This seems likely to remain a hot button topic for the foreseeable future, capable of acting as a wedge issue in the United Kingdoms' next General Election. Below is a 2016 essay in which I tried to set some of the controversies into a broader context; it appears in my book The Best I Can Do (2016). In a re-write I would want to include separate consideration of the position of intersex (hermaphrodite) individuals who are marginalised in the current debate and only mentioned here.
The book (paperback) is available on Amazon and at Blackwell (though their website is currently down).
Passing for Female?
To my knowledge, no single or unified account of the limits and limitations of self-identification exists. Different practices prevail in different domains and reflect both fairly constant and sometimes rapidly changing perceptions of what is legitimate, what is safe, what is fair, and so on. The practices vary from one society to another, of course. The issue those practices address might be put like this: When can and should we accept someone’s own word that they are who they say they are? When can and should we accept that they are what they say they are?
I began to think about identity and self-identification partly because of a well-publicised spat at Cardiff University. In 2015, Germaine Greer, writer and celebrity, author of The Female Eunuch and other works, was invited to lecture at Cardiff. It nearly didn’t happen because the women’s officer of the Student Union there, Rachael Melhuish, got up a petition to No Platform her: Greer has demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering transwomen and denying the existence of transphobia altogether. Trans-exclusionary views should have no place in feminism or society. As an example of her “transphobia”, Greer was notably called out for the use of the expression “ghastly parodies” to describe those whose birth sex was Male but who subsequently choose to present in society as women, either with or without surgery. Greer refuses to accept the self-presentation or, at least, some of those presentations. In contrast, Melhuish aligns herself with those who think that people should be allowed to self-identify their gender and be treated accordingly. That is in line with the policy of the National Union of Students. How plausible is that position? It seems to me that it helps if we consider the argument in the context of other cases where identity questions arise.
Banks no longer accept that you are who you say you are or that you live where you say you live. You have to provide proof in both cases – and the banks spell out to you what kind of proof they will accept (your passport, a recent utility bill, and so on). This is justified as an anti-fraud / antimoney laundering / anti-tax evasion measure. We are not supposed to get indignant when asked to prove that we are who we say we are, though I imagine that there was a time when people (especially those in higher social classes) would indeed have become indignant: “How dare you!”
Compare situations in which you are simply asked to declare something and that’s it. When you go into hospital you are asked to declare your religion and they just write down what you say. This will affect how your body will be handled if you die there and who will seek to visit you if you are dying. And so on. You declare and no one queries it. Thus it is that in the United Kingdom there are very many more self-declared Christians than enter Christian churches. The self-ascription “Christian” on a hospital form is for all practical purposes a negative characterisation: Well, I’m certainly not a Jew or a Muslim and I don’t want to answer “None” just in case …
But in other contexts, this casual attitude to religious self-ascription would not be tolerated. In England, school admissions provide a good example. Since the 1990s, successive governments have encouraged a greater degree of social segregation through the mechanism of “Faith Schools” which are allowed to select their pupils by the religious affiliation of their parents. However, realising that parents are only too willing to perjure themselves to get their kids into nice middle class schools, our more popular faith schools now look for proof that you are indeed of the religious persuasion that you claim. They impose religious tests. Indignation? Not at all. Our modern parents (sociologists tell us) are more than happy to present themselves in the pews of the local Church of England or Roman Catholic church where for as long as it takes they sit smugly, ghastly parodies of religious belief.
In the UK, there are few contexts in which self-identification by race or ethnicity is asked for other than for statistical purposes – the Census, notably. We don’t have Quotas and we don’t have Exclusions. In some contexts, notably medical, the accuracy of self-identification is important: there are some genetic disorders and diseases which discriminate by race and it can be important for a doctor to know whether or not you are in a high risk group. In this case, people have a self-interest in making accurate self-identifications.
But in other societies, self-identification by race or ethnicity or their official ascription have long and complex histories and important consequences. Everyone is familiar with the idea of “Passing for White” which in the United States was – and maybe still is – a rational strategy for improving your life chances. If your skin is pale enough, then that opens up the possibility of passing for white and, if you decide to do that even in the knowledge that your ancestry is at least partly non-white, then you acquire immediate social advantages - but at the same time usually have to live with inner conflict and the anxiety that you may be found out. On the other side from "Passing for White", when forms of positive discrimination are introduced designed to favour disadvantaged groups then there are also possibilities of abuse and once again Tests have to be introduced to verify that you are who you say you are or what you say you are. It is not unknown for people to choose to “Pass for Black”.
