A couple of months ago I signed up to Twitter. I use Facebook and have a community that I feel a part of there (several communities in fact), but I thought I’d take a look at Twitter and try to explore some of the issues around gender identity from a different perspective.
The trans communities that I’m part of on Facebook are overwhelmingly of the view that transwomen are women, self-identifcation is self-evidently the right thing and anybody who suggests there are complexities is a bigot. These groups include many people I am close to. Their friendship has helped me through some very difficult years. And yet, oddly, there are questions, fears, thoughts that I have about my trans identity that appear to be unspeakable. I wonder if I am alone in my questioning, or whether there are many others who feel like me. It is a curious paradox that the explosion of self-expression that has been facilitated by social media so often feels suffocating. One can find a home in cyberspace, but within each tight-knit virtual community there are unwritten rules of engagement that constrain and oppress.
I didn’t expect to find thoughtful debate on Twitter. But I’m curious and I thought I’d dig around. Twitter threw up some interesting surprises and I think I’m glad I tried the experiment. But it was short-lived. I was frankly stunned at how hateful a great deal of the material on Twitter felt – not just because people made hateful pronouncements to the world in general but because they made them directly, to me, without any provocation. I closed my account a month ago and I’ve been a lot happier since.
I knew Twitter can be shouty, but I feel as though I’ve peered into a huge and nasty pit filled with bile. Perhaps people feel that everyday discourse constrains their freedom to express contrary views, and on Twitter they can vent their spleen. But the shock for me was the extent to which complete strangers felt able to make pronouncements about my inner life to a public forum. I’ll come to that a bit later, but first let me comment on a few good things.
I ran into some gender-critical feminists on Twitter. Among these is the philosopher Kathleen Stock from the University of Sussex. I don’t agree with everything she writes, but she’s a thinker (you’d expect that from a philosopher!) and a free spirit who’s prepared to challenge orthodoxy. I followed a variety of threads from her to other feminists. On Twitter people follow other people. Not many people followed me in the month or two I was on Twitter, but most of those who did were feminists, and a lot of them said really sweet things to me, even when they disagreed with me. They were funny, and friendly, as well as determined. They were the kind of women trans activists call “TERFs” – trans-exclusionary radical feminists. For activists they are the enemy – an army of bigots who have a “biological essentialist” view of gender, and whose agenda of hate was articulated by Germaine Greer when she said “just because you cut your dick off it doesn’t make you a woman”.
Kathleen stock is occasionally pithy on Twitter, but where she writes at more length I find her articulate and persuasive on many issues that are at the heart of the debate about gender identity. I think she is sensitive to the vulnerabilities and challenges of trans people, but she also has the view – supported by argument – that to be a woman is to be of the female sex. This is a proper argument that deserves a proper response. At what point (if ever) can we say that a man has become a woman? Is it really sufficient for a man simply to say that he is a woman – must we simply take his word for it?
But elsewhere on Twitter I found much that upset and concerned me. On the matter of gender identity, I found a convergence of communities each with its own agenda. I found feminists who were obsessed with autogynephilia. I’ve written about this subject elsewhere but surprisingly large numbers of people who I had never met, and who had no working knowledge of my genitalia, told me aggressively, forcefully and belligerently that I was “AGP” because I got aroused when I wore women’s clothing. How can they possibly know? It is as unreasonable as it is irrational. But the view is stoked by a disparate group of people. I found a small number of “ex-trans” Tweeters, who offer the candid admission that they know what its like to be trans because before they saw the light, thy too were trans; and thy can assure people that men who dress like women do it because it makes them aroused – yes it really is a bit disgusting isn’t it? And cyberspace being what it is, these pearls of wisdom – from a very small number of people – get tweeted and retweeted, and these frankly boring and unexceptional people become very welcome on people’s Twitter streams because they are able to say what people want to hear people saying. Some people who ought to know better offer their opinion as if medical fact. On Twitter, Ray Blanchard offers a narrow monologue that represents his opinion (not scientific fact) and that lacks none of the balance, self-criticism and objectivity that characterises his academic scientific research. But of course, as the discoverer of “AGP”, the Theory known Universally to be True that Proves all Transpeople are Perverts, he also offers gold to those who hate. Another time I would like to return to this topic, because it is an interesting case study of the way that academic science can be mistranslated into the public sphere.
Graham Linehan, writer of Father Ted, spouts bile on all things trans. He is at war with trans activists. A small number of trans people on Twitter support him. He speaks well of them, and calls them “she”. Among these is Debbie Hayton whose views I share on many issues. Debbie is anxious to debate with trans activists because she fears (I believe rightly) that their aggression may spark a backlash. But Linehan misgenders every other trans person he refers to. Explicitly he attacks trans activists because self-identification endangers protections for women; this wins him the support of feminists. But implicitly what he writes appears to me to promulgate a thinly veiled hatred for trans people. Recently there was a rumpus because a trans activist had published Linehan’s wife’s contact details online. This was an outrage, people tweeted, with a link to a newspaper article. I read the article and discovered Linehan had first published the activist’s financial details and personal information about her identity before she obtained a gender recognition certificate. In retaliation she posted information about his wife. Linehan was eventually cautioned by the police, but he has built a community who will hear only his side and rather feels himself to be a hero. The order of events was unimportant to him or his followers: in the bile fest that is Twitter, evidence is not sought in order to establish truth but as a supplement to invective to hurl at adversaries.
The trans activists are of course no better. Indeed so much of their behaviour seems stereotypically masculine and, frankly, misogynistic that I think they pose a far greater threat to the future protection of trans people than do radical feminists. Indeed their behaviour has gone far beyond Twitter: out in the real world, we have had punches thrown, and unable to win their argument by words alone, some trans activists have resorted to attempting to resolve the matter in a way that only men would – through physical assault.
I closed my Twitter account because it became increasingly hard to deal with the bile directed at trans people. Much of this was provoked by activists with whom I have no common cause and who I believe may, through their unreasonable demands, provoke a backlash against the protections currently conferred on trans people by our liberal society. Some tweeters offered caveats that they were attacking activists. But as the reader, it felt very much directed against me too because of the readiness of so many to indulge in sweeping generalisations about huge numbers of people they had never met. To translate matters into another sphere, is there a problem with male sexual violence? Most certainly there is. Are all men rapists (as somebody daubed on a building in Manchester where I was a student)? No, and neither are all rapists men; nor are the victims of rape all women. But still it is true that there is a problem with male sexual violence.
I wish for a society where we can debate freely, thoughtfully and respectfully these important and difficult issues. But we seem caught between a sphere of public discourse in which people feel unable to debate freely and rationally, and a tribalistic virtual milieu in which no holds are barred and in which there is no expectation of genuine debate and engagement with contrary views.