Trans drama Butterfly is rejection and sexism dressed up as social justice TV

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The final part of ITV drama Butterfly airs tomorrow evening, marking not so much the conclusion of a TV show but the climax of a social justice event, at least if you believe the show’s makers and the largely rapturous notices. Starring Anna Friel as the mother of Max, an 11-year-old who’s born male but identifies as a girl, and broadcast in the last weeks of the government consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act, it’s clearly been conceived as an intervention on the side of the angels. Or rather Mermaids: Susie Green, CEO of the charity for families of trans children, was a consultant on the programme.

Max’s story closely tracks that of Green’s child Jackie. Like Jackie, who preferred the Little Mermaid to Action Man, Max struggles to play the part of the “real boy”, choosing pink skirts rather than jeans and dancing rather than football (something dad responds to with violence, leading to him having been kicked out of the family home at the start of the series). And like Green, who took Jackie to America for surgery at 16, Max’s mother turns to the US private system when the NHS gender identity development service (here represented by the fictional “Ferrybank clinic”) refuses to prescribe Max puberty blockers immediately.

What Friel’s Brookside kiss did for lesbians, Butterfly’s makers imply, Butterfly will do for trans rights. And as a Sunday night mainstream drama, it really is an incredible opportunity to take trans politics into the nation’s living rooms. The trans debate is often as arcane as it is furious, conducted in jargon-heavy blog posts, and bitter clashes between feminists who want to discuss the legal and social consequences of gender identity doctrine, and activists who want to stop them (by violence if necessary). Butterfly, though, is storytelling. It’s emotionally appealing. It’s accessible. It’s simple. In fact, it’s very simple indeed, which is why it’s quite boring, and also why it’s dangerous.

That’s a strong word to use of a primetime drama, but consider what Butterfly is telling its audience. It offers a starkly segregated version of childhood: boys do active, sporty things and girls are decorative and pretty. Max’s parents first of all try to “fix” him into having the appropriate interests – his dad with corporal punishment, his mum by treating the “girly” things as a shameful secret to be kept to the bedroom – and, when that fails, they solve the problem instead by recategorising him as a girl. The possibility that Max, like 60-90% of children with gender dysphoria, might simply turn out to be a boy who likes pink, isn’t given house room here.

Then there’s that jaunt to America for treatment. In the show, it’s a high-stakes decision for Max’s mother to make, but one that we’re never supposed to doubt is in Max’s best interests. The Ferrybank, with their advocacy of “watchful waiting” rather than filling out a shopping list of prescriptions, act as the story’s primary antagonists. After all, viewers have already been told unequivocally that Max really is “a girl in a boy’s body”. In the context of the show, any resistance to that isn’t sensible clinical caution, it’s just cruel. The lesson for distressed children and their anxious parents watching the show is: don’t trust the experts who won’t give you what you want.

In the real world, though, things aren’t so easy to call. Gender dysphoria has complex, multiple causes, and in children that usually involves the family dynamic. NHS clinicians, trying to address these delicate cases, increasingly find that anything they want to explore has been pre-empted by the pressure on parents to “affirm gender”: parents have often socially transitioned their child long before they reach the consulting room. Sometimes, parents have even started the medical course privately, via clinicians such as Helen Webberley – convicted this month of running an unregistered clinic, but still linked to by the Mermaids website.

The argument for rushing to treatment, as put forward by Mermaids and repeated by Max’s mum in Butterfly, is “better a happy daughter than a dead son”. In other words, children with gender identity issues are supposedly so prone to suicide that the only option is to stall puberty immediately, starting cross-sex hormones as early as possible. (This maximises the child’s chances of eventually passing as the chosen sex; it also costs them their adult fertility and sexual function.) In the first episode of Butterfly, Max follows this script by making a graphically portrayed suicide attempt.

But the script is false. The startling figures offered by Mermaids for suicidality in trans children are taken from self-selecting surveys that don’t control for comorbidity of mental health conditions. The NHS gender identity development service reports that less than 1% of its patients have attempted suicide; meanwhile, Swedish research has found that transitioning doesn’t remove trans people higher risk for suicide. In other words, the Mermaids version overstates the risk and then demands a cure that doesn’t work.

