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The problem with trying to define what ‘trans’ actually is

The problem with trying to define what ‘trans’ actually is

Newsnight got it wrong. Their attempt to set up a debate between the trans community (aka Paris Lees and Fred McConnell) and an individual arguing a gender critical stance was a poorly thought-out attempt to grab some sensation at the end of a trans news day.

First, though, I’d very much like to digress. It might prove helpful.

I’d start with a role I once held as an IT trouble-shooter: go-between, more like; or liaison between two communities – IT and business – that used common resource but spoke very different languages. One day I was asked to cast my eye over a particularly troublesome piece of software. It was misbehaving.

A call to those who wrote it produced a difficult response. The software could not do what we alleged. It couldn’t because that was not in its coding. What about the fact that I and several others had just sat and watched it doing this thing it couldn’t? We were mistaken. Because.

Because what we had just seen could not be.

Diving even further back, I remember, as a young and eager neuropsychologist, building my understanding of sight. It seemed pretty straightforward. Light pinged on to your retina, where it converted to nerve impulses, before making its way via the optical nerve and chiasmus to the visual cortex and all points beyond.

Vision followed a neat, direct pathway, a bit like the Central line. So, obviously, damage to the visual cortex meant damage and limitation to the field of vision.

And thus it was, until some awkward experimenter discovered blindsight: a phenomenon that proved that individuals with such damage were perfectly capable of describing key features of objects they could not ‘see’. So much for that nice direct pathway.

As IT/neural science, so the flight of the bumblebee and celestial motion. These – and many more – are all areas where theory preceded, often dictated our understanding of the external world. In the end, reality can’t help creeping back in: ‘sed movet’ (‘but it flies’), as Galileo didn’t quite say of the much-talked-about bumblebee. Scientists adjust: a paradigm shift follows.

Along the way though, depending on just how dogmatic the theorists have been, people suffer. The trans community know all about that. From earliest days, our treatment – our very existence – has been subject to gate-keeping from a variety of professions. Not just physicians, but priests and some feminists, too, have sought to ‘explain’ us and, brutally, exclude individuals from treatment. Or failing that, seeking to limit our rights based on their theoretical interpretation of our being.

It surprises me little that the first two should so readily adopt the privilege argument: it worries me rather more that those seeking to defend and uphold the rights of women should take up the ‘theory first’ paradigm. Because historically, that is precisely the approach that has been used to limit women’s rights. We have this or that theory about women and – let’s ignore all evidence to the contrary – because our theory explains hysteria and masturbation and irrationality and relationships, women should not vote/have equal pay/leave the home between the hours of sunset and sunrise. And so on.

By now, you may have got the message: I don’t like subjecting the real world to the diktats of theory. I’d not like that if the theoriser was some Nobel Prize winning genius. I certainly don’t go a bundle on it when that theory is peddled by some armchair Twitter warrior.

What is trans? You might think, given my personal experience, I’d have some incredibly insightful knowledge to impart on that. But I don’t. As Paris Lees wrote last week – and CN Lester even more movingly a few days later – I don’t KNOW what it is. It just is: and until you’ve walked a few miles or so in my skin, please don’t patronise me with the ludicrous conceit that you have the first idea as to what it is.

Which brings me back, ever so slowly to Newsnight and a debate they might have hosted on the back of some odd comments made by the latest high profile transitioner, Kellie Maloney about ‘female brainedness;. Why? I mean: since when have the views of someone – an erstwhile UKIP candidate – who has transitioned late; has, to my knowledge, little real background in neurophysics; and spouts equally odd ideas on LGB issues; been the last word on the nature of transgender?

And why is it a requirement for the trans community to explain those views to critics from one small segment of the political universe.

But, but…’she’s one of you’ is an argument I have heard rather too often of late as grounds for demanding I engage in debates that I mostly consider ill-founded or, quite simply, stupid. It is, too, a very dangerous argument to be found emanating from the keyboards of those who are politically aligned with certain individuals – step forward Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffery – widely believed by many in the trans community to be directly responsible for the premature death of hundreds, maybe thousands of trans individuals.

Are they? Responsible, that is? I have no idea. On t’other I do know that belief is widely held, widely argued: and that to proceed along the road of ‘explain, or be forever more guilty of the sins of your trans brothers and sisters’ is a tarring that could equally be applied to some feminists.

Strike one against Newsnight. Strike two, I guess, lies somewhere in the absurd claim that by failing to stand up and justify (or explain) Ms Maloney’s views, the trans community was silencing a particular line of criticism. As though we are talking some ecosystem in which gender critical feminists are the natural predator to teh tranz.

Somehow, we OWE an answer to that particular strand of thought. As opposed to the Catholic theologians who gainsay our existence. Or the psychiatrists. Or the gay appropriators or…well, you get the idea. And the question I’d toss back into the pot is: why on earth do individuals of ONE political persuasion think they automatically go to the front of the queue when it comes to debunking random trans views.

In fact, given that one of the pronouncements supposedly up for debate was Maloney’s belief in a ‘female brain’, how come the counter-argument wasn’t handed over to someone with at least passing creds in the neuropsych arena. If not Cordelia Fine, how about me?

‘Help! Help! I’ve not been asked! I’ve been silenced!’

And now we’re back at the start, and Newsnight getting it wrong. Because there is nowt at all wrong with having a debate about how the trans community explains itself – though such debate will almost certainly generate much more heat than light. And I’d happily participate in such.

But to call random members of the community to account for what may or may not be little more than personal metaphor for their condition is, itself, pretty random. Poorly thought out or, perish the thought, an attempt to stir argument for argument’s sake.

And that – helping to refurnish the reputation of a show that has, of late, lost much of its shine – is not in any sense the job of the trans community.