How Britain's colonial past can be traced through to the transphobic feminism of today

Much like imperialist classifications, rejecting the idea of more fluid sex seeks to violate anyone who doesn’t conform

Amrou Al-Kadhi
Wednesday 10 June 2020 18:35 BST
JK Rowling criticised over ‘transphobic’ tweet about menstruation.mp4

In the most significant anti-racism demonstrations in generations, the chickens are finally coming home to roost after centuries of unbridled white supremacy.

That it's all happening against the backdrop of a global pandemic that has disproportionately killed BAME people is even more significant.

Yet, as the inequity of capitalism and its inextricable link to white privilege are brought into focus, JK Rowling instead devoted her enormous Twitter platform to discussing the use of gender-neutral terms last Saturday night.

The timing of her social media tirade is telling. In the context of a collective reckoning with how our economic, political and social systems have dehumanised black lives for centuries, it seemed the fantasy-writer turned billionaire had decided an equally pressing issue was making grand claims about the estimated 1 per cent of the population who identify as trans.

Transphobia is tethered to the malign structures of white supremacy. So, as we harness this political moment to dismantle centuries of inherited racism, we also have a duty to understand its relationship with the kind of discourse that is, quite frankly, making life hell for trans people.

To me, Rowling appears to be arguing that transgender people are erasing the fact of biological sex. The idea that transgender people are an ideological cult on a mission to vanquish the very idea of sex is a common argument in certain circles. But before we examine this ridiculous claim, let us first consider where the limited idea of binary sex came from. Again, the recent protests are an important backdrop. On Sunday, the statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader responsible for exploiting around 80,000 African lives, came crashing down in Bristol. And so starts the process of unchaining Britain from the rotten legacy of colonialism.

While our nation’s deluge of period dramas imagine the age of Empire as one of dignified excess and seductive aesthetics, brushed under the carpet is the fact, for instance, that both the British-caused Great Famine of 1876-1878 and the Indian famine of 1899-1900 are estimated to have killed up to 10 million people each. Notwithstanding such racial genocides, British colonists exported with them strict binary classifications of sex.

The British Age of Enlightenment prized itself on scientific rationality, including with it strict taxonomies of racial and sex categorisation – i.e. your biology meant you were strictly male or female, and there was a rigid hierarchy of race superiority (with whites at the top). And so, Britain’s cannibalisation of the rest of the globe simultaneously erased rich non-Western trans histories.

Take, for instance, the transgender Hijra people of India, who, prior to British imperial rule, were exalted in their communities, tasked with important legal duties like collecting taxes and duties; in 1864, Britain imported its 1533 Buggery Act, which directly criminalised Hijra people and reduced them to second-class citizens. It was only in 2019 that this colonial law was rescinded. This obliteration of well-established transgender communities was replicated across the Global North; European colonists, when invading the Americas, pointed to the transgender Two-Spirit traditions of its indigenous people as proof of their primitivism.

History aside, transphobic arguments must also be debunked head-on. Transphobic "feminists" contend that sex is finite and binary. As they see it, you are born male or female by sex, so whatever gender role you subsequently inhabit is entirely irrelevant (i.e. biological fact is the only thing that has meaning). But the idea that gender can be determined by pure biology erases the infinite social, emotional and psychological forces at play when it comes to a person’s gender.

As Rowling argues, there is such a thing as biological sex (you have male or female sexual organs, or in the case of intersex people, a combination). But this, too, is infinitely more fluid than biological essentialists pretend to make out. Transphobes often point out that you’re born with either XX (female) or XY (male) chromosomes, which are encoded into every cell in the human body; yet, there are many "biological females" who have XY chromosomes, and vice versa – some are, in fact, born with three sex chromosomes, like XXY, XXX and XXY (and would never know).

What about hormones? Again, the science debunks the kind of empirical certainty many transphobes invoke – many "biological males" produce more oestrogen than "biological females," and vice versa.

Transgender people reveal that all bodies are different, and in contradiction to Rowling’s apparent claims, have never called for the eradication of sex-based protections and reproductive rights. In actual fact, trans people are only trying to expand the understanding of sex so that society may better accommodate their needs. Is that really so terrible?

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This essentialising of gender and social identity to what reproductive organs you possess is the logical endpoint of transphobic feminism – and it hurts everyone. It reduces womanhood to the mere possession of ovaries, and, much like the scientific taxonomists of British imperialists, violates anyone who doesn’t conform to simple binary presentation. In the process, there is a concerted effort to exclude trans people from single-sex spaces, leaving an extremely vulnerable group even more vulnerable (41 per cent of trans people have experienced a hate crime in the last 12 months). Even cisgender people are feeling the brunt – butch lesbians increasingly report that they are harassed in female changing rooms, a result of transphobic dogma that seeks to police what is "correct womanhood."

Transphobia has its roots in the systems of colonial supremacy that sought to wipe out gender variance across the globe. At its core is an obsession with power, of determining the strict definition of woman, and a callous anti-intersectionality that refuses to accommodate a whole breadth of social minorities.

Transgender people, far from the "army of hunters" they are painted to be, are in fact the hunted minority – they have always been here, and they are just trying to live.

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