MANY decades ago I worked as a deckhand on a cruise liner transporting ‘ten-pound Poms’ to Australia. I was surprised to learn in the crew bar that a small number from the stewards’ department preferred to be referred to as ‘she’ and that one or two were saving for the ‘op’ which could be had in Tangier. Other crew members complied but no one thought they were actually women, perhaps not even the stewards in question. The use of the pronoun ‘she’ was merely a courtesy.
Now people suffer death threats for denying that trans women are women; a biological male leaves the female opposition trailing in US college swimming championships; politicians struggle to define what a woman is, and ‘complete’ biological males are able to choose which prison or hospital ward they will enter, sometimes to the detriment of the biological females there.
How did we get from then to now?
Here is a brief timeline before we get on to pronouns. First we need to define our terms, and the ONS (Office for National Statistics) has helpfully provided definitions of the three crucial concepts.
Sex: Referring to the biological aspects of an individual as determined by their anatomy, which is produced by their chromosomes, hormones and their interactions . . . generally male or female . . . something that is assigned at birth.
Gender: A social construction relating to behaviours and attributes based on labels of masculinity and femininity.
Gender Identity: A personal, internal perception of oneself and so the gender category someone identifies with may not match the sex they were assigned at birth . . . where an individual may see themselves as a man, a woman, as having no gender, or as having a non-binary gender, where people identify as somewhere on a spectrum between man and woman.
Until the middle of the 20th century gender was primarily a grammatical concept, sometimes used synonymously with sex. It started to take on a separate conceptual existence in 1945 with the work of psychologist Madison Bentley and then Simone de Beauvoir in her 1949 book The Second Sex. In 1964 psychiatrist Robert Stoller coined the term ‘gender identity’, referring to an individual’s subjective perception.
In contrast sex has been an objective reality, not requiring conceptualisation, throughout the history of the human race, and for a billion years before that in more primitive life forms including fungi.
The curious thing is that over the last 50 years there has been a struggle for dominance between the three terms. In our cultural landscape sex has diminished while gender and gender identity have grown to rival or even surpass it.
One small example of sex’s decline is to be found in the ONS definition above, according to which it is ‘assigned’ at birth as though it is just a bureaucratic box to be ticked. Although in rare cases sex is not obvious and the doctor really will have to assign it for the birth certificate, for the vast majority of babies sex is no more assigned than blue or brown eyes.
Another example of this shift is the appearance of the term ‘cisgender’, something which no one knew they had until activists started promoting it as a pairing of equals with ‘transgender’. Seemingly small, but language matters in the creation of social and then political reality.
In 1990 the eminence grise of transgenderism, Judith Butler, published her (if she doesn’t mind me saying) seminal book Gender Trouble. Someone I admire (Gad Saad) has described it as unreadable but I did try a page or two. The central idea of Gender Trouble appears to be that ‘gender is a performance, not an essence’. Oddly enough I can go along with that as long as it is conceded that sex is an essence (or as non-philosophers would say, ‘fundamental’). Sex does not depend on actions or trappings but is inscribed in every cell of our bodies in the form XX or XY. No amount of performance will change an X to a Y or a Y to an X. Yes, some people have XXY or XXYY chromosomes but their basic sexual characteristics are equally fixed.
This rearranging of the sexual furniture was just harmless fun between consenting adults while it was confined to university humanities departments. Unfortunately it escaped into the real world where it started to become, as academics like to say, ‘problematic’.
Section 9 of the Act says: ‘Where a full gender recognition certificate is issued to a person, the person’s gender becomes for all purposes the acquired gender (so that, if the acquired gender is the male gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a man and, if it is the female gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a woman)’.
So there we have it: in law if you change your gender you change your sex.
No wonder politicians cannot define a woman. Affirming the common understanding of a woman would mean admitting that the law is an ass. And it is an ass because it confuses different things.
I suggest that most of the resulting problems (male athletes threatening to wipe out female sport, women raped in female prisons or on all-female wards, children allowed to make irreversible changes before they can fully understand the issues etc) stem from this confusion.
Going back to the ONS definitions:
Sex is biological and anatomical.
Gender is social.
Gender identity is personal and internal.
Why should there be conflict between these three concepts which, on the face of it, you would expect amicably to coexist in different areas of life?
The answer is that the 2004 Act has allowed gender identity to claim the same domain as sex, encouraging transgender activists to demand that their ‘personal, internal perception’ be accorded primacy over their biological reality.
In 2018 Stonewall released T-shirts with the slogan ‘Trans Women Are Women. Get Over It!’ Legally they are correct. The Summary of the Gender Recognition Act says ‘legal recognition will have the effect that, for example, a male-to-female transsexual person will be legally recognised as a woman in English law’.
In biological reality, of course, trans women are not women. They are men who feel like women. The rest of us have to decide for ourselves which we think is primary, the legal definition or the biological one.
And so we get to pronouns. They have become, bizarrely, a cultural battleground. Few people care what pronouns people use to refer to themselves but when they find themselves pressured into using them too it tends to put their backs up.
Thinking of my former shipmates, they had no problem respecting, or at least humouring, the request to use feminine pronouns. But what if those concerned had demanded rather than requested and had insisted on being acknowledged as actual women? I venture to think that such demands would have been met with disbelief and a quite nautical response.
In our current culture we have passed the requesting stage. Using the required pronouns is demanded of us and those who resist risk being ‘cancelled’ or even losing their means of making a living.
In parts of our society beyond the reach of Twitter mobs – the pub, the Telegraph comments columns, my living room – people shamelessly refer to transgender people by their birth pronouns, or perhaps we should say their ‘cispronouns’. But things are quite different in the media. Journalists or TV presenters, clearly opposing the view that trans women are women, still refer to those concerned as ‘she’, the only exceptions I can think of being James Delingpole and Rod Liddle.
In an article in the Telegraph about the recent swimming affair in America, Allison Pearson declared ‘Lia Thomas is a bloke!’ then shortly after referred to him as ‘she’. When challenged about the disconnect in the comments she replied that it was only good manners.
But pronouns are not just a matter of good manners for the transgender activists who complain very noisily when ‘misgendered’. They understand, if professional wordsmiths do not, that if you wish to control actions you must first control thought, and if you wish to control thought you must first control language. Did Orwell not make that plain?
I suggest that if we think a person born with XY chromosomes is necessarily a man, we should refer to him with the grammatically appropriate pronouns of him/his, if only for the sake of consistency. With all sympathy for his distress, I am sorry to say that if a biological male thinks he really is a female then he is simply deluded and going along with his misuse of language is not compassion but collusion.