The Progressive Case for Renouncing Gender Extremism: Last of a Three-Part Series

The Progressive Case for Renouncing Gender Extremism: Last of a Three-Part Series

Allan Stratton
Allan Stratton
18 min read

In the first two parts of this essay series, I argued that “gender supremacists” (my preferred term) have created an artificial reality in which words such as “man” and “woman” are defined in a way that ordinary people neither recognize nor agree with. In Canada, the UK, the United States, and other advanced nations, this has been accomplished by government fiat. And while the trend lacks popular support, it has gained ground thanks to extremists’ capture of academic, activist, and media organizations. Even if these constituencies can’t succeed in persuading most people that two plus two equals five, they can convince them that they will be denounced as transphobes if they publicly state that the answer is actually four. In this way, much of the moral force that once propelled LGBT groups and their allies to push for equal rights is now being spent on the bullying and mobbing of ideologically non-compliant individuals and groups (especially within their own ranks)—a shift in tone and focus that has sabotaged the LGBT cause in particular, and the wider progressive movement more generally.

One paradoxical consequence of this mania for policing speech and thought has been the elevation of figures such as Jordan Peterson. It’s easy to forget that as recently as 2016, just five years ago, this University of Toronto professor was largely unknown to anyone outside the academic community. That changed when he argued that federal legislation targeting discrimination on the basis of gender identity could lead to someone being fired or jailed for refusing to use invented pronouns. He called this compelled speech, and his fellow academics fell over one another in a bid to denounce him.

In late 2016, the University of Toronto held a debate in which Peterson faced not one but two opponents, alongside a moderator who informed attendees that psychological support was available outside the auditorium for anyone traumatized by pronoun-related word violence. The unintended message was that Peterson’s words were so powerful that he could inflict psychic meltdown on anyone within earshot. In the course of much performative outrage that day, one of his debating opponents conceded that Peterson’s speech might indeed be compelled if he refused to call someone they or them—but he wouldn’t be fired, mind you, just fined.

With this stunning own goal, Peterson’s charge of totalitarianism was proved (to his supporters’ satisfaction, at least). A more reasonable response would have been to point out to Peterson that no one is compelling anyone to speak about anyone else in the third person. “You” remain valid for all—as does “student,” “colleague,” or the person’s actual name. But the cat was out of the bag, and the episode helped set Peterson on the road to international celebrity as a best-selling author.

As Peterson’s star soared, so did the wilful misrepresentations of his views. Contrary to the many casual slurs against him, Peterson doesn’t deliberately misgender trans people, but rather objects to the ungrammatical nature of invented and non-binary pronoun usage. Yes, he has (by today’s standards) conservative views about the sexes in general (largely animated by his focus on evolutionary biology), but he also supports women’s rights. His central belief is that a sense of agency and personal responsibility can act as an antidote to depression and form the key to a meaningful life. To my knowledge, every civil rights leader of the last century, from MLK to James Baldwin, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Larry Kramer, and Harvey Milk, agrees.

Confident critics argue substance. But the hate-on for Peterson has inspired rhetorical attacks that are petty and juvenile. He was tagged with the sins of unsavoury groupies, and some progressives even mocked him for his struggle with depression. Outside the progressive outrage bubble, people noticed this spectacle. They also noticed that, in his books and lectures, Peterson was the one urging humane and self-aware behaviour, while it was the social-justice crowd creating memes about his diet and his family members. At one point, even staff within his own Canadian publishing house conducted what can only be described as a collective hissy fit over their employer’s publication of Peterson’s books. The staff revolt failed, and its leaders became the target of international mockery—a perfect symbol of preening, self-absorbed, censorship-minded progressive “crybullies.” Meanwhile, Peterson continues to be a best-selling author who gains support from his enemies’ overreach.

One might imagine that larger lessons might be drawn by progressives in regard to the counterproductive and off-putting nature of their pronoun-related social panic. But as we shall see, that has very much not been the case.

As I’ve argued elsewhere in this essay series, developing a sense of empathy is a critical component of any campaign to promote equality rights. For instance, many trans women understandably seek access to women’s spaces because of the risk that they will face humiliation, or even violence, in men’s spaces. That’s a valid and compelling basis for attracting sympathy and political support.

