On June 23rd, Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts put out a carefully worded five-paragraph media statement regarding German-born textile artist Jess de Wahls. “We have apologised to Jess de Wahls for the way we have treated her and do so again publicly now,” read the RA communiqué. “We had no right to judge her views … This betrayed our most important core value—the protection of free speech.”
The controverted speech in question was contained in a 2019 blog post, in which de Wahls wrote that “a woman is an adult human female (not an identity or feeling),” and that trans women are “biological males [who] choose to live as a woman, or believe they actually are women.” These are statements that almost every person knows to be true, but which have become unfashionable to say out loud in highly progressive subcultures. And so, when a handful of people raised a fuss about de Wahls’ work being sold in the RA gift shop, Academy officials not only purged de Wahl from their inventory earlier this month, but peacocked their reasons for doing so.
“Thank you to all those for bringing an item in the RA Shop by an artist expressing transphobic views to our attention,” read the June 17th post on RA’s Instagram feed. “We were unaware of [de Wahls’s] stated views, and their work will not be stocked in the future. We appreciate you holding us to account on this issue, and we would like to reiterate that we stand with the LGBTQ+ community.”
In backing down from its attempted cancelation of de Wahls, the RA now claims that “[a] plurality of voices, tolerance, and free thinking are at the core of what we stand for and seek to protect.” Whether or not this Road-to-Damascus conversion is sincere, these high-flown words glide over the fact that de Wahls’s views were never remotely “transphobic” to begin with, no matter what standard of “tolerance” one might choose to apply. Moreover, RA’s expressed conceit that punishing the artist had been a good-faith gesture intended to demonstrate solidarity with the “LGBTQ+ community” was always farcical: Some of the most prominent critics of progressive gender orthodoxy are themselves gay, lesbian, or trans.
De Wahls was fortunate: Her case attracted widespread sympathy, and the RA was attacked sharply on social media. (Even Britain’s ruling political party appeared to be on the artist’s side.) But the very fact that she had to defend her reputation in this way shows how deeply embedded gender dogma has become in the world of arts and letters. This includes journalism, too: Even after the Academy apologized to de Wahls, news reports described the artist as being marked by “accusations of transphobia,” without plainly noting that these accusations are baseless. And thanks to Google, these smears will follow de Wahls throughout her career.
In recent months, the issue of where to draw the line on trans rights has been front-page news thanks to the case of Laurel Hubbard, a formerly washed up 1990s-era junior-level New Zealand male weightlifter who transitioned to a female identity in 2012, and now is set to compete in this year’s Olympics—at age 43. The prospect of biological males making a mockery of female sports in this way has spurred many formerly cowed public figures to point out the abundantly obvious physical differences between biological women and biological men. And in some recent cases, as with scholar Grace Lavery at University of California, Berkeley, trans activists’ sweeping claims that we can alter our biological sex (or that the whole concept of biological sex is a mere myth) are now being properly ridiculed. Popular writers and podcasters such as Debra Soh, Abigail Shrier, Kathleen Stock, Graham Linehan, Helen Joyce, and Meghan Murphy have by now spent years raising the alarm against gender extremism, and there is some evidence their efforts are bearing fruit. A milestone of sorts was observed last month when even the New York Times, an early and regular signal booster of gender-bending maximalism, called out the ACLU (however gingerly) for its over-the-top trans jingoism. All secular movements built on pseudoscience persist on borrowed time, and this one is proving no exception.
But even amid the apparent decay of “gender supremacism” (to borrow a phrase from Quillette contributor Allan Stratton), its mantras remain embedded as holy writ in many professional subcultures—largely because gender activists have successfully entrenched themselves amid the various oversight bodies, trade associations, and unions that serve as gatekeepers in these fields. In many professions, these authorities possess the power to end a person’s career.
In the UK, for instance, a trans schoolteacher named Debbie Hayton was threatened with expulsion from the Trades Union Congress for acknowledging that trans women (such as Hayton, in fact) are biologically male. In Scotland, a whole slew of politicians and activists have been excommunicated by their own cadres following accusations of gender wrongthink. In British Columbia, a small group of lawyers operating within the bar association’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee have rewritten court procedures so that lawyers are now effectively required to act out pronoun recitals as a condition to exercise their duties as litigators.
In the same province, a nurse is being dragged through a lengthy investigation process originally sparked by the fact that she’d publicly supported the erection of a billboard stating, “I Heart JK Rowling.” According to a report prepared by an investigator for the province’s College of Nurses and Midwives, “the Complainant [Alex Turriff] stated that this billboard was created to show support for author JK Rowling after she publicly came out with transphobic views,” and so casts into doubt “how [Hamm] can be trusted to provide safe, non-judgmental care, and wonders how transgender and gender diverse patients can be safe in her care.” This report is 332 pages long, and Hamm’s ordeal continues to this day, with her professional future resting, in part, on the question of whether a person can simultaneously be a competent medical professional and a fan of a woman who wrote popular children’s books. Hamm is represented legally by a group that supports constitutional freedoms, but others in her situation have had trouble finding a lawyer to take their cases: In the UK, as Maya Forstater has noted, some law firms have allegedly been encouraged to turn away non-ideologically compliant clients lest these firms lose their stamp of approval from trans activist groups such as Stonewall UK.
