New Year’s Day 2015 was a bad one. My main memory of it is the moment when my husband essentially scraped me off the bed, where I was lying face-down, crying, because I’d seen a tweet from someone I thought was a friend – someone I’d worked with, someone whose kid I’d babysat for – denouncing me as a “terf”. The occasion for the denunciation was a piece by me published earlier that day. My editor had double-checked that I wanted to go ahead with it – there would be, she said, a lot of flak, which I knew anyway but one of the reasons I like writing for her is that she asks that kind of thing. The piece was worth doing, regardless of flak, because it was about something important: the way suicide is reported, and the potential for harm when it’s done badly.
An Ohio teenager named Leelah Alcorn had died by suicide. Alcorn was trans, and left a note on Tumblr which explicitly pinned the blame on her parents, who she claimed had rejected her. This note was reblogged thousands of times, and quoted in reports which glamorised Alcorn, condemned her parents, detailed the means of death and presented Alcorn’s suicide as a vital political statement on behalf of trans youth. In my piece, I urged caution: sharing suicide notes, celebrating the victim, denigrating the bereaved, detailing the method and claiming a suicide has “made a point” all contribute to suicide contagion. In other words, I said, people who identified with Alcorn – the very same trans young people that this coverage was supposedly in aid of – would be more likely to attempt suicide as a result of it. The backlash was brutal, and went beyond Twitter. There were viral blogposts. There were articles in real publications I actually read. All were united around a theme: Sarah Ditum was a confirmed terf, my concerns for young trans people were surely insincere, and my true motivation undoubtedly a deep-seated hatred of trans people.
Seeing myself characterised like that, this me-who-was-not-me projected round the internet and ritually condemned, was agony. (That sounds hysterical, I know, but I’m not sure how else to describe the wrenching feeling of being torn apart like that.) Here’s what’s much, much worse: I was right. In February 2015, the Washington Post published an article detailing two likely copycat suicide attempts by young trans people, with commentary from public health experts on the role of suicide contagion. One, thankfully, was not fatal; horribly, the other was. They should have been protected. Instead, trans activists had promoted a narrative that directly contributed to suicide – and perversely accused anyone criticising that narrative of killing trans people.
Death plays a significant role in trans politics. Stonewall insistently repeats a shockingly high figure for suicide attempts by young trans people as an argument for reforming the Gender Recognition Act (even though this figure was acquired through self-selecting respondents, and there was no attempt in the survey to account for co-morbidity of mental health problems with trans identification). Trans activist Paris Lees has made it a point of honour to talk about “an epidemic of violence against trans people”; actually, the average murder rate for trans people in the UK is lower than the average murder rate overall. The main calendar date for trans activism is Trans Day of Remembrance, which again is about the dead; when Shon Faye wrote a column for the less morbid Trans Day of Visibility, it started with a story about a death.
No other ideology, except perhaps the early church, makes such heavy use of martyrs. (Incidentally, one theory about Christianity’s severe prohibitions on suicide is that they were introduced because the celebration of self-sacrifice was breeding an unsustainable number of suicides.) Either you support gender self-identification and treatment on demand, or you are a murderer. Either you say “trans women are women”, or you are a murderer. No one has ever explained how other people’s failure to believe in gender identity could cause men (since violence against trans people is overwhelmingly male violence) to commit violence against trans people.
Trans activism as it is currently practised is often actively harmful to the people it is supposedly intended to help.
I didn’t ever intend to write about trans politics. That’s not quite true: in 2012, there was a kerfuffle about the Radfem conference in London adopting a female-only policy. This was condemned for being trans-exclusionary, and at the time I wrote a short, sarcastic blog post about this: lol @ radical feminists, thinking gender is a social construct and also thinking male humans aren’t women. I left it up for a long while after I’d reconsidered (be honest, just considered in any way) my position on gender, because I thought it was important to be transparent about having changed my mind, but in the end got tired of people tweeting it at me and saying, “Why don’t you think like this anymore?!” (Because it’s trite! And misogynist! And with no understanding whatsoever of gender as a sex class system!)
