On December 12th, 2019, Gwen Benaway, a self-identified Indigenous and transgender poet, won the Canadian Governor General’s Award for her poetry collection Holy Wild, which had been promoted as “hold[ing] up the Indigenous trans body as a site of struggle, liberation and beauty” and “examin[ing] the intersections of Indigenous and trans experience through autobiographical poems [that] speak to the legacy of abuse, violence and colonial erasure that defines Canada.” It is best known for the memorable line, “Can Lit can suck my tranny dick” (“Can Lit,” often rendered “CanLit,” being an abbreviated reference to Canadian literary subculture).
Within months, however, Benaway’s claims to Indigenous ancestry were attacked by members of the CanLit Indigenous community. Embarrassing genealogical documentation followed, as well as a call for Benaway to be stripped of her award, and for her poetry to be memory-holed. Previously, it had been considered racist and transphobic to suggest that Benaway had won for any reason other than literary excellence. Now, the work had apparently lost its literary value exclusively thanks to its author’s identity.
In 2021, a Saskatchewan professor named Carrie Bourassa was similarly ejected from her position as scientific director of the Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health when her false claims to Indigenous identity were exposed; a fate shared by fellow race-shifter Suzy Kies, who’d organized (literal) book burnings in the name of “reconciliation,” and who’d co-chaired the Indigenous Peoples’ Commission of the Liberal Party of Canada. Similar allegations of identity theft have been levelled against other major artists, university professors, and arts figures across the country. Various Canadian campuses have had pretendian scandals: Queen’s University in Ontario, alone, has been alleged to have no fewer than six fabulists teaching courses.
Contested instances of self-identification have also arisen in the United States, extending beyond Indigenous circles to leading figures in black and Hispanic academia, arts, and activist communities. Some, such as US Senator Elizabeth Warren, have trusted inaccurate family lore or embellished tenuous ancestral links. But in other cases, preferential diversity-based hiring policies that rely on candidate self-identification clearly yielded powerful incentives to lie. This kind of grift parallels the motives of swindlers who identify as disabled to defraud government and insurance programs, build their social profiles, get special accommodations, win medals at the Paralympics and similar events, and, to finish with a more banal example, park in handicapped-designated parking spots.
People fabricate identities for a host of other reasons, of course. Most gay men of my generation self-identified as straight to avoid persecution, a subterfuge still necessary in many parts of the world. Depending on where they’ve lived (and what government was in power), Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all regularly falsified their identities to escape oppression and genocide, as have members of sub-national groups during civil wars and ethnic cleansings. Anorexics identify as fat due to the power of psychological delusion. And—again, ending on a more banal note—motivated reasoning or a lack of self-awareness lead many to falsely self-identify as attractive on dating sites, intelligent on social media, and the innocent victim of every romantic break-up.
We set great store by our identities, taking time, as T.S. Eliot put it in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” We use them to establish solidarity to protect and advance our groups’ interests. Also, to create our sense of family and friends, and our place in the world. That’s what helps make divorce, retirement, job termination, and “cancellation” so devastating: In each case, we are stripped of at least one element of our identity.
Fortunately, we no longer live in a time when excommunication, exile, or banishment defines our future existence: Today’s pluralistic society offers opportunities for redemption. People cycle through a range of jobs; blended families are common; cults, religious and ideological, typically hold power only over those who choose to stay; and for the most part, people don’t care much about anyone’s identity but their own. As more life options have become available, we’ve become more likely to cut each other slack, choosing to live and let live in the interest of social harmony (though you wouldn’t always know it from reading the complaints of self-selected grievance addicts on social media).
This liberal openness to others has been codified in civil- and human-rights laws that protect minority identities in regard to discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, race, religion, disability, and analogous criteria. For the rest, we work to foster empathy and rely on mutual goodwill: Laws can change how people behave, but not how they think. Re-education camps and conversion therapy have always failed; and, in the bargain, delivered horrific personal and social outcomes.
Social comity allows a gay man such as me to live peaceably with acquaintances who identify as Catholic and may consider me “objectively disordered.” They don’t bring it up, nor do I go out of my way to tell them I think that ideas such as transubstantiation, the Holy Trinity, and Christ’s ascension into Heaven are objectively wacky. It’s how my right to marry my husband coexists with the right of religious communities that refuse to perform our ceremony.
Liberal Enlightenment values have likewise led to the increasing acceptance of trans people over the past 70 years. Christine Jorgensen’s sex-reassignment surgery was controversial in 1952. But her clear, witty, and engaging public interviews won her widespread admiration. Most members of society recognized that it didn’t matter if transsexuals were “born in the wrong body” or afflicted with intense gender dysphoria. Either way, as human beings who identified as the opposite sex, they deserved dignity and respect. More and more people responded by calling male-to-female transsexuals “she,” and trans individuals subsequently achieved protection against discrimination throughout the Western world.
