by Bev Jackson
The word ‘sex’ is having a bit of a moment. Not in the bedroom sense, but in its sense of biological sex, male or female. When J.K. Rowling tweeted “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased,” she ignited a firestorm. What did she mean? Who could deny that sex is real? Perhaps you haven’t been following, but it has become impolite to talk of sex. Instead we must use ‘gender’, a feeling in your head, rather than the reality of your body.
Not everyone agrees. But those wanting to discuss the issue confront a dragon that blocks our path and will not let us pass. It is the dragon of transphobia. A phobia is a morbid, irrational fear or hatred of something. But this dragon roars not at irrational fears or hatred but at any discussion of sex. It breathes fire on everyone who tries to discuss the ways in which our bodies are at the heart of our experience. Those burned the worst are lesbians, who experience double discrimination, on the basis of their sex, as both women and homosexuals. If we can’t use the word ‘sex’ to define the kind of discrimination we experience as gay men, lesbians, and women in general, we can’t protect our rights or even discuss them.
What is the dragon guarding? Some have signed up to the idea that everyone has an innate gender identity. Where this doesn’t align with the person’s biological sex, the person is trans, and ‘trans’, according to Stonewall’s glossary, can mean anything from a cross-dresser to a non-binary person; from agender to neutrois.
Every person who rejects traditional gender roles is in a sense trans, but many do not want that label. And those of us who do not believe that anyone can be born in the wrong body or that everyone has a “gender identity” – that this is in fact a regressive, insulting idea – deserve the right to be heard, without being consigned to the dragon’s flames.
All discussions of rights based on biological sex are suppressed as hateful. Every academic who discusses the issue, from Kathleen Stock to Selina Todd to Rosa Freedman to Eva Poen, is met with threats and no-platforming.  Every researcher who applies for a grant to conduct serious studies of social contagion or de-transitioning, from Lisa Littman to James Caspian, has difficulty gaining funds.  They must not speak, must not write, must not publish. There is a word for this, and it is ‘tyranny’. The expansive definition of ‘transphobia’ makes it impossible to discuss the rights conflict that is at issue here. Because there is a serious conflict of rights: between certain of the demands of trans activists – especially with regard to Self-ID – and the rights of women and Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual people.
Who is feeding the dragon? The answer, in short, is social media companies. They rule online discourse and apply their own rules for what constitutes “hateful conduct.” They exercise profound influence on mores and beliefs throughout the world. And they are all based in California.
Take five of the major social media platforms: Facebook, Google, Medium, Twitter and YouTube. The head offices of all five are located within thirty miles of one another in the Bay Area, California. Why does this matter? Because California has pioneered the enforcement of transgender language and rules, even when it is unconstitutional. In October 2017, California enacted a law on preferred gender pronouns in long-term care facilities. Although the bar for criminal prosecution is very high, violations could, under limited circumstances (in the event of “willfully and repeatedly failing to use a resident’s preferred … pronouns”), be treated as a misdemeanor. In cases judged to be the most serious, a punishment of up to a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine can be imposed for this misdemeanor. This is a form of compelled speech and directly contravenes the First Amendment.
In this cultural context, biological sex is seen as unimportant or old-fashioned. “Gender identity” overrides all. These beliefs effectively erase women and same-sex attracted people, who lose the right to name oppressive systems.
Social media companies limit freedom of opinion through rules forbidding what they call “hate speech” and “hateful conduct.” Those who break the rules find their content removed. In some cases, their accounts are suspended. In recent years, most of the punished and banned have been women. “Hate” is framed largely in terms of protected characteristics, which include gender and gender-identity but not sex. These vague words obscure the facts of sex and sex-based oppression and silence those – especially women – who want to discuss these issues.
Although these social media companies are based in California, where they are used in the UK, they should comply with UK law. However, no mechanisms are in place to ensure that compliance.
There is an urgent need for robust mechanisms with which to compel social media companies to operate in line with the law; to enforce accountability. Precise definitions – what does ‘gender’ mean? – are crucial. Once we know exactly what we are talking about, we can and must confront the Dragon.
Bev Jackson is the co-founder of LGB Alliance: https://lgballiance.org.uk/