Last month, I received an invitation to participate in a public debate about “gender and the definition of what it means to be a woman.” There was a time in the past when I would occasionally engage on this topic — for instance, see my 2017 essays Debunking “Trans Women Are Not Women” Arguments and Transgender People and “Biological Sex” Myths. But given the current anti-trans moral panic and legislative onslaught, I believe that such a debate will almost certainly cause more harm than good right now. I tried to convey this in my response, which I’m sharing here as an open letter.
Thank you for thinking of me, but I must respectfully decline. I want to share with you my reasoning as to why.
Almost every single word in the dictionary has multiple (sometimes well over a dozen) definitions. We intuitively understand that words can have different meanings or evoke different ideas depending on the context. In a genetics class, if I talked about a woman, you might think of XX chromosomes; in a discussion about women’s reproductive health, you might think about ovaries, uteri, and vaginas. But if I mentioned having a conversation with a woman that I know from work or ran into at the store, you wouldn’t think at all about her chromosomes or reproductive organs (unless, of course, you were some kind of creep). Rather, you’d realize that I’m talking about women as a social class: people who move through the world as women and are interpreted and treated (and sometimes mistreated) as such.
There are lots of other traits that people associate with (and sometimes imagine to be exclusive to) women, including dressing and behaving in a feminine manner, being attracted to men, social roles such as “wife” or “mother,” birthing children, being the primary caregiver, and so on. But if I mentioned that some of these attributes do not apply to the woman that I know from work or the store, you wouldn’t be at all surprised (unless, once again, you were some kind of creep). Because we all understand that “woman” is a broad category that comprises roughly half the human population. By necessity, it includes all sorts of diversity and seeming exceptions to the rule.
This is why, in everyday life, nobody ever asks the question “what is a woman?” In fact, the only people who bother to raise the issue these days are anti-trans activists.
“What is a woman?” is not intended to be a question. It’s a slogan created and championed by UK “gender critical” activists who strongly oppose the social and legal recognition of trans people, with some even calling for eliminationist measures that would morally mandate us out of existence. Whenever gender-critical activists pose the “what is a woman?” question to politicians, organizations, celebrities, etc. (as they are wont to do), they are not looking to start a nuanced discussion or debate. Rather, they want a yes-or-no answer to their real question, the only question that counts in their minds: Will you support our anti-trans beliefs, policies, and legislation?
Here in the US, Daily Wire pundit and self-identified “theocratic fascist” Matt Walsh is most closely associated with the “what is a woman?” question, due to his documentary of the same name. He also regularly smears trans people as “pedos” and “groomers,” spreads conspiracy theories about doctors mutilating children’s genitals, and has even claimed that “trans people don’t exist.” Once again, he is not asking this question in the hopes of generating a spirited debate. For him, “what is a woman?” is merely a euphemism: It’s the most polite way possible to say, “I’m opposed to trans people being allowed to publicly participate in society.”
I have no desire to debate anti-trans activists’ slogans and euphemisms. Especially not in 2023, amidst an all-out anti-trans moral panic that they’ve spearheaded, which includes bomb threats against gender clinics and armed protests of trans-themed events, and legislative efforts to ban trans-related books, school discussions, healthcare, our ability to use public restrooms, speak at public events, and more. “What is a woman?” may sound like an intriguing theoretical question to some cisgender people, but for transgender people in the UK and US, there is nothing abstract or hypothetical about any of this.
While I am not opposed to staged debates per se, there are two cases in which they invariably fail. The first is when one side strives to articulate complexity while the other promotes simplicity. Sex and gender are multifaceted phenomena, and the academics and health professionals who dedicate their lives to studying them overwhelmingly acknowledge the existence of and support trans people. But lay audiences who are unfamiliar with these fields are susceptible to being swayed by dumbed-down soundbites like “sex not gender” and “woman means adult human female” — phrases that sound pithy and compelling precisely because they oversimplify reality.
The second case where debates inevitably fail is when they single out a minority group for undue scrutiny. There are a number of unconscious biases that we all hold that make it fairly easy for people to demonize marginalized outgroups. For instance, false accusations that such outgroups represent a potential “sexual threat to women and children” come up over and over again throughout history, including recently by many of the same anti-trans activists who champion the “what is a woman?” slogan.
Trans people make up less than one percent of the population. Yet the wording of your proposed debate about “gender and the definition of what it means to be a woman” (which is clearly a gender-critical framing) seems designed to specifically target us, rather than addressing the vast majority of incidents of sexism and sexualization perpetrated by cisgender men and (to a lesser extent) cisgender women.
I obviously cannot speak to your intentions. Perhaps you haven’t considered some of the points that I have raised here. In any case, I encourage you to reconsider this programming, and specifically framing this as a debate about the so-called “transgender question.”