“I knew by the time I was eight that I didn’t want to be a boy,” says Melissa. “But I didn’t know what I wanted to be.” Born in a provincial English town in the early 1970s and brought up by evangelical Christians, the boy had never heard of a transsexual (a term that was widely used in the decades before “transgender” entered common usage in the 1990s). As for gay men, “they were all going to hell.” As soon as he could, he moved to London and “experimented,” presenting himself as a man at work and a woman in the evenings. In the early 2000s, his gender dysphoria—the distress caused by the feeling that your body is the wrong sex—came to a head. “The thought of being buried as an old man became simply unbearable.”
But even as Melissa came to that bleak realization, a new future for her was opening up. Britain, like many other countries, was planning to grant gender-dysphoric people a route to legal recognition as members of the opposite sex. Under the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) of 2004, after a psychological evaluation and two years presenting themselves in their preferred sex role, they could change the sex on their birth certificates. Melissa, who takes female hormones and has undergone surgery to refashion her genitals into a female form, is now legally a woman. “People take me for what they see,” she says. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
The motive for such laws was largely compassion. Gender dysphoria was viewed as a rare and distressing condition that could be alleviated by accommodating sufferers as legal exceptions to the rules of biology. But a decade and a half later, a more radical notion is sweeping across the Western world, with English-speaking countries in the vanguard. The brainchild of a few sexologists, trans-activists and academics, it has spread via lobby groups and the internet, and on liberal campuses. It is now becoming consolidated in practice and codified into law, with profound consequences—not just for people who wish they had been born the opposite sex, but for everyone.
That notion is the deceptively simple, quasi-mystical idea that everyone is born with a “gender identity”—an innate sense of being a man or woman that usually, but not always, aligns with biological sex. If the two are in conflict, the person is “transgender” and it is their gender identity, not their biological sex, that indicates who they truly are. The theory has been expanded to include people who regard themselves non-binary, “agender,” gender-fluid or a host of other terms, meaning that they belong to neither sex or feel located at some indeterminate (and possibly shifting) point between the two. According to this theory, no one can determine a person’s gender identity except that person, and no one else can challenge it. As with religious belief, it is entirely subjective. A simple declaration—“gender self-identification”—is all it takes to override biology.
One consequence is a huge increase in the number of people who say they do not identify with their natal sex. In Britain, for example, since the GRA came into force, just 5,000 people have used its provisions. Now the government reckons that approximately 1% of the population is transgender—around 650,000 people.
Another consequence relates to the question of who is permitted to use single-sex facilities. What Americans call the “bathroom wars”—between liberals, who have embraced gender self-ID, and conservatives, who have largely resisted it—in fact goes far beyond public toilets. Changing rooms, school residential trips, rape and domestic-violence refuges, and prisons are going self-ID. So are electoral shortlists and even sporting competitions.
Redefining what it means to be a man or woman redefines what it means to be gay. Depending on how they identify, people with male bodies who prefer female sexual partners may regard themselves as either heterosexual men or lesbian women. It also affects women’s political activism, since defining womanhood as based on a feeling rather than anatomy is incompatible with the feminist position that women are oppressed because they are physically weaker than men and bear the entire burden of reproduction. And it affects education: Many schools now tell children that being a boy or girl is not a matter of what it says on their birth certificates, but what they feel like. Since that is a circular definition, lessons quickly degenerate into endorsing sex-stereotypes: If you like trains and trucks, maybe you’re a boy. If you like pink chiffon, a girl.
This essay will trace the evolution of the notion of gender identity and how it has supplanted biological sex in law and practice. It will examine the consequences for four groups in particular: children, women, gays and lesbians, and trans people themselves.
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Like all mammals, humans come in two sexes. (The existence of intersex conditions in no way changes this fact. It is a highly misleading umbrella term for rare developmental disorders of the genitals and gonads, some of which are so minor their “sufferers” do not even know about them, and hardly any of which raise any doubt as to whether an individual is male or female or where they place on any sort of putative “sex spectrum.”) Females produce eggs and bear young; males produce sperm and impregnate the females. Unlike other mammals, however, humans live in complex societies, with rules about the behaviour and clothing proper to those sexes. But many societies have permitted exceptions, such as “two-spirit” people in some Amerindian tribes, regarded as possessing both male and female souls, or India’s hijras, males who dress as women and do women’s work (often prostitution).
None of these historical exceptions constitute a true cross-sex identity—i.e., people accepted wholly as members of the opposite sex. The history of that idea starts around 1930, when German doctors treating male cross-dressers started trying to refashion male genitals into simulacra of female ones. (The film The Danish Girl is an account of the first known operation, which proved fatal.) By the 1950s, such surgery was less dangerous; in 1952 Americans were riveted by Christine Jorgensen, a former soldier who returned from Denmark after male-to-female surgery and hormone treatment. “Ex-G.I. becomes blonde beauty” ran the headline in the New York Daily News.
