I’ve now finished Helen Joyce‘s 2021 book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, and I recommend it to everyone as a perceptive analysis of the growing transactivism in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Of course Joyce has been deemed “transphobic” for defending reserving some spaces for biological women only (sports, rape crisis centers, prisons, etc.), but she doesn’t hate trans people at all: she’s sympathetic to the plight of those with gender dysphoria or who have suffered after transition, and wants to curtail trans “rights” only insofar as they impinge on women-only spaces (see above).
Wikipedia summarizes the book’s reviews, and the majority are positive (a surprising admissing by Wikipedia), although of course you can expect some criticism from the woke, from trans activists, and from those who, while positive, have found some issues with the book. Here are some excerpts from Jesse Singal’s review in the NYT in 2021, just to give a flavor of the last category:
There is a difference between believing in “trans rights” and believing in “gender-identity ideology.” That’s the subtly important distinction that fuels Helen Joyce’s “Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality,” a book that offers an intelligent, thorough rejoinder to an idea that has swept across much of the liberal world seemingly overnight.
Singal then summarizes the book (see the video interview mentioned below that can also serve as a summary), and is favorable, but I’d be remiss not to mention his criticismsas well:
. . . So Joyce’s arguments are convincing. But here and there, I found myself wishing for a bit more nuance. For example, she leans heavily on the so-called desistance literature showing that childhood gender dysphoria often abates in time, but she doesn’t explain that some activists and academics have challenged its validity. These challenges happen to be overblown — my position is much closer to Joyce’s — but they warrant mention. It isn’t that some trans activists “forget that the majority of children will desist” if they don’t socially transition, as Joyce puts it — it’s that they deny that this is the case altogether. It’s important to render one’s opponents’ arguments as accurately as possible.
Similarly, in a section about the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s guidelines for treating gender dysphoria, Joyce writes: “New standards of care are being drawn up as I write. But I see no reason to expect any turn back from ideology and towards evidence.” My own reporting suggests things are more complicated than that, at least when it comes to the child and adolescent guidelines: The subcommittees responsible for writing those sections include a number of clinicians who openly share some of Joyce’s concerns and who think the climate surrounding youth transition is trending toward recklessness. Joyce’s narrative of radical activists having nearly routed sober-minded scientists is a bit too tidy, in this case.
“Trans” is also very thin on citations — this might seem like nit-picking, but in a book so focused on in-the-weeds political and scientific controversies of a morally supercharged nature, it isn’t. And it’s a small point, but Joyce repeatedly calls Martine Rothblatt, a famous transgender woman and entrepreneur, a “billionaire,” even though she doesn’t appear to be quite so wealthy.
Yes, references are thin (and there are no footnotes or citations), and there’s no index, which I found annoying. Nevertheless, I recommend the book highly as an introduction to the “unwoke but sympathetic” side of the debate, and Singal finishes his review this way:
In context, though, these are fairly minor shortcomings. “Trans” is a compelling, overdue argument for viewing self-ID more critically. Even those outraged by Joyce’s positions would benefit from understanding them, given that, as she notes, self-ID polls quite poorly when its actual tenets are fully described to Americans and to the British. The present situation, in which liberal institutions not only embrace these ideas unquestioningly but also, increasingly, punish dissidents, is unsustainable. Open conversation about such fraught issues is the only realistic path forward, and Joyce’s book offers a good, impassioned start.
As I always say, even if you’re opposed to an ideological position, you’re remiss if you don’t read the best arguments for that position. And though I agree with most of what Joyce says, those who don’t should still read her book.
I want to give one long quote from the book that struck me as I read it this weekend. In the excerpt below, Joyce discusses why three other movements for minority rights—gay liberation and same-sex marriage, women’s rights, and civil rights for American blacks in the South—were slow in coming, and had to be built from the ground up, while the push for trans rights (Joyce argues that “transactivism is not a civil-rights movement at all”) is proceeding much more rapidly and becoming successful. Joyce claims that this is because well-meaning people simply don’t understand transactivism. Here’s a quote from page 224:
What same-sex marriage, women’s franchise and the end of segregation all have in common is that they extend the rights of a privileged group to everyone. And when people hear the phrase ‘trans rights’, they assume something similar is being demanded – that trans people be enabled to live without discrimination, harassment and violence, and to express themselves as they wish. Such goals are worthy ones, but they are not what mainstream transactivism is about. What campaigners mean by ‘trans rights’ is gender self-identification: that trans people be treated in every circumstance as members of the sex they identify with, rather than the sex they actually are.
