Studying the True Face of Gender Ideology

Studying the True Face of Gender Ideology

Jonathan Kay
Jonathan Kay
15 min read

This week, progressive British activist Jo Maugham warned his 300,000-plus Twitter followers of “yet another vast, and vastly expensive, piece of anti-trans infrastructure” that had been erected “virtually overnight, with zero transparency.” The tweet went viral, even though, as many commenters noted, it was unclear what supposed anti-trans leviathan Maugham was describing. A day later, the otherwise prolix Maugham still wouldn’t provide that information, but instead directed followers to (unspecified) “UN and EU reports” that supposedly detail “billions being channeled [to anti-trans activists], often from the U.S. Christian right.”

One reason why it’s difficult to decode this kind of conspiracism is that terms such as “anti-trans” have effectively become meaningless. You can now be accused of transphobia, for instance, if you decline to date a trans person whose biology doesn’t match your sexual orientation, if you object to your child being exposed to a naked adult male (including a sex offender) in a spa, or if you complain publicly about an alleged rape perpetrated in a school bathroom by someone who self-describes as “gender-fluid.”

Even mainstream feminism is apparently now transphobic: As it turns out, the likely subject of the tweet that Maugham put out on October 16th was a conference being run that same day by FiLiA, a grassroots feminist organization which supports the right of women to maintain safe, sex-segregated spaces. While these women met in Portsmouth, protestors demanding “trans inclusivity” held up signs with slogans such as “Suck My Dick, You Transphobic Cunts.” And as Julie Bindel reports, it is these misogynists—not the female campaigners at FiLiA who have spent their careers protecting women from rape, domestic assault, and female genital mutilation—who have the ear of progressive politicians and activists such as Maugham. One Portsmouth-area MP, Bindel notes, has shunned representatives of FiLiA, even while meeting with a local artist who seems to believe that ideologically non-compliant “TERFs” (a slur indicating “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists”) should be threatened with baseball bats. Given how difficult it is to justify the full-on misogynistic hate that now animates the extreme fringes of the trans-rights movement, it’s easy to see why Maugham would prefer to distract critics with the fiction that FiLiA’s gender-critical feminism is just a smokescreen for a sinister Christian conspiracy hatched overseas.

To be fair: It is absolutely true that many prominent American conservatives do oppose the campaign to replace biological sex with gender identity as the basis for admission to women’s bathrooms, locker rooms, prisons, sports leagues, and rape-crisis centers. And in some cases, these right-wing figures have championed laws that suppress the legitimate rights of transgender individuals to be treated with dignity and compassion. But outside the United States, the intellectual pushback against gender extremism is led mostly by academics, authors, activists, journalists, and even comedians who are the furthest thing from Republican Bible-thumpers.

In Canada, this movement has included Meghan Murphy, who first made a name for herself as a Vancouver-area feminist activist; sex researchers Debra Soh and James Cantor; former Canadian track champion Linda Blade; and writer April Halley, who has noted that the risk posed by putting male bodies in women’s prisons is disproportionately borne by Indigenous and black women. In the UK, the gender-critical side has been led by the aforementioned Bindel (a lifelong leftist), Economist journalist Helen Joyce, University of Sussex philosophy professor Kathleen Stock, children’s author J.K. Rowling, comedian Ricky Gervais, and heterodox trans activist Debbie Hayton. In New Zealand, it’s included the feminist likes of Speak Up For Women. In Australia, it’s been mild-mannered journalist and researcher Bernard Lane.

Even in the United States, the most influential gender-critical figures in the cultural (as opposed to political) sphere aren’t conservative lawmakers, but rather current or former contributors to such centrist publications as the New York Times (Bari Weiss), Atlantic magazine (Jesse Singal), and the Wall Street Journal (Abigail Shrier). Then there’s comedian Dave Chappelle and comedian-manqueé-turned-podcaster Katie Herzog. If Jo Maugham would like to tell us which one of these people is directing the flow of all those Christian “billions” earmarked for spreading transphobia, I’m all ears.

