There are times in your life that you find yourself going back over, again and again. For me the years 1987 to 1996 have a particular resonance. Filed away somewhere is the sense that then, and only then, I was really me. I know it’s not true – I was a dull person, a thin shadow who thought only of food and cold – but I still feel that I came closest to owning myself. Never close enough, of course, but what more can a woman expect?

I’ve just finished reading Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady. It’s a brilliant book but one that I’ve found incredibly triggering (and “triggering” isn’t a word I often use). It has set off a lot of memories for me, and a lot of resentments that usually bubble under the surface of my fleshy, ageing exterior. It’s a book about women as people – real people with real inner lives – and it surprises me how rare that is. It’s about women trying to make themselves heard and then watching it veer off course, again and again. At the risk of sounding self-obsessed (and this is a self-obsessed post) I can identify with that. It reminds me of my own experiences as an anorexia patient and the scars that haven’t gone away. (more…)

Why do women wear high heels? It’s a question men can ask but feminists can’t. When men ask it they’re being light-hearted and humorous, expressing jovial bafflement at the strange ways of womankind. When feminists ask it they’re being judgemental bullies, dismissing the choice and agency of their Louboutin-loving sisters. So it is that Ally Fogg can get away with writing a piece for the Guardian on why he, Fogg, does not like women wearing heels (I defy any woman to do this without being considered a raging femmephobe – just ask Charlotte Raven).

In said piece, Fogg tells the story of a female friend – a kind of Everywoman in stilettoes – “grumbling about the blisters and bruises being caused by her latest proud purchase”:

I muttered something about taking more care when trying things on in the shop and she looked at me as if I had started speaking fluent Martian. “I’d never not buy a nice pair of shoes just because they didn’t fit!” she exclaimed, then we sat gawping at each other while silent mutual incomprehension calcified the air.

It’s a real Mars and Venus moment, suggesting that when it comes to shoes women are a bit, well, irrational (bless ‘em). Fogg later comments that he is “more attracted to a woman who looks like she can drink me under the table then carry me home, making a sturdy pair of DMs just the ticket”

I live in hope that one day the human race will view high heels with the same horror with which we view foot-binding. Women would be spared innumerable podiatric agonies and men would, I think, just about cope. Until then I shall content myself with the knowledge that I’m right and the rest of the human race is a bit daft.

I can see the good intent here. No one wants women to have ruined feet (unless it’s feminists who are making that point, in which case ruined feet become empowering). But “a bit daft”? Really? Femininity, and the way in which it shapes women’s supposed free choices, is a little more complex than that. (more…)

Last weekend I engaged in two rather different cultural pursuits: I started reading Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl and I took my children to see the film Paddington. Now, I say they were different (certainly I enjoyed one a lot more than the other), but there were some similarities nonetheless. The challenge to the gendered status quo, for instance. On that point, Paddington and Serano are as one. Yes, I know that might sound weird, but you’ll just have to bear with me.

Whipping Girl is one of those books that you’ve read before you’ve actually read it, at least if you’ve spent any time on feminist twitter. For me it was a bit like Harry Potter: I kept hearing the same things about it until I started to feel sure people were misrepresenting – there had to be more to it than bloody Hogwarts – but no. It is what it is. Serano genuinely claims that “while it is generally considered to be offensive or prejudiced to openly discriminate against someone for being female, discriminating against someone’s femininity is still considered fair game”.* She also talks about feminists “buy[ing] into traditionally sexist notions about femininity—that it is artificial, contrived, and frivolous; that it is a ruse that only serves the purpose of attracting and appeasing the desires of men”. She writes about “empowering” femininity.*** She also claims to know that “certain aspects of femininity (as well as masculinity) are natural and can both precede socialization and supersede biological sex”.**** It’s actually really disappointing. I did hope for at least some glimmer of insight, or perhaps a bit less misogyny (but what would I know? I’m too busy making the world sexist simply by pointing out that sexism exists). (more…)

2014-11-16 12_44_53-transawarebristol - Twitter Search

Hey, check out this poster from #transawarebristol! Isn’t it inclusive? Isn’t it liberating? Doesn’t it say everything you’d want it to say? No more shall bigoted females take it upon themselves to have opinions about who should share enclosed spaces with them; after all, it’s not up to them! Fuck them and their irrational, hysterical little phobias! Only some people are allowed to feel threatened, or to have an idea about what womanhood means, and it sure as hell isn’t them. Other people know best.

