Identity has become a toxic area of public discourse. Yesterday a female singer was angrily accused of “black claiming” because she was singing Afro- American material while (allegedly) tanning her skin so as to appear of black or mixed-race origin. Perhaps a little gentle mockery might be in order if indeed she did this, but contemptuous anger was what she got. At the same time the debate over the claims of some trans people to be women has become more and more poisonous. Both black people and women have been subject to violence because of their identity, so I can see that any merely wilful use of their identity might arouse anger; although it could also be seen as admiration. Then again, it’s interesting that theatre people who fought hard to be called actors not actresses, have fought equally hard to be actresses when they go to the loo.
Part of the confusion is the question of whether identity can be self-determined or if it is determined partly by society or community. I imagine that different determiners of identity work differently. If I have 90% African DNA I may surely call myself black whatever the colour of my skin. But if I have, as many white people do, 5% African DNA, am I blocked from claiming black identity?
In the case of men and women the argument has been made that although sex is biologically determined, gender, meaning the personal and social role of a person, is or should be self-determined. Trans women seem to be saying that whatever their biological sex, they want, in their personal and societal interactions, to be recognised as women. Presumably they do so because they passionately believe that womanly behaviours are a true expression of their inner selves. But if these admired behaviours have been developed in interaction with female biology as well as social roles, to what extent can trans people share them?
If having a womb influences the character and behaviour of women, then trans women would have to accept being women without wombs ( W-W women). And if menstruation influences the character and behaviour of women, then trans women would have to accept being women minus menstruation ( MM women). And if having breasts influences etc…. even if trans women can have breasts added by surgery, they would have to accept being biotech boobed women (BTB women.
In the same way, if we assume that the possession of having, or having had, male biological equipment, trans women would have to accept being women with willies, (W+W women), and ball-bearing women (B-B women) and topped up testosterone women (TUP women) and the rest. Some now and in the future maybe all of these determinants could be altered by medical intervention, but by the time of transition, the formerly male person will have been already influenced by the biology he has possessed or lacked. It seems to me likely that biological males desiring to be females will never fully possess the womanly characteristics they so much admire. And the same for women who want to be men.
Does all that matter? If people are realistic, probably not. If people imagine that transitioning will solve all their problems, that would be a dangerous delusion. But if trans people act and are treated with modesty, affection and humour, the equality they want will be a achieved and the problems overcome. For example, if trans women recognise that oppression has been part of female experience, and vulnerability part of what they admire in women, they may understand the importance of women-only spaces, and be ready to accept a legal definition of “woman” which excludes W+W women and B-B women.
In this argument there will, at the present time be a lot of disagreement, because prejudice exists and even where it is discarded, people will want different things. Only those who like M Thatcher think that society does not exist, will imagine that their identity can be separate from the identity of society. If we create societies where justice, tolerance and equality are paramount we may also be able to nurture personal identities which can honour choice as well as biology. The Bible says two interesting things in this regard:
1. In the beginning (that is, in our origins) God made them male and female
2. In Christ ( that is, in our destiny) there is neither male nor female.