The Debatable Land #29: A Question of Truth
The trans wars will not disappear, no matter how much people might wish they would.
Welcome to the latest edition of my newsletter. As always, thanks for reading - and subscribing. I am grateful to you all for doing so and also for those who share or recommend this newsletter to other people. This is another epistle on the transgender wars and I apologise if this is not your to your taste. A wider, multi-issue, newsletter will follow in the next few days.
Never underestimate the depths of absurdity to which ideological conviction can lead a person. Or, indeed, a movement.
Consider, for instance, the action brought by Mermaids, a charity campaigning for transgender and gender-diverse young people, against the LGB Alliance, a charity advocating for - as the name suggests - lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Mermaids are seeking to have the LGB Alliance stripped of its charitable status. The case has been admirably documented by Tribunal Tweets and you can read the extensive reporting here.
On Wednesday, the court heard evidence from Paul Roberts, a representative of the LGBT Consortium, who was testifying in support of Mermaids. During examination, Roberts was asked to consider why so many women, in particular, place such emphasis on the importance of some single-sex spaces. This, counsel suggested, was in part because of men’s superior strength and men’s tendency towards violence against women. You might here make the error of thinking this an obvious point of little controversy. You would be mistaken. In response Roberts said - as paraphrased by Tribunal Tweets (hence my use of italics here rather than quotation marks) - I’m not an expert. I don’t know if men are stronger, or the statistics on male violence.
Of course this is an extraordinary thing to say. So extraordinary, in fact, that Roberts repeated himself. He is not an expert. He can’t say if men are typically stronger than women. He doesn’t have the statistics about male-on-female violence to hand. Who, really, can say anything about any of this with any certainty?
And, from Roberts’ perspective, this was sensible. Because if you concede that men and women have different characteristics and that, in certain places and at certain times, women need spaces of their own, then everything about the trans-activist mantra that “Trans women are women and that’s the end of the matter” begins to unravel.
For if men have certain inherent biological advantages over women - being, typically, stronger and faster, for instance - then it becomes reasonable for, say, sport to be organised on the basis of sex, not gender. If it is reasonable for certain sports - rugby, boxing, judo, cycling and so on - to exclude biological males from female competition then it might also, logically, be reasonable, on occasion, to exclude biological males (which is what transwomen are) from other female spaces - prisons, refuges - too. At that point, the rickety pretence there is no possible conflict between women’s rights and trans-rights collapses in a heap of its own ridiculousness.
So, better to maintain a position of arrant absurdity even at the risk of seeming untethered to plainly observable reality. We can’t know if men are stronger than women and we don’t know if some men are sometimes a threat to women. As counsel for the LGB Alliance put it: We exclude all male bodies because we have no way to distinguish between the overwhelming number of men who are not violent and those who are. To which Roberts responded: I can’t answer this without thinking about vulnerable transwomen. Which is not much of an answer, is it?
Note, too, just how unusual this case is: one charity is seeking to have another charity’s charitable status removed because it disagrees with that charity’s perspective on a topic of current controversy and would, ultimately, like that viewpoint suppressed.
That seems revealing. Many people are - perhaps understandably - wary of engaging with this topic. It is easy to up-throw hands and bewail the manner in which “both sides” have helped make this an unpleasant and toxic discussion. Better, and safer, to stay out of it.
Well, maybe. But it is not a “both sides” kind of problem. The LGB Alliance, for instance, is not trying to have Mermaids stripped of its charitable status because it disagrees with Mermaids’ views. Of course it does disagree with Mermaids but it also, as best I can make out, respects the fact Mermaids is entitled to its own views and has the right to campaign for policies the LGB Alliance thinks seriously misguided. Because that is what a liberal society requires for its liberalism.
Further evidence in support of this contention comes from Laura Favaro, a researcher at City University’s Gender and Sexualities Centre. She has spent much of the past two years interviewing 50 feminist gender studies academics - some “gender critical”, some “genderist” and some reluctant to be either - and her conclusion is stark:
Having approached the topic with an open mind, my discussions left me in no doubt that a culture of discrimination, silencing and fear has taken hold across universities in England, and many countries beyond.