At the time I wrote that, I thought of “trans person” as synonymous with “transsexual”: someone who’d had sex reassignment surgery. (I think this is a common misconception: people are still very shocked to learn that the majority of transwomen retain their male genitalia, indeed that there’s no requirement to have surgery or even take hormones in order to define yourself as trans and apply for a gender recognition certificate.) And who would have sex reassignment surgery if they didn’t really and sincerely feel they were the sex they identified as? Didn’t such people deserve compassion? Welcoming? Support? Trans activism seemed to belong to the same realm as feminism and gay rights. It was about not being constrained by gender roles, being free to live as whoever you really are.
Even so, there was bit of grit there. If someone could be “born in the wrong body”, didn’t that mean there were “male and female brains”? But I’d read Delusions of Gender when it came out in 2010, and knew the evidence for fixed structural sex differences with proven behavioural outcomes in human brains was sketchy. If someone needed to be surgically altered for their body to be “right”, didn’t that mean plastic surgery was a necessity, rather than an exploitative industry that told women their breasts or genitals were misshapen and then charged through the (rhinoplastied) nose to “fix” them? And if it excluded transwomen to talk about abortion, periods and childbirth as “women’s issues”, how was I going to be able to talk about them at all?
I only know one way to deal with uncertainty: reading and writing. I wrote a series of blog posts trying to reconcile those irreconcilable ideas: that gender is the inculcation of male superiority over women, and that gender is an inherent sense of self that must be expressed on pain of terrible harm. A transwoman I was friendly with at the time urged Julia Serano on me, and I muscled through Whipping Girl with its claims about “subconscious sex”, its arguments that feminism “stigmatised femininity”. I want you to understand that I wanted very much to accept this. I wanted to be a good person, and not a trans-exclusionary person.
In the end, I think it was a column by Deborah Orr, published in early 2013, that crystalised the impossibility of it all for me. I don’t think it was intended as a gender critical column as such, and I don’t know what Orr’s view is on the gender war now. It’s a column informed by Orr’s own experience of mastectomy, and her refusal to see herself as “less of a woman” because of it. But this is the section I snagged on: “Frankly, if my entire body was removed, and only my head remained, somehow attached to machines that kept me alive, I’d still feel entirely female, just as I felt as a child, before my breasts had developed, before I even knew I had a vagina or a womb.” This is the brain-in-a-jar hypothesis. The trouble with it is, none of us are brains in jar. We are our bodies, our intelligence exists in every nerve, and the idea that a feeling of “being female” would mean anything in the absence of a female body was, I knew, intrinsically absurd.
In Whipping Girl by Serano (a book that is quoted approvingly by feminists!), I read that “one feminine biological trait is being in tune with one’s emotions”. In Conundrum by Jan Morris, I read that “my own notion of the female principle was one of gentleness as against force, forgiveness rather than punishment, give more than take, helping more than leading.” In The Gender Games by Juno Dawson, I read that Dawson experienced “a very conscious urge to get fucked, to be penetrated as a woman would be.” In True Colours by transwoman and RAF officer Caroline Paige, I read that Paige wanted to “be able to wear young fashions, share makeup and fashion tips, have girls’ nights out, laugh about boys, fuss over hair.” In In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi, I read that her father’s transition happened under the heavy influence of “sissification porn” – masochistic erotic scenarios where a man is forced to “become a woman” and so placed in the most denigrating situation possible.
In other words, I have read a lot of writing by, for and about trans people. I have read medical tracts from the nineteenth century, and activist texts from the twenty-first; intellectualised confessionals, and tell-all memoirs. What unites all of them is that there is no coherent explanation of what a gender identity is, and endless recourse to sexist stereotypes with no conception of structural misogyny. Being a woman means being pretty, decorative, interested in boys; it means being emotionally available (if women are naturally “good at feelings”, then men can never be expected to learn to regulate themselves, and the burden of managing masculine passions falls – naturally, conveniently – to women); it means being fucked.
