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Gender’s Truth-Distortion Field

Across the English-speaking world, the discussion of trans rights is governed by taboos, sacred myths, and, in some cases, outright lies.

· 10 min read
Gender’s Truth-Distortion Field
The thumbnail of a YouTube video by TransHub, a transgender information and activism web portal funded by the government of New South Wales. 

Imagine you’re a policymaker considering the rules that govern the care of gender non-conforming children. You’ve heard slogans to the effect that “gender-affirming care”—which is to say, expressing reflexive support for the announced gender identity of trans-presenting children—is the right thing to do. It has to be, you’ve come to believe. It’s got the word “affirming” in it. And it’s backed by many (though, as we shall see, not all) reputable-sounding bodies such as WPATH, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. Your own staff tell you that you will be hailed as progressive and enlightened for heeding such advice, but denounced as phobic and regressive if you express scepticism. Some darkly warn that your failure to fall into line on this issue may literally put the lives of trans children at risk.

But by now, you’ve also heard of the various scandals surrounding those who’ve promoted gender-affirming care with excessive zeal, and even recklessness, in other jurisdictions. And you’re looking to get ahead of such controversies in your own jurisdiction.

Perhaps you’ve been following the situation in England and Wales, where the country’s only gender-identity clinic for people under 18 has been shut down following a report that showed children were being rushed into irreversible transition therapies without adequate safeguards.

You might also have taken note of the fate of venerable LGBT-charity Stonewall, whose reputation has suffered in some circles due to its “Diversity Champions programme,” by which employers can pay to display a special logo; and its “Workplace Equality Index,” which boosts the profiles of employers that follow Stonewall’s lead on seemingly questionable policies, such as giving multiple email accounts to “gender fluid” workers.

Even the BBC, hardly a bastion of social conservatism, has withdrawn from Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme, out of concern that its continued affiliation would arouse suspicions of political bias.

Then again, the UK is ahead of the curve: The radicalization of the trans-rights movement was more accelerated in the UK than in other countries, and so the response to that radicalization has been more accelerated, too. This pushback has manifested through politics, litigation, journalistic investigation, and academic dissent.

In the United States, meanwhile, the debate over trans rights has become (as with seemingly every other issue) just another front in that country’s endless and uniquely bitter culture war—a predictable, if unedifying, development whose lessons cannot be generalized to other nations. Many Republican-controlled states in that country have taken steps to ban transition therapies for children outright, including in such cases where therapies would be conducted responsibly and under rigorous medical controls. These are steps that even many “gender-critical” activists in other parts of the world find excessive.

In other parts of the English-speaking world—including Canada, New Zealand, and, our home, Australia—the situation is much as it was in the UK several years ago, before trans-rights overreach provoked an organized and sustained pushback from mainstream forces. In these jurisdictions, decisions are still being made on the basis of maximalist trans-activist slogans and a claimed medical “consensus” that doesn’t actually align with peer-reviewed science.

As participants in the debate over best practices in Australia, we have come to view this state of affairs, metaphorically, as a kind of truth-distortion field. Its effect is to systematically deflect political decisions, therapeutic practice, and grade-school pedagogy in the direction of trans-rights maximalism.

The generating stations for this truth-distortion field include well-known bodies such as the AIDS Council of New South Wales (ACON), whose primary funder is the government of New South Wales, Australia’s biggest state. (Its capital is Sydney, by far the country’s biggest city.) As its name suggests, ACON was established to advocate for those at risk from the 1980s AIDS epidemic; and that important work achieved important results. But in recent years, like many venerable charities that spent decades advocating for the gay community (including Stonewall), ACON has steadily shifted its attention and resources to trans issues.

Under the auspices of its “Pride in Diversity” program, ACON runs the AWEI, or Australian Workplace Equality Index—an employer-accreditation system explicitly modelled on Stonewall’s example, which now serves as Australia’s only national benchmark for LGBTQ workplace inclusion. It was created with the assistance of Diversity Council Australia (DCA), which self-describes as an “independent not-for-profit peak body leading diversity and inclusion in the workplace.” DCA’s membership includes many of Australia’s largest companies. Overall, the DCA claims, its member organisations “are estimated to employ nearly two million Australians, representing more than 20 percent of the workforce.”

As with the Stonewall accreditation system in the UK, at least initially, the AWEI seal of approval has been sought after by employers. But—again, following the British precedent—questions have been asked about the criteria at play.

