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15 September 2021updated 16 Sep 2021 12:02pm

How to talk about trans rights

Two new books reveal the fault line running through the gender identity debate.

By Sophie McBain

It is not enough to campaign for trans rights or trans equality, the journalist Shon Faye writes in The Transgender Issue: the goal should be trans liberation. “Trans people should not aspire to be equals in a world that remains both capitalist and patriarchal,” she argues. The public discussion about trans rights has taken on the futile, destructive dynamic of a culture war, and Faye, a trans woman, wants to reframe it. “We are not an ‘issue’ to be debated and derided. We are symbols of hope for non-trans people, too, who see in our lives the possibility of living more fully and freely,” she writes.

This is a political manifesto, not a memoir, though Faye occasionally draws on her own experiences and these moving passages lend urgency to her writing. “Ever since I was a child, I have had to learn to keep on going in a world which signalled to me at every turn that I was mad, bad, sick, deluded, disgusting, a pervert, a danger, unlovable,” she writes. The media, dominated by cisgender (non-trans) voices, tends to focus on their issues with trans people – to do with access to toilets or the correct use of pronouns – rather than the issues facing the trans community.

In 2009-10, 40 girls under 18 were referred to England’s Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) because of gender dysphoria (acute unhappiness caused by a mismatch between a person’s biological sex and their gender identity). By 2017-18 that number had risen to 1,806. Referrals for boys rose from 56 to 713 in the same period. (Not all of these young people will identify as trans or transition medically.) Faye believes this rise may be because greater trans visibility and acceptance is encouraging unhappy people to seek help earlier. Others express concern that young people who don’t conform to gender stereotypes or gay teens who are subject to homophobia may be pushed into identifying as trans, perhaps by parents or teachers keen to burnish their progressive credentials. To Faye, this argument suggests that the UK is experiencing a “moral panic” over trans children, with trans people cast in the role of “folk devils” bent on manipulating confused and vulnerable teens.

[See also: Shon Faye wants a “deeper conversation” about trans liberation]

The overlooked reality, she argues, is that there is very little support available for desperate gender dysphoric adolescents. The waiting time between being referred by a GP and a first appointment at GIDS should be no longer than 18 weeks, but by June 2019 it averaged two years. The UK is much less medically interventionist than countries such as Canada and the US: last year, after a woman who detransitioned sued the NHS, the High Court ruled that under-16s can no longer be prescribed puberty blockers – drugs used to delay the onset of puberty to give young people with gender dysphoria more time to consider their gender identity and options – without a court sanction.

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These are the kinds of transgender issues that Faye thinks we should be talking about. Trans people in the UK struggle to access medical care in part because hormonal or medical treatment requires a formal diagnosis, while other liberal countries believe trans people should be empowered to give informed consent. Faye wishes we would talk more about trans homelessness and trans poverty, which is partly related to inadequate medical care. Trans people are required to transition socially for at least a year before they are eligible for surgery, which means they must find a job that is accepting of this. They might have to fund private medical care to bypass the long waiting times or because not all the surgery they may feel they need is publicly funded.

Faye is suspicious of many corporate LGBTQ initiatives, such as when Primark became a Stonewall “diversity champion” not long after losing a discrimination case brought by a trans woman who had been bullied at work; or the Economist’s hosting of an annual “Pride and Prejudice” conference on LGBTQ rights despite publishing an editorial hostile to the Gender Recognition Act in 2018. She believes the interests of trans people – many of whom are poor, working-class and from BAME backgrounds – are better served through more radical, anti-capitalist politics, including the police- and prison-abolition movements. When Donald Trump banned transgender troops from serving in the military, Faye felt “supreme discomfort” arguing against this ban, because she is also against the US military and its global imperialism. She felt similarly conflicted about permitting the police to join in Pride marches, given the institution’s historic role in enforcing sexual and gender norms. The Transgender Issue is a bracing and vital corrective to mainstream writing on trans rights, though at times Faye’s uncompromising politics feel self-defeating. Surely, even if you want ultimately to defund the police and restrict its remit, the force’s efforts to become more diverse, and receptive to the needs of LGBTQ people, should be celebrated in the interim?

[See also: Judith Butler on the culture wars, JK Rowling and living in “anti-intellectual times”]

Given the boldness of much of her vision for a post-capitalist, trans-liberated world, on other points Faye’s political ambition seems artificially limited. She is scathing about the way “gender-critical” feminists in the UK have obscured pressing problems, such as trans people’s experience of domestic violence, by expressing alarm at the notion that trans women should be able to access women-only spaces such as domestic violence shelters and prisons. But shouldn’t we be able to engage more deeply with both cis and trans experiences of domestic violence? And if, as seems essential, there are specialist services and support for trans survivors, could there not be specialist services for those cis women so traumatised by sexual abuse that they cannot feel safe near anyone with a penis? The feminist infighting over trans rights stirs and misdirects so much anger that it becomes easy to forget that many of our problems stem not from “Terfs” nor “trans activists” but from our shared experience of male violence, and I would have been interested to read more about those thinking creatively, and radically, about how to end it.

