“THERE IS NO ABSOLUTE concept of a man or an absolute concept of a woman at all,” Chief Justice DY Chandrachud said during the hearing on same-sax marriage in the Supreme Court. He has touched upon an argument that rages beyond the courtrooms. It finds no resolution in sight because what is on a show trial in seminar halls and on polemical pages—and even in the angry streets—is biology itself. The body has become a dispute in which you’re-what-you-feel-you’re is pitted against you’re-what-the-biological-certainties-tell-you-you’re. In the subversion of gender definitions, the physical is subordinated to the psychological, and your existential identity is controlled by the supremacy of emotions. The male-female binary, in the over-heated space of gender ideologies, is an artificial construct that continues to be unravelled by factors beyond social beliefs and creational knowledge. Gender, and the profusion of jargon it has spawned to abridge the arguments swirling around it, has come to divide the political as well as the cultural space.
Ideologies begin with a conceptual search for freedom. The arc of gender politics, too, shows how the pursuit of freedom has become incompatible with the biological divide between male and female. And what radicalises the body politics is the transmutational power of gender, which, the ideologues argue, is not influenced by biological sex. The most animated form of this ideology is transgenderism, which, like any other ism, has created its own walls. Breach them, even if your credentials as an empathetic, gender-sensitive, feminist are intact, and you are likely to be banished into the cyber gulag as a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), no matter whether you are a bestselling author or a star stand-up comic. For ideologies need certainties, and the abiding certainty of transgenderism is that the definition of a transwoman as someone born as male but feels and lives as a woman, with or without surgical aid, is unquestionable. So are her civic rights.
Traditional feminists who see the institutionalisation of the inner gender and the degrading of the biological body as anti-woman are your average TERFs today, popularised by the boldness of a JK Rowling, whose blasphemy was her belief in the reality of biological sex. She didn’t recant despite cancellation calls from progressive queer theorists and the troll attack. It is the ideological rigidity of queer politics that has made feminism itself a dispute between the adherents of biology-first and the evangelists of mutable gender. Ideologies, even if endorsed by institutions and academia, invite backlash. That’s why woman vs transwoman has become a battle for the ownership of sexuality, a term whose very authenticity is being challenged by queer theorists.
Perhaps the best defence of feminism against the ideological extremism of gender definition is provided by Heather Brunskell-Evans in her provocative book Transgender Body Politics, which makes a case for restoring the biological female to the centre of feminism, a rebuttal of queer theory in which sex is nothing but a concept co-invented by society and language. For her, “transgenderism is the attempt to wrest female biology from women and in that process not only violates women’s agency but our collective capacity for resistance. We need the language of sex difference if patriarchy is to be challenged and resisted. When discussing matters
that affect women, the insistence on gender-neutral
language makes it increasingly hard for women to articulate issues that arise from being embodied females.” The new ism, according to her, is sustained by a system of medical and ideological interests that consider nothing is wrong with even hormone treatment on children. What the writer Michael Biggs calls “The Gender Industrial Complex” is too
entrenched to be replaced in a world where correctness is an attitude—
social, political, cultural, racial, and sexual. Brunskell-Evans argues that an ism with a “liberal democratic facemask” that hides an “authoritarian” streak and discards science by claiming “men who identify as women are women” is dangerous.
Dangerous or not, in the battlefields of identity politics, the human body has become the newest incendiary item, maybe next only to race. For conservatives, the laws of the body are written by God, legitimised by science, monitored by society. Its sanctity is irrevocable, and that is why in some classrooms in America the conservatives have made subjects related to homosexuality a taboo. The campaign for same-sex marriage, which is already legally allowed in many countries, is a political challenge for the conservatives and a noble cause for progressives. For the conservatives, religious or social, the politics of desire is a cultural subversion, and it needs to be resisted. For the dogmatists of gender fluidity, the body is just a physical receptacle of conflicting sexual attitudes. The CJI echoed the basic assumption of queer theory, but still, can the law settle the war of the sexes waged within the same body?