Indeed, one reason why the campaign to roll back gender extremism has been slow to gain momentum is precisely because many of these “gender crits” are otherwise progressive in their politics and peer groups—which means that they tend to be affected by the taboos and informal speech codes that govern the gender debate in these spheres. Specifically, they are pressured to begin any discussion from the proposition that “trans women are women,” a circular notion that pre-emptively stigmatizes discussion of real-life human sexual biology. As many gender-critical feminists have noted, in fact, the word “woman” now lacks any real definition in orthodox progressive circles except to such extent that a woman is imagined to be (literally) any human adult who self-declares as a woman. Moreover, even those who are willing to navigate these Alice-in-Wonderland rules of engagement risk being checkmated by the failsafe argument that debate itself represents a form of transphobic “violence” that “erases” the existence of trans people and even drives them to suicide. By these rhetoric maneuvers, even the mildest critique of gender orthodoxy can be demonized as hate speech, which in turn can serve to inspire mobbings of gender heretics that (as the case of Jesse Singal showed with particular vividness) quickly spiral into lurid social panic.

Consider the case of the aforementioned Kathleen Stock, who’s been vilified by activists for stating the common-sense proposition that trans women need not be treated as “literal women” in regard to certain intimate, sex-segregated spaces where many females experience reasonable apprehensions in the presence of male bodies. Incensed that anyone would defend an academic’s right to say such things, a British lecturer named Ellie Gore has tried to link Stock to Nazis. And a University of Sussex student union officer denounced Stock on the BBC as a dangerous bigot who sought to “eliminate trans people in law” (a distortion of Stock’s views so flagrantly dishonest that a BBC newscaster was later required to read out a public apology). Yet gender-critical feminists face this kind of calumny every day—or worse: Stock has been advised to hire bodyguards and install CCTV cameras outside her home. And the University of Sussex administration is now urging her to stay away from campus for her own protection. The whole ordeal offers a case study in how tiny cadres of highly motivated ideologues can intimidate others; and most academics, not unreasonably, would prefer to simply keep their heads down, mumble their pronouns, and get on with their daily work.

And yet, even amidst such scenes, there are signs that the tide is turning. It is notable, for instance, that not only did University of Sussex administrators publicly defend Stock’s right to say and write what she believes, but so have hundreds of British philosophers who put their name to an open letter. As for Jesse Singal, his career not only survived the campaign of lies against him, but—somewhat astonishingly—he was even commissioned by the New York Times to review Helen Joyce’s newly published gender-critical book, Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality. When tear-drenched Penguin Random House staff in Toronto recently tried to “confront” their bosses about the company’s publication of a new book by alleged transphobe Jordan Peterson, the stunt backfired badly. Hachette UK likewise rebuffed a similar in-house campaign against its own star gender crit, J.K. Rowling. And this month, Netflix executives offered no apologies for streaming a comedy special by Dave Chappelle that many activists decried because it poked fun at gender pieties.

Even within the LGBT world, there is mounting opposition to a form of gender ideology that, as Allan Stratton has explained to Quillette readers, paradoxically carries a strong whiff of homophobia, since “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.” In Boston, outgoing Pride officials actually shut down their organization this year, rather than let it lapse into the hands of activists who seem intent on turning it into a Black-Lives-Matter-run trans-activist clique. And in the UK, many lesbians and gay men have become so disgusted by the political orientation of their traditional organizations that they’ve created a new group called LGB Alliance (which, I need scarcely mention, Jo Maugham has stridently denounced).

If it strikes you that I’ve gone out of my way to name-check an abundance of prominent gender crits in the paragraphs above, your impression is correct. In part, this inventory process is intended to give credit where it’s due: As the campaign against militant gender ideology picks up steam, there will no doubt be many a late joiner eager to insist that their hearts were (secretly!) with the gender-critical camp all along. “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan,” as the expression goes. And so before this bandwagon gets too crowded, it’s worth naming the much-maligned “TERFs” who put their careers on the line well before celebrities such as Chappelle, Rowling, and Bethany Frankel entered the fray.