But many women have legitimate privacy and security concerns in regard to predatory opportunists who insincerely claim to be trans. And these women, too, deserve sympathy and support. For activists to pretend that testosterone doesn’t affect our bodies and behaviours over our lifetimes is disingenuous. Biological men, as a class, are bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than women—a surfeit of aggression that, ironically, is often demonstrated through the vicious, threatening nature of extreme trans advocates’ social-media behaviour. Indeed, it is telling that nobody focuses much on trans men being integrated into male spaces. This asymmetry reflects the fact that the safety concerns expressed by so-called “gender critical” feminists (often disparaged as “TERFs” on social media) are rooted in real sex differences, not transphobia.

Being male, I am a spectator here: It is women themselves who should decide who gets into women’s spaces. My opinions are relevant only insofar as the LGBT and progressive movements to which I belong have been damaged by the top-down efforts of ideologues to replace sex with self-described gender in every facet of policymaking. That attempt strikes at the heart of gay and lesbian identity. By definition, gays and lesbians are attracted to same sexed bodies. It’s why we’ve been beaten, murdered, and legally and socially persecuted throughout history. The outlandish, if fashionable, claim that we’re attracted to someone else’s gender ID gaslights the truth of our lives and insults the memory of our ancestors. That’s why I fight for sex-based recognitions, and refuse to accept their erasure.

There are at least three categories of same-sex spaces in which trans issues are affected: bathrooms, change rooms, and prisons—though it should be said that in all cases, there are architectural innovations that can help shift the problem from one of identity to one of design and expense. A major obstacle to gay acceptance was the straight male fear that we posed sexual threats in men’s rooms. But since it was impossible to exclude us, some men who were concerned about their privacy started to pee in cubicles, or at urinals with (then newly installed) dividers. When I was growing up, these dividers didn’t exist. At sports facilities such as Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, lines of men would stand opposite each other and pee into a long communal trough. Thus did it come to pass that a design transformation partly motivated by homophobia helped end bathroom protocols that, in retrospect, I think we all recognize as having been unsanitary and disgusting.

The truth is that trans women have been using women’s washrooms for as long as such facilities have existed. Of course, many trans women don’t pass as female, but any policy of systematically excluding them runs into the issue of masculine (natal) women who are themselves often confused with men. (“Speaking as a butch lesbian with a girlfriend who is very tall, the bathroom panic doesn’t make me feel safe,” tweeted a self-described “big mean sweaty dyke just looking for trouble” in 2020.) And since fully clothed transsexuals (to use the term by which they self-describe, as discussed in my first essay) who’ve had sex-reassignment surgeries are generally indistinguishable from transgender women who haven’t, the only way to police access on a crude physical basis would involve strip searches on suspected male bodies. This is obviously not a humane or practical approach, nor one that could be implemented without inviting understandable legal retaliation.

In theory at least, finding a compromise that balances the rights of trans and non-trans women shouldn’t be difficult because, for all the claims of transphobia that surround this issue, the biggest fears at issue don’t really have anything to do with trans people whatsoever: Rather, women worry that psychopaths posing as trans women will exploit well-intentioned trans-inclusive policies as a means to enable voyeurism, or worse. It is ludicrous to pretend (as many activists insist on doing) that a policy of unfettered gender self-identification would never be exploited in this way. People lie about everything (including their race): Only the hopelessly naïve can believe that people are always uniquely truthful about gender.

Further, predatory psychopaths don’t care about laws, or maintaining the trust-based sanctity of enlightened self-ID regimes. They care about two things: getting off and getting caught. There have always been creeps who hide in women’s-room cubicles. The difference now is that self-ID policies allow them to avoid punishment if caught. And, in an Orwellian irony, it is the women who complain about their presence who are the ones who face the risk of being denounced.

To repeat a theme, it isn’t just the substance of this discussion, but also the tenor, that puts the moral capital of LGBT activists at risk. The case for trans rights often is made in apocalyptic terms. This includes the suggestion that any failure to embrace a policy of unfettered self-identification will serve to metaphorically exterminate trans individuals as humans—to “deny their right to exist,” as the stock expression goes.

But no one is missing the double standard at play here, as the feelings of women are mocked and invalidated if they do not align with activists’ expectations. That includes women who’ve been sexually assaulted, and, like men molested as boys, carry that trauma throughout their lives. To present this trauma as a vestige of bigotry is not only false, but utterly cruel—not to mention deeply hypocritical, given that social justice activists claim to support and centre trauma survivors.

Women’s change rooms can present a more serious challenge to women’s rights. The people who use them are often naked, and the rooms exist in sex-specific form for the sole purpose of providing privacy on the basis of one’s anatomy. That’s why, as transgender British activist Debbie Hayton has noted, trans women who’ve had sex-reassignment surgery have historically been welcomed into these milieus: they appear as female. Non-reassigned trans women don’t. They look like men.