In parallel, American transgender activist Virginia Prince (1912–2009) identified herself as a straight male cross-dresser. She popularized the term “transgender” in her 1960s-era Transvestia Magazine, wrote the seminal trans booksThe Transvestite and His Wife (1967) and How to Be a Woman though Male (1971), and founded The Hose and Heels Club, later known as the Society for the Second Self, with membership restricted to heterosexual male crossdressers. (Homophobia has featured within this wing of the trans community from the outset.) Her gay and lesbian counterparts, drag queen Marsha P. Johnson and drag king Stormé DeLarverie, simultaneously self-identified as both transvestite and transgender. For the most part, society accommodated their identities as basic good manners.
Social harmony was made possible because those who identified as transsexual (and then transgender, as that term became more widely used) acknowledged that their sex and gender identities were different. They didn’t dismiss their sex as a detail that had been “assigned at birth” or try to force that concept on others. Rather, they recognized their sex as a biological fact, without which their self-understanding of transition made no sense.
This important distinction between sex and gender was codified in Britain’s nuanced Equality Act of 2010, which balanced gender-based rights with the need for the right for specific sex-based set-asides. It likewise informed the brilliant independent film Tangerine (2016), cast with one-time trans sex workers from San Francisco: These transwomen identity themselves as “she” and “girl,” but the biological distinction between male and female is at the heart of the narrative: One of their boyfriends has cheated with a “real girl” (also known as a “fish”).
Ironically, the biological definition of sex lay at the heart of the American transgender community’s successful campaign for equality rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Funeral director Aimee Stephens had been fired by the R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home in Detroit after she’d come out as trans and started wearing the dress suit that the company assigned for women. The US Supreme Court ruled that refusing to allow a man to wear clothes that women could wear was discrimination on the basis of sex.
But this live-and-let-live pluralism has been jeopardized in recent years—not primarily because of some resurgence in phobic attitudes among conservatives, but rather because the LGBT establishment has been captured by uncompromising gender activists. Under the claim that unfettered self-identification must be the only basis for marking one’s identity, activists have redefined language in a way that utterly conflates sex and gender. They have also leveraged generations of accumulated goodwill among policymakers in a bid to have this conflation of language encoded into law. Increasingly, government agencies, corporate HR departments, and social and public services are being pressured to fall in line with the mistaken belief that erasing the distinction between sex and gender is necessary to promote inclusivity and human rights.
Paradoxically, this campaign has yielded a society that is less inclusive. A truly welcoming, inclusive and diverse society can be maintained only if everyone accepts that competing interests must be balanced, and that reasonable compromise is in everyone’s mutual self-interest. Conversely, if one faction imposes its will upon the rest, the result will be a fractious mix of temporary victors and long-term grievance holders eager for payback. That’s why all of us have a stake in what is an existential fight over our identity and the liberal values that allow disparate communities to exist in harmony.
Most people are happy to accept that trans women are women in a metaphorical sense. But gender essentialists go further: They demand that everyone believe (or at least pretend to believe) that trans women are literally women (and trans men literally men). This means we must believe that biology and anatomy are irrelevant to the definition of men and women; and, therefore, that men and women can have either vaginas or penises. Since “vagina,” “cervix,” and “menstruation” no longer specifically refer to women, we are to call women who have them “vagina-havers,” “cervix-havers,” and “menstruators” or “bleeders.” To prevent a sex-based understanding of human beings from being recognized, language is even altered in medical settings, and expressions such as “female bodied” and “biological women” are considered inappropriate.
This conquest of language and the suppression of observable biological fact have devastated support for trans rights, the broader LGBT community, and have split the left-wing base. They have angered women who have been denied their history and the language of their own bodies. They have angered gays and lesbians who are, by definition, same-sex attracted. They have angered transsexuals who have consciously used this older term because they recognize that their dysphoria is rooted in biology. They have angered religious and ethnic communities whose identities include the right to sex-segregated spaces that allow women to protect their sense of modesty. And they have angered progressives who recognize that the attempt to impose Western academic theory on other cultures around the world is colonial imperialism writ large.
When presented with pushback, radical trans activists have responded by redefining the word “transphobia” to include any objection to the gaslighting tactics that now lie at the heart of their ideology. And the social consequences of being labelled “transphobic” have all but silenced public discussion among many progressives. Which is to say, the same extremists who claim opponents are “literally trying to deny our existence” have been allowed to literally deny the biological existence of women, gays, lesbians, and transsexuals, as well as the rights of religious and ethnic minorities to self-determination.
It takes no great power of observation to see that the charge of transphobia is absurd on its face. To my knowledge, no trans activist has ever emphasized the claim that trans men be placed in men’s prisons. No one expects gay men to have vaginal sex. And trans men have participated in men’s sports without issue for years. This has only ever been about the right of women to defend their hard-won right to same-sex spaces.
It’s true that transwomen will never take over women’s competitive sports. But that’s only because the vast majority of transwomen have too much pride, self-awareness, and decency to impose themselves where they know they don’t belong. It’s also true that very few transwomen will commit violent sexual offences in women’s prisons: That’s because transwomen are no more likely to be sexual offenders than other biological men. But none of this negates the right of women to protection from the male narcissists and psychopaths who do exist, and who use trans self-identification as cover to harass and harm women.
