The one ideological area in which I get the most pushback is that comprising transgender and transsexual issues. My concern with the topic has been twofold. First, I have been critical of the assertion of activists’ (and their adherents’) claim that sex is not bimodal in humans (or indeed, in anything), as well as the claim that there aren’t really any evolved differences in male and female behavior (again, not just in humans). To me, this flies in the face of all we know about biology. But I’ve given reasons for my views and won’t reprise them here.
Second—and again I’ve discussed this at length, adducing evidence, I’ve been worried about and critical of activists’ claims—now echoed by the Biden administration—that transsexual females (born as biological males) should be allowed to compete in most sports against biological women. This is especially worrisome if there’s been no medical intervention (hormone therapy) and if the transitioning occurred after puberty. Others feel differently, and this is a discussable issue that involves biology as well as philosophy.
That’s about it. I’m happy to treat all transsexual people with respect, including accepting that they’re members of the sex they want to be, using the pronouns they want us to use, and, in almost every case, afford them exactly the same rights as non-transsexuals. I certainly don’t want to “erase” them. And yet transsexual activism is so vociferous that even questioning issues of sports, sex differences, or sex bimodality brands one as a “transphobe.” I deny that accusation, as I deny the accusation that J. K. Rowling is a transphobe. And I am appalled at the self-righteousness of those who make flat assertions and are deaf to criticism.
In a recent article in Times Higher Education, Laura Favoro, identified as “a researcher at City, University of London’s Gender & Sexualities Research Centre”, surveyed 50 gender studies academics (all self-identified as “feminists”), trying to suss out the source of the acrimony around gender and transsexuality. Her conclusion, which those of us who have followed the “gender wars” already know, is that discussion on the issue has been severely and deliberately chilled, to the extent that most feminists who disagree with “progressive” ideology keep their mouths shut out of fear. And that fear comes from the rancor heaped on dissenters by “progressives”, who no longer want to debate—or even see the point of debate. This assuredness and willingness to silence dissidents is a recurring theme in the woke playbook.
Of the 50 feminists interviewed by Favoro, 14 were “gender critical feminists”, comprising those who see a difference (as do I) between “sex” and “gender”. Favoro adduces a fact I didn’t know:
For them, there is a clear difference between “sex”, which refers to biological categories that are binary and immutable, and “gender”, which describes the roles, behaviours and attributes that a given culture deems appropriate for people by virtue of their sex. Recognising this difference is important because, as well as constraining both sexes, gender serves to justify the subordination of females. This group of academics also noted that their perspective was, until recently, largely shared across feminism, as well as within many academic disciplines.
I admit that I’ve been clueless enough not to know that emphasizing “gender” might lead to pressure on biological women to adopt classical female “gender roles”—something that modern feminists have opposed, or rather favor the right to reject traditional gender roles.
These “gender critical feminists” report significant harassment that has led to self-censorship:
It was clear that the “gender-critical” feminist academics I interviewed had faced negative repercussions for years for expressing their view (now protected in the UK under the Equality Act 2010 following last year’s tribunal ruling that a thinktank researcher, Maya Forstater, had been unlawfully dismissed for tweeting that women could not change their biological sex). Among other experiences, my interviewees described complaints to and by management, attempts to shut down events, no platforming, disinvitations, intimidation, smears and losing career progression opportunities, including being blocked from jobs.
Others spoke about being physically removed from events, alongside receiving torrents of abuse online that even included incitements to murder. One criminology scholar said her experience was “a continuum of hell”, while a law scholar claimed “the impact has been huge [and] is going to last a long time”. Aware of these potential consequences, and citing feelings of fear, isolation and despair, others had decided to “hide in the shadows”.
Those in the earlier stages of their careers said that “it would just be too terrifying” to make their views public due to the threat of being “ostracised…because so much within academia depends on personal connections”, while more experienced colleagues alluded to “self-preservation”. Feared by all was the “horrible backlash” online; one sociologist worried about death and rape threats seen elsewhere stated: “I have children – I’m frightened.”
Favaro also spoke to 20 “trans-inclusive feminists”, who differ from each other in their opinions, but as a group see no sharp line between sex and gender:
For some, “sex” is a construct of oppressive systems, notably Western colonialism. Others argue it is a biological spectrum that can – at least in part – change. For others still, it is both a social fiction and a biological reality. “Gender” is likewise understood in different ways: as socially or discursively constructed (performative model); as an inseparable combination of biological, psychological and social elements (biopsychosocial model); or, to a much lesser extent, as innate subjectivity, evoking notions of sexed brains (psychobiologist model). At times, “gender” is used as a synonym for “gender identity”, usually understood as an internal sense of self as a woman, a man, both, neither or something else, such as “non-binary” – which, among other possibilities, can be “plural” (“like having two or more alter egos or personas”) or “fluid” (changing “over years, months, or the course of the day”), as explained in the 2019 book Gender: A Graphic Guide.