Two common male sex crimes and psychiatric disorders relate to voyeurism and exhibitionism—phenomena that, in extreme cases, have been associated with rape. Outside of the context of the gender debate, this is not a controversial thing to say, which is why all of us have an instinctive aversion to men (and it is usually men) who act in a voyeuristic or exhibitionistic way. And so the problem remains that women (including transsexual women, it should be noted) may be reasonably concerned for their safety in an environment that allows straight male voyeurs and exhibitionists to cynically present themselves as trans. This is common sense.

The problem with saying this common sense out loud, of course, is that the most militant proponents of gender self-identification policies define a woman as anyone who says they’re a woman. Once it is conceded that such statements of self-identification may be made in bad faith—even in rare cases—the whole self-ID policy falls into question. And when we observe real episodes involving male-bodied sex offenders invading female spaces, such as the one that played out at a Los Angeles spa earlier this summer, the spectacle unavoidably gives moral force to the discomfort and fear that many women experience when they find themselves in close proximity to the naked bodies of male strangers.

Demands that women suppress their fear, modesty, or disgust are sexist, as men generally don’t have analogous reactions in the company of naked women. Then there are observant Muslim and Jewish women, who have religious obligations concerning the opposite sex. Insisting that these women be naked in front of physical males is, frankly, antisemitic and Islamophobic. Even in the case of women who aren’t religious, but simply come from socially conservative immigrant backgrounds, forcing them to prioritize avant-garde tenets of Queer Theory over their own sensibilities represents the height of cultural imperialism.

Empathy is a stereotypically female trait. If male-bodied trans women who insist on accessing female change rooms are truly women, why don’t they understand their fellow women’s awkwardness and anger when forced to be naked with “penis-havers”? And when one observes them denouncing women as “bitches” and “cunts” who deserve to ”die in a grease fire,” it’s hard not to see their behaviour as examples of pathologically toxic masculinity.

Women behind bars are even more vulnerable. In the United States, 60 percent of jailed women are simply awaiting trial. Eight in 10 of those in prison have committed a non-violent offence. Over half have endured violence and/or sexual abuse at home, and their male abusers are often implicated in the (relatively scant) violent crimes attributed to them. There are serious racial disparities at play, as well. Forty percent of Canadian women in prison are Indigenous (exceeding their share in the population at large by more than a decimal order of magnitude). The government has a duty to protect the safety and privacy of these women. Instead, Justin Trudeau’s (supposedly feminist) government has created a self-ID-based system that allows unscrupulous men to self-identify their way into otherwise all-female prisons.

It’s true that the government also has an obligation to protect trans women, who themselves face humiliation, denial of care, and disproportionate rates of physical and sexual assault when they are housed in men’s prisons. As reported by the New York Times, a transwoman named Ashley Diamond reports being raped 14 times by prisoners and guards while locked up in a Georgia prison following a parole violation. But it is hardly transphobic to suggest that this very real concern should be addressed in a way that is mindful of the equally real concerns of female prisoners who don’t want to share a cell or shower with someone who has male genitals. Canadian data indicates that 98 percent of all sexual assaults are committed by biological men. And over three-quarters of America’s self-identified trans women prisoners have their penises and testicles.

In 2017, the UK Ministry of Justice reported that 60 of the 124 self-identified trans prisoners on its books were sex offenders—including Karen White, a male-bodied pedophile and serial rapist who used her time in a female prison to sexually assault women. Here in Canada, a former Deputy Commissioner for Women in Canada’s federal prison system, Dr. Kelly Blanchette, has reported that half of trans transfer requests originate with sex offenders who offended as men. These include Madilyn Harks, a three-time convicted pedophile who confessed to upwards of 200 offences against 60 girls under age eight. Before recently being released to a halfway house, female prisoners reported that Harks had harassed them without consequence. How many people like this are there in the Canadian prison system? We don’t know. Since 2019, offenders have been listed by gender, with no record taken of their sex.

A common debating tactic here is to smear all discussion of these issues as tantamount to denouncing trans women as sexual predators, much in the bigoted tradition of presenting gay men as inherently pedophilic. But, as I’ve taken pains to demonstrate, female concerns in this area generally don’t involve trans people at all. Moreover, it shouldn’t be controversial to assert that some small fraction of trans individuals—in equal proportion to those who are not trans—will be violent and predatory. It would be nice if the research showed that trans women prove an exception to the general rule that sexual offences are overwhelmingly committed by biological males. But the criminality rates of trans women reflect the prevailing rates for men. Changing your pronouns doesn’t change your biological wiring.

