Tuesday , 19 November 2019

Degendering and other made up words

GenderAre Germaine Greer and Richard Dawkins being transphobic?  Johanna argues that their perspective is wrong because they both dehumanify gender and empty it of its subjectivity.

Beyond calling transphobia “transphobia”, we have very few ways of describing what is specifically wrong with bigotism directed towards transgender people (or people perceived to be transgender). It’s a truism that trans-conversations take about six times as long as a normal conversation because we have to use and often explain so much jargon that is unfamiliar to most people and even may transpeople themselves. We need better, more concise and descriptively intuitive terms to describe the kinds of abuse we face to help educate others why they are wrong.

For instance calling Greer’s words an assault would be disingenuous. They’re a presumably an honest opinion, and not really directed at any specific individuals, but rather are a discriminatory attitude and mode of thinking that she broadcast to the world.

So what was she doing? Why was what she said so vile and objectionable?

Simply put, she was attempting to take gender away from transpeople. We are labelled as (trans-)eunuchs by “de-gendering” us. Gender is a fundamental human characteristic. Everyone has one, and though most people have conventional binary genders, they are still within the spectrum of possible genders. No one tries to take cisgendered people’s gender away without an outcry!

Hence, “degendering”. Adjective: to literally or figuratively attempt to remove a person’s self-determined gender and/or the act of physically removing gender characteristics from a person.

So this is what Greer did wrong: “she degendered us”, and compare that idea to things like being “emasculated” or the kind of misogyny that insidiously devalues women. Because it really is the same thing just with a different target.

We can also describe potential social-consequences of ‘degendering’ by comparing it to ‘outing’ someone, or stigmatising a skin colour, a religion or even being cis-gendered. “Degendering”, we argue, is what Richard Dawkins demonstrated with his tweet dated 5:34 am, 26th October, 2015.

“Is a trans-woman a woman? Purely semantic. If you define by chromosomes, no. If by self-identification, yes. I call her ‘she’ out of courtesy.”

This is not transphobia. If only it were, but it’s more dangerous than that – its a reductive. Gender is about more than just chromosomes and has many other biological processes driving it. Hormones are particularly important to gender. It’s how a female person born apparently male can transition gender. Breasts don’t grow from fresh air and wishes for a transwoman. Inparing gender down to the gene is also inaccurate, as Dawkins discards the majority of the day-to-day function of gender in a human being relying instead on a variable set at conception to explain a whole life. It’s simply not a valid view of gender even if it is in a very strict and narrow scientific term accurate.

However even if it is not transphobic, it is without a doubt trans-negative. By virtue of placing doubts upon the gender of a transwoman coupled with his timing it leaves no doubt that Dawkins’ tweet is connected to the transphobic comments Germaine Greer. Had this been a trans-friendly tweet, it would have gone something like:

“I don’t care what chromosomes you have. If you say you are a woman then you are a woman.”

It’s not actually that different to what was actually tweeted and indeed could be read identically with interpretation in the mind of the reader. It’s just there is no gender-loophole to allow doubt as to transwomen’s gender in that version.

Of course there is one factor missing from both Greer’s and Dawkins’ comments on transwomen, the social aspect of gender. There is a very good argument to be made for saying: “Woman is as woman does.”

Further still and related there is one very important factor missing from both Greer’s and Dawkins’ beliefs about transwomen, it is the social aspect of gender: subjectivity.

We transwomen learn how to express our femininity in a process called transition. That is a social-process, often taking place without medical support where we explore who we and find out how best to express that to others. Transwomen are women because they learn the same social lessons as any other woman, they share experiences like exposure to misogyny (Yes, thank you for that Mr Dawkins!), but also in the relationships we form with other women.

But should we look at this solely through the lens of transphobia? What about all those other women who aren’t transphobic but rather trans-neutral, or those utterly fantastic women who are trans-allies. We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater on this one. The positive contribution of women to transwomen’s lives is essential to our own self-confidence as women.

I’ve been lucky. For all my adult life there have been female friends who knew I was really a woman and who supported me and helped me express that beyond the privacy of home. I came out in my early twenties as a St Trinian’s Girl at a long-ago party and that experience, and the two friends who helped me get ready and reassured me are hugely important parts of my life. Without those experiences, I wouldn’t have had insight into my own femininity long before I transitioned permanently. Similarly, though I lost many friends when I transitioned there were two other close friends I love dearly who have stuck with me. Just being treated like another woman is a novelty in the early days of transition, and what better circumstance to begin to learn the unfamiliar social conventions that women use in their day-to-day lives. I gained some new female friends in the early days too. People who’d only ever know Johanna. They showed me a different kind of confidence, one without the baggage of my past where I could be completely the me I am now. I am a woman and the other women in my life have taught me and supported me in learning what that really means. I am a feminist because I can only share those women’s desire for gender-equality. I am a happy and confident transwoman who had an amazing transition because of what the women in my life gave me. I couldn’t be the woman I am without other women.

So I can ignore the hatred of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) at a personal level. The women in my life armoured me against their bile. Were I not an activist, I could let it all pass beneath me whilst I serenely sailed through my life. I see and feel empathically the pain of all those transpeople they damage with their bigotry. So I challenge TERFs transphobia robustly. It’s my privilege as a woman living amongst other women to do so.


Editorial: Article amended as a previous author wanted her views removed.


About Johanna-Alice Cooke

Johanna-Alice Cooke
Johanna is a passionate equality and civil-rights activist. An 'out' transwoman, she focuses upon transgender issues from medical provision in the NHS and legislative equality, to fighting society-wide issues such as hate-crime. In her spare time she is working towards qualifying as a clinical-psychologist. A Scot by enthusiatic self-declaration, she's crawled over a lot of the country in a previous life as a geologist and loves knowing why our country looks as beautiful as it does. Currently fostering two cats, Johanna loves felines of all kinds despite being a recovering-carnivore herself.

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