But most of the time in daily life, people don't encounter many occasions when their self-identifications are challenged. Being asked for your age ID when trying to enter a club or pub is as bad as it gets and that problem, unfortunately, goes away naturally.
Now let’s go back to the Melhuish – Greer conflict. I have always understood that a man who dresses as a woman is correctly described as a transvestite and that a man who in addition has undergone hormonal treatment or surgery is usually described as a transsexual. More or less the same categorisation can be made in relation to women who present themselves as men. Neither category tells us anything about a trans person’s sexual orientation. Nor does it actually tell us much about their gender since it is not spelled out what it is to present oneself as a woman (or when the transition is made in the other direction, a man). The National Union of Students wants us to treat the presentation of self as unproblematic (“My Identity Is Not Your Business”, Resolution 106, December 2015) whereas I thought that a great deal of social theory and most feminisms from Simone de Beauvoir (at the latest) onwards were about it being extremely problematic.
Does it mean in the M to F case presenting oneself according to the local gender stereotypes of what it is to be a woman? Does it mean presenting oneself as a woman in one’s dress and the public toilets you enter? Does it mean signalling to men that they should treat you (according to the conventions in place) as a woman? And likewise, signalling the same to women – so that, for example, you can claim admission to “Women Only” meetings? Does it mean signalling to others that you feel more comfortable presenting yourself and being treated as a woman (whatever that happens to mean), pretty much regardless of how you dress, what toilets you use, what personality traits you display, and so on?
The basis of a 2015 film, David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl, originally published in 2000, offers - perhaps unwittingly - answers to some of these questions. It does not stay close to the true story which inspired it, but nonetheless it allows us to see what some of the real-world issues are. A large part of the narrative is about a man, Einar, passing as a woman, Lili, in various ways, some of them morally dubious: for example, when through your dress, you misrepresent your sexual identity to someone you want to seduce or be seduced by.
Whereas feminism since the 1960s has most often been about challenging conventional gendering, urging women to be more assertive and men less macho, women to be less obsessed with their appearance and men less demanding in that regard, Eberhsoff’s transgender character embraces wholly conventional gendering but simply switches sides. That appears to be the case for some contemporary real-life switchers: they accept the existing conventions on both sides, but switch allegiances.
Passing as a woman normally involves more than asking to be labelled a certain way. The exceptions are provided, notably, by cases – largely in the past - where birth-sex women cross-dressed as men in order to gain admission to armies, medical schools, and so on, but who did not in any way feel that they were something other than women. There were also cases where men cross-dressed as women, usually for nefarious purposes like escaping military service or gaining access to places where young females could be found who might be available for heterosexual sex. But the most obvious cases of cross-dressing occurred (and still occur) on stage where the Pantomime Dame or the burlesque Drag Queen have for a very long time (centuries?) presented a comedy of “ghastly parodies” . Sometimes these parodies appear off stage and may have been in Germaine Greer’s mind. Would the defenders of trans people’s rights welcome a Pantomime Dame to a Women Only meeting?
That sort of question may be a way into thinking about the whole issue. If you would not admit a Pantomime Dame, my guess is that is because you think they are simply a man pretending to be a woman. Fine, it’s not really in dispute. Next question: How about an old-fashioned male-to-female transvestite who cuts a very striking figure in high heels and booming voice? Is that person more than a Pantomime Dame, but just off-stage? If so, what makes the difference? What has to happen to qualify that person for a "Women Only" meeting? Do they just have to Pass in the way that the Dame and the old fashioned transvestite Fail, namely, the ability to Pass? And who is to make up the rules and judge who Passes?
Germaine Greer has said that "just because you lop off your dick it doesn't make you a woman". This is obviously true: men have their dicks lopped off in car crashes, industrial accidents and - most frequently - misadventures with military high explosives. Few of them breathe a sigh of relief or think "Now I can be the woman I always wanted to be". Greer is saying that even if you lose your dick as part of a self-mutilation or voluntarily undergone medical procedure, that in itself is not sufficient to make you a woman, not enough to get you into the "Women Only" meeting. That seems correct: you need a supporting story which explains why you did it and how it forms part of the "woman" identity you are claiming. It seems to me quite possible that someone whose dick is intact could have a stronger claim than a dickless person to be regarded as a woman.
