Trans Activists’ Campaign Against ‘TERFs’ has Become an Attack on Science

Trans Activists’ Campaign Against ‘TERFs’ has Become an Attack on Science

Julian Vigo
Julian Vigo
11 min read

In a recent article for Forbes, “The Vaccination Debacle,” I discussed the frightening rise in the number of European measles cases. The reason for the spike is simple: Fed a daily online diet of nonsense and ideologically motivated activism, many people have come to reject mainstream medical science—including the science behind vaccinations. You’d think that “get vaccinated” would be a relatively straightforward message. But in the days following the article’s publication, I received a good dozen emails from doctors thanking me for writing the piece, and describing how difficult it has become to convince some patients that their local paediatrician isn’t part of an international conspiracy.

But at least the effort to push back against anti-vaccination conspiracy theories is seen as a respectable form of discourse. In other spheres, it’s not so easy to speak common sense.

Consider, for instance, last year’s saga involving Rebecca Tuvel—who was hounded by trans activists and scholars after applying a theoretical application of transgender ideology to the idea of “trans-racialism.” Scandalously, the article in question was edited post facto so as to remove the name “Bruce Jenner”—in response to the claim that these two words served to “dead-name” the person now known as Caitlyn Jenner (despite the fact that Caitlyn Jenner herself repeatedly refers to “Bruce” in interviews). To cite the historically verifiable fact that someone named Bruce Jenner once existed is now seen as a sort of religious heresy. And like all heresies, it must be ritualistically expunged—not because it is factually wrong, but because it is seen as morally wrong.

In August, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island was criticized for removing a news release about a peer-reviewed study published in PLoS One by one of its academics—Lisa Littman, a physician and researcher at Brown’s School of Public Health. Littman’s article, titled “Rapid-onset gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults: A study of parental reports,“ discusses the phenomenon by which social media and peer pressure seem to have fuelled the recently observed trend by which young teenagers (typically girls) suddenly declare themselves transgender. The paper infuriated transgender activists, who claim that the entire notion of rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD) is a transphobic invention. Both Brown and PLoS One also were attacked as Brown’s enablers.

While no one could offer any evidence that Littman’s results were wrong, PLoS One issued a statement acknowledging the complaints about the study, and promising “further expert assessment on the study’s content and methodology.” Meanwhile, the dean of the School of Public Health, Bess H. Marcus, claimed that concerns over methodology had incited the university to remove the news article from the university’s web site. She added that members of the university community members had “express[ed] concerns that the conclusions of the study could be used to discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.” In other words, Marcus is worried that facts might be used to undermine ideologically hallowed “perspectives”—also known as “opinions.”

As former Harvard Medical School dean Jeffrey Flier noted in Quillette, the whole spectacle raises important issues of academic freedom at Brown. But it also symbolizes how severely transgender activism has undermined the efforts of clinicians and researchers who have sought to investigate the issue of gender dysphoria. There is perhaps no other area of human behaviour where ideologically motivated actors have been so successful in creating what are in effect no-go zones for academics, and even for facts themselves.

Another case study may be found in Kenneth Zucker’s work on desistance among children afflicted with gender dysphoria at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Following a lengthy misinformation campaign against Zucker, the transgender lobby was successful in having him fired in 2015, notwithstanding his status as a leading researcher in the field. In that same year, bioethicist and Northwestern University historian Alice Dreger published her book Galileo’s Middle Finger, which analysed the case of Michael Bailey’s The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender Bending and Transsexualism (2003). Bailey’s thoughtcrimes were contained in his review of the work of Canadian-born sexologist Ray Blanchard, who has argued that there are two types of male-to-female transsexualism: one being a deflected form of homosexuality and the other being an expression of a paraphilia known as autogynephilia. In Galileo’s Middle Finger, Dreger concluded that a small group of activists has endeavoured to bury such theories by attacking Bailey. For her troubles, Dreger endured a series of attacks by trans activists (including personal threats), and the filing of ethics charges with her university.

In the UK, there have been similar attempts to shoot the messenger. James Caspian, a psychotherapist specialising in the field of transgender mental health, proposed research on “de-transitioning” as part of his Master’s degree in counselling and psychotherapy at Bath Spa University last year. Initially, Bath Spa had approved Caspian’s proposed course of study, but later rejected it, citing fears of a “backlash” by transgender activists. (Caspian was told that he was “engaging in a potentially politically incorrect piece of research, [which] carries a risk to the university.”)