But my principal motivation is to disabuse readers of the idea that this is a simple left-right culture-war battle (such as the one once fought over gay marriage). Almost all of the figures I’ve listed are progressive or centrist. Most are female. Several are gay. None, to my knowledge, are Christian transphobes of the type who populate Jo Maugham’s fever dreams. Having personally interviewed (or been interviewed by) most of these people, in fact, I’d say their only obvious commonalities are intellectual self-confidence and a suspicion of ideological cultism.

Perhaps the most important figure in this movement (even if she doesn’t self-identify as an adherent) is Lisa Littman, the former Brown University School of Public Health professor who authored the first peer-reviewed study of rapid-onset gender dysphoria, or ROGD. This marked the first time that any academic had produced an authoritative description of the phenomenon by which natal female girls and teenagers suddenly announce a desire to transition to a masculine identity—typically after becoming immersed in online forums or social milieus in which popular or admired trans-identified peer-group members encourage others to pursue transition as a means to address their anxieties. Following publication of her study in 2018, Littman predictably endured months of abuse, and her own university retracted a press release promoting her work. The journal in which she’d published, PLOS ONE, also came under heavy fire, and subsequently published “additional clarifications and context” in an (unsuccessful) bid to appease activists who’d insisted that Littman was a bigot blowing “transphobic dogwhistles.”

Having met Littman in person and interviewed her for Quillette, I can attest that she’s exactly what you’d expect of an award-winning Ivy League expert who’s spent her career researching preventive medicine, public health, gynecology, and the psychology of adolescent girls. Before becoming famous for her work on ROGD, she made a name for herself in academic circles with published articles such as 'Learning from Adolescents’ and Young Adults’ Experiences with Early Discontinuation of the Contraceptive Implant' and 'Connecting Knowledge about Abortion and Sexual and Reproductive Health to Belief about Abortion Restrictions.' And the effort to denounce her (or Stock, or Singal, or any of the other figures I’ve named) as hate-addled bigots was always ludicrous. Yet this type of calumny is indispensable to the gender extremists’ cause, as it supports the conceit that any opposition to their orthodoxy can never emerge from good-faith research, but rather betrays an inherently malignant character. Amazingly, New York Times writer Jennifer Finney Boylan actually made this argument explicitly earlier this month, when she denounced gender critical feminists as “people whose hearts—like the Grinch’s—are two sizes too small.”

Littman’s naysayers denounced her 2018 study for all sorts of nominal reasons. But what their critique always really boiled down to was, as one published critic claimed, that she’d used “a pathologizing framework and language of pathology to conceive, describe, and theorize the phenomenon [of ROGD] as tantamount to both an infectious disease (‘cluster outbreaks of gender dysphoria’) and a disorder (e.g., ‘eating disorders and anorexia nervosa’).” This is a heavily torqued way of saying that Littman seeks to understand the dysphoria experienced by girls in the larger context of their personal histories, autism, trauma, and social influences—a mode of scientific inquiry that contradicts the preferred, quasi-mystical understanding of gender identity as an unfalsifiable life force that cannot be understood except by uncritical acceptance of acts of self-identification.

Littman is hardly the only researcher who’s conducted a proper, scientifically informed inquiry into the many factors that can contribute to gender dysphoria. In Toronto, for instance, Dr. Kenneth Zucker has been using a holistic counselling approach with trans-identified children for years. And sexologist Ray Blanchard has been studying the typology of trans women since the late 1980s. These men, too, have been denounced for challenging the idea of gender identity as a secular form of sacred soul-spirit. But Littman broke new ground with her focus on the recently observed surge in dysphoria among girls suddenly seeking to transition, often in a great flourish of politicized rhetoric and oppositional postures directed at their own family members.

