At the NHS and BBC, Important Steps Toward Restoring Balance in the Gender Debate

At the NHS and BBC, Important Steps Toward Restoring Balance in the Gender Debate

Julian Vigo
Julian Vigo
9 min read

In recent months, a sense has emerged that the tide might finally be starting to turn in the gender debate: Things that most everyone believes to be true, but that no one has been allowed to say, are now increasingly being said by writers, lawmakers, and litigants.

Certainly, the battle is still far from over. CNN is referring to women as “individuals with a cervix.” Last month, J.K. Rowling was trolled yet again for stating ordinary views about men and women (though thankfully, the media is no longer getting away with defaming her). And best-selling children’s author Gillian Phillip has been sacked by her publisher, Working Partners, because she added the hashtag #IStandWithJKRowling to her Twitter bio. But at least now, in mid-2020, these acts attract growing criticism. We are no longer in 2018, when the most militant gender activists could still pretend that they spoke for the entire LGBT community, with the “debate,” such as it then was, consisting mostly of endless mobbing campaigns against so-called “TERFs.”

One reason it has taken time to bring common sense back to the debate is that much of the media, and many NGOs, became deeply vested in gender ideology during the early and mid-2010s, at a time when most ordinary people simply weren’t paying much attention, or believed that the phenomenon was confined to academia. Websites such as Pink News relentlessly vilified anyone who suggested that biology had any role to play in determining who was a man and who was a woman. The American Civil Liberties Union turned its social-media feeds into an endless stream of trans-rights slogans and hand-clap emojis. Venerable groups such as Stonewall UK put their brand behind the most uncompromising demands of gender ideologues. A group called Mermaids demanded that aggressive transition therapies be provided to children who exhibited signs of dysphoria. All of this was done under cover of sunny, family-friendly PR campaigns that presented transition as a gateway to happiness.

Meanwhile, feminist critics of gender ideology often were isolated, marginalized, and dismissed as cranks. As early as 2012, sociologist Julia Long has noted, a feminist conference organized by radical feminists in London was cancelled due to the speakers’ allegedly “exclusionary” stance. And in time, scenes such as this convinced gender activists that they could harness the power of social media to mob “gender-critical” women at will—as with the call to sack Radio 4’s Jenni Murray, co-host of Woman’s Hour, after Murray penned a Sunday Times op-ed in support of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who’d noted that many self-described trans women grew up with all of the privileges associated with being male.

At around the same time, in April 2017, BBC presenter Samira Ahmed was trolled after she’d criticised a performing arts centre for a “gender-neutral” toilets policy that made life more difficult for women. Because activists used the language of violence, and even genocide, to describe any nod to biology, these campaigns encouraged the casual smearing of “TERF” women as being akin to gender Nazis—thereby legitimizing the most vile forms of Internet abuse. J.K. Rowling alone has endured countless death and rape threats, merely for saying that men are not women. And many gender-ideology dissenters have had to rely on judges and human-rights officials to protect their rights.

One lesson we’ve learned is that words matter—because when a slogan is repeated often enough, in the right sort of ideologically charged atmosphere, it can override even basic, easily observed principles of science. This is especially true when the slogans are signal-boosted by well-known groups and public figures: It becomes easy to gaslight your critics as crackpots.

That’s why it’s significant that the website of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS)—the umbrella group for the country’s publicly-funded healthcare systems—has removed the prominent, once-numerous references to Mermaids from its online materials. Mermaids is a charity that has long identified its constituency as “transgender children” and their parents, but which long ago focused on pushing for the most rapid possible transition of the highest possible number of children, with the fewest number of safeguards. As the notorious case of a seven-year-old boy who was removed from his mother’s care shows, there really seems to be no line the group won’t cross in this regard. (One particularly memorable Mermaids moment came when the organization promoted an article on transgender children supposedly written by two academics named Natacha Kennedy and Mark Hellen. It later turned out to have been written by a single person, who, bizarrely, then appeared under two different names on the Goldsmiths University of London website—one male, the other female, naturally.)

Look for any mention of Mermaids today on the NHS site, and you’re likely to find the pages are gone. The BBC, too, seems to have wiped away references to Mermaids from its list of “Gender Identity” “Information and Support” resources, which listed Mermaids prominently until last month. This has unfolded during the same period when the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation, which provides mental-health services to children, is facing a lawsuit from a former patient who says she was rushed into an aggressive, and ultimately destructive, program of hormone therapy. A former psychiatric nurse at Tavistock is making related legal claims, alleging the provision of drugs to children as young as nine. Numerous clinicians have resigned in protest at such policies. And it may be the case that lawyers at the BBC and NHS are simply seeking to protect their clients from legal exposure.

BBC Woman’s Hour has reported that much of the language on the NHS website referring to gender dysphoria was removed or entirely reworded last week, so as to more accurately reflect science instead of ideology. Crucially, the NHS no longer repeats the fiction that puberty blockers such as Lupron are “reversible,” since there are few studies on the physical or psychological effects. (It has been known since 2017 that trials of peripubertal GnRHa-treatment, i.e., hormone blockers, in sheep reveal “permanent changes in brain development [and] raises particular concerns about the cognitive changes associated with the prolonged use of GnRHa-treatment in children and adolescents.”) Also removed from the NHS site: Emotionally loaded references to suicide, which had previously served to terrify parents into seeking rapid treatment, lest any delay lead a child to end their lives. The association of “gender identity” with regressive stereotypes also is gone. And the website no longer suggests that sex itself can be changed. Instead, we get more accurate language to the effect that “some people may decide to have surgery to permanently alter body parts associated with their biological sex.” That the NHS now uses the term “biological sex” at all is itself a huge win, even if such language is obviously appropriate on the level of science and medicine.

