On the identitarian left, refusing to pay lip service to the belief that humans can literally change sex is now a serious heresy. If perpetrated by a female, it results in being dubbed a “trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” or “TERF.” In “antifa” circles it is common to claim that punching TERFs is as legitimate as punching Nazis. Even those who disclaim violence often support ostracism, loss of employment, and online harassment as appropriate punishment for those deemed to hold TERF opinions.
Despite this, pushback in the United Kingdom against transgender activism has become increasingly organized, vocal, and politically effective. In 2020, U.K. government plans to allow official “gender self-identification” without a medical diagnosis were dropped following a lengthy grassroots campaign against the proposal. The U.K. is now referred to by U.S. pro-trans activists as “TERF Island.” How did Britain acquire such notoriety as a supposed hotbed of prejudice?
Two books by leading voices in the U.K.’s “gender-critical” movement (TERFs to their opponents) may shed some light. Trans, by Helen Joyce, looks at “gender identity ideology”—the belief that “identity” should take precedence over biological sex—and its social, institutional, and political ramifications. Material Girls, by Kathleen Stock, delves into the intellectual history and real-world coherence of the same idea.
In contrast to the largely polarized red/blue U.S. debate, “gender-critical” discourse in the U.K. can be found on both sides of the aisle. Stock and Joyce both come from broadly left-liberal fields: Joyce is a journalist and editor at The Economist, while Stock is a professor of analytical philosophy at the University of Sussex. Both are at pains in their writing to stress that they seek a compromise between the needs of trans people and other stakeholders, such as women, children, and gay and lesbian people.
But both are also broadly “liberal” in the sense that they embrace democratic process, good-faith compromise, and a commitment to empiricism over dogma. Stock defines her terms—“sex,” “gender,” “gender identity”—and attempts a fairly neutral summary of her opponents’ position. Then she sets out her argument, namely that humans cannot literally change sex, only “gender,” but that current trans politics intentionally conflates the two, with serious negative consequences, especially for women and girls. Stock tackles the subject via her previous discipline, the philosophy of fiction. Here, a key concept is “immersion,” which is to say a state in which a fictional world is embraced as an experience that is real but not-real. Trans identity, she argues, is a form of such immersion. Immersion in fiction should not be denigrated, Stock argues; but legislative maneuvers that seek to collapse fiction into material reality are having disastrous results.
Where Stock turns analytic rigor on the conceptual incoherence of gender identity ideology, Joyce focuses on its real-world effects—for instance, on women’s sports, where Joyce argues the complex issues around sex classification have been over-simplified into a matter of testosterone levels, thus opening the door to males dominating women’s sports. Elsewhere Joyce addresses the impact of trans “inclusion” in women’s prisons, a change that has already resulted in the rape and sexual assault of female prisoners by biological males on both sides of the Atlantic. She details the risks to child safeguarding of collapsing all distinction between the sexes: She mobilizes an array of statistics to show the differences between male-pattern and female-pattern offending, which is pronounced where sexual offenses are concerned. She also cites clinic whistleblowers concerned that parents of gay children may evade their “extreme discomfort” by encouraging their offspring to transition.
Both writers eschew polemic and strive to persuade an implicitly rational reader via reasoned argument and only very controlled use of emotional color. In other words, their writing is as characteristically liberal as their worldview. Both nonetheless convey a sense of understated outrage at the eruption of incoherent and empirically false dogma into previously sane-seeming areas of public life and discourse. Joyce sees the incursion into science of claims that humans can literally change sex as a kind of virus, one that has “infected august publications that print solid scientific sense day after day.” Stock tackles her opponents’ sophistry via lucid analysis laced with sarcasm: in response to Judith Butler’s argument that we can evade the real-world effects of biological sex by deconstructing the sex binary, Stock writes that this is “a bit like arguing that an asteroid isn’t about to hit Earth by redefining the word ‘Earth' as ‘thing incapable of being hit by an asteroid.'”
