22 September 2021

Helen Joyce’s ‘Trans’ exposes the false promise of gender identity ideology


It’s startling how much public discourse is being driven by trans activism and trans issues. Not a week – or even a day – goes by without something trans-related scorching like a tracer bullet across the headlines.

Last Saturday, transwoman Alana McLaughlan won her first MMA bout – to a decidedly mixed reception – against a natal woman. Last Monday, the Crown Prosecution Service left Stonewall’s ‘Diversity Champions’ scheme, following outfits like the EHRC and Ofcom out the door. Newton’s Third Law of Culture War Shitfights ensured the reception was similarly mixed, just in an equal and opposite direction.

Then there’s Labour MP Rosie Duffield, who has decided not to attend her party’s annual conference after a typically spittle-flecked online response to her voicing ‘gender-critical’ views. 

And all of that was before last Friday’s ruling in the Bell v Tavistock & Portman NHS Foundation Trust appeal came down.

Trans people are, after all, a small proportion of the population, whose individual cases are riddled with complexities. And yet we’re currently being offered striking and simplistic narratives that must be upheld if one is to be considered among the morally meritorious. It’s why I don’t want to write about trans issues with the same enthusiasm I did about Brexit. If you’re interested in intellectual history, constitutional law, and parliamentary procedure, then Brexit was like Christmas morning. Apart from certain Continuity Remain conspiracists and Leaverish swear-bears – both easily avoided – the arguments for and against were finely balanced. 

Trans isn’t like that. One ‘side’ is clearly right; the other ‘side’ is clearly wrong. Yet it’s the side that punches through wrong and comes out near Young Earth Creationism that, until recently, held the upper hand in local controversies and still does in the United States.

Reading mathematician Helen Joyce’s Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality was a salient reminder that if I don’t draw the line at reviewing ‘trans book number four’, and you come to me in three years’ time to find I’ve written as much on ‘the transgender debate’ as I did about Brexit, stick a fork in me. I’m done.

Given there are four books, it’s worth flagging up the features they share. Like Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds, Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage, and Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls, Trans brings out what happens when people gain social approbation by endorsing ‘high status’ narratives. Much of this status enhancement turns on believing a mental illness requiring treatment (gender dysphoria) and the behaviour attaching to it (gender non-conformity and bodily discomfort) amount to a human rights claim requiring public and legal affirmation.

The desire to make certain views unchallengeable means disagreements – especially those covered widely in the press – must be pathologised. Misrepresentation is rife, with criticism and debate offered by dissentients given implications that weren’t there and weren’t intended. This moves to catastrophising, whereby expressing any doubt is characterised in ways that invoke extinction. Stop Trans Genocide MMA fighter McLaughlan’s shirt read last Saturday. The classic catastrophising in trans activism is ‘you are erasing my/our/their existence’. 

This is, of course, nonsense. There is no trans genocide. Words do not erase one’s existence. They can, however, damage a narrative – and if one’s identity is tied to a particular narrative, then the ‘wrong’ words can be threatening indeed. 

It’s my considered view that you should read only one of these books. If you seek a politically congenial approach, for example, then Murray is a bona fide conservative and Stock a bona fide leftist. If you’re American, or want to know what ails the US, then read Shrier. If – politics aside – you prefer to be amused, then your choice is between Murray and Stock; both have a dry wit.

If, however, you look to grasp the extent to which gender identity ideology, both academic and popular, bears comparison with the worst sort of pseudoscience, then Joyce is your pick. I suspect Richard Dawkins endorsed Trans because, as is his wont, he spotted a quasi-religious movement whose ultimate target is not Labour’s all-women shortlists or women’s sports or even feminism as a political ideology, but Charles Darwin and evolutionary biology and beyond that the scientific method itself.

Joyce starts in Weimar Germany, in 1930. There, in Berlin, was the Institute of Sexual Science. Among its sex toys for kinksters and treatments for venereal disease or infertility were hormones and genital surgery for people who wanted to ‘change sex’. Although clearly strange and run by people who were even stranger, it appears to have been internally unpolitical. Founder Magnus Hirschfeld was a gay Jew and a drag queen, for example, while its in-house surgeon and inventor of the vaginoplasty, Erwin Gohrbrandt, not only joined the Nazi Party but went on to conduct lethal medical experiments on inmates at Dachau

Crucially, the Institute’s beliefs about human sexuality rejected Darwin’s entire theory of evolution, both natural and sexual selection. Joyce comments that its staff behaved ‘as if Darwin had never existed’. Hirschfeld thought all human beings were ‘bisexual’, meaning not the sexual orientation, but in the sense of being both sexes and thus indistinct, on a spectrum. Males and females, he wrote, were ‘abstractions, invented extremes’. Like his intellectual heir, Judith Butler (the ‘Professor of Parody’ in Martha Nussbaum’s telling phrase), he argued that the performance of gender stereotypes is what makes someone a man or a woman. 

So much cod science of this sort has pullulated around the trans debate that Joyce is forced to reteach GCSE biology. If your body is structured to produce sperm, you are male, regardless of whether any viable gametes are produced. If your body is structured to produce eggs, you are female, also regardless of