The site’s section on hormones for teens has been revamped to reflect our knowledge that aggressive therapeutic protocols had been based on shoddy or non-existent studies. Where the previous text suggested that hormones “may improve how you feel and mean that you don’t need to start living in your preferred gender or have surgery,” this section now reads: “The NHS in England is currently reviewing the evidence on the use of cross-sex hormones by the Gender Identity Development Service.” The reference on SRS (sex reassignment surgery) has been revised to eliminate propaganda to the effect that “most trans women and men are happy with their new sex and feel comfortable with their gender identity.” Also removed is the notion that people are actually changing sex per se. Gone are the words, “Once you’ve completed your social gender role transition and you and your care team feels you’re ready, you may decide to have surgery to permanently alter your sex.” No one can permanently alter their sex.

Additional updates on the NHS website, listed under “Signs of gender dysphoria in children,” include a clarification of the science that reflects what psychologist Kenneth Zucker has long documented through his work on childhood desistance. Now the NHS site states: “Most children who seem confused about their gender identity when young will not continue to feel the same way beyond puberty.” And for adolescents, the site now reads: “If your feelings of gender dysphoria began in childhood, you may now have a much clearer sense of your gender identity and how you want to deal with it. However, you may also find out that the feelings you had at a younger age disappear over time and you feel at ease with your biological sex. Or you may find you identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual.” (The same NHS website previously had made no reference to childhood desistance or sexuality.)

Such changes are having a knock-on effect in the media, which takes its cues from government resources. This week, a BBC insider tipped me to the fact that BBC Pride—the network for LBGT staff at the BBC—indicated this week that the BBC was removing Mermaids from its website due to “audience complaints.” These complaints come “against a backdrop of increasingly contested issues relating to trans issues and children,” BBC Pride explained. “It is a complex area and the BBC needs to remain impartial when signposting audiences to organizations that can offer appropriate advice.” Given the insistence of some progressives, including at least one Labour MP, that even debating these issues is an act of hate speech, the BBC’s indication that it should “remain impartial” counts as progress.

Outside the realm of institutional medicine and media channels, so-called gender-crits have learned to fight back using the same online tools that have been deployed against them—though they have been more inclined to use mockery and satire instead of the outright abuse that they themselves have long endured. When Toronto mayor John Tory recently tweeted about “menstruators,” women on Twitter reacted scathingly. (Unfortunately, this kind of language has become common. Since 2018, for instance, Cancer Research UK has publicised its cervical screenings like this: “Cervical screening is for people with a cervix.” Too bad for the 50 percent of women who don’t know what a cervix is, and who may well miss cervical screenings because a handful of activists want to see their self-defined identity read back to them in every imaginable public sphere.)

Public perceptions of this issue also have been influenced by shocking criminal cases, such as that of transgender prisoner Karen White, a biological man who was sentenced to life in a British prison for sexually assaulting and raping several prisoners while serving time for a previous crime. The government has responded to such incidents by creating a prison for male prisoners who identify as transgender, a solution that serves to indulge their conceit of womanhood but at least keeps them out of women’s prisons.

By far the most concrete British victory in the campaign against gender extremism was the recent announcement that long-discussed plans to reform the country’s Gender Recognition Act of 2004 have been scrapped, much to the dismay of activists who want the law changed so as to ensconce unfettered gender self-identification as the only permissible basis for distinguishing men from women. But in the battle for popular attention, symbols sometimes matter more than laws. Which brings us back to J.K. Rowling, who recently responded to an article describing women as “people who menstruate” by Tweeting, “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people.” The fierce onslaught she received has served as a wake-up call, even for those who have not been following the debate closely.

In a culture war, which side are you going to pick—the beloved children’s author tweeting common sense, or the angry mob demanding that women be defined in language according to their bodily discharge? It’s what some feminists now look back on as their “peak trans moment”—that instant when you realize that we are being gaslit by extremists who rely on hyperbolic language, pseudoscience, exaggerated suicide statistics, and social-media mob campaigns, all the while pretending to represent the forces of universal love and toleration.

My own peak trans moment came when reading an article by Julie Burchill in the Observer in 2013, in defence of Burchill’s colleague and friend, Suzanne Moore. Moore had been hounded from Twitter for writing an essay about women’s anger, in which she’d referenced the discontent women feel about “not having the ideal body shape—that of a Brazilian transsexual.” Burchill’s stylistically brilliant response hit a nerve. And I closely studied the callouts against both Moore and Burchill, which escalated into hysteria. Conversely, the silence from across the UK—from tenured academics and journalists alike—was deafening. The Observer pulled Burchill’s article (after which it was republished by Spiked), thereby demonstrating that activists would be rewarded, not criticized, for humiliating and silencing women whose opinions they disliked.

As with so many other things, the campaign for trans rights began with good intentions. For some people, dysphoria is very real—the feeling of being in the wrong body. It’s a problem that has to be managed, and people who suffer from this condition should get the help they need. But rather than urge that dysphoria be treated in a humane and realistic way, many activists prefer to cast it as a vestige of an invented inner spirit called “gender identity,” which universally suffuses us all, like a spark of the divine.

Such fantasies are the basis of religion, and it is fine for people to believe in them. But over the last decade, this particular fantasy has been encoded into law—which is very much not fine. And it was only a matter of time before ordinary people realized that a fraud had been perpetrated on them under cover of human rights. In Canada, this realization has unfolded largely in response to the farce surrounding Jessica Yaniv. In other cases, it has come in response to watching girls get blown off track courses by self-defined girls who once competed in the boys category. The counter-reaction to all this is underway everywhere, and the landscape is changing daily as a result.

Of course, it’s taken too long, and much damage has been done in the interim. But for the sake of the many women and children who remain at risk, better late than never.

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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).