Stop asking the "what is a woman?" question


Trans* lives shouldn't be reduced to a question which does nothing but fuel transphobia

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Image by Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office

By Gracie Daw

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains references to transphobia, violence against Trans* people and references to abortion.

The Conservative Party leadership race this summer has seen a range of debates come to the fore, whether that be over the energy crisis or the leadership of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. However, perhaps most worryingly, the debate that has caught the most steam is embodied by the question: “What is a woman?"

The question has increasingly been asked of politicians over the past year and is meant to be a signal of their views toward Trans* people. Quite frankly, it is ridiculous.

Firstly, and most importantly, the “What is a woman?” question is deeply embedded in transphobia. There is no denying that. When politicians are asked that question, the answer that is most common and often expected by many voters is one which completely denies the existence of an entire group of people in our country and in the world as a whole, as well as ignoring that gender is not binary.

It also adds danger to an already unsafe world for Trans* people, one where it’s not already uncommon for Trans* people to be thrown out of their homes by family members who don't accept them as themselves or where it is overwhelmingly difficult to receive accurate and genuine medical care. I also worry about the young Trans* people in our country who have to hear this ‘debate’ and already have an increased likelihood of mental health problems and higher suicide rates.

The fact that this government thinks it is okay to use the rights of Trans* people to win political points with their supporters is abhorrent. By denying someone’s basic existence, you are essentially denying their right to live. That is what the political establishment as a whole, and the Conservative Party in particular (although other parties are not innocent), are doing at the moment. They are using their answers to this question for a quick applause line at a hustings, while totally disregarding the very dangerous human impact that applause has.

My second problem with that question, which I’ve heard repeatedly this summer, is that it is always asking about women: “What is a woman?”. The question is never, “what is a man?”. You would have thought that if the applause line that they are trying to get is purely fueled by transphobia then it wouldn’t matter whether they were being asked about men or women, given that you would assume that they believe in a gender binary.

However, they aren’t being asked about men, only women. That does matter, as it demonstrates that this attack on basic human rights is not only transphobic, but also patriarchal.

They are setting boundaries on women’s bodies. They are in fact asking “what is a woman’s body supposed to look like and how can we control it?”

Does that ring any bells as to what is happening elsewhere? In the US, the recent Supreme Court overruling of Roe v Wade, and as a result the nationwide right to abortion, is another way in which those in power are exercising authority over the bodies of cisgender women, Trans* and non-binary people. As a result, those who are capable of pregnancy, which is not limited to cisgender women, are being denied necessary medical care. An abortion is a necessary medical procedure for those who do not wish to have a pregnancy at a certain time in their life as well as for many who have experienced miscarriage and need to remove the foetus from their body. It is not simply an elective procedure.

By being asked this question, those who wish to flaunt their transphobia are adding fuel to the already existing and unproven argument that a Trans* woman is a threat to cis women. Part of Trans* theory, which is a form of political theory, has identified that many see Trans* people as ‘deceivers’ or ‘pretenders’. This is then used to justify violence against Trans* people because those committing violence believe that they are being deceived or subjected to a pretense. To be clear, this never justifies violence, it is what some academic literature theorises.

Trans* people are neither ‘pretenders’ nor ‘deceivers’. They are people, just the same as you and me. However, when politicians are asked this question it allows them to reinforce this view of Trans* people, because it gives them an opportunity to spout their nonsense of what a woman is and to create divides between a single and homogeneous group of people: women. This year, the government attempted to ban conversion therapy, but shortly after chose to exclude Trans* conversion therapy from that ban, leaving thousands of young people unprotected and at risk.

Waiting times for gender-affirming healthcare are between three and five years depending on postcode, meaning that many choose to pursue private healthcare. Those who cannot afford private healthcare must live in a state described as "torture” because they are unable to manage their gender dysphoria, leading to negative mental health and high suicide rates for Trans* individuals.

The government is already failing Trans* people, the last thing that is needed now is for them to amplify their transphobia by announcing what they think a woman’s body should look like. It is dangerous and scary. They need to stop hiding their transphobia and misogyny behind a seemingly innocent and basic question.

Instead, they need to educate themselves on the issues facing Trans* people, which isn’t just which bathroom they should use. As I hope their parents taught them when they were younger, they need to leave other people’s bodies alone