For men, then as now, surgical reassignment consisted of removing the testicles and penis, and using their skin to fashion a neo-vagina and artificial labia. (Surgery for women is far more gruelling, and may include a full hysterectomy and double mastectomy, followed by the removal of skin, muscle and blood vessels from the lower arm to be fashioned into an artificial penis.) By the 1960s, male-to-female “sex changes” were available in many countries, including the United States. Surgeons generally required would-be patients to live as a member of the opposite sex for some time, and sought to screen out anyone likely to change their mind, or who was depressed, or psychotic, or had perverse reasons to transition—for example a man’s voyeuristic desire to gain access to women’s spaces or a pedophile’s to gain access to children.
Some specialists thought the desire to transition had external causes, such as childhood abuse, which might lead someone to reject the body that had been violated. Others posited internal causes, such as a disorder of body image akin to anorexia, or autogynephilia, a paraphilia by which a heterosexual man finds the idea of himself as a woman erotic and seeks to give flesh to that notion.
But alongside these varied theories ran two lines of thinking that originated in America in the 1950s and fused into a single, dominant narrative half a century later. One came from Robert Stoller, a psychoanalyst who worked with transsexuals. He coined the phrase “gender identity,” by which he meant a “complex system of beliefs about oneself: a sense of masculinity and femininity.” He did not say how it was formed (though, as traditional for psychoanalysts, he thought that if it was disturbed, the mother was probably to blame).
The other came from John Money, a sexologist who emphasized what he called “gender roles,” made up of “all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman.” Believing these to be malleable in early childhood, he recommended that baby boys born with abnormal genitalia, or maimed by botched circumcisions, be surgically altered so that their anatomy appeared female and brought up as girls. For years, he cited the results as proof that gender roles were indeed not innate. In fact, the best-known specimen turned out a tragic failure. The child, David Reimer, made an awkward, miserable girl and reverted to a male identity in his teens after learning the truth. He committed suicide in 2004, after a lifetime of depression.
Reimer’s story, which had become public five years earlier, was seized on as evidence against the existence of malleable gender roles. By then, queer theory was making inroads on campus. This hard-to-define field seeks to up-end conventional thinking about what is normative or deviant; innate or socially constructed; stable or mutating; singular or multiple. Post-modernists and post-structuralists had argued for years that many seemingly natural categories were in fact culturally constructed. Judith Butler’s hugely successful Gender Trouble, published in 1990, argued that gender—which she saw as a kind of performance—could not be separated from biological sex.
Over time, an even more audacious line of thinking emerged in some gender-studies and sociology departments, in which everything, including sexed bodies, is discursively constructed and there is no objective reality. Biological sex started to be described as “assigned at birth” rather than observed and recorded, or even recast as a spectrum rather than a binary. Some proponents claimed that binary sex was a Western, colonialist invention, or bolstered their claims with references to intersex conditions.
By twists and turns, a dominant theory about cross-sex identities had emerged. It held that humans come equipped with an innate, gendered sense of who they are—not just those who wished to transition from one sex to another, but also “cis” people (those content with their natal sex) and people who are non-binary, genderqueer or dozens of similar terms. In 2007, Julia Serano, a trans woman (natal male), called this sense “subconscious sex”: a “profound, inexplicable, intrinsic self-knowing”—much like a spirit. Since then, in a borrowing of Stoller’s term, it has come to be known as “gender identity.”
Though entirely at odds with the way most people live their lives and regard the society around them, this esoteric concept caught on—in part because it aligned with ideological trends on campus, and in part because those who disagreed with it didn’t see it as anything except harmless theorizing. “If the entire faculty believes something, and you never hear anyone discussing an alternative point of view, you come away believing it too,” says Michael Biggs of Oxford University, who studies social movements.
It also spread via social media, where teenagers seeking to understand their amorphous feelings of unease or discontent—a perennial feature of adolescence and young adulthood—could stumble across it. There, and in groups set up by trans people and trans children’s parents, a popular, activist version of the theory sprang up: Women have “pink brains” and men “blue brains,” which, in trans people, are the other way around; children may be “born in the wrong body,” which will become apparent when the boys demand long hair and dresses and the girls demand crops and dungarees—or, especially in red-state America, announce that “God made a mistake with me.”
Take the story of Jazz Jennings, born a boy in 2000, given a girl’s name and female pronouns by her parents while still a toddler, and a staple on American television as a trans girl since 2006. According to the book I am Jazz, published in 2011, “from the time she was two years old, Jazz knew that she had a girl’s brain in a boy’s body.” Her family “took her to a doctor who said that Jazz was transgender and that she was born that way.”
The final stage in the triumph of gender identity, over the past few years, has been its conversion into a political platform. The moment was opportune. The fight for same-sex marriage was over, and the groups that had campaigned for it, by now large, well-funded and politically powerful, were not averse to turning their attention to a fresh cause, not least because one would be needed if they were to survive. Many on the left were naturally inclined to believe in a new axis of oppression. Some on the right, including many conservatives, regretted having been slow to support same-sex marriage. This was a boat they were determined not to miss before it left dock.