This is not a human right at all. It is a demand that everyone else lose their rights to single-sex spaces, services and activities. And in its requirement that everyone else accept trans peoples’ subjective beliefs as objective reality, it is akin to a new state religion, complete with blasphemy laws. All this explains the speed. When you want new laws, you can focus on lobbying, rather than the painstaking business of building broad-based coalitions. And when those laws will take away other people’s rights, it is not only unnecessary to build public awareness – it is imperative to keep the public in the dark.
This stealthy approach has been central to transactivism for quite some time. In a speech in 2013, Masen Davis, then the executive director of the American Transgender Law Center, told supporters that “we have largely achieved our successes by flying under the radar. . . we do a lot really quietly. We have made some of our biggest gains that nobody has noticed. We are very quiet and thoughtful about what we do, because we want to make sure we have the win more than we want to have the publicity.”
The result is predictable. Even as one country after another introduces gender self-ID, very few voters know this is happening, let alone support it.
You can find more quotes from the book on GoodReads, or, if an entire book is too much for you, you can hear Joyce summarize many of her arguments in a video discussion with Richard Dawkins that I discussed a few days ago.
It is the demand for self-identification, which undergirds the insistence that trans people really do become complete members of the sex to which they transition (“trans women are women; trans men are men”), that has kept left-centrists like me from embracing the entire transactivist agenda. (Another stumbling block is the movement’s insistence that biological sex is arbitrary and not binary.)
Trans women, for instance, are not identical to biological women, who can get pregnant, have periods, and are usually fertile. (Trans women often become sterile when they transition medically.) Nor, if they’ve gone through male puberty before transitioning, are trans women equivalent to biological women in athletic ability, which is why in most sports they shouldn’t be allowed to compete with biological women. And trans women tend to retain not only the strength of biological men, but also their aggressive and often their sexual proclivities, which make it dicey at best to put them into women’s prisons or rape-crisis shelters.
But I hasten to add that these curbs on “trans rights” are few and intended only to ensure the right of biological women to be safe and unthreatened. (This includes the right of women in changing rooms to not have to be confronted by transwomen with penises.) In all other ways trans rights should be guaranteed, and, in my view, trans people should be addressed in the manner they wish.
As far as “stealthy approaches” go, how many people know that the Biden administration has enacted policies that prohibit some bans on transgender athletes (including trans women) from competing against biological women in public school athletics, though the policy (which, I believe, defines “transgender” on the basis of pure self-identification) has a provision for bans to ensure fairness?
Under the Education Department’s proposed rule, no school or college that receives federal funding would be allowed to impose a “one-size-fits-all” policy that categorically bans trans students from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity. Such policies would be considered a violation of Title IX.
Still, the proposal leaves room for schools to develop team eligibility rules that could ultimately result in restrictions around trans athletes’ participation.
That would be allowed only if it serves “important educational objectives,” such as fairness in competition and reduction of injury risks.
Any limits would have to consider the sport, the level of competition and the age of students. Elementary school students would generally be allowed to participate on any teams consistent with their gender identity, for example. More competitive teams at high schools and colleges could add limits, but those would be discouraged in teams that don’t have tryouts or cuts.
That’s better than nothing, but in my view the ban should, on the ground of fairness, be total for people who have gone through puberty. And it’s not clear whether schools, under strong pressure from transactivists and organizations like the ACLU, would really enact such bans. Given the sciencitifc data, these bans, especially for post-puberty transwomen competing against biological women, should be absolute. Even for trans people who go beyond pure self-identification and have had medical treatment, data show that they retain most of the athletic advantages accrued during male puberty, and thus shouldn’t compete against biological women. The public largely agrees with this, but, as noted above, a lot of transactivism occurs below the radar, or in the face of public ignorance.
What about “self identification”? Should a trans woman who simply says they’re a woman without medical intervention immediately accrue all the rights of biological women, including the right to change clothes in a locker room? Joyce discusses this issue and what kind of interventions, if any, might allow a trans person to be recognized as a “woman”. These are issues that we all need to be thinking about, especially given the recent explosion of youngsters and adolescents identifying as members of their non-natal sex (gender dysphoria is now far more common among females than males).
Finally, I have to call out the ACLU, once my favorite civil-rights organization, for consistently being on the side of self-identification of trans people in cases that involve spaces that should be reserved for biological women. This includes the ACLU’s attacks on laws in both Idaho and Connecticut that allow self-identified trans women—biological men who have had no medical treatment—to compete against biological women in secondary-school sports. What has gotten into the mind of the ACLU that makes them argue that a biological male can accrue the rights of women simply by declaring a change of gender? Surely they must recognize that by defending such males, they are impinging on the rights of biological women?
Click on the image to go to the Amazon site for the book, where it gets 4½ stars. Frankly, that high review surprised me, as I would have thought that trans activists would have damned the book: