Is it possible to support trans people but question gender identity theory?
Several years ago at the University of Wollongong, the Ally Network was set up. It is about supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people, who are vulnerable to discrimination and harassment. According to the network’s webpage, “An Ally Program sets out to develop a visible network of empathetic people who are allies of students and staff who are gender, sex and sexuality diverse people.”
Members of the network received information and brief training and then made themselves known by posting stickers on their office doors. Anyone identifying as LGBTI could consult an “ally” in the network to talk about concerns and to find support if they requested it. Similar networks were set up at universities across the country.
I thought this was a valuable initiative, and joined when the UOW network was set up. I learned a lot by attending workshops and reading the detailed information provided, including the distinctions between the identities referred to by the letters LGBTI, which soon became LGBTQ+, with Q for queer and the plus sign indicating other identities. Hundreds of staff members joined the Ally Network, and there are student members too, though I haven’t heard much about any of them being contacted for support. Maybe this doesn’t matter. One of the most important functions of the network is holding public activities in support of LGBTQ+, for example holding stalls on open days and a ceremony when rainbow stairs were officially launched.
While opposing harassment and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, I also had another role. For decades I have been researching and writing about suppression of dissent, for example the silencing of critics of nuclear power, pesticides and fluoridation, among many others. This is closely connected with support for whistleblowing, which refers to speaking out in the public interest, typically by employees raising concerns about corruption and dangers to the public. Dissenters and whistleblowers encounter similar sorts of adverse actions, including censorship, character assassination, harassment, and loss of jobs.
Dissent and whistleblowing can occur in just about every domain you can think of. I’ve talked with teachers, police, public servants, corporation employees, researchers, soldiers and members of churches, all of whom have suffered reprisals for speaking out and challenging dominant viewpoints or vested interests. In some controversies, like climate change, there are attempts from both sides to silence opponents.
Dissent and trans issues
So, what about dissent and whistleblowing on the trans issue? I learned about this from my friend Isla MacGregor, who lives in Tasmania. Isla and I have worked together on dissent issues since the 1990s, for example organising a conference on it. In recent years, Isla has become involved in the trans debate, supporting free speech and supporting critics of trans rights activists’ claims about science and law. Isla told me about how she was deplatformed from public forums in Hobart and about attempts to ban a forum she was helping to organise.
From Isla and other sources, I learned it is risky to question gender identity theory, and risky to question whether adolescents should be affirmed in their gender preferences. To do this makes one liable to be labelled a TERF, a trans-exclusionary radical feminist. This label is the opposite of a compliment. Other labels applied include bigot, hater and Nazi.
There are two issues involved here. One is discrimination against and harassment of trans people, which is extremely serious in many parts of the world, even deadly. I take for granted that this should be opposed.
My concerns here are about a different but related issue, free speech and open debate on the tension between trans rights and women’s rights. In some places, especially where there is official support for trans people, there can be hostility in some circles to anyone who openly questions certain trans-related positions.
On issues of social importance, I believe it is valuable to be able to discuss a range of views, including ones that are stigmatised. For example, it’s possible to support free speech for vaccine critics without necessarily agreeing with them. As I wrote in “Censorship and free speech in scientific controversies,” “In some cases, campaigners seek to censor opponents, most commonly on the grounds that their views are false and dangerous.” I concluded,
“The impulse to censor is often stimulated by worthy objectives, including improving public health. However, on both principled free-speech grounds and pragmatic considerations, it may be better to welcome open debate and to treat audiences as capable of assessing evidence and arguments and making informed judgements.”
Sex and gender
Decades ago, when I first learned about feminism, the standard idea was that sex is determined by genetics and gender is socially constructed. Someone with XX chromosomes is biologically a female, but they might express themselves in typically masculine or feminine ways, depending on their upbringing and social conditioning and expectations.
The problem was that biological females were rigidly channelled to conform to the female role, and biological males were rigidly channelled to behave like stereotypical men. The feminist movement challenged this, with some feminists wanting to abolish gender and others saying gender could be more fluid. With different social influences and different conditioning, a person could express sex role stereotypes different from their biological sex, and this was okay.
There is now a different story, but I didn’t know much about it, having not explored the ideas. So when I saw a new book by Kajsa Ekis Ekman about gender theory — On the meaning of sex — I thought it would be an opportunity to learn more about it and to better understand what is driving attempts to silence critics. Ekman is Swedish and uses many examples from Sweden, plus ones from the US and a few other places.
On the meaning of sex
According to Ekman, spokespeople for gender identity theory (GIT) say gender is not connected to sex, but they don’t agree on how to define gender. If gender is innate, as GIT says, there’s no way of examining the brain to find out what it is. So how is one’s gender determined? The answer, according to Ekman’s account of GIT, is to look at behaviour. A boy who likes playing with dolls and wearing dresses is thought to be more stereotypically female while a girl who is boisterous and plays with trucks is thought to be more stereotypically male.
