Out of Existence
I’ve been a thinking a lot about Janice Raymond’s statement that “the problem of transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence”, and how it influences contemporary anti-trans campaigners. I’m struck by how much, even when their words are cloaked in compassion and concern, they really don’t want us to exist. From an exclusionary feminist perspective, this is because we are produced by bad gender theory, and a better anti-patriarchal theory and practice will make us stop existing. From a conservative perspective, this is because we are psychologically damaged and better medical treatment will make us stop existing. Our persistent existence is regrettable, and politics certainly should not bend to accommodate us.
What this leads to is all sorts of muddled ways of thinking, and in particular a complete ignorance of actual trans lives and needs. Consider, for example, the debate about the inclusion of trans people in women’s refuges. The argument tends to proceed on a purely philosophical basis — what is a man? what is sex? what if men can just say they’re women and get in? — or on a basis of scaremongering — look at this one incident of a bad person getting in and doing horrible things! It never considers how access to refuges actually works, or what trans people might need. Do you want people seeking access to homeless shelters or domestic violence refuges to have to produce their birth certificate in order to get in? Do you want any woman who looks too masculine to have to prove her womanhood? (Remember the scene in Stone Butch Blues where no-one at the women’s health centre believes that Jess has a vagina and everyone tries to kick her out? That happens.) Do you want separate refuges for everyone who looks a bit queer? How is that going to be determined when someone comes to the door? Given that trans people face far higher rates of homelessness and domestic violence, what material provisions are you going to put in place before you enshrine in law that they cannot access shelters? Have you thought about how your points affect trans men and assigned-female-at-birth nonbinary people? How is any of what you propose going to actually stop a dangerous person from accessing a shelter, in practice? Not just a law that can prosecute them — which already exists! — but in practice? Why haven’t you thought about any of this? Why, when we talk about it, are these the questions you ignore? Is it because you’d rather we didn’t exist, so don’t bother thinking about the awkward fact of our existence?
Consider also the debate about trans women in sport. There are now decades of research and philosophy papers and I’m not going to rehash them here, but I will leave the note that, in ten years of trans people being able to be Olympians, there have been no trans Olympians. All of this is entirely the wrong debate and focussed on exactly the wrong questions. The question is what’s getting in the way of trans people’s human right to sport. Not the elite athletes, but everyday trans people. The Trans Mental Health study in the UK reported that 39% of trans people avoid gyms, 30% avoid other leisure facilities, 27% avoid clubs and societies, because they are trans. That varies by identity and stage of transition — for some groups it’s as high as 59%. (This point and discussion comes from @mjt273 on Twitter with thanks.) We are, en masse, terrified of changing rooms and our fraught participation in sex-segregated sport. What can be done to enable these hundreds of thousands of young people excluded from sport to participate in their human right? Do you think the current debate is doing that? Have you thought about it? Why not? Do you think the best solution to this problem is morally mandating us out of existence?
Consider that the big media debate of the past year has been around the Gender Recognition Act, which has no impact on the majority of trans people’s lives. The Gender Recognition Certificates enabled by the act govern birth certificates, which in turn govern pensions, inheritance and marriages. Those are the only significant areas of law they’re relevant to. (Rich people’s law.) There is no definition of sex in law. There is no “legal sex”. Law does not determine reality. The reality is that trans people are living trans lives in their lived sex, and access sex-based services and spaces by their lived sex, and no-one checks their “legal sex”, which does not exist, but they do face prejudice and discrimination at every turn. They can access legal protection under the Equality Act on the basis of both sex and gender reassignment whether or not they have a Gender Recognition Certificate. The debate is proceeding on a philosophical basis, centred on an a priori argument about what sex should be, an argument about absurd hypothetical scenarios that have no rooting in lived life, and in complete ignorance of the actual meat and breath of the lives of trans people (and the law!) Why is this? It’s because you think we shouldn’t exist, so can safely ignore the fact of our existence.
I’m influenced in all this thinking by Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s book “Revolting Prostitutes”, which has completely changed the way I think about philosophy and politics, and given me the best example I’ve ever read of a political and ethical argument proceeding on the basis of *analysing what actually happens*. It examines how legal and social institutions make sex workers’ lives harder, and how the political position that sex work should not exist, the desire to morally mandate it out of existence, enables people to ignore the actual facts of sex workers’ actual lives. The word for all this is “ontology”, which means a theory of existence. The bad ontology underlying these anti-life approaches is that laws make reality, that saying something is so makes it so — a sort of naive backwards postmodernism, what Sophie Lewis calls the “bad materialism” that links sex worker- and trans-exclusionary thought. Borders don’t stop migration, they just create a precarious labour market of vulnerable migrants who can be exploited and assaulted with impunity. Laws don’t stop sex work, they just give more power to managers and enable police to exploit and assault poor people with impunity. Creating a legal definition of sex won’t stop trans people existing, but it will make our lives harder.
And you know what, I also don’t want to exist. I want to live in a version of Iain Banks’ science fiction utopia in which the practice of body modification and gender transition is so easy and so normalised that no-one thinks of themselves as trans and everyone is trans. I want to live in a version of Marge Piercy’s science fiction utopia in which everyone takes cross-sex hormones at will, everyone breastfeeds, everyone has the same pronoun, and no-one thinks of themselves as trans because everyone is trans. In these worlds, every barrier to trans life has been removed, and that is how we have been morally mandated out of existence, as part of morally mandating patriarchal exploitation out of existence. That’s how you do it: all women and all gender minorities working in material solidarity for all our liberation, until the categories that contain us no longer exist.