The Quisling

There is indubitably a problem with some activists for the transgender cause. We’ve seen transwomen posting aggressively on social media, running hate campaigns and even, in some cases, throwing punches. It feels rather like toxic masculinity in a frock. Activists (and many of my friends on social media) complain loudly about “TERFs” (by which they mean gender-critical feminists); there is no doubt that battle-lines have been drawn. To complain about “TERFs” is almost de rigueur for a t-girl these days. I had a foray into Twitter a couple of years ago, and got to know (virtually) some gender-critical feminists. I thought some of them were very sweet. They just happen to believe that biological sex comes with us down the birth canal and gender follows later as society does its work on us. I’d say that’s a point of view that is at least worthy of serious and respectful consideration.

There is a problem of tremendous importance here. I know plenty of t-girls who believe they are a woman trapped in a man’s body, and that the female brain is intrinsically obsessed with stockings and nail polish. But it jars. It feels as though their understanding of what it is to be a woman is a masculine sexual fantasy about what it is to be a woman. We cannot separate our self from its body, and we cannot separate our brain from its biochemistry. There are those who would accuse me of being a “biological essentialist” or, indeed, things much less polite. But if people undergoing transition need to have surgery and take hormones, then one has to believe that biological molecules are important at some stage.

So far, so TERFy eh? Biological sex is encoded in our biochemistry, and gender is a societal construct? But the debate doesn’t end there. There is a real and very important question that this line of argument falls short of answering. I’ve had gender dysphoria all my life and, to be candid, I don’t care whether it came from my DNA, my upbringing, or society’s conditioning. It’s there. It’s real. The efforts I made to “cure” myself have done immeasurable harm, but it won’t go away. I think it’s in my head; I don’t believe I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body because I don’t think that a self can exist independently of its body – it makes no sense to claim that a female brain can exist in a male body. But my brain nevertheless believes, or wants, itself to be female in some way. Is this delusional? Is it a disorder? Or a curious illustration of the complexity of human development? I don’t know and I don’t care and I really don’t believe that anybody else should care either, because it is who I am. It cannot be changed; I have tried and failed, and I have the psychological scars to prove it. Nobody should expect or demand this. My gender-dysphoric identity may not be detectable in an anatomical examination but it is very real to me.

After many years of anguish I accept myself as I am and I rejoice in the sense of wholeness that has come from doing so. If you offered me a “cure” now I would reject it because to accept the cure would be a sort of suicide. To me, the argument about where it all comes from is academically and intellectually interesting, but the question about what we do about it, as a society, is so much more important and, indeed, pressing. I have a friend, not so much older than me, who remembers being pursued by the police for being out on the streets dressed as a woman. When I was a child, transvestites were perverts. Now, I can enjoy my life very largely unmolested. There remains, for me, a sense that this freedom is precious, and also vulnerable. The last five years have seen an explosion of hate, and it is not remotely inconceivable that society could regress to a less tolerant and accepting state.

The threats come from two sides. They come from those who want to wage war on behalf of our community, and who want to make the arguments much simpler than they really are, thus assaulting common sense; and they come from those who want to wage war on the activists. Some of these people are trans.

Feminists have fought for years for women-only spaces where women can feel safe from molestation; the concern that self-identification as a woman may be used by perverts as a means to get access to these spaces needs to be respected. I am a member of a large trans web site, and just the other day I received a very creepy message from somebody who wants to have sex with me. I have met transwomen who don’t resemble women, but creepy men in frocks. I’m not advocating any particular solution to the arguments of gender-critical feminists about women-only spaces. But can’t we at least understand their perspective? Let’s not respond by denying that transwomen can be sex creeps because it simply isn’t true.

But let’s also not follow the example of Debbie Hayton, who has presented herself to the media as the trans-woman who’s in the vanguard of transphobia. On social media, Graham Linehan, famous in the UK as the writer of the Father Ted TV series, has led a hate campaign against trans people. On Radio 4 not so long ago Linehan spoke warmly of Hayton, and their partnership in transphobia. “Debbie is like a brother to me”, he said.

Debbie’s blog describes her as a “Transgender Teacher and Journalist”. She has published widely in outlets that publish material that is sceptical about trans rights. Recently, Debbie wrote a piece addressing national census data on gender identity. The focus of her ire was people who express a “gender identity”. This is a fad, she thinks, particularly associated with young people in university towns, that is worryingly on the increase.

“Transsexualism is a psychological condition that can be treated with drugs and surgery. Anyone can identify as transgender, and it appears that far more people are now doing so.”

