In 2015 the Irish Government passed the Gender Recognition Act. In Part 3 it states:
18. (1) Where a gender recognition certificate is issued to a person the person’s gender shall from the date of that issue become for all purposes the preferred gender so that if the preferred gender is the male gender the person’s sex becomes that of a man, and if it is the female gender the person’s sex becomes that of a woman.
As commonly understood, ‘gender’ is often interchanged with ‘sex’. Crucially though ‘gender’ can be constructed in a manner in which sex cannot. We all understand what ‘gender roles’ are. We understand how girls and boys have historically been socialized differently, each according to the gender role expected of them. As stated in Colllins dictionary:
Gender is the state of being male or female in relation to the social and cultural roles that are considered appropriate for men and women.
Sex is a different matter. Over to Collins again:
The two sexes are the two groups, male and female, into which people and animals are divided according to the function they have in producing young.
Biology dictates which function a body carries out in procreation, nothing else does. Not inner feelings, choice of make-up, hyper-feminine appearance, or even fake periods. None of that can change a body from the one that produces sperm, the male body, to the one that produces eggs, the female body. There is no way to change sex.
Gender, on the other hand, is a lot more fluid. The gender role ascribed to women has been cultured in a society where the male has dominated every aspect, religion, politics, art, philosophy, literature, and education for thousands of years. Needless to say the traits and expectations associated with feminity which resulted have a lot more to do with male fantasy and expectation than with how women actually navigate the world. A basic tenet of feminist theory is the rejection of the stereotypes and gender-roles imposed on women by this male culture and generations of feminists have fought to free women from the equation of our sex with the performance of femininity.
With the implementation of the Gender Recognition Act 2015 the Irish government has declared that gender is the sole consideration in determining sex. Effectively, this recognises the trappings of feminity as actual womanhood.
At a crucial time when feminist are uncovering the widespread abuse women and girls endure and calling out predatory male behaviour, the Irish government is recognising males who act out femininity as actual women.
The state now supports the idea that a woman can impregnate other women, that a woman can impregnate men and that men can impregnate each other. It supports the idea that women and men and boys and girls can all become pregnant.
Most people in Ireland still have no idea that our law now stipulates that anyone can change their sex. They have no idea that, as a nation, we have abandoned biology as taught in schools and replaced science with feelings and fetish as the determiners of physical sex. The government did this without discussing the implications for women’s safe spaces, planning women’s health initiatives, our lesbian community, sports, and on and on. The Irish people had no say, no national discussion, no referendum.
Recently, on the BBC’s Woman’s hour, Irish journalist, Una Mulally said that the act has had no adverse effect in Ireland and, frankly, that Irish feminists are confused by the outcry they see among feminist in the UK in relation to similar proposals there. It is far more worrying that a journalist who calls herself a feminist could be confused about why women would have concerns around full male bodies in female-only spaces, around people with penises demanding recognition as lesbians, around young male-bodied people sleeping with girls in the Girl Guides without informing parents of the policy. How can any feminist be confused about why such concerns have arisen in the UK?
Then we have our socialist TD, Paul Murphy standing up in the Dail to urge that the new abortion legislation refers throughout to ‘pregnant people’, not ‘women’. Such a move would compound the folly of the Gender Recognition Act. It would set the tone for all future government initiatives regarding women. We are currently reeling in the aftermath of the cervical smear scandal. We have uncovered historical state-wide medical mistreatment of women including the symphysiotomy affair. We have only just won the right to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy, a fight that took decades.
How can we proceed with the struggle to end the patriarchial, even misogynistic tone of health provision for women in Ireland if we cannot even name ourselves as a specific group with specific needs from our health service? Is our next cervical smear campaign to be targeted at ‘people with cervixes’?
What of the spaces women have carved out in recognition of the fact that we sometimes need separation and protection from male aggression? The core of our feminist understanding of women’s need for safety is that the danger comes from males. That the provision of safe spaces is organised and run by females for females. How is this system not compromised if the government recognises any man who declares himself female as a female?
And what of lesbianism in Ireland? There can be no understanding of lesbianism as a sexuality based on a person with a female body being attracted to another female body when male-bodied people claim to be lesbians and are recognised as such. This supersedes the physical nature of sex and imposes a new view of homosexuality as something based on the coupling of preferred genders. If a man opts for womanhood and is attracted to females, then he is a lesbian.
Trans women have named ‘the cotton ceiling’ (ie lesbians undergarments) as something which has to be pushed through. Because most trans women retain their male genitalia and are attracted to women, they seek sexual partners in the lesbian community. LGBT media and organisations would have us believe that this is unproblematic for lesbians, that only a few dinosaurs resist the idea of introducing penised people to the lesbian community. There is certainly a lot of pressure to conform to the new definition of lesbian. Lesbians are told it is transphobic not to consider transwomen as sexual partners. The word ‘lesbian’ is seen less and less in LGBT publications, often replaced by ‘queer woman’, a connotation that departs from the exclusivity of female to female attraction and opens up the possibility of other, (straight), sexual activity. This is particularly problematic in relation to young lesbians who are confronted, in their own community, with a version of lesbianism that has departed utterly from the female form and an exclusively female sexual attraction.
If we start with replacing the word ‘woman’ in a bill concerning abortion, what will the next steps be? Will we rewrite our biology books to explain how sometimes it is the woman who becomes pregnant and sometimes it is the man. How some men have uteruses and some don’t. How some women can impregnate other women or men? Will we abandon collective pronouns altogether and replace them with descriptions of bodily function, ‘uterus-havers’, ‘people with penises’, describing the physical bodies that we have detached from the community that shares them?
Will every woman have to declare that she identifies as a woman in order to be recognised as such? How will she know what that is without some clear definition of what a woman is? When will the government provide this? What factors will they consider in determining womanhood, the inability to walk past a perfume stand without dabbing an expensive scent on the wrist? A penchant for new shoes?
How long will parents have to wait to see if their child is a girl or a boy? Will they use a train set and a doll and see which one the child chooses? Or wait until the child expresses a preference for the group that society treats as male or the group that society treats as female?
Had the Irish people been given a chance to discuss the implication of supplementing ‘gender’ for ‘sex’ in law we might have found some answers. We might have focused on the rights and needs of our trans people in a manner that recognised and protected the rights and needs of women. We may not have abandoned biology so readily. We might have made some considerable headway in considering the negative impact of the gender roles we have constructed instead of writing them into law as the basis of womanhood and manhood.