I haven’t read the Harry Potter novels or seen any of the films, and never will. I am bemused by the size, commitment, and complexity of what I am probably supposed to call the “on-line Harry Potter community”. I was just about as puzzled by the folks who identified Luca Rocco Magnotta through Facebook as I was shocked and disgusted by his crimes. Well, not really. Making a real snuff-movie wins that contest hands-down. But I felt I was watching the rituals of an unfamiliar tribe, who worship the gods of instant communication with people whom they’ve never met and never would have, if it weren’t for the producers of Don’t Fuck with Cats engineering an encounter between the two protagonists of the show who weren’t psychopaths. You know: people who not only check FB as soon as they wake up, but leave their phones by their beds in case something really important happens, so they can wake up in the middle of the night instead. Half the time I don’t know where my phone is. I have joined Twitter, but it’s more to get interesting headlines to follow. There’s no real prospect of having a discussion on Twitter. You might as well try to do a Kabuki version of Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft. What you have are people reinforcing their own opinions, lightened by cute pictures of people’s cats and babies and craft work.
Now, I’m not a Luddite. I have a MacBook Pro, an iPad, and, as noted, an iPhone. In fact I have used a personal computer since my first, a Macintosh Classic, in 1986. I keep up with friends and family by email and Whatsapp and Facetime as well as simple phone calls. I listen to podcasts and I watch movies and music videos on Youtube, mostly embarrassing ones I don’t like to admit to. We subscribe to several streaming services. But I don’t want to know what even my relations and closest friends are doing all the time. If something important happens, we contact one another through the usual channels.
It’s not just that I don’t need minute-to-minute updates. I don’t want my private life out there for all time. I use Adblocker and Privacy Badger as well as Ghostery. I have a Google account, but with everything switched off that could possibly allow them to collect any data on me, although they probably will anyway. I have an email account that encrypts end-to-end. And I’m nobody; I have a couple of followers on Twitter and that’s it. But now J.K. Rowling is a “transphobe” for all eternity because she expressed her support for a woman who lost her job for questioning the assumption that gender isn’t all in the mind or in social constructs.
I suppose I’ll be labelled a “TERF” for my views, even though I deplore the violence and discrimination to which many transgender people have been and continue to be subjected. For I think this is not a matter of questioning whether transgender people are victims. It’s a matter of questioning what they are the victims of.
Growing up as someone whom everyone around you believes to be male, even if you don’t believe it yourself, even if you are absolutely sure they’re wrong, is not the same as growing up as someone whom everyone around you believes to be female and believing it yourself, even if you aren’t sure what it means and don’t like a lot of what it brings with it. People who were labelled male at birth, but reject this label, aren’t persecuted because they’re women: they’re persecuted because, for those around them, they’re not women, yet behave or want to behave as if they were. All of this holds, mutatis mutandis—which, appropriately enough, is Italian for “a change of underwear”—for those who are labelled female at birth but identify as male.
Moreover, there are facts of experience transgender women haven’t shared and could not have done. Birth-certificate-males don’t get periods or go through menopause or have babies. They don’t get ogled and whistled at and propositioned and insulted in the street from the age of 14 on just because they are perceived as female and regarded as passive objects of male desire by most definitely born-as-males men. They don’t suffer discrimination at work and earn less than men on the grounds that they are women (although openly transgender people are certainly discriminated against just for being transgender).
We are who we are in part because of what we did and what happened to us in the past, which we cannot escape just by wanting to. Transgender people must know this. They are who they are in part because of what they suffered, and learned, growing up, acting a part for which they were not born. Lots of birth-certificate women who identify as female have go through a comparable experience, as they are expected to behave as traditional females in a male-dominated society, while simply wanting to be scientists, business executives, vicars, academics, engineers, doctors, teachers, or politicians who just happen to have two X chromosomes. Or perhaps they feel that being a woman brings something to their work they could get no other way. The thing is, it’s just not clear, to many birth-certificate-women, what being a woman means; that’s why some of us are puzzled about what it feels like to be sure you’re a woman when everyone around you is sure you’re not. Not indignant. Just puzzled. And one thing we know is that you don’t lose all that baggage just by saying, over and over again, I’m not who you think I am.
So it’s deeply sad that, rather than birth-certificate-women and transgender women sharing experiences of degrading or humiliating or merely irritating treatment by those with the wrong expectations, or starting a conversation about what it is to be a woman, a war has broken out amongst us. And it’s tempting to say that that is, in part, because transgender women want to stick yet another label on other people. And themselves.