Nov 20, 2018

It's always about toilets. It's never about toilets.

When I was in fifth grade, we had a debate during ‘social hour’ (a weekly lesson with our main teacher, usually dedicated to discussing topics that touched on life and interpersonal skills) about whether it is OK for the popular kids to have class parties and only invite the other popular kids. An unpopular kid myself, I was squarely in the camp that demanded inclusion of all as a condition of membership in the micro-society that was my class. It seemed not merely unfair but frankly monstrous to me that lack of possession of this elusive, indefinable and rare quality, ‘popularity’ could prevent a child (namely, me) from being accepted as a full member, and on that basis excluded from communal activities. I was a pretty formidable debater even at ten years old, and my classmates and teacher had quite a job refuting my passionately expressed (ahem) arguments. Nevertheless, needless to say I lost that particular battle. People get to be friends with whomever they choose to be friends with; even people with otherwise circumscribed civil rights, such as ten year olds, cannot be mandated into recognition of non-existent affective relationships. Where this does sometimes happen – for example where children are pressured to be more affectionate than they are comfortable being towards relatives or friends of the family – progressive social observers usually see this as coercive in a way that not only disrespects the dignity of the child but exposes them to potential harms.

We don’t get away from these issues as we age. One way or another, most of us at one time or another will have felt some resistance to what we perceived as ‘cliquishness’ in others, will have felt slighted by exclusion from an invitation we thought was our due, or will have resented not being asked to participate in activities or groups which we think our pre-existing social ties entitle us to inclusion in. it’s very hard to be made to feel like you’re not wanted. Harder still if you were an awkward child, one with limited social skills and few friends, a child who felt alienated and marginalised by more ‘successful’ children. Nevertheless, most of us grow up to understand the setting of one’s own and other people’s social boundaries as a fundamental entitlement. However much we might sneer at the shallowness and empty-headedness of ‘the popular girls’, and however we might privately agonise about our inability to penetrate ‘the clique’, few of us are ever actively moved to try and prescribe our own social inclusion through social sanction – much less, through the law.

In recent years, however, a new mega-clique has emerged, the contestation of whose right to exclude non-members has gone out of the realms of the interpersonal and into the national discourse of identity contestation. The ‘popular girls’ of the current political moment are not just any girls, or specific girls: they are all girls, or more specifically all female born people. I see my furious, righteously indignant ten year old self in much of the current debate about who does and does not get access to the spaces and categories designated ‘for women and girls’. The injury and the sense of injustice go hand in hand; one feels that one’s pain is exacerbated by an underlying fundamental act of discrimination, of deliberate and malicious erasing of how one sees one’s self. Faced with an open refusal to accept one’s own image as fact, the impulse to force the withheld acceptance is a powerful one. Most ten year olds – indeed, most of us in our everyday lives – do not have the material or discursive resources to force this shift in others' behaviour towards us. But some of us do, and some of us are currently trying to make the impossible demand that other people see us – genuinely, authentically see and perceive us – exactly as we see ourselves, into a legal mandate.

I took this photo in the shiny new Business School building of the University of the West of England. It designates the ‘all genders’ or ‘gender neutral’ or ‘unisex’ toilet, depending on who you ask: I think the administrators of the building simply gave up the looming linguistic battle and went for safer pictorial representation instead. The space thus designated is not, in fact, any single space at all: it is an area with no communal facilities, containing a series of identical doors which lead to identical cubicles, each containing a toilet, a basin and a hand dryer (I rather tipsily – I was there for an evening function – forgot to check for the presence or absence of sanitary bins).

Two things struck me about this arrangement. One was the way the pictorial designation of the space so perfectly mirrored everything I see as wrong with the concept of ‘equality’ as a progressive aim. In the name of ‘inclusivity’, here humanity is cleaved neatly into exactly two parts, each represented only by the most recognisable stereotype for one half of the mammalian order: the dress and the pair of trousers. Inclusion, this emblem implies, consists not in seeing and recognising each individual member of society for the unique set of capabilities, needs and ambitions they are, but in making proportional and sufficient space for the ambassadors of the generally recognised and rigidly delineated ‘types’. This is, in a single image, the ‘diversity problem’: the increasingly recognised fact that simply admixing members of under-represented groups such as The Disabled Person, The Woman of Colour, The Working Class Man etc. does not, in and of itself, ameliorate the underlying material challenges which underlie their under-representation in the first place. In fact this approach often risks either flattening the ‘representative’ into a stereotype or erasing their difference altogether, co-opting them into the norms and values dominant group while providing same dominant group with grounds for self-congratulation.

