The transgender debate needs clear thinking, not muddled language

Debbie Hayton

Debbie Hayton

Debbie teaches physics to 11-18 year olds, helping them develop an understanding of science. Debbie is also busy as a trade union officer, standing up for teachers. As a trans person, Debbie has written extensively about what it means to be trans and how trans people can be included in society without compromising the rights of other vulnerable groups. Bylines in The Times, The Spectator, The Morning Star, The Economist, Quillette, Unherd and elsewhere. You can find Debbie on Twitter @DebbieHayton

The heated transgender debate is aggravated by muddled language that has obfuscated discussion and clouded understanding. Dispute resolution requires clarity of thought, which in turn needs precision of language. In transgender politics, that starts by unravelling sex and gender, description and definition, and even the verbs to be and to do.
The transgender debate plunged new depths recently following a remarkable intervention from JK Rowling. Her comments were mild – she protested the absence of the word woman to describe her sex – but the response was furious. Following a barrage of abuse on social media, she explained her reasons for speaking out in a 3700 word essay. Sadly, however, her reasoned arguments were met with emotional outbursts, and even the actors her books had propelled to fame scrambled to disassociate themselves from her. As a transgender person I despair that my rights are being discussed in such a febrile environment.

But if the tone of the debate is unfortunate, the confusion over language is tragic. If we misunderstand the medium, how can we possibly identify solutions, let alone achieve consensus?

English – with its vast vocabulary – supports nuance and facilitates precision of thought. But not if words are conflated, such as sex and gender. Traditionally people have sex while nouns have gender. However, while other European languages might assign masculinity to keyboards and femininity to mice, le clavier et la souris, English does not. Maybe through prurience, maybe to distinguish from a certain activity, gender has become superficially synonymous with sex. But while gender might be considered close enough to displace the word sex in many contexts where we have to describe ourselves as male or female, it breaks the link with the biology that defines us as male or female.

This usage is relatively recent. While Webster’s dictionary might trace it back to the 14th Century as a grammatical term, gender took on new meaning in 1964 when Robert Stoller coined the term gender identity to describe the way that people feel about themselves. Psychology is not biology and therefore gender identity is not sex, but in recent years it has been used to divide humanity in a way that was formerly the preserve of sex. In doing so, it extended its reach. No longer purely descriptive, it became definitive.

Description and definition are the second word pair that muddle the gender debate. Does gender identity describe us or define us? While we cannot even define gender Identity without recourse to circular reasoning supported by sexist stereotypes, and we certainly can’t measure it, it has become established in law in many jurisdictions. In doing so, it has become a means to classify people and, with it created new hazards.

When I was a child in the 1970s, some girls climbed trees and played with trucks while some boys liked to play with dolls and wear dresses. While – regrettably – they faced suspicion and ridicule, in the case of the boys, nobody doubted their sex. They were just a bit different. We looked forward to a progressive future where these differences were celebrated. But gender identity obstructed those lofty ideals. The description that became a definition then became a diagnosis.

Some parents concerned about their gender non-conforming children have dealt with their own prejudices by referring their children to paediatric gender services, with potentially life-changing outcomes. Clinicians at the Gender Identity Development Service – the UK clinic for “young people presenting with difficulties with their gender identity” have told BBC journalists that “Some parents appeared to prefer the child was transgender and straight, rather than gay, pushing them towards transition.” (see video below)

Without the language created by Stoller we would have no words to create identities that necessitate such actions.

Identity and action link to my third and final pair of words: “to be” and “to do”, arguably the two most fundamental verbs in the English lexicon. They may not have been conflated but transgender activism has achieved something almost as remarkable. “To do” was quietly replaced with “to be” with few people noticing. The consequences have been profound and, I would argue, negative.

A generation ago, two groups of people were defined by their actions, things they did. Transvestites expressed their predilection for wearing clothes associated with the opposite sex. Some, through painstaking attention to detail, passed as the opposite sex. Transsexuals, on the other hand, changed their sex characteristics. But while transsexuals could be a subject of pity, transvestites were often the target of ridicule. Monty Python’s depiction of Loretta and a cross-dressing lumberjack (see videos below) reflected attitudes of the time. It was no golden age for trans people.


Trans rights were secured much later and, in the UK, through the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the Equality Act 2010. Crucially, in both cases the focus was on our right to do something.

The 2004 legislation created a mechanism by which we could change our birth certificates and, effectively, our legal sex. But it depended on actions. We had to change our presentation in society – and keep it changed for two years – to demonstrate a clinically diagnosed condition. Not only that, we had to provide medical reports to support the application. It may well have depended on conforming to sexist stereotypes but, still, it was something that had to be done.

In 2010 we won the right to be protected from harassment and “less favourable treatment”. But, crucially, the protected characteristic described actions. Instead of gender identity the UK constructed the law on gender reassignment, which was defined as a “process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex.”