Everything trans people had sought for decades, such as better treatment, more research into gender dysphoria and greater protection from harassment and discrimination, became absorbed into a single demand: instant, unfettered gender self-identification. The demand bears a superficial resemblance to a civil-rights movement, says Chetan Bhatt, a sociologist at the London School of Economics. But unlike grass-roots human-rights movements, its development has been top-down: It originated in elite institutions, including governments, universities, gender clinics and large charities, rather than community-based groups.
The movement has been shockingly successful. In many American states, access to designated single-sex facilities is now governed by self-ID. New Zealand is planning to allow people to change the sex on their birth certificates by making a statutory declaration; some Australian states are considering removing sex from birth certificates altogether. In Britain, all the main political parties support gender self-ID. (A public consultation on introducing it closed on October 19). Canada has gone furthest, granting gender identity the same status as sex, race, religion and other protected classes in federal human-rights laws. As a consequence, in many countries, and in many situations, it has become illegal to make any distinction between people who declare themselves members of a sex, and those born into it.
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The first places affected by the new concept of gender identity were clinics. Vaguer diagnostic criteria, and a move to “de-medicalize” trans identities, together with wider awareness, have meant a big expansion in patient numbers. The mix of patients has changed, too. Clinics used to see few children, almost all of them pre-pubescent boys; now teenage girls are turning up in droves. The number of girls seen by GIDS, Britain’s national gender-ID service for children, has risen from 40 in 2009-10 to 1,806 in 2017-18.
GIDS tries to move slowly, offering counselling and seeking to explore various reasons why a child might wish to change sex. At least 13% of its patients have an autistic-spectrum disorder, compared with just 1% of the general population. This can lead to obsessive, rigid thinking about social categories. Around 40% have mental-health problems such as anxiety or depression. GIDS may prescribe drugs to delay puberty from around age 12, in order to give children time to reconsider without puberty changing their bodies irreversibly. It will not prescribe cross-sex hormones until age 16, or offer surgery until age 18.
In America, by contrast, an increasing number of clinics take a “gender-affirmative” approach, quickly acquiescing to a child’s professed cross-sex identity. Therapists at UCSF’s Child and Adolescent Gender Centre in San Francisco have supported social transition (change of name, pronouns and clothing) for children as young as three. Johanna Olson-Kennedy, who is based in Los Angeles and backs the affirmative approach, has advocated mastectomies on trans boys (natal girls) as young as 13.
Some worry about this rush to treatment. Lisa Littman of Brown University recently surveyed parents who are skeptical of the gender-affirmative approach, and concluded that some female teenagers transitioning to male identities may be affected by a type of social contagion. Many had belonged to friendship groups that all asserted trans identities around the same time, often after binge-watching online videos by trans teenagers. She refers to the phenomenon as “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD).
Even when clinicians try to go slowly, it makes little difference. Most patients will already have learned the innate gender-ID narrative, and see no need for caution. Some parents press for faster treatment, saying they would “rather have a live daughter than a dead son.” (Advocacy groups commonly say that children unsupported to transition are very likely to kill themselves. The data do not support this claim—and indeed, it is highly irresponsible, since hearing that you are at particular risk of suicide is one of the risk factors for killing yourself.) And though puberty blockers are supposed to buy time, in fact they start a child down a path to irreversible changes. Emerging data suggests that they start a cascade of intervention, with almost every child given them proceeding to cross-sex hormones.
Privately, some experienced clinicians admit they are worried. One says she hears of people leaving the field more often than she used to, and sometimes fears that she is doing more harm than good. She thinks the wave of transitioning teenagers may be followed in a decade or two by another of “de-transitioners” reverting to their natal sex. Their bodies will have been irreversibly marked by cross-sex hormones and perhaps surgery. Some may sue, arguing that the adults around them should have known they could not fully comprehend what they were consenting to.
Those who missed puberty in their own sex will probably be sterile—indeed, sexually functionless. Jazz Jennings went on puberty blockers at age 11, and started cross-sex hormones at age 12. A particularly upsetting recent episode of the TV show I am Jazz shows a consultation with a surgeon who specializes in gender reassignment. “I haven’t experienced any sexual sensation,” says Jazz. “The doctor is saying an orgasm is like a sneeze. I don’t even know what she’s talking about.” (She has since had the operation.)
Less extreme, but more pervasive, is the impact of the new gender-identity theory on what children learn. Susan Matthews of Roehampton University in Britain has been looking at its appearance in teaching materials and workbooks. The difficulty for the authors, she says, is that the notion is not only subjective, but utterly ineffable, like describing the sensation of love or belief in God. So authors resort to waffling. Gender is “much more than the body you were born with,” according to Who are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity, which is aimed at five-year-olds. “Kids know a lot about themselves,” the book continues. “They know who they are by how they feel inside.”