I’ll be honest: I am struggling to see how this type of “don’t worry your pretty little head about this, proto-bigot” approach to gender liberation is of use to anyone. Women don’t worry about personal safety for the fun of it, nor do they seek to set their own boundaries just because they’re stupid and mean. They have fears relating to male bodies that are real and valid, and a sense of self that is as authentic as anyone else’s. Telling them “well, you shouldn’t – other people’s feelings come first” is just misogyny 101. (more…)

According to the online commissioning briefs of CBBC, the channel is “for everyone, everywhere”. Still, let’s not get carried away. The whole thing might sound diverse but apparently “children haven’t changed as much as we might think: girls are still girls and boys are still boys”. But what does that even mean?

If you’re hoping that “Our Guide to the CBBC Audience” might offer further details, you’re out of luck. That webpage is now blank, following complaints about sexist stereotyping earlier this year. Back then anyone hoping to pitch to CBBC would be informed that male viewers were “task focused” while female ones were “emotionally focused”:

Girls are more socially adept and motivated than boys. They will chat enthusiastically, try to support the people they care about and form profound friendships and relationships and develop an interest in boys from age 10. […] [Boys] enjoy achieving goals and completing physical challenges. There is a focus on doing, confrontation and physical strength, and for many their football team is a top priority. […] They often think girls of their age are annoying but like to talk about their body parts and sex.

Interesting, right? And handy, not just if you’re penning the latest white male hero plus ethnic minority male sidekick plus equal-but-not female helper cartoon series (hello, Mike the fucking Knight!). It’s almost as though CBBC commissioners were planning ahead, for a future in which today’s young girls end up passive, patient carers for today’s young boys, who will be out there having their own adventures and not giving a shit about anyone (because hey, supporting people you care about is girls’ stuff!). It’s such a shame that Mumsnet feminists caught wind of all this and forced them to cover their tracks! (more…)

I’ve been doing God a lot recently.

The reason for my conversion is a school inspection. 100 years ago people in the small village where I work wanted their kids to be educated. Passionately, desperately wanted them to be educated. And the landowners, who were exploitative patronising rentiers but not yet living in an age where they were convinced this was just because they had worked a bit harder at uni, felt they ought to help out a bit. And everyone came together under the one organisation that had united them for generations, and they founded a Church of England school for a village that chose Christianity in the same way it chose breathing. And across the country people did the same. And as a whole it was probably the greatest, most positively transformative charitable act in English history. And because of that act of charity, the Anglican Church Inspectors came, saw and reported.

Since this is education in 2014, though, they didn’t just look at whether the school delivers what those original founders would have wanted. Instead we had to show a Distinctive Christian Character ™. School needed to be saturated with that character, values and prayer boards all around.  And, evidence was needed that our DCC produced improved standards. Which is why I found myself trying to explain how it Christianity (not God, the inspection doesn’t quite demand that) had improved our maths results. And so the original breath-taking act of redemptive charity led 100 years later into a neo-liberal hell where choice and brand is key, and where performance related pay rules: if this school has the added value of being Christian and is supported by the Church, then the Church has the right to ask how that support adds value to anything and everything. (more…)

Dear Antony Loewenstein

I would like to congratulate you on being brave. So, so brave for writing a piece in the Guardian on why feminists are doing it all wrong. It’s especially brave given what an awful, entitled, sexist piece it is. Still don’t worry. I doubt very much that too many rape threats, accusations of bigotry and no-platformings will be coming your way.

It’s nice that you realise “men have a stake in gender equality”:

… from promoting fair pay and no-fault divorce laws, all the way to stopping honour killings and sexual violence. We are boyfriends, husbands, fathers or friends, and yet too many of us shy away from these sensitive matters, fearing opprobrium.

Do you know what would also have been nice? Also acknowledging that men like you have a stake – a pretty enormous one – in gender inequality, from benefiting from unfair pay, all the way to getting away with rape and murder. Still, never mind. It’s not like it’s your job to point these things out. That’s for the feminists, especially the “western ones,” who are currently too busy having “debates about celebrity red carpet dresses and celeb-feminism” (yeah, that’s totally how all the shelters and rape crisis centres are being maintained). (more…)

Women exist.