But both books also hint at the limited effectiveness of “reason” as a remedy for this state of affairs. Stock describes harassment and censorship in academia: grant applications rejected, publishers bullied, official university complaints, “informal chats” about “threat to promotion prospects.” Joyce details attempts to delegitimize dissenters such as the sexologist Ray Blanchard, who studied the phenomenon of “autogynephilia,” and the campaign to defund the one Canadian women’s refuge that refuses to admit biological males.
Joyce addresses in forensic detail the institutional maneuvering conducted under cover of this gunfire. Here international NGOs, human rights legislation, campaigning charities, lawfare, and compliant media have combined to ratchet toward the international abolition of biological sex in law, while suppressing the protests of those women directly affected.
Both Joyce and Stock also offer a detailed account of the U.K. “gender-critical” resistance: a movement that likewise comprises grassroots and institutional components. Below the surface, it commands considerable support, across both left and right. This is largely mobilized via Mumsnet, a U.K.-based parenting forum with 95 percent female membership. The discursive space afforded by Mumsnet has, over the last decade, increasingly become a focus for grassroots political mobilization against transgender activism.
Aided by women from Britain’s well-developed trade union tradition, who brought organizational skills to the table, grassroots opposition on Mumsnet has coalesced into gender-critical activist bodies. Notable and high-profile groups formed in recent years include Sex Matters, Fair Play for Women, Woman’s Place, the LGB Alliance, and Transgender Trend. Today this coalition coordinates to lean on every available lever of power, including political lobbying, lawfare, and the creation of “best practice” legal and policy templates for organizations to use.
In recent months, grassroots U.K. gender-critical campaigning has crowdfunded and won an emergency legal challenge to changes in the U.K. census guidance that would have privileged gender identity rather than sex. Others have challenged the influence of LGBT group Stonewall across U.K. corporations and public bodies: As a result, key institutions, such as the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Justice, have withdrawn from Stonewall’s aggressively trans-activist “Diversity Champions” program.
Things are also changing in the courts. An employment tribunal ruling that gender-critical views were “not worthy of respect in a democratic society” has been overturned on appeal. Last week, another tribunal ruled in favor of a whistleblower who raised concerns over NHS-funded youth gender transition. Other cases are ongoing.
So is the Overton window shifting? Joyce ends her account of this contest on a measured note of optimism. A continued commitment to the realities of biological sex simply makes more sense, in more contexts, than sex denialism, she argues. As such it stands a better chance of winning out in the long term.
But what emerges from both books is a sense that contra the liberal norms of democratic debate, in the digital age this moderate discourse is at best only the polite veneer on the real political struggle. The inside stories outlined in Trans and Material Girls mark the contours of how politics is conducted in the internet age. That is, via institutional capture, shored up by campaigns of harassment and delegitimization conducted via a Greek chorus of sometimes vicious online partisans—who can be used en masse to discipline dissenters or justify a deplatforming, but also be disavowed when they go too far. It is a bloody and zero-sum fight for dominance of political and cultural institutions, and it is by no means clear that being on the side of objective reality will be enough to hand victory to the “TERFs.”
In contrast with the often-polarized American discourse, “TERF Island” as depicted in Trans and Material Girls emerges as a contemporary, feminist-inflected outworking of Britain’s longstanding Burkean tradition. Both books argue a downbeat and very British empirical case for moderate, compassionate individualism grounded in the world as it is, as opposed to an absolutist ideology focused on the attainment of heaven on earth and willing to overlook grotesque injustice en route.
And yet running through each is tacit acknowledgment that in our age of digital Jacobinism, appeals to moderation, justice, or even reality may no longer be enough to win the battle. When tempted to pull their punches in the name of reason, debate, and so on, those who still hold a candle for the moderate tradition of liberal democracy might do well to remember the words of Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”
Mary Harrington is a columnist at UnHerd.
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