The word ‘woman’ is already taken’ – by Debbie Hayton.

Debbie Hayton, physics teacher and trade unionist, is fast becoming my favourite trans woman. She is a voice of reason and rationality amongst much of the opposite right now. Her blogs are well-written and easy to read. She is also a regular contributor in media publications. Here is the text of her blogpiece called ‘The word ‘woman’ is already taken’ (link at the bottom of the text) –

“‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people.” With those words, JK Rowling threw herself into perhaps the most febrile debate in contemporary society. Even Covid-19 has not dampened the furore over transgender rights. As two world views collide, fundamental truths that previous generations thought were self-evident have been cast into doubt. What is a woman? what is a man? and how can we tell them apart?

On one side there is belief in gender identity, a feeling in our heads that drives our nature and defines our true gender: we are the gender we think we are. But the creator of Harry Potter took the opposing view. In Rowling’s mind, she is a woman not because of psychology but because of biology and her frustrations bubbled to the surface when her sex was reduced to “people who menstruate.”

A hundred years after women won the right to vote in many countries, Rowling has now engaged in a campaign the suffragettes could not have imagined – a battle to hold onto the word woman itself. The response was predictable and brutal. As the actors her books had made famous lined up to distance themselves from her, Rowling became the target of an emotional campaign that has the hallmarks of a modern-day witch hunt.

Women who have been forthright in their view that the word woman is theirs, and theirs alone, have faced noisy and sometimes violent opposition. The angry protests that faced Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy when she spoke at the Seattle public library on February 1st, followed noisy disruption outside a Woman’s Place UK meeting in Brighton last autumn. Women have been assaulted, and others have lost their livelihoods.

The fury is unleashed because when women are defined by their biology, trans women are excluded from womanhood. To trans women, desperate to be validated as actual women, this is an existential rebuff.

While it might be tempting to look the other way, for me this is personal. I am a trans woman, so it is my identity – supposedly – that is being denied. However, I am also a high school science teacher and I know magical thinking when I see it. Trans women are male – I certainly am as I fathered three children – while women are female. Male people are not female people and therefore trans women are not women. Whatever emotions might surround the debate, JK Rowling is correct.

When I transitioned eight years ago, Rowling’s views would not have been particularly controversial. Transsexuals – as we were then known – changed our bodies to resemble the opposite sex and re-integrated into society with as little fuss as possible. Even those of us with public roles found that it was not a deal breaker. Why should it be? Male and female teachers do the same job, and my transition made no difference to Newton’s laws of motion or any other topic I teach. But I did rely on the trust and confidence between me and others around me.

At the same time other males found comfort in presenting in a way more typical of women, but without changing their bodies. But nobody thought that transvestites – as these fully intact males were known – were women, including the transvestites themselves. What changed? How did two groups – a tiny number of transsexuals and rather more transvestites – become the transgender movement now challenges the use of biological sex to divide society?

Between political leaders who were keen to be seen as progressive – or did not care – and a public kept largely in the dark, legislation has been enacted, and policy changed on the advice of the transgender activists who cared very much.

As gender has been conflated with sex, gender identity has quietly displaced sex in policies and laws. Effectively we have been able to choose not only our gender but our legal sex, with devastating consequences on women’s sex-based rights. As Kiri Tunks, a founder of Woman’s Place UK said, “If you can’t define what a woman is, how can you defend women’s rights?”

Women’s concerns are therefore real. Boundaries become meaningless if male people can choose to identify into women’s refuges, hospital wards, changing rooms, and even prisons. It would be very naïve to hope that men wouldn’t do that, would they? Most won’t, but those that will try are precisely the men that women worry about and the consequences are serious. In the UK, a rapist called Karen White was placed in a women’s prison and then committed further sexual assaults.

It is not just physical spaces at risk. Any scheme set up to promote women is vulnerable. For example, the FT List of Top 100 Women in Business included Pips Bunce, a male who sometimes wears a dress to work. While I applaud the courage that takes, I deplore the impact on the woman who missed out as a result.