We exist in our own right. If all the men in the world ceased to exist tomorrow, we women would carry on being, feeling, doing, desiring, thinking, planning, just as we did before. The idea of us, such as it exists for men, isn’t what we are. That which may or may not differentiate us from men isn’t what we are. We are not the leftovers, the not-men. We’re not an outfit anyone can put on. We are complete human beings.

To say so is still an act of insurrection, leading to numerous calls for repentance. You will be told that in making women into solid, living, breathing beings, with their own boundaries, you are being “exclusive.” You will be told that you are erasing the lived experience of those who insist that their external perceptions of female experience override your internal ones. You will be told that since there is no such thing as “shared girlhood” there is no point in having a name for a group marginalised on a worldwide scale in a remarkably consistent way. You will be told that since words are not the thing in itself, there is no need for a marginalised group to have its own definition; indeed, without said definition, would the group be marginalised at all? You will be told all of this but what it still boils down to is the same old conservative, male supremacist idea of what women are: whatever men say they are and whatever men aren’t. It is not progressive, radical or liberating; it is misogyny of Biblical proportions:

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh at that place. 22 And the Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man,23 And the man said, “This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.

“Taken out of Man.” That’s all you are: there is no part of you that is not accessible to Man, not just your body, but not even your experiences. If a man claims to be you, then he is. You can’t ask questions. It’s not as though your very being has validity and meaning in and of itself. You’re just “one of those people” (let’s not even call them “women,” since they’ve no need even to own words). (more…)

To be a woman is to be penetrable, there to take whatever men wish to ram inside you. It can be anything, from words to ideas to body parts, just as long as there is no reciprocity. Nothing of your own reality – your words, your ideas, your body – can make an impression on anyone else. You raise your voice but you might as well still be gagged. You say the same words, again and again, but until they’ve been uttered by someone male, they might as well not have been said at all.

At times this is a joke, as in this Fast Show sketch. Ha! Men! They never listen to women! At other times, our penetrability, set against men’s refusal to absorb in return, can be lethal. Reeva Steenkamp took what Oscar Pistorius chose to force inside her: bullets. Now what remains are his words, his ideas, his living, breathing body. As women we’re meant to suck it up because what’s the alternative? His story is the only one on offer; if we tried to tell another, who would listen? (more…)

Over the past year I have seen far too many feminists – brilliant feminists, who put their heart and soul into fighting for women – denounced as “violent TERFs”. There have been articles demanding that others shun them. Men demanding that other feminists do not support them (and said other feminists complying). Misogynist diatribes speculating on these women’s sex lives on the basis that this is the least they deserve. Bullshit articles holding these women responsible for the deaths of 50,000. And I haven’t said very much. What little I have said has been enough to get me classed as a “violent TERF” too.

There’s a problem with saying anything, of course. If someone says “you’re an X”, there’s the risk that in saying “I’m not an X”, all you’ve done is validate the concept of X-ness and associate yourself with it. So it is with TERF-dom. A TERF would say she wasn’t a TERF, therefore any denial is, witch trial-style, evidence of guilt. And a TERF just would say TERF is a slur when it’s actually a purely descriptive term used to denote a political position: the political position of some stupid bigoted bitch who deserves to die in a fire. So what can you do? Say nothing, or join in with the kicking, just so you can tell yourself it won’t ever happen to you.

And yet it still might, since it’s hard to keep denying that sex class analysis matters in feminism. If you can’t think why, study some de Beauvoir or some Firestone. Go out into the world and look at what is happening to women and girls. Read some Crenshaw and think about how difference matters – and what a difference being female makes. Ask whether you really believe an oppressor class’s external perception of what women are, no matter how “fluid”, gives the oppressed enough of a voice. If after all that you still believe there is some band of devil women who experience membership of a marginalised group as belonging to an exclusive club, then knock yourself out, but don’t kid yourself you’re a feminist. Allowing an oppressed class the right to their own self-definition and boundaries is Feminism 101.