I hardly need to explain here that this is not a “progressive” way to define “woman”, and as much as male transitioners are running towards it, female transitioners are running away from it. Being female means having a body that is seen as dirty, exploitable, penetrable: of course we want to run away from this. When I was trying to find my way between the demands of trans politics and what I know about feminism, one of the seductions of the former was that it offers an escape into bodilessness. Illusory, of course, because we are our bodies, but so attractive when your body places you in the inferior sex class. In transman Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive, I read that childhood sexual abuse led to a feeling of being “a marionette, otherworldly and wooden”. In the CBBC documentary I Am Leo, I learned that wanting short hair and refusing dolls makes you a boy inside – in fact (according to the programme’s illustrative animations), means you have a blue brain in a pink body.
This is a really extraordinary claim, yet it underpins the entire belief system of gender identity, and the irreversible medical treatments now being applied to “treat” it: that our brains are specifically sexed, and that it’s possible for a brain of one sex to exist in the body of the other sex. There is no evidence for either of these contentions – the strongest claim you can make about brains is that there are broad structural differences between men and women on average, but these haven’t been connected to any of the attributes that come under “gender identity”, and it hasn’t been established that trans people have brains more like those of the sex they identify as than those of the sex they are.
The only way to dodge the total lack of empirical evidence for gender identity is by resorting to the immaterial and vague: “the knowledge of how my mind knows my body to be is so… I don’t even know how to put it. How do you describe the mind and body describing the mind and body?” writes C. N. Lester in Trans Like Me. There is no way to put it, because there is no coherent understanding to be expressed. But under this rationale, children are being set on a pathway to lifelong infertility and diminished sexual function; women’s spaces and services are being opened up to “anyone who identifies as a woman”; and the word “woman” is being voided of meaning or excised entirely.
Beliefs about gender identity are inseparable from gender stereotypes and the gender class system, and rely on a false separation of body and mind.
There’s a phrase people use for the moment they realised trans politics was demanding more of them than they could reasonably give. The phrase is “peak trans”. My personal peak trans – or at least, the first germ of it – came in the comments of that excruciating blog post I wrote about Radfem 2012. “Good column,” wrote a transwoman, “but why on earth do you write cis women as two words and trans women as one? Surely you’ve seen this degendering portmanteau used by the MCRFs (misogynistically cissexist ‘radical feminists’) before.” (This episode is a source of painful embarrassment to me, so please be appreciative of the fact that I went back through my archives to find the exact comment. Now, the only thing I would do differently is that I would never use the word “cis”.)
I bridled at this. But in my reply, I apologised: sorry, I’m new to this, I will learn. What was I apologising for? That I’d attacked women who wanted to exercise freedom of assembly apart from male people, but not done so in specifically approved terms? And how could leaving out a space be “degendering”? This typographic dispute hinges around the idea that we should treat “trans” as an adjective modifying “woman”, rather than treating “transwoman” as a noun distinct from “woman”; when we say “woman”, we are required to encompass those who are trans. But when I say “woman”, I mean “female person”. The experience of being a female person is different to the experience of being a male person who identifies as female, and that distinction is politically important.
Transwomen are transwomen (to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), and do not benefit from being subsumed in the category women: access to sex reassignment surgery, the effect of HRT on a male body, the problems of transitioning in a society hostile to gender non-conformity are all specific to transwomen. However, sexism being what it is, the practical consequence of treating transwomen as women is that the male interest is placed first. The female right to self-organise comes after the male right to be treated as a woman. The female right to critique femininity comes after the male right to claim femininity. The female right to describe your body and what that body means under patriarchy comes after the male right not to be offended by descriptions of female bodies. And so on.
The specific interventions trans activists have made in feminism are telling. Take the pussyhats debacle: a cute, homemade symbol of protest against a sexual abuser in the White House is “exclusionary and painful” because it associates women with female genitals. Even if you wholeheartedly believe that “trans women are women full stop”, transwomen are less than 1% of all women. It’s offensive to acknowledge the 99? Jos Truitt, a transwoman and executive director of the website Feministing, declared that abortion needed to be seen as “more than a ‘women’s issue’” back in 2011. It’s hard to know what’s worst about this: that “women’s issue” is implied to be a demeaning tag, or that it cuts off abortion rights from the entire analysis of women’s subjugation.