The other thing that struck me was the way in which the physical removal of a community space was presented as progress. This toilet block had no communal area at all; it offered privacy in isolation or nothing. No congress, no socially useful interaction can have been presumed to have taken place in the spaces which were once contained behind each of the two doors designated M and F. No space for solidarity can have been conceived of as necessary – only a private space for one’s private (and least socially shareable) functions. What such solidarity might have consisted in is either unknown to the designers of the new toilet block, or perceived by them as frivolous, unnecessary, or at the extreme of modern progressive thought, exclusionary (and therefore prejudicial or bigoted).

Solidarity that excludes those to whom it does not see itself as legitimately due is just as painful as friendship that is not extended those who see themselves as human beings worthy of it. Both wound the same fundamental part of our psyche which depends on the recognition and reflection of others to know and feel oneself as a fully realised subject. I am not tying the issue of toilets to my own ten year old outrage in order to belittle it: I am doing so in order to foreground the authenticity and depth of that pain.

There is a reason why feminists and trans activists at odds with each other always come back to ‘the toilet question’. And that reason is not, as is sometimes claimed, safeguarding. True, feminine males, non-passing trans men and trans women may be put at risk in male-only facilities. And true, the inclusion of males bodied people in hitherto female-only facilities represents a potential risk to women and girls. But if that were the only problem, the issue would be solved by gender ‘neutral’ toilets such as the one described above, or by the creation of what Holly Lawford-Smith & Emily Vicendese, in their recent response to earlier work by Lorna Finlayson, Katharine Jenkins, and Rosie Worsdale, call ‘third spaces’: facilities located adjacent to all-female and all-male ones, targeted at trans, gender non-conforming, and gender non-binary people, but open for use by all. Lawford-Smith and Vicendese “see third spaces as a workable solution to the fierce debate over female-only spaces”, and reject the argument that the use of such spaces would force people to ‘out’ themselves as trans.

That argument, as advanced by Finlayson et al. as an objection to third space provision, is indeed spurious. However it is spurious not because, as Lawford-Smith and Vicendese would have it, we could incentivise non-trans people to use such facilities in sufficient numbers that they mask the presence and identity of trans users, but because the original problem only arises in the first place for those who are self-outing as trans by virtue of their inability or unwillingness to pass. You can only out yourself as trans by entering an all genders bathroom if it is the case that you would be recognised as trans were you to enter an all-female bathroom. If we put aside the risk to trans people as a result of male violence in all-male spaces as a problem to which the reduction in all-female provision cannot ethically be the solution (as I think we must, and as almost no-one is), then the chances of a trans woman being challenged in or removed from and all-female bathroom by dint of not being female and the chances of her being ‘outed’ as trans by some feature other than which door she walks through are exactly statistically the same. And yet Finlayson et al. do advance that argument, and Lawford-Smith and Vicendese engage it on its own terms.

Both teams of writers are, I think, distracted by the safeguarding rhetoric, and overlook the psychological structure of the original claim that led to the contestation they are engaged in. The reason that third spaces – or indeed gender-neutral spaces of the type I described above – are repeatedly rejected by trans activists as impractical, unworkable, unnecessary, offensive etc. is because what is being truly, fundamentally demanded is not access to plumbing: it is access to solidarity and recognition.

It is not incidental, and has never been incidental, to the structure of this discourse, that it is these quotidian, ubiquitous resources that are the first, the main and the enduring locus of contestation, of demands for access and refusals to grant it. The concerned mothers and the terrified trans women (much as both have something genuine and frightening – namely, men – to be concerned about) are in reality contesting not the practical question of who should be able to enter female toilets, but the much harder one of who should be seen as having a right to do so.

The shared space of a female toilet has a long-term cultural status as a venue for tantalising female mysteries. Those not allowed access to them are forever wanting to know what goes on inside: why do you always go in groups? What do you talk about in there? Do you do each other’s makeup? Are you talking about us?! Incel and MRA communities have hilariously lurid fantasies not only about the illicit activities (read: ones that exclude men) which women get up to in the loo, but also the luxurious facilities and undeserved comfort with which they are provided at the expense of men’s. A hard-won resource that enables the participation of women in the public sphere, sex-specific toilets were a contested and potentially threatening space from the earliest days of public sanitation.