The trouble with this way of determining gender identity is that it relies on stereotypes of masculine and feminine. In the old days (and still today), many children were expected to behave according to sex role stereotypes, in order to make gender expression conform with their sex. With the new world of GIT, children are encouraged to modify their bodies to conform to their personal sense of their own gender. It turns out to be a new way to discourage people from behaviour deviant from sex stereotypes.
Ekman does her best to extract the core ideas of GIT from writing by its supporters and, in doing so, exposes what she thinks are deep contradictions. According to GIT, gender is the essence of a person and sex is irrelevant, and each of us is the best judge of our own gender. If I say I am a woman, then I am. But then there is the curious label cis. A person who is cis — a cis-man or cis-woman — experiences their gender being in agreement with their bodies. Cis is the converse of trans. But if biological sex is no longer of importance, how can someone be labelled cis? Only by looking at chromosomes. This is what leads Ekman to say GIT smuggles in biology by the back door.
With self-identification of gender, it’s possible to call oneself trans. Someone born male can become a transwoman; someone born female can become a transman. But, according to Ekman, you are not permitted to call yourself trans if you are cis.
“It has become taboo to say ‘woman’ if one means only biological women, yet there is now a different word to refer to this group, one with the obligatory prefix ‘cis’, which equals privilege. Thus, according to gender identity theory, it is only possible to speak of the group biological women as a privileged group.” (p. 234)
Ekman argues that conservatives and progressives agree about one thing: sex and gender identity should be aligned. Conservatives want sex to determine gender identity whereas GIT seeks alignment by having gender identity determine sex. Tomboys and effeminate boys are targets for change, either their behaviour or their bodies.
There are many issues concerning women’s versus trans rights. Some of them have straightforward solutions, albeit costly. What about toilets and changerooms? Should trans people be allowed in? In particular, should transwomen who have made no attempt to change their appearance or bodies be welcome in women’s toilets and changerooms? One way to sidestep this contentious issue is to convert all multi-user facilities to numerous separate ones available for just one individual at a time. (To be clear, I’m not talking about unisex facilities that have several stalls within a single large room; I’m referring to completely independent units, like at some large Sydney railway stations.)
There is no such solution for the most vexing issue: hormone treatments for children who have a gender identity different from their birth sex. In a few cases, feelings of being in the wrong body emerge persistently from a young age. I think of the famous whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who describes this experience in her memoir Readme.txt.
However, in some individuals, such feelings emerge suddenly, often around puberty. When a 13-year-old tells their parents that they are distressed about their bodies not matching their sense of gender identity, and want to change, what should be done? It used to be that the more common change was from male to female, but now the reverse is more common: adolescent girls who request to be boys. At clinics where gender affirmation is the protocol, such girls might be sent to a psychiatrist and an endocrinologist and then put on puberty blockers. Some parents support this but others are concerned about their children making life-changing decisions without greater investigation and warnings.
Ekman highlights an impact of puberty blockers that is not well publicised: some of the changes are irreversible, and sterility is a common consequence of the drugs used. Other problems include sexual dysfunction, depression and osteoporosis. Another thing: going on drugs to change one’s gender requires taking the drugs ever after, for a lifetime. How many adolescents have the maturity to make life-changing decisions with such wide-ranging consequences? Ekman notes that “The age limit on voluntary sterilisation for the general public is 25 for this very reason — not even at the age of 18 are our brains sufficiently developed to contemplate the consequences of such a decision.” (p. 138)
Given the money involved in lifetime drug treatment, it is perhaps no surprise that pharmaceutical companies are involved. Ekman notes that trans rights have progressed far more rapidly than rights for women or homosexuals. She thinks the difference is the money to be made in transitions.
There are so many topics covered in Ekman’s book — including women’s sport, male violence, suicide threats, intersectionality and hate speech — that I can only mention a few. One of the most important is her view that GIT and trans issues are a way for patriarchy to enter by the back door, with restrictions on women’s rights gaining support among progressives. With this way of thinking, attempts to denigrate and silence critics of GIT are a politically correct way of attacking radical feminists.
Ekman says most of the debate is about the right of transwomen to enter women’s spaces, with hardly anything said about the rights of transmen. Indeed, transmen seem to be invisible in much of the commentary about trans issues. Recently, I read a commentary in defence of trans rights. Transwomen were mentioned ten times, transmen not at all. In sport, all the attention is on whether transwomen can compete in women’s events and teams, with no attention to transmen entering men’s events and teams. Ekman says there is no effort to adjust rules to enable transmen to succeed in men’s sport.
Well, I could go on, as there is much more in On the Meaning of Sex. But what I would like to see is a calm response to the book by defenders of GIT and self-identification, laying out points of agreement and disagreement. My concern is less about trans issues and more about there being a fair and open discussion, without attempts to denigrate and silence opponents.
I started out by asking whether it’s possible to support trans people while questioning gender identity theory. Surely the answer should be yes.
Acknowledgements Several individuals read drafts of this post and gave me valuable comments, from different points of view. Because of the sensitivity of the topic, I am not naming any of them, but I do appreciate their engagement and concern.
Brian Martin, firstname.lastname@example.org