I’ve just had a slightly frustrating Twitter exchange with an intersex person who assumed, wrongly, I had used the term ‘intersex’ casually. In fact, like many MPs, I’ve thought a lot about issues issues of gender and sexuality and in any case my instinct is that most people have a pretty good idea of what intersex means.
Anyway, the episode got me thinking about gender and sexuality – so here’s a few morsels of food for thought.
Intersex folk face particular, and potentially massive, challenges in life. The extent to which they choose to be, or are involuntarily, characterised by being intersex varies according to each individual. These days, though, the physical aspects of ‘intersex’ (literally ‘between the two genders) sometimes seems subordinate to larger philosophical questions about gender as a construct itself.
When I voted for the UK Gender Recognition Act I found the changes created by the law both genuinely progressive and absolutely profound. The new law provided for legal gender reassignment including the issue of a new birth certificate to gender re-assignees; contentiously for some town and county registrars, it was also made an offence to disclose the existence of the ‘old’ birth certificate (although the police and so forth could still have access). While I agreed with the principle of allowing people to have a new birth certificate which gives their new gender, it was nevertheless significant that the legislation required an untruth to be entered into a legal document.
Philosophically, at least, some people argued that there was no untruth involved. A person may have been identified physically at birth as one gender but in fact felt better suited to life in a different gender – ‘born in the wrong body’ if you will. In any case, with the new law UK society’s treatment of this ‘gender identity disorder’ (for some, a pejorative label in itself), known also as gender dysphoria, had moved close to allowing people to define their own gender. I say, ‘close to’ because the criteria for legal gender reassignment involves a panel of experts (!) and a requirement, for example, to live primarily in the ‘new’ gender for at least two years beforehand. But while I agree with that ‘self-identification’ principle, it’s clear that the possible implications for wider gender politics have never had a fair airing.
For example, because there’s no requirement for surgery (and leaving aside the issue of intersex – dealt with above) people who are biologically female now make up most, not all, females. There are males who have become female who yet remain biologically male in every physical respect.
Then there’s the confusion around how the notion of ‘trans’ should be treated as we move forward. This was highlighted in the most fantastic way when Conchita won the Eurovision Song Contest. Most of my friends were joyous at the whole Conchita phenomenon. It surely offered at least the hope that freedom and open-mindedness is winning out. And yet I heard commentators referring to Conchita as a fillip for, variously, gay men, transexual people, transgendered people and even, in one case, women. In fact Conchita is a character (albeit one with strong autobiographical meaning), not a person. And her creator and performer, Thomas Wurst, self-identifies as – and is biologically – a man. It was unambiguously an amazing gay man who won the Eurovision song context. The Conchita character is more of an undermining of orthodox notions of sexuality than it is matter of conventional gender politics.
Gender politics has traditionally taken it as self-evident who’s male and who’s female. Analyses of how power relationships have been skewed against women should be central to policies designed to make society fairer, more equal, simply better. Maybe these ideas, which lie at the heart of feminism, are unaffected by the marginal number of women who are biologically men; or by men who choose to choose to live as women, or who choose to undermine the conventional idea of what ‘female’ is by, for example, being a bearded woman (as Conchita exemplifies). My instinct is that’s probably right. But while I’m sure there’s discussion of this sort going on in ivory towers, there’s been no attempt that i can see to bring such a critical debate into the public realm. It’s surely time someone had a crack?
One final thought. The day after everyone celebrated how folk in the UK had been so liberal as to vote for Conchita at the song contest, it became clear that in fact they’d voted for the well-endowed Polish girls and the media elite had picked Conchita instead. Well good for the media elite, I say. If politics has taught me one thing it’s that when it comes to gender, sexuality, race and other equalities the public at large know in their hearts where we should be going but accept that they often need to be led there. And there’s nothing wrong with a bit of leadership…..