Entrance into these very spaces – not inferior versions which have all the practical accoutrements but lack their most vital feature, the entrance-by-recognition requirement – is what is at stake.
The kind of pragmatic and generous all-inclusiveness proposed as a practical solution to what is a recognition problem by Lawford-Smith and Vicendese is the opposite of what is being really, genuinely demanded by trans activists and their allies. All-inclusiveness or gender neutrality are like a school dance organised by the teachers: not the same thing at all. Sure, you come and you dance and all the popular kids are there and they have no choice but to share a space with you, but you have not gained entrance into their ranks. You’re still an angry little girl they laugh about in private: not recognised for the interesting and valuable human being you know you are inside.

But it is impossible to mandate recognition. Not impossible as in ‘wrong’ or ‘illegal’, but literally impossible. We do not control the insides of other people’s heads. If we want to be seen by others for what we think we truly are, we have no choice but to be that person as well and as hard as we can, and hope for them to recognise us. And as angry as this makes people, as unfair as it seems, as absolutely contrary to the simple – for many but not all - fact that Trans Women Are Women, this cannot change.

I will give the last word to @Kinesis, a trans woman who made some of the best observations about assimilation, acceptance, recognition and allyship I’ve seen in a while on Twitter: “We need support. But true support, the kind that actually helps, never comes from people who feel forced into placating you. It doesn’t work.”

Mar 16, 2018

What's in a word? Why I don't care and neither should you

Last night I attended an excellent panel discussion organised by the redoubtable Woman’s Place UK, on the subject of the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 to allow for legal sex changes to be certified by the state on the basis of self-certification or, also known as self-declaration. Self-certification is being demanded by (some) transgender rights organisations as a replacement for the current system of medical diagnosis and social transition followed by approval by a special government panel. I oppose these changes, but will not rehash my objections to them here. The WAPOW submission to the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee Transgender Inquiry is still a relevant and useful resource to understand some of these objections.

The atmosphere in Birmingham last night was collegiate, inclusive, and for the most part optimistic, which made me really happy. There was, however, disagreement, not among the panel funnily enough, but between the panel and the audience, about a point made by the first speaker, Dr. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, about the importance – or as you shall see, lack thereof – of the focus on the term “woman” and the question of who is and is not a “real” woman. This is a question that exercises both feminists and trans thinkers, and views range from the patently circular “a woman is anyone who says they are a woman, therefore anyone who says they are a woman is a real woman” to the more intuitively compelling but nevertheless unsatisfactory “a woman is an adult human female and an adult human female only”. I understand from reports on social media and from friends who attended that a feminist event held the previous night in Parliament to discuss similar issues took the latter claim very seriously, and that strong points were made in support of the position that we must never relinquish our identity to activists seeking to colonise the language of womanhood. It’s a very live topic, in other words.

I was one of what seemed like a minority in the room to agree with Rebecca that the preoccupation with this issue of terminology is a tactical mistake; furthermore I believe that is a political irrelevance. Given that this is such an important issue for many of my sisters, I thought I ought to set out my arguments in support of this view. To wit, my conviction rests on two pillars:


The critical underlying contention of anti-feminist and anti-woman thinking is not that women aren’t really female or biology is not a thing or that penis can be non-male: it is that women do not have a coherent existence as a political class. This contention is age old and absolutely not an innovation of the trans debate. As Gerda Lerner points out in her seminal The Creation of Patriarchy, one of the main deprivations inflicted upon women by patriarchy is the denial of history: not only is the telling of human history monopolised by men and the cast of characters largely male, but women are seen as not having any intergenerational continuity that could be woven together into a history in the first place. We are cast as material, fleshy, and of the here and now. The illusion of the “naturalness” of the reproductive function to which women have been forcibly limited is maintained, among other things, by the insistence on the fact that there is no shared womanity that is intergenerational, heritable, collective and narrative.

A group without a shared history has no shared identity, and no ability to organise as a class. The denial of history serves a deprivation of politics: it shrinks women’s concerns to the personal, the domestic and the individual. There is a reason why two concepts were keystones of the 1960’s women liberation movement: “the personal is political” and “women are a sex class”. Those women understood extremely well that the first and most important obstacle to overcome when fighting for our rights and liberation is the one that says there is no “we” and therefore no “our”. What had been cast as the narrow personal concerns of atomised individuals is in fact a large scale political injustice against a recognisable class. The fact that this insight was both contested and incompletely inherited by future generations of activists is substantially responsible for the parlous state we now find ourselves in, whereby self-styled "feminist" men see our rights and recognition of our humanity as personal favours they can bestow upon individual women rather than a legitimate political demand of a class that makes up half the human race.