My own proposed solution in regard to prisons would be to allow trans women to transfer to a female facility only providing they’ve committed non-violent offences unrelated to sex; ensure that male-bodied trans women shower separately and sleep in separate cells; segregate violent trans women in a separate wing altogether; and remove privileges for male-bodied prisoners who expose themselves or otherwise behave inappropriately.

Reasonable people can disagree about all of these propositions. But the very act of debating the subject has become a progressive taboo. Gender supremacists present any comment beyond the tautological mantra “trans women are women,” taken literally, full stop, as heretically transphobic. That’s the slogan cited by Shawn Meerkamper, the lawyer who helped draft a new California law that allows male-bodied prisoners to be housed in female prisons. Reading from the same script in Canada is Martha Paynter of Nova Scotia’s Women’s Wellness Within, who laments that “we’re still having very basic conversations, having to repeat very basic refrains such as ‘trans women are women.’”

And so instead of real discussion, we get a coordinated campaign of gaslighting meant to convince us that while one’s internally experienced sense of gender identity is real, urgent, and totalizing, a woman’s sense of discomfort in the presence of naked male bodies is an artifact of socially programmed bigotry. Indeed, as noted above, activists and lawmakers have even taken steps to ensure that the data required to properly inform such a discussion doesn’t exist, by means to erasing any record of biological sex in prison records and obstructing information requests.

For any rank-and-file LGBT advocate who has not drunk the gender-supremacist kool-aid, all of this is infuriating. If the problem of male-bodied sexual predation in women’s prisons truly is infinitesimal, surely that news needs to be advertised—so let’s see the numbers. And if there are problems caused by bad-faith opportunists, the trans lobby should want those opportunists identified and punished. That’s what my fellow gay activists eventually did with NAMBLA supporters decades ago, when these opportunists sought to attach their man-boy-love cause to the larger gay-rights movement. There may come a day when the trans-rights movement moves in a similarly principled direction. But it certainly hasn’t happened yet.

Instead, intellectual rigour has been replaced by orthodoxy. This is a tragic error, because without open, vigorous discourse, activists lose the ability to argue the merits of their case, having lazily retreated to slogans. And observers rightly ask: If you’re so sure you’ll win a debate, why do you keep telling us we’re not allowed to have one?

It is impossible to argue the question of a woman’s right to safe and private spaces without also discussing the related, but separate, issue of transgender women’s access to female competitive sports. As with everything else I’ve discussed, gender supremacists will pretend that anyone expressing concerns regarding this issue is a hatemonger who seeks to deny trans people basic rights—including, in this case, the benefits of sports and exercise. This is, of course, nonsense. The most popular physical activities, available to everyone, include jogging, biking, swimming, and gymnastics. Anyone can play pickup games of basketball, soccer, hockey, and tennis with whomever will have them. And anyone is free to rent or buy equipment to canoe, kayak, parasail, golf (or disc golf), ski, or—well, the options are limitless.

The real conversation in this area isn’t about participation. It’s about competition—the area of sports that ranks and rewards competitors on the basis of their skill and talent, typically within well-defined categories defined by age, amateur or professional status, and, yes, sex.

Needless to say, no one cares about trans boys and trans men competing against biological males. Natal females lack male post-pubertal advantages, and so play at a disadvantage. Nor is there much opposition to young trans girls participating in girls’ physical-education classes: It’s only once children enter puberty that sex-stratified physical differences become obvious in the sports sphere. It’s shocking that in 2021, this needs constant repeating: Biology is the reason women’s divisions were created in the first place.

One need only compare women’s Olympic records to those set by boys still in high school to see the stark physical difference between male and female elite athletes—or the humiliation of the Australian national women’s soccer team by 15-year-old boys. In 1998, tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams (ranked #5 and #17 in the world respectively at the time) played against an aging male player named Karsten Braasch (ranked 203rd among men). Braasch beat Serena 6-1 and Venus 6-2. CeCé Telfer ranked 390th among American male 400m runners in 2017. After a year off for hormone therapy, Telfer won the women’s NCAA championship. (Hilariously, she claims to be at a disadvantage because, at 6’2”, she encounters greater wind resistance. Oddly, that didn’t hurt Usain Bolt.)

I need scarcely add that Telfer was presented as a martyr figure in the pages of the Times, which actually titled its mawkish tribute to her, For My People. Yet she’s an obscurity compared to Laurel Hubbard, the middle-aged male-to-female trans weightlifter whose success was limited to her native New Zealand when she competed as a man two decades ago. Yet after a mid-30s sex change, she suddenly won multiple international gold medals. At a positively geriatric 43 (by weightlifting standards), she headed off to the Olympics earlier this year to compete against women half her age.

