So soi-disant feminist Jenni Murray came out as a full-blown transphobe yesterday? Colour me unsurprised. I’ve known something like this was coming for a while now. There are three main reasons.
Firstly, the BBC radio show Murray fronts, Women’s Hour, has been known for some time to be, along with Newsnight, one of the worst programmes for treating trans guests shoddily and misrepresenting trans issues. Secondly, Murray’s Christmas cash-in book of potted feminist biographies, published last year to net her some of that middle class Radio Four cash-cash dollar-dollar, contained no trans representation whatsoever. Quelle surprise. And, finally, her lacklustre but indefatigably smug performance on Christmas University Challenge in 2014 demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that Murray is the kind of pompous, pig-ignorant prig who would think her ill-informed views on trans women worthy of an airing in a national newspaper. Of course she did -she’s a walking, talking avatar of the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s more shocking that it’s taken her so long to engage in such a spectacular act of autopodophagy, to be honest.
Time was, outbursts like Murray’s would’ve been grist to my mill. Like many trans journalists, I’d carved out a neat little niche in the media landscape producing rapid responses to this sort of transphobic tosh. I could rattle one off on the Metro back from my day job and have it placed before teatime. I don’t do that anymore. One reason for that is that I have had a lot to process since accepting, in 2015, that the nigh-unquenchable rage which powered so much of my journalism was a side-effect of rape-induced PTSD. Another, however, which I want to deal with here, is this: the question about trans women which Murray raises – which we will hereafter refer to as the Real Woman Question (RWQ) is, frankly, ball-achingly BORING. And, like a lot of truly boring questions, it’s exactly the wrong one to ask.
The standard drill when dealing with some dullard invoking the RWQ is to go after the terms on which they consider some women to be quote-unquote ‘real’ women. Natacha Kennedy does an admirable job doing that to Murray’s piece here. I’m not going to do that. There’s very little point in refuting the answer someone gives to a question if that person is asking the wrong question, and that is what Murray is doing. Why? Because the lived, reported experiences of trans people are consistent across both cultural and temporal contexts.
In the West, we’ve acknowledged gender fluidity since at least the time Tiresias was trying to find a supportive enough bra for his ancient Greek dugs. In more historically recent times, the Chevalier D’Eon caused a stir by opting to go by female pronouns in a London dealing with the fallout of the French and American Revolutions. And examples of gender fluidity in non-western cultures can, and indeed do, fill books. Sworn Virgins in the Balkans. Berdaches and two-spirits among the First People of the Americas. The Hijra of India. Australian aboriginal sistagirls. The list goes on. Just about any so-called ‘primitive’ culture has a nuanced concept of gender – so why do Western sophisticates like Murray have such difficulty getting their heads around it?
One’s natural inclination, on coming across a situation in which non-western cultures show greater richness and diversity of thought than the West, is to blame the Church. And certainly bible-thumping colonists have been very successful in imposing their rigid strictures on, for example, Uganda; but elsewhere their success has been less impressive. Centuries of Christian conditioning have done nothing to dint the sheer flawlessness with which the AMAB practitioner in the video below embodies the haughty, regal femininity of Yemaya, for example:
Closer to home, folk Catholic traditions like the frankly fabulous celebration of Mama Schiavona, the Madonna of Montevergine, suggest that the living Church is much more comfortable than Il Papa‘s ex cathedra pronouncement that folks like me are more dangerous than nukes would suggest.
So as much as my lapsed Catholic ass might like to, I can’t pin the rap for this on the Christians. I think there’s a different culprit: the historically anomalous Western materialist worldview.
I’m not dissing science, here. Science itself has been both helpful and harmful to trans people. Sure, being pathologised as having a disorder (by people who often seem to have a weird sexual interest in children – fine company to be in, eh, Murray?) wasn’t great, but on the other hand, the synthesisation of estradiol gel and goserelin injections has definitely helped me to develop an absolutely cracking pair of tits. So, y’know, definitely a swings and roundabouts situation.
The problem, however, comes when people with a limited understanding of science (cf. the number of defenses of a binary gender system by people proclaiming that it’s ‘high school biology’ – forgetting that science is often more complicated than what you get taught in high school, as demonstrated here) begin reifying concepts like womanhood.
The reason why this argument is so boring is that there is no such thing as a ‘real’ woman. Womanhood is a concept we invented based on our imperfect understanding of markers of gender difference a long time ago, but all we can use to prove who is or isn’t a ‘real’ woman is a set of correlations. Most of the time, being born with a penis is correlated with the concept of ‘male’, but not always. Most of the time, being born with a vulva is correlated with the allegedly opposite concept of ‘female’ but, again, not always. Same goes for any other criterion you care to apply: chromosomes, uteri, bone density, and so on and so forth. All these many things are often correlated with the concepts of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ but not in all cases.
In Karl Popper’s terms, trans women (and intersex women, and non-binary individuals) constitute a black swan event for people like Murray. Any criteria for unambiguous womanhood you care to name can be falsified by the existence of women who do not display that characteristic. The only way you can defend the idea that trans women aren’t women is to suggest that there is some mystick femynyne eſſence which is somehow present in all women you wish to define as ‘real’ but not in any women from whom you wish to withhold your imprimatur. There are, however, two problems with taking this view: first, that it is markedly less sophisticated than the nuanced understanding of gender present in the allegedly ‘primitive’ cultures described above; and second, that such a concept is unfalsifiable – or, as Popper memorably put it, ‘not even wrong’.
And that, ultimately, is why I have very little time for the tedious, goalpost-shifting, anti-trans rhetoric of Murray and her ilk. It isn’t that they’re wrong: it’s that in their case, being wrong would be an improvement – and they can’t even manage that.