Free Speech and Transactivism

I arrived at the university of Bristol on 21stof November 2018 to talk about Free Speech in the Academy (or the lack thereof). The taxi driver dropped me off at the wrong building, but I knew when I had located the right when I saw a cluster of security guards in the distance.

The last time I was invited to Bristol it was to give a talk about the social and medical transitioning of children. I was prevented by transactivists from entering the venue, a debacle of violent proportions directed towards me and other invited speakers. Images of this are broadcast in the Chanel 4 documentary Trans Kids: We Need To Talk. The police eventually negotiated our safe entry.

The transactivists were from an organisation called Sisters Uncut and they clearly identified themselves as heroic freedom fighters. Ironically, as they stood in masks and balaclavas, and linked arms in the stairwell to forcibly prevent my entry, they were shouting at me: Nazi! They informed me there could be no debate about transgenderism with me. In other words, transgenderism is a fact, but not a fact like other facts thatcan be examined for their veracity.

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What unpalatable, unspeakable views were these male bodied 20-year-old human beings, who demanded I acknowledge them as my sisters with uncut genitalia, attempting to prevent me from debating? Was I about to promote a very conservative view that femininity and masculinity are in-born e.g. it is natural for girls to like pink, sparkles and mermaids, and natural for boys not to like them? Was I, more alarmingly, going to argue in favour of encouraging gender confused children to think they were actually born in the wrong body, setting them up for a life-time struggle with material, biological reality? If so, although their tactics were inexcusable, I would at least acknowledge their moral passion to safeguard young people.

Was I, even more extremely, about to advocate puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones which would almost inevitably lead to sterility, and which often set young people on the road to irreversible surgical procedures (the most popular one for young women at the moment is mastectomy). If so, they might have seen me as a mentally deranged child-abuser and suggest that my views should never be heeded, let alone put into practice, by the medical profession.

No. These are the views and practices which transactivists insist I should uphold! What is utterly objectionable to transactivists are my following views: Firstly, the child’s binary sexed body i.e. being a girl or boy, is a biological fact. Like all mammals, human beings are bifurcated into two sexed categories for the purposes of reproduction. Secondly, gender identity is not innate since gender, demonstrably, is a social construct. Thirdly, the idea of ‘inherent gender’ in children provides the rationale for adult identity politics.Fourthly,to be truly progressive, we should be gender critical, i.e. attempt to break down binary gender so that children and young people can be more at easewith their own bodies and be free from the normative constraints of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’. Fifthly, sterilising young people is morally wrong and should be flagged up as an issue of society’s lack of safeguarding. I hope that one day we will look back at this practice and wonder how we allowed it to happen in plain site

Why do my views cause such a furious, vitriolic backlash in young men, on the whole not known for their passionate concern, at this stage in their lives, for the safeguarding of children?

What transactivists require me to assent to is their own set of ideas that sex — whether one is a boy or girl — is socially assigned, but that gender identity is inherent, somehow in-born. Transgender adults repeatedly claim that their gender identity is not aligned with their ‘assigned’ sex at birth. The concept of assigned sex suggests that when babies are born an evaluative judgement is made, one that can misrecognizethe sex of the child. In reality, the phrase ‘assigned’ is only relevant to intersex people, about 0.05% of the population, whose genitalia at birth are ambiguous (or approximately 1.7%, if the percentage includes later discovery for example of intersex chromosome composition, gonadal structure, hormone levels, and/or the structure of the internal genital duct systems). The fact that a tiny percentage of people are born intersex does not negate the fact that the overwhelming majority of people are born with unambiguous genitalia, including those children with gender dysphoria.

My knowledge that sex is biological and gender identity is a product of culture is the touch paper that ignites the blind fury, since it refutes the central idea of transgender theory upon which adult transgender identity is founded. Sex is not assigned at birth, unless in the tiny minority of cases in which there is medical uncertainty because biology has malfunctioned. Since male and female are discernible biological sex categories what does it mean for someone unambiguously male, such as my assailants, not only to identify as female, but to claim they are in fact female, and to think of me as a Nazi if I do not hold the faith that ‘Trans Women ARE Women’?

The second event in Bristol was also invaded by transactivists. There was nothing of the fury of the previous event, although the men retained something of the same arrogance and swagger. They stole 10 to 15 minutes from my presentation and told me they would ‘allow’ me to speak when they were good and ready. Interestingly, the man who had been my main assailant and detractor last year sat in the audience, although I didn’t know it at the time. Esther Betts openly presented as ‘feminine’ last week, wearing a dress and make-up, and respectfully asked questions and listened to my answers without interrupting. He came to me afterwards to identify himself and to say sorry for his earlier aggression. I gave him a hug and thanked him for his courage in apologising. We parted with nothing between us other than our shared humanity.

Esther reflects in an article on his experiences at both events: I was one of the transactivists on the channel 4 documentary, I regret what I did — this is why. He describes: his own gender dysphoria; and me as one of the big TERFs that he has questioned heavily since his violence the previous year. But he makes no reference to the fact that I am one and the same person, i.e. the alleged frightened academic cowering in the corner last year and the big TERF of this year. For accuracy, I did not cower in the corner, not only because there wasn’t a corner in the stairwell to cower in, but because I completely stood my ground, looking straight into his eyes. If he saw fear in my eyes it was the moment when I looked back down the stairwell and thought: Any minute now I’m going to fall backwards and break my neck.

I’m pleased Esther learned that dialogue is more emotionally healing than violence, that the term TERF is an inaccurate slur since I do not, and never would, exclude trans identified people — exclude them from what? He learned that I am anything but a Nazi; that I’m happy for him to identify however he wants; and that ‘phobia’ is a non-sensical term to apply to me. I wish him well on his journey.

Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans

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