But since no one knows what anyone else feels like—let alone what it feels like to be a member of the opposite sex—this sort of thing does not get you very far. So in many countries, guides and materials intended for schoolchildren and teachers resort to stereotypes. Australian teachers, for instance, are supposed to get children to “explore gender” by listing behaviours typical of boys and girls. For boys, the examples in the lesson plan include building things, liking action films and playing with toy cars. For girls, they include cooking, dancing, shopping, wearing makeup and gossiping. Next, teachers are supposed to explain that a transgender person is one whose sex assigned at birth “does not match the gender they identify as,” and to show a video about Nevo, a trans boy (natal girl) who is “undergoing a transition, medically and socially, to make his external appearance more masculine and to make his life better reflect how he feels inside. This is also known as affirming one’s gender identity.”
By the standards of the genre, this is sophisticated. A “gender spectrum” produced by Mermaids, a British lobby group, consists of pictures of Barbie and GI Joe, with a series of figurines in between them, morphing from curvy and pig-tailed to broad-shouldered and stocky. Bish, a British website aimed at teenagers, encourages them to work out their “gender identities” by placing themselves on several “gender spectrums” with words like rational, tough, active and independent under “looks masculine,” and emotional, soft, passive and sharer under “looks feminine.”
The stereotyping has even made it as far as materials intended for adults. The British Association for Counselling Practitioners, which licenses marriage counsellors and so on, recently produced a guide to “Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversity” for its members. It defines a woman thus: “It is important not to assume…that being a woman necessarily involves being able to bear children, or having XX sex chromosomes, or breasts. Being a woman in a British cultural context often means adhering to social norms of femininity, such as being nurturing, caring, social, emotional, vulnerable, and concerned with appearance.” For men, the list of attributes runs: “being competitive, ambitious, independent, rational, tough, sexual, confident, dominant, taking risks, and caring about their work.”
This sort of thing is sometimes followed by some garbled science, perhaps in the hope of making it look less flaky by comparison. The BACP claims that “the sex of a baby is medically assigned on the basis of the length of the clitoris/penis.” Bish claims that “genitals are on a spectrum in terms of: how much erectile tissue sticks out (clitorises and dicks and in between); where the prostate is; where the wee hole is; whether the gonads are inside or outside; vagina size.” (None of this is remotely true. A girl with an intersex condition may have an unusually large clitoris, for example—but it is not a penis. She does not urinate or ejaculate sperm out of it. And so on, through other intersex conditions.)
Rules about single-sex spaces and activities for children are also being rewritten. Schools in some areas of Britain use a Trans Inclusion Toolkit written by Allsorts, a trans lobby group. It says that admission to toilets, changing rooms, sports teams and dormitories on school trips should “in all cases” be according to gender self-ID. If parents complain that their daughters are disadvantaged by the inclusion of a trans girl (natal boy) in girls’ sporting competitions, they are simply to be told that “trans girls are girls.” Girlguiding in many countries now admits children born male provided they identify as girls, and accepts male leaders who identify as women. Leaders are told there is no reason to inform other children or their parents if male people will be sharing their accommodation on overnight trips.
Anyone expressing concerns is given short shrift. Helen Watts, a Rainbow leader in west London, was expelled from Girlguiding in September for raising hers. She wonders whether the organization has considered the implications for its insurance policy, and—since trans girls are physiologically male—who will accept responsibility if a girl is sexually assaulted or becomes pregnant on an overnight trip. She marvels at how the safeguarding procedures put in place after child-abuse scandals in boarding schools, the Catholic church and elsewhere are being ignored. “I know of a Guide leader who had to bring her four-year-old son on a weekend camping trip, and there had to be rules for where he was to shower and sleep,” she says. “Including male children along with female ones is a risk that you have to assess and manage—unless they say the magic words, ‘I’m a girl.’ ”
Some hear ominous echoes of another time when well-meaning adults in thrall to an ideology put children in harm’s way. The post-1968 sexual-liberation movement on continental Europe sought to overturn sexual taboos, and some thought that meant starting young. In German kindergartens run along radical-left lines, teachers encouraged children to fondle them, look at pornography and simulate intercourse. Contemporaneous accounts show how parents repressed their moral qualms by focusing on their beliefs about how an unrepressed child should behave.
Such child-abuse was motivated by political conviction, not sexual desire. But it did not take long for pedophiles to spy an opportunity. The radical left was led by men focused on legalizing homosexuality and smashing the nuclear family. Though they did not intend to endanger children, they gave them little thought. Many leftwing groupings tolerated organizations such as Britain’s Paedophile Information Exchange—not least because they had the same sworn enemies: traditionalist Catholics and evangelicals; hardline conservatives and fascists. The paedophiles made most headway in Germany’s Green Party, which for several years operated as their de facto parliamentary front.
