Alex Sharpe is Professor of Law at Keele University.
The Conversation blog recently published an article authored by Rebecca Reilly-Cooper of Warwick University, titled: Why self-identification shouldn’t be the only thing that defines our gender. They then invited me, as a Trans woman, to offer an alternative perspective. However, the Conversation were not happy to publish my article as written, because, as they put it, it takes the form of a ‘take-down.’ Instead, they encouraged me to rework the article as a stand-alone piece. To be fair, they had been clear about this from the outset. However, having read Reilly-Cooper’s article which, in my view, possesses neither of the Conversation’s cornerstones, academic rigour or journalistic flare, I considered a ‘take-down’ to be the only appropriate response, other than, of course, simply ignoring it. Anything else, in my view, would confer legitimacy on a position I consider to be both politically and ethically bereft.
Reilly-Cooper’s article purports to be a serious engagement with the definition of sex/gender and, more significantly, focuses on what she considers to be the political consequences of definition. In terms of theoretical and political orientation, it appears positively Greeresque. Essentially, she makes two claims: First, a claim about how to define sex/gender. Second, an insistence that a more open definition has serious and negative consequences for women (by which, of course, she means Cis women, au naturel). Let us begin with her claim about sex/gender. There is slight of hand here. Reilly-Cooper begins by acknowledging intersex people (pausing only to note that well-known champion of social justice, Germaine Greer, has been equally magnanimous) and the complexity of sex which their existence confirms. However, rather than building on the insights intersex people offer, she instead shifts attention away from the question of the definition of sex/gender to the reason why she considers it to have become the subject of such public interest in recent years – enter trans. Sinister music please
Whatever the reason why society is “questioning traditional understanding of men and women” (a good thing, in my view), the scientific fact remains that sex cannot easily be reduced to a tick box of particular biological factors, discomforting though this may be for some people. Whether it be chromosomes, gonads, genitals, hormones or something else, there is no lowest common denominator of ‘woman’ or female essence. Not, at least, that is, unless we are prepared to exclude/deny those intersex people who identify as women. And, of course, once the spell of rigid binary sex is broken, there is no reason to refuse trans people in terms of social and legal inclusion. Yet, it is clear that this is exactly what Reilly-Cooper seeks to do. Moreover, while she singles out a single US activist (a lesbian Latina trans woman) as the naysayer to her preferred account, it is clear that the tide is rapidly turning against a reductive understanding of sex. From the insightful journalism/activism of Laurie Penny and Paris Lees, to the doyen of queer theory and activism, Judith Butler, Riley-Cooper’s ship, if it hasn’t sailed already, is docked in port and ready for the high and probably deep seas.
There is a further concern here that needs to be teased out. While Reilly-Cooper makes a play of centre-staging trans people who take no medical steps to realise their gender identities (and in doing so, trivialises their lives and, perhaps, available choices), it seems clear that her focus is not to accommodate any sub-group of trans people, but rather to insist on an essentialised understanding of sex as biology at birth. The fact that she excludes trans women more generally from the ‘woman’ category becomes clear through her emphasis on length of female socialisation experience (lets be clear, this is about suffering, the ugly politics of victimhood). Putting to one side the fact that gender socialisation can and does differ across class, race and culture, as well as between individual women, the fact is that trans women do undergo gender socialisation as women, often violently, from the moment they take the brave decision to transition, and let us remember that many trans people today transition when young.
It is revealing that a gender ‘critical’ theorist calls into question the way some trans women ‘dress,’ as is her claim that an understanding of sex as biology offers the advantage of enabling us to recognise the gender of others “by sight.” Here Reilly-Cooper substitutes ‘ophthalmic feminism’ for Greer’s ‘olfactory feminism’ (“real women have smelly vaginas”). And yet, of course, we often cannot recognise each other’s gender by sight (or indeed smell). Indeed, it is precisely for this reason, that many Cis women living in North Carolina have recently been refused entry to women’s bathrooms, and in some cases, assaulted.Of course, arguments like Reilly-Cooper’s, which seek to facilitate gender policing, always lead to North Carolina. Inhale that coffee deeply, while we move to her second and, of course, connected claim: an insistence that a more open definition of sex/gender has serious and negative consequences for (Cis) women.
