Re Andrew Sullivan ‘A Truce Proposal In The Trans Wars’
Today, I want continue responding to a recent article by Andrew Sullivan on Substack, titled ‘A Truce Proposal In The Trans Wars’. I want to respond to this article because it at least contains suggestions on how we can move forward in good faith. Far too often, people attack the position of their opponents without offering reasonable solutions of their own, which is generally a bad faith move, because it allows one to galvanize opposition to a particular movement or group of people. It is the very definition of negative thinking, and in some cases, it can even be literally hateful and bigoted. This is why, I believe, whenever someone says they are against something, we must demand to know what exactly they are for instead, and where they have done so, we should aim to continue the dialogue in good faith.
Sullivan says he supports trans people and trans rights, but has some reservations. He then goes on to say that he does not ‘believe that a trans woman or a trans man is in every way indistinguishable from a woman or a man, and that he does not ‘buy the idea that biological sex is socially constructed, or a function of “white supremacist” thought’. Guess what? I’m sure that the majority of trans people are with him on these points. As some trans people put it, if biological sex weren’t real, they wouldn’t be trans, right? If biological sex weren’t real, then we wouldn’t have gender dysphoria, which would be wonderful. But the reality is, biological sex is real, and hence gender dysphoria is real, and no amount of escapist postmodern theory would change this. Acknowledging the reality is helpful both for encouraging public understanding of trans lives, and for the needed discussions to take place, regarding how to best accommodate trans people while taking into account the concerns of other stakeholders. More on that later.
Sullivan then says that ‘for some radical feminists, my empathy for trans women, and concern for their welfare, is regarded as a function of my misogyny and hatred of women’. I think that may not be technically correct actually, but it captures very well the sheer hatred some gender critical radical feminists have towards trans people. It’s an ideologically rooted thing. As I often explain, gender critical thinking is basically one way to apply the pseudo-Marxist critical theory framework onto sex and gender. In gender criticalism, biological sex is real but gender is a social construct. Following this, the only valid difference between men and women would be in their anatomical and reproductive difference. Any other difference, including social and psychological difference, is due to social conditioning, and hence a form of ‘false consciousness’ designed to oppress women as a class, in a parallel to Gramsci’s theory that capitalist ‘cultural hegemony’ is designed to keep workers satisfied with their oppression. Hence, any non-physically apparent differences between men and women must be strenuously denied, despite all the empirical evidence, and despite our knowledge of Darwinian evolution. In other words, gender criticalism is as anti-science as critical theories come. Gender criticalism has no empathy towards trans women, because we are an inconvenient evidence that their theory is wrong, that there is a biological basis to gender (as well as sex). This is why gender criticalism must completely deny the validity of trans women, at all times, in all cases. It’s like how the religious right completely denies the validity of gay people and gay relationships, and is just as rooted in ideological reasons.
Sullivan later says that the ‘trans ideology’ which seeks ‘to abolish the idea of biological sex altogether and to teach kids they have a choice over whether to be a boy or girl, should be kept out of the classroom’. I totally, wholeheartedly agree with this. Except please don’t call it ‘trans ideology’. This ideology is part of the postmodern critical theory umbrella, and it originated in the academic humanities, rather than the trans community. It belongs to the radical feminist tradition (yes, the same tradition as transphobic gender critical feminism, and they do share many views too). Old-school trans people never accepted this ideology, but there have been attempts to brainwash the younger parts of the trans community with the ideology. In real life, trans people transition not because we ‘have a choice’ over our gender. It’s because we don’t. As trans people sometimes put it, our crippling gender dysphoria means that we don’t have the luxury of seeing gender as a social construct. The postmodern radicals are silencing this basic truth of trans lives. Understand that the trans community is as much a victim of this anti-scientific ideology as the rest of society, and that many of us are very frustrated that it is getting in the way of productive conversations about trans issues based on actual scientific and clinical evidence.
I believe that there is a fundamental problem in how we are discussing trans issues in the mainstream media right now. It boils down to the fact that we do not center the condition of ‘gender dysphoria’ enough in those discussions. The fact is, trans people transition to relieve their gender dysphoria. Without gender dysphoria there wouldn’t be trans people or trans issues. So understanding, and being empathetic towards, the very real condition of gender dysphoria, should be the first step in the development of any views towards, or solutions for, trans issues. Indeed, this was how historical pioneers of medical research into trans people, like Dr. Harry Benjamin, approached the issue. I am worried that we are losing sight of this. I am worried that the intrusion of radical feminist theories, of both the gender critical kind and the postmodern kind, is derailing the proper approach to understanding trans issues, and essentially turning a health issue into a culture war issue. This, in turn, leads to a conversation based not around understanding, empathy and science, but around academic theories, worldviews and tribalism.
