I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what’s probably best described as the ‘gender recognition debate’. And often I find myself confused. This, I think, is unsurprising, as contradiction is so often evident in arguments advanced within this debate — and particularly, I shall argue here, by lobbyists claiming to represent the ‘side’ of trans people.
One on level, contradiction can be seen in the conflicting behaviours so often on display by people shrouded in the virtuousness of claiming their sole intention is to protect others. These people are supposedly standing for the good and the right — seeing themselves as today’s Stonewallers, tomorrow’s suffragettes — in their battle to protect the interests of trans people (at the expense of the interests of any other set of people). Yet they also drag the conversation down to the level of a backroom brawl.
This is not in any sense to claim this is true of the behaviour of all trans people, or of all people who — like me — believe that trans people should be treated just the same as anyone else, all things being equal. Rather, it is to emphasise that there is a small set of lobbyists and hobbyists who have hijacked that side of the debate with bad intent; those are the people this piece is about. They publicise the most uncharitable assumptions about their ‘opponents’, and descend quickly to ad hominem attacks, emotive bullying, and public denouncements. This isn’t just done to ‘win’ arguments — it’s intended to shame, to harm, to put careers at risk, to put personal safety at risk.
Then, there’s the contradiction that occurs at the level of that ‘we’re in this for the protection of others’ claim, itself. This isn’t just related to concerns about those other sets of people whose interests are trampled along the way — not least women, and particularly regarding the loss of women-only spaces: in rape refuges, prisons, sports facilities, and so on. It also relates to trans people, themselves.
Every day, more accounts of ‘detransitioning’ appear — often, from young women who began gender reassignment ‘therapy’ as children, while struggling with serious, untreated mental-health problems, and uncertainty over their sexuality. They now have deep regrets. In a recent Standpoint article, Helen Joyce emphasises how giving support to the organisations that provide such ‘therapy’ has become seen as the necessary next step to moral progress — how lobby groups, like Stonewall, who are existentially dependent on such battles, are driving and benefitting from what has become a global industry. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of individuals recount their experiences as ones of many left traumatised and castrated from interventions that happened long before they were anywhere near any conceivable age of consent. Yet, support for all this comes from a desire to protect? From a commitment to progress?
Deeper down, contradiction lies at the heart of the substance of the debate. This contradiction lies in an argument for freedom and equality — pushed by a lobby claiming to follow in the footsteps of gay liberation — which pressures young lesbians into doubting their woman-ness; pressures homosexual men to sleep with ‘natal’ women who now have penises, and homosexual women to sleep with ‘natal’ men who still have penises but claim they’re women, nonetheless. It also lies in the incoherence present in believing that gender is an innate psychological notion, and also an endlessly flexible matter for choice, and also something needing some kind of instantiation enabled by (ideally, pre-pubescent) physical intervention.
Then, of course, even deeper contradictions arise at the level of words. ‘What is a woman?’, a group of women on a women’s rights march were asked, the other day. They could not say. Now, is that ‘could not say’ meaning an inability to say, or ‘could not say’ meaning a fear to? Transwomen are women, we are told. Yet, women is no such thing. Woman is not a thing.
None of this is to claim that compassion is not an essential human attribute. As a species, we could not survive without it; we are, in part, distinguished by it. But essential and special, too, is the human ability to assess and improve one’s awareness of how things are in the world. To consider what we think we know, alongside what we think is good and right. It’s clear by now that some people will never accept that there are two, and only two, distinct biologically-determinable human sex sets — men and women — in the same way that some people will never accept that vaccination prevents pandemics. But mightn’t they — disagreements over the scientific route to truth, aside — stop and reassess their actions, when they see the harm they’re causing? Surely, we have to assume that could be the case, or don’t we consign them to an inability for compassion, themselves?
Perhaps it won’t be sufficient for them to learn about the woman who lost her job. Or the female Oxford academic who needs a security guard on campus. Perhaps these cases, and the others like them, aren’t enough to make these people question their certainty about progress and the good. And perhaps neither are the stories of the young adults beginning to realise they’ll never have the option of trying to conceive. The young adults struggling to comprehend the lifetime effects of having had parts of their bodies removed. Or the teenagers taking untested drugs. Or the little girls being taught not to question seeing men in their school toilets.
But something will be sufficient, one day. For some of today’s zealots, that sufficient thing will be a fear that already drives them: the fear of ‘being on the wrong side of history’. This will happen when society finally fully realises what’s been going on. When the children’s clinics are shut down, and the patients with mental-health concerns are finally treated. When universities recognise that the suppression of speech leads to totalitarianism, and that denying science will put them out of business. When civility returns, and good argument is restored. When, on our side, we persuade them that it’s not that we don’t care — or that we don’t believe in equality. When respect for others comes from choice, rather than an ersatz version strong-armed by law — from basic humanity, untied to pressure to advocate the mutilation of children. When that’s enough, rather than nothing.
When that day comes, the zealots will change track — to ‘be on the right side of history’, once again. And that’ll be sort of be another contradiction in itself, more welcome than the others, yet too late, for some.