A quick post on the Government’s proposed changes to the law around sex/gender reassignment to make it easier for transgender people to become legally the opposite sex. I won’t go into the feminist objections to these changes, as numerous excellent writers and organisations already summarise this (see here for plenty of links).
Many have ignored the debate so far, seeing it as an arcane internecine spat on the left and good for a chuckle or two, nothing more. But changes to the law on trans issues affect everyone. If you care at all about personal liberty and (relative) freedom from government overreach, here are two reasons why you should oppose ‘self-ID’: firstly, it’s a monstrous power grab by a government already giddy and bloated with the powers it increasingly clutches to itself. And secondly, if this goes through we might as well have done with it and just reinstate blasphemy laws.
It’s a massive government power grab: Effectively the changes replace sex with ‘gender identity’. So what, you might say. But sex is observable: even without peering at genitals humans can identify with near-perfect accuracy whether another human is male or female. Even my 18-month-old can do it and she’s only just learned the words for ‘man’ and ‘lady’. But once someone can declare themselves legally ‘male’ or ‘female’ simply by filling in a form, based on no external factors whatsoever and simply their feeling about what they are, sex stops being an observable property of everyone’s physical selves and becomes ‘gender identity’, an abstract property of everyone’s inner life. At that moment the final arbiter of who is or isn’t male or female stops being the evidence of your and everyone else’s eyes.
In order for ‘gender identity’ to have any meaning, therefore, it needs to be ratified by – guess who? Enter your friendly bureaucratic state. The government will have abolished your sex and given you something called a ‘gender identity’ instead, to which of course only the government can give binding force.
Michael Merrick’s brilliant essay The Labour Family sets out how the same radically individualist concept of ‘liberty’ – articulated on the right in the economic sphere and on the left in the social – placed the state in direct competition with social structures, networks and traditions as the prime means of individuals’ support.
For liberty to flourish the state had to remain neutral toward the conduct of those residing within it. It could dispense justice where contracts were unjustly breached, but the manner in which they were drawn, the manner in which they ended, and the manner in which they affected third parties and society as a whole remained outside the purview of the state. Yet it also needed vigorous protection and a legislative commitment to mitigate the fallout from such self-centred accounts of freedom. This put the state in direct competition with that supportive web of relationships that traditionally regulated individual behaviour as well as helped absorb fallout when required. In providing an alternative to these networks, in rendering associative, reciprocal, mutualistic society no longer at the core of individual progress and preservation, the state had begun to monopolise the space where society used to be. The result was corrosive to any sort of relational politics; a system with a focus on outcomes, as Ruth Porter explains, ‘removes any connection between action and consequence. In doing so, it destroys the very reflex which encourages moral action. By consequence, this breeds a sense of entitlement. This undermines social bonds both in families and also communities more broadly.’
The paradox in the dynamic outlined above is that in order for liberty – understood in a strictly individualistic sense – to flourish, the state increasingly took the place of the customs and networks that had traditionally regulated behavour, thus growing – in the name of freedom – ever bigger.
In a traditionally understood concept of identity, each of us is recognised by those around us as those things we are, in the social sphere: a mother, a husband, a writer, a daughter, a good cook, a teller of jokes, etc. Without that social recognition, that echo returning from the Other that says ‘I see you, and yes, I agree with you that you are [that thing you feel you are]’, each person’s inner feeling about who or what she is can be nothing but empty yearning.
But in the radical individualist new world we are entering, each person’s inner feeling of personal identity is not only paramount but the only truth. Interpellation by the other is, we are told, rendered null and void. Only thus can each individual be freed from the oppressive social gaze to flourish as the unique marvel he or she (or ze or hir or whatever) is.
But there’s a catch. If it’s not the people around me who affirm my identity, it has to happen somewhere. So naturally, again, the state steps in. Much as the state stepped in to create government-sanctioned structures intended to replace those stifling social networks and conventions that had hitherto regulated behaviour, here again in the name of freedom the state gets even bigger.
The proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act are as colossal a power grab by the state as the proposal to make organ donation opt-out rather than opt-in. Not only does the state propose to own my physical organs by default, it also proposes to become the ultimate arbiter – over the heads of all those around me and even of observable truth – of whether I am male or female. Not content with inserting itself between individuals and their social spheres, the state must insert itself between us and our very sex, arrogating to itself the right to determine the truth of something which is in fact inscribed in every cell of our bodies.
Secondly, blasphemy. Think I’m joking? Consider this: once the government is established as the final – the only – arbiter of whether I am male or female, then disagreeing with the government’s view that this person or this person or this person are, in fact, women represents an assault on government power. I don’t get to argue with the government about what the rate of income tax is, and if the government says person X is a woman, then they are a woman. Combine that with hate speech rules (which have already shown an alarming degree of mission creep) and you have a situation where refusing to tell lies that have been sanctioned by the state as the truth could land me with a fine or in jail. If that isn’t a de facto blasphemy law I don’t know what is. Indeed in a recent court case where a young trans-identified male, ‘Tara’ Wolf was convicted of assaulting a 60-year-old woman, the judge reduced the fine and declined to award compensation because the victim did not always refer to her male attacker using female pronouns.
To be clear, I don’t really care how people dress or present themselves. I think the world would be a nicer place if we didn’t set quite so much store by whether someone was wearing a frock or makeup or whatever. I’ll even call a man ‘she’ out of politeness, if politeness is warranted. But a dress, hormone supplementation or cosmetic surgery don’t alter someone’s actual sex. The state has no place insisting otherwise. Nor does the state have any place announcing that in fact sex is irrelevant and that to help us be freer it will helpfully supply and manage for each of us a new tailored and oh-so-individual gender identity. But as that awful Breitbart man once said, politics is downstream from culture; the push in our culture continues to be away from the social (relationally understood) toward the radically individualised; I fear many of us will be blaspheming before this phenomenon works itself out.