Laverne Cox, the transgender star of "Orange is the New Black". Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on trans rights: What the “transgender tipping point” really means

The time is coming when everyone who believes in equality and social justice must decide where they stand on the issue of trans rights.

I have a colouring book in front of me. It’s called Finding Gender, and it was sent to me by an activist who knows how much I love social justice and felt-tip pens. In the book, a small child and a robot go on marvellous adventures, and children and nostalgic adults get to scribble on their clothes and costumes, their hair and toys. It’s an ordinary colouring book in every respect, apart from the fact that the child isn’t identifiably male or female. Neither is the robot. The person with the crayons gets to decide what they’re wearing, whether they’re boys or girls, or both or neither. 

This is how it happens. From dinner-table conversations to children’s books, the lines of gender are being redrawn. Suddenly, transsexual and transgender people - those who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth - are everywhere in popular culture. Suddenly, people who transitioning from male to female, or from female to male, or who choose to live outside the gender binary entirely, are no longer universally portrayed as freaks to be gawped at or figures of fun, but as exactly what they have been throughout human history - real, flesh-and-breath people with feelings and dreams that matter. 

This month, Time magazine published a cover story titled "The Transgender Tipping Point". The trend-hungry American press is toppling over with spurious tipping points, but this one is real, and it’s important.  Centuries of marginalisation mean that the statistics are still shaky, but it is estimated that between 0.1 and 5 per cent of the population of earth is trans, genderqueer or intersex. Whichever way you slice it, that’s millions of human beings. As a species, we have come up with space travel, antibiotics, so it seems rather archaic that so much of our culture, from money and fashion, love and family is still ordered around the idea that people come in two kinds based roughly on the contents of their underpants.

Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine.

Something enormous is happening in our culture. In the past three years, and especially in the past twelve months, a great many transsexual celebrities, actors and activists have exploded into the public sphere. Some of have taken the brave step of disclosing their trans status after they were already household names, like American presenter Janet Mock, rockstar Laura Jane Grace, athlete Fallon Fox, Oscar-winning director Lana Wachowski or activist and former soldier Chelsea Manning.  Others have simply become successful without hiding or apologising for their trans status, like sassy British columnist Paris Lees, or actress Laverne Cox, star of Orange Is The New Black, who graced the Time cover as one of a new generation of breakout trans stars. 

At the same time, the internet is making it easier for members of a previously isolated section of the population to find and support one another. Until recently, the threat of violence, coupled with the relatively small visible number of trans people, meant that coming out was a fraught, complicated process. It often meant moving away from your hometown, finding a community in a city, changing your job, your school. Transgender people in isolated or rural areas found it very difficult to make connections with others who might be able to understand their situation and offer advice. A great many trans people waited decades before deciding to transition in public- and some attempted to keep that part of their lives secret forever, at great personal cost.

The network changed all that. Partly because of the internet, and partly because of a new wave of transgender role models, more and  more people are coming out as trans, and they are doing so younger, and their friends and families now have the language to understand what that means. As celebrated trans author Julia Serano told me over email, “The truth is that trans people exist and our lives are fairly mundane. In the U.S., the number of transsexuals is roughly equivalent to the number of Certified Public Accountants. Nobody views accountants as exotic or scandalous!”

Not everyone is born a boy or a girl and stays that way. A significant minority of the population is born intersex, meaning that they are not clearly assigned as biologically male or female when they are born, and many more are transgender, meaning that they do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, and sometimes choose to change their physical appearance with hormones or surgery.

If gender identity is no longer a fixed commodity, that affects everybody. Not just those who are transsexual, their friends, families and colleagues, but everybody else, too. If gender identity is fluid - if anyone can change their gender identity, decide to live as a man, a woman, or something else entirely, as it suits them - then we have to question every assumption about gender and sex role we've had drummed into us since the moment the doctors handed us to our panting mothers and declared us a boy or a girl. That's an enormous prospect to consider, and some people find it scary.

