The author Philip Pullman doesn’t understand the argument currently centred around author J K Rowling. We know this, because he tells us, using words (considered, since ancient times, to be the mark of an author)
From the 538 replies (at time of writing) we can assume that any expectations he had that people wouldn’t shout at him again have now been so dashed that they could form 50% of Morse-code War and Peace.
I empathise with him completely. Up until about 4 years ago my knowledge of this culture war was:
- US Republicans kept trying to pass laws saying you couldn’t use bathrooms intended for the opposite sex. This was bad, because Republicans.
- The shop that used to exist in Newcastle, Transformations, used to have a sign in its window saying that it was Newcastle’s No. 1 TV specialist, but never had any televisions on display in the window. Just heavy velvet curtains, that were always tightly drawn.
Then I stumbled upon a word I didn’t know. Looking up what it meant took me down a rabbit-hole of other words I didn’t know, all the while assuming I was following some elaborate joke. The word was “cissexism” and it turns out to be so not a joke that people are prepared to fling about death-threats over it, which really isn’t funny.
Not wanting Mr Pullman to have to find out things the hard way (i.e. by clicking on links in Google) I hereby offer a brief primer. A sort of, “Previously, on Gender Wars”, if you will.
Let’s start at the beginning. Humans have two sexes, male and female. Obviously there is a huge amount of biological complexity here, which makes it easy to obfuscate the issue, but fundamentally, if you want a baby you need one person from each sex. You can talk about gametes, chromosomes and DNA until the cows come home, but if you start with two people from the same sex you will still never get a baby (although you may get insightful analysis of a recent football match).
You don’t, however, need to add a hypothetical third sex. Male + female is all that’s required, unless you count wine and smooth talking as sexes.
In 99%+ of cases the differences between the male and female sex can be elucidated by anybody over the age of about 6, with relatively little training [Observations of primary sexual characteristics in a sample of games of Doctors & Nurses, My mate Billy et al, The Journal of Playground Activity Vol. LXIX]. However, a very small number of people are born with disorders of sexual development, which makes unambiguous assignment to one sex or the other more difficult. People born with these disorders are still, however, members of one of the two sexes. They do not belong to both sexes, they do not form a new sex, they are not “intersex”, which is a derogatory term now reserved almost entirely for people who care so much about intersex people’s right to be heard that they won’t listen to their request to stop calling them “intersex”.
That’s the end of the easy bit, and if you think that everything we’ve covered so far is straightforward and uncontroversial then several thousand Twitter users, with pre-pubescent Anime girls as profile pictures and bios full of hashtags have a lovely surprise for you.
Now we get to gender. Gender was invented as a term to stop idiots answering “Yes please” to the sex question on forms. Since then it has evolved into a term to describe the differing roles society imposes on the sexes; boys play with toy cars, girls with dolls, men wrestle bears, women do the ironing, etc.
Gender is a social construct, a term which is often used as a synonym for “bad”, but pretty much everything beyond eating, shitting and breathing is a social construct. Not eating babies is a social construct, not shitting your pants is a social construct, pants themselves are a social construct, etc. It’s just a term for something that we could change, either through a specific effort or through the shifting tides of what’s fashionable.
Gender roles have changed hugely in the last century, from trivial things, like women being allowed to vote, right through to that time I ironed my own shirt. We’ve slowly moved away from there being men-things (power, education, etc.) and women-things (needle-work, childcare, etc) while retaining the social construct that men=male and women=female.
The people who would once have been the never-seen customers of Tranformations have come out from behind the velvet curtain and said that they not only want to dress as women, but been seen and treated by society as such. There has been a great deal of insistence that this social treatment extends to changing rooms, bathrooms, women-only short-lists, being lesbian, etc. Women who opposed this, on the grounds of men’s treatment of women having been pretty fucking shabby for the previous 10,000 years, have found themselves vilified for not being inclusive and caring.
This is a like a great white shark swimming up and asking for a bite of your ice-cream, and your concerns that you might lose a chunk of your arm in the process being reframed as you being too selfish to share your ’99.
Roughly, though, we end up with five genders; boring, old-fashioned men and women, transwomen, transmen and non-binary (who see themselves as neither men or women). There are many possible variations on those basic 5, and people will variously tell you there are 27 genders, or 100 genders, or an infinite number of genders, but at a certain point the genders start encroaching on the territory of sexuality or what we used to call personality, in the days when we thought that was what made a person interesting and not that it takes them 3 hours to explain their gender.
Now we’re at the stage where we’re encountering three major, intertwined, problems.
The first is that, having expanded the number of genders to 5+, those who strongly support gender ideology are trying to collapse it back down to three; men, women and non-binary. Their slogan, “Trans women are women”, couldn’t be more explicit in this.
This has led to the situation where if you refer to “men” everyone knows you mean men, if you refer to “transwomen” then every knows you mean transwomen and if you refer to “women” then thousands of people decide you’re an exclusionary bigot and try to get you sacked. Doubly so if you try to use terms like “biological woman” or “natal woman”. The approved term is “cis woman”, which suffers only slightly from no-one liking it, hardly anybody understanding what it means, and some transwomen adopting it for themselves anyway.
Secondly, the gender ideology is, fittingly, rather fluid. It’s new and quite a lot of it is being made up as people go along. It’s not an exaggeration to say that half the movement don’t agree with the other half.
What they all agree on, though, is that they will unite against anybody deemed to be a ‘TERF’ (a ‘Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist’, normally pronounced to rhyme with ‘ditch’). This makes any sort of compromise very difficult, because as soon as there’s any sign of agreement between the less angry elements it’s likely to be derided by one of the many ideological extremists, who will rephrase the discussion through the prism of their own imagination and denounce one or both parties. It’s like a Catholic and a Protestant trying to organise their wedding, but they have to agree every detail with Ian Paisley.
Finally (and where I’ll end, I promise), outside of technical grammatical use and feminist discourse, gender and sex have been used interchangeably in language and in law. Ten years ago the concept of a male woman or a female man would have been nonsensical.
Even the Gender Recognition Act is unclear on whether it’s talking about sex or gender.
Even the term ‘transwoman’ is unclear. Polls consistently show support for transwomen being allowed to use female facilities (because Republicans) but then stop doing so sharply when it’s explained that the transwoman umbrella extends over men who’ve had no surgery, taken no drugs, haven’t even (in some cases) shaved their beards off.
Meanwhile, the definition of woman is slowly being boiled down to “A woman is a woman who says they are a woman” and when J K Rowling tweets “Sex is real” thousands of people read “I want gender non-conforming children to suffer and die”, apparently not even thinking that’s maybe a bit out of character.
This is a confusing battle, fought with confusing and confused words, trying to achieve confused objectives, with confusion deliberately being used as a weapon.
I do hope that helps enlighten Mr Pullman, and I wish him the best next time he dips a toe into this fight.