A Phoney War
Jonathan Hearn, Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, School of Social and Political Science.
Edinburgh Academics for Academic Freedom was set up by a group of academic colleagues who were concerned about a growing climate of censoriousness, and a general chill around discussing and debating difficult issues in this university, and the university sector as a whole. Robust and respectful debate around various issues—e.g. race and racism, decolonisation, sex and gender, Israel and Palestine—was becoming harder to make happen. One of these issues, contested understandings of sex and gender, and the complex trade-offs between the protection of women’s rights and trans rights, has absorbed an undue amount of our energies, due to protests twice preventing the screening of the film Adult Human Female, which we have supported.
Why has this been so controversial? What is this conflict about? The makers of the film, and those who hold, at least in part, what is generally known as the ‘gender critical’ position that it reflects, believe that trans people (and more generally gender non-conforming people) should have all the legal rights and protections of other people in society. What’s more, they support the Equality Act 2010 that specifies protections against discrimination for trans people (there called ‘gender reassignment’). That Act also specifies protections for women, and other groups with ‘protected characteristics’. The conflict hinges on whether one regards men who self-identify as women as being the same as women as defined by biology, or whether one thinks that the 2010 Act was differentiating (properly) between exclusive categories, groups with different characteristic interests around their own safety and risk of being discriminated against. There is a legal question of conflicting rights-claims between two distinct groups, and a more philosophical issue about whether belief about this distinction can be prescribed by law, or is matter of protected personal belief (see the Forstater v CGD Europe and Others ). There are also closely related concerns around the safety of professional therapeutic practice in regard to the gender reassignment of young people, generally in their teens, encountering the confusion of puberty and a rather identity obsessed society (see Hannah Barnes’ recent book Time to Think, Swift Press, 2023, a study of the issues leading up to the closing of Tavistock gender service for children).
The upshot of these concerns is to question whether self-identification as female by men should be sufficient to allow such things as: access to traditionally women-only spaces; competing in women’s sports; holding jobs such as a counsellor in a women’s rape crisis centre; assignment to women’s prisons, and so on, or whether the biological definition of women should define a certain boundary here. Protestors object that such limitations constitute a denial of transwomen’s existence, an attempt to persecute them and stir up hatred that threatens transwomen’s safety. Those on the gender critical side would say that a reasonable consideration of all interests supports preserving these limits, that such limitations do not constitute persecution or discrimination, and transwomen should be able to live full and meaningful lives despite these restrictions.
Given the substantial agreement about the protection of trans rights, and relatively narrow range of disagreement, this raises the question—what is an ally? An ally is someone that is prepared to offer another support around areas of shared interests. Being an ally does not entail absolute agreement with and acceptance of the other’s position—that would be a subordinate. Allyship finds zones of sufficient agreement to provide mutual support, even where there are areas of enduring disagreement. Given that the gender critical position supports the equal rights of trans people, and protections against discrimination in regard to that protected characteristic, one might think that allyship would be feasible. Moreover, what is now called the gender critical stance has significant roots in more longstanding arguments by feminists and others that made the case over several decades that while sex is a natural biological difference, gender is a matter of highly variable social and cultural conventions, and people should be freed from the pressures of conforming to those conventions. The very possibility of the now prevalent LGBTQ+ perspective, which emphasises the multiform and indeterminate qualities of gender, was laid down by the kind of critical thinking that sought to deeply question male and female gender stereotypes in the first place. Here again, you would think the commonalities would outweigh the differences, however real and intractable the latter are.
But the trans rights protesters have generally cast those in the gender critical camp as implacable enemies. The only explanation I can see for this is that, in the environment of the modern university, and Edinburgh specifically, where this conflict has played out, there is a surfeit of potential allies, and a serious shortage of enemies. It is now well established that the academics and administrators in most universities lean heavily to the left, especially in the arts, humanities and social sciences (see, e.g.: Magness 2017, al-Gharbi 2023). While one can find deep hostility to the trans rights cause outside the universities, due to religious fundamentalism and right-wing conservative ideologies, that is not what is going on here. In this context the gender critical position is primarily associated with left-wing feminism, and the conflict in the university environment is almost entirely a conflict on the left. But it seems that the trans activists, and many in the LBGTQ+ milieu, are committed to a kind of identity politics that requires a persecuting enemy for its very existence. The primary identity here is one of victimhood, of being the one struggling against oppression, and gender identity politics is one of the arenas in which that primary identity gets manifested. Without this narrative of oppression by one’s enemies there would be little to bind this community together and give it shared purpose. The reason those who support the screening of Adult Human Female—and gender critical feminists more generally—get cast as evil enemies, is that there is a shortage of real enemies in the university environment to sustain this underlying identity. Hence the need to create imaginary enemies, where there could be allies.
 There is an issue of whether to say ‘trans women’, often preferred by trans activists, or ‘transwomen’ often preferred by those taking a gender critical position. In my view the form of the word shouldn’t matter because the referent for both is the same: people born male who want to be, or identify as, women. It is an impediment to communication if such words become shibboleths marking ideological affiliations rather than referents to things being discussed. I think it is best to try to avoid attaching secondary normative loads to the form of the word, and to avoid unfruitful policing of language.