But sometime after that, almost under cover of darkness, the verb was switched from “to do” to “to be”. Gone were the transvestites and transsexuals who did things, and in their place were people who identified as transgender. As groups formally dedicated to the rights of gays and lesbians – for example, Stonewall UK and GLAAD of the US – waded in, we were relabelled. The definition offered by GLAAD is typical: “Transgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth”. Since we can never measure anyone’s gender identity this definition is unprovable and unfalsifiable. But by assertion and assumption it has become established as an innate quality, and preferred over biological sex to divide humanity.

Furthermore, there can never be an objective test for being transgender. We are transgender because we say we are transgender. No qualifying criterion is necessary, or even possible. Naïvely, this may be liberating – if we are who we say we are, how can anyone stop us? – but we do not live in isolation, we live in society. With no basis in material reality, identity-based rights are vulnerable when they collide with the rights of others, and they have surely collided in this debate.

Sex and gender. Photo @ Tim Mossholder for Unsplash

For over a century, western women have campaigned for – and won – sex-based rights. Some protect physical spaces, for example domestic violence refuges, while others enable women to participate and flourish in a society where sexism is still prevalent. If any man can identify as a transwoman, and any transwoman can identify as a woman, women’s boundaries are rendered meaningless. Locked gates offer no protection if any man can cut his own key. No wonder women are concerned.

But identity-based rights have also been disastrous for transgender people. When their claims are challenged, they have only their asserted feeling to fall back on. No wonder they report feeling “erased” or “invalidated.”

The alternative strategy – literally “no debate” – has been ineffective, and possibly even counter-productive, considering the very heated debate that now rages that shows no sign of quelling as more people wake up to the inevitable consequences of male people being allowed to identify as female people just because they want to. Male rapists are left to assault women in female prisons, male athletes are free to triumph in women’s sport while male executives displace women from schemes to promote women in business. These outcomes are both absurd and wrong, and they are destroying the credibility that we trans people used to take for granted.

Those of us who call out these outrages as unacceptable receive a mixed response. While many people commend my principles for being grounded in objective reality, some trans people and their allies tell me that they find them offensive and hateful. But when a scientific perspective is seen as transphobic, we reach an impasse.

Meanwhile, we ignore activity-based rights at our peril. The right to be treated fairly – equally favourably – with other human beings in employment, housing, and the provision of goods and services must not be taken for granted. Transgender campaigners do us no favours by alienating women, another group that face discrimination and harassment in society, who were once our natural allies.

While the future for trans people may now be less certain, we would achieve far more security and clarity if we got to grips with the language surrounding the debate. Sex needs to be restored over gender identity, and descriptions must not be allowed to become definitions by default. But most importantly we must restore the verb “to do” as the basis of our rights. Because while we should regulate activities, we can never regulate identities. We are who we are, and that should be good enough for everyone.


Debbie Hayton


Received: 20.06.20, Ready: 23.07.20, Editors: Anna K. Stelling-Germani, Robert Ganley

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The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Culturico, its editorial team and of the editors who revised the article.