Anyhow, today I am angry. I am angry because a violent male has been sentenced to four days – just four days – in prison for a sustained sexual assault on a female victim. We are required to refer to the perpetrator as a “she”. We are asked to call the rape of a woman, using a penis, a “lesbian” assault. We are expected not to call this male violence, for that would make us “violent TERFs”. But it is male violence. It is.

If there is a problem with terminology here – if the right to self-define clashes with the right to call violence by its proper name – then that problem is not caused by feminists. It’s caused by males who rape women and all those who refuse to identify them as such. It’s caused by a gender hierarchy which non-feminists both defend and refuse to acknowledge. Feminists don’t owe anyone a solution to the linguistic contradictions emerging from this mess. It’s not for us to tiptoe around with language so that no one feels “erased” by the description of a male penis violating female flesh. It’s not our fault. We didn’t create this gender hierarchy. We challenge it. If you prefer to micro-manage it, making tweaks here and there while those at the bottom of the pile continue to suffer, go ahead. But again you are not a feminist.

I know what the standard narrative for this particular news item will be. All “violent TERFs” do. Just as every act of male violence against women and girls is wickedly “exploited” by feminists who wish to name the problem (making feminists, not murderous men, the baddies), a trans woman committing rape will be “exploited” by TERFs to put the vulnerable trans community at risk. Because those written off as the penetrable class are not vulnerable themselves. Because naming male violence within a community makes you responsible for male violence inflicted on that community. Because you can vilify a whole group (feminists) for violent acts that have not been committed by a single one of them. Because extrapolating that there are issues with language and categorisation which put women at risk is an act of violence in itself, deserving of a lifetime’s denigration and exclusion. Rape? We’ll give that four days. Four days and no one speak a word, because you know the rules for male violence: isolated incidents. Always remember that and never forget that you’re only words away from being denounced, forever, as a violent TERF.

In the late 90s The Fast Show used to feature a recurrent sketch in which a group of men and one woman would be brainstorming for ideas. The punchline was always the same: the woman would be the one to find the solution but no one would seem to hear it until a man repeated it using slightly different words, having not quite understood it, whereupon he’d be treated like a total genius.

I think things are a bit like that in feminism these days. We have decades of serious scholarship and wonderful ideas but unfortunately most of it has come from not just from women, but from stupid old cis women (a bit like your mum, but more bigoted). That can’t be any good, can it? Best repackage it to make it seem more clever and authoritative. Best say it’s coming from someone with a deeper, more meaningful understanding of sex and gender. Best pretend it’s all new, all the better to continue pissing from a great height onto the very people we claim to be liberating. (more…)

Yesterday Buzzfeed published a spoof guide to contemporary feminist terminology. As a contemporary feminist, how I laughed. Laughed and laughed and laughed. Then, after about half a second’s laughing, I thought “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if someone wrote an actual guide to some actual feminism? One that actually mentions male oppressors and doesn’t spend half the time focussed on which feminists hold unacceptable views?” So despite being female and therefore crap, I decided to give it a go.

Gender (noun):

  1. Oppressive hierarchy, situating adult human males (as the construct “man”) at the top, adult human females (as the construct “woman”) at the bottom.
  2. Nebulous thing that makes you want to wear certain clothes, have certain ideas, do certain activities, adopt certain mannerisms etc. Otherwise known as “being a person”.

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I can’t remember when I first realised my son was a person. I guess as a mother you always know these things. Right from the moment he was first placed in my arms I sense there was something person-y about him, almost as though he might be an individual with his own consciousness, fully capable of developing a sense of himself which was not inextricably linked to gender stereotypes. Quite why this should be, I couldn’t say, but now that he’s older, I believe more and more that I was right. Nonetheless, like any mother, I have moments when I still wonder if I’m failing him.