Among other experiences, my interviewees described complaints to and by management, attempts to shut down events, no platforming, disinvitations, intimidation, smears and losing career progression opportunities, including being blocked from jobs. Others spoke about being physically removed from events, alongside receiving torrents of abuse online that even included incitements to murder.
While some “genderist” or “trans-inclusive” academics do not accept this characterisation, it seems worth noting that others actively celebrate it (which, you know, rather suggests it must be a real thing):
Others, however, openly embraced the “no debate” position on the basis that gender-critical feminism is “hate speech” or even “rhetorical violence [that] actually does have real-world aims”, equivalent to movements such as fascism and eugenics. One interviewee who identified as a trans woman described the current situation in academia as “a political battle over an institutional space”, clarifying that: “My political bottom line is – I don’t concede to people who are interested in the eradication of me and everyone like me in the world because I consider that a genocidal project.”
This view, together with the belief that “cis women have more power than trans people”, led genderist academics to refrain from forthrightly denouncing some transgender activists’ aggressive tactics towards feminists.
So, yes, let us put the “both sides” trope to bed, once and for all. It is a kind of cop-out. There is no requirement to have a view upon, let alone engage with, this subject but it would be preferable to at least try and be honest about some of the reasons people have for declining to get involved.
(As always, it should be said that women who speak publicly on this can count on receiving vastly greater - and vastly nastier - abuse than men making precisely the same arguments. To the extent I’m interested in this subject, it is because I’ve read the work of many women who were toiling in these fields long before I, or indeed any other men, appreciated there was anything happening at all.)
The need for ideological conformity lead to some very strange places. Until very recently lesbians could decline to sleep with biological males without being accused of bigotry. This is no longer the case and when the BBC reported on how some lesbians now felt pressured to date and sleep with trans-women the revealing reaction was not the complaint that this piece was unavoidably anecdotal but, rather, howling indignation that it should have been published at all. Reality - the lived experience of some lesbians, to put it fashionably - must be denied lest reality be recognised for what it is.
Lesbians have some skin in this. Most children reporting or referred to gender clinics - such as the now closed Tavistock clinic in London or the still-open Sandyford clinic in Glasgow - are girls and most of the children attending these facilities are gay.
This is a reminder that there are two discussions here: one concerns adults, which is chiefly about men transitioning, to one degree or another, to become women; the other centres on children where the primary focus is on unhappy or confused or questing girls. They are different, if related, conversations.
As David Bell, a former consultant psychiatrist and governor of the Tavistock clinic, wrote earlier this summer: “Gender dysphoria in children is complex: many have histories of trauma and are on the autistic spectrum; others are depressed or have family problems. A high proportion are gay and lesbian but are confused about their sexual identity.” An affirmation-based approach which starts from the presumption an expression of gender diversity or confusion is palpably a desire for trans-ness is both trendy and dangerously simplistic. It imposes external order on internal doubt in ways that palpably fails to take account of the range of factors that may be contributing to the patient’s genuine distress. Teasing these out is neither a straightforward process nor a quick one. Yet in case after case at the Tavistock and the Sandyford, young patients were given puberty blockers - the precursor to later treatment with cross-sex hormones and, often, radical surgery - after only a handful of sessions with a single practioner.
Here is one such case. Sinead Watson was an adult when she referred herself to the Sandyford clinic but it is difficult to read her testimony without being appalled by it:
Watson self-referred to the Sandyford in 2014, having spent time in a psychiatric unit following a severe mental breakdown. “I burned my house down while trying to kill myself,” she says, “and made out to the doctor it was because I was really a trans man and needed to transition. That was bullshit.” Watson was suffering from depression, dependent on alcohol, and struggling to accept that she was a lesbian.
Almost a year later, she was finally given an appointment at the Sandyford. “I walked up to reception and said my name is Sean Watson and I’m here to see a gender therapist.” She explains how the clinician put her at ease, immediately confirming her trans status and using “he/him” pronouns for her, all of which put Watson “on a high” of validation. “I thought: ‘These are professionals, if I wasn’t trans they would tell me, so the fact that they are affirming me means that I am trans.’”
