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Can the media focus on transgender politics reveal anything larger about identity?

Four new books offer insight into what it means to be a man or woman in a world increasingly accepting of moving between the two.

The world of transgender politics is full of big claims and bold declarations, but here is an understatement to start with: “The media is having a trans moment,” writes C N Lester in Trans Like Me. They are not wrong (“they” because Lester identifies as non-binary, and so asks to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns). Besides the books addressed here, recent additions to the discussion include the novel This Is How It Always Is (based on the transition of the author Laurie Frankel’s own child), The Gender Games by the Glamour columnist Juno Dawson (modestly subtitled The Problem With Men and Women . . . from Someone Who Has Been Both), The New Girl by the Elle columnist Rhyannon Styles, True Colours by Caroline Paige (the first openly trans person in the British military) and Surpassing Certainty by the trans activist Janet Mock – a second volume of autobiography to follow 2014’s Redefining Realness.

These books cover memoir, popular science and manifesto. Inevitably, they are wildly variable, both in quality and in ideology. I suspect that Lester might prefer a little less ideological range. Trans Like Me opens by asking, “What does the word ‘trans’ mean to you?” which, Lester then explains, is how they begin the corporate diversity training sessions they lead. Few books have so accurately captured the experience of being detained in a conference room and forced to reckon with a whiteboard.

Lester insists that there is no right or wrong way to be trans. They are equally adamant that there is a right way to talk about trans issues, and that any deviation from this is a vicious wrong: “Use the right names, use the right pronouns, and don’t fall for the line that we’re too difficult for our own good.” It sounds simple enough but, in practice, trans people come from many backgrounds and have many different narratives of self-understanding.

Consequently there are trans people who fall short of Lester’s own standards. Chief among these disappointments is Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic champion decathlete and reality-TV star. To Lester, Jenner is guilty of sensationalising transition for a voyeuristic public, and has taken on the mantle of representing all trans people while holding the privileges of wealth and whiteness. “Despite not knowing Caitlyn Jenner, I can feel let down by her actions,” Lester grumbles, like a head teacher speaking of a frequent truant.

Lester’s argument displays a reluctance to engage with criticism. For instance, they wave away concerns that desegregating public spaces in the interests of trans inclusion will intrude on women’s access to services with the statement: “As far as I am aware – and at the time of writing this – there has not been a single reported case of a trans person attacking a cis person in a public bathroom. Ever.” (“Cis” denotes a person whose gender corresponds to their sex at birth; the gloss Lester offers for it is “the antonym of trans”.) There are, however, several cases of male sex offenders who have claimed to be trans; more banally, when the Barbican recently redesignated its male and female toilets as “gender-neutral”, women were forced to queue longer for a cubicle and men retained de facto sole use of the urinals. It would be good if Lester at least acknowledged such conflicts of interest, even if they do not have the solutions.

As for what gender actually is – or what Lester’s experience of gender is – they collapse into ellipses when they attempt to define this: “. . . the knowledge of how my mind knows my body to be is so . . . I don’t even know how to put it. How do you describe the mind and body describing the mind and body?” I don’t know, either, but I suspect that more clarity might be in order before readers embrace Lester’s pursuit of a “less binary world”.

In any case, isn’t the cis/trans terminology that Lester pushes a binary opposition in its own right? Lester defines as trans anyone “who has had to challenge or change the sexed and gendered labels placed upon them at birth to honour their true selves”, which implies that, conversely, the “true selves” of non-trans people do fit the labels given them. By this reasoning, any woman who challenges the restraints of gender (say, Mary Wollstonecraft arguing in 1792 for female education, or suffragettes pushing for the vote in 1905) is arguably not a woman at all. Her demands tell us only that she has been mislabelled, rather than reflecting the dues of women as a class. There is a heavy imposition packaged in the word “cis” that Lester does not explore.

Amy Ellis Nutt is the only writer here to approach the subject as an outsider. Though not trans, she spent several years reporting on the Maines family, which adopted twin boys at birth in 1997 and subsequently supported one of them through the process – as the title of her book has it – of becoming Nicole. Nutt is a science writer for the Washington Post and describes her beat as being “the brain”. Nicole’s self-assertion is recounted with detail and compassion, but for Nutt the real interest is in such light as may be shone on the nature/nurture dispute. Was Nicole born a girl despite her male body, or did something in her upbringing propel her towards cross-sex identification?

Nutt is confident that it is the former. In the opening chapters of Becoming Nicole, she emphasises that the Maineses are a couple who could never be said to have encouraged femininity in a son. Two plain people from hardscrabble backgrounds, they share a conservative politics and the husband, Wayne, looks forward to teaching his boys to hunt. (His dismay is palpable when faced with a son who wants to be the Little Mermaid.) Nutt even titles one chapter “The Transgender Brain”; in it, she marshals neuroscience to support her position.

But the evidence she supplies is a couple of small-scale studies (one of which involved just six subjects). Even if they conclusively proved a relationship between brain structure and gender identity (and they don’t), they would not prove that the brain structure causes the gender identity. At one point she explains that animal studies are a poor proxy for gender identity in human beings (animals have a physical sex but not the human cultural understanding of gender), yet later on she recruits an experiment on rats to validate her hypothesis of innate gender.

More interesting is the story that emerges between the lines of the Maineses’ narrative. “That’s how the conversations – if you could call them that – went,” Nutt writes, as she describes Wayne’s confrontations with Nicole the toddler (she was then called Wyatt). “Wyatt wearing a dress; Wayne wanting Wyatt to act more like a boy.” On the one hand, it is true that Nicole received nothing but encouragement to behave like a stereotypical boy. On the other, it reads as if her parents presented her with an ultimatum from the earliest age: if you wear a dress and if you like mermaids, you cannot be a boy. Most children might change their behaviour to “match” their sex, but surely some would make the opposite deduction and claim the other sex, rather than change their interests and personality.