In sport, trans women no longer need surgery to compete against women. Limits have been imposed on testosterone levels, but males still retain a competitive advantage because of bone density, heart capacity and muscle fibre. Like East Germany doped its female athletes in the 1970’s and 1980’s, modern day regimes who care more about medals that athletes will be tempted to intervene in the endocrinology of their emerging talent. Just this time, young men are at risk. The current world women’s 200 m record – set by Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1988 – is beaten by 16 year old boys. Women’s sport hangs in the balance.

None of this helps me or other transgender people trying to get on with our lives. We need laws to protect us against harassment and discrimination; we also need prompt access to mental health services and – where appropriate – to specialist gender clinics. But rather than focus on these rights, transgender rights activists demand to be accepted as the opposite sex, and for all purposes. With a bigger sense of entitlement than self-awareness, they have exasperated increasing numbers of women who see their own rights being compromised. Many women have decided that enough is enough, and I can’t say I blame them.

Putting aside the truth that we cannot actually change sex, acceptance can never be compelled; it is earned by the way we live our lives and relate to others. But these activists seem to be oblivious to reality. As they seek “validation” from others, they need society to not only chant the mantra, “trans women are women (and trans men are men)”; they need everyone to believe it as well. This has moved beyond the policing of speech and into the control of thoughts. When women object they are met with fury, as JK Rowling has experienced.

But that anger has achieved nothing. As tensions have increased confidence has evaporated, and this is disastrous for trans women. Without the trust and confidence of women, we are vulnerable. The threat to us does not come from women. When trans women – a small minority in society – are attacked, the perpetrators are almost always male.

As trans women, we have a lot of work to do to restore the equilibrium. Firstly, we need to be honest. We are male and therefore not the same as women. Secondly, while we do need to find validation, we need to look for it not so much in other people but in ourselves. If we do not accept ourselves, how can we possibly expect others to accept us? Then we can look outwards but in a different way and, with an emphasis on empathy rather than expectation, recognise that the word woman is already taken.

Debbie Hayton is a trans woman and high school teacher in the UK.

* This article was first published by Público on 20 July 2020: The word ‘woman’ is already taken.


15 thoughts on “The word ‘woman’ is already taken’ – by Debbie Hayton.

  1. Katrina, I think you need to take care when re-posting such a long article. Maybe put quote marks at the beginning of each paragraph? I skim read until I got to “for me this is personal. I am a trans woman, so it is my identity – supposedly – that is being denied.” and I thought it meant you! I felt this was unlikely, so went back and read more carefully.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Frances Sullivan

        For some time now, I’ve wrestled with this issue. Science is ignored when inconvenient – a long held practice – and readily disregarded over time. I see the debate as moot but dissenting voices are strong as male voices in a patriarchy are. I thank Debbie for writing so clearly, my own views! 😉 I thank you for sharing her post. Oh, and I understood from the start what I was reading – her name is in the title. Hope you are keeping well. x

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I really enjoy Debbie’s pragmatism and sensible insight, too. I reckon she’d be a great person to know – imagine what she could tell us from having lived as a man, and now a woman.

        I’m well, thanks. We’ve gone into alert level 2 here in Christchurch, after the new outbreak of covid in Auckland, which is the only place in NZ on alert level 3, so far. How are things with you?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been thinking about the whole trans question, thanks to Katrina’s insightful comments and posts, and been thinking abut my own identity and when I came to the Uk and how my identity changed then. I just loved the Uk immediately. It felt like such a wonderful place for animals, especially compared to NZ, it felt like my spiritual home, and I just so wanted to be a British person, which I now am. I am a very proud British person now. I have dual nationality. This is my spiritual home in a way NZ has never been, even though i was born there. So i can understand being born into the wrong place, and finding a better place, your home place, that you have to prove your self in order to be considered part of the clan. But you cannot take the kiwi out of me, even though I consider myself British now. But then being British is so not biological. It is not like being a zebra! I am still a giraffe to the British. But I do not want to deny my giraffness. It is so part of who I am. Even if I want to embrace my inner zebra, and live as a zebra. I so hope this does not sound like speciesism. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One thing I found hard when I first started to think about trans people was how hard I had fought from birth to not be stereotyped by male perceptions of femininity. There was so much crap I had put up with for not wearing makeup, for not being obsessed with appearance, wearing baggy clothes,and then how upset it made me feel to see people who were men, but felt they were women, seemingly embracing the worst, most misogynist aspects of how women are perceived as an ideal of woman hood, a male ideal that had nothing to do with me and me as a woman.

