Biological sex and transphobia: why you shouldn’t side with Joanna Cherry

CW: Transphobia

Cancel culture strikes again, leading hundreds of popular politicians and wealthy celebrities to fall face-first into book deals and endless news coverage. Joanna Cherry used obvious dog whistles in the video that led to her sacking, so why is she made out to be some victim of political scheming? Sure, there probably were underlying political motives that led to what can be confidently called Sturgeon’s power play to remove opposition from the party. But guess what, if that opposition was going to be aggressively transphobic then I will cry zero tears for its ‘cancellation’.

Because yes, what Cherry said was undeniably transphobic. Let’s go through what she said to undo potential misinformation and understand why her views are harmful to trans people.  

Let’s start with Cherry’s preface to her argument.

“It is not transphobic to advocate for women’s sex-based rights under the Equality Act. It is possible and right to support both trans rights and woman’s rights, neither should be sacrificed for the sake of the other.”

This is completely right. Trans right and women’s rights can coexist, so much so that I’d argue they are inseparable. What this paragraph does, however, is subtly try and divide trans people and women are separate categories. It defines women, a gendered term, as a biological sex category. In Cherry’s definition of womanhood, trans women are left out. This subtext grows throughout the video.

“Sex is a protected characteristic for a very good reason, discrimination against women is rooted in their biology that is our lived experience. We must find a way to be inclusive without erasing women’s biology and lived experience from the statute book.”

The fundamental argument here is that the one unifying factor that best ties all women together is biological sex. This was excluded in the policy being discussed at the time in favour of more inclusive language that took account of the nuances of gender identity.

The view that women are uniquely defined by the oppression of their biology ignores all forms of oppression that cis white middle-class women, the loudest voices in this debate, simply don’t have to deal with. 

Gender does not erase biology, it simply reminds us that it is not the unifying factor of experiences people with privilege think it is. Factors such as class, race and disability also shape how people experience womanhood, and none of this is acknowledged in a purely biological understanding of women’s rights.

And this is a vocal minority: according to recent polls, only 16 per cent of Scots women are against reforms to the Gender Recognition Act. Only 13 per cent of SNP voters opposed Cherry’s sacking. Cherry herself mentions the perfect example of how this group of people mobilise relatively small stories into moral panics.

“Women are not chest feeders, a phrase we heard earlier this week, women have breasts and women feed their children with their breasts.”

Cherry is referring to a controversial story on the Brighton NHS Trust introducing new language to accommodate trans patients. If cis women were being imposed this term, she might have a point. However, this is not what happened. The term was introduced for trans patients who are not women. This, in no way, changes how cis women get treated. This is a completely gratuitous slight on trans masculine people done for the sole purpose of stirring a moral panic through misinformation.

Some men and non-binary people can give birth and as such should be addressed with language that is not coded for women. It’s that simple, you will continue to be addressed as a woman with breasts.

From how Cherry retells this story, you would imagine that doctors are refusing to acknowledge the existence of breasts as a whole. This moral panic is then used to justify the claim that basic courtesy towards trans people is synonymous with discrimination against women. All of this is based on lies by omission.

Cherry follows this with a much more dangerous moral panic. The accusation that trans women are somehow out to get lesbians.

“Lesbians are same-sex attracted, we are attracted to women’s bodies not men’s bodies. And to say we must be attracted to men’s bodies is homophobic.”

Frankly, if you are here to argue that trans women are men in dresses trying to ‘trick’ lesbians, I’m afraid there’s little I can do for you. I ask you to return under whatever bridge you have been assigned to and speak to me only in riddles. Or don’t speak to me at all, just keep shouting about the ‘gender lobby’ and wondering why only Tories will listen to you.

For everyone else, Cherry’s words should raise some red flags. Defining trans women’s bodies as ‘men’s bodies’ is a blatant example of how a sex-based rights model inevitably leads to transphobia and the rejection of trans identities. The idea that anyone is forcing cis lesbians to be attracted to trans women is ridiculous. Honey, that happens naturally. The problem is the refusal to accept that attraction is not only dependent on biological sex.

When you’re in a bar (remember those?) and you see someone you fancy, there is no seductive whispering of chromosomes in each other’s ears. Social and cultural factors take a strong lead. You just like the person. That feeling is, for better and for worst, shaped by culture and a bunch of other non-biological factors. Biological sex just isn’t as important as Cherry makes it out to be. Reducing attraction and gender identity to only how our biology is discriminated against is a sad and unoriginal reduction of reality.

If we accept that body types can differ and they can all experience womanhood differently, then her statement can more charitably be interpreted as a very ignorant phrasing of “I’m not attracted to trans women”. And you know what, that is a-ok. I promise, as a trans woman, to never hit on Joanna Cherry. But this is nothing more than a preference, and one that seems deeply rooted in a close-minded rejection of trans rights as equally important as cis rights.

Because of this her words of reassurance, that she also cares about trans rights, ring hollow. She might say she cares, but she then proceeds to peddle the same false narratives that have historically been used to justify violence against trans women. Joanna Cherry is no ally to trans liberation.

To conclude, I’d like to address the narrative that removing people like Cherry is a form of censorship – the powers that be stopping a debate from taking place. There have been numerous investigations and attempts to update the Gender Recognition Act since 2016. There has already been enough debate. Consultations keep going on and on because of a small group of people stirring moral panics despite overwhelming support from most LGBTQ+ groups, medical specialists and institutional stakeholders.

The Times, in their article “Author Abigail Shrier faces threats after warning of trans epidemic” written by Will Pavia, platformed voices referring to being trans as an “epidemic plaguing teenage girls”. Queer outlets such as the Gay Times have repeatedly pointed out how BBC impartiality policies favour transphobia, as seen in Jamie Windust’s “Support is not political, it’s essential: Why the BBC’s new impartiality rules expose the after effects of a culture war”. The Guardian and Observer editorial teams have openly sided with gender critical voices in the recent high court ruling that took away puberty-blockers from trans teens, as seen in their editorial “The Observer view on the high court’s ruling on puberty-blocking drugs for children”. Where exactly is a debate being stopped? What we have is an extremely vocal minority that doesn’t want the debate to end, because if it does then we could actually start talking about how we can improve women’s lives and trans lives instead of constantly bickering amongst ourselves.

The SNP is trying to attract young voters by kicking out people who refuse to give a shit about trans lives? Good, about time.

Image: Ted Eytan via Creative Commons

By Alice Spaccasassi

Science and technology editor at The Student.