NGOs that have sprung up to deliver sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools, but is also the case in other organisations, including big corporations and government departments.

Gender roles are socially constructed and are commonly formed in stereotypical ways that reinforce discrimination.

Sex is biological and the fight of feminists going back decades has been to challenge the assumption that one’s sex should determine one’s options or behaviour.

There are people in this debate who claim that sex is also a social construct and cite biological variations to show that a binary does not exist. To accept this is to ignore the biological reality of billions of people. It does not challenge our social expectations; nor does it help women deal with the oppression they face. Instead, the terms they have had to name that oppression are taken from them; the tools with which to fight are rendered useless.

Women who suffer FGM, sexual harassment or rape cannot identify out of these attacks. Women who live in poverty, cannot access education or equal pay at work cannot identify into wealth or equality. Sex data on issues as diverse as pensions and pay or domestic violence become harder to collect and use as part of our battle for equality.

This is a woman’s rights issue because women’s rights are still not won. We are still fighting a battle for universal access to reproductive rights services or abortions — look at Northern Ireland or the ridiculous moralising from Boots over the morning after pill.

And yet women are being told they cannot talk about “a woman’s right to choose” or refer to vaginas or ovaries because to do so is transphobic. I recently had an Abortion Rights flyer removed from a Facebook “feminist” group for these very reasons.

We also know that abortion rights groups are coming under pressure to use the term “pregnant people,” but this term obscures an ongoing, historic battle by women globally to assert control over their bodies.

To say that all of this is scaremongering amounts to the age-old advice to women not to worry their pretty little heads; that someone else will take care of it. Well, as a feminist, I think women must be in charge of our own destiny. Women must be allowed to define the terms that name them and their experience.

Any change to those terms must be agreed as part of a collective understanding or the terms lose all meaning and all impact.

To deny any group or individual in that group the right to be part of a discussion about their identity is insulting and will result in a failure of the great liberation we are all seeking.

To get there we will need comradely dialogue and understanding — something a trade union movement committed to equality, with a majority female membership, is surely well-placed to facilitate.


Kiri Tunks is an activist in the NUT. She is writing in a personal capacity.

This article was originally published in The Morning Star on 9th August 2017.