    Like it was about embracing big breasts and makeup and all the almost drag style aspects of overt femaleness as if being female was a characature in a french stage show. How I saw men transitioning to being female felt to me like a betrayal of a lifetime of feminist commitment.

    Then one of my students wrote an amazing essay on “medical gatekeeping”, and how its all male doctors deciding how much men really want to be women, and he wrote this brilliant account of how men who wanted to be women had to adopt the most extreme version of a male fantasy of a women to prove they actually wanted to be “a real woman” in order to have surgery. It’s another case of men defining femaleness, not only to women, but to other men who aspire to be women.
    Ok, so maybe I just attract brilliant and talented students to my classes! 🙂

    I still don’t really think you can take away a life time of male privilege, or that male sense of entitlement even by something as major or radical as surgery, but I have read men who transitioned to being women, writing about how differently they were treated as men, then as women, and not in a good way. I cannot imagine why any bloke would want to be a woman, given the life I have lived and the horrors done to me by men. It’s so hard for me to understand on that level, yet I do understand being so grateful for being able to chose and earn a new nationality and be the person I feel I really am. So people who go through that whole process, it’s sort of incomprehensible to me, but at the same time understandable. We all want the opportunity to live our best lives as our best selves. And it could be that men who have lived both lives, might be feminism’s biggest allies.

    For us as women, or for women like me who grew up in the 70s protesting at least, this now includes figuring out how we deal with men who want to be women. And what that means for us who are still women from birth, and always have been so. Like so much of my political activism was in reclaiming the definition of women from men, these are really challenging and important questions, and I hope the rights of all women, and all people and all animals, just improves across the board.

    Just when we thought life was getting better because we could vote!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m really staggered at how much women’s rights and safeties have regressed, and how quickly! I don’t particularly notice it myself because of my age and situation, but the stories I hear of what is sexually expected of young women now due to porn saturation by males is horrendous. And it’s endorsed all over the place – for example, I believe the magazine Teen Vogue is especially awful with what it grooms girls to be like.

    I’ve also heard about transwomen feeling pressured to be overtly ‘girly’ in order to be believed that they really are transwomen, so it’s interesting to hear about your student’s essay. Men once again deciding the standard of womanhood according to what works for them, and probably not even being aware that they’re doing, because it’s just part of the air we breathe.

    Transwomen like Debbie Hayton are definitely feminist allies, as she doesn’t deny that she is biologically a male no matter what she has done to her body and what clothes she wears, and because she transitioned as an older person she has a clear perspective of how it is to live both as a female and a male.

    Yes, I also understand the drive we have to live our lives in the way that we want if it harms no one. However, I see much of modern trans ideology as being harmful to women, and that’s what I object to, not to trans people as people.

    I don’t really know if things will ever get better. I’m old enough now to see the patterns and behaviours we humans keep repeating. Sounds a bit morbid, but it’s not – it’s actually quite liberating in a strange way 🙂


  5. It seems like a non issue in my circle, mostly. Farmers and country folk and surfers. My daughter studied in the US and she said you’d get flattened in her university town for having non pc views on trans. I feel it’s a very noisy minority, but as often happens, the intelligentsia manage to convince us that they’re the voice of the nation. Good on this trans woman for telling it how it is.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I find that many country folk are reasonably tolerant, as long as no one’s causing harm. They might not embrace you into the fold, but they’ll also just let you be. Some might be arseholes, but not the majority in my experience.


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