This isn’t just inaccurate. It’s damaging. In Max’s story, a child questioning their gender will see that suicide gets results: not just medical treatment, but ultimately the reconciliation of Max’s parents (the final scene of the last episode sees Max getting the longed-for blocker injection as his parents hold hands in the foreground, everything as it should be in the straightest of all possible worlds, the violent man back in the family fold). This presentation of suicide goes directly against the Samaritans guidelines for preventing the spread of suicide. Reckless politicising of self-harm is what endangers young people’s lives, not delaying irreversible medical treatments.

When Donald Trump is launching draconian measures against trans people, it seems obvious that the humane and liberal response must be the opposite of whatever he’s doing. But that’s to make the mistake of thinking we can only choose between two kinds of sexism: the patriarchy of the pussy-grabber, or the misogyny of “girls have pink brains”. Butterfly wants to be seen as a model of tolerance, but its lesson is actually a brutal one. As one gender identity specialist who watched the programme points out, Max is told persistently, insistently and consistently by his parents that he’s “wrong” as a boy. “This is not acceptance,” she says. “In fact, this is rejection.” Under the lipstick smile, Butterfly is a charter for something very regressive, and very cruel: the credo that children who can’t perform the “correct” sex stereotypes must change their bodies, or die.

Six years in the gender wars

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.

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Conclusion 1:

Trans activism as it is currently practised is often actively harmful to the people it is supposedly intended to help.

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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.

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Conclusion 2:

Beliefs about gender identity are inseparable from gender stereotypes and the gender class system, and rely on a false separation of body and mind.

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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.

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Conclusion 3:

Trans activism is anti-feminist in practice and allied to the harassment of individual women.

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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.

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Conclusion 4:

Male abusers will take advantage of self-identification to commit offences against women and girls.

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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.

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I have spent six years thinking about gender identity. This is what I believe now:

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There is no such thing as gender identity.

Sex matters.

When we pretend sex doesn’t matter, women lose.

Some thoughts on reforms to the Gender Recognition Act

Over the weekend, the Sunday Times reported on a consultation on the gender recognition bill that will be published in the autumn.

At the moment, gender recognition certificates (GRCs) are governed by the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. This requires that those who are over 18 and wishing to change their legally recognised gender should do the following: have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, have lived in their “acquired gender” for at least two years, and intend to live in the acquired gender for the rest of their lives. Applications cost £140 (with means-tested assistance for those on a low income or receiving certain benefits), and are assessed by the Gender Recognition Panel.

The new law would remove the two years requirement and the stipulation of a dysphoria diagnosis. Instead, applicants would only need to make a statutory declaration that they intend to live in their acquired gender until death. The aim, according to minister for women and equalities Justine Greening, is to “streamline and demedicalise” the process.

It’s worth laying out the current law in detail because I’m not convinced that even those at the vanguard of the argument necessarily know what they’re seeking to reform. Jeremy Corbyn, for example, said that the 2004 Act “forces [trans people] to undergo invasive medical tests”. It does not.

But regardless of whether politicians understand what they’re reforming, there is cross-party agreement at the highest level on the reform of GRCs, with both Corbyn and Theresa May having endorsed it (it was also a Labour manifesto commitment). There seems to me to be little appetite within Westminster for criticising the programme, and it is very likely to become law. Apart from anything else, it is – to be cynical – a cheap form of progressivism. Investing in NHS services for trans people is expensive. “Streamlining” the GRC process could even lead to a few civil service redundancies.

The consensus is that the 2004 Act is outdated, and new legislation would be a fitting way to mark 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. (Incidentally, the Abortion Act is also 50 this year, making it 37 years older than the Gender Recognition Act. The medical and social conditions of women’s lives have changed drastically since 1967; why the Abortion Act is not seen as similarly in urgent need of reform is one of those puzzles that perhaps only God or feminism can answer.)

I’ve written fairly extensively on the conflicts of interest I think self-declaration of gender could cause, and Helen Lewis has set them out relating to this particular reform in an excellently clear post at the Statesman. The issues break down into three sections: monitoring (how does self-identification change the way we can measure discrimination according to sex), services (how does self-identification change the way we deliver sex-segregated services), and cultural (the most nebulous category, dealing with how we collectively understand gender).

