Day by day the list of alleged transphobics and TERFs grows. The outspoken Bindle and Burchill fell foul long ago, followed more recently by Rupert Read of the Green party and Germaine Geer herself. Then 130 trans activists and ‘allies’ signed an open letter to defend the growing list of supposed ‘bigots’ and their treatment in universities. Predictably, many of them, including Mary Beard and Peter Tatchell, were immediately smeared.
For those fighting the corner, the push for transgender rights is a simple progression from the gay and civil rights movements. A black and white issue of injustice to be address with the same fevered morally certainty as the social justice battles fought and won last century. A familiar narrative of a sexual minority fighting cultural oppression is evoked, and anyone who questions the new orthodoxy must be bigoted, dangerous, or just plain stupid.
Since first writing on the issue, I’ve been accused of ignorance as many times as bigotry and hatred. But I’m acutely aware of the intractable complexity of these questions, and my aim here and elsewhere has not to directly address the live interdisciplinary debate surrounding the nature of gender: how sex, gender and sexual orientation interact? Whether gender is a completely fluid concept, or if its tied in some way to our biological bodies? I don’t know, no one does for certain: scientist, journalists or trans-activists.
Just like homosexuals, transgender people have always existed in human society – in Southeast Asia and Thailand so-called ‘ladyboys’ have been celebrated for centuries – and they must be respected and recognized like any other group. But unlike homosexuality, transgenderism as we see it today in the West was only made possible with modern surgery and hormone therapy.
This is not just a question of society finally stepping back and letting men and women love who they want to love, but a question of how far society should step up to surgically alter physical bodies, and if such treatment is beneficial for the afflicted? “Debates over the latest scientific research are of little interest to me: what matters is [their] the happiness,” wrote Owen Jones this week. But to disregard the facts, is to flagrantly disregard their wellbeing, Owen.
This is an idiosyncratic issue, fraught with additional layers of complexity and the trans-lobby’s inability to respect it as such shows where the ignorance really lies. See, there is two positions you must consider after accepting people can transition their gender, and there are inherent contradictions within both from the feminist perspective. What the trans-lobby can’t appreciate, is that whatever position one assumes, by their own terms, you view will offend somebody.
You may well conclude that post-op transsexuals have a right to be treated as women, without question. Yet by taking this route, you end up pedaling the sort of gender-essentialism that trans-activists claim to stand against by attributing gender identity to anatomy and hormones. That offends them. Alternatively, you might conclude that anatomy is indeed irrelevant, and men should have a right to be treated as women because they feel like women; they have a ‘female brain’ trapped inside a male body, as some have put it. But there is tension here too.
The new orthodoxy dictated by today’s trans-lobby goes well beyond the once popular feminists critiques of essentialism advanced by Jane Flax and Nancy Fraser. As Rupert Read of the Green Party recently wrote, “to be a critic of gender essentialism is one thing; to seek to dissolve the category of ‘woman’ altogether, in favor of a sort of ‘opt-in’ version of what it is to be a woman, quite another.”
The competing theory used to explain the existence of large numbers of people (mostly white men) believing they have the wrong body, is that they suffer from something called gender dysphoria syndrome (defined here by the NHS), or Body Integrity Identity Disorder – the same condition those convinced they shouldn’t have certain limbs have, and a similar idea that is used to explain why anorexics are so certain they are overweight.
The evidence advanced by the trans-lobby against the ‘transphobes’ who consider these theories are brain scans purporting to confirm the presence of a ‘female brain’ in trans women. Many feminists consider it a cornerstone of their worldview that women are socialized into being. They are not cognitively distinct from men, and there is no such thing a ‘female brain.’ The belief that men and women are cognitively distinct, and that there is indeed a ‘female brain,’ is a common reason for rejecting feminism. So it should be striking to see trans-lobby feminists asserting how cognitively distinct men and women must be like this.
Back to Mr. Read. He’s a philosopher, Green party candidate and radical feminist who last week got labeled bigoted for merely positing the above conundrum on Twitter. “Feminists have a right to point out that there can in some cases be a prima facie tension between the desire to become a woman and the full recognition of… [natural born] women,” he wrote.