From an early age my son has liked things. Some of them have been pink and some of them have been blue and some of them have been other colours. He has also liked activities, some of them boisterous and aggressive, some of them gentle and caring. Sometimes he goes through phases of liking more pink things than blue things, or doing more gentle things than aggressive things. A more attentive mother might have sat down with an excel spreadsheet, listed the number of boy activities and preferences in one column, the number of girl ones in another, and come up with a suitable gender for such a child. I never did this. I just looked at him and thought “ah, a male person, albeit one growing up in a world full of crappy categories arbitrarily linked to sex difference. Oh well, we’ll do our best to ignore them”. (more…)

This morning @FeministPics tweeted a newspaper report on the fascinating story of Harriet Capon, who spent two years presenting as a boy. When asked to explain herself, Capon claimed her motivations were economic:

I am one of a family of six. My mother, I regret to say, is in very precarious health, and about two years ago I started thinking seriously about how I could add to the household income to the best advantage. Of course everyone knows that a man can make more money than a woman in industrial employment. I cogitated for a long time, and finally I decided to become a ‘man’.

All of this took place a century ago. There was no Equal Pay Act, no anti-sexual harassment legislation, no maternity leave, none of the safety nets for which feminists have fought long and hard. Capon’s assumption – that if one wanted to make money in industrial employment, it was easier to be a man, even easier than it is today – was absolutely correct.

A short while after @FeministPics put out the report a tweet from another twitter user appeared, mentioning “Charles Capon, #trans boy for 2yrs during WWI”. It referred to the same story, only now it was presented in a completely different light. Suddenly it is suggested that Capon acted, not in response to a gender hierarchy which values males more than females, but because she was indeed one of the ‘higher value’ individuals. I’ve rarely seen a clearer example of neoliberal identity politics being privileged over economic, social and political oppression. Given the pitifully low status of women and girls the world over, this matters. (more…)

I knew my sons were boys four months before they were born. For each, a penis was visible on the twenty week scan. They were not, shall we say, “modest”, which is just as well, because I wanted to know in advance. I wanted to be able to prepare myself, by which I do not mean purchase a vat of blue paint and a range of suitably gendered toys. I wanted to know what, in a viciously gendered world, we’d be up against: the conditioning that tells my children to be violent, unfeeling, dominant, unable to admit to vulnerabilities, or the conditioning that tells my children they must be passive, self-effacing, nurturing, mere objects for the purpose of another’s self-definition. I wanted to have time to think about how to protect them (but there’s never enough time for that).

My sons are boys because they have penises. They are neither female nor intersex. They are male. They are not boys in the gendered sense of the word: their character, emotional life, intellect and world view are not shaped by the fact that they have magic boy brains. I am not, however, naïve; I know that much of what is shaping their experience as human beings comes from the fact that others believe such boy brains exist and will treat my children accordingly. This is why, as a feminist, I am against what gender is and does. It might be a hierarchy which implicitly positions my sons at the top, on the arbitrary basis of reproductive difference, but it is one that harms them, too. They are unique, creative, wonderful little people, not “a gender” (what is that, anyhow? How many genders would we need to allow them to be utterly individual? 7 billion? What, you mean like having no genders at all? Don’t be such a bigot!). (more…)

Laurie Penny has a colouring book:

It’s called Finding Gender, and it was sent to me by an activist who knows how much I love social justice and felt-tip pens. In the book, a small child and a robot go on marvellous adventures, and children and nostalgic adults get to scribble on their clothes and costumes, their hair and toys. It’s an ordinary colouring book in every respect, apart from the fact that the child isn’t identifiably male or female. Neither is the robot. The person with the crayons gets to decide what they’re wearing, whether they’re boys or girls, or both or neither.

It sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? I wonder if there are other books in the series. Finding Class, for instance, where the child isn’t identifiably rich or poor and the person with the crayons gets to decide whether he or she has a pony and a yacht or a half-eaten bag of chips. It’s such a wheeze when an oppressive, abusive hierarchy can be reduced to a few self-indulgent, superfluous stereotypes. You could almost – almost – convince a child that they get to define their own place in a classist, misogynist social structure. As for adults … well, you’d hope most would have a sense that this isn’t quite how things work.. (more…)

In response to yesterday’s post I have received a lot of well-meaning messages informing me that “gender is not a binary”. This is, I assume, to disabuse me of the foolish notion that there’s only boring old male and female. I am reliably informed (as if I didn’t know it already) that there is plenty more in-between. Hence we don’t need to panic about gender itself oppressing people. There’s enough to go round! Don’t fear it, queer it! Everything is awesome! etc.