These manifestations of trans activism make women effectively invisible. Other instances have been blatant efforts to push individual women off the public stage. In January 2013, the New Statesman published a superb essay by Suzanne Moore called “Seeing Red: The Power of Female Anger”. It was itself the occasion of anger, on account of this line: “We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.” On Jezebel, Lindy West damned Moore for this: “Trans women are women, and to say otherwise makes you sound like a batty old dinosaur. It is extremely othering and exclusionary to hold up trans women as a counterexample to ‘real’ women.” Note the ageism and sexism in “batty old dinosaur”. Note that Moore’s entire point – that women are forbidden to express anger – was borne out by the condemnation. Note that critiquing the beauty standard implicit in the surgically constructed body is made impossible by the charge of transphobia.
Trans politics is systematically used against feminism. Which is how I ended up making my first public intervention on the subject. In March 2014, the New Statesman commissioned me to write a piece about the use of no-platform – while the anti-racism movement had shifted away from it, or at least radically redefined it, anti-Israel and trans activist groups were using it more vigorously than ever. I didn’t think much at the time I wrote this article about why anti-feminist and anti-Semitic politics might have followed such a similar track, but I have done since. Faludi’s In the Darkroom was deeply instructive on the way anti-Semitism is inflected by misogyny. Jews are stereotyped as effeminate men or hyperfeminine women; part of the origin of the blood libel is a belief that unmanly Jewish men menstruated and had to replenish themselves.
Meanwhile, Phoebe Malz-Bovy’s Perils of Privilege describes how the privilege framework fails to comprehend the oppression of both Jews and women. Bigotry against the two groups is justified on the grounds that they are unduly advantaged. For Jews, that’s via the narrative of “the Israel lobby” or euphemistic “bankers” (the “vampire squids” and generic “Rothschilds”). For women, it’s the idea that being female gives women access to “cis privilege”: a particularly striking example comes up in Juliet Jacques’ book Trans, which claims that not having a female adolescence causes transwomen to suffer from lack of experience in negotiating sexual violence. Shout out to that guy who made dirty phone calls to me on my work experience placement, I guess.
What I did notice while I was working on that article was how vicious a reception I got simply for looking into it. Julie Bindel has been one of the principal targets of campus no-platforming, so I interviewed her, and I sought to interview people who defended the tactic. Unfortunately, none of them would speak to me. In fact, trans activist Roz Kaveney decided to denounce me publicly as a “terf” simply for writing the article. I think there’s only one reasonable conclusion you could draw from that episode: trans activists have no coherent defence of no-platforming feminists, and will vigorously target any woman who doesn’t fall into line on their aims. It’s the conclusion that I drew, along with several other activists and writers who organised an open letter to the Observer in February 2015 supporting free speech in universities.
That letter had an inevitable, and instructive, sequel: the signatories were attacked as (of course) “terfs”. This, in turn, was addressed by a pseudonymous writer in the New Statesman, in an article called “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been a TERF?” “In practice everyone knows that trans women are not identical to women,” pointed out the author, “but if you don’t want to be called a TERF you must deny the differences as far as possible.” And since the costs of being called a terf are personal pillory and professional ostracism, there’s a very strong incentive to keep the charge at bay. Juliet Jacques broke off writing for the Statesman because of this article, saying it “trashes [trans people’s] identities” and has “strawman representations of trans activism”. Actually, it was quite accurate. As the Times has now reported, trans academic Natacha Kennedy of Goldsmiths has been using a closed Facebook group to organise bullying campaigns against female (and only female) academics deemed to be “terfs”. There is an awful kind of relief in being proved right like this. We weren’t paranoid. The trans activists were out to get us.
Trans activism is anti-feminist in practice and allied to the harassment of individual women.
