Language and the Gender Debate
Why There Can Be No Compromise on Language
On 21 October 2021, I attended the LGB Alliance conference in London where there were many great speakers and topics explored. For the first time in quite a while I felt I was with a group of people who believed in the importance of sex in defining who we are. After one of the talks on free speech, scholar and activist Julia Long stood up and asked that we “reflect” on the language we use within the gender debate. She put forth her case passionately and fairly about how the use of language (eg. references made about “gender extremists” and “trans people”) undermines the position gender critics claim to hold.
The responses to the question were tangential to the points Long raised. More than one panelist expressed that no one should police or coerce other’s language, a response that had nothing to do with the points raised by Long. While this is not about “who was right” or the subsequent debates on social media, I was genuinely interested in Long’s critique. Since she had asked us to reflect upon our language, I did. Here are my reflections on the use of language in the gender debate.
I was once part of the LGBTQ+ “movement” when I believed in gender identity ideology. After coming out as gay in my teens, I was taken to the doctor in 1992 since my father believed there was something wrong with me. During a few sessions I was asked bluntly if I “felt like I should be a woman.” While I immediately and instinctively rejected this notion that I might be a woman rather than a gay men, this memory stays with me today. During my adolescence, many considered me to be “not quite a man” or “less of a man” than heterosexual men, and later, at university, I was criticised by other gay men for being “straight-acting.” This informed why I ended up identifying as “cisgender” in order to lay claim to something that in reality I thought I already was, even though this notion of “cisgender” relies upon dated tropes of what a man or woman ought to be. For my younger gay self, “cisgender” as an identity was the only way I could be out and accepted as gay within what had now become "LGBT" circles. I hadn’t thought too much beyond was “cis” did to imprison me and other men within a series of tropes that reduces men to formulaic performance.
The reasons behind the social expectations about what a man should or should not be, are steeped in gender. Gender is also the fundamental driver of most homophobia. Unwittingly, I had internalised gender without realising the danger it posed to me as a gay man. Even today society holds that being a man is dependent upon how you behave, how you perform gender. This is something with which I passionately disagree. Man and woman are words that describe the adult sex classes. There is no possibility of being more or less a man—one is either a man or a woman. While within each sex, there is a huge diversity of personality traits and behaviours, these facets of our person have nothing to do with sex and are entirely unrelated to how “male or female” one is. Within each sex and across them, one might group people by traits (introverts, nerds, geeks, jocks etc), but these are somewhat arbitrary and flexible categories that an individual can move between—they have absolutely nothing to do with the fixity of anatomy and sex categories.
It is also vital to the rights of gay men. Here’s why.
Gay men are exclusively attracted to men, however they may identify. We are not attracted to women, however they identify or present. This matters in law, that our sex and sexual orientation are protected on that basis.
If you discount straight men with autogynephilia or identity disorders, the remaining men who identify as “trans women” are gay men. These men have internalised homophobia and most have come to conclude they are not gay men.
If you believe that there is room for a category of “not quite men” for gay men who have undergone medical procedures, then you are enabling homophobia and continuing the general impression that gay men at least sometimes— are not quite men.
This is why for me, on reflection, I will not cede the language of reality to anyone. No woman can be a man, no man can be a woman.
While some people accommodate the idea that certain men and women are, for personal reasons, somehow fundamentally "different" from other members of their sex, this is not my view. Some may argue that once a man has undergone surgery to reconfigure intimate parts of his anatomy, he is no longer “really a man.” I reject this for the reasons I’ve outlined above and I do not wish to inadvertently enable a brad of homophobia towards young gay men signaling that they may not be men. If an adult human male is exclusively attracted to other men, then he is a gay man just like me, albeit with different experiences and personalities.
I also understand that there is a fear of my position being seen as “denying the existence of trans people” or “extremist”. I bear no hate or ill will towards any individual with my position on language. I am not denying that people believe they have a gender identity, or that people who identify as transsexual believe they have undergone a fundamental change. I simply do not believe what they believe. For me, the notions of “trans” and “cis” are part of a deeply flawed ideology. It isn’t a position of being “anti-trans” but an outright rejection of gender as something that is felt by most people or which is a discursive part of everyone’s identity. Most people simply do not claim to have a gender identity.
Some trans advocates are advocating a particular strategy to employ gender identity ideology within public policy, law, education, and private and public institutions. I understand there is a difference between those who are aggressively pushing for this ideology to be established as a new state religion, supported, and sanctioned by law, and these are extreme activists. None of these, however, are “gender extremists” because the ideas of both the extremist and the so-called moderate positions of the gender identitarians are exactly the same. Suggesting there are “gender identity moderates,” as Long pointed out last months is equivalent to saying to an atheist that belief in God can be excessive or minimal. What matters to an atheist is not the amount of belief—it is the belief in a god or the rejection of this belief. What we find that is moderate or extreme, therefore, is the activism within the trans-identified community and their allies.
Where some believe that we can only make political advances through compromise and appearing reasonable, the reality is that Stonewall and other LGBT+ organisations have shifted so much of the language sacrificing so much of their own community in the service of the trans-identified. It feels like an incredibly high-risk strategy, akin to offering territorial concessions when invaded by a foreign nation if the invader cease hostilities. Historically, this strategy has not gone well.
In academic circles especially, there is a misunderstanding of how little public opinion and understanding has moved on this debate. In wider society, man still means adult male, and woman still means adult female. Many people I speak to about this issue have difficulty remembering “which way round” terms like “trans woman” are, and I must explain to them that in “gender speak,” it is the sex (that they consider to be “gender”) that those men desire to be perceived as. To them, any compromise of a “third type” of person, would still represent a shift from the sex-based world they still inhabit.
Having taken up Long’s request to consider the language we use around gender identity, I not only reflected on my use of language, but I came to the conclusion that Long offers the only coherent approach. As we debate our rights to disagree firmly with gender ideology and the greater transgender lobby, I also find myself criticised for expressing my position within gender-critical circles where my views might now be seen as somehow “extremist” or lacking in compassion, or that I am inviting the accusation of coercing others to adopt my language.
This is not the case. It is important to me as a gay man not to adopt the language of gender, which for me and millions of other gay men and lesbians, is the language of the oppressor. Gender identity ideology is damaging to lesbians and gay men. It also demarcates an irrational footnote to certain self-identified gender-critical individuals who ally with what they view as “more moderate” trans-identified individuals in order to lend credibility to the public theatre of compliance by these people. The problem with this approach, is that nobody has a whitelist of those trans-identified men whom certain people deign as being worthy of the women’s toilets, for starters, and it undermines the position of gay men and lesbians to assert their sexual orientation.
The inclusion of any man or woman who has undergone surgery or hormones, to have somehow “transitioned” into something else requires a complete disconnect from reality. One cannot argue that sex is immutable, except in the cases of certain true trans-identified folks who happen to be friends with those viewed as thought leaders in gender criticism. When such exceptions to this strain of gender criticism persist, they create a conflict with reality.