In 2021, a request was made under Britain’s Freedom of Information Act, seeking copies of any submissions made to Stonewall’s Workplace Equalities Index by Oxford University, and any feedback received on those submissions. In a 2022 decision regarding the scope of Oxford’s required disclosures, the country’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) decided that the university’s involvement in Stonewall’s Workplace Equalities Index had become a matter of public interest. “By associating themselves with Stonewall’s brand, employers are bound to chase its approval,” the ICO concluded. This meant that “Stonewall is able to exercise, through its Index and its Diversity Champions Programme, a significant degree of influence over the policies that participating members operate. Such influence can be used for good and for bad.”

At a University of Melbourne event on  October 4th, 2022 “Pride & Prejudice in Policy: What can our Public Institutions learn from the UK’s Stonewall Controversy,” the event organiser, Philosophy of Science Professor Cordelia Fine observed in her introduction that “people engaged in contemporary debates about sex and gender identity have been harassed, intimidated, verbally abused, gratuitously offended, viciously smeared and forced from positions, roles or other professional opportunities.” By offering a system of rewards to those on one side of the debate about gender, the AWEI, like its controversial UK counterpart, isn’t just rewarding those with a particular set of political views: It’s also encouraging the idea that those who lack such accreditation, owing to their failure to posture according to the politically preferred manner, possess less worthy, or even illegitimate viewpoints.

The union representing Australia’s higher education and university employees, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), represents another truth-distortion field broadcast node. Last year, it issued an explicit warning to anyone who is gender critical—which is to say, anyone who believes that the reality of biological sex differences should be considered alongside self-declared gender identity as a basis for policymaking.

In a motion drafted for the national council of the NTEU, an annual forum of hundreds of delegates, gender-critical research was described as “hate speech … masquerading as academic work,” “not welcome in society or in our union,” an instrument of “transphobia,” and therefore disqualified from the protections afforded by academic freedom.

One truth-distorting effect of this kind of rhetoric is that it gaslights gender-critical individuals by suggesting they’re part of a fringe movement. In fact, the opposite is true. The vast majority of Australians, like everyone else, understands perfectly well that sex differences are real. It is those who insist that self-identification is the only meaningful marker of identify who, in arithmetic terms at least, cling to a fringe opinion.

In this regard, much of academia itself now exists within the reality-distorting field, since it is considered impolite, or even professionally risky, to assert the reality of biology when it conflicts with slogans to the effect that a trans woman is a woman, full stop.

In September 2022, Spanish sociologist Laura Favaro wrote about her recent research on detransitioners—formerly transgender-identified individuals whose self-described identity now aligns with their real biological sex. She noted that even those academics who are not self-identified “gender-critical” intellectuals still tend to express concerns about “the ‘affirmative’ medical approach, the loss of single-sex spaces, and the impact of removing sex as a category in favour of gender.” But they are “too scared” to talk openly.

And with good reason. Favaro herself claims to have “been ostracised, subjected to false complaints, had my research stopped, my research data taken away, and I have lost my job.”

And yet in spite of these pressures, the pushback from academics continues to grow. These ranks include Judith Suissa and Alice Sullivan, both at University College London, who have written about how doctrinal puritans on the trans-activist side have come to not only suppress debate on issues connected to sex and gender, but even corrupt the linguistic tools necessary to conduct such a debate:

The obfuscation in many official documents, popular discourse and policy language between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ has contributed to the difficulties of articulating critical intellectual positions on these issues. But policy, law and research cannot work, let alone make changes and advances, without clear and commonly understood definitions. If large swathes of the population are talking at cross purposes when they use basic terms like ‘sex’, ‘gender’ and ‘gender identity’, it is imperative for spaces to exist where we can discuss what we mean when we use these terms, and what is implied by their use in different contexts. If universities, of all places, can’t provide these spaces, it is difficult to see how they can fulfil their function of contributing to public understanding.

Of course, there is a limit to how much government actors can (or even should) intervene to discourage the spread and influence of reality-distorting campus dogmas. At the very least, however, they can ensure that these dogmas don’t find support in publicly funded entities—such as, in Australia’s case, Transhub, ACON’s primary transgender health information site.