It’s a polarizing debate within feminism; “[Surgical] transgenderism has robbed Women and Girls of the language we need to describe our oppression. Cisgender is a myth that supports male supremacy,” argues one radical feminist. “Despite declaring themselves “radical”, the feminists who sign up to the transphobic, whorephobic, anti porn kind of feminism are basically reactionaries,” asserted a trans-lobby blogger.
But many ordinary women, too, have raised objections of this sort with the trans-lobby. Such women claim they are ‘offended’ by the presence of people with male anatomy in their ‘safe spaces’ who can now tell them who qualifies as a woman. Trans women, after all, will never experience periods, pregnancy, childbirth, the menopause or know what it is like to be brought up gendered female.
Yet to even discuss such concerns today, or question the now dominant “sort of ‘opt-in’ version of what it is to be a woman” that has rapidly established itself in recent years is now widely considered quite un-PC or even hate-speech, depending on context. Feminists ‘guilty’ of voicing these concerns have long been labeled trans-exclusionary-radical-feminists, or TERFs, and outcast by the intersectional majority on the left. Their articles have been repeatedly removed from the Guardian and Observer and the NUS women’s campaign is visceral in its opposition.
The words “Julie Bindel is vile” are enshrined in the NUS manifesto, descent on the matter is met with ‘zero tolerance’ in ‘safe spaces’ and TERFs and transphobes are routinely no-platformed in student unions. The trans-lobby in effect controls the discussion of gender issues on British campuses; where millennial students have taken identity politics and PC culture to its greatest realization.
“And, more important (because more pressing),” continues Read, “it is just plain wrong for any victim-group to use its victim-status as a tool with which to beat other victims of oppression. Whenever a trans-activist bullies a Feminist (or of course, equally, vice versa), Feminism dies a little.” But such internal bickering now defines intersectional feminism on campuses (and increasingly the media).
This story captures the incongruity of it all; a female student e-mailed Julie Bindel after being kicked out of her universities’ Feminist society, by male members, for sharing an article by the trasphobic Bindel on rape – incidentally nothing to do with transgenderism. Men, pleading special privileges for other anatomical men, above those of natural-born women, in Feminist society of all places, barred her. This is the in vogue brand of intersectionality and identity politics on campuses at its most extreme and self-defeating: each overlapping group employing competing victim stories to fight each other, rather than their oppression.
Yesterday’s heroes are todays villains, and “declaring oneself “trans,” “genderqueer,” “pangender,” or any of the other rapidly multiplying alternative sexes has become the last frontier of self-engrossed agitation available to students,” wrote Heather Mac Donald when reporting on the invention of ‘Queer Agriculture’ theory in American collages. There are all of a sudden 72 gender options on facebook, 99.7% of us are required to identify as “cis-gender” and gender identity generally has become an utter “minefield” for normal people, as Damian Thompson wrote last week.
The obsessive and ritualistic use of these many new categories and labels has spread quickly out from academia. “The cause of trans rights has been appropriated by the internet’s language police,” Thompson continues, “who lurk in the slip roads of the digital highway, looking for any excuse to let off their sirens… they find trans-related arguments irresistible because it’s so easy to catch people out.” It’s now so easy to be labeled a bigot on the matter, and harder than ever to tell where the line is between supposed bigotry and political correctness.
Is someone one who remains agnostic on the academic debate a bigot? Is it bigoted to believe we should continue to encourage trans people to challenge the contours of their naturally assigned gender, before considering serious surgery on healthy bodies, to paraphrase Bindel? Is it bigoted to sympathies with the women who see a clash of interest between the trans-lobby and their conception of feminism as advancing the rights of natural born women, and not want to offend such women?
The weight of the evidence and popular support indicates that surgery is helpful for the wellbeing of the afflicted in many individual cases. But sceptics point to studies purporting to show that 70-80 percent of children who report having transgender feelings come to lose such feelings and high levels of suicide after surgery.
There is selective use of evidence on both sides, but it seems absurd to me to assume everyone who questions the new orthodoxy is guilty of ‘hate speech’ in the way that terms such as trasphobic imply. The inherent complexity and lack of academic consensus on the topic means there is inevitably a diversity of views on gender. Whether they’re right or wrong, most people interested in a diversity of theories on transgenderism are not inciting violence and seem to me not driven by hate, but by genuine human concern.