Thus, as a transsexual person, Debbie is righteous, but people with their gonads intact who, in the words of the survey, have a “sense of their own gender, whether male, female or another category such as non-binary….[that] may not be the same as their sex registered at birth” are loons:

“The ONS plans to release more detail later in the year, focusing not just on sex and age but also on ethnicity and religion. And it is that latter one that really interests me. I’m willing to bet that the correlation between the Jedi Knights and the people who identify as transgender is off the scale.

The argument that only those who’ve had surgery are properly trans, or can really claim to have gender dysphoria, is divisive but not new in the trans community. However, comparing people who are trans but have not had surgery to followers of the Jedi religion is aggressive and transphobic. Everybody who had surgery began as a gender dysphoric individual with their natal gonads. Moreover, the current UK equality legislation requires anybody seeking a legal change of gender to first live as the other gender for an extended period of time. So Debbie’s attack is as nonsensical as it is nasty.

Debbie wants to argue that only biological sex is real. She seems to regard herself as a sort of mutilated male and while she will not claim to be a woman, she does at least want people to see her as somebody who did the right thing by having her genitalia removed. But very little of the human psyche is capable of objective external validation. My feelings of gender dysphoria are very real to me, for all that they are not externally visible. My brain – for whatever reason – wants its body to be female. I don’t care whether it is rational, or socially acceptable, but it is very deep inside. There is a tremendous philosophical problem here. How can we know that “others” exist? “Cogito ergo sum”, concluded Decartes; but the thoughts of others are invisible – if, indeed, they exist. A retreat into the objective reality of biologicially testable phenomena does not answer any of the fundamental questions about gender identity with which human beings grapple. We need an intelligent and sophisticated discourse about these questions.

Although willing to dismiss gender identity as an internal fantasy, Debbie appears to show no reluctance to make pronouncements about the internal mental states of others. A particularly poisonous element of the transphobic campaign led by Linehan and others is its assertion that to be trans is to have autogynephilia (sexual arousal at the thought of being a woman). I have written at length in other places about autogynephilia, and will not repeat those lengthy arguments here. In summary, I think there is no doubt that the condition exists, and some of my friends would quite cheerfully accept that they are autogynephiles. But many of us – myself included – do not identify as autogynephiles. The argument that all gender dysphoria is autogynephilia is not even supported by the originator of the idea, Ray Blanchard, as I have described elsewhere. But it is explosive in the context of debates about womens’ safe spaces. If every transwoman is sporting a hard-on as they enter the changing rooms, then of course an everyday situation becomes transformed in a way that may feel unsavoury. But they’re not. If I try on an item of clothing in M&S it’s not because it makes me horny. It’s because I need to know whether it fits me before I buy it. The suggestion that I’m entering the dressing room in a state of arousal to get a thrill is offensive. Worse than that, it is simply untrue. But one can see how it might stoke the ire of feminists concerned (rightly) about women’s safety.

Debbie Hayton has identified as an autogynephile. For somebody who believes that gender identity is unreal, and only biological sex is real, this is a curious move – because this autogynephilia exists only in Debbie’s mind. But she feels it to be important to share her feelings, despite the fact that they are not part of any external biological reality, in order to help us better understand objective reality. This of course makes no sense. I could speculate about her motives, but of course I can’t see inside her head. It does seem that Debbie’s willingness to talk about her autogynephilia cements her ties to her transphobic pals. I found this cooing remark undeneath one of her articles:

“Thank you Debbie Hayton for being brave enough to write this article and to tell trans activists that their pet theory of gender identity is bunkum. Thank you for promoting scientific understanding over ideological slogans. I’m sure you will get a lot of hate for daring to speak out – please never think you deserve it.”

Of course its easy to see why Debbie would like this. It makes her feel good. The brave pioneer, who believes that biological sex is the only objective reality, that gender is an illusion, and yet who seems able and willing – nay, determined – to make pronouncements on the mental states of millions of people who she has never met. I think this is poisonous. I can forgive gender-critical feminists for having concerns about women’s safe spaces, but the willingness to assert that being trans is really a fetish because my feelings tell me so is arrogant. Of course the consequence of this can only be to stoke anxiety in what I have already noted is a complex debate that is badly in need of cool heads and rational discourse. It is also untrue, and logically questionable.