“They must have looked at my GP records which showed a very long history of mental illness and trauma,” says Watson. “They didn’t once say to me, ‘We can see that there’s been some sexual abuse in your past, I wonder if that might have impacted on how uncomfortable you feel being a woman’.”
A prescription for testosterone was duly supplied and, in due course, Watson had a double mastectomy, a procedure that, like so much else in her story, she now deeply regrets.
Like the Tavistock, the Sandyford clinic follows guidance issued by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). Helpfully, the eighth edition of this guidance was published this week. It is a document that rewards reading, even if doing so requires you to stomach a disagreeable quantity of cod-academic rhetoric of questionable utility.
According to WPATH, children - some of whom could, in extreme cases, be as young as nine years old - should be prescribed hormones. This is deemed “best practice”. Children younger than 16 should be thought eligible or suitable for surgical intervention as “there may be a benefit for some adolescents” in having a complete mastectomy. Parental approval for such procedures in minors should not necessarily be sought or considered necessary if it is deemed that their involvement is “harmful to the adolescent”. Not all mental conditions “can or should be resolved” prior to the prescription of hormones or surgical intervention. All of this should happen - and remember, we are here dealing with hypothetical cases involving children under the age of 16 - despite the fact that, as the guidance acknowledges, “there are few outcome studies that follow youth into adulthood”. In other words: we don’t know what will happen but let’s do it anyway. No questioning. No debate. Affirmation-based “care” because anything else is an act of violence.
There is also a chapter on eunuchs.
As with other gender diverse individuals, eunuchs may also seek castration to better align their bodies with their gender identity. As such, eunuch individuals are gender nonconforming individuals who have needs requiring medically necessary gender-affirming care.
[…]We recommend health care professionals should consider medical intervention, surgical intervention, or both for eunuch individuals when there is a high risk that withholding treatment will cause individuals harm through self-surgery, surgery by unqualified practitioners, or unsupervised use of medications that affect hormones.
Like much else in this field, this is niche but note, again, how all roads lead to the same outcome. I am not wholly convinced this is really an example of Being Kind.
Once again, gender dysphoria and associated conditions are real phenomena and trans people do not merely “deserve” to be treated with the same dignity and empathy afforded anyone else so must as they must be treated in that fashion. For some people, hormones and eventual surgery is likely to be the best option. There is every difference between that and the evident presumption this is typically the case. That presumption is one reason why, following the review into gender services led by Dr Hilary Cass, the Tavistock has been closed. The Sandyford clinic in Glasgow, operating on broadly the same lines, is within the Scottish government’s purview and remains open for business. At present, the Scottish government insists there is nothing much to see here. I am not sure how long that line can really hold.
For - and I apologise for this statement of the obvious - it is clear there really is something to see here. The numbers of people involved may indeed be comparatively small but it is puzzling to discover that some people seem to believe this means the issue does not matter. Experimental and plainly risky medical interventions do not become respectable because only a few people are involved.
Meanwhile, the excuses for not becoming involved in this discussion become increasingly threadbare. If it is a vicious discussion it is because one side has disproportionately made it so and it is surely by now obvious that one side is in thrall to beliefs which are, however inconveniently, untrue. Sex is immutable whether people say it is or not and while that should not compromise the dignity in which trans people lead their lives it remains an iron reality.
Certain consequences flow from that. But a good starting point in engaging with this subject is also a simple one. For the first question to be asked of any statement here is this: “Is it true?” Once that is answered, a number of rational conclusions will follow.
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For something similar, research those who wish to have a limb amputated. It is an uncommon condition, but it does exist.
Do we affirm those too?
I remember a few years back when Angielina Jolie wanted to have a preventive double mastectomy because at very, VERY high risk of contracting breast cancer, but she got A LOT of flack because of it.
How fast things change.
In thirty years time, we will wonder why this madness infected our politics and society.
V good article.