Sullivan states that ‘trans activists dreamed for years of civil rights protection; now they have it’, referring to the Bostock decision that banned employment discrimination across the US last year. However, the truth is that we still have a long way to go, both in the US and in other countries. The objective fact is that the trans unemployment rate remains very high, and trans people are still subject to frequent discrimination in things like housing and service provision. As I often say, I don’t care too much about things like pronouns. We need to focus on employment and housing, because equality in these areas is key to our dignity as people. As a gay man who fought for gay civil rights over many years, I believe Sullivan would understand what I am talking about. Just like how the lack of marriage rights made life difficult for gay people in many areas of life, trans people in many places currently lack adequately accessible and consistent mechanisms to update their documentation. This, in turn, often causes both a lack of confidence in seeking employment and associated services, and sometimes outright discrimination from being outed before they even get in the door for an interview. There’s also a major problem around trans people being able to access the health care they need, with waiting lists being as long as 4 years or more in the UK, for example.
Now we get to the main sticking point of the whole debate. Sullivan states it plainly. “Defend the rights of both women and trans women. In the overwhelming majority of cases, there is no conflict. In the few where there are, compromise.” I couldn’t agree more. While I certainly have a problem with people who essentially propose to exclude trans women from the category of women as a blanket rule, I don’t have a problem with the idea that there could be clearly defined and well justified cases, where the difference between trans women and genetic women are recognized and dealt with accordingly. Sullivan went on to provide several examples where trans women might be treated differently from other women, and I think these are broadly reasonable in spirit, even if I may not agree entirely in the details. I guess an important point that needs to be made is that, even where trans women need to be treated differently from other women, their needs regarding safety and gender dysphoria should still be upheld. For example, even where it might not be appropriate to house trans women prisoners with other female prisoners, it still won’t justify throwing them into the general male population, or denying them the right to present as a woman. Sullivan appears to get this, so good on him, but too many people out there don’t.
Sullivan also states that ‘most of the “problems” associated with trans people — a non-existent threat of sexual assaults in restrooms, for example — dissipate on inspection. Thanks, Andrew! The gender critical movement has been able to get away with making outrageous claims about the supposed effects of certain simple reforms, that don’t stand up to basic scrutiny. For example, a UK proposal to allow trans people an easier process to change their documents, which would help in things like housing and employment, was scuttled by claims that it would lead to predatory men being able to enter female bathrooms. As if bathrooms actually decide who can get in based in their ID! Another similarly groundless claim is that if the government allowed trans women to be identified as women, statistics of all kinds would be distorted by the supposed contamination of data about women. Given that women account for about 50% of the population and trans people account for only about 0.2% of the population, mathematically the inclusion of trans women can’t make a meaningful difference in any case! Let’s face it: claims like these are fundamentally rooted in a desire to exclude trans women from the category of ‘women’ as a principle, based on ideological commitments, nevermind that doing so would cause a lot of pain and trouble in the lives of trans women. I mean, I recognize that trans women are not exactly equivalent to genetic women, and where there are conflicts in rights claims I am more than willing to compromise. However, it is simply transphobic to have an ideology that is fundamentally committed to excluding trans women from the category of women as a rule, even when it is not justifiable to do so, and it makes no practical sense to do so.
Finally, Sullivan remains pessimistic that compromise solutions, like the one he proposed, will be taken seriously. ‘I doubt these recommendations will have any appeal to the trans rights radicals or the Fox News right,’ he says. And I have to agree, reality being reality. However, I don’t share his general pessimism, because society isn’t made up solely of the far-left and the far-right. There are many reasonable people in the middle, and we need to engage them in the discussion. After all, it was the reasonable people in the middle who decided that gay marriage was okay after all, after a rational discussion and consideration of the evidence. A similar discussion is yet to take place regarding trans issues.
What I believe needs to happen is that we need to improve the understanding of trans issues among the general public. We need more trans media representation, but more importantly, it needs to reflect the full spectrum of experiences and opinions in the trans community, not just the activist voices that shout the loudest. Many people would be positively surprised by what diversity there actually is in the trans community!
What also needs to happen is that we need to stop people from getting away with being intellectually lazy, or worse, being bad faith bigots. We need to stop accepting arguments from people who are simply against what another group supposedly wants, while not offering anything concrete or constructive of their own. For example, you can be against the position of certain trans activists. But you need to state what you are for instead, like Sullivan has done here. This is crucial to the development of good dialogue, and the prevention of the formation of bad faith coalitions that are internally contradictory, but simply exist to demonize common perceived enemies, which would just turn everything into an us-vs-them battle with no rational dialogue possible. For example, an alliance of skeptical atheists, the religious right, and gender critical feminists against trans rights is simply transphobic and completely bad faith, and should be called out for that. We need to contrast their bad faith position with the good faith position of people like Sullivan.
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter and author, who recently published her autobiography The TaraElla Story, in which she described the events that inspired her writing.