6 thoughts on “The transgender debate needs clear thinking, not muddled language

  1. Actually, I would say rather then clarity of thought and precision of words, we need to start with seeing what actually is, i.e. start with the facts. You distinguish sex and gender, which I understand, but I’m just going to use the term ‘gender’ here and start with the first question we should ask – what actually is gender, in fact? It is a biological fact, a psychological identity, a social construct and a social fact. Let me explain what I mean. We are born biologically male or female: and one can transition, so biologically, we are male, female, or trans male, trans female. I am distinguishing male and female (I could say cis) with trans male and female because biologically, they are different. Psychologically, if you look at what the mind actually is, and how it develops, you see that at birth and in the early years, it is not gendered because consciousness of gender has not developed. So there is an ungendered state. Gender comes in two forms, psychologically: there is feminine and masculine tendencies of thought and feeling on the one hand, and there is identity formation on the other hand. So when we just look at the facts, I think it is wrong to say you can be psychologically male or female: to put it more accurately, psycholgically you can think you are male or female, you can identify as male or female, and you can be feminine or masculine psychologically. As a gay cis man, I recall being more feminine psychologically when I was young, and sometimes I would even have a female self-image, but that relates merely to the content of the mind. The mind itself has no gender – gender relates to the content only, and it is by nature fluid I think: but you can form a fixed identity as male or female, and believe psychologically you are male or female. Socially, there is the existing definition and conception of male and female, and the traditional definition was simple – it related to biological sex. However, in recognition that gender is in part a social construct, we have a conception of gender appart from biological sex, and often we say it is how we identify psychologically. But there is also gender as what you might call a social ‘fact’ (it’s not really a fact but an agreement) – which is how society accepts you or acknowledges you to be. Trans was not a social fact in 1900: you were male, female, or a bit odd. We’ve moved on allot since then. In the 1970s we had the notion of transvestitism: that was a social fact, and also butch women and fem men: now we have trans women and trans men. There is an effort to widen the social definitions, but this is a social struggle between competing interests. One of the big problems, I think, in these debates, is that allot of LGBT groups and trans individuals are making assertions that are not factual: sometimes they are, on the face of it, incorrect (I’ll give examples in a moment), and sometimes, they are assertions, demands, but not actual facts – and there is an expectation that others accept them as facts even though they are not ‘facts’ but assertions, demands. An example is when a trans man I saw in an interview said, as many trans people do, when he was a child ‘I knew that I was a man’. The fact is he was biologically female: on a psychological level, he could say something like “I wanted to be male” and/or “I identified psychologically as male (or masculine)” and perhaps “wanted to be recognized socially as male” – these would be the kind of statements that would accord with facts, but to say “I knew I was a man” is an assertion, not a fact. He wasn’t biologically male, he could only identify as male psychologically, he could seek social recognition as a male, but to say he knew he was a male assumes too much – is adrift from the complexities of gender and of people in that state of mind. Now there is a legitimate concern among many that accepting the child as the opposite of their biological sex, and medicalising them, may be a form of violence, or may be psychologically or physically damaging. To call that transphobia is a non-fact. They may be very accepting of trans-people and wish them well. We may argue that they should take it from a trans person that accepting their preferred gender identity is a good thing, but one may legitimately doubt this assertion, may want proof. Every parent wants to do the best by their children and therefore may want to know the facts, and not be happy with mere assertions. Another assertion often made by a trans person, say a trans woman, is that “I am a woman”: this is contrary to the traditional definition of male and female, and society at large has not yet accepted this to be self-evident, so it is technically an assertion, and perhaps a personal convinction. It is not yet a social fact, as in socially acknowledged and accepted fact. To make it a socially acknowledged and accepted fact then there needs to be a debate and a reconceptualization of traditional notions: you don’t do this by making assertions and calling people who disagree ‘transphobic’. It has to be a social negotiation because that’s how all redefinitions take place. And if you call those who have a different point of view ‘transphobic’, even though they may be well-meaning and wish the very best for all trans people, this is going to polarise and alienate peopole, often making them more entrenched in their opposition – and this is exactly what’s happening. Many people worry that we’ve taken a wrong turn with gender, that the first thing you should do is accept what you are, biologically: many worry that we are encouraging children to become something they biologically cannot be – the opposite sex. Such people would say you can become trans, but not the opposite sex – and biologically, there is a difference between a trans female/male and a cis female/male. Arguably it is important to let kids know that trans is different from cis, that they can never become cis, and we need to push for such people to be able to become the opposite sex socially: at the moment, trans women or men are seen more as trans then as women or men socially. There are concerns that we are witnessing a disintegration of gender, both as biological and social facts, and that there is confusion psychologically. I personally don’t think we should worry about the disintegration of gender norms – we should understand them, but most people, whether they be trans or cis, make assertions and have opinions: they don’t actually seek to understand gender, which is what I try to do when I stick to the facts. And this lack of understanding IS causing psychological confusion, among both trans and cis people. It is also causing viciferous conflict, as you say yourself: I’ve heard trans women up in arms at all the other gender identities that are being proliferated, for example one trans women saying “I’m ashamed to call myself trans anymore”, claiming “there are only two genders – male and female”. Others would call this intollerence, even transphobia – so we are in such a mess with all this. How do we sort out this mess? By recognizing the facts, and sticking with those – not making assertions, demands, but having discussions, and sometimes appealing. For example, if trans women or men want to share intimate spaces with cis women or men, but are not wholly welcome, then discussions and appeals might be appropriate. Demands and assertions will only alienate and polarise the people with whom one would wish to be allies. That is my view. I won’t pretend I know everything about gender – there are many questions – but through personal self-reflection, and through really listening to others and exploring these matters, I am sure that there are men, women, and trans bodies: that the mind exists prior to gender and develops gender through social interaction but this is a matter of identity and not a fact (as in, the mind isn’t really male or female but identifies as male or female, which is just thought, and has a male, female or indeterminate self-image, and has masculine, feminine or neutral thoughts and feelings and mental processes): and I see that sex and gender are socially constructed notions whose definitions are the product of social negotiation – these are the facts as I see them. Unfortunately, I have to say, when I hear LGBT campaign groups, and many trans people argue on these matters, I find that they often make truth claims, assertions and demands that are non-factual in nature and expect others to agree or else they are disregarded as transphobic, which ironically is prejudice, is abusive, is intolerant, just as real transphobia is. So there is allot of hypocracy coming from these camps – and I speak as a gay man who believes all trans people should be treated with love and respect and equal rights. I think most people who argue on these matters would agree, but they see that many of the issues at stake are complex, ill-understood or not known, or necessarily the product of social agreement and negotiation. And what I say is necessarily complex because our notions of gender, and the facts of gender, are multi-dimensional and complex, and in some senses unsettled or unknown.

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