Rebecca Lowe Coulson was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.

I wrote here briefly last week about some of the questions raised by the government’s keenness to address transgender rights, following reports of “proposals from a consultation on the Gender Recognition Bill, to be published in the autumn”. Graeme Archer has since also responded to that for ConservativeHome, from a broader perspective, arguing that

Most fundamentally, the elision of homosexuality and transgenderism is a category error. The former is an expression of same-sex attraction, the latter an extreme aversion to the sex of one’s birth; an individual’s psychology at war with its biological substrate.

Yet I feel justified in returning to the topic, not least because we are faced not only with the need to answer difficult questions, but also the ways in which others have attempted to, previously. Not everyone has Archer’s smart eloquence. This topic — and you can take that to encompass whatever you want, but I’m assuming we’re talking about individual and group identity, in some kind of political sense — has been embraced by some of the most confusing writers of our times. We’ll get to them in a minute. First, let’s attempt to be as straightforward as we can.

Clearly, part of the problem is the “whatever you want” approach that I dropped in above. The emergence of the human rights movement in the 20th century was predicated on the understanding that people should not face prejudice on grounds such as their skin colour, gender, or sexuality. Few of us would disagree with that. However, seeing those things — one’s colour, gender, or sexuality — as a matter for individual insight rather than objective truth unsurprisingly causes problems. Indeed, much of the fight for gay liberation is explaining to people that being homosexual is not an issue of personal choice.

Similarly, if we see gender as something for a person to determine for themselves (Archer reminds us of the important point that some people are born with a scientifically indeterminate gender), then we face regression from the strong place in which we have arrived — one where we have begun to treat men and woman as essentially the same, and different only in terms of certain unchangeable biological functions or capabilities. If I argue that a woman should receive help during or after pregnancy — access to a midwife, say, or paid leave when she’s given birth — then that’s not because she’s a woman; it’s because she’s a child-bearer. As I wrote last year in response to Sarah Childs’ Good Parliament report,

if we want to afford justice distributively, then as well as allowing for difference, we must also recognise cases in which people are unjustifiably being treated unequally. On those grounds, not to permit breastfeeding in the chamber seems unfair and detrimental. Setting gender quotas for witness panels, however, seems irrelevant and negligent: witnesses should be selected on merit, by considering their awareness of the committee’s topic of enquiry, not their biology.

The problem of subjectivity becomes more complex when we consider race, however. This is perhaps best exemplified by the recent case of Rachel Dolezal, who resigned from her position as president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after it was revealed that she was not African American, as she had been claiming. In response, American philosopher, Rebecca Tuvel, wrote an article entitled In Defense of Transracialism, examining what it might mean for someone to identify with a different race from that of their birth, by comparing the idea with the established concept of transgenderism. The article is interesting, but its reception shows something more significant. Academics from across America complained about the piece to such an extent that Hypatia — the journal that had published it — issued an apology and a retraction. As contended by Jesse Singal in New York magazine, however, it seems as if many of Tuvel’s critics had not actually read her article, and were simply shocked by what they saw as someone offensively equating transracialism with transgenderism.

There is not time to discuss all this properly, except to say that if we see gender and race as descriptors within the general category of “person”, rather than something essential — or even most essential — to someone’s personality, or “self” even, then it is not surprising that people are unwilling to equate the two. A person’s gender can have an effect on their capabilities — as argued above regarding child-bearing — in a way that their race cannot. Yet, if you believe, as some feminists, that femaleness is more than just base physicality — the difference between “sex” and “gender”, say — then being the determiner of one’s own gender in the sense of changing one’s physicality seems superficial. The tension between those two standpoints — a) that gender is simply a descriptor, which can, at most, have an effect on someone’s capabilities; and b) that gender is something deeper, personal, or non-quantifiable — is blatant.

Moreover, the unhappy history of prejudice means that many people are unsurprisingly uncomfortable with those who seemingly “choose” to become or, indeed, stop being (as beautifully explored in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain), a gender or race that has faced extreme discrimination in the past — and, in certain places, continues to do so today. Of course, if we see such things as being not an issue of choice, but rather inherent in one’s personality, whether visible or not in their appearance or genetic makeup, then we return to the problem of subjectivity.

Again, this is too complex a topic to come to any full conclusion here, aside to note the difficulty in upholding the rights of those facing prejudice, if we have no non-subjective method for determining who such people might be. It is also a topic that, understandably, provokes great emotion. It is a shame, however, that many of those addressing it in an academic sense seem incapable of doing so in a clear and straightforward manner. A number come from within the tradition of postmodernism: to confront such issues from a point of view that eschews reason and objective values is undoubtedly problematic.

Exceptions, however, include feminist Catherine MacKinnon’s 2007 essay collection, Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues, and psychologist Cordelia Fine’s 2017 volume, Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds. MacKinnon’s clear (albeit shouty) approach is well argued, and focuses on issues such as FGM and universal rights, rather than the all-too-common misused-pronoun bashing. And Fine neatly disputes the deterministic thinking that suggests gender makes us who we are, by, as she puts it, “raz[ing] old assumptions that universal principles of sexual selection inexorably gave rise to the evolution of two kinds of human nature, female and male”.

This is a topic that will not go away. It is an important topic not only for people on a personal level, but also for societal cohesion and justice. We must think about it more — and more clearly.