As Helen Joyce writes in Trans, gender dysphoria was, until recently, primarily a (natal) male phenomenon. It was only with the rise of social media, and the anxiety such media encourages, that girls and young women began dominating the intake rosters at gender clinics. To demand that the global medical and research establishment ignore this development for ideological reasons is, of course, unconscionable. Yet that is exactly the demand that Littman’s critics have effectively put forward. They realized early on that if Littman could get away with addressing gender dysphoria in a rigorous and scholarly way, an important ideological taboo would be smashed. And in this regard, I am happy to report, they were entirely correct.

Since Littman’s 2018 paper was published, events have vindicated her approach. In particular, “detransitioners” (individuals who once asserted they were trans but subsequently took steps to revert to a gender identity consistent with their biological sex) are increasingly vocal and well-organized (much to the chagrin of activists who’d insisted that the very idea of trans desistance is “irrelevant,” “pseudoscientific,” and “debunked”). And many of them have personal tales that are consistent with the ROGD pattern that Littman outlined.

Last year, the detransition movement got a prominent human face thanks to litigation initiated by Keira Bell against the London-based centre that runs Britain’s Gender Identity Development Service (which, even before Bell entered the public eye, had been embroiled in scandal). It goes without saying that Bell has become a hated Judas figure to many gender extremists, as they (correctly) see her example as an unusually compelling rebuke to the sweeping claim that children as young as three years old “just know” if they were “born in the wrong body.” Indeed, the details of Bell’s story show how the ideologically-approved method of blithely “affirming” a patient’s asserted gender identity can produce tragic results:

By the time I was 14, I was severely depressed and had given up: I stopped going to school; I stopped going outside. I just stayed in my room, avoiding my mother, playing video games, getting lost in my favorite music, and surfing the internet. Something else was happening: I became attracted to girls. I had never had a positive association with the term “lesbian” or the idea that two girls could be in a relationship. This made me wonder if there was something inherently wrong with me. Around this time, out of the blue, my mother asked if I wanted to be a boy, something that hadn’t even crossed my mind. I then found some websites about females transitioning to male. Shortly after, I moved in with my father and his then-partner. She asked me the same question my mother had. I told her that I thought I was a boy and that I wanted to become one. As I look back, I see how everything led me to conclude it would be best if I stopped becoming a woman. My thinking was that, if I took hormones, I’d grow taller and wouldn’t look much different from biological men. I began seeing a psychologist through the National Health Service, or NHS. When I was 15—because I kept insisting that I wanted to be a boy—I was referred to the Gender Identity Development Service, at the Tavistock and Portman clinic in London. There, I was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, which is psychological distress because of a mismatch between your biological sex and your perceived gender identity. By the time I got to the Tavistock, I was adamant that I needed to transition. It was the kind of brash assertion that’s typical of teenagers. What was really going on was that I was a girl insecure in my body who had experienced parental abandonment, felt alienated from my peers, suffered from anxiety and depression, and struggled with my sexual orientation. After a series of superficial conversations with social workers, I was put on puberty blockers at age 16. A year later, I was receiving testosterone shots. When 20, I had a double mastectomy.

This week, the peer-reviewed Archives of Sexual Behavior published a new article by Littman, titled “Individuals Treated for Gender Dysphoria with Medical and/or Surgical Transition Who Subsequently Detransitioned: A Survey of 100 Detransitioners.” As in 2018, Littman is exploring an area that is scandalously under-researched. (The 2015 US Transgender Survey, on which many prominent trans advocates have relied for their published research, was formulated in a way that generally excluded detransitioners, as it restricted participation to those individuals “currently residing in a US state of territory” who “identif[y] as transgender, trans, genderqueer, non-binary, and other identities on the transgender identity spectrum.”)