Nutt’s casual sexism suggests that she has little interest in deconstructing stereotypes. She tells us that Wyatt “wasn’t gay, he wasn’t a boy attracted to other boys. He was a girl. He was a girl who wanted to be pretty and feel loved and one day marry a boy – just like other girls did.” As a teenager, Nicole “looked like a girl, she felt like a girl, and she yearned to be kissed like the girl she really was”. Is this what being a girl consists of? Can lesbians even be considered female, in Nutt’s understanding? When Wyatt wants to wear a skirt to a school concert, Nutt tells it as though the injustice is for one child to be denied access to their preferred sex stereotype, ignoring the greater injustice of all children being forced to “do gender” as part of their uniform.

Perhaps it would be better if trans people were left to tell their own stories. Then again, what if they have as little interest in the rules of activism as Caitlyn Jenner does? Contemporary etiquette holds that “deadnaming” (using a person’s pre-transition name) and “misgendering” (referring to them by the pronoun of their sex at birth rather than their chosen gender) are acts of grave rhetorical violence. Jenner is having none of it, as she makes clear in her introductory note to The Secrets of My Life: “I will refer to the name Bruce when I think it appropriate, and the name Caitlyn when I think it appropriate. Bruce existed for 65 years, and Caitlyn is just going on her second birthday. That’s the reality.”

Jenner has teamed up with an excellent ghostwriter for this book – the Friday Night Lights author “Buzz” Bissinger, who, like Nutt, is a Pulitzer Prizewinner. There is also the advantage of a good story. Jenner starts off as an awkward, accordion-playing child, becoming a national hero after his triumph at the 1976 Olympics salvaged the Cold War pride of an underperforming US team. Knowing this makes it easier to understand what Jenner and her transition signified in her home country. It does not necessarily make Jenner more likeable. Separating from one’s wife, getting a second woman pregnant, and then getting your wife pregnant to boot is not appealing behaviour.

Nevertheless, her refusal of bullshit is ­refreshing and sometimes eye-popping. C N Lester would probably not approve of Jenner musing that “a trans woman who looks like a man in a dress makes people ­uncomfortable”, nor the avowal that “I am not a woman. Nor will I ever be. I am a trans woman. There is a difference.” Jenner also alludes frankly to the possible sexual motives for transition, including autogynaephilia: the theory, proposed by some sexologists, that certain trans women are aroused by the idea of themselves as women. In Trans Like Me, Lester dismisses the idea as “discredited”. Yet as Jenner writes: “Sometimes I wonder if dressing up like this is the equivalent of having sex with myself, male and female at the same time.” Lester might well feel let down.

Lester believes that trans politics and feminism progress hand in hand but Jenner shows how awkward the fit can be in practice. As an athletic man, Jenner writes, “my legs are made to go, not show”; but ­after transition, “my legs are there to show, not go”. These descriptions equate femaleness with passive, objectified femininity; maleness with active, high-achieving masculinity. There is no reason to believe that accepting the doctrine of gender identity should automatically lead to female liberation. Indeed, both Ireland and Malta have exceptionally liberal laws on gender recognition and yet outlaw abortion.

Thomas Page McBee, a trans man, is the only author here to approach seriously the question of how gender hurts female bodies. His memoir Man Alive is, in its own way, as resistant to pat conclusions and sloganeering as Jenner’s. It is also literate and witty, a kind of informal companion to The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, published in 2015. Where Nelson watched her partner Harry Dodge’s transition through testosterone therapy and “top surgery” (elective mastectomy), McBee describes it from the inside. He is willing to leave uncomfortable truths out for scrutiny.

McBee is sexually abused as a young girl. The violence causes depersonalisation, a feeling of being removed from one’s own skin: McBee’s experience is the story of “how I lost a body, or how I conflated the two ways that my body was lost to me”. Perhaps the abuse contributes to McBee’s masculine identification – or perhaps, he muses, “my manhood was always there, blueprinted in my torn-knee jeans, my ­He-Man castle, my short hair”. McBee’s openness to negative capability, his refusal to fix on an answer for everything, make his book more valuable and more engaging than much of its cohort.

Yet McBee’s account of gender still feels lacking. His girlfriend Parker tells him (and the author seems to agree) that gender is “not something that’s done to you, it’s who you are”. But if gender is who you are and not how you’re treated, how come McBee’s book was originally co-published by Sister Spit, the feminist imprint of the San Francisco-based City Lights? Why, if C N Lester is not a woman, has their book appeared under the banner of Virago, a women’s press? And why do natal females occupy such a small part of trans culture overall, while natal males dominate?

Regardless of how McBee and Lester identify, the publishing industry and the world at large appear to have little difficulty treating them as female. Later this year, new books by the journalist Will Storr and the historian Rachel Hewitt will appear, asking questions about what we mean by a “self” and whether it makes sense to think of ourselves as individual essences, rather than products of complex social relationships. Identity has been fertile ground for publishers lately; but when it comes to understanding who we are, perhaps it is a dead end.

Trans Like Me: a Journey for All of Us 
C N Lester
Virago, 240pp, £13.99

Becoming Nicole: the Extraordinary Transformation of an Ordinary Family 
Amy Ellis Nutt
Atlantic Books, 304pp, £12.99

The Secrets of My Life 
Caitlyn Jenner
Trapeze, 336pp, £18.99

Man Alive: a True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man 
Thomas Page McBee
Canongate, 172pp, £8.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

Spudgun67 via Creative Commons/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
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It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.