Another British researcher, cited by The Telegraph, abandoned a Russell Group university for Italy because, as he sees it, British schools are “covering their own arses” by allowing ethics committees to exert control over politically charged research. Last Fall Heather Brunskell-Evans, a Research Fellow at King’s College London, was asked by medical students to give a talk to her school’s Reproductive and Sexual Health Society on the subject of pornography and the sexualisation of young women. Things changed, however, after she appeared on Radio 4’s “Moral Maze,” where she elaborated on heterodox ideas contained in a book she’d co-edited with Michele Moore, Transgender Children and Young People. Brunskell-Evan’s talk was cancelled. She also sustained a campaign of harassment, and was accused of “promoting prejudice” by members of her own Women’s Equality Party (WEP), for which she served as Spokesperson for the Policy on Violence Against Women and Girls. (After a lengthy investigation, Brunskell-Evans resigned from the party.)

Students are getting the message. Aside from the well-publicised case of Lindsay Shepherd—who was bullied by a supervisor for the crime of suggesting that pronoun usage was a matter of legitimate debate—there is the more recent case of Angelos Sofocleous, a philosophy MA student at the University of Durham who was fired as Assistant Editor from a journal for re-tweeting: “RT if women don’t have penises.” Sofocleous also faced a social media backlash, and eventually resigned as President-elect of the Humanist Students club. Indeed, trans extremists aren’t even trying to hide their witch-hunt tactics anymore. Goldsmiths researcher Natacha Kennedy, working under the name of Mark Hellen, was discovered to have orchestrated a smear campaign targeting female academics in the UK who refuse to conform to transgender ideology. (Kennedy encouraged members on a private Facebook group to draw up a list where “members plotted to accuse non-compliant professors of hate crime to try to have them ousted from their jobs.”)

Lisa Littman knew what to expect, in other words. But she also knew that her critics wouldn’t have a scientific leg to stand on. Her research passed peer and editorial reviews, and was reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. And while critics focused on Littman’s methodology, which focused on testimonials from parents instead of children, such methods are quite commonplace in studies dealing with minors. (It also has been pointed out that nobody in the trans community spoke out in protest when a study using these exact same methods concluded that children thrived after transitioning.)

Another criticism directed at Littman’s study by pro-trans groups is that her findings are skewed by the recruitment of parents through websites such as 4thWaveNow, Transgender Trend, and Youth Trans Critical Professionals, which have raised the alarm about ROGD. Yet the evidence clearly shows that pro-transgender groups—including a huge Facebook community called Parents of Transgender Children, founded by the family of trans celebrity Jazz Jenning—sought to introduce the views of trans-affirming parents into Littman’s study. In fact, Jenn Burleton, director of the TransActive Gender Center in Portland, Ore., is on record explicitly exhorting the group’s members to actively skew Littman’s results in a pro-trans direction.

While the culture-war skirmish over transgenderism typically is treated as a debate about culture or sociology, it is also a debate about the primacy of science—since many of the shibboleths we are asked to embrace are either scientifically dubious or obviously inaccurate. And while the debate over whether sex is a mere social construct (it’s not) or whether biologically male brains can exist with female bodies (they can’t) may seem abstract, there are concrete, real-world effects when girls as young as 13 are being told by US physician Johanna Olson-Kennedy that they “have the capacity to make…reasoned, logical decision[s]” about whether they want their breasts removed—because if they “want breasts later on in [their] life, [they] can go and get them.” This sort of casual attitude to body mutilation—and re-mutilation—helps explain why many enterprising doctors have become de facto transgender activists, since they get paid on both ends of the transformation.

There was a time when self-organized groups within the medical profession could be counted on to debunk outliers within their field. But the nature of transgender activism is that small groups of committed extremists can ram through their agenda by threatening to denounce their critics as transphobic. The major transgender medical lobby group, WPATH (World Professional Organisation for Transgender Health), has issued a statement declaring ROGD to be “nothing more than an acronym created to describe a proposed clinical phenomenon that may or may not warrant further peer-reviewed scientific investigation.” Gender-assignment surgery is a huge growth area for enterprising doctors, and WPATH has every incentive to bury concerns over ROGD, even while claiming that it “encourages continued scientific exploration within a culture of academic freedom.”

The extraordinarily aggressive nature of today’s trans activism means that women’s spaces are now being invaded by male-bodied individuals across the board—from rape-crisis centres, to gym locker rooms, to prisons. It also is turning many female athletics competitions into a joke, because male-bodied athletes who identify as transgender often can best female competitors. Rachel McKinnon, the aforementioned anti-“TERF” activist, also presents as a world-class female cyclist. This month, McKinnon gleefully ascended the podium at the UCI Masters Track Cycling World Championship, alongside the women who won “runner-up” status. As third-place (some would say second-place) finisher Jen Wagner-Assali tweeted, “It’s definitely NOT fair.” But like other activists in this field, McKinnon seems to inhabit a fantasy world in which the difference between male and female athletic performance dissolves amidst the great “complex and messy and beautiful” diversity of human body types more generally. Everyone involved in the sport knows this to be nonsense, but are fearful to say so, lest they be called—in McKinnon’s own words—“transphobic bigots.”