Ordinarytrans peopleunderstand thisbetter thananyone. They are horrified that Lia Thomas, radical activists, and the NCAA turned this year’s US college swimming championships into a farce. They also know that the sight of a biological man on the winner’s podium next to the biological women who lost has done more to encourage actual transphobia among the broad public than any rhetoric by anti-trans campaigners. It was a catastrophe, not only for the trans movement, but for the principles of pluralism that underpin all minority rights.
The problem is not with the trans community, but with an ideology that manipulates language and accords self-identification the status of holy writ. Words require definition. If, as activists assert, each person can define “man” and “woman” according to his or her own internal sense of gender, then any common meaning is destroyed and communication is impossible. That’s why trans pioneers insisted that sex and gender be kept separate: The terms “man” and “woman” only make sense when defined biologically. On the other hand, people are free to understand their gender as it relates to sex-based gender stereotypes and expectations.
This makes gender an especially fraught category for self-identification. People lie about everything: There is no reason to think they are uniquely honest about gender—much less, self-aware about their biases, motivated reasoning, or psychological confusions. We denounce the harm done by people who fake race, disability, and military service. But there is no equivalent to genealogical and medical charts to expose gender scams. Since gender self-identification is unfalsifiable, how do we prevent the harm done to women by females of convenience, while respecting the dignity and legitimate human rights of transwomen?
Fortunately, sex- and gender-based conflicts are rare in day-to-day social interactions. Where they exist, a range of accommodations exist. Either way, we should always use biological criteria to describe that small subset of natal men whose behaviour destroys the basis for trans acceptance. Trans people are not mentally ill, but mentally ill men can claim to be trans; as can anyone, as demonstrated by the men who immediately re-identify as men on their release from women’s prisons.
And so I believe that Scottish media clearly misgendered sex offender Chloe Thompson when reporters described him as a woman. He, Chloe, is a man. Women don’t masturbate while penetrating themselves with a sex toy in public, nor do they rack up 17 sex-related convictions, including sexual assault on an underage girl. Hannah Tubbs is another man whom the media misgendered as “she.” He raped a 10-year-old girl in Los Angeles, just one of his many violent crimes; yet at age 26, he’s been sentenced to serve time in a girls’ juvenile detention facility. The 83 year old “woman” who allegedly decapitated a female victim and brought the head back to his Brooklyn home earlier this year is also a man, with two other convictions for murder and manslaughter under his belt. For more examples, investigate any news report that purports to describe a woman being accused or convicted of unspeakable sex acts; they are almost invariably men.
The trans community should not be held responsible for such men’s depravity; nor should male rapists be allowed to manipulate self-identification to access more prey in women’s prisons. It is also important for society that criminals be properly gendered to ensure that accurate crime statistics be collected for purposes of analysis, crime prevention, and prisoner rehabilitation.
In the field of competitive sports, especially at the elite level, it is likewise important to properly gender athletes. That there is a male sex-based advantage is beyond dispute, a fact acknowledged by Renée Richards, the transwoman who competed in women’s pro tennis in the 1970s, and by trans sports legend Caitlyn Jenner. So, while Lia Thomas’s gender identity should be respected by using the female pronouns she/her in her personal life, her biological sex is male. And so Thomas should be referenced by he/him pronouns in sex-based contexts, including athletics. This can lead to clunky formulations—“She always loved to swim, but never won a national trophy before he competed against women”—but surely these are less jarring (and more accurate) than the contortions of language we are already asked to endure in the name of acceptance.
Throughout history, and in many places around the world today, women have been treated as property by virtue of their sex. They have been denied the vote, the right to bodily autonomy, sexual consent, birth control, drivers’ licences, bank accounts, and property, and have been subjected to genital mutilation, menstruation huts, honour killings, foot bindings, and immolation on the death of their husbands. It is outrageous that trans provocateurs who have been granted social acceptance as women should turn around and gaslight actual women’s sex-based oppressions. Women wouldn’t do that to women. These are men.
Meanwhile, non-dysphoric men who failed as writers, actors, artists, and musicians have found success after self-identifying as women. Leveraging identity is part of art, especially fiction, and many artists have found that their true métier is living life as performance art. But there should be no place for misogynists, gay or straight, who mock and trivialize women’s bodies while claiming womanhood by flaunting their beards and chest hair. It’s one thing to make a buck identifying as a trauma clown. It’s another to take to university podiums and deny women their biological sex on International Women’s Day.
Nor should there be consideration for self-identified women who sabotage the trans movement by making death threats against those, such as J.K. Rowling, who support trans rights, but refuse to accept that women can be fired from their jobs for acknowledging the existence of biology. This is the act of male psychopaths, and they should be gendered accordingly.
All mammals are binary, excepting rare disorders that affect the genitals, analogous to those affecting other organs. And so, ultimately, a biological understanding of men and women will prevail, since there is a limit to people’s willingness to disbelieve their eyes and ears. My greatest fear, however, is that this victory for common sense will be accompanied by an extreme backlash against trans individuals and other members of the LGBT community. Indeed, we are already seeing signs of this in some conservative US states.
Radical activists may have sown the wind, but we shall all reap the whirlwind. That’s why we must stand up for liberal values now, before the backlash builds force.