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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

“When she was a man”

UK Headlines over the last couple of days have been dominated by the story of Isla Bryson, a Scottish person identifying as a ‘transgender woman’, who was previously known as Adam Graham.[i] Having been convicted of raping two women, the question is whether Bryson should be kept in a women’s prison or a men’s prison and, if the latter, whether that should be in a women’s unit.

Bryson began identify as a woman only after being charged with the crimes and still has male genitalia. The obvious concern is the threat he may pose to women if kept in close proximity to them. How can women be protected from the threat posed by a known rapist who is physically male but identifies, and could be legally recognised as, female?

This story comes hot on the heels of the Scottish Parliament’s vote to change the law around gender recognition in Scotland to allow people aged 16 and over to change their legal gender without a medical diagnosis. In an unprecedented move since the Scottish Parliament was established, that bill has been blocked by the Westminster Parliament, to the anger of Scottish nationalists, because of concerns that changing the law in this way in one part of the UK would clash with UK-wide equality legislation. This block should not be misread as opposition to the Scottish bill, though. Several years ago, very similar changes were proposed by the UK Government and gained cross-party support in Westminster. Brexit, COVID and changes of government have stalled those proposals, but they have not gone away.

I do not wish to enter into political debate in this post, either about nationalism versus unionism (in Scotland or my native Northern Ireland) or about prison policies. I simply want to highlight the phrase that has appeared in many headlines about this case: “when she was a man”. This phrase implies acceptance of a claim that is central transgender ideology that it is possible for a person to change his or her sex to align with his or her subjective sense of gender identity.

I must say in no uncertain terms that this claim is categorically wrong.

I accept that some people identify as transgender. They have a strong belief that their true identity is not aligned with their body. Some are distressed by this – they can be said to have gender dysphoria and should be approached with great compassion. Others may hold this belief without being distressed by it. I also accept that some of these people want to change their bodies to appear and to function more like those of the other sex. Some doctors are willing to help them do so.

What I cannot accept, however, is that a person can actually change his or her sex. Biological sex is, at its most basic level, a genetic, or chromosomal, phenomenon. Male or female is defined by the presence or absence of a Y chromosome. Normally, our cells have two sex chromosomes (all chromosomes are paired). Normally, males have an X and a Y, while females have two X chromosomes. Some people have more of one or other or have only one X, but these are clearly recognisable as departures from the norm and if there is a Y chromosome, the person can be said to be genetically male.

Of course, we don’t normally see chromosomes, so we judge whether a person is male or female on the basis of what we can see, their external genitalia (plus, if we use scans, the internal genitalia). Normally, these align with the chromosomes. Bodies with only X chromosomes develop female genitalia, most importantly ovaries, which normally produce eggs (oocytes). Bodies with a Y chromosome develop male genitalia, most importantly testes, which normally produce sperm (spermatozoa). Some bodies do not develop normally along these lines, so that they have indeterminate genitalia or non functioning gonads (ovaries or testes). The people whose bodies these are should receive compassionate support and medical help. But their bodies do not make a case for a third sex or category of person we might call 'intersex'. There are only two biological sexes - two kinds of sex chromosomes (X and Y), two kinds of gonads (ovaries and testes), and two kinds of sex cells (eggs and sperm) - and no human body on record has had both fully developed male and female genitalia including functioning ovaries and functioning testes.

What I have said here is simply a statement of biological (or medical) facts. When a person’s body is modified to appear more like the opposite sex, the fundamental reality is not altered. That person does not gain functioning gonads of the opposite sex. Even if transplant of gonads becomes possible, they would not be genetically from the person’s own body and genetic line. Even if that were possible, the chromosomes in their cells would not change. If in future it becomes possible to change the chromosomes – a process that is hard to imagine but would surely be hugely expensive and risky – it may make sense to talk of a woman having previously been a man. But that would still leave huge questions about whether that course is ethical given its cost and risks and the absence of evidence that it would make many people who are unhappy with their bodies happy.

The genetic reality is not the only problem with the idea of a man becoming a woman. The impact of the hormones produced by the original gonads on the development of the person’s body and brain be entirely undone. A biological female receiving male sex hormones can come closer to the appearance of a male than a biological male receiving female sex hormones. But some things, especially the size of the skeletal frame, cannot change. Surgeons can make many changes to the body to make it more like a body of the opposite sex, but their skills will always be limited by how much surgery a body can bear as well as the cost of the procedures. Short of building a completely new body, it would be difficult to change a man’s body to make it look exactly like a woman’s.

What does this mean for Isla Bryson? I do not know if this individual truly identifies as female in his thinking. Bryson’s estranged wife claims not. She believes the transition was a ply to get an easier time in prison.[ii] Even if Bryson truly thinks this, Bryson’s body is still male. Even if Bryson’s male genitalia are removed in future and even if Bryson’s body has the appearance of female genitalia constructed by a skilled surgeon, the cells of Bryson’s body will remain male.

In the preceding paragraph, I assiduously avoided using pronouns for Bryson. The headlines this week have referred to Bryson as “she” and have said that “she” was previously a man. I cannot agree. Bryson may use a female name and dress as a female, but Bryson remains a man. Physically, he is still what he was and, barring some leap in medical science that allows sex chromosomes to be changed, he will still be what he is – a man – until his death. Bryson raped women as a man. Bryson is still a man. Bryson faced human justice as a woman, but Bryson will stand before his creator as a man. I pray he finds forgiveness before then, that the women he raped find healing and that our society does not sleep walk into putting vulnerable people at risk because it is duped by a philosophy built on a lie.

For more from me on the subject of transgender and Gender Identity and Christian responses, read my article Male and Female: A Christian Perspective on Gender Identity or watch this video.

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