Trans identity and moral panic: a reader responds

In response to my last post, ‘Is there a trans bubble?’, a trans queer person called Kate, who is a regular reader, got in touch to say that she disagreed with some of my points. I had argued that our culture is obsessed with trans issues at the moment, and there was a risk of this cultural bubble leading to hasty decisions by young people to embark on irreversible gender transition surgery, which they might regret. I argued for a fluid notion of identity, including gender identity. I positioned the trans movement within the two millennia old Christian search for the ‘real me’. I also suggested the trans movement may have flourished with young people online because it fit with digital culture and the online self-presentation and self-modification. Here’s Kate’s response, followed by some questions from me and answers from her.  

An additional Christian narrative that we could bring to look at the way trans issues are being reported and interacted with in the mainstream is that of the moral panic.  I am concerned that some of your writing replicates this approach.  I wonder if you would be interested in this articulate post by Rosie Swayne, addressed to feminists, with some pertinent information.

There is no one way of being trans, and being identified as trans does not mean that children will automatically be on their way to hormones and surgeries.  It is interesting that you use the phase 'officially identified as trans' and I would encourage you to explore who exactly it is that makes an official verdict on a person's gender identity.  Have you read anything about the recent Mermaids UK situation?

You took issue with my 'born again' narrative around transitioning?

Yes. One of the many difficulties for trans people (including myself) about the reporting of 'trans issues' is that the mainstream conversation allows only for the 'born again' narrative, which is often used to enforce or strengthen the notion of the gender binary, a narrative that many of us do not subscribe to.  There are various tropes that accompany this reporting.... 'before' and 'after' photos, for example.  Photos of trans women putting on make-up.  You will be familiar with these and more, I am sure.

I also suggested the idea of transitioning was connected to social media self-fashioning...

A great deal of connectivity occurs on social media for people of many demographics but a quick look at the history of trans organising will reveal that much of our activism has and does happen offline.  You could make parallels with other instances of juxtapolitics.  That would be fair, and would also mean that you would not be dismissing our political campaigning as a superficial endeavour.

Part of the difficulty, I think, is the packaging of trans issues as 'trans issues'.  Many issues arise from being trans (or at least issues do arise for me) and trans people need a platform to share and speak out about these issues.  Many other things that are compartmentalised as 'trans issues' are in fact issues that touch all of us.  We need to ask ourselves as a society about equality and diversity, and to explore what it is about gender that is so explosive.  Binary gender is a Grand Narrative which means a great deal to many people.  Why?  What does our treatment of outsiders and misfits say about us as a society? What, in essence, are we so scared of?

I expressed concerns about people transitioning and then regretting it and 'detransitioning'. 

The statistics tell us that very few people detransition.  It is important to honour their stories and not to use these stories to invalidate or ridicule the majority of people who find transition (whatever this means to them) to be key to their ability to go on living.  Could you explore what a detransition story might be telling us aside from calling trans lives in to question?  It is worth asking what exactly IS being reported...the case of Karen White, for example, has been used endlessly to indicate that trans people are all dangerous sexual predators... however we could also ask ourselves whether the Karen White story is a question to us all about our prisons and how we house people with specific criminal tendencies within general prison populations.  The persistent 'othering' of trans people could be read as a way of othering and stepping away from parts of society or the self.

How do you as a trans person feel about the media’s sudden intense focus on trans issues? 

Thanks for having this conversation with me, Jules, and for sharing your platform! These are two great ways of being a trans ally. I identify as a trans queer person- I am gender-queer and pansexual- but I am not by any means representative of all trans, queer or gender non-conforming people.  I should say that I am not contesting fluidity of identity; some aspects of my identity play out as fluid (my sexuality being one) and some don't (my sense of my own gender being one of these). I am advocating for self-identification rather than the labelling of marginalised trans people by others who are afforded greater social power.

Some of the issues that are reported as trans issues are indeed specific to trans people… but many ‘trans issues’ as reported I think could be more broadly grouped under the question ‘how shall we treat people who are or appear to be different from ourselves?’.

Moral panic is a recurring media (and societal) trope which shifts its gaze; trans people are currently at the centre of one. It feels important to highlight that not all trans people seem to be specifically under the media spotlight or microscope; the focus often appears to be on trans women and sadly to their detriment.   It supports and perhaps even creates a culture of fear; and fear is the enemy of curiosity, which is what we need, I think, to move beyond some of the false binaries that we are all being subjected to by the reporting on offer.  False binaries might include ‘feminists vs trans people’, ‘male vs female’.  I work with teenagers and I see that the media focus has provided young people with a some vocabulary for trans identities which was not available to me at their age, but that the vocabulary is small, and young people (trans or cis or neither) are experiencing this vocabulary in an extremely weaponised context.

Speaking of young people, and irreversible bodily changes, I wonder if thinking about ‘natural puberty’ as a commensurate irreversible bodily change would be informative in terms of understanding some young people’s sense of urgency around seeking medical interventions to delay their puberty.  I remember this was something you were concerned about in your initial blog post.

Do you feel the focus has increased in recent years? 

I do. I perceive a direct correlation between the reporting that is going on and the volume of strangers who shout abuse at me in the street.  I sense the connection between these mainstream cultural interactions with trans-ness and a legitimising and mobilising of hate crime- violence of word and deed. It is extremely difficult to be subject to this profound fear, and extremely hard to be the object of the profound fear of others.  Fear that is created, agitated and stoked by the media. There is an unhelpful crystalisation of definition occurring around what it means to be trans… that there is only one path of trans-ness and that it involves thoughts of being ‘born in the wrong’ body and ends with the final of a succession of operations.  I feel it is strangely behoven on trans people to educate others now when sometimes we just need to pop to the shop to buy carrots or whatever.