Even before the most recent bout of contestation of language and definition we were, I believe, distracted from the critical project of revitalising and strengthening the legitimacy of women as a political constituency with diverse but interlinked demands and needs: safety, dignity, personhood. Now that we are taking this already-diminished momentum into contestation of language, we have fewer resources still to spend on policy-driven demands such as universal childcare, proper operation of the justice system, recognition and support of unpaid labour, the abolition of the sex trade, equal participation in reproductive effort as far as possible by men and so forth. When we are fighting about what we are called, or about what another group is allowed to call itself, our eyes are off the ball and we risk missing (and I think have been overlooking) the danger of having not the descriptive term, but the legitimacy of that critical starting point, the “we”, kicked out from under us. It doesn't matter what anyone calls us; what matters is that we don't lose sight of the fact that there is an "us".


On every step on the ladder of escalating demands from people purporting to represent all trans individuals, there has been an intense contestation about language. It is almost 5 years since I first wrote something against using the term “cis”, and though I still believe it is a degrading and victim blaming insult to women, I think that I was blind at the time to the fact that objecting to it is a distraction activity from the broader threat. “Cis” is now completely mainstream; it’s made it into the style guides of the Guardian and the New Yorker, into government guidelines and court judgements, into handbooks for clinicians and educators. The ship has sailed. But the armada didn’t go home: the next battleground that opened up was about the legitimacy of the word “female” (I am aware that there were additional skirmishes along the way, but do not intend a full history of the language wars here).

Almost none of us had encountered the argument “binary biology is outdated” or “humans have more than one sex, deal with it” before about 2015. It just wasn’t a widespread thing. But when the battle over “cis” was won, from the point of view of certain people whose priority is to encroach upon the political cohesion and sense of solidarity of women, the war continued. Us radfems tried every trick in the book to avoid falling into the holes dug for us when describing women’s bodies: we used “natal women”, then “females”, then “biological females”. Meanwhile at the other end of the spectrum usage shifted from “cis women” to “non-men” to “uterus-bearers” and “lactators”. The quicksand of allowable terminology never seemed to have a bottom.

Well, I’m calling it: there is no end game to this arms race. The point of it is not to correct or perfect the English language into some recognised ideal of inclusivity and intersectionality, the point of it is to waste our time and energies on an ever-escalating one-up tournament in which every time we think we’ve found a new word that, will, at last, get us left alone, we get attacked again and have to start over. Some feminists responded to this insight by planting their flag on the word “woman” and not budging: simply refusing to acknowledge any changes in what is considered socially legitimate language, and insisting on the objective truth of the language we used in earlier decades.

I completely understand this approach, and am very sympathetic to it. It is natural to think that, regardless of where one is in a campaign, the original frontier is the one we should never, ever have retreated from. But there’s a practical problem in trying to live by this dictum, because if the enemy is outside the walls of your city, it’s pretty tricky to somehow sneak out and go back to defending the border of your province or country; it’s just not where the war is, and you’ll be fighting shadows. 

More importantly to me, however, is the fact that this particularly idiotic war is not of our choosing. I see us being like WWI soldiers, dying in the trenches for the sake of a few yards of muddy flatland neither side is going to gain anything by possessing. I say (and this of course is where the land war analogy breaks down irreparably, and a good thing too): let them have the bloody Somme. Let’s just walk away from this battlefield we didn’t chose and go back to working on what we need to be working on: thinking and writing about women, our social and medical needs, our subjective experience, our history; lobbying governments, cities, schools, universities and hospitals to institute and enforce policies that are needed to make the material conditions of our lives better; and being in sisterhood with each other across our differences and disagreements. This war was designed from the start to be unwinnable by either side, because its ultimate purpose is not to gain ground but to bog women down in one place to prevent them from attacking more strategic positions.

You will notice, I hope, that such a tactical retreat would by no means impede or slow down the fight against, to pick a current example, the inclusion of self-declaration in any reform of the GRA or against the removal of the single-sex services exemption in the 2010 Equality Act. The vital work of protecting legislation which, as Debbie Hayton convincingly argued last night, is also important for the safety and acceptance of trans people, does not depend on us all agreeing on the terminology we like best, or on policing other people’s use of terminology to describe themselves, however silly or even offensive we find those uses to be.


“Language creates reality” is the natural terrain of postmodernists (#NotAllPostmodernists), queer theorists and dilettantes too idle to reform anything other than what words other people get to use on Twitter. It’s not where radical feminist should be making some desperate last stand. It would make me very sad to see us not manage to move past this business of “who is and isn’t a real woman whatever the hell that even means” to continue our work of creating a world in which the patently real, objectively wonderful, commonsensically recognisable political class Women can flourish and thrive.