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22 June

Why the gender wars become so extreme

At the extreme end of trans activism, obnoxious behaviour shades into something more pathological.

By Louise Perry

On Sunday afternoon (19 June) two protests took place in Bristol. The first of these was led by the platinum-haired rabble-rouser Posie Parker (real name Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull), who has established a reputation as one of the savviest and most provocative gender-critical activists in the UK. The second was a counter-protest led by trans activists, including a group called “Bristol Against Hate”.  

The clash between the two groups ended, as it always does, in carnage. One masked person was photographed holding a sign that read “Terfs can suck my dick” (“Terfs” being trans-exclusionary radical feminists). Videos circulated online of two gravelly-voiced protesters screaming at the top of their lungs that Parker and her allies should “get in the sea” and were going to “die out” and ordering the women to “go home and look after your kids”. The gender-critical protesters ended up trapped inside a pub surrounded by an angry mob, many of whom were dressed in a frightening black uniform that included face coverings and dark glasses. Parker and the other women were eventually escorted out of the building by police, for their own protection.

This weekend’s scenes are typical of such events, where physical intimidation and vandalism directed at gender-critical groups are now par for the course. There have been many similar incidents in other British cities in recent years, including at women’s rights protests in London, Brighton, Edinburgh and Manchester. Wherever gender-critical women gather, a threatening crowd pursues. 

The easy way out for discomfited fence-sitters is to call for more light, less heat, and greater efforts at reconciliation in this most bitter of culture wars. The “both siders” will point to the fact that while trans activists do sometimes behave badly, gender-critical activists can also be seriously obnoxious online, which is true (though my Twitter mentions will not thank me for conceding this point). And from this they derive the conclusion that all this bickering could be resolved if only everyone could just calm down.

But this analysis misses what goes on at the extreme end of trans activism, where obnoxious behaviour shades into something more pathological. The “both siders” would do well to read a 2008 commentary by Anne Lawrence, an American psychologist and trans woman who noted the intensity of the vitriol directed at gender-critical people – particularly women – and decided to investigate its cause.

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Lawrence identifies a small subgroup within the trans population – all of them natal males, most of whom transitioned in adulthood – who can become so enraged by people they come into conflict with who they perceive to have threatened their sense of self (including gender-critical activists) that they begin a “disproportionate, compulsive pursuit of revenge that seeks to obliterate both the offence and the offender”.

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This is anger that goes way beyond normal political disagreement, and Lawrence argues that it is best explained as a consequence of distress and dysfunction so severe that “personality disorders” are at play. She quotes the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, describing the psychiatric phenomenon of narcissistic rage (which is, needless to say, not confined to any one population): “[There is a] need for revenge, for righting a wrong, for undoing a hurt by whatever means, and a deeply anchored, unrelenting compulsion in pursuit of all these aims… There is utter disregard for reasonable limitations and a boundless wish to redress an injury and to obtain revenge… The fanaticism of the need for revenge and the unending compulsion of having to square the account after an offence.”

The “both siders” don’t encounter this subgroup, and nor do the vast majority of trans people, who are just as confused and alarmed as anyone to see videos of angry figures in balaclavas screaming obscenities at middle-aged women. But you cannot understand this weekend’s events – or indeed the gender wars more broadly – if you refuse to recognise the small but destructive role of, as Lawrence terms it, “narcissistic rage”.

[See also: Feminists need to get over their obsession with sex – New Statesman]

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