How not to write your policy on transgender rights

A Home Office policy that should help protect transgender civil servants from discrimination? Great news. But, asks Emma Wood, why does it insist that women and men have different brains?

Emma Wood, 5 December 2007

The gender equality duty which recently came into force imposes a wide range of duties on public sector bodies regarding discrimination on grounds of gender. One of the chief agents in this process has been the civil service group a:gender, which has become a lead government adviser on transgender and transsexual rights. Unfortunately, however, it seems that some of the views put forward by these officially-endorsed activists for transgender rights perpetuate a sexist world view.

I recently came across this statement in the Home Office's official guidance for managers on gender reassignment, authored by a:gender and available publicly on the civil service website:

Changing gender role is not an overnight occurrence, but a process, despite the overwhelming conviction of having truly belonged to the acquired gender since birth. Further, though transsexual people know themselves to have the brain, understanding and thought processes of their acquired gender, they will have been brought up and conditioned according to "birth sex". It follows that even some time after transition, this long standing conditioning may affect reactions, particularly at time of stress, and behaviour more traditionally associated with the former gender role surfaces; perhaps a more aggressive response than expected from someone accepted as a transsexual woman. In time this likelihood lessens, but it is as well to be aware of the possibility.

Now I would be the first person to agree that gender roles are the result of social conditioning, but what is this stuff about people having the "brain, understanding and thought processes" of their acquired gender? Is the author of the guidance really suggesting that men and women have inherently different "brains, understanding and thought processes" or that a woman, transgender or not, would legitimately be expected by work colleagues to react to stress in a less aggressive manner than a man? Isn't that an awful lot like - erm - good old fashioned sexism?

Michelle Bridgman, project manager at the Gender Trust, a UK charity which supports anyone with gender identity issues, but speaking on her own behalf, agrees: "I think I would want to challenge it. It's very stereotypical for a start: I think it's a bit harsh to say all men are aggressive."

She adds that many transwomen experience discrimination of this very type, which they may put down to transphobia, but is really the same sexism that women-born-women encounter.

Feminists that seek to challenge essentialist ideas about women and men, femininity and masculinity, will baulk at any government policy which includes such problematic language. But a group who believe, as a:gender does, that "the transsexual person, whilst seeking acceptance and tolerance, does usually not so much want to 'come out', as blend into the world in their acquired gender" also ignores people like writer and activist Leslie Feinberg, who proudly identifies as literally transgendered - rather than a 'man' or a 'woman'. In an interview with Curve Magazine, Feinberg said:

Trans issues are a broad category that embraces the grievances of many trans communities. There are transsexual women and men who challenge the sex they were legally assigned at birth. [There are] intersexual people born on the anatomical sweep between female and male.

Also masculine females and feminine males - including butches and gay males considered to be "effeminate." It includes heterosexual and bisexual cross-dressers, and gay cross-dressers - usually referred to as drag butches (or drag kings or stone butches, etc.) and drag queens... also includes bearded females, androgynous people and those who are bigender - having both a masculine and feminine gender expression... It's clear that lesbians and bi women overlap with these populations, or fall in love with, or are friends with, or organize day-to-day with us."

It is clear, even from a casual reading, that the Home Office's policy - and a:gender's agenda - fail to protect the breadth of people that are embraced by this definition of trans issues, and may be discriminated against on grounds of gender. But of course their view that "a change of gender is a not a fanciful whim, or lifestyle choice, but a response to a medical need" would exclude anyone who does not identify in a socially-accepted gender role as a man or a woman, or anyone who sees gender identity as partly or wholly a socio-political issue.

It's undoubtedly true that a person's biological sex is judged is not only by their physical appearance, but their gestures, tone of voice and general physical demeanour. Norah Vincent wrote about her experiences of living in as 'Ned' for a year in her book Self Made Man and describes how the process involved not only dressing appropriately and making up with fake stubble to appear masculine, but learning how to alter her voice and 'female' gestures:

"My male cues were in need of some fine tuning... I still talked too much with my hands and sometimes I still applied my chapstick with a girlish lip smack. Just the day before while out shopping at a department store as Ned, I had rubbed the insides of my wrists together after applying cologne at the fragrance counter. The woman behind the counter narrowed her eyes at me and then looked away as if she'd seen something indecent."

But Vincent's experiences of successfully passing as male in a wide variety of situations illustrate how much apparent 'masculinity' or 'femininity' are learned behaviours. As Vincent became more used to her role as Ned, she found that she needed to rely on her physical props of make up and clothing less to convince as a 'man', which suggests that perceived gender identity is a much a matter of attitude and behaviour as physical appearance.

So what is going on with this policy? It is hard to imagine the Home Office publishing guidance saying that different races have different brains - indeed the recent outcry over Nobel prize winning scientist James Watson's remarks that people of African origin have lower IQs led to his lecture tour of Britain being cancelled and him losing his job, despite profuse apologies, as reported in The Guardian.