Established in 2020, Transhub advocates for “affirmative” care—which is described as “recognising and acknowledging that trans people tell the truth about who we are.” The use of the word “truth” suggests that anyone who disagrees with this approach is, in effect, accusing trans-presenting people of dishonesty. In fact, longitudinal studies show that trans-identified individuals themselves often reject their trans identity over time, especially in cases where they do not undergo irreversible medical transitions. The pioneering research of Canadian gender-dysphoria expert Kenneth Zucker indicates that a therapeutic regime of “watchful waiting”—as distinct from immediate “affirmation”—allows the vast majority of trans-identified youth to overcome their gender dysphoria.

(Critics of watchful waiting have tried to analogize it to homophobic conversion therapy. This is ironic because, as Zucker’s research has shown, most individuals followed in these studies tend to grow up to become gay adults. In other words, the conversion-therapy accusation is more properly aimed at those seeking to encourage gay boys and girls to grow into nominally straight trans-identified men and women.)

Thankfully, some professional groups have aligned their recommendations with these facts. That includes Australia’s National Association of Practicing Psychiatrists (NAPP), whose guide for managing gender dysphoria encourages a cautious, respectful, and supportive approach “that does not seek any particular outcome in relation to gender identity or sexual orientation.” Notwithstanding the efforts of activists to link such advice to the phobic positions embraced by conservative American politicians, this watchful-waiting-style clinical guidance has now been embraced by national bodies in Finland, Sweden, and France.

(The NAPP also states that, “medical interventions to block puberty and cross-hormone treatment … are not fully reversible and can cause significant adverse effects on physical, cognitive, reproductive and psychosexual development.”)

But the NAPP is an outlier. For this seems to be the one area of medical policy where the spread of misinformation through official channels is not only permitted, but celebrated, by specialist bodies. Consider the 2018 policy statement from the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) on care for transgender and gender diverse children, endorsing a policy of gender affirmation. A 2019 peer-reviewed article revealed that the AAP statement at the time “provided recommendations entirely unsupported and even in direct opposition to that research and opinion.” If the debunked research had been in the field of, say, oncology, this would be a scandal. But when it comes to gender affirmation, even doctors regularly succumb to reality distortion.

Perhaps the most emotionally manipulative aspect of the reality-distortion campaign is the extremely dubious suggestion that failing to sign on to affirmative mantras effectively serves to push trans children to suicide. Debunked claims—such as the idea that 41 percent of trans people have attempted suicide—have taken on a life of their own. The lurid slogan that parents of a trans-presenting child must, as the expression goes, choose between a living son or a dead daughter (or vice versa) has inspired the street-activist meme of “no more dead trans kids,” while Transhub gets to the same point with “interventions are not only medically necessary, but life saving.” (On this basis, Transhub demands that “all GPs and prescribers can and should be gender affirming doctors.)

Transhub’s materials run counter to information contained in relevant academic studies, including many published by Australian experts. One such example is a 2021 peer-reviewed study from academics at the Faculty of Health, University of Canberra, which found that “children with gender dysphoria often experience a range of psychiatric comorbidities [i.e., the presence of two or more medical conditions], with a high prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders, trauma, eating disorders and autism spectrum conditions, suicidality and self-harm.” They also urge that, “it is vitally important to consider psychiatric comorbidities when prioritising and sequencing treatments for children with gender dysphoria.”

Needless to say, this kind of finding runs directly at odds with the message that the only problem afflicting transgender-presenting children is the soul-crushing effect of transphobia. The psychiatric reality, that gender dysphoria often appears as part of a larger set of life challenges, self-destructive behaviours, and serious mental-health conditions, is obviously off message. And so it is simply discarded by the officially sanctioned and funded authorities that presume to educate Australians about gender issues.

In the long run, it may be the courts that finally flick the off switch on the reality-distortion field, as detransitioned litigants step forward to sue clinicians and institutions that encouraged them to embark on often inadequately tested therapies that left them just as depressed as they once were, but now with the added heartbreak of sterility, and the debilitating side effects of drugs and surgeries.

But in the short run, a good start would be for governments to examine their funding relationships with the groups that have laid the groundwork for all this reality distortion. In 2022, the NSW government directed $12 million toward ACON and affiliated bodies. And one wonders is that money might be better spent elsewhere. It’s one thing to use government money for little or no return. This happens all the time. It’s quite another to subsidize outright misinformation and harm.

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