In her “autogynephilia story“, Debbie says she was gripped by “AGP’ by the age of three. “My experience alone suggests that boys wrestle with AGP long before puberty”, says Debbie. But we don’t build scientific hypotheses on “my experience alone” and we don’t pronounce diagnoses for millions on the the basis of “my experience alone”, otherwise I would go about stating that gay men cannot be attracted to men because my experience alone tells me I’ve been attracted to girls as long as I can remember. The argument from my experience alone is only an argument about my experience alone.

But there is more. To quote Blanchard and Bailey (yes, Blanchard and Bailey), gender dysphoria is not one thing:

“The first type—childhood-onset gender dysphoria—definitely occurs in both biological boys and girls. It is highly correlated with homosexuality–the sexual preference for one’s own biological sex–especially in natal males…The second type—autogynephilic gender dysphoria—occurs only in males. It is associated with a tendency to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of oneself as a female. This type of gender dysphoria sometimes starts during adolescence and sometimes during adulthood…

“The most obvious feature that distinguishes childhood-onset gender dysphoria from the other types is early appearance of gender nonconformity…A very gender nonconforming boy may dress up as a girl, play with dolls, dislike rough play, show indifference to team sports or contact sports, prefer girl playmates, try to be around adult women rather than adult men, and be known by other children as a “sissy” (a term generally used to ridicule and shame feminine boys).”

Thus, it remains unclear whether Debbie Hayton even fits Blanchard’s definition of an autogynephile at all; she seems much closer to his definition of somebody with childhood-onset gender dysphoria. Of course I cannot make pronouncements about what is in Debbie’s mind. But of if one wants to use “my experience alone” to make a mass-diagnosis for millions based on the application of a particular hypothesis, it would seem to be a good thing to start by checking whether one’s account was consistent with the hypothesis in question.

There is no need to achieve such a mass diagnosis. As Blanchard and Bailey say, “gender dysphoria is not one thing”. Anybody who is trans who I have talked has always agreed about one thing: it is complicated and we don’t understand it. Let’s accept that shared consensus, and lets engage with the concerns of feminists. There has to be a way to resolve all of the difficulties without going to war. What heartens me is that in my every day dealings with women of all kinds, I don’t ever get the impression that they are afraid of me. We all know what I am, and yet nobody seems upset or worried. On the streets, in everyday life, the problems seem very much simpler than they do in the minds of activists of all kinds. Assuming, of course, that they have minds, thoughts, intentions, an independent existence. There’s a great essay by Hillary Puttnam on “The Brain in a Vat”, but I’m going stop there…

Le Regard

Jean-Paul Sartre said that “hell is other people”: the “look” of others objectifies us. When as a subject I regard others, they become to me objects; and to other subjects I am an object. It seems to me that for many of us who are trans, our objectification in the “look” of others has a peculiar significance because we hope to be objectified as female, which is what we are not when we are naked. I wonder if this is why t-girls love photographs so much. The inner self knows that it is male, but wishes to be female; while we are out and about we are acutely aware of the gaze of others (in the Sartrean sense – I don’t mean gawping, although that does happen occasionally!). We develop a heightened sense of our difference (physical frame, facial bone structure) in the moment that we are most earnestly trying and hoping to appear unremarkably female. We are acutely aware of our objectification in the look of others.

What we would love most of all is to be objectified as female, as an external reinforcement of the internal yearning that is felt but not manifest externally, except through a choice of clothing. Photographs, organised carefully through social media, provide a means to choose our self-objectification. In a sense, this is an inversion of Sartre’s maxim: if only the others would objectify us as female, then heaven would be other people.

Of course the rest of society has now caught up: every phone has a camera, and everyone on a night out has their phone close at hand. Young women navigate their evenings as carefully through cyber space as they do through “real” space; we are all acutely aware of the “look” of others. When I first went out and about with my digital camera I felt rather self-conscious as I tried discretely to pose for a photo somewhere. But one doesn’t need to sit in a bar for long to see a group of young women composing themselves quickly, efficiently and carefully for a group selfie. Taking a selfie is now so commonplace it has become an almost invisible act.

Is Instagram heaven or is it, indeed, a Sartrean hell? There is a mundane sense in which it is hellish: nobody remembers the daft things I said and did in my teens because they happened in real space before the internet; however, nowadays teenagers have to grow up in cyberspace with every failing immortalised. And of course there is the pressure to be beautiful, happy and surrounded by friends on Instagram; whatever your inner state and your experience of the subjects who gaze upon you, your self-objectification must be carefully curated.

I think that for most of us who are trans, Instagram can be hell in Sartre’s sense. A few t-girls look genuinely feminine, bit it is not hard for most people to spot the imposters (among whom I count myself). I look at my “best” photos and realise that although I’m happy with them as representations of myself, they are unlikely to survive careful scrutiny with the viewer believing that I am a natal female.