Rachael Melhuish is right in this: people who are gratuitously offensive to others generally deserve a put-down of some kind if we can be reasonably clear what we mean by “gratuitously offensive”. Greer has always been foul mouthed and blunt and that is one reason she achieved iconic status as a feminist. If she thinks an argument is ridiculous, she will say so and that does not always go down well. It’s not obviously the same thing as being gratuitously offensive. It is not offensive to shred a bad argument; it is one of the things students are supposed to do.
Freudian psychoanalysis is hated only and always by those who insist that we are always who we say we are and what we say we are. I am a kind and loving person, always – and if you dispute those Facts, I will cast you into outer darkness. But most aspects of our selves are not things we can will, and those who believe that the will can always triumph are doomed to failure. My will won't triumph over my toothache and I can’t will away primary sexual characteristics or even many of the secondary gender characteristics I have acquired. Several critics of the NUS’s recent positions use the word “fascist” or allude to it (as I have done in referencing Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph of the Will ) in describing its politics. I think this is because of a suspicion that there is a background belief here that all of life is about resolutions, decisions and will-power. Take away the reference to Fascism and an alternative might be to call such beliefs The Anorexic Mistake. They are beliefs which cluster around the idea that we can subject our bodies and ourselves entirely to control by our will power.
I realise that earlier I used examples – the Pantomine Dame, the Drag Queen - which may seem trivial, though that’s a familiar device to clarify complex issues and it sometimes works. But in reality, from what I read, trans people have much more difficult lives than the Pantomime Dame, as do Hermaphrodites - Intersex persons - who start from a different anatomical situation. It is hard and often enough anguishing to realise that you are only going to feel more authentic, more comfortable, more desirable if you shift into a mode of self-presentation which asks other people to reclassify your gender, more or less regardless of the state of your sexual organs.
But just because it’s hard does not mean that a Narrative of Suffering or a Hard Luck story on its own should open the doors to the Women Only meeting. The narrative needs to be convincing and the story true. In the UK, a 2004 Act of Parliament attempted to deal with the matter by creating a Gender Recognition Panel. It may be that the legislation will need to be modified but it seems to me unlikely we will conclude that so little is at stake that anyone can self-declare who and what they are for all purposes. Those who appear to want simple self-declaration to suffice are arguing for something which can place others at risk of harm – it has occasionally happened already that males with heterosexual interests and a tendency to violence declare themselves women to gain access to Women Only spaces.
So the stories we tell cannot always let us off the hook of other forms of accountability. Likewise, just because you may encounter hostile or dismissive reactions does not mean that you are automatically to be reckoned morally superior to those around you. You will still have your own weaknesses and unkindnesses – things which make everyone uncomfortable with themself at one time or another, things which we would like to wish away with a “No, that’s not me”. We can never be entirely who we say we are or what we say we are. That's just one of life's unfairnesses. But at least it applies to everyone.
At the back of my mind I have this thought. The history of medicine is littered with histories of doctors doing terrible things to people, supposedly to "cure" them of this or that. Some of the medical techniques employed to re-configure sexual characteristics have been around a long time: sheikhs had eunuchs in their harems, the Vatican had castrati in its choirs (until 1913 or 1959, sources differ on the dates), German sex clinics began offering operations in the 1920s, chemical castration was around in the 1950s to punish homosexuals like Alan Turing, the major industry which services the desire for larger breasts is very well established. The range of surgeries and chemistries available continues to grow. But there is a possibility that a hundred years from now, those who by then believe themselves to be progressive and humane may regard at least some of those techniques as barbaric - even when self-chosen - and as falsely offering cures for catastrophic dilemmas which require other modes of approach. Even now, when I read up on the history of Lili Elbe [Lili Elvenes] (1882 -1931), the so-called Danish Girl, I find myself uneasy when I discover that her fourth and final surgery, submitted to when she was 49 years old, killed her. It was carried out in Dresden and involved the unprecedented transplant of either ovaries or a uterus. It reads just too much like an irresponsible medical experiment conducted on a vulnerable person who was past normal child bearing age. Worse, it occurs in a political context where medical irresponsibility was soon to achieve political sanction and encouragement. Dr Warnekros who operated on Lili in 1931 joined the Nazi party in 1933. Put into that kind of context, sex change operations at that time belong to the same world as medical experimentation on those who had not consented, to forced sterilisation and other eugenic policies which culminated in the mass killing of the mentally feeble and physically handicapped.