Jules Gleeson[i] is a Londoner based in Vienna. She is the co-editor of the forthcoming anthology ‘Transgender Marxism ‘— out with Pluto Press next May. Her writing has appeared in publications including Viewpoint Magazine, Invert Journal, Homintern, Transgender Studies Quarterly, and VICE. She has performed both as a lecturer and comedian at events ranging from Zagreb’s Human Rights Film Festival, to the WienWoche opening gala.
This piece is an excerpt from a larger piece which can be read here. Both the excerpt and its full version are the second in a two-part exploration of the UK Government’s recent decision not to reform the Gender Recognition Act based on its own consultation process in 2018. The first was written by Chris Griffin and published last month: it can be read here.
“If gender is always there, delimiting in advance what qualifies as the human, how can we speak of a human who becomes its gender, as if gender were a postscript or a cultural afterthought?”[ii]
This September, Britain’s Minister for Women and Equalities minister Liz Truss announced the long-awaited result of the Gender Recognition Act reforms, a process that has now taken four years of repeated consultation, and deliberation. Peaking across 2018, the GRA debate had been the occasion for British trans people being put through the wringer: negative headlines and think pieces became a daily affair in the daily press. The previously lesser-known tendency of ‘Gender Critical’ feminism came to the fore, now supported across the liberal press.[iii] Both feminists endorsing and opposing the reforms made an all-out effort to enlist like-minded people in responding to the government’s official consultation page. The results of all this were as underwhelming as many trans people had come to fear: the principle of self-identifying one’s gender was a dead letter in British law.
The most exacting and degrading features of the Gender Recognition Certificate process would remain. Trans people would still be expected to deliver a full medical report, including their full medical treatment history, and an official diagnosis of gender dysphoria. As was also the case in Scotland, no new provisions for non-binary provisions were included. Nor indeed an ‘X’ option for intersex people who desire one — as now exists in Germany, and Austria.
The extensive bureaucracy required to secure a Gender Recognition Certificate would remain much as before, although perhaps somewhat less costly, and now possible to complete entirely online. Most gallingly, the government retained the so-called Spousal Veto, meaning married trans people wishing to officially mandate changing legal sex will still require permission from their partner, whose refusal will stop the process dead in its tracks. Originally appearing as an unlikely amendment to the David Cameron era Conservative’s Same Sex Marriage legalisation, removing this feature of the Gender Recognition Act had been supported by 5 out of 6 respondents to the GRA consultation.
One might have expected that this announcement would be met with widespread celebration in the feminist circles which had sought to derail substantive reform to the Gender Recognition Act. Having made keeping the GRA much as it was their primary agenda since around 2017, with protests such as ‘Man Friday’ seeing them performatively invade men-only swimming pool days. Thwarting the proposed reforms was the primary agenda of the largest ‘Gender Critical’ feminist group Britain had yet seen, A Woman’s Place. Intensive lobbying of politicians saw such a reversal that Liz Truss’ office had originally floated the idea of not only leaving the GRA mostly untouched, but revising the Equality Act provisions that have since 2010 formally safeguarded trans people’s participation in public life.
In short, ‘Gender Critical’ feminism had won an unmistakable victory: transition would remain a matter validated by medical professionals, and bureaucrats. A system such as that found in Ireland, where a sworn statement is required to alter ones legal sex, will not be seen in Britain for the foreseeable future.
But curiously, self-described ‘Gender Critical’ feminists almost passed their victory by. Instead of jubilation, social media accounts brimmed with wrath at famed American gender theorist Judith Butler. Interviewed by the New Statesmen, well known for hosting trans-sceptical feminist perspectives, Butler faced down clearly leading questions and placing a clear distance between what she called trans-exclusionary feminist perspectives, and her own.[iv] She instead presented the trans-exclusionary feminism of her interviewer as a marginal fringe within the movement, with positions based on ‘fantasy’.
Despite this being among the most accessible expressions of her position by Butler on record, she was widely pilloried as obscurantist, with writing akin to ‘wobbly jelly’.
Firstly, that the question of transgender people’s participation in public life cannot be decided simply as a matter of ‘rights’: many concerned with the ascent of what they call ‘transgender ideology’ are not willing to settle or demobilise after achieving their policy aims. And secondly, that this tendency within feminism has failed to achieve the remarkable hegemony across liberal opinion worldwide that it clearly now enjoys in Britain. Little progress has been made in this respect since the 2018 ‘We Need To Talk’ tour included a proposed session in Dublin as part of their ‘UK Tour’, drawing a rebuke signed by a thousand Irish feminists.[v] This limitation to Britain is a point of frustration for British Gender Critics, but seemingly not a national context they have been able to escape.
To see Gleeson reconstruct how the UK got to this point and argue what needs to be done to rethink the terms of the debate around gender and transitioning, read her full article here in the inaugural issue of Interfere.
- My thanks to Interfere Journal for actively commissioning this piece, and their anonymous reviewer for invaluable comments honing its explicit argument.
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (Routledge, 1990), 142.
- While I’m happy enough to refer to them as the Gender Critics, I treat the self-description of ‘Gender Critical’ feminism quite dubiously — few feminists are not in some sense critical of existing gender norms. Many trans people have been ferocious in their opposition to gender as a binding set of cultural expectations, indeed to the point of proposing it be abolished. See my previous essay tracing these traditions: “Abolitionism in the 21st Century: From Communization as the End of Sex, to Revolutionary Transfeminism,” Blindfield Journal (July 2017), https://blindfieldjournal.com/2017/08/07/abolitionism-in-the-21st-century-from-communisation-as-the-end-of-sex-to-revolutionary-transfeminism/.
- Alona Ferber, “Judith Butler on the culture wars, JK Rowling and living in ‘anti-intellectual times,’” New Statesman, September 22, 2020, https://www.newstatesman.com/international/2020/09/judith-butler-culture-wars-jk-rowling-and-living-anti-intellectual-times.
- This letter can be read here: “An open letter to the organisers of the ‘We Need to Talk Tour’ from a group of feminists in Ireland,” Feminist Ire, 22nd January, 2018, https://feministire.com/2018/01/22/an-open-letter-to-the-organisers-of-the-we-need-to-talk-tour-from-a-group-of-feminists-in-ireland/. And was reported on here: “’Stay away from Ireland’ British anti-trans feminists told,” Irish Central, 23rd January, 2018, https://www.irishcentral.com/news/irish-feminists-warn-away-british-terfs. The event never took place.