I am not convinced by this argument, not because I have any doubts about the number of gender identities currently on offer. There are loads. It’s like being in an Eastern Bloc country just after the Fall of Communism – look at the choice! No more shall we join a uniform stream of Men and Women trudging miserably out of the People Factory. We’re free at last! (Or at least we would be if it wasn’t for those pesky TERFs still clinging on to their Stalinist views on gender equality.) Gender is not a binary – it’s not! That Facebook drop-down provides all the empirical evidence we need. The trouble is, it might not be a binary, but it sure as hell is a hierarchy. (more…)

Most women hate their bodies. This is one of those boring facts that everyone knows and no one bothers to change. We half-heartedly order women to “love themselves” and “embrace their curves.” We encourage them to watch Dove adverts so that they may campaign for Real Beauty (while also worrying about ugly underarms). We eventually tell them fuck it, beauty is empowerment, why not embrace your self-hatred? Whatever we do, it’s not all that important since at the end of the day it’s all vanity. Hate away.

I can’t remember a time when I haven’t hated my body. Really, truly hated it, albeit in a way that I don’t tend to think of as hate (I think of it as “having a shit body” or “being a fat, ugly bitch” or in countless other ways which problematize not my hatred, but my body itself as an offensive object). At times my hatred of my flesh has almost killed me, leading to hospitalisations and force-feedings. I still wish there was less of me. Whatever my size I will always wish to be less. (more…)

Female biology is neither magic nor mysterious. It doesn’t make those in possession of it nurturing, or caring, or motherly. It doesn’t mean we ought to bear children, nor does it mean we can always bear children if we’d like to. Female biology is flawed, inconsistent and, most of all, it is not the sum of us.

It is, however, real. My female reproductive system is as real as my heart or my brain or my lungs. It will exist whether you allow me to name it or not. I am not simply “a female”. I am a person. I am, nevertheless, female. I am neither ashamed nor frightened of this.

Identifying bodies as female is not an oppressive or exclusive act. It is simply a statement of fact, but also one that has political import. If we stop naming female bodies, female bodies will still exist. We will still interpret them and respond to them. We will, without radical changes to our thinking, continue to reject, abuse and punish these bodies just for being what they are. We will not call them female, but we will still call them something: the bodies of breeders, bleeders, post-menopausal non-entities. We will demean their owners by taking away a biological definition and replacing it with a function. We will have decreed “female” far too good a word for that lower class of humans, the fleshy, sinful ones with their blood, discharges and holes. We will have taken a word that articulates the source of their oppression and offered nothing in return.

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Yesterday Paris Lees wrote a blog post on Avery Edison, a trans woman who was being held in a man’s prison in Canada. In it, she described “a culture that punishes difference, blames victims and lacks empathy”:

It’s a disbelief characterised by privilege: the cushy, unquestioned joy of not knowing what it feels like for the other person. To stand there, humiliated, while people you don’t know tell you what they think your gender should be. That you are fake. Inauthentic. Not what you say you are.

Powerful and beautifully expressed, this touches on something that lies at the heart of all movements for social change – this sense that you are not what others define you to be, that you are more human, more real, and as such you deserve more. That your life has a pattern and meaning other than those being imposed on it from above. We all know our realities better than anyone else. We know what forms us and we know what hurts us. We own the context of our own experiences.

I was thinking of this when reading Roz Kaveney’s response to my New Statesman piece on cis identities, gender and womanhood. It’s not a response as such, more a remarkably unfeeling lecture on how to be empathetic. It’s a curious thing, reading that what you believe and feel about yourself isn’t right, and that someone else knows better. It’s not an unfamiliar sensation of course; as a fellow woman, Roz, I’ve had people do this to me all my life. And here’s a gentle reminder, if you’re going to write about empathy again any time soon: the respect I show for your reality doesn’t render mine a poor, second-class version.

Your experiences don’t override mine, filling in the gaps, blotting out the parts no one wants to see. Your understanding of gender is different, but not heightened, not deeper, not more “real”. I am interested in the context it gives to mine, and the extent to which I may need to recalibrate in response; nevertheless, my flexibility doesn’t extend to offering up my own version of womanhood at the altar of your ego.