I'm crossing my fingers that in ten years' time, most of this article is going to look dated. I won't have to waste words explaining to you, for example, that "cissexual" or "cis" simply means "not transsexual", in the way that "heterosexual" means "not homosexual or bisexual". 

Changing words changes the world. The word "cis" is both necessary and challenging, because previously, people who weren't transsexual were used to thinking of themselves simply as "normal". If being cis, in Dorothy Parker's terminology, isn't normal but merely common, that changes everyone's understanding of how gender shapes our lives, individually and collectively.

Of course, "cis" covers a lot of bases. A great many cis people experience gender dysphoria to some degree, and a great many women, in particular, experience the socially-imposed category of "womanhood" as oppressive. I'm one of them, and that's why I believe trans rights are so important to feminism - and why it's so dispiriting that some feminists have been actively fighting the inclusion of trans people in anti-patriarchal and LGBT politics. The notion that biology is not destiny has always been at the heart of radical feminism. Trans activists and feminists should be natural allies.

Chaz Bono, son of Cher. Photo: Getty

It is increasingly clear that gender is not a binary. Unfortunately, we’re living in society which has organised itself for centuries on the principle that it is, and that everyone who disagrees should be shouted down, beaten up or locked away.

For centuries, it was standard practice was to compel anyone who didn’t conform to the rigid roles set out for their sex - from gay and transgender people to women who were too promiscuous, angry or "mannish"- to do so by force and medical intervention. Generations of activism have fought this type of gender policing, but for the transgender and transsexual community, that sort of bullying is still an everyday reality. Trans people are more likely to be victims of murder and assault than any other minority group - recent studies suggest that 25 per cent of trans people have been physically attacked because of their gender status, and hundreds of trans people are murdered every year. Up to 50 per cent of transgender teenagers attempt suicide. That of course, is what violence and prejudice are designed to do. They're designed to make people hate and hurt themselves, to frighten them out of being 'different, to bully and brutalise any perceived threat to the social order out of existence. 

Explaining why this is so significant is hard for me, because I’m about as close as you can get to the trans rights movement without being trans yourself. I’ve been associated with trans activism for years, and while I don’t know what it’s like to be harrassed, threatened or abandoned for being transsexual, most of my close friends do. Right now, I’m watching the rest of the world begin to understand the community that has become my home, and it is incredibly exciting - but it’s frightening, too, because the backlash is on.

Even as reports come in that the Southern Baptist Convention, an influential American religious lobby, has made it official policy to oppose trans rights, even as the anti-trans opinion pieces mount up,  I’m watching my trans friends and colleagues attacked and harassed online, made to fear for their jobs and their safety. With greater visibility, the stakes are even higher - and sadly, some sections of the left, including feminists like Sheila Jeffreys and Janice Raymond, have allied with social conservatives to attack trans people as deranged.

Time magazine is correct to call this the "new civil rights frontier". The cultural Right has largely lost the argument on homosexuality. Those who argue against gay marriage and gay adoption are increasingly at odds with social norms, and the type of popular pseudo-religious homophobia that was common in the days of Section 28 sounds more and more frothingly bigoted. But gender and sexuality still need to be policed - and if you can no longer call gay people sinful and expect to be taken seriously, someone else has to be the scapegoat, the "other" against which "normality" is defined.

The time is coming when everyone who believes in equality and social justice must decide where they stand on the issue of trans rights - whether that be the right to equal opportunities at work, or simply the right to walk down the street dressed in a way that makes you comfortable. Those are rights that the feminist and gay liberation movements have fought for for generations, and those who have made gains have a responsibility to stand up for those who have yet to be accepted. If we believe in social justice, we must support the trans community as it makes its way proudly into the mainstream. 

Laurie Penny will be in conversation with classicist and author Mary Beard on 30 July at Conway Hall, London. More details and tickets here.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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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.