Saying Goodbye to the Transgender Debate

For years, I thought the world’s most thankless job was that of telly weather reporter.

Tacked on after the news—always following the human interest “cats up trees” story—the poor old weatherman would be cursed by legions of fishermen and hunters who’d taken his sunny forecasts seriously when they stood around next day in rapidly filling wellies or sat sodden on miserable horses. The professional meteorologists who proved less than reliable were safely hidden from view while a named journalist (often one who knew nothing of the underlying climate science) carried the can.

Forecasting is a mug’s game—as the Bank of England and every economist who ever claimed that immigration doesn’t exert downward pressure on wages—can now confirm. Along, of course, with a lot of epidemiologists, public health authorities, and astrologers. Which is why, when English barrister Sarah Phillimore predicted the Court of Appeal in Bell v Tavistock & Portman NHS Trust would hold that the High Court was wrong to make a declaration on “disputed and controversial” evidence about puberty blockers for children under 16 but would also remind clinicians of their duty to take informed consent seriously, my response was a deeply British, “brave, Minister, very brave.”

However, Phillimore’s forecast was accurate, helped by her expertise in the relevant law and wide reading and commentary on the broader transgender debate. “In earlier, more innocent times, this would indeed be a major win for the pro-transition lobby,” she later wrote. “But this is not 2015: gone are the Wild West days of trigger-happy treatment, where clinicians prescribed first and asked questions…never. Instead, we have intensifying public and professional scrutiny of these treatments and their providers, including in the Court of Appeal’s judgment.” 

Leaving talk of potential UK Supreme Court appeals to one side (leave must be sought, and there is no guarantee it will be granted), the Court of Appeal’s cautious ruling provided me with a natural terminus ad quem to take personal stock.

I’ve now reviewed four books on this issue, written two case-notes, and been forced to revisit my first piece on all things trans (for the Law Society of Scotland, my professional association). I’ve even strayed into fiction, with a piece on Simon Edge’s The End of the World is Flat, a satire of Stonewall (the UK charity, not the US riot). When I wrote the Law Society feature (way back in the Pleistocene, that is, 2012) I did not expect to think about trans from a legal or policy perspective ever again.

This expectation was based in part on my output over many years. Although out, I never pigeonholed myself (and nor was I pigeonholed, to be fair) as a gay or feminist writer. I neither demanded nor expected admission to feminism’s literary canon. The idea that I, an author of war and science-fiction novels and provider of crunchy political, economic, and legal analysis, would finish up writing on the sort of issue once confined to the women’s pages seemed fanciful. There is something hysterical, even deranging, about the things many women find attractive as news, so I avoided the fancy hats and frocks section. Leaning into that too early in a literary career is how, I suspect, women writers get siloed.

If I don’t draw the line now and you come to me in three years’ time to find I’ve written as much on “the transgender debate” as I did about Brexit, stick a fork in me. I’m done.

Women’s Business

It’s notable, I think, that fancy hats and frocks, coupled with a tendency to frothing, is the parodic core of what many transactivists take to be womanhood. It was false when newspapers assumed no woman would even glance at the finance pages or that female readers needed to be corralled off from “serious news,” and it’s false now. Men and women do have statistically different interests and aptitudes but there is enough overlap to make the performance of stereotypes unnecessary.

Media always had a slant. You spotted it by noting where they placed crucial information in a news story. The conservative outlet would tell you the serial killer was from a broken home in an earlier paragraph than the leftie outlet. Both outlets would nonetheless provide all the facts. This is no longer true. Finding out what really happened with even major stories is bloody difficult. The old trick of “read the NYT, read the local press, watch Fox, and then you’ll know” doesn’t work. The collapse of the legacy media business model is notable. We’ve now got a situation where publications search for engaged viewers and subscribers who wish to be sold myths.

Think, for example, of the Wi Spa incident in Los Angeles, where it appears a registered sex offender has been exploiting his transgender identification to gain access to women’s bathing areas in beauty salons. It took months for the truth to emerge precisely because news outlets not only want their own values, they also want their own facts. “Why aren’t reputable journalists pursuing this story?” Cathy Young asks in a thoughtful feature attempting to get to the bottom of something about which she admits a great deal remains unknown.

