What do you call people who fly planes? Pilots? What about people who wear spurs? Cowboys? And what do you call people who use seven words to say something they could have said in one? Annoying?
According to the latest Twitter meltdown, using the shorthand of ‘women’ when referring to ‘people who menstruate’ is not just pedantic, it’s transphobic – it doesn’t include the gender non-binary individuals who have periods. An article arguing for greater investment in menstrual health and hygiene in developing countries post Covid-19 used the term ‘people who menstruate’ instead of women. And, as it was rather obvious that the article was talking about women (even using a picture of a woman leading a workshop on menstruation in Kenya) British author JK Rowling pointed this out, tweeting: ‘I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?’
Twitter wars are rarely important – but this one is interesting. Rowling’s tweet prompted enormous outcry, even Daniel Radcliffe has put out a statement denouncing her comments: ‘Transgender women are women. Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people’. There is often a generational divide in the debate – Jonathan Ross, who initially tweeted in support of Rowling, got told off by his daughters for saying that she ‘clearly’ wasn’t transphobic. He later U-turned, tweeting, ‘I’ve come to accept that I’m not in a position to decide what is or isn’t considered transphobic’.
Is it transphobic to say women get periods? Don’t be daft – even the Devex article cites a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded report which it says reveals that ‘500 million women’ – not people – ‘worldwide do not have what they need to manage their menstruation’. Rowling is known for taking what’s deridingly called the ‘TERF’ side in the debate over gender – arguing that while gender might be a construct, the biological or sex difference between man and woman is not. Some criticised her for voicing her opinion at a time when there is so much going on in politics (a pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, the return of the premier league). But when it comes to prioritising political focus, talking about non-binary people who menstruate in the context of developing countries seems more than a little odd. It’s silly – instead of the article focusing on greater investment in sanitation and education for poor people across the world, the reader is distracted by the authors’ ham-fisted attempts to be ‘right on’.
What this really displays is a huge amount of bad faith on the part of those calling for Rowling’s head on a stick. The overwhelming majority of ‘people who menstruate’ on this planet will be girls and women. But that isn’t the defining factor of womanhood. Anyone who has a mother will also know that not all women menstruate – haven’t you ever heard of the menopause? Then there’s people with polycystic ovaries, girls like me who couldn’t be bothered with all the fuss and took the pill back-to-back for years on end and, yes, a small number of non-binary individuals who would like to be known as a different gender despite their bodily functions or lack thereof. What this obsession with language really suggests is that this is not about being accurate with terminology, but a belief that we all must be reminded of our inherent transphobia by having it spelled out to us in long, useless sentences.
Inevitably one has to ask: what does it mean to be a woman? Is it all about sex and periods and genitalia and our difference from men – I hope not
There is a bigger problem with this debate – one that goes beyond the childish and petulant demands to police language from those who cry ‘transphobia’. Rowling accused her critics of ‘erasing the concept of sex’ by claiming that transwomen are women. On both sides of this war of words between trans activists and radical feminists, a rather reductive view of women is starting to fester. Because inevitably one has to ask: what does it mean to be a woman? Is it all about sex and periods and genitalia and our difference from men – I hope not. But neither are those things irrelevant. During the campaign for abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland in 2018, many trans activists were demanding that the term ‘pregnant people’ be used to include gender non-binary individuals. This completely ignores the fact that anti-abortion sentiment in Ireland was not targeted at ‘people’ but women specifically. Prejudices about women – not non-binary people – are what still informs blocks to women’s freedom whether it be to do with abortion rights, childcare issues or menstruation. To pretend that this isn’t a women’s issue is to completely deny the politics of women’s freedom.
Repeating ‘transwomen are women’ like a prayer doesn’t make it so. Asking how this mantra might raise practical issues when it comes to fighting for freedoms and rights is tantamount to questioning god – you risk being struck down by a Twitter mob. Trans individuals should be able to label themselves as they please – the same as any individual in society. And as ‘people who identify as hating beating around the bush’, we should also be able to call out the real intolerance in this never-ending debate about gender.
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