There should be at some point a reckoning of what’s been wasted in the gender wars. Women’s careers and reputations, for one thing. It’s disarming to read Janice Raymond’s 1979 book The Transsexual Empire in light of her bogeyman stature and then compare it to Sandy Stone’s 1983 response The Empire Strikes Back (the two texts considered the foundation of the trans-vs-radical-feminism dispute): Stone essentially reiterates the same criticisms Raymond makes of the medical system, while attributing those views to Raymond. Even Raymond’s dread phrase “morally mandated out of existence” – still used today to “prove” that feminists seek the extermination of trans people – turns out to refer not to trans people but to transsexuality as a phenomenon. Raymond’s thesis (which of course we cannot test, so must remain a thesis) is that people would not feel the need to alter their bodies if we lived in a less gendered society; the “moral mandate” is to end sexism. You may find her phrase-making too pungent, but her point is sound.
But because of Raymond’s untouchable status, her other output – including her rigorous, empathetic work on (for example) the “comfort women” enlisted into state prostitution by the Japanese army in WWII – has been pushed aside. Sheila Jeffreys’ study of the politics of public toilets is ignored because she points out (correctly) that allowing males who identify as women to use women’s facilities will make those already inadequate facilities unusable for many women. (Bluntly, where services are not sex-segregated, men will rape women – something confirmed by Andrew Gilligan’s recent story for the Sunday Times showing that “90% of reported sexual assaults, harassment and voyeurism in swimming pool and sports-centre changing rooms happen in unisex facilities, which make up less than half the total.”) The 2004 column for which Julie Bindel has experienced a career’s-worth of condemnation, despite her apologies for its tone, was written in defence of Vancouver Rape Relief’s right not to employ a transwoman as a counsellor for women who’d experienced the most appalling male violence (and who might, understandably, not want to dissect their trauma with someone male – something Rachel Hewitt has written about powerfully).
The entire framework of trans politics makes the discussion of male violence impossible. And when feminists have tried to raise the risk of predators abusing gender self-identification, we have been called bigots and fantasists. When I took part in Channel 4’s Genderquake debate this year, Munroe Bergdorf and Caitlyn Jenner shouted me down as I tried to point out that the male people most likely to want access to women’s prisons, refuges, changing rooms and toilets are the ones you would least want there. Ruth Hunt of Stonewall has insisted that “granting trans people equality will not make women any less safe”, and accused those who warn about abuses of “scapegoating”.
Here, then, are the facts. Karen White, a transwoman, was housed in a female prison, despite being a convicted sex offender, despite having transitioned in nothing but name. White sexually assaulted female inmates. This was predictable, and avoidable. There are 125 trans prisoners in England and Wales. 60 of them are sex offenders. Now, trans activists will have to decide: either being trans correlates with being a sex offender, or (and this is transparently the likelier option) sex offenders are identifying themselves as trans in the hope of gaining access to women they can victimise. What activists cannot do any longer is claim that no one would identify as trans for nefarious purposes. Clearly, they do.
It’s remarkable, now, to look back on some of the coverage of the 2016 Women and Equalities Committee Transgender Inquiry, which recommended moving to a self-identification system for gender. Here is an interview with Maria Miller, who led the inquiry, expressing her astonishment that opposition to the report came from “those purporting to be feminists”. “A glance at Ms Miller’s Twitter page shows that the backlash is real,” writes Tom McTague, solemnly. “She is accused of exposing women to ‘violent men hiding behind the mask of transgender’.” In light of Karen White, and Marie Dean, and Jessica Winfield, who would dare treat such a claim as self-evidently bigoted now?
It has been a bad summer for trans activism. NUS trans officer Jess Bradley (a transwoman) was suspended over allegations of flashing, which Bradley has conspicuously failed to deny. (The Women and Equalities Committee downgraded evidence from the British Association of Gender Identity Specialists that male prisoners claim trans status with exploitative intent, but gave Bradley’s statements a starring role in the report.) Aimee Challenor, the Green Party’s equality spokesperson and a member of Stonewall’s trans advisory group, as well as the subject of a glowing Guardian profile, was found to have employed father David Challenor as an election agent – after David Challenor had been charged with the rape of a ten-year-old girl. In 2017, Aimee Challenor welcomed the Girl Guides’ statement on trans inclusion which allowed transwomen to take any leadership roles in the organisation, a celebration of adult male access to girls which must be called at best naïve given that David Challenor was first accused in 2015. Despite such astonishing failures of judgement, Aimee Challenor remains on the Stonewall group. (The Greens, belatedly, implemented a suspension; Aimee Challenor then left the party, accusing it, incredibly, of transphobia.)
