Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In the postwar era, few norms have changed as fast, as dramatically, and with so little input from ordinary citizens as has the public status of gender dysphoria. Twenty years ago, observes Helen Joyce in her definitive new book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, the idea that a man who hadn’t taken estrogen or undergone surgery could identify as a woman and expect others to affirm that identity “would have seemed nonsensical to almost everybody.” But now “this very concept of transness has conquered medicine, law, public policy and the media.” And more.
How did this sea change occur? Well, for one thing, writes Joyce, it “surely could not have happened without the internet, not just because social media enabled its spread, but” – and this strikes me as a brilliant point – “also because many people now spend more time in virtual worlds than the real one.” This about it: when you’ve grown up playing deeply immersive video games several hours a day, and selecting avatars that may not conform at all to your own real-life appearance, it can be a lot easier than it would’ve been a generation ago to buy into the notion that you are your mind and that your real-world body has only the most tenuous connection to your actual identity.
Also highly relevant here is that we’re living not just in the computer age but in the era of postmodernism, which rejects objectivity, logic, and reason and privileges the subjective. Does Bob think he’s a woman? Very well: he’s a woman, because that’s “his truth.” Like much else in these postmodern times, trans ideology demands that objective reality be subordinated to certain people’s subjective “truths.” It also demands, incidentally, that the subjective impressions of the majority (“I’m sorry, but to me Bob is obviously a man, not a woman”) be subordinated to the “subjective truths” of a tiny but privileged minority.
Increasingly, this reverence for the “subjective truths” of certain people applies even to children. Since the 1980s, prospective studies of “effeminate little boys” who say they’re girls have consistently shown exactly the same thing: that almost all of them grow up into gay men – not people with gender dysphoria. Yet in these times, highly credentialed “experts” unhesitatingly put such boys put on the path toward estrogen treatment and transgender surgery. One such “expert” is Diane Ehrensaft, Director of Mental Health at the Child and Adolescent Gender Center at the University of California San Francisco, who asserts that “a toddler can indicate a trans identity to parents with non-verbal ‘gender messages.’” Such “experts,” moreover, are backed up by professional organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which maintains, against all evidence, “that gender affirmation is the only ethical treatment for gender-dysphoric children.”
Even more influential than “experts” like Ehrensaft and outfits like the AAP, however, are the individuals who pay the pivotal role in so many gender transitions: namely, the parents who are applauded by the media and LGBT activists for courageously supporting their children’s transitioning. (And the earlier the transitioning, the louder the applause.) We’re encouraged to see these parents as progressive heroes. But in fact, explains Joyce, the reason why a great many parents back their children’s claims of trans identity so ardently is that they “cannot bear gender non-conformity or homosexuality.” Does a girl like to roughhouse? Does a boy play with dolls? Time and again, it’s the parents who are freaked out by such deviations from stereotype who rush their kids to gender clinics, begging for somebody to break out the scalpel. A study by Tavistock, the English transgender clinic, confirmed that a sizable percentage of its clients’ parents “preferred their children to be trans and straight, rather than ‘cis’ and gay.”
So it is that when school counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, endocrinologists, and surgeons smoothly usher kids, step-by-step, through the transition process, they’re not necessarily affirming the kids’ “trans identity,” as they would phrase it; no, they’re rubber-stamping the parents’ homophobia – cutting off little Billy’s genitalia to ensure he’ll never grow up into a gay man. According to Joyce, employees at Tavistock have been known to joke that soon “there would be no gay people left,” given all the potential gay adults who are being fed, like so many lambs to the slaughter, into the trans pipeline.
It’s interesting to note, by the way, that the antigay attitude of such parents is shared by government authorities in Pakistan, where homosexuality can be punished by death – but where gay men, if they wish, can undergo sex-change surgery at taxpayer expense. It’s an article of transgender propaganda that trans people are the last remaining objects of prejudice; on the contrary, in the most backward nations on earth, trans heterosexuals are infinitely preferred to “cis” homosexuals.
No surprise, then, that, as Joyce reports, some insiders describe gender transitioning as “postmodern gay conversion therapy.” How ironic is it that while veteran gay-rights (now LGBT-rights) groups remain fiercely opposed to the kind of gay-to-straight “conversion therapy” that some evangelical churches once championed, they cheer the idea that teens who think they’re in the wrong body should be given hormones and surgery – even though in most cases the effect of this treatment will be to destroy the sex organs of gay people? In short, yes, it’s “postmodern gay conversion therapy.” The only difference between this version of conversion therapy and the older version that the new one involves destroying perfectly healthy body parts.
Last year, Abigail Shrier’s excellent book Irreversible Damage probed the question of why claims of gender dysphoria, once vanishingly rare, are now widespread, and why the majority of those making these claims are no longer males but females – usually girls in their teens and twenties. Joyce points out that these young females’ belief that they’re males is the latest of many “psychic epidemics” that have struck this cohort over the generations – from “fainting fits, uncontrollable laughter or crying, and outbreaks of paralysis or tremors” in Victorian girls’ schools and convents to (more recently) self-harm and anorexia.
