Discussing sex and gender online

Thank you for the responses to my recent post on biological sex and socially-constructed gender. If you haven’t already read it, you can read it here.

There was a mix of positive responses describing it as a balanced article, some critical questions which I will respond to in my next few posts, and the usual minority of personally abusive posts.

To quickly answer two of the meta-questions, the post is on my personal blog and is not written on behalf of Atheist Ireland, and I referred to learning more since my lunch with Graham as well as at it.

I will address the more substantive questions over the next few posts. In this one, I want to start by touching on the difficulties of discussing topics like this online.

Unsupported charges of transphobia

Too often in online discussions today, some people choose not to engage with the substance of an argument, and instead label the speaker with some variation of -ism or -phobia.

This avoids having to address the substantive issue, it tries to poison others against the argument before they have read it, and it tries to close down the discussion by default.

In this instance, some people have labeled me as transphobic and a bigot for writing a post that included the following sentiments:

I have spent my adult life challenging theocracy in Ireland and beyond, including promoting the rights of women and LGBT people. I believe we should treat every individual person with the same respect and dignity and love, regardless of their biological sex, sexual orientation, social gender identity, or any protected human rights category.

Under human rights law, we each have an unconditional right to believe and self-identify in whatever way we wish to. We should respect each other’s right to hold our own beliefs, and try to be kind to each other. We also each have a conditional right to behave in accordance with our beliefs, as long as our behaviour does not infringe on the rights of others.

I support the right of any person to identify with whatever variation of gender they feel comfortable with, whether that be cisgender or transgender or any other variation, without being discriminated against on the basis of their self-identity. We are all unique, and we should try to be kind and supportive to each other, whether we be family, friends, or providers of physical and mental health care.

I support the right of rational informed adults to modify their bodies in order to match their preferred gender identity, or indeed for any other reason. This can be important for people who have gender dysphoria, in which they feel high levels of stress because their gender self-identity does not match their biological body. It can also be important for people with body dysmorphia unrelated to sex or gender issues.

Every individual has the right to be treated with dignity as a person. A biological woman or a transgender person can face prejudice, discrimination, harassment, and violence, simply because of their biological sex or social gender identity. They can face this at home, school, work, in healthcare, and social occasions. We should remain alert to these injustices and crimes. We should challenge this prejudice and discrimination, and arrest criminals who harass or assault a biological woman or a transgender person.

Everyone has the right to describe their beliefs about their own identity using their own preferred terminology. So transgender people have the right to describe themselves using their preferred pronouns, and biological men and women have the right to describe themselves as adult human males or females. Nobody should be coerced to use other people’s preferred terminology. And when listening to others, we should take into account whether they are speaking in the language of biological sex or the language of socially-constructed gender.

Liberal thinking about bodily autonomy is based on two principles. One, consenting rational adults should be free to use or modify their own bodies as they choose. And two, we should protect children, until they reach the age of informed consent, from significantly modifying their bodies in ways that have long-term or irreversible consequences. I believe that both of these principles should apply to people who identify as transgender. Also, they should apply to people, whether they are biologically male or female, who have an intersex condition.

Society should find ways to enable transgender people to live safe and fulfilling lives, without undermining the protections that have already been won for biological women. Transgender women do not pose a particular danger in [public toilets, changing rooms, dormitories, abuse shelters, and prisons]. Transgender people are as loving, caring, and law-abiding as any other random person.

If you seriously consider that a post that includes the above sentiments reflects transphobia, then I’m not sure what else I can say to you.

If you are saying that the post is transphobic for tactical reasons, then I believe that tactic is becoming less useful as it becomes more overused.

Areas where critics may fairly disagree with me

As I have said, I am relatively new to this subject, and there are some areas where critics may fairly disagree with me.

I said that I do not identify with any gender, whether cis or trans or any other variation, because I believe that the idea of gender is based on false stereotypes, and that it reinforces harmful sex stereotypes and discriminations that are based ultimately on differences in sex.

I said that I also support the rights of biological women, that I believe that society should preserve the facilities already put in place to protect biological women, and that these protections cannot be preserved if self-identity alone is the criteria for using these facilities.