If hell is this objectification in the look of others, where does salvation lie? Surely it comes from accepting oneself for what one is, for being content with what one is? It is only by choosing (another Sartrean doctrine) to find our signification in the look of others that we open the door to hell. Demanding that “others” objectify us as female will not solve the problem, because to them, we are objects and it is they who choose how to objectify us. But the path to salvation, surely, is to choose instead to live authentically, by accepting, celebrating and enjoying our trans-ness. If the photograph objectifies me to others as trans, what is that to me? I am what I am. I choose to be what I am. Coming out as trans is an act of will – a choice. I express my inner sense of femininity not for the gaze of the others, but because in its authenticity it makes me happy and whole. In choosing authenticity I find my salvation.

Diversity

It’s always flattering to be pictured alongside somebody older than oneself. A kind lady took this photo for me in Chicago’s wonderful Field Museum. There, I was thrilled to see a fabulous collection of dinosaur fossils. The Museum estimates that at least 90% of the bones on display are genuine fossils. A small fraction are reconstructions, because of course no dig, however, careful, can recover an entire fossilised dinosaur undamaged.

The Museum’s exhibits addressed head-on the reasons for the great cycles of extinction that the Earth has witnessed during its 4 billion years in existence. Above all else, climate change has been a driving force for mass extinction. The Earth is now on an irrevocable course for climate change on a scale that has only previously been witnessed during mass extinction events. Indeed, mass extinction is already underway on Earth; species are being lost at a colossal rate. The Museum presented evidence fearlessly and without pulling its punches. The candour of the exhibits was impressive, given that President Trump dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax, and mounted a campaign of repression against government-funded scientists who published data on climate change. It was alleged that work on climate change was political, but it was in the publication of hard data that so many US research groups and agencies, for example NASA, have made such important contributions to scientific understanding of the catastrophic consequences of fossil fuel use and the destruction of ecosystems.

I first taught a course that touched on climate change nearly 30 years ago. I began reading the burgeoning literature with horror. There was already, in 1995, a vast amount of evidence for correlations between global temperature changes and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. The famous “hockey-stick” graph published by Michael Mann in the late 90s, predicting rising global temperatures over the next decade, has been tested and corroborated; Mann’s predictions have been found to be – sadly – all too accurate and worse, the trend of global warming appears well set. In the media, and in the minds of lobbyists for petroleum companies, perhaps it is acceptable to speak of debate about the science. However, for scientists, who understand the scientific method, and the uncompromising role of data in falsifying defective hypotheses, there is no significant doubt about the substance of the theory of global warming, just uncertainty about how to respond and sadness about the inaction of governments.

I am not a climate scientist, but I have followed the literature for the last three decades. Sometimes I find it too depressing to read, because I fear the future that my children will inherit. Recently scientists have begun to ask whether they have in fact been too cautious about sounding the alarm bell. For many years, climate scientists feared being accused of alarmism if they looked at “worst-case” scenarios. They preferred to talk about aiming to limit global temperature changes to 1oC, then 1.5oC. It now appears that it will be difficult to limit warming to 2oC, and some scientists are warning that in their anxiety to avoid the accusation of fear-mongering, climate scientists have failed adequately to inform the public of the extreme consequences of climate change that we are racing towards. The fear is that the Earth will simultaneously reach a number of tipping points, that will push it into a vicious circle of warming events from which it will not easily recover. For example, the Siberian permafrost is thawing; it contains billions of tons of methane, 100x more potent an absorber of heat than CO2. If this methane is all released into the atmosphere, as is already starting to happen, the impact on global temperatures will be colossal.

What is so desperately sad is that the notion of a greenhouse effect is not new. Ursula Le Guin talks about it in her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven, by which time this scientific idea was already spreading in popular culture. The intervening five decades have been marked only by a relentless accumulation of data and a continuing and terrifying corroboration of the core models and hypotheses. We knew this catastrophe was coming, and it was entirely preventable.

In that context, President Biden’s announcement of a massive Federal programme of expenditure designed to transform the infrastructure for generation of energy in the US is very timely. The US is the world’s greatest emitter of CO2; without sweeping change in energy use in the US, the world may not be able to tackle the challenge of climate change. Moreover, US leadership in energy will make it increasingly hard for environmental criminals like Jair Bolsonaro to continue their vandalism unchecked. Biden’s announcement has come not a moment too soon; there may be time to haul ourselves back from the abyss, but make no mistake, the clock is ticking. There is not much time left to save ourselves.