Of course, this spurious claim is what informs Reilly-Cooper’s desire to keep trans women out of women-only spaces and to ensure that state resources earmarked for women are channelled exclusively to those women who bear the prefix, Cis (it is the Cisterhood, not the Sisterhood, that Reilly-Cooper seeks to advance). It is imagined (if, of course, it really is) that trans women pose a danger to Cis women in “women-only spaces, such as changing facilities, toilets, refuges and prisons.” As in North Carolina, there is no evidence for these claims, nor does Reilly-Cooper provide any. The reality is that trans women need to pee, to receive support as a result of sexual abuse, and to be placed in an appropriate prison, as recent suicides and instances of sexual assault attest. Moreover, in relation to UK prisons, there is provision for assigning Cis and trans women to a male prison, in circumstances where their security profile means they pose a danger to others within the female estate.
There is no reason to assume that trans women pose some kind of threat to Cis women, beyond the threat Cis women pose to each other, and to perpetuate the assumption that they do is, to say the least, unhelpful. Thus, in addition to being on the wrong side of history, it would seem, that lacking any credible evidence of harm, Reilly-Cooper is on the wrong side of social-scientific protocol. Of course, she appears to know this. As she says, “we don’t know to what extent anyone would seek to exploit legislation designed to allow people to self-identify as women.” Exactly, we don’t know. In fact, we have no reason to think anybody is going to do that. I find her statement offensive, trivialising the lives and gender identities of trans people, and reminiscent of the view, all too prevalent in our recent past, that homosexuality and paedophilia are somehow connected. This is nothing but an appeal to prejudice, a gender politics of fear.
Ultimately, some Cis women feel uncomfortable about the idea of having to share sex-segregated space with trans women. This is driven not by any evidence of harm, but by an ideological view that trans women, whatever the shape of their bodies or their actual gender socialisation experience, are not women. Ultimately, the question of sex/gender identity is not only a matter of theory, or political consequence, but a question of ethics. As Judith Butler has reminded us recently, in drawing attention to the totalising, simplistic and joyless kind of feminism with which we are dealing: “we are all ethically bound to recognise another person’s declared or enacted sense of sex and/or gender.” And, of course, recognition, if it is to mean anything, requires inclusion.
 Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman (New York: Doubleday, 1999); see also Janice Raymond, The Transsexual Empire: the making of a she-male (Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 1979); Sheila Jeffries, Gender Hurts: a feminist analysis of the politics of transgenderism (Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2014).
 It is also noteworthy that a biological explanation for gender identity is ignored. While I do not think biological evidence should dictate social and legal ordering, it is nevertheless the case that a considerable body of scientific literature now exists claiming that transsexual women possess a female brain structure (see, for example, LJG Gooren et al, ‘A Sex Difference in the Human Brain and its Relation to Transsexuality’ (1995) 378 Nature 68-70; FPM Kruijver et al, ‘Male-to-Female Transsexuals have Female Neuron Numbers in a Limbic Nucleus’ (2000) 85 Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 2034-41).
 See, Gender Trouble (London: Routledge, 1990); Bodies That Matter (London: Routledge, 1993); Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004).
 I refer here to the recent deaths of Vikki Thompson (HM Prison, Armley, Leeds) and Joanne Latham (HM Prison, Woodhill, Milton Keynes), both of whom died in November 2015. Tara Hudson, who was originally placed in a men’s prison, was moved to a women’s prison after a high profile public campaign. In relation to sexual assault, see http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/transgender-woman-raped-2000-times-male-prison-a6989366.html
 Para 4.3 Care and Management of Transsexual Prisoners (PSI 07/2011).
 She is referring to the recommendations made by the Women and Equalities Committee in its Transgender Equality Report (14 Jan 2016) HC 390, pp 79-80 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmwomeq/390/390.pdf
 Interview in TransAdvocate, 1 May 2014 http://www.transadvocate.com/gender-performance-the-transadvocate-interviews-judith-butler_n_13652.htm