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Tomboys and sissies: where we're going wrong

I dream of a genderless society where we can escape from the male-female gender divide

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Transgender identity: kids are not pressured

There are many variants along the gender spectrum.
There are many variants along the gender spectrum. 

I would like to live in a world where 'male' and 'female' cease to be categories of social distinction, to the considerable advantage of those labelled 'male' and the considerable disadvantage of those labelled 'female'.

I would like 'gender' to disappear as a mark of social categorisation and prescribed behaviours, even if 'sex' – the number of 'Xes' in our  chromosomes – inevitably remains one mark of biological diversity, and differing needs, among us. 

But we do not live in such a world, and gender continues to separate humanity into two classes. As such, it is a deeply political question. It shapes our collective social experience as sexed beings from the day we are born, and we cannot disappear that experience and acquire another, simply through an act of will. Biology is not everything, but it is not nothing either – as any intersex person surely knows, and as all women know.

Throughout history, any specificity of women's embodiment or needs has been ideologically constructed as justification for considering us weak, incompetent and unclean. We know, deeply, viscerally, that embodiment is a political issue.

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There are many things that Peter Hyndal,  director of Transformative Solutions, and I agree about. We agree that no human being should be treated with disrespect and that it is unhelpful to express our disagreements through such personalising tactics as pejorative labelling, harassment and bullying, and attempts to shut down events organised by others.

Unfortunately, I am aware of several instances of bullying, by some (mainly male-to-female) transgender people of some feminists and lesbians who disagree with male-to-female transgender claims that they are women just like us and therefore should have unrestricted access to women-only events and spaces. 

I certainly know that not every member of the transgender community engages in such bullying, but those who do engage in it are vocal enough, and powerful enough, to do serious damage to women. Some women are now either too angry or too intimidated to even attend the upcoming IQ2 Debate hosted by The Ethics Centre   in Sydney on  Thursday March 3, where the proposition 'Society Must Recognise Trans People's Gender Identities' will be debated.

That sort of polarisation, fear and anger are not helpful. We have to be able to have an intelligent and respectful conversation on the politics of gendering, where no one fears bullying or reprisals.

'Butch women', 'effeminate men' and many other variants on the spectrum of gender-deviant behaviour were once claimed as forms of political resistance to traditional gender roles, rather than evidence that we should be gender-reassigned. Now, even little 'tomboys' and 'sissies' are being told they are transgender, from ages as young as six, and some adults are lobbying for complete freedom to proceed to chemical intervention on these children's bodies to delay their puberty until they are old enough to 'transition.'

A pre-pubescent child hardly has the full intellectual and emotional maturity to make an informed decision about this complex issue, and much more discussion is needed concerning the potential impacts of puberty-blocking on their process of maturation and long term physical and psychological well-being. 

What consenting adults do is their business. I may not agree, but they have the right to make their own choices if those choices are not harming others. Now, however, we are teaching children to be ashamed of their sexed bodies and to fear the natural processes involved in growing up. This is just plain wrong.

We are born in the bodies we are born in: they are neither 'wrong' nor 'right', they just are. Biologically speaking, men cannot be women and women cannot be men. But we can be men and women differently to how society prescribes we should be. I applaud, for example, the recent decision of Newtown High School of the Performing Arts to remove gendered prescriptions concerning school uniforms. Why shouldn't boys go to school in dresses if they want to, for example?

We are a long, long way off from the genderless society I dream of. But in the meantime, why can we not have a multiplicity of gender identifications: transgender M2F or F2M, genderqueer, woman, man, intersex?  The current reassertion of the male/female binary   is horribly regressive, and has involved considerable surgical and chemical intervention on people's bodies whose main purpose is surely to enrich pharmaco-medical industries that now have a whole new client base. 

There is room for everybody in our society, there is room for all our needs, spaces and desires. That room needs to be made by moving away from male/female binary  to support diversity among us and reciprocal respect for each other. That process has to start with respect for women, that is, women-embodied-female: for women's spaces, for women-only refuges, for lesbian lives and voices. Self-definition by transgender people must not be at women's expense.

Bronwyn Winter is an Associate Professor in the European Studies and International Studies Programs in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney.

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