Faye believes those who express concern over women-only spaces tend to do so in “bad faith”. No doubt, they sometimes do. But what about those who act in good faith, prompted by genuine concern? (Faye, I should mention, feels especially let down by the New Statesman for publishing writing by gender-critical feminists, despite its progressive leanings. She even wonders if this may be an “editorial line”; it isn’t.)

Helen Joyce, an executive editor at the Economist and author of a new book, Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, raises many of the questions that Faye argues unreasonably dominate the public conversation. How should we think about those who regret transitioning? Should anyone who identifies as a woman be allowed access to spaces such as women’s changing rooms, prisons or domestic violence shelters, regardless of their biological sex? Is it fair to let trans women participate in women’s sporting competitions? She is vehemently opposed to the idea of gender self-identification, the belief that you are a woman (or a man) if you feel and declare you are one. In her view it is a dangerous illusion that biological sex is irrelevant, and she credits a well-funded, politically sophisticated group of trans activists with pushing this ideology on the public. (The more conspiratorial aspects of the book are the least persuasive.)

Although Joyce appears to be writing in good faith, her tone can be harsh and insensitive. Anticipating being called “unkind, and worse” for writing the book, she claims that her “intention is not to be unkind to trans people, but to prevent greater unkindness” – namely such problems as “male” rapists being housed in women’s prisons or children being “sterilised” (she’s referring to those given puberty blockers, which Joyce says can cause infertility). I don’t think “unkind” quite captures it. Joyce can be unfair and pathologising: she speculates that the reason some trans activists respond so angrily to criticism is that a disproportionate number of them are narcissists, or envious of women. Her ideological position can distort how she views social power. She uncritically quotes young women who say that online they were made to feel as though being white, straight and cisgender made them evil or a “nobody”, which strikes me as a transparent example of false victimhood. The book’s endorsements praise it as “courageous”, and while I don’t doubt it takes guts to challenge orthodoxy, it’s one thing to be mostly attacked for your views (as Joyce is) and another to be mostly attacked for who you are (as Faye is).

Joyce’s tone is unfortunate because she raises important, complicated issues. She is concerned that teenagers – especially girls and those with autism or eating disorders – who question their gender identity are prematurely being treated as trans. She cites research from the Nineties that suggested that gender dysphoria in adolescence usually resolves itself; only a small minority ultimately transitioned. But in the early Noughties, researchers in Amsterdam studying the benefits of giving puberty blockers to gender-dysphoric teens found that all of them subsequently progressed to cross-gender hormones. To Joyce, this suggests that placing teenagers on puberty blockers disrupts the process by which they would ordinarily come to terms with their biological sex, while also causing other health problems. Joyce supports the High Court puberty blocker ban. I wonder if a better solution is for teens with gender dysphoria also to have greater access to emotional support and counselling, not as a form of conversion therapy but as a supportive and non-judgemental space for young people to explore their identity. Surely, true freedom comes not only from helping people escape the sex they were assigned at birth, but also from dismantling gender stereotypes. There are myriad ways to be a woman or a man (or neither or both).

[See also: How the Women’s Equality Party took on the most divisive issue in feminism]

Harder to resolve are the problems raised by cases such as that of Karen White, a trans woman who had raped two women while still living as a man and, after being incarcerated in a women’s prison, sexually assaulted two inmates. Faye believes such cases are given too much “rhetorical importance”. She is suspicious of feminists who talk about White but not Iain Cocks, a male prison officer who was convicted of sexually assaulting an inmate in the same women’s prison. One response to this might be to propose that women’s prisons should only have female guards, which returns the argument to the sticking point: if gender is solely a question of self-identity, what is to stop a male sex offender from abusing these rules by declaring himself female for the sole purpose of gaining entry to a woman’s prison? Joyce cites examples from Ireland and Canada where this seems to have happened. There are no easy answers: of course, we cannot routinely place trans women in men’s prisons, where they are at risk of violence. But the solutions might become clearer if women voicing their safety concerns were not so frequently dismissed as hateful transphobes.

The strongest parts of Joyce’s book are those grounded in rigorous research and narrowly focused on the facts, such as when she discusses the question of trans women participating in women’s sporting competitions. Trans women who have suppressed their testosterone for a year are allowed to take part in women’s events at the Olympics, but anyone who has undergone male puberty has a huge physiological advantage over any cis woman. One website, which compares women’s Olympics finalists with the finalists in American boys’ high-school competitions, found that in running, at every distance up to 800m the woman who won the Olympic gold ran slower than the boys’ qualifying time. In swimming, no female Olympian would have made it to the boys’ finals for almost any stroke and distance. These facts are not a reason to insist, at grievous harm to trans people, on the overriding significance of biological sex. But they are a reason to hope we find a better way to talk and think about trans rights. If you find yourself nodding in agreement with Helen Joyce, I can only recommend that the next writer you read is Shon Faye.

The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice
Shon Faye
Allen Lane, 320pp, £20

Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality
Helen Joyce
Oneworld, 320pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor