At an arts event some months ago, an older lesbian smiled at me as we walked out of the women’s toilet.
‘I just ran into a silver fox in the loos,’ I said. When I pointed her out, my partner informed me that person in question was Sheila Jeffrey’s girlfriend.
I’m not entirely sure why I’m telling this story. I suppose I think it illustrates something about gender, visibility, transphobia and women’s spaces. Toilets are a symbolic political battleground for anti-trans ideologues like Jeffreys, and as a result of her lobbying, a legal and practical minefield for trans people who have to navigate not only potential awkwardness but fear of violence and humiliation when going to the loo. But in everyday interactions, strangers read or misread gender through visual and auditory assessment, without knowledge of either your biology or biography.
I set out to write about Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, a new book by Melbourne University academic Professor Sheila Jeffreys, in which she contends that ‘transgenderism’ is based upon sex stereotyping, is a setback for feminism, and harmful to society and trans people themselves. I find I have little to say in response to Jeffrey’s arguments because all of them are based on the idea that women are not really women if they are trans.
Jeffreys opposes the inclusion of trans rights in anti-discrimination legislation on the premise that she imagines it will allow men in women’s clothing to enter women’s toilets. She fearmongers around the threat of predatory men, who have nothing at all to do with trans women except that Sheila Jeffreys thinks you can’t tell them apart.
Of course, gender does hurt. As philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler says in direct response to Jeffreys:
If she makes use of social construction as a theory to support her view, she very badly misunderstands its terms. In her view, a trans person is ‘constructed’ by a medical discourse and therefore is the victim of a social construct. But this idea of social constructs does not acknowledge that all of us, as bodies, are in the active position of figuring out how to live with and against the constructions – or norms – that help to form us. We form ourselves within the vocabularies that we did not choose, and sometimes we have to reject those vocabularies, or actively develop new ones. […]
One problem with that view of social construction is that it suggests that what trans people feel about what their gender is, and should be, is itself ‘constructed’ and, therefore, not real. And then the feminist police comes along to expose the construction and dispute a trans person’s sense of their lived reality. I oppose this use of social construction absolutely, and consider it to be a false, misleading, and oppressive use of the theory.
In Gender Hurts, Sheila Jeffreys claims:
Women’s experience does not resemble that of men who adopt the ‘gender identity’ of being female or being women in any respect. The idea of ‘gender identity’ disappears biology and all the experiences that those with female biology have of being reared in a caste system based on sex.
But trans and cis (non-trans) women share many common experiences. Trans women experience an amplified version of the misogyny that is familiar to any woman when they are judged for their bodies, belittled when they are ‘too feminine’, or censured when they are ‘not feminine enough’.
The thing is, women vary hugely in our bodies, behaviours, identities, socialisation and experiences. And unless you’re trans, these differences are usually accepted as something that doesn’t make you any less a woman.
Let’s get personal. I was raised in a family that expected women go to university and work outside the home in fields like science, medicine and technology. I am bossy, brave and sometimes belligerent. Like probably any woman who writes, I am occasionally mistaken for a man because any unsigned text is presumed penned by a man. My birth name is also ambiguously gendered to people who are used to English names. I have short hair, imperceptible breasts, and I’ve been called ‘sir’ even when I’m wearing a dress. But as someone who was assigned female at birth, I am understood as a woman regardless of how I dress, how I fuck, or how I behave. Feminists are usually first to defend the breadth of what a woman can be.
Back to toilets and how gender is constructed in everyday interactions: I’ve had women ask aloud if they’re in the men’s toilet upon seeing me but I’ve never been asked to leave. If I ever were, I would hope that it would be enough for me to say that I am a woman. I certainly wouldn’t be willing to show someone my junk. A woman does not necessarily have a vulva, womb, breasts or XY chromosomes. Biology doesn’t determine either sex or gender – people do. And your own sense of your sex and gender is surely more legitimate than the assessment of a doctor at your birth, a stranger in a toilet, or an academic who knows nothing about you.
The reception of Gender Hurts has been polarised. On Amazon, all but two of 116 reviews are either one or five star. Long-time trans activist Sally Goldner expressed concern that the University of Melbourne would promote Jeffreys’ views, and suggested that a book arguing people with a certain skin colour were less intelligent would be unlikely to receive the same support from the university.
Sadly, I wouldn’t count on that. Several buildings at the University of Melbourne are named after influential eugenicists like Richard Berry and John Medley. Earlier this year, the university appointed Stolen Generations denialist (and former Liberal MP) Sophie Mirabella as a public policy fellow. With regard to Sheila Jeffreys, Dr Shakira Hussein said that she once asked Jeffreys if a postgraduate student could interview her, prior to the publication of her book Man’s Dominion: The Rise of Religion and the Eclipse of Women’s Rights. Jeffreys demanded to know whether the student (who had a Muslim name) wore hijab as she believed there was no point speaking to a woman who wore hijab.
Racism in higher education isn’t confined to the University of Melbourne. I’m part of a network of women of colour in Australia, and many students have stories to share of racist comments from classmates, tutors or lecturers. While universities have a role in encouraging debate, they also have a duty of care to protect students from personal attacks. But while most universities have detailed policies around equal opportunity, discrimination and harassment, students who have tried to report incidences have sometimes found the processes convoluted, arduous and lacking transparency.
Additionally, such policies usually only contend with individual instances of discrimination, harassment and vilification, so they don’t provide a means to address issues of oppressive structures or offensive content. A friend currently studying postgraduate medicine complained to me that students frequently put on exaggerated foreign accents during role plays but that the issue could be resolved by teaching staff advising students at the start of each subject that such behaviour was inappropriate, rather than engaging individual students in a complaints process. A 2013 racial vilification case that was dismissed in court, Luke Hamlin v University of Queensland, demonstrates for me how inaccessible and inflexible a framework of dispute resolution can be when dealing with systemic issues. Outside Australia, Dr Satoshi Kanazawa remains employed as Reader in Management at the London School of Economics in spite of large-scale student protests against his work, which includes claims that black women are objectively less attractive than women of other racial backgrounds, as well as articles like ‘What’s Wrong with Muslims?’ and ‘Are All Women Essentially Prostitutes?’.
When we criticise universities for endorsing transphobic or racist ideologies, we have to consider that these instances are not aberrations by progressive bodies that otherwise exist solely to serve social good. Especially now, any research agenda has to be understood within the wider structural shift towards deregulation and privatisation – what Ben Etherington in Overland earlier this month called the end of universities ‘as civic institutions formed around the pursuit of unprofitable truth’.
There is a long history of protest against Sheila Jeffreys by trans communities, sex workers, women of colour and other feminists, especially those who have studied at the University of Melbourne where she has taught since 1991, but she has remained in her position.
One feminist and former student Liz Patterson also told me: ‘After Women’s Studies was changed to Gender Studies, she moved to the ever-so-women-friendly school of Political Science in protest. Then when there were protests against the cuts to Gender Studies and the elimination of the major in 2007-2008 she was absolutely nowhere to be seen, because it no longer affected her.’
Protests are useful for highlighting the variety of other perspectives to students who might see Sheila Jeffreys as the only face of feminism. But ultimately I want to put my feminist energy into building a movement with and for all women, rather than against those who call themselves ‘leading feminists’ but do not lead us.
I am inspired by the work that is being done in Malaysia. A group of trans women have filed a groundbreaking court case challenging the constitutionality of a Sharia law against ‘cross-dressing’, which has been used to harass, arrest and imprison Muslim trans women for up to a year in male facilities. The policing of this law is often accompanied by rape and sexual harassment, with Human Rights Watch reporting several instances of trans women being molested by officials and Nisha Ayub, a trans activist with Justice for Sisters, talking about her experiences of being made to show her breasts to male prisoners and perform oral sex on the wardens. The Putrajaya Court of Appeal began hearing the case on 22 May 2014 and will continue on 17 July 2014.
The legal battle has been accompanied by a public campaign by Justice for Sisters to raise awareness of the issues facing both trans women and trans men, called I AM YOU: Be a Trans Ally. Justice for Sisters has been endorsed by a wide section of Malaysian civil society including reform movement Aliran and feminist organisation Sisters in Islam, as well as allies in Singapore, Thailand, Burma, Nepal, Indonesia and the Philippines. Two Australian groups, Queer Muslims and the Australian GLBTIQ Multicultural Council, have also sent statements of support.
I’ve been following Justice for Sisters since 2010 and promoting their work among my networks. Everyone I’ve spoken to has quite intuitively grasped the issues. Even if they have no familiarity with trans or feminist politics, people can usually see how the persecution of trans women is a form of misogyny, as well as transphobia. Most feminists understand that women vary greatly in who we are and what we need, and that part of the work of feminism is to embrace and protect our variety against a society that demands a very narrow path. It’s embarrassing to find a feminist professor who doesn’t understand that.