The Home Office guide explains:

The syndrome of 'gender dysphoria' was introduced to the medical community in the early 1950s by Dr Harry Benjamin and the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association 'Standards of Care' are used as a basis for treatment by many clinics around the world to this day. In medical and scientific disciplines, gender dysphoria is increasingly understood to have a biological origin and is strongly associated with a neuro-developmental condition of the brain. Studies, such as those conducted by professor Van Gooren, of a region in the hypothalamus of the brain which is smaller in women than in men showed that in M-F transsexuals this region was of female size or smaller. The view that the weight of current scientific evidence suggests a 'biologically-based, multifactorial etiology' for transsexualism is supported by articles in journals, the press and popular scientific works. Transsexualism is therefore innate, not acquired. It cannot be 'cured' by psychological or psychiatric treatments alone, although psycho-social factors may play a role in the outcome. It is a medical condition and transition to the preferred gender role, thereby confirming the individual's core gender identity, may be the only solution. Transsexuals themselves will argue that they have always been of the gender opposite to their anatomical birth sex.

So says the Home Office. But let's take a closer look. The study mentioned specifically here, about the size of the hypothalamus, was based on just six studies of autopsied brains from transsexual women, who had undergone gender reassignment (from biologically male to biologically female) and had taken oestrogen. And the function of the hypothalamus - if any - in regulating gender identity is unknown. Dr S Marc Breedlove of the University of California at Berkeley, who wrote an editorial that accompanied publication of the report in Nature, said that "the function of the hypothalamus in human behaviour, sexual or otherwise, remains a complete black box". On top of this, we must take a massive leap of faith from the evidence - the size of a small piece of the brain - to the conclusion - that masculine and feminine behaviour is innate.

Let us assume that there is a biological basis for gender dysphoria, that the difference in the size of the hypothalamus causes various individuals who are apparently born completely biologically male (there have been no studies on transsexual men) to identify that the natural state of their body is biologically female. But it is a leap too far to state that this proves that the hypothalamus is responsible for men behaving in a 'macho' way, or women embracing the signifiers of femininity - and ignores the role of gender conditioning, which we are all subjected to from the time we are dressed in pink or blue baby clothes and given a doll or a truck to play with.

And what are the implications of the hypothalamus in terms of gender equality in the workplace? Precisely none, I would argue. It provides a 'scientific' justification for the view that transwomen deserve equal treatment. But surely common humanity would dictate that? Very few people, no matter where they sit in debates on gender identity, would argue that it is justifiable to discriminate against individuals on the basis of their gender identity. Is it necessary to understand why lesbians are lesbians or gay men are gay to be against homophobia in the workplace? My personal response to anyone who asked why I am a lesbian would be: "Don't know, don't f****ing care." I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses, thank you very much.

Regardless of the (biological or otherwise) origins of gender dysphoria, it is not a justification for a whole lot of dodgy gender politics. But that is what all too often seem to be posited by influential activists.

The promotion of biologically essentialist views of this type is disturbing, given the long and dishonourable history of such views. Their promotion by central government is inexcusable

A:gender's position in the statement quoted at the beginning of my article is logically inconsistent. They appear to argue that a male to female transsexual will be socially conditioned to display 'male' behaviours in accordance with the gender assigned at birth, yet that the 'female' behaviours she will eventually display on assuming her 'true' gender are somehow innate, natural and determined by her (female-sized) hypothalamus. The group seems to accept as a given that there actually are such things as male and female behaviours, and that these are dictated by 'male' and 'female' brains.

A:gender's solution in the example originally quoted to the problem of someone displaying a "more aggressive response than may be expected in a transsexual woman", isn't that discriminatory expectations of gendered behaviour should be challenged, but that, given time to adjust, a transsexual woman will learn to behave in what is seen as a gender-appropriate way: "In time the likelihood will lessen." But it is actually illegal discrimination to expect staff, whether transgendered or not, to display different behaviour patterns according to gender - a point that both they and the senior figures who endorse their report seem to have missed.

Discrimination on the grounds of gender identity obviously isn't acceptable - but is this any reason for promoting gender stereotypes and claiming they have a biological basis? The problem with arguing that males and females are inherently different in behaviours and intellectual processes, quite apart from such a view having no currently proved scientific basis, is the way in which it can be used to justify discrimination. The promotion of biologically essentialist views of this type is disturbing, given the long and dishonourable history of such views. Their promotion by central government is inexcusable. If I was a Home Office employee, I would consider myself to be discriminated against by their published policies. As a private citizen I certainly intend to complain to my MP and suggest that anyone who agrees does the same.

About the author

Emma Wood

Emma Wood identifies as a radical lesbian feminist who'd like to marry Morrissey. She believes that gender is a social construct - a view she first formulated at school when teachers used to tell her she thought like a boy

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