In Littman’s study, participants were asked why they’d originally set about the process of transition. More than 70 percent of (natal) female respondents selected both “I thought transitioning was my only option to feel better” and “it made me uncomfortable to be perceived romantically/sexually as a [female].” Interestingly, only 13 percent of natal females—but fully 39 percent of natal males—agreed with the statement “I had erotic reasons for wanting to transition.” It has long been a tenet of gender orthodoxy that gender identity and sexual orientation are to be regarded as completely separate characteristics. The fact that some biologically male trans women are autogynephiles (individuals who become sexually aroused at the thought of themselves as a woman) is seen as particularly radioactive—even though the phenomenon has been studied for decades, and some trans individuals discuss their own autogynophilia candidly. And so it will be interesting to see whether Littman’s critics attack her with special ferocity on this point.

In describing survey results published by German researcher Elie Vandenbussche in April, Littman noted that respondents’ expressed reasons for detransition included:

realizing that their gender dysphoria was related to other issues (70%); health concerns (62%); observing that transition did not help their dysphoria (50%); and that they found alternatives to deal with their dysphoria (45%) … External factors such as lack of support, financial concerns, and discrimination were less common (13%, 12%, and 10%, respectively). Many in the sample described that when they detransitioned they lost support or were ostracized from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities.

Yet it’s also important to acknowledge that the available data does not invalidate the idea that transphobia is a real problem in our society. Fully 17 percent of female detransitioners studied by Littman, and 36 percent of natal males, cited discrimination as one of their reasons for detransition. But overall, the more common responses included “I discovered that my gender dysphoria was caused by something specific (ex, trauma, abuse, mental-health conditions),” “my mental health did not improve while transitioning,” and “my mental health was worse while transitioning.” This is not surprising given that almost 40 percent of female participants reported being depressed prior to the onset of dysphoria. More than a quarter engaged in non-suicidal self-injury. Almost half (48 percent) reported that they’d experienced a trauma in the year before they’d begun experiencing dysphoria. In many cases, caregivers presented transition as a solution to all these woes. “My gender therapist acted like [transition] was a panacea for everything,” wrote one respondent. Another wrote that the doctor “pushed drugs and surgery at every visit.” One particularly sad entry reads, “I was dating a trans woman and she framed our relationship in a way that was contingent on my being trans.”

For those who believe that this kind of research hurts the LGBT community, I will end with two more facts plucked from Littman’s study: (1) A full 52 percent of participants agreed that the process of transitioning delayed or prevented their dealing with the underlying trauma or mental health condition that lay behind their dysphoria (with one participant having “becom[e] critical of transition because I felt that many people were doing it out of self-hatred and started to realize that applied to me as well”); and (2) nearly a quarter of participants said that transition emerged from some form of internalized homophobia: By imagining that they were actually a member of the opposite sex, they could also imagine away their homosexuality.

I suppose it is possible for a true believer to read a study like this and still cling to the idea that Littman is some sort of transphobic hatemonger, instead of a thoughtful and humane researcher seeking a better understanding of gender dysphoria. Or maybe she’s a secret Christian fundamentalist, on the payroll of that “vastly expensive ... anti-trans infrastructure” that Jo Maugham is banging on about. Sadly, neither of these claims would represent the most far-fetched smears that gender ideologues have concocted as a means to demonize women who tell inconvenient truths.

But I comfort myself with the knowledge that, in the long run, a system of thought built on fantasy and self-deception can never persist indefinitely, no matter how ruthless its enforcers. While many of us are lazy and gullible in our ideological commitments, pledging allegiance to faddish notions so that we may be seen as enlightened, such vanities tend to fall away once we see evidence that proves we’ve been duped. Thank you to Lisa Littman—and to all the others I’ve named here—for putting that kind of evidence on full public display.

Gender Critical FeministsGender DysphoriaTransgenderTransgenderism

Jonathan Kay

Jonathan Kay is a Quillette editor and podcast host, a National Post op-ed contributor, and a member of the FAIR advisory board. His books include Among the Truthers, Legacy, and Magic in the Dark.