In 1979, Eileen Fairweather was working at Spare Rib, a radical-feminist magazine. She was young and new to journalism, but assigned to read Paedophilia: The Radical Case, in which Tom O’Carroll, later imprisoned for child-abuse, argued for lowering the age of consent to four. She recalls “anguished, earnest” discussions with feminist friends about what they should write about it. “I did draft something, arguing that the existing age of consent was not ‘patriarchal’, but protected children,” she says. “But I never even dared show it to anyone.” No-one back then realized the extent and brutality of child-abuse. And the pedophile movement had so thoroughly hijacked the gay movement that, if you said you were against “child sexual liberation”—as, outrageously, they put it—you were branded “anti-gay.” She says she sees “the same intimidation and paralysis of intelligence” with the transgender debate, with people terrified to express legitimate concerns about infiltration and safeguarding.
Ms. Fairweather went on to win press awards in the 1990s for uncovering pedophile rings in British children’s homes and schools. She became an expert on how pedophiles exploit “institutional weaknesses and political correctness.” The problems with the new rules go beyond granting males access to places where girls sleep, wash and change, she says. They run counter to everything learned about child safeguarding from repeated scandals, including the importance of communication with parents and encouraging children to speak up when they are afraid.
The rules say, for example, that if a child expresses a cross-sex identity to a teacher, there is no need to tell parents. If one child queries the presence of another of the opposite sex in a single-sex activity or space, it is the child with concerns who should be removed. Obviously, the vast majority of trans-identified people are not pedophiles. But all of these changes do play into the hands of pedophiles, since such “trans-friendly spaces” could allow bad actors to insinuate themselves into children’s confidence, undermine their trust in parents, and teach children to remain silent if something makes them feel uncomfortable and unsafe.
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The shift from single-sex spaces and activities goes far beyond schools and camping trips. Those spaces customarily reserved for women, whether for reasons of safety and privacy or to allow them to compete on fair terms, are now becoming open to people born male who identify as women. Perhaps the most surprising is sporting competitions.
In 2016, the International Olympics Committee stopped requiring athletes to have undergone gender-reassignment surgery and cross-sex hormone treatment before competing as a member of the opposite sex. Now it simply requires male athletes who wish to compete as women to lower their testosterone levels. That overlooks the permanent effects of having gone through male puberty, which include more muscle and a bigger frame, heart and lungs. But many other sporting authorities do not even require that much.
Several American states have used self-ID for youth competitions for some years. Both gold and silver in this year’s 100m girls’ dash in Connecticut went to natal males. In recent months, swimming competitions in America, and university athletics in Canada, have switched to self-ID. Next year, the Boston Marathon will, too. Judging by past form, any of around 150 men could win the women’s race by switching identity. In October, Rachel McKinnon, a trans woman, became a women’s world champion in a cycling competition. When the third-placed cyclist complained that a natal male had an unfair advantage, Ms. McKinnon called her a transphobe.
Far more women will be affected by the trend towards self-ID for single-sex spaces. For public toilets, gym changing rooms, women-only swimming sessions and the like, women who do not want to disrobe in mixed company may decide to opt out. Some have a strong preference for privacy; others have religious reasons. Rosa Freedman, a human-rights lawyer and Orthodox Jew, points out that her beliefs, and those of many Muslim women, mean she cannot use such spaces if the sexes mix.
Others are fearful for their safety. Though no reasonable person thinks most trans women (or men for that matter) are violent or rapists, most violent crimes are committed by males. There is no evidence that simply identifying as a woman means a male should be regarded as lower-risk. Women therefore have reason to be wary of biological males, including trans women, in situations where they are vulnerable. Many women also worry that predatory men will profess to identify as women in order to gain access to spaces where women are exposed.
Earlier this year Karen White, a self-identified trans woman with a record of sexual offences against women, was placed in a women’s prison in Britain—and promptly assaulted several other prisoners. In October, White was given a life sentence for these assaults and two previous rapes. The prosecution argued that White had used a “transgender persona” to gain access to vulnerable women to abuse. It is unclear how the decision to place White in a women’s prison was made: When deciding where to place trans offenders, Britain’s prison service is supposed to carry out a risk assessment.
But it is impossible to make such risk assessments meaningful, since few sexual or violent crimes against women lead to a conviction. Moreover, any male prisoner who transitions legally would count as a woman—and under gender self-ID that would be a matter of mere paperwork. To refuse placement in a women’s prison, the prison service would have to show that any woman with an equivalent risk profile should be held in a male prison, says Richard Garside of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, an independent charity. Yet women are held in male facilities only in “exceptional” circumstances—a very high bar.
Most British rape-crisis centres and domestic-violence refuges admit self-identified trans women, even though the Equality Act of 2010 permits them to restrict their services to biological females. According to someone who has worked in the women’s sector for more than 20 years, those running such services sometimes truly believe that is reasonable. But far more have gone self-ID because they fear becoming targets of trans-activist campaigns and losing funding.
