James Kirkup

The silencing of the lesbians

The silencing of the lesbians
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Even I’m a bit surprised by this and I’m writing it, but this is an article about lesbians. I’m writing about lesbians because some of them believe they are currently the subject of political failure. They believe that the people, organisations and institutions that are supposed to speak and stand up for them and their interests are not doing so. I think those concerns are reasonable and should be addressed. A political system that’s supposed to represent the views of everyone in it really isn’t working for the women I’m talking about here. This is, of course, about gender and the debate around gender and sex.

Quite a lot of the people who have questions and concerns about law and practice around transgender issues are lesbians. There are several reasons for that, but I might as well start with the most basic and talk about penises. Some people find the fact that genitalia get discussed in the gender debate objectionable or prurient. Honestly, I’m not wild about it myself. But when you’re talking about sex and sexual preferences and sexual intercourse, it’s impossible to have a proper conversation without it. So: penises.

Some transwomen have a penis. Quite how many is somewhat unclear, since like most aspects of this debate, there is a dearth of reliable empirical data, but as a simple fact, it is possible under English law for a person born male to be legally recognised as female without undergoing surgery to remove or alter their male genitalia.

Indeed, some people say that – not least because of very limited NHS capacity – as the population of transwomen grows, the proportion of transwomen who have had such surgery is falling and that retaining male genitalia while living as a woman is becoming common and even the norm. (There is a generational aspect to this; some older transwomen who have had “bottom surgery” and describe themselves as “transsexual” consider it to be prerequisite of living as a woman and being recognised as trans; some younger ones do no not.)

Anyway the key point is this: some transwomen have a penis and no intention of getting rid of it. Some of those transwomen describe themselves as lesbians, by which they mean they are sexually attracted to women. I make no comment on any of that beyond reporting that this presents a problem for those lesbians who were born female, who say they’re not sexually aroused by people with penises, and who don’t want to have sex with those people. Is that a reasonable position? Is it respectable to state that your sexual preferences and choice of sexual partner depends, at least in part, on the potential partners’ genitalia?

Some transgender women don’t think so. They suggest that female-born lesbians who decline to sleep with transwomen who have a penis are guilty of bigotry or transphobia. Some of them express that argument in very blunt terms. (For more about what some call the “cotton ceiling” that excludes transwomen with penises from sex with lesbians, see this)

Some lesbians feel uncomfortable, to put it mildly, about such arguments. Lucy Masoud, a London firefighter trade unionist, says some transgender people are “bullying lesbians into having intercourse with people they don’t want to…. [I] just need to escape being labelled a transphobe for not wanting to sleep with people who have penises.”

To summarise: lesbians, who say they are sexually attracted to people with female genitals, report that they find themselves being told, sometimes aggressively, that they must include in their range of potential sexual partners people who have male genitals. And if they speak out to challenge such messages, they are told they are being “transphobic” or bigoted or similar.

Now, there are words for a person with a penis who insists that women who say they do not want to touch that penis should in fact touch that penis and who put pressure on women to do. But I won’t use those words here because this isn’t that sort of article. I’ll just say that this sort of behaviour strikes me as the sort of thing that shouldn’t go unremarked or unchallenged.

Of course, unfair and unpleasant conduct towards lesbians often does go unremarked and unchallenged, because for all that we’re a lovely, modern progressive society, they still struggle to be heard and sometimes even seen, especially in public life. Based on the most recent ONS figures (which almost certainly underestimate the total) almost one women in fifty describes herself as lesbian, meaning a UK population of more than 500,000; I don’t think anyone seriously argues that population is wholly reflected in, say, Parliament or our national media.

Which is why, quite rightly, we have institutions and organisations that exist to speak up for lesbians. Some of them seek to promote and reward acceptance and support for such people. The annual LGBT Awards is one such scheme. A glitzy event held at a London hotel, it gets publicity by giving gongs to celebrities and picks up sponsorship from banks, law firms, airlines and, this year, MI5.

At last week’s LGBT Awards – and I promise I am not making this up – one of the organisations honoured for its support of the LGBT agenda was Playboy. Yes, that Playboy. The reason given for that award was that Playboy recently put a transgender woman (i.e. someone who was born male) on its cover for the first time. To some lesbians, honouring Playboy is more than a little hard to stomach because it is part of an industry that sells pornographic images of lesbian sex as an entertainment for straight men. And the fact that the LGBT Awards appears to have decided that Playboy’s embrace of transwomen is more important than lesbians’ concerns about Playboy’s porn highlights a broader issue here. Some lesbians are concerned that organisations they expect to speak and fight for them and their interests are instead focussing time and effort on speaking and fighting for transwomen.

Which brings me to Stonewall, the UK’s leading LGBT charity. Stonewall is run by Ruth Hunt, a lesbian who says that her organisation properly represents lesbians. She has also argued that some of the people, including journalists, who raise the issue of lesbians’ interests in the context of the gender debate are simply using lesbians to promote a transphobic agenda. I’m happy to report that position here, just as I happily note that there are lesbians who enthusiastically support Stonewall and its work on transgender rights. There is, I dare to suggest, no single lesbian opinion or lesbian community, just lots of different people who think different things. I also note that within that group of people, there are lesbians who really don’t think Stonewall is in fact doing the best possible job of representing them.

Some of the lesbians who criticise Stonewall are involved in organising the women’s groups that are raising concerns about proposed changes in gender laws – groups that routinely face orchestrated protests and allegations of bigotry and even hate crime. Some use social media and other platforms to express their worries about the consequences of organisations trying simultaneously to represent a group defined by sexual preference and a group defined by gender identity. Simply, they think that “LGB” and “T” cannot speak as one group because they have different interests. Some worry that groups like Stonewall sometimes prioritise the interests of transwomen over those of lesbian who were born female.

