‘It is soul-crushing and miserable for anyone to live pretending to be something they are not.’

James Barrett runs Britain’s largest and oldest gender identity clinic. In the first of a Friend series on gender identity issues, he gives his reflections on thirty years of work.

'How anyone feels can’t be argued with; it’s their reality.' | Photo: iStock.com/MHJ.

In my working life I have spent over thirty years in a gender identity clinic, working with and trying to help people whose sense of themselves doesn’t fit the gender role they were assigned at birth. I’m a doctor – effectively a practitioner scientist – and in the course of what can sometimes be fairly high publicity work my being a Quaker doesn’t usually arise. It would be obvious only to those already sensitive to the occasional Quakerly turn of phrase or point of view. It’s a strangely reversed experience, therefore, to be in the company of Friends who mainly know me as a fellow Quaker and in this context talk about gender. It’s not something that I have previously done because it hasn’t generally arisen, but since it has, mine is a perspective unshared until now.

A brief scuttle through evolutionary biology might be worthwhile at this point. Bear with me.

The vast majority of all the living things on Earth are simple, unicellular organisms that reproduce asexually by simply duplicating themselves. The more complicated organisms, ourselves included, have got ahead by means of sexual reproduction, which offers distinct advantages. Why this is so is quite complicated but, to use an analogy, if survival of the fittest is thought of as a vast game of Scrabble, sexual reproduction offers the same sort of advantage that comes from being able to pool one’s collections of letters with that of another player.

As a basic scheme sexual reproduction has a large number of variations in practical application. Very many plants are both male and female and so are many sorts of molluscs. Amphibians, reptiles, fish – lots of these can and do change the ‘material reality’ of their sex across the course of an individual’s lifespan. The social insects have, in effect, three sexes (male, female and neutral) and some species of lizard have abandoned sexual reproduction for parthenogenesis, a system where only females exist, each laying eggs that hatch into clones of herself.

On the background of this natural variation it seems less than common sense to say ‘biological sex is a material reality’. But it still sounds sort of firmly biological and beyond dispute and in this regard to be in sharp contrast with vague, trendy notions of ‘gender’. There’s often the unspoken assumption that, try as they might, ‘social justice warrior snowflakes’ can’t argue with uncompromising biological science.

‘Gender’, in fact, firms up a bit on closer examination and a bit of linguistic dissection. There is, for example, ‘gender’ used to describe the way anyone has a sense of themselves. Most people feel male or feel female (a few people feel neither or a bit of both). For most people that sense of themselves fits their body and the label that came on their birth certificate. For a few people, it does not. How anyone feels can’t be argued with; it’s their reality.

Then there is a social gender role. This is the way we are perceived by society and as a consequence are expected to behave, to dress, to work (this to a pleasingly diminishing extent) and even, perhaps, to think. It predicts how others expect us to behave, too. Others might expect us to be collaborative, communicative and nurturing if we are perceived as female, competitive, overbearing and maybe even violent if we are perceived as male.

It is soul-crushing and miserable for anyone to live their lives pretending to be something they are not, no matter how good the pretence they put up. As a society we don’t ask people to conceal their religious or political views; as Quakers we always took the opposite stance. Even if ethnicity could be concealed, as a society we wouldn’t suggest it and as Quakers we would be at the forefront of opposition to such a thing. History eloquently records the blighted lives of gay and lesbian people who tried to live as if they were straight, which is why it’s not required any more, and as Quakers we led the way in ending that requirement. It is equally soul-crushing to live in an inauthentic social gender role. Just as life-enhancing to, at last, be able to be one’s true self.

I think that when we are in Meeting for Worship or otherwise get closer to God, the spirit, the light or however we choose to describe it, we do so with our minds, or possibly our souls, but decidedly don’t do so with our bodies. It is not our spleens, lungs, gastrointestinal or reproductive tracts that matter. We are Quakers, we are deeply rooted in equality, so I don’t think it matters what gender we are, in either a personal identity sense or a social role sense.

What of the day-to-day world, though? Quaker is as Quaker does, after all. What is to be done about the practical consequences of all this in real-life situations?

It has been said that ‘self-identification opens the doors to individuals who would abuse the legal right to create new identities. This could create risks for the safety of children, women and other vulnerable groups’. Generally speaking, I’ve noticed, this amounts to a fear that men will use this means to inveigle their way into places that would otherwise not admit them and, once inside, behave reprehensibly.

That door, surely, has already been opened. As a society we let men teach primary school children, become midwives, work in nurseries, become nurses and gynaecologists. Any of those men might also behave in just such a way but nonetheless they continue. I suppose we do so because we accept that while this is a possibility it’s just not reasonable to exclude all men because some might do so. It just wouldn’t be fair or proportionate.

As Quakers I think we are, or certainly should be, all about open doors, not closed ones. About assuming sincerity and good intentions on the part of those who walk through those open doors, seeking to discern that of God in them, rather than being constantly concerned about the possibility of the evil that is, in truth, present in all of us bursting forth from every new person who walks through our doors. Let our communication and interaction be with the minds, the personalities, the souls of the visitors who come through that door, accepting their sense of themselves as being as valid as our sense of ourselves. To do otherwise is to interact instead solely with their birth certificate or their genitals, wilfully ignoring exactly what it is that makes them unique, a child of God, just as we all are.

Next week: Caroline Barrow looks at Girl Guiding and other organisations to see how they are approaching this issue.

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