Do you feel people are jumping on the bandwagon...?

I’m not sure what the bandwagon would represent.  I think from certain corners there is a notion that trans is the invention of the young, or that lots of people are coming out as trans as a fashionable trend.  My take on this is rather that trans vocabulary has entered the mainstream in a quite concerted way over the past few years and that as a result people are suddenly able to have dawning realisations about themselves or find words to express parts of themselves that they were already aware of but previously had no language for.

There is a great deal of passionate commentary available from people who don’t seem to have done a great deal of exploratory research about varying experiences of gender. Your own blog post, ‘Is there a trans bubble?’ begins with a series of images, for example, in which you used images of people who are not trans. Conchita Wurst is a drag queen persona performed by Thomas Neuworth, the Austrian singer who does not identify as trans and has made public statements to that effect. Caster Semenya does not identify as trans either; it has been suggested that she may have hyperandrogenism. Intersex conditions are not equivalent to a trans identity.  Intersex people may or may not be trans. Trans people may or may not be intersex. Trans people may or may not be drag performers with international reputations and amazing eyebrows.

I think that discussions of gender can require a nuanced vocabulary which is not instantly available to people who perhaps have not had to educate themselves by either being, or being in intense proximity to, a person who is questioning their gender. I think it is important for me to remember this and have compassion around it. Of necessity I have needed to (and continue to need to) educate myself about concepts and vocabulary- often emerging vocabularies which are changing very quickly.  Not everyone has been required to walk this path.

On the other hand, it would be useful to ask ourselves how offensive it really is for people who are trans to live lives of safety and fulfilment. The metaphor we are fed about debates about gender is that of a battle- adversarial, bloody, raging, exhausting, two sides, from fixed positions. I am not sure this is doing anyone any favours.

What is the GRA consultation and why has that provoked such a backlash in your opinion? 

The Gender Recognition Act (GRA) 2004 is a piece of legislation that governs how trans people can have their identity legally recognised. Towards the end of 2018, the UK Government held a 16 week public consultation on this act.  Under the GRA 2004, non-binary people have no rights to have their gender identity legally recognised, nor do people under the age of 18. Trans people wishing to have identity documents showing a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth are medicalised by this process, requiring a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and intrusive psychological and physical assessments.  There is also the issue of the ‘spousal veto’ by which married people seeking to have their gender legally recognised require the agreement of their spouse.

A great many people, trans and cis, felt that the act, although radical in its day, is outdated and ripe for reform. Things have moved on.   Gender dysphoria was declassified as a mental illness in June 2018 by the World Health Organisation, for example. My hope is that this process will become simpler, faster and more streamlined and that non-binary people and 16-18 year olds (and, of course, non-binary 16-18 year olds!) will gain the right to self-determination.

The public consultation brought issues of gender identity to the fore. It was used at times as an opportunity to debate trans people’s validity of identity, right to exist, whether we do in fact exist, and so on.  There has been a great deal of scaremongering about trans people (that we are all abusive sexual predators, for example, or that we all hang out together in toilets) and there seemed to be a lack of clarity about what the GRA consultation really was which was not particularly well addressed in the press. There seemed to be attempts made to scale back some of the protections afforded to people by the Equality Act 2010 (which was not the piece of legislation being consulted on) in which gender reassignment discrimination is specifically addressed as unlawful.  Non-binary people, it should be noted, are not protected under this or any UK equality legislation.

Do you think there is some middle ground possible between feminists and trans people, or are there fundamental differences over what should legally and biologically define being a woman? 

Trans people might or might not be feminists.  Feminists might or might not be trans people.  Feminists who are not trans might or might not be trans allies.  Just as there is no one way of being trans and no one voice that represents trans people, the same can be said of feminism.  I think the media, perhaps in a rather skewed attempt to show ‘balance’ has amplified some quite radicalised voices across the spectrum that perhaps many would not say represented them.  I would also say that ‘man vs woman’ is a false binary… human bodies are so diverse in presentation… they don’t really adhere to notions of binary gender in the way that we pretend (or seem to need) them to do… these are Grand Narratives that we impose, societally and culturally, upon our bodies.

The science demonstrating the existence of bodily sex characteristics as a complex spectrum of interactions is already available. Our bodies do not exist in these neat ‘male or female’ compartments. Gender is not the same as sex.  ‘Manhood’ or ‘Womanhood’ is not (or is not only) about legal or biological definitions.  It is also intensely connected to how close we can perform the norms of the society we live in.  As the National Gallery in London shows us, there was a time in England when the highest expression of ideal womanhood was shaving one’s hairline back past the top of one’s head.  There was a time when Noel Coward in his floral, satin dressing gown, was considered to be the height of masculinity.

Ideas of self-identification for trans people have been ridiculed and lambasted by some but I think self-identification should be formally rolled out to everyone.  All of us self-identify in relation to gender.. For some of us this is a completely unconscious process and for some of us it is a more conscious or difficult journey.

There seem so many competing ideas around identity at the moment, all of them 'weaponized' - the argument between men and women, and women and trans people, over whether gender identity is biologically and neurologically determined for example. What do you think about this? Is there a range of views on this within the trans community? Do you think trans identity is biologically determined at birth? 

I think looking for one determining factor to explain all trans-ness will not be fruitful.  Some factors reside in the body and some do not.  Again, are men and women really diametrically opposing each other in the way your question suggests?  Many trans people are women, many cis women support trans rights. There is always a range of views in any community, trans community (and communities, plural) included. The quest for scientific knowledge is interesting and important but in the meanwhile trans lives are being lived right now, often in the face of unjustifiable systemic difficulties.  This is also interesting and important.  The whys about how I have come to be as I am feel (to me) considerably less pressing right now than the hows of moving towards greater equality.