A bad summer for trans activism. But a genuinely horrifying era for women and girls, as protections have been torn down, abusers have been given extraordinary access to women, and the simple language that describes sex as an axis of oppression stolen out of our mouths. Karen White’s victims (which include not only those who directly suffered the offences, but every woman who was terrorised by their incarceration with a fully intact sexually violent adult male) should never have been so exposed. Those who denied it was ever a danger now have two choices: either they can accept that the facts have changed and change their minds accordingly, agreeing that “trans woman are women full stop” is not an answer to all the complications of safeguarding raised by self-identification; or they can admit that women being assaulted and girls being raped are acceptable collateral damage for their conception trans rights. If the latter, I trust I will never have to be lectured by them about feminism again.
Male abusers will take advantage of self-identification to commit offences against women and girls.
Writing about the problems with trans politics has taken a concerted effort from many people. On the left, journalists have had to battle a refusal to engage beyond sloppy platitudes like “trans women FTW!” On the right, the struggle has been to gain a hearing for what is, essentially, a feminist issue. Even scientific publications have been scared away from enquiry: an in-depth feature I wrote for one was spiked after the magazine asked whether there was any way to pre-empt people calling me a “terf”. (The New Statesman ran it instead.) But the space for the discussion exists now, thanks to people like Janice Turner, Helen Lewis, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, Hadley Freeman, Glosswitch, James Kirkup, Kathleen Stock, Helen Joyce, those mentioned above and others besides, as well as groups including Fair Play for Women and Transgender Trend. What will happen next? I imagine that Gender Recognition Act reform – once the subject of cross-bench consensus and one of the few things that seemed likely to happen while Brexit consumed all legislative attention – will slide into oblivion. Surely no party will want to pilot self-ID now that it’s been shown to be a rapists’ charter.
For trans people, it’s more complicated. They still need a political movement. There’s an opportunity to reframe it around clearly defined objectives and a will to resolve conflicts with other groups rather than simply to steamroller them. They might take the lessons of the women’s movement about building and running services that work for them, rather than trying to hijack institutions developed by women for women. Most of all, I hope they walk away from the absolutist ideology of gender identity and accept that “being trans” has an extraordinary range of causes: from traumatised female adolescents trying to control their bodies, to effeminate young boys whose parents think playing with dolls is pathologically girly, to those like Caitlyn Jenner who cheerfully concede that dressing femininely has an erotic kick (“dressing up like this is the equivalent of having sex with myself, male and female at the same time”).
Whatever the cause of someone’s transness, outcomes will vary: some will desist on their own, some might be best supported to live contentedly in their own body, and some will be happiest physically transitioning (though this last option, with its potential for surgical complications and consequent lifelong dependence on HRT, should be seen as a last resort rather than the first line of treatment). “Gatekeeping” should be accepted as a perfectly sensible matter when it comes to life-altering therapies. Sex should no longer be denied, and there should be as much pressure on men to be accepting of feminine-presenting male people as there now is on women.
And research should be encouraged, not suppressed by campaigns of abuse, such as those coordinated against the academics Michael Bailey in 2008 and Lisa Littman this year. To be clear, Bailey’s theory of autogynephilia (arousal by the idea of oneself as a woman) in older male transitioners may wind up being disproven, and Littman’s preliminary findings about Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria in female adolescents may not be replicated; but that can only happen if there is more research. For now, both theories have more to recommend them than the specious metaphysics of gender identity. Should trans activism ever find itself again denying that male violence is a problem, or making attacks on feminists its foremost function, it should stop, redress, and start again, because (as Debbie Hayton has argued) trans people can never benefit from a movement invested in dishonesty and slander.
I have spent six years thinking about gender identity. This is what I believe now:
There is no such thing as gender identity.
When we pretend sex doesn’t matter, women lose.