Sacred Wisdom

The abandonment of factuality and recourse to myth is, of course, a religious trait. It’s for this reason the DSM points out that major world religions—if only a few people followed their tenets—would appear to be conspiratorial cults. Transactivism takes some of its mythmaking from Christianity, but not all. Widespread parental preference for a trans kid over a gay kid is distinctively Islamic, for example, whence the common availability of reassignment surgery in conservative Muslim countries like Pakistan and Iran. The belief that one has access to secret knowledge (gained via study or “lived experience” but ideally both) is characteristic of gnosticism.

This path, gnostic thinking claims, leads to sacred wisdom (γνῶσις, gnōsis) that will let you make yourself and the world anew. Gnosticism was a Christian heresy in late antiquity but also has parallels in other traditions. It emerged in the second century AD as part of a Christianity competing against multiple Roman “mystery religions” with bonkers, sex-and-drugs fuelled initiation rites. In its contemporary form, gnosticism produces people who genuinely believe they’ve discovered special insights.“Lived experience” coupled with activist learning has opened their eyes to the mind-forged manacles still binding us to a past that must be swept aside. The “learning” in question is imbibed at university, a reminder that universities once existed to preserve religious orthodoxy, not provide a home for scholarly disagreement. Academic freedom is a value with Enlightenment roots, and as many Americans now realise, a fragile one.

There are no guarantees victims of a terrible wrong can turn the lead of “lived experience” into golden understanding.

If the rest of us can’t see the invisible power structures initiates of these new religious mysteries insist are there, we need to “listen” or “educate ourselves”, lest we fall into evil. Why would the world have to be remade or one’s body escaped if not for pervasive malevolence? Why would anyone oppose such obvious righteousness if they were not evil? As it did historically, modern gnosticism has a natural affinity with Manichaeism. Black-and-white thinking means politics takes on a dualistic quality and permits a war of all against all: one side wholly light, the other wholly dark.

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

A focus on what is light and good leads ineluctably to a valorisation of childhood innocence, and the claim—contrary to cognitive developmental evidence—that trans kids “know who they are.” Children are less polluted by inevitable but invisible power structures and can change their oppression status, you see. It’s not accidental that comfortable middle-class white girls are central to the worst of the derangement.

Mind you, this madness has contaminated fields whose campaigners should know better, like environmentalism. Activist outfit Extinction Rebellion advances autistic savant Greta Thunberg as a type of child seer, forgetting, as my father used to say, “children are stupid.” As he said it, he’d hold up his left hand to show the middle finger’s missing top joint, sheared off when he reached out and touched a sawmill blade at 15.

Both Christianity and Islam have long since abandoned any gnostic elements, but classical historian Tom Holland is right to note the beliefs that victims qua victims have special insight and that the oppressed deserve moral regard have Christian roots. Neither existed in classical polytheism and when confronted with them, Roman pagans found them variously weird, intellectually soft, or silly. Holland praises them and argues they’re why we have welfare states. He can even quote the last pagan Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate, on point: “the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well; everyone sees our people lack aid from us.”

However, like religious myth generally, the story of the inherently good and perceptive victim is false. There are no guarantees victims of a terrible wrong can turn the lead of “lived experience” into golden understanding. The downtrodden do not pledge to evince decent behaviour and moral goodness. Something more is needed. The Soviet Army liberated tens of thousands of prisoners from Auschwitz in 1945. Only one of them, Primo Levi, went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Erich Honecker spent ten years in a Gestapo prison; that experience does not excuse his subsequent deeds as the DDR’s dictator.