1. Monitoring

Many things are known to divide starkly along the lines of sex. For example: men are paid more for equivalent work than women (the wage gap), women do more unpaid household labour than men (wifework), and men commit the vast majority of violent crime (male violence). Will a move to self-identification injure our ability to measure sex-based discrimination?

Trans people are a small population, so their presence as outliers is unlikely to dilute large-scale effects. For example: in 2014, the highest-paid woman CEO was Martine Rothblatt, a transwoman who freely conceded that spending half her life male meant that her experience was not parallel to most women’s. But even Greenblatt’s extraordinary wealth did not amount to a blip in the overall fact of the wage gap.

More refined samples will see greater distortion: for example, sex offenders are a tiny proportion of both the female and the trans populations, but counting transwomen who commit sexual offences as female for the purposes of monitoring will significantly increase both the number of “female offenders” and the kinds of offences they commit. (See, for example, the cases of Davina Ayrton or Jasmine Hill.)

One critical question for me is whether the reformed bill will include provisions to ensure we can still capture the reality of sex discrimination and gendered violence.

2. Services

The fact of male violence is the rationale for most sex-segregated services. For example: a few weeks ago I took part in a panel on women and mental health, where a key theme that emerged was the distress caused to women previously traumatised by male violence when male practitioners are given authority over them (which authority will involve physical restraints).

The prevalence of (male) voyeurism and unwanted sexual contact (by men) means women have made the case for separate wards, prisons and refuges. But it’s not just about violence: sometimes it’s simply a question of volume, as with the conversion of toilets to “gender neutral”. Because in practice only those with penises can use urinals, “gender neutral” toilets in practice means giving male patrons access to both stalls and urinals while women only have access to stalls, which are now in even greater demand. The end result, when this was tried at the Barbican, was huge queues for women. Similarly, men physically outperform women in most sports. If male athletes identifying as women start to displace female athletes, will female elite sports be able to survive?

How will gender self-identification interact with sex-segregated services? Will prisons and refuges be able to discriminate between good-faith and bad-faith claims? As trans activists rightly point out, transwomen should not be held responsible for crimes committed by men posing as transwomen (for example, Christopher Hambrook, who claimed to be a transwoman in order to access a Toronto women’s refuge where he raped residents). Will the new law on GRCs allow providers to make that distinction?

We should also remember that for some women, a transwoman will not be an appropriate service provider: for example, a woman with severe mental health problems will not be in a situation to assess the gender identity of the person restraining her who appears to all intents and purposes to be male. Will the new law on GRCs be framed to protect the discretion currently allowed to single-sex services?

One problem with this, of course, is that we can only measure the impact on services if we have the monitoring data. If statistics cease to capture natal sex, we will lose the ability to assess the impact of the new gender recognition law on one critical axis.

3. Cultural

This is perhaps the most important part to me, but the hardest to measure and so arguably the least relevant to a question of law. But: as self-identification of gender is adopted, will politically engaged women accept the idea that gender is an identity and reject the idea of themselves as bonded by the condition of being female in a patriarchal society? Will patriarchy have any meaning when a billionaire CEO or an individual who has committed violence against women is able to reveal that they “identified as” female all along? Will we continue to question issues such as “pinkification” and other forms of socialised stereotyping, or will we become even more accepting of gender stereotypes as a natural outcrop of an inherent internal identity? Like I said: nebulous. But important.

Until the law is actually framed, we don’t know how it will approach these issues; and until it’s enacted, we don’t know how it will affect them in practice. I might be 100 per cent wrong about all of this. Part of the point of setting this down is to give myself a measure against which to check my judgement over the next two, five, ten years. (Although obviously, I’ll only know I’m wrong if agencies carry on collecting the relevant data.) Nevertheless: for politicians to dismiss feminist concerns at this stage is to leave women’s rights in an intensely precarious position.

Little Atoms | The trouble with mermaids, or “Is life really much better down where it’s wetter?”