One reason these milieus have succumbed so readily to gender cultism is that activists have successfully weaponized a definition of “transphobia” that now encompasses virtually any acknowledgment of the biological facts concerning human sexual dimorphism. Moreover, their case often is made in apocalyptic terms, with whole legions of trans children allegedly being set on extinguishing themselves if even the slightest ideological deviation is permitted in public discourse. Through such rhetorical methods, even this essay can be regarded as dangerous (and perhaps even deadly) propaganda. One of the few liberal journalists who’s taken pains to map out these tactics, Jesse Singal, has been subject to a campaign of lies and personal attacks that resembles Scientologists’ treatment of “Suppressive Persons.”
Indeed, even tautological descriptions of biological reality now are cast as thought crimes. In 2017, world-renowned Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told an interviewer: “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women.” This perfectly sensible statement was predictably denounced on that basis that, as Vox put it, “these remarks implied that trans women aren’t ‘real women’—a stereotype that transgender people constantly struggle against and find deeply offensive.” And in a searing June 15th essay, Adichie describes the Kafkaesque ordeal she’s endured in the four years since, during which time literary rivals (especially her former protégé, Akwaeke Emezi) have orchestrated an often sociopathic-seeming campaign of defamation—capped by Emezi’s ghoulish tweet expressing “trust that there are other people who will pick up machetes to protect us from the harm transphobes like Adichie & Rowling seek to perpetuate.”
As Adichie suggests, what started as a well-intentioned movement to fight actual transphobia has morphed into a viciously guarded orthodoxy that demands primacy over all other commitments and loyalties, including personal friendship. She catalogs the sadists who’ve come out to attack her as:
People who claim to love literature—the messy stories of our humanity—but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class. People who ask you to ‘educate’ yourself while not having actually read any books themselves, while not being able to intelligently defend their own ideological positions, because by “educate,” they actually mean “parrot what I say, flatten all nuance, wish away complexity.” People who do not recognize that what they call a sophisticated take is really a simplistic mix of abstraction and orthodoxy—sophistication in this case being a showing-off of how au fait they are on the current version of ideological orthodoxy. People who wield the words “violence” and “weaponize” like tarnished pitchforks.
Last month, Quillette broadcast a podcast interview with Bernard Lane, a writer and editor at the Australian who has documented the risks associated with rushing gender dysphoric children into aggressive medical treatments. In any other pediatric medical context, this kind of journalistic investigation would be seen as laudatory. But such is the ideological climate surrounding this issue that special rules apparently apply. On May 24th, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation presented viewers with what purported to be a profile of Michelle Telfer, head of the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne’s Gender Clinic, but whose main purpose seems to have been the denunciation of the Australian’s coverage of gender transition.
Telfer complains that the newspaper is “one-sided” and that it has quoted experts of whom Telfer disapproves. At one point in the feature, a public-health official attacks the Australian for having “continued to publish articles” that challenge the preferred narrative—thus echoing Telfer’s own public complaints about her work being criticized. The public broadcaster’s overall message is that the journalistic community should get on board with the received wisdom, and stop creating trouble for those seeking to reflexively “affirm” any child who claims to be born in the wrong body.
As Keira Bell’s stunning legal victory in the UK shows, the journalistic establishment has much to answer for when it comes to either ignoring, or even actively suppressing, well-founded concerns in this area. In Britain, Ms. Bell’s case and related developments have set in motion a much-needed process of soul-searching among policy-makers (with the UK government now severing ties with Stonewall UK’s infamously cynical diversity-training program). But this process is less advanced in other English-speaking countries such as Canada. In the United States, meanwhile, the policy landscape is increasingly polarized between progressives who seek total censorship of “gender-critical” viewpoints, and red-state social conservatives enacting overly broad laws that, in some cases, would go too far by banning transition therapies completely.
As for Lane and the Australian, they are now the subject of a 42-page complaint to the country’s Press Council, a fact implicitly celebrated by ABC’s producers, who film Telfer’s partner describing how “since putting in the complaint to the press council, she’s just felt in control now … less of a victim.” While the text of the complaint is not in the public domain, one can read Telfer’s 2020 submission to the Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications in regard to media diversity, in which she lists her complaints about the Australian at considerable length. In that submission, Telfer claims that rapid onset gender dysphoria, as described by Brown University scholar Lisa Littman in 2018, does not exist; blithely dismisses concerns over the growing ranks of detransitioners such as Bell; and downplays concerns about the experimental nature of puberty-blocking drugs—despite the fact these concerns had become the subject of scandal in the UK even by the time of Telfer’s 2020 submission.
The Australian has been one of the few media outlets that has dared challenge the approved narrative on gender. And Lane, in particular, often has been a lonely voice of reason. But theirs is an uphill battle that will likely continue for years, as gender ideologues draw from the tall stack of institutional cards they’ve accumulated in recent years. While each of the controversies discussed herein may seem small and inconsequential—the contents of a museum gift store, a deleted Twitter account, a canceled university event, a muzzled author—the larger issue at play is not. The “final, most essential command” of any coercive movement is, as George Orwell once put it, “to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.” Once you sweep aside all the glitter showers, animated unicorns, and rainbow emojis, that is ultimately what gender supremacism is truly about.
Featured image: Art by Jess de Wahls