Without single-sex services, vulnerable women will suffer, says Judith Green. In the 1980s, as a teenager, she suffered repeated sexual abuse, and eventually received help from a survivors’ group in Brighton that arranged self-help sessions and therapy. Participants had been traumatised at men’s hands and their recovery required them to rebuild trust, she says. For her, and many other women, that would have been impossible in a mixed-sex group, no matter how well-meaning or sympathetic the males.
A legal case in America shows the difficulty of squaring self-ID with women’s expectations of privacy in spaces designated for them. In 2015, Yvette Cormier, a member of a Planet Fitness club in Michigan, complained after finding Carlotta Sklodowska, a trans woman who appeared obviously male to Ms. Cormier, in the women’s changing room. The club, which had switched to self-ID some months earlier, responded by revoking Ms. Cormier’s membership. She sued for violation of privacy, emotional distress, breach of contract and more.
After several defeats, in July an appeals court agreed that Ms. Cormier had a case under consumer law. Her lawyers argued that she could not have known that males who said they identified as women would be admitted to the women’s changing room, and that the club admitted such males without any attempt to ensure their sincerity. At the next hearing, they plan to present a post from Ms. Sklodowska’s Facebook page in which she describes herself as a “male slut-in-training.”
Since it is impossible to tell why someone might wish to use facilities designated for the opposite sex, such cases may mean service-providers in places where self-ID is mandatory end up designating all facilities mixed-sex. That would be a bad outcome for women. Figures gathered by the Times, a British newspaper, under freedom-of-information laws found that the minority of changing-rooms in sports centres that are mixed-sex were the site of 90% of reported sexual assaults in changing-rooms of all kinds.
In March, a Vancouver human rights litigant described publicly as “JY” contacted Shelagh Poyer, a beautician who advertised body-waxing services from her home on Facebook Marketplace. JY, who uses a man’s name and whose profile picture is clearly male, asked if Ms Poyer did Brazilians (removal of pubic hair). “Not for men, sorry,” she replied. “I’m a woman, I transitioned last year,” JY replied. JY then made a complaint to British Columbia’s human-rights tribunal, alleging discrimination on the grounds of gender identity, seeking an apology and damages of C$2,500. (The tribunal has asked that JY be referred to only by those initials, rather than the full name, as would be usual for cases it hears.)
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a Canadian non-profit libertarian group, offered to represent Ms. Poyer. It prepared two defences: that waxing male genitalia requires different training and equipment, which she does not possess, and that, as a woman, she, too, has protected rights, namely to privacy and safety. They sought to remove the anonymity order, granted by the tribunal to avoid “outing” JY as transgender. To that end, they presented evidence to the tribunal that JY used a women’s gym and talked about being a trans woman online—in posts asking for advice on how to approach a naked 10-year-old girl to ask for a tampon, and whether it might be appropriate to enter a bathroom stall with a 10-year-old to show her how to put a tampon in.
JY said the account had been hacked, and withdrew the case. Ms. Poyer is now seeking costs and compensation for distress. But even if she gets them, she will be out of pocket: She has decided to stop advertising, and now takes only personal referrals. Fifteen cases brought by JY against other women who offer Brazilian-waxing services apparently are still ongoing. And a general question remains open: Under Canadian human-rights law, is a woman who is willing to perform intimate services involving nudity for women thereby obliged to perform that service for any male who claims to be a woman?
* * *
“This is a philosophy that agrees with the drunks on the Tube that I’m not a ‘real woman,’ ” says a young lesbian in London who gets her hair cut by a barber and wears suits from a men’s tailor. “We used to fight to smash open the pink and blue boxes of gender,” says a veteran of the fight to decriminalize homosexual relations. “Now they’re telling kids that if they don’t fit into one of those boxes, they must belong in the other one.” Both are among the growing number who think the doctrine of gender self-ID is a retrograde philosophy that relies on obsolete gender stereotypes and harms gay people.
One reason is the impact on children. Schools and parents often leap to the conclusion that a child who is gender non-conforming must be trans, says the experienced clinician I referenced earlier in this essay. In fact, the literature shows that such children are not particularly likely to continue asserting a cross-sex identity into adulthood—and that they are more likely than other children to simply be gay. Some conservative religious parents may prefer the idea of a trans child—born in the “wrong body” through no fault of their own—to a gay one, whom they regard as a sinner. In Iran and Pakistan, this preference of trans over gay has official backing; male homosexual relations are outlawed and gay men are pressed into male-to-female sex-change operations. In Iran, the state picks up the tab.
Some gay people think that organizations set up to fight for gay rights made a mistake in throwing their weight behind trans activism. In an open letter in the Times in October, some prominent gays and lesbians accuse Stonewall, Britain’s biggest LGBT charity, of “uncritically adopting a form of transgender politics which undermines…the concept of homosexuality itself.” (It added “T” for transgender to its “LGB” (lesbian, gay and bisexual) mission in 2015.) More than 7,000 people have now signed a petition in support of the letter. Yet Stonewall’s CEO, Ruth Hunt, has denied any need for a rethink, saying that “trans equality is at the heart of our mission for acceptance without exception.”
