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…