Sheila Jeffreys, a professor of feminist politics at the University of Melbourne, offers an interesting and thought-provoking analysis of transgender issues in a new book, Gender Hurts (Routledge, 2014). Depending upon your point of view, her ideas may offend or may enter the discussion like a breath of fresh air. Reading the book, what I found myself wishing was that a discussion was really happening – that a free and open exchange of ideas and information on all the issues touched upon in this book was possible. That it isn’t – that there are those violently opposed to free speech for anyone who doesn’t agree with them in this arena – isn’t lost on Jeffreys.
The book traces the short history of the transgender rights movement, beginning with the word and concept of “gender” itself. Once upon a time offered as a replacement for “sex roles” by feminists who sought to free themselves from the narrow definitions of what men and women were and could be, Jeffreys points out the irony of how the concept of gender has been co-opted by those deeply invested in believing that gender, in all its social manifestations, is inborn – in the mind, that is, not the body. It was once progressive to realize that if if you didn’t fit the confines of the role you were born into, it was the role that needed to change. Now it’s progressive to think you need to change your body.
Unlike most who write about those who change gender, Jeffreys considers the effects of transformation on the people around them. Actually, on the women around them: Jeffreys points out that nearly all transgender people start as straight men involved with women, or as lesbians involved with women, so the fallout for their partners is pretty much a women-only club. The potential decimation of lesbian communities that could result from once-committed lesbians deciding that they are really men is of particular concern to Jeffreys. On an individual scale, she writes of personal devastation in the lives of lesbians whose partners decide to live as men, and expect the women who love them to shed their identities as lesbians and embrace heterosexuality on command. Similarly, she takes a look at some of the stories of women whose husbands decide they are women, mine included. I was interested to note that even among the wives who remain with their husbands post-transition, many of the issues and agonies are entirely familiar.
The most striking – and disturbing – aspects of the trans movement that Jeffreys covers are the role of the medical establishment in making gender change surgically, hormonally, cosmetically possible; and the not-unrelated subject of the transgendering of children, a hot topic in the past couple of years. While one of the key aims of the feminist movement was to get the medical establishment off our bodies, the trans movement embraces it – and as Jeffreys notes, there’s no question that the medical establishment is the big winner in gender transformation. She is especially alarmed by medicine’s increased and ever-earlier interventions in transforming the bodies of children. She is right to be. This is an issue we would do well to give careful, nuanced consideration – the kind of consideration that puts children, not politics, first.