Chicago

As will be evident to anybody who is familar with these pages, I’m quite a well-travelled girl. My work has taken me regularly to the United States, in particular, and to other destinations internationally – until Covid-19 changed everything. Meetings went online, and business travel, like so much else in life, became part of that different existence we led before the pandemic. In truth, while I enjoy travelling, I missed it much less than I might have expected during the pandemic. Perhaps because so much else in life changed it was less noticeable that I travelled less; I spent a lot more time at home and my social circle shrank. Moreover, while I do enjoy travelling, business travel is pretty hard work. Travelling en femme adds fun but also work – all those additional changes of clothing! Hauling bags down to Heathrow is a drag, and jetlag dents the week after one returns. There are trains, taxis, connecting flights…

For many years while I wrestled with my gender dysphoria and struggled to deal with its impact on my marriage, a week away from home on business also gave me opportunities to be myself; I regularly added a day or two of leave to a trip to allow myself a little “me time”, and this became an important source of solace, a chance to recover equilibrium and untangle some of the knots in my psyche, as well as providing adventures. But nowadays I step out regularly from home, and have much more liberty to be myself in Sheffield. Perhaps this also tipped the cost-benefit analysis of business travel more towards “cost” than “benefit”.

However, a couple of weeks ago I visited Chicago on business. As I booked my flight and hotel, I found myself increasingly excited by the prospect. I love visiting America, and Chicago has always been one of my favourite places; thus, while I had a packed programme of work ahead, I planned to sieze opportunities for a little pleasure while I was away, including a full day to myself at the start of my stay.

The excitement of travelling was returning, but as the day of my departure drew near, so, also, a less welcome apparition made a reappearance. If you’re familiar with my other posts, you’ll know that I have wrestled with what I call an “internalised transphobia”. That’s the best diagnosis I can manage, anyway. My best explanation is that after decades of attempting to cure myself, there is a part of me that still wants to point out the strangeness of a middle-aged man hauling a suitcase full of ladies clothes and make-up across the Atlantic. My sub-conscious generates “reasons” at quite a rate: it’s a busy week, and you don’t really have time; doesn’t all the organisation stress you out? Wouldn’t it be more relaxing to spend your time off with a novel? Haven’t you done this enough by now?

The “reasons” all feel compelling. Perhaps the last of those arguments was the most beguiling, because at some point while I was folding dresses and organising my suitcase I remember thinking to myself “maybe this is the last time”. Is it rational? Isn’t it actually exhausting – all the planning, the rushing back to the hotel to get changed in the evening? And of course the answer is that it is. But my rational self has plenty of experience now. This very familiar morass of self-doubt is now countered by (most of the time) a determination to ignore the voice of inner doubt, get a frock on and get out and about. And invariably, by the time I am strolling down the street, my gremlin has vanished and I feel at peace with the world; the only genuine battle remaining for me is to acknowledge, at the end of the day, that it really is not possible any longer to avoid removing my make-up and turning drab again. That, after so many years, there is any need for argument and determination to do what is so manifestly good for me as a person is perhaps the clearest testament to the self-harm accumulated during all those years of repression.

Arriving in Chicago at 3 pm on a Friday, I planned to head out for dinner. By the time my taxi had fought its way from O’Hare to my downtown hotel, it was nearly 5 pm. Somewhat weary after long journey, I nevertheless managed to shower, change and get out for dinner. As I hauled myself out of the shower and opened my make-up bag, the weariness was dissipating; by the time I stepped out into the warm evening air to walk a few blocks to Dearborn Street, where I dined outdoors, I was smiling, savouring the moment and looking forward to dinner outdoors.

I cannot rationalise how, given comparative freedom after so many years of repression, I experience this instinctive desire to do what is self-harming, in denial of the identity that I have striven to hard to come to terms with and to accept. I know from the many conversations I have had with friends that these sorts of feelings are not unique to me. I suppose that there is a kernel of rationality at their heart: I am a genetic man, and my physiology betrays that to even fairly casual observers. There is no sense in which I really believe that I can “pass” as a woman. But to undergo this transformation is not a piece of frippery for me, but something profound – for all that it also brings a lightness of spirit and a careless capacity to live in the moment and enjoy what the day brings. Whatever affront it brings to rationality, it also brings peace, contentment and wholeness. Sometimes it is necessary to set aside the fruitless pursuit of logic, for this thing, this self-realisation, transcends rationality.