Here is Kathleen Stock, an academic philosopher who has written about how hard it is to analyse and question transgender assertions even within academia:

“The presence of transpeople within the LGBT and ‘queer’ grouping is controversial. I am a lesbian. My own view, for what it is worth, is that there should be a separate political and charity-based movement for transgender people, which is not attached to those people defined by sexual preferences. The two categories are distinct. The disproportionately visible presence of transpeople and particularly vocal transwoman in the LGBT movement is misogynistically drawing attention and funding away from the problems and concerns of female lesbian and bisexuals in the group.”

Some of the lesbians who worry about transgenderism think that this story is really about wider culture and popular ideas of masculinity and femininity. Their argument – and I think it is well worth exploring – is that ideas of what men and women should do and (especially) look like have become more rigid and more narrow, meaning those who do not fit the stereotypes are open to the idea that they may not belong to the relevant gender. So for girls, the theory goes, the common idea of femininity, aggressively promoted by a ceaseless online media marketing, now means pink and princesses and dresses and lovely long, glossy hair. Many of the lesbians who question transgenderism say that as children and teenagers, they never felt “girly”, never felt they conformed to that pink-princess stereotype, preferring clothes, toys and pastimes more often associated with boys. Had the idea of changing gender been in common currency then as it is now, they might have come to believe they were in fact inherently male and sought to change gender, they say. Lucy Masoud again:

“Had I been born today the gender identity mafia would be trying to ram puberty blockers down my throat. Thankfully my Muslim dad and Catholic mother let me grow into a fabulous gay.”

Some lesbians think that embracing transgenderism will ultimately mean the end of lesbians as the word is currently understood.

Next week, a group called the Lesbian Rights Alliance will hold a meeting in London entitled “Transgenderism and Lesbian Erasure”.

Think about that title for a moment. In progressive, tolerant, liberal London, a group of women who happen to be gay are getting together to discuss their worry that they and people like them are facing “erasure” from society. That strikes me as the sort of concern that should be debated beyond the few dozen people who will attend that meeting.

Among the questions up for discussion there are the following:

“Why are so many young lesbians identifying as ‘queer’ or ‘trans’? What is the impact of practices such as breast-binding, hormone regimes and surgical interventions on the healthy bodies of young lesbians? What roles do schools, the media / social media and the medical profession play in this? Can transgenderism in fact be understood as a form of conversion therapy for lesbians?”

I think those are all valid questions, and not ones that are currently being addressed, much less answered, by the people who should be answering them. The LRA is just one of the groups seeking to highlight the growing number of teenage girls who wonder if they should seek to change gender and be recognised as male.

Numerically speaking, this is not a trivial or niche concern. The numbers of teenage girls seeking medical treatment for gender issues is rising extremely quickly, as shown by data from the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) of the Tavistock and Portman Trust, which is the NHS centre of excellence for helping children and adolescents with gender dsyphoria and other issues of gender-variance. In 2009/10, the GIDS caseload included 40 girls (“assigned female at birth”. In 2016/17, that number was 1400, a 3,500 per cent increase. GIDS data suggest that over half of all girls referred to the clinic report sexual attraction to female-born people. Not all of those children will go on to have hormone treatment or have surgery or indeed change gender. Some of them will grow up to consider themselves to be lesbians. As the GIDS team note:

'We see quite a lot of young people who identify as trans for a period of time before coming to understand themselves in terms of a (cisgender) gay or lesbian identity instead.'

 (There are a couple of academic studies – here and here – that suggest something similar.)

Are girls who might otherwise grow up to be lesbians being nudged or pushed into thinking themselves transgender? I do not have a conclusive answer and nor, so far as I can establish, do any of the clinical experts who work in this field. I do think it is legitimate question to ask, and that the people – lesbians and others – who ask it should be heard.

But I’m not sure they are being heard, because some people make too much noise shouting about transphobia, while others who should be speaking up stay silent. I know a fair number of MPs who privately acknowledge and share some of the concerns and questions I’ve outlined here. None is willing to speak about this publicly.

Perhaps that will change. Perhaps politicians will surprise me and show  willingness to do their jobs properly and give voice to all sides of a complex, difficult debate. MPs will get two chances to do so tomorrow. First, Penny Mordaunt, the new minister for women and equalities, takes her first questions in the Commons. Then there’s a backbench debate on “homophobia, transphobia and biphobia”. Both sessions will offer some clues about how willing MPs are to acknowledge the complexity of the gender debate and the interests of the different people and groups concerned. Perhaps some of the things I’ve mentioned here will be raised. Perhaps.

In the meantime, a final thought from me. If you’ve read any of my other articles on this subject, I hope you’ll forgive me for coming to a familiar conclusion. But I’ll keep saying this stuff for as long it needs to be said, and it still does.

Transgender people suffer prejudice and harm. Like any other group, they include good people and bad, saints and sinners, those who want to shout from the rooftops about their identity and those who just want to live their lives and be left alone. As a group, they deserve much better from the law, from society, from politics.

But “better” should not come at the expense of others who also deserve an improved deal. Nor should it be based on anything less than a full, open and factual debate: laws and conventions arising from a chilled, restricted political and public conversation will be walls built on sand.

And right now, the debate about gender and the law is not full and open, not least because in their rush to speak for the rights and interests of one minority group, politicians, charities, bits of the media and other parts of civil society are ignoring the interests of another. Politics is failing over transgenderism, and part of that failure is the failure to listen to, and speak for, lesbians.

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is the Director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph

Topics in this articleSocietygenderlgbtq