Despite its conceptual diversity, genderism coheres around the push for gender (identity) to replace sex in most – if not all – contexts. Unlike feminism, its political subject is not female people but rather all those subjected to gender oppression – a concept that is redefined to emphasise lack of choice and affirmation relating to gender identity.
This is the viewpoint that I characterize as “progressive”, not because I think it’s connected with any real scientific or moral progress, but because its adherents see themselves as progressive, as being on the side of the angels. And, according to Favor (who’s going to get herself in trouble, even though she’s right), it’s this group that is the most censorious, the most eager to demonize their opponents as “TERFs” and transphobes. Some even reject the idea of debating:
On the issue of “no platforming”, some interviewees ridiculed the idea that gender-critical feminists were victims of it. . .
Others, however, openly embraced the “no debate” position on the basis that gender-critical feminism is “hate speech” or even “rhetorical violence [that] actually does have real-world aims”, equivalent to movements such as fascism and eugenics. One interviewee who identified as a trans woman described the current situation in academia as “a political battle over an institutional space”, clarifying that: “My political bottom line is – I don’t concede to people who are interested in the eradication of me and everyone like me in the world because I consider that a genocidal project.”
This view, together with the belief that “cis women have more power than trans people”, led genderist academics to refrain from forthrightly denouncing some transgender activists’ aggressive tactics towards feminists. These include threats and ideations of extreme violence, which, as well as being pervasive on social media, appear to be increasingly condoned at universities. For example, last year, a London School of Economics postgraduate student conference paper described a scene in which feminists critical of genderism “scream for mercy”. The paper then described the potential threat: “I hold a knife to your throat and spit my transness into your ear”, concluding: “Are you scared? I sure fucking hope so.”
Oy vey is mir! Yet some of these can’t even articulate their own beliefs:
When asked to describe their arguments, however, she responded: “I don’t know if what I understand or what I think are the issues are the issues, I’ll be honest with you – I stay out of their way.” This remarkable coupling of condemnation and ignorance regarding gender-critical feminism was fairly common among genderist academics. Many readily admitted that they limit their academic engagements, including their reading, to their “echo chambers and bubbles” where, as one journal editor noted, “we all share basically the same perspectives”.
Many genderist academics struggled, or were discomfited, when asked to provide their own definitions of sex, gender and (particularly) gender identity, despite their research and teaching revolving around these very topics. Some acknowledged lack of sufficient reflection, while others explained this peculiar situation by citing concerns over “perpetuating harms” with their words to people who identify as transgender. For others still, the concern related to “sounding Terfy”, or was a reaction to the fact that “there is very little openness to debating certain subjects which are difficult other than being framed as transphobic”.
If you can’t define your terms, you can’t have a debate. Among this group, Favoro interviewed 12 “genderist” feminists who were also editors of feminist, gender, and sexuality journals. Of course these journals all had the genderist perspective, but, further, all the editors they wouldn’t publish any gender-critical articles.
Finally, Favoro interviewed 16 feminist academics whose views she didn’t know. Many of them mentioned self-censorship because “we are all so afraid”. Others were in the “I’m not gender-critical, but. . . ” class, still raising issues that concern gender-critical feminists—issues like “affirmative care” for gender-dysphoric youth and the elimination of the term “sex.” Here’s a statement from one:
Are there things that I could write? Yes. Do I think that they could make a difference, that they could offer something? Yes. Will I write about it? No. Which tells you all you need to know about the current situation,” said a sociologist. “If I am scared to write about this…then I have no doubt that people who might be more easily classified as Terfs would feel afraid to speak, censored,” she added.
As you see, at least for the time being among this group—and, I think, much more widely—the trans-inclusive feminists have won, shutting down debate and chilling speech because people are afraid of being called TERFs or transphobes. (This resembles the debate about affirmative action and race-related matters, where the silencing adjective is “racist”.)
Favoro claims that she was objective in her approach, and I have no reason to doubt her, for if she had a history of being in one of the two main camps, people would know it and impugn her for producing biased journalism. Yet in the end, she herself becomes afraid for having conducted these interviews. Still, kudos toher for putting down her conclusions, as well as noting that almost all the heavy fire comes from the “progressive” side. But more than that. This side has achieved the dream of many progressives—silencing the other side:
Of course, I fear harms to my career and more for instigating, as interviewees repeatedly put it, “difficult conversations” – not least as an immigrant early career scholar with a family to support. But, at the same time, why would I want to work in academia if I cannot do academic work? Much more terrifying than being hated is being gagged.