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Artillery Row

Self-ID and unprincipled exceptions

Why do we forget new gender norms when it’s convenient?

In August this year, Germany’s Federal Cabinet approved legislation to make it more straightforward for individuals to change their legal gender. In the words of Justice Minister Marco Buschmann, the planned “self-determination law” will “make life a bit easier for a small group for which it has great significance”.

Who could possibly object to that? I think we all know the answer: bigots. Only transphobes, hellbent on stoking moral panic, could possibly have an issue with permitting a teeny-tiny number of male people to quickly self-identify as the opposite sex. After all, it’s not as if anyone would lie about this.

At no point should self-ID involve male people losing out

What proper, red-blooded male would claim to be a woman? As we’re so often reminded, it’s not as though “real” men can’t nip into the ladies’ and rape us anyways. Sure, there are many things a predatory man might pretend to be — children’s entertainer, charity worker, priest — in order to gain access to potential victims, but a woman? To admit to being one of those is far too degrading, hence anyone who says he’s a woman has to be telling the truth.

It turns out, however, that there are exceptions to this. Obviously no one would lie about their sex if the consequences were trivial. Say, for instance, you were a rapist who’d committed crimes against women whilst identifying as male. It’s not as though you’d then lie about your gender just to gain access to a women’s prison. That’s the kind of thing bigots invent to make trans rapists look bad.

What if there were a situation in which people who actually matter — that is, not just female prisoners — might be affected? What if a male person saying they were a woman might have negative consequences for male people? That’s when things get more complicated.

For instance, the German government wishes to maintain certain restrictions on gender self-identification in “a case of tension or defence” — that is, if the country is under attack and military conscription is required for male citizens. In such a situation, it apparently becomes conceivable that someone might falsely claim to be a woman. Suddenly, making life “a bit easier for a small group” goes out of the window. Perhaps a man would lie about his deep, meaningful relationship with cis manhood in order to avoid being drafted, in a way that he’d never lie about it if, say, he just wanted to get his dick out in the changing rooms of the local gym.

It’s not that I don’t think conscription is a serious issue. The trouble is, there are other instances in which governments and organisations decide that gender self-ID should be treated flexibly, and often these are less serious. It’s not that it is being claimed trans women are lying. It’s more that an unspoken rule of gender self-identification is that the only consequence of a male person claiming to be a woman, should be that the male person gains access to women’s stuff: their spaces, their words, their political movement. At no point should it involve male people losing out.

Those changing laws never say this out loud, but this is how self-ID is supposed to function, without causing the least disruption to the flow of goods and services from female people to male people. Male people demand to be included in the category marked “woman”; female people either do the including or exclude themselves. Power relations between men and women being what they are, it is rare that self-identification does anything other than deliver the usual sex-based entitlements. Male men get the men’s stuff, and male women get the women’s stuff. Should there be any risk of this not being so, measures can be put in place to correct this deviation from the gendered norm.

Here are some relatively trivial, yet illuminating examples. In the UK, Section 16 of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 ensures that “the descent of any peerage or dignity or title of honour will take place as if a person recognised in the acquired gender were still of the birth gender”. That is to say, should you be the lucky recipient of a life peerage on the basis of having been a first-born male, you will not have to relinquish it to an older female sibling should you later identify as a woman. It’s why trans woman Matilda Simon recently took her seat in the House of Lords without stepping aside for her older sister. For some reason, the trauma of being constantly misgendered by one’s own male privilege is bearable in a way that the trauma of being referred to by male pronouns never could be.

Women can be Freemasons, as long as they don’t have vaginas

Another example of these special measures may be found in the admissions legislation for the Masons. Here we learn that “a candidate for admission to Freemasonry under the United Grand Lodge of England must be a man”, but that “a Freemason who after initiation ceases to be a man does not cease to be a Freemason”. Women can be Freemasons, just as long as they’re not the kind of women who have vaginas. It is assumed that a trans woman who is also a Mason will just have to cope with the trauma of not having one’s gender affirmed by the denial of networking opportunities.

Perhaps my favourite example can be found in US Rowing’s Gender Identity Policy, which states that women’s events are “exclusively for athletes who identify as a woman at the start of the rowing season and/or those who are assigned as female at birth”, whilst men’s events are “exclusively for athletes who identify as a men at the start of the rowing season and/or those who are assigned as male at birth”. In practice, this gives male people opportunities in both categories, with only female rowers potentially losing out.

What about mixed categories, though? There is always the risk that under self-ID, a team of mixed male and female rowers could lose to a team of mixed-gender, all-male rowers. Wouldn’t that be unfair to the males in the first team? Hence we find that “boat entries in this category must consist of 50 per cent athletes of any gender and 50 per cent athletes assigned as female at birth”. Biological sex matters after all, but only in instances where male people might otherwise suffer. Now you see male sporting advantage, now you don’t.

These might seem niche examples, but what shocks me is how blatant they are. In many ways, the fact that they are trivial makes the hypocrisy even worse. A rape victim who wants a female-only support group will be told she is selfish for thinking sex matters, but a male person who wants to keep his peerage or not lose out in a rowing competition? Well, he will be told, of course it matters! Let’s not be silly about this! The people who create these policies know exactly who the men are, regardless of what they call them. They’re the people whose needs matter.

The conscription example is a little different. Here, it is not a matter of protecting male privileges, but a situation in which men as a class are severely disadvantaged in relation to women. Anxiety over self-ID is not about ensuring no male person loses out, but that if some men lose out because of their sex, all men do. As such, it could have the potential to prompt a little more thinking about the feminist case against gender.

Just as women do not all naturally identify with the sexual subjugation that certain trans activists believe defines us, men do not all naturally identify with being sent to war. The prospect of being blown to pieces is not an element of “cis manhood” that only someone who wasn’t truly a man would feel motivated to reject. It is an insult to the humanity of all male people for a minority of male people to look at the culture on offer and decide it just isn’t for them personally — as though most men are cannon fodder, except for them.

Faced with this, the ultimate hard edge of masculinity, most men should be able to see how ridiculous and cruel the entire concept of “cis-ness” is. You might identify with feeling superior to women, but you don’t identify with dehumanisation, and sometimes there’s no opting out.

This, though, is something for men to consider. The end point of gender is neither freedom nor privilege, but violence and suffering. Is it worth it for the networking and the rowing prizes? If not, isn’t it time to do more than simply bend the rules?

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