Jonathan Best, the former director of Queer Up North, a British gay and lesbian festival, collected some of the signatures on the open letter. He says that by endorsing gender identity, Stonewall is misrepresenting what it means to be gay. “Stonewall defines homosexuality as attraction to the same gender—but it’s actually same-sex attraction. Gender identity then says that a man is anyone who identifies as a man, no matter the biological sex. But being gay is only about sex and bodies—it’s nothing to do with gender identity.” That explanation falls under another of Stonewall’s definitions: “transphobia,” in which the organization includes any denial of or refusal to accept someone’s gender identity.
Get the L Out, a small group of lesbians who insist that opposite-sex-attracted males cannot be lesbians whatever their gender identity, forced its way to the front of the Pride march in London this year, with banners reading “Transactivism erases lesbians” and “lesbian equals female homosexual.” Ms. Hunt called the group “transphobic” and said it was spreading “myths and lies.”
Whether people are attracted to sexes or gender identities is an empirical question. A study published in the Journal of Personal and Social Relationships in the Spring suggests it is usually the former (though the authors have a different interpretation, namely endemic transphobia). Participants stated whether they were men or women; cis or trans; and gay, straight or bisexual/queer. They also stated which groups they considered part of their dating pool. Only 12.5% included trans people at all, and almost half of those that did matched their orientations to trans people’s sex rather than gender identity (for example, a heterosexual man saying he would consider dating trans men but not trans women).
Mr. Best says he has received many supportive emails, and only a few from people calling him a bigot. Women who express views like his receive far worse, perhaps because the most vocal trans activists are trans women (natal males) who are attracted to women—by Stonewall’s definition, lesbians. Some of the most prominent tell female lesbians who express “genital preferences” (i.e., they will not date people with penises) that they should not be so closed-minded. In a YouTube video, Riley J. Dennis, a trans woman, attributes “preferences for women with vaginas over women with penises” to “cis-sexism”—anti-trans prejudice. “Look, it’s not like I require the women I date to be cool with having my dick inside them,” writes another trans woman, Avery Edison. “But being shut off from the very idea of it, not even considering that having my penis inside you is different from having a man’s penis inside you? That hurts.”
A recent letter from an “AMAB” (assigned male at birth) reader to Autostraddle, an online magazine for lesbians, asked for advice. “I am masculine-presenting and don’t want to have any hormone or sex-change therapies and surgeries since I don’t believe that these are required to validate my female identity. How do I let other people know I’m a trans woman?” The reply offers sympathy about the misery of being “misgendered,” before concluding: “Fuck ’em, basically! You are beautiful and important and are a real woman and a real lesbian, so keep doing you.”
That query may have been a hoax that Autostraddle revealingly fell for: it, and the reply, have been taken down. But according to Charlie Montague, a young lesbian in Dunedin, New Zealand, both online dating sites and real-world meet-ups for lesbians now contain a fair share of males who have been through no sort of physical transition but describe themselves as lesbians. Some are predatory men who fantasize about sex with lesbians, she says; others genuinely regard themselves as same-sex attracted women. She and a few other “female lesbians” have set up a group, the Lesbian Rights Alliance Aotearoa. They have faced a barrage of abuse, both on- and offline. “When we say ‘no means no’, they regard that as transphobic,” she says. “They don’t like lesbians asserting firm boundaries.”
* * *
“WOMAN; women (noun): adult human female.”
That, and the web address of the British government’s consultation on gender self-ID, is all it said on a poster that Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, a feminist campaigner, paid to display in Liverpool during the annual conference of Britain’s opposition Labour Party in September. After a complaint that it was anti-trans “propaganda and hate speech,” the poster company apologized and took it down. An ad agency then refused to put the same message on Edinburgh buses, saying it was “likely to offend” the public. Renée Gerlich, a feminist activist in Wellington, designed posters to celebrate the 125th anniversary of New Zealand granting women the vote. Each consisted of a quote from a feminist, followed by “Suffragists fought for the female sex. Stop rewriting history.” When trans-activist groups complained to the poster company that the posters communicated a “subtle transphobia,” it refused to handle her order.
The main social-media platforms are making it very hard for women to discuss these issues. Meghan Murphy, a Canadian feminist who runs a website, Feminist Current, has been kicked off Twitter for “hateful conduct”—that is, tweeting that “Men aren’t women” and “How are transwomen not men? What is the difference between a man and a transwoman?” Twitter also temporarily locked various women’s accounts for, inter alia, quoting remarks made by British parliamentarians in the debate over the Gender Recognition Act of 2004; for stating the British definition of rape (which can be committed only by a male, since it involves penetration by a penis); and for referring to JY of Brazilian-waxing fame as “he.” It even locked a trans woman’s account for self-describing as “male.”