Gender supremacists find creative ways to dismiss all of the abundantly obvious advantages that biological males have over females in the sports arena. In most contexts, this kind of rhetoric is merely farcical. But it assumes a grimmer and more unsettling aspect when it is applied to violent sports. There’s been a storm over World Rugby excluding trans women from elite play. But the decision was justified, as studies showed a 20 to 30 percent greater chance of injury when women are tackled by anyone who has passed through male puberty. According to World Rugby’s policy document, “the compounded or cumulative effect of these attributes may be even greater, with one study showing that punching power—a composite of mass, force/strength, and power—is 160% higher in biological males than in biological females.”

Or consider the field of Mixed Martial Arts, in which 45-year-old trans media darling Fallon Fox infamously fractured the skull and shattered the orbital bones of a young opponent minutes into a fight. She knocked out another woman in 39 seconds. It’s true that some (young) MA women can win equally quick victories. But none tweet, as Fox did: “For the record, I knocked two out. One woman’s skull was fractured, the other not. And just so you know, I enjoyed it. See, I love smacking up TERFs in the cage who spout transphobic nonsense. It’s bliss!” Nobody blinked. Fox was inducted into the LGBTQ sports hall of fame, was called “the bravest athlete in history,” and has a biopic in the works.

It’s a measure of the culture of gaslighting that now pervades this sphere that we’re all supposed to pretend this person is the Rosa Parks of trans athletics. To call these gruesome spectacles “social justice” is a betrayal of the movements for black, Indigenous, women’s, and gay rights—campaigns that were fought in order to secure equality and fair play.

Meanwhile, athletes such as tennis legend Martina Navratilova are vilified for speaking up on behalf of common sense. Even trans athletes are ignored if they don’t read from the right script. 1970s-era tennis pro Renée Richards concedes she’d have been unbeatable if she’d played as a woman when still in her prime. (She transitioned only when she was already in her 40s.) But she’s largely been ignored. And Caitlyn Jenner, who arguably knows a thing or two about elite athletic competition, was actively rebuked for noting that biology should mean something when it comes to deciding who gets to play in female divisions. Mermaids, a pro-trans UK advocacy group, responded that Jenner, “as someone with a trans history and sporting background … should know the facts.” Maybe she does.

All of this twisting of reality is done in the service of a tiny group of beneficiaries. It’s tiny because very few trans girls and women choose to engage in competitive extracurricular and elite sports in female divisions: They (or, in the case of children, their parents) have the pride, integrity, and sportsmanship to forego biologically rigged contests.

If you follow the pronouncements of the most militant gender supremacists on social media, it is hard to escape the lack of caring they exhibit for anyone—women, prisoners, athletes, rape victims—who expresses even the mildest protest at their sweeping claims about the need to utterly eliminate biological sex as a recognized category in any area of policymaking. This aggressive approach has intimidated many lawmakers, and has won allies among those academics who’ve sensed (correctly) the arrival of new grievances to be studied and nourished, new orthodoxies to be promulgated, and new navels to be gazed at. But it also has squandered decades of hard-won grass-roots public support for traditional forms of trans rights that did not presuppose the destruction of sex as an organizing concept—i.e., the right of trans people not to be fired, evicted, brutalized, or otherwise discriminated against because they happen to be trans.

While branding their activism as part of the epic struggle against patriarchy, heteronormativity, and even capitalism, gender supremacists have actually produced an effectively colonialist doctrine that demands universal obeisance to the pronouncements of privileged professors at elite universities and leaders of well-connected western NGOs. Indigenous prisoners, beaten women, marginalized female athletes, immigrants, Jews, Muslims—all are treated as transphobic saboteurs who stand in the way of that great moral project for our time: recognizing that biological males can be literal women.

The project won’t succeed. People aren’t stupid. We know how babies are born. History moves in cycles of reaction and counter-reaction, and this field is overdue for the latter. The problem is that when the backlash arrives, it won’t just be the Twitter activists and media darlings who get the brunt of it. It will be everyone on the progressive side—the LGBT rank-and-file in particular. Before that happens, everyone who believes in equality and justice must stand up and call out this extremism for what it is.

Gender Critical FeministsTransgenderGender DysphoriaSocial Justice ActivismJordan Peterson

Allan Stratton

Allan Stratton is the internationally award-winning author of Chanda’s Secrets and The Dogs.