Joyce also scrutinizes male-to-female criminals who’ve been placed in women’s prisons – a practice that is now routine in many countries. The main reason for such placement is compassion: it’s feared that these individuals will be unsafe in a men’s facility. But what about other people’s safety? Many M-to-F murderers and rapists are sent to women’s prisons where some inmates live with their small children in an atmosphere that’s less that of a correctional facility than that of a garden-apartment complex. What about the safety of these women and children? In such scenarios, as in so many other situations today, the well-being of one or two trans people is consistently prioritized over that of everyone else. This is the case even though it’s known that many male inmates pretend to be trans so they can “do easier time.”
Joyce recounts the case of one prisoner who kept changing his gender – and who kept expecting his accommodations to be adjusted accordingly. A female prison official who was astonished by this farce wondered – and this, too, strikes me as a key insight – “why should we take people’s word for this? We don’t for anything else.” (My emphasis.) Then there’s the revealing fact that no fewer than two-thirds of all imprisoned sex offenders who identify as women are male. When a man undergoes a sex transition, in short, it doesn’t eliminate whatever it is that makes men far more likely than women to commit sex crimes. Which, in turn, underscores the need to place people born male in different prisons than people born female, period.
Joyce also covers the challenge of trans women athletes, which dates back to the 1977 court verdict allowing ophthalmologist Richard Raskin to play professional tennis as a woman under the name Renee Richards. Joyce quotes from the ruling, which was idiotic. “When an individual such as plaintiff, a successful physician, a husband and father, finds it necessary for his own mental sanity to undergo a sex reassignment,” wrote New York Supreme Court Justice Alfred M. Ascione, “the unfounded fears and misconceptions of defendants must give way to the overwhelming medical evidence that this person is now female.” What exactly is the reasoning here? Who’s to say that legitimate concerns about rewriting the rules of women’s sports amount to “unfounded fears and misconceptions”? By what logic did Raskin’s professional achievements and psychiatric condition compel critics of such a monumental change in athletic rules to set their misgivings entirely aside? And what “overwhelming medical evidence” was Ascione adducing? Certainly not Raskin’s XY chromosomes.
Ascione’s verdict seems to have been founded not on scientific truth and logic but on sympathy for Raskin. And in recent years, as self-described trans boys and men have sought to compete as women in a variety of sports, advocates for their inclusion have consistently used emotional arguments while their opponents argued from facts and logic. For example, when this question was formally debated at a World Rugby workshop, experts who opposed allowing M-to-F athletes to compete as women “drew on research and statistics, and explored the pros and cons for everyone on the pitch. Those in favour presented anecdotes, appealed to emotion and considered the consequences for transwomen only.” On that day, facts and logic won out; but World Rugby, alas, is an outlier on this issue; in other international sports bodies, the pro-trans side has repeatedly won the day.
Perhaps Joyce’s most important point is also her simplest. If we embrace trans ideology tout court – swallowing whole the extraordinary claim that when a biological man declares himself a woman, he not only becomes a woman in that very moment, like water miraculously turning into wine at the Mass, but also retroactively becomes a woman from the moment of his birth – how do we define the word woman? We can’t say that a woman is someone with XX chromosomes, or someone who menstruates, or someone who can give birth. No, we have to agree with the activists that anyone who claims to be a woman is a woman. And what does that leave us with? It leaves us with a word drained of objective meaning – a word that can’t be defined except by using the word itself, i.e. through a circular definition: “A woman is anyone who claims to be a woman.” As Joyce puts it: “Try ‘a squawm is anyone who identifies as a squawm,’ or ‘every lazap is a lazap.’ Now, can you say what a squawm or a lazap is?”
Transgenderism, we’re told over and over, is a civil-rights movement. Joyce disagrees. Whereas “same-sex marriage, women’s franchise and the end of segregation…extend the rights of a privileged group to everyone,” trans people demand to be “treated in every circumstance as members of the sex they identify with, rather than the sex they actually are” – which “is not a human right at all.” Indeed, “in its requirement that everyone else accept trans people’s subjective beliefs as objective reality,” trans ideology “is akin to a new state religion, complete with blasphemy laws.”
There’s much more of great value in Trans, from the true story behind the 2015 film The Danish Girl – about artist Einar Wegener (1882-1931), who after undergoing one of the first sex-change operations legally became a woman named Lily Elbe – to the details about trans billionaire Jennifer (James) Pritzker and other rich people who’ve donated fortunes to such groups as the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, and Planned Parenthood to promote this toxic ideology. Suffice it to say that Joyce has given us a masterwork of common sense about a topic shrouded in illogic. Her prose is eminently lucid, her reasoning sound. (In addition to being a longtime editor at The Economist, she is, as it happens, a mathematician.) A meticulous and elegant writer, she approaches her subject with impressive calm and dispassion. Yet in these times when health professionals feel pressured to say “people who menstruate” instead of “women,” Joyce’s commonsensical approach makes her book a lightning rod. She’s up against a well-funded tsunami of propaganda, whitewashing, and outright lies – all of it designed to persuade children and teenagers, and society at large not just that transgender identity is cool but that trans ideology is as scientifically valid as the law of gravity. It’ll take more than Helen Joyce, of course, to overcome this institutionalized lunacy. But her book is a vital step in the right direction.