Women seeking to organize in person are being silenced, too. After trans activists disrupted a discussion in London last year about self-ID, Ms. Green and some other feminists set up Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) to hold more such meetings. “It seemed so extraordinary that we were being stopped from openly having conversations we were all having in private,” she says. WPUK has scheduled nearly 20 meetings around Britain to date, every one of them disrupted. Some venues cancelled bookings after trans activists claimed it was a far-right hate group.
In Canada, even complaining can get a woman into trouble. In July, Kristi Hanna, a former resident at Palmerston House, a women’s shelter in Ontario, left after being assigned a transgender room-mate, who stomped around in combat boots, had facial and chest hair, and talked about a pregnant fiancée. All the residents found the situation intimidating, she says, and after two sleepless nights she complained and was told to “deal with it or leave.” But when she phoned Ontario’s human-rights legal helpline, she referred to the individual as a “man,” at which point the adviser said that her words and behaviour were potentially discriminatory and ended the call.
“I can’t think of any genuine human-rights activism that demands attacks on the rights and protections of other civil-society groups, or advocates hateful language against them,” says Professor Bhatt. Trans activism is also unusual in that it gives men a chance to claim they are oppressed compared with women, and plenty of opportunity to tell women to shut up, says Ms. Gerlich. “It’s a postmodern patriarchal backlash.”
The code of omertà extends to academia. After lobbying by trans activists, Brown University in Rhode Island withdrew a press release about Prof. Littman’s paper on ROGD, citing concerns that it might be used to “discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.” Last year, Bath Spa University, in southwest England, rejected a proposal by James Caspian, a psychotherapist who specializes in transgender clients, to write a thesis on de-transitioning, explaining that the research might be criticised on social media and it would be “better not to offend people.” Kathleen Stock, a philosopher at Sussex University, wrote a Medium post in May about the lack of discussion of gender self-ID within academic philosophy. Trans-activists called for her to be sacked—and she received dozens of supportive emails from other academics, most saying they dared not speak out publicly.
The aim of all this, says Jane Clare Jones, a British freelance writer and philosopher, is not only to silence dissent, but to make it impossible to state any distinction between trans women and cis ones. Since women are oppressed because they are female, not because of feminine feelings or presentation, this linguistic erasure is “profoundly anti-feminist.” Statements such as “trans women are women” and labels such as TERF are what Robert Jay Lifton, who wrote about indoctrination and mind control in Maoist China, dubbed thought-terminating clichés: “brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases…that become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”
In the United States, criticism of gender self-ID is complicated by partisan politics. Women who elsewhere might sound the alarm do not want to be seen as in alliance with right-wing FOX News hosts and conservative Christians who are also against gay rights and abortion rights. The most organized opposition is in Britain, where government-mandated legislative consultations provided a focal point for campaigning groups such as WPUK. Mumsnet, a parenting website founded in 2000, is less hostile to women’s discussions of trans issues (though it now removes posts that “misgender” people). And the feisty British tabloid press has not shied away from covering rapists self-identifying themselves into women’s jails, boys allowed into Girlguiding and the like. The Daily Mail fought an injunction to be able to report on Jess Bradley, a trans woman suspended in July from the post of trans-rights officer at the National Union of Students because of allegations that she ran a blog named Exhibitionizm, where she posted pictures of her exposed penis, taken in public places and in her office.
The singular focus on gender self-ID, along with the shutting down of academic work on trans issues, harms not only women, but trans people. Although trans activists’ ire is focused on women who object to self-ID, it is overwhelmingly men who commit violence against trans people, a problem that by comparison is ignored. And other causes that are important to trans people, such as more research on the causes and treatment of gender dysphoria and its links with other mental-health issues, not to mention the long-term effects of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones, have become taboo.
Overall, the push for gender self-ID does more harm than good to the interests of gender-dysphoric people whose main concern is to be accepted by members of the sex they wish they had been born into. And as we see more cases of people claiming transgender status in bad faith, we may see a backlash. “We were living quite happily in women’s spaces getting on with our lives before this stuff blew up,” says Melissa, the trans person I quoted at the beginning of this essay. Which is one reason why, far from supporting self-ID, she wants to see the rules for changing legal sex made tougher: “If you want access to women’s spaces, you should have to show you’re no more risk to women than other women are.”
Needless to say, she has been called “transphobic, a cis quisling, and a sell-out.” But women’s worries about their privacy and safety should not be brushed off or shouted down, she says. That is something women had to endure for millennia, under the old-fashioned patriarchal societies of yore. And they shouldn’t have to stand for it now that it has been rekindled under a new progressive guise.
Helen Joyce is finance editor for The Economist. She is writing here in a personal capacity.
Featured Image: Stonewall UK group marching at the gay London Pride event 2011.