The Genderquake debate did more harm than good for transgender people and for feminists

There are a great deal of intersecting experiences between cisgender and transgender women, so why are people so fixated on the differences?

Genderquake: Munroe Bergdorf takes down hecklers during gender debate

As part of their Genderquake season, last night Channel 4 aired a live debate with a host of voices, including Munroe Bergdorf, Caitlyn Jenner, Germaine Greer and Sarah Ditum. Often, it made for distressing viewing, which no doubt terrified young gender-questioning people watching at home.

I identify as genderqueer, and was asked to take part in yesterday’s panel. At first, I thought it might offer a national platform to voice my queer politics and communicate them to a mainstream audience, but after much thought, I made the decision to pull out.

It’s deeply irresponsible to suggest that the right to self-identify your gender is up for “debate”. It isn’t. The framing of gender as a debate undermines the implicit right of trans people to identify as women, men or whichever gender they prefer. In the case of Genderquake, this resulted in an environment where audience members felt able to shout “You are a man!” and “You have a penis!” to last night’s transgender women panellists. To debate any gender identity implies that not only can it be explained, but that it can be refuted.

For instance, when non-binary panellist Jen Powell explained that they use “them/they” pronouns, the journalist Sarah Ditum chimed in with a remark about how we shouldn’t have to learn new pronouns for gender-nonconforming people, and that “it’s not how pronouns work”.

As someone who uses them/they/their pronouns myself, I can tell you that when I am referred to as a “he”, it’s like a punch of anxiety, and I feel shackled by the expectations of masculinity that have pained me my whole life. Being referred to with my correct pronouns is like being immersed in a lavender bath – it relaxes the way I operate in social space, and makes me feel seen for who I am. If something so simple as a pronoun can allow someone to feel better about themselves, why are we even offering a platform to challenge this?

Yesterday’s debate revealed how wrong it is to believe that the aims of feminism could ever be in opposition with transgender rights. The separation of the two is completely illogical, yet many still argue that they’re two incompatible ideologies and then use that as the basis for random verbal attacks on trans people.

There are a great deal of intersecting experiences between cisgender and transgender women, so why are people so fixated on the differences? If second wave feminism worked tirelessly to show that social rights must not be confined to our genitals and reproductive biology, then the exclusion of trans women from feminism takes us back to square one. As Munroe Bergdorf argued beautifully last night, what if you are a cisgender woman who has had a hysterectomy? Is being able to reproduce the only thing that makes you a woman? No one would argue that – so they shouldn’t argue that transgender women are “lesser” because of their biology either.

Trans women are some of the most victimised by patriarchal injustices, yet are somehow painted as patriarchs by people like Germaine Greer and Sarah Ditum. Ditum argues that reforming the Gender Recognition Act, a legislation that would save the lives of so many, would make it easier for men to prey on women in toilets. It’s absurd to fixate on this hypothetical nonsense, instead of the fact that it is transgender people who suffer most at the hands of the patriarchy: over half of young transgender people have attempted suicide in their life, with more than a third of trans people in the UK suffering hate crimes in 2017. Any noble form of feminism should be working to undo these injustices.

The producers of the Genderquake debate should be ashamed of themselves. Non-binary performer Travis Alabanza, who also declined to take part last night, summarised why when they said this: “What we are seeing on TV and media is a lack of understanding about the urgency of trans politics, the epidemic of violence trans people are under, and how this cries for programming that doesn’t ‘debate’ our existence, but rather focuses on understanding and listening to what our community is saying and needs.”

I hope in the future, producers for such programmes represent and celebrate gender-nonconforming people in a way that doesn’t undermine our very right to be here.

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