It’s fine to disagree with me if you do identify with the idea of gender as being a positive concept, or if you believe that transgender women should, on the basis of self-identity, be able to use facilities reserved for biological women. Please let me know why you believe this.

But please don’t fall back onto arguing that taking these positions is transphobic or bigoted. Taking these positions is clearly compatible with supporting the rights of transgender people to live their lives without being discriminated against on the basis of their self-identity.

I’ll address the constructive questions that some people asked, over the next few posts on this topic. Online debates can magnify misunderstandings and intensify hostility, when compared to real-life conversations, so I will try to respond on the basis of the following principles.

When responding to an individual person, I will assume good intent. I will try to respond to the issues and engage reasonably. If somebody shows no interest in engaging in good faith, and repeatedly engages in personal abuse, I will cease to engage with them.

I will change my opinion if I realise that I am mistaken. I won’t be persuaded that I am mistaken by calling me a transphobe or a bigot or any other term of personal abuse.

As an aside, I got a few messages telling me that the comment form on my blog wasn’t working. It’s fixed now, so you can comment here if you wish, instead of or as well as commenting on Twitter and Facebook.

Discussing sex and gender online

6 thoughts on “Discussing sex and gender online

  1. “I got a few messages telling me that the comment form on my blog wasn’t working. It’s fixed now, …”

    I left a comment on the original. It was along the lines: “That’s all very sensible and balanced; but good luck, you’ll need it!”. So I’m reiterating that here, to support the idea of open and sensible discussion of these issues.

  2. Michael

    You said:

    If you are saying that the post is transphobic for tactical reasons, then I believe that tactic is becoming less useful as it becomes more overused.

    I was at the ceremony last Tuesday where Ricky Gervais was presented with the Richard Dawkins Award for atheism. In their conversation, Ricky said that -phobia is added to words simply to shut down discussion – it stops debate; it silences dissent. How right he was. In this case, the cry of transphobia rises even for asking questions. I am sure some who do this know that questioning cannot be tolerated because the answers would lay bare the flaws in their beliefs, so they avoid this exposure by declaring the questioner as a bigot and a transphobe, giving them the excuse to engage no further. It clearly us a deliberate tactic.

    And it works: many are being suspended from Twitter, added to blocklists, some sacked from jobs and some even prosecuted in the courts.

    Yet we cannot allow that to happen: the only way we resolve issues & differences and improve understanding is by talking & listening, not silencing.

  3. In my opinion, and from what I know of Graham Linehan, he is an erudite, fair, and socially just man. He and his wife Helen were incredibly brave and honest during the abortion referendum in Ireland and helped to dismantle prejudices surrounding women’s health and fecundity. I do not believe that he is prejudiced towards LGBT people, and he continues to fight for women’s rights. I am proud of him. He is an Irish man who, despite living abroad, continues to have an interest in women’s rights here in Ireland.

  4. Thank you Michael, I knew I could depend on you to have a reasoned and rational stand on this matter.
    Unfortunately there are people who aren’t as caring and understanding about humanity, preferring to impose their, or their religions, views on how other people live their lives.
    As long as no harm is being done to others I don’t care what anyone else does.
    On a side note, it’s great to see Ireland and its people doing their own thing unshackled from the yoke of the Catholic Church. As a naturist it’s particularly pleasing to see a growth in naturist associations and activities, and I’m sure it’s widespread in other spheres of life once demonised by the church.

  5. Michael, I enjoyed reading your very fair and thoughtful piece about gender. Pretty much everything you wrote resonated with my views. You were just able to articulate it much better than I could ever so I thank you for helping me to maybe articulate my views in a better way. I struggle to deal with on line discussions when I am repeatedly called bigot and transphobe just for giving my views. I am neither of the above. I will hopefully be able to respond in a better manner in the future due to this succint and balanced piece.

  6. Thanks, Paul. Sadly, calling people names instead of addressing arguments is becoming more common, but I am optimistic that reason will prevail in the long run.

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