by Miroslav Imbrišević
Recently I read a definition of ‘Terf’: they are “cis women who deny the womanhood of transwomen.” [https://www.zeit.de/zett/queeres-leben/2022-04/phenix-kuehnert-weiblichkeit-trans-frau].
That made me think about the question of group membership. How do you acquire it? Strangely, it is never through self-ID. Traditionally there are two routes:  via the current members; or  specific, relevant facts must obtain.
If I want to join the illustrious Marylebone Cricket Club, then only the current members can help me: I must find two full members who would support my membership, and there mustn’t be any objection to my membership by any of the other full members. When I became a British citizen, only the British state, and by extension the British people, could grant me citizenship – regardless of whether I had self-identified as British for years, however many Carry-On movies I had seen, and whether I stood up in the bath (like Jacob Rees-Mogg), whenever the national anthem came on the radio. German or Croatian officials could not grant me British citizenship, only the Brits could.
The other route to membership is via certain relevant facts. If you want to count as a woman, you need to have a female body (which then may lead to a certain socialisation and experiences or not). Without the female body, there is no woman. This is not biological essentialism, but a matter of definition. Similarly, only those who actually are black (i.e., have black ancestors) count as black, and only those who have a recognised disability count as disabled. This isn’t biological essentialism either. People who think they can self-ID into these categories live in a different reality.
If you want to be a rockstar, you need to have done ‘rockstar things’ (released an album; be in the charts, etc., see here). If you want to be a Trekkie, you need to dress up like the actors on Star Trek, and ideally you will have watched most or all episodes of the TV series, and perhaps you speak Klingon. Self-identifying as a Trekkie, without dressing up and without having watched any episode of Star Trek, will not make you into a Trekkie. Some “Trekkie-facts” must obtain.
Some transwomen play the gender role “woman” in a stereotypical way: pearls, frilly blouses, high heels, hand bags, etc. Some have gender-affirming surgery (breasts, facial feminisation, etc.). Others are not playing the part at all; they only rely on self-ID. They have male bodies and look like men, but claim to be women. The latter are like Trekkies who merely self-ID, but who don’t dress up, haven’t seen any episode, and don’t use the phrase “Live long and prosper!” The trouble is, if none of the minimal Star-Trek-facts (wearing a uniform, familiarity with the TV series, etc.) obtain, then you are not a Trekkie.
As far as I see, self-ID never provides group membership. So, would dressing up, and “acting like a woman” make you into a member of the group, just like Trekkies do? At first glance it might look like it, but it turns out that it does not. When we are dealing with a Trekkie, then certain facts must obtain: pretending to be a Starfleet officer, having a uniform, using a hair-dryer as a phaser, etc. Here, acting (pretending to be something you are not) the part of Kirk, Spock or Uhura constitutes being a Trekkie – these are the membership-granting facts. Trekkies understand that you cannot become Spock, you can only pretend to be Spock; and that is how you become a Trekkie.
Those transwomen who play the role of “woman,” have thereby not satisfied any membership-granting conditions, because these differ from those that apply to Trekkies. The membership condition for the class “woman” – the fact that must obtain – is having a female body, not playing a role. The gender-role “woman” is secondary, or parasitic on having a female body. Unlike with Trekkies, playing the gender role of women is not a membership-granting fact; it is only something that is often associated with being a woman. A would-be Trekkie who takes on the role of Captain Kirk thereby becomes a Trekkie; he doesn’t become Kirk, and most Trekkies are aware of this. A transwoman who plays the role of “woman” becomes the equivalent of a Trekkie: she doesn’t become a woman, but only becomes someone who aspires to be a woman.
But perhaps the first route is the way to go? What if there are women – trans allies – who recognise transwomen as women? Could this recognition not grant group membership? As we have seen with club membership and citizenship, certain conventions or legal procedures must be in place. There is no operative convention in place which could bestow membership to the class “woman” when invoked by current members (i.e., women). Feminists in and out of academia may intone the mantra “trans women are women,” but it has no (legal) effect.
There is, of course, a legal procedure in many countries now which provides for a change of gender. And this entails that legal documents may be altered: often the birth certificate will now state under sex: “female.” This does not mean that the original birth certificate was in error; that person is still biologically male and will very likely need treatment for prostate cancer in old age. The state is merely employing a legal fiction, as I have explained here. In a narrow juridical sense, the state will treat a transwoman as if she were a woman. British law-makers were aware of this legal fiction when they debated the Gender Recognition Act in Parliament in 2003 (see here). For this reason, UK legislation permits the exclusion of transwomen from certain contexts (e.g., sport, peerages, single-sex provisions, etc.). If they really were women in all respects, these exclusions would be an injustice. So, the state is only pretending, just like the Trekkies are pretending. The difference is that the pretence of the aspiring Trekkie makes them into a Trekkie, while the pretence of the state doesn’t make a transwoman into a woman. It only grants them certain rights. In the UK, the state treats them, in some respects, as if they were women, but not in all respects. In legislation where there are no exemptions and no recognition of the underlying legal fiction, transwomen and women are legally indistinguishable. And this can lead to confusion among trans people and their allies: they start to believe the mantra.
The above definition of ‘Terf’ assumes that membership to the class “woman” goes via the first route: the current members of the class can bestow membership. But womanhood is not a club one can join, if other members agree to it. In truth, membership relies on route : certain facts must obtain, regardless of what allies may say.
Of course, some legislation (in Ireland, for instance) already permits self-ID when it comes to gender, and the new German government is preparing such a law. But this would create a precedent for group membership, and it is difficult to see why, as a consequence, we shouldn’t allow people to identify into any number of other categories. The possibilities are endless. And this Alice-in-Wonderland scenario explains why up until now self-ID was never an option when it comes to conditions of group membership. But, the times, they are a-changing.
Miroslav Imbrišević teaches philosophy at the Open University/UK