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This was the game. In the real world, I was lying on the sloping edge of Melton Leisure Pool sometime in the 1980s, shuffling my child body down into the water; in my imagination, I was on the sea shore and the irresistible ocean had come to take me and make me a mermaid. It was a game played entirely alone, because its object was utter and perfect passivity.

Some people never stop playing mermaids. At conventions such as Mer-Mania in North Carolina, Merfest in Florida, or Merfolk UK, hundreds of adults gather to, as the Merfolk website puts it, “transform [themselves] into a magical mythical being from the depths of the ocean” and swim with the “Mer-community”. (These gatherings are not uniformly idyllic: Mermania 2017 was reportedly riven with cyberbullying and physical confrontations between merfolk, leading to the Mail dubbing it “the DARK SIDE of the real-life mermaids”.)

Read the full essay at Little Atoms

New Statesman | Can the media focus on transgender politics reveal anything larger about identity?

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This is a review essay of four new books about trans issues: Trans Like Me by C. N. Lester, Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt, The Secrets of My Life by Caitlyn Jenner, and Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee.

The world of transgender politics is full of big claims and bold declarations, but here is an understatement to start with: “The media is having a trans moment,” writes C N Lester in Trans Like Me. They are not wrong (“they” because Lester identifies as non-binary, and so asks to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns). Besides the books addressed here, recent additions to the discussion include the novel This Is How It Always Is (based on the transition of the author Laurie Frankel’s own child), The Gender Games by the Glamour columnist Juno Dawson (modestly subtitled The Problem With Men and Women . . . from Someone Who Has Been Both), The New Girl by the Elle columnist Rhyannon Styles, True Colours by Caroline Paige (the first openly trans person in the British military) and Surpassing Certainty by the trans activist Janet Mock – a second volume of autobiography to follow 2014’s Redefining Realness.

These books cover memoir, popular science and manifesto. Inevitably, they are wildly variable, both in quality and in ideology. I suspect that Lester might prefer a little less ideological range. Trans Like Me opens by asking, “What does the word ‘trans’ mean to you?” which, Lester then explains, is how they begin the corporate diversity training sessions they lead. Few books have so accurately captured the experience of being detained in a conference room and forced to reckon with a whiteboard.

Read the full essay at the New Statesman

Guardian Review | Death of a She Devil by Fay Weldon

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There are two parts to Fay Weldon’s reputation: first that she is a feminist writer, and second that she is a very funny one. The “funny” is earned, the “feminist” less so, and Death of a She Devil is a credit to neither. When Weldon introduced Ruth Patchett in The Life and Loves of a She Devil, 34 years ago, she created one of literature’s greatest monsters. Deserted by callous husband Bobbo for the simpering romance novelist Mary Fisher, ugly doormat Ruth remakes herself as the She Devil and has her revenge on the adulterers. Her punisher’s progress takes her through every circle of society, from underclass to judiciary, from family to clergy, until finally she is surgically transformed into “an impossible male fantasy made flesh” – even losing six inches of leg to become desirably petite. At the close of the book, with Bobbo broken and Mary dead, Ruth’s triumph is complete.

Read the full review at the Guardian

New Statesman | It’s revealing that there is so little public debate over what makes you a “real man”

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I’ve never tried being a man, but the writer Norah Vincent did in a year-long experiment for her book Self-Made Man, and she found out two things. Firstly, that people were amazingly eager to accept her as a man on the basis of a bound chest, a flat-top haircut, masculine clothing and some ersatz stubble. Secondly, that while it was easy to get classed as a man, living in that class meant being subject to constant scrutiny: “Someone is always evaluating your manhood […] everybody is always on the lookout for your weakness or your inadequacy”. In the end, Vincent suffered what she calls a “crack-up”, attributing it to the pressure of her restrictive alter-ego.

The best way to think about gender is as a kind of hell. Men occupy the narrow centre, with various degrees of “non-men” expanding outward in concentric circles, every region bristling with demons ready to prod deviants back into line or cast recalcitrants into the outer darkness. A man who falls out of manliness can only fall so far. A woman who fails at femininity, as Glosswitch describes, has failed doubly by gender’s underworld logic: first of all to be male, and secondly to be a woman, a low enough condition on its own even before you get banished to the far fringes of the inferno.

Read the full post the New Statesman