Even in disciplines far removed from athletics or the white-gowned world of hospitals and clinics, pressure to toe an extremist line on transgender issues is undermining academic and intellectual freedom. The journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (PPR) recently published two articles—one by trans academic Rachel McKinnon (College of Charleston) called “The Epistemology of Propaganda,“ and another by Jason Stanley (Yale), “Replies”—wherein the epithet “TERF” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) is casually flung about to attack women who oppose a trans-maximalist agenda. The attack on women contained in these articles was so scathing that a group of philosophers were moved to publish a guest post in the philosophy blog Daily Nous entitled “Derogatory Language in Philosophy Journal Risks Increased Hostility and Diminished Discussion,” pointing out that TERF is “at worst a slur and at best derogatory.” (It has also been pointed out that McKinnon’s paper contained at least one flat-out falsehood—the claim that there is no case on record of a transgender woman sexually assaulting a woman in a female-only space.)

One of the dark ironies informing the trans extremists’ case against their opponents is the insistence that people like me—women—must call themselves cis women. For all their fixation on self-identification and self-selected pronouns, these same activists demand the right to apply made-up terms to others. And if you reject those terms? Well, that’s just taken as more proof that you’re a “TERF.”

The Daily Nous authors note that “under the present conditions, holding any of the following beliefs is more than enough to attract the label ‘TERF’: believing that humans are sexually dimorphic; that it is not evident that ‘self-identification’ is a sufficient basis for determining that someone is a woman; and that we should be able to discuss changes to law and social practice which impact women’s sex-based protections.” They also call out the rather extraordinary fact that ostensible academic journals are now being used by authors to attack their opponents with what are in effect playground insults: “Whether or not it’s a slur, it is undeniable that ‘TERF’ is a term used to harass, shame, dismiss, and denigrate women’s ideas and opinions. The fact that PPR has printed two papers that both deploy, rather than merely discuss, this term is unacceptable. It sets a bad precedent for other journals, and it signals disrespect to members of a group that is already underrepresented in academic philosophy, namely women. The conventions of academic discourse demand that radical and gender critical feminists, like anyone else in our profession, be free to state their professional disagreements and be engaged with in a way that is courteous and respectful. Ad hominem attacks are neither, and there are legitimate concerns about normalizing a term which many women feel is instrumental in creating a hostile and intimidating climate in this debate, and is stifling academic discussion of this issue.”

As for McKinnon’s flat out lie that “there’s never been a verified reported instance of a trans women [sic] sexually assaulting a cis woman in such spaces,” the authors provide numerous examples. The existence of such examples shouldn’t surprise anyone since, as the authors themselves note, the crime pattern of males who go on to declare themselves to be transgender females does not change post transition. Indeed, there have been recent analyses of the British prison system showing that approximately two-fifths of transsexual male prisoners are sex offenders. And while the BBC attempted to whitewash this analysis (a scandal unto itself), The Spectator’s James Kirkup took it upon himself to set out the grim facts that the BBC has sought to bury.

In regard to the case of Lisa Littman, there is currently a petition in defence of academic freedom and scientific inquiry at Brown, now with more than 4,000 signatures. Yet the comment section under the Daily Nous helps demonstrate why the extremists think they may be able to snuff out debate in the long run. Out of approximately 300 comments, a huge chunk copy McKinnon’s tactic of simply declaring “TERFs” to be inherently hateful and villainous. A surprising number of self-described philosophers—these are people who purport to have dedicated their lives to truth-seeking—ask why a riposte to the original PPR article was even allowed, with McKinnon being cast as the true victim. One philosopher asked “why [would] Daily Nous…give its large platform to a vividly transphobic article that trades in moral panic and distortions based on hostility, and that includes specific attacks on the scholarship of an untenured person.”

All of this might have been anticipated by Jean-François Lyotard, a French postmodern philosopher who, in his Postmodern Condition (1979), analysed situations of justice in terms of what he called “language games”—which served to reject the claim of any discourse to be grounded in truth. The result of such an outlook is that superstition and blind dogma are elevated to the status of knowledge obtained through science and rationality. Transgender ideologues have adapted their approach to this postmodern age perfectly, since their narrative focuses mostly on “pain,” “hurt feelings” and (as Brown’s public health dean put it) “perspectives.” Even in the UK earlier this week, there was an open letter published in The Guardian which cited the concern of 54 academics who note the harassment, no-platforming, and attempts to invoke the dismissal of scholars who engage in academic research into the transgender phenomenon and ideologies.  Where vaccination policy is concerned, science still has the edge on superstition and propaganda. But in the field of gender studies—and every field that gender studies touches, from philosophy to reproductive health—superstition is now firmly in the lead.

Culture WarsArt and CultureRegressive Lefttrans

Julian Vigo

Julian Vigo is a freelance writer, journalist, and filmmaker. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015).