Perhaps saddest of all, universities are responsible for the propagation of this blended religious and pseudoscientific nonsense. There is a serious case to be made for pulling the funding from most of the academic humanities and social sciences in jurisdictions where states hold the purse-strings. Even the most rigorous are often consumption goods—valuable to the person who earns one but procured purely to satisfy current wants or needs, not to produce another good. A fortiori, the “grievance studies” pseudo-disciplines should never have been put on the taxpayer’s tab. They’re remarkably low-grade consumption goods—the intellectual equivalent of high fructose corn syrup rather than filet mignon or caviar.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Sitting atop this inverted pyramid of pure piffle (to use a Boris-ism) is social media, especially Twitter. It’s common to sheet the blame for everything—from contemporary recrudescence of conspiracism to teenage girls talking each other into trans identification in concert—home to Instagram or Tumblr or YouTube influencers. The process, however, doesn’t quite work that way.

It’s always been difficult to change people’s minds or make them do something in response to consuming any media—whether book or article, film or game. We’ve learnt this thanks to years of careful research on longstanding claims about the extent to which pornography facilitates or encourages rape, or if “first person” games produce school shooters. If anything, the consumption of pornography and the playing of violent video games are correlated with reduced rates of violent crime, although disaggregating all the confounding variables when it comes to working out why some people commit crimes and others don’t is genuinely hard.

What social media does do is polarise. Whatever beliefs one brings to it are reinforced and sometimes embroidered. Healthy suspicion of government diktats curdles into QAnon conspiracies. A strong commitment to complying with health ordinances ferments into public confrontation of those not wearing masks.

Polarisation rewards the least inhibited, at least in the bizarre attention economy of social media. Giving the least inhibited platforms to treat as their personal playgrounds also generates polarisation: round and round we go as people get what they want by dint of bad behaviour. Yes, we reward people for personality disorders. For public temper tantrums. As I write, UK trans-sceptic academic Professor Kathleen Stock is being burnt in effigy outside her Sussex University office. Students posted bills all over campus calling for her dismissal. In news that will surprise precisely no-one, they got most traction from their fellow Instagram revolutionaries.

Goodbye to All That

Many of the people who’ve waded into this issue have been pilloried. Women have it worse than men in part because trans women want what women have and feel stymied in attempts to get it. Although I’m in the target group for malignant abuse, I’ve avoided the worst of it thanks to my Toryism. I don’t accept the underlying logic of rights-based campaigns and for that reason can make arguments most leftists and progressives can’t or won’t.

I’m able to argue that rights aren’t pre-existing, don’t emerge fully formed from on high, and are held against our fellow-creatures. Achieving them necessitates electoral consent. This means activists for a given cause cannot simply convince the State and have rights enforced in law and policy without regard to democratic views or social consequences. They must persuade.

There’s a foot-stamping petulance to the phrases “trans rights are human rights” and “trans women are women,” as though any assertion delivered with sufficient intemperance can bend reality. Quietly petitioning ministers and changing policies within the NHS allowed lobbyists to make considerable strides without the mainstream noticing. By insisting their rights were “not up for debate,” they sponged off previous civil liberties struggles and relieved themselves of the burden of crafting and winning an argument. However, in the UK—to return to Sarah Phillimore’s point—there is now a debate. That’s what happens when a campaign rooted in censorship and refusal to persuade backfires.

Every job I’ve ever held going back to when I started work aged 14 as a salesgirl in a grocery shop has been based on persuasion. I never expected everyone to agree with me and anyone who thinks it’s possible to get an entire population lined up and facing in one direction is away with the fairies. Say “kittens are cute” and people will disagree: the problem with a kitten is THAT eventually it becomes a CAT.

Added to this is the truth that persuading a religious opponent his position is misconceived is very hard. The New Atheists in their heyday seldom de-converted Christians or Muslims and displayed an embarrassing naïveté in the attempt. I doubt the careful books I’ve reviewed or otherwise discussed will persuade the people setting off flares in trans colours on Sussex University’s grounds. In the same way, arguing on the doorstep with Jehovah’s Witnesses back in the day got me precisely nowhere. Religious beliefs decline only when the values sustaining and underlying them evaporate.

And with trans, sunlight—in the good old disinfecting sense—is now doing that work.