The social negotiation of gender identity and pronouns
“I know I’m a transgender woman, I know I’ve got masculine features, I know I’m tall, I know I’ve got big feet, I know I’ve got a deep voice, but they’re my big feet, it’s my deep voice and it’s my identity. And I’m happy with that. When you’re like that, the rest of life, the rest of society suddenly becomes easier… I am transgender, I will never stop being transgender.” - Hannah Rose Winterbourne
Earlier this year, Maya Forstater, a British researcher filed a lawsuit claiming her employer, the Center for Global Development, discriminated against her because she previously tweeted that a person cannot change their sex, amongst other things. When a British tribunal ruled against her last week, JK Rowling rebutted on Twitter, “But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?”
Whilst I think that an employer should refrain from disadvantaging an employee because of speech exercised that the employer doesn’t agree with, Ms Forstater is wrong, if not completely wrong, and it would’ve behoved Ms Rowling to fact-check. Yes, she’s right, biological sex is real. So real that it’s actually made up of chromosomes, gonads, genitalia, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics.
The fact of the matter is that only chromosomal sex is immutable. The other four aspect of biological sex are not immutable, rather they can be changed through hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and sex reassignment surgery (SRS). These facts are as matter of fact as the fact that the sky is blue. Facts are not up for negotiation, which has made it somewhat difficult for me to sympathise with both ladies.
Whilst the non-chromosomal mutability of biological sex fact is not for social negotiation, gender identity and pronouns are. Now before you assume that I’m transphobic, or a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist), please allow me to fully explain what I mean by social negotiation. There are two parts to gender identity. The first part relates to self-identification, and this may be driven or not driven by gender dysphoria. What may not be as self-explanatory is the other part: identification perceived by others, which gives rise to social negotiation.
There’s an interview clip on YouTube that shows Ben Shapiro initially using transgender actress Laverne Cox’s proper pronoun (female) on Joe Rogan‘s show. He did so without thinking, then ‘corrected’ himself when he realised his façade cracked. His façade is his belief in ‘biological pronouns’, but sex chromosomes were only discovered in 1905, and ‘he’ is Old English, ‘she’ is Middle English. Ben usually doesn’t look silly, but in this case, he did, especially given that he would not have access to Laverne’s chromosomal sex test results, if they do exist.
Because there’s no such thing as ‘biological pronouns’, Ben gendered her female (initially) because irrespective of whether Laverne passes as a woman or not, or whether she proclaims her gender identity or not, she presents as a woman. Her gender presentation, with the help of any HRT and SRS, signals to everyone’s brains that she is a woman, cisgender or trans.
Since our brains prefer categorisation, if you saw someone in the local shopping centre presenting as a woman, regardless of any less conspicuous manly imperfections or knowledge of her history, she would register as female in your mind because she falls within the broad female category accordingly. To illustrate this point further, if you knew that the person you saw at the shopping centre is a transwoman, bumped into her then decided to have lunch together, using male pronouns when referring to her would only serve to confuse the waitress taking your orders, who is even less interested in her history.
Now if you came across a pre-transition transwoman who doesn’t present as a woman, ie looks like a ‘man’, and they asked you to use female pronouns, you shouldn’t be forced into using the requested pronouns, but I think it would be polite to use female pronouns in this case. This is social negotiation, and it appears that a lot of trans activists, especially on the Internet, deny the reality thereof. I guess hiding behind a computer/smartphone screen is bliss.
Gender identity and pronouns are tools of social negotiation. Trans activists however have used them as emotional tools of self-identification, and this has not helped societal acceptance of ordinary trans folks who just want to get on with their lives without worrying about trans politics. You’ll come across people like Ms Forstater wherever you go in life, and it’s best to ignore them (after having rejected offers of polite learning opportunities) rather than give out free #IStandWithMaya ammunition to the transphobes and TERFs. Emotional force that enables a restricted speech culture, rather than social negotiation, fails everyone. Nobody likes to be forced.
The debate over whether only women menstruate, birth etc is another example of emotional force failure.
Fact 1: most women can fall pregnant before menopause, successfully give birth, and lactate.
Fact 2: some transmen and non-binary people (who usually but not always present as men or non-binary) fall into the Fact 1 category for various reasons, especially medical incompatibility with, or inaccessibility to, HRT.
These facts can be used to help people socially negotiate gender identity and pronouns in peace, because facts don’t have feelings, so there’s no point in rubbing these facts into people’s faces. Regardless of who started this debate, it’s obvious that the extreme ends of the debate have taken over the sensible voices towards the centre. They’ve repackaged Fact 1 as “only women can menstruate and give birth”, and Fact 2 as “any gender can menstruate and give birth” for political play, without any regard for what’s happening in the real world.
Why would people politically repackage such facts? Why would Ms Forstater and Ms Rowling be so defensive of their womanhood/sisterhood that they’re willing to brush aside the non-chromosomal mutability of biological sex fact? Why are trans activists encouraging emotional force rather than social negotiation? Whatever happened to ‘live and let live’, or should I say, ‘live to tell the facts and stick to it, or let live’?
I’ve noticed of late a lot more public discourse on the ‘erasure of womanhood’, ‘erasure of trans people’ etc. I find the choice of the word ‘erasure’ odd, because I would’ve thought that the erasing of someone involves a number of steps, which includes the physical disappearance of the person, the deletion of their government paperwork etc. Trans activists, TERFs / gender critical feminists etc are some of the loudest people in the public discourse on sex and gender. There is clearly no erasure of ciswomen, or trans people, because if erasure is real, such discourse would be dead by now.
So what happened to ‘live to tell the facts and stick to it, or let live’? The only reason I can think of that would explain why people are spending an unusual amount of time on forcing gender identity and pronouns on each other is that people are seeking some sort of validation from others, perhaps due to insecurity? Seek validation from within. People don’t owe you validation, because only you owe yourself validation.
If you as a ciswoman, know that you’re a woman, regardless as to whether you can menstruate or birth children or not, why do you need trans people to validate your experience of womanhood. You know it’s real, don’t you? If yes, then socially negotiate.
If you as a trans person, know what your gender identity is, regardless of your state of biological sex, why do you need cis people’s approval? If you’re willing to transition, whether medically and/or socially, isn’t that more than enough proof of who you know you are? If yes, then socially negotiate.