In a piece filled with kindly, long-suffering explanations of what I “really” think, Kaveney describes how “when someone like Glosswitch, not ill-intentioned and probably not meaningfully describable as transphobic, announces that they are going to talk about gender, alarm bells ring all over the trans* part of the internet”. I know! Just imagine, me, a feminist, having opinions and thoughts about gender! It’s bound to be total crap, right? The whole tone of this sounds disturbingly patriarchal. I picture myself in a Mike Leigh film, a seventies housewife who’s got drunk at a dinner party, my embarrassed husband making excuses for us both: “Don’t mind Glosswitch, she means well but she hasn’t a clue what she’s talking about!” Poor Glosswitch. She does get these “ideas” about womanhood. Don’t hold it against her, eh? She’s not transphobic, after all; well, not “meaningfully describable” as such (wink, wink).

Like all people who mistake projection for empathy, Kaveney seems to suggest she is being kind:

I get that, as a young cis woman, Glosswitch experienced major areas of dysphoria about body and social role; I understand that she thinks, not entirely without justice, that these give her some share of what trans people go through.

Well, actually: no. That’s not what I think. I don’t define my experience of gender solely in relation to people who experience it differently. I don’t see it as a partial, broken-off narrative, useful only if it will earn me the right to take part in a conversation that belongs to someone else. This is my story. Mine. I own it. It is every bit as complete and real as yours, and this is true of every single woman on Earth, cis or trans. This will make you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable, too, but there we are. That’s empathy for you.

This doesn’t mean gender is arbitrary and meaningless, floating in the ether. It is embedded in all of our lives. We each make our own definitions, form our own versions. That doesn’t mean the totality of these versions is harmless. We can still read its impact. It’s not the case that when beliefs about gender kill women – or cause them not to be born at all – these women don’t really die because hey, that’s not how you see gender operating. This is no more valid than suggesting that racism isn’t that bad, really, because you recognise people of colour are equal to white people. You don’t get to deny the reality of structural inequality just because you simply don’t feel it deep within yourself.

Kaveney writes that “the range of meanings attached to the word gender are attached to a range of actual lived experiences – that is how a living language about sex and equality develops”. I am a linguist. I have PhD in languages. I might not be quoting Butler but I am not a child who needs words explaining to me. I also know that it is naïve in the extreme to pretend that language necessarily develops in a positive direction, becoming more progressive and inclusive. Any development which takes from females the means to articulate the relationship between gender, biology and oppression – and does so at a time of massive structural inequality – is not a positive one. It is, on the contrary, erasing and dangerous. Kaveney would like to suggest that any articulation of the misogyny inherent in reproductive oppression means giving in to “the people who want to abolish women’s reproductive freedom” since they are also erasing trans men. This is disingenuous beyond belief. A denial of the structural roots of oppression is not a move for inclusivity. Misogyny is real. It is no less real when it has an impact on those who do not identify as women.

Of course, like all women, I am used to people talking down to me and feeling, not angry, but disappointed. Often they sound like this:

Some of the time Glosswitch really doesn’t get it – empathy fails all together.

Oh dear :(. The trouble is, empathy isn’t saying what people would like you to say. It is about trying to understand. Kaveney doesn’t like this. You are, it appears, either right or wrong:

What’s also politically dangerous is [Glosswitch’s] assumption that there’s a possible, desirable truce between trans people and those feminists who are trans-exclusionary, or more accurately trans-eliminationist.

God forbid that anyone should operate on the assumption that, in a world in which beliefs about sex and gender oppress us all, we’re most of us trying to do our best. God forbid anyone should try to act in a way that identifies humanity and good faith even in those we disagree with. God forbid that we should hesitate before daring to look at anyone – anyone at all—and say that they are, to quote Lees, “fake. Inauthentic. Not who you say you are.” God forbid that I should believe my reality can stand toe to toe with yours.

I haven’t written this for the benefit of Roz Kaveney, or indeed anyone else. I’ve written it for me, because it makes me feel better to restate that my reality is mine. It’s important to be able to reclaim these things. You can take something from deep within yourself and lay it out for public consumption and it will be there for others to take and put into whatever context they wish. Nonetheless, it’s still yours, whoever you are. It can’t be distorted and shoved back inside you as something else, something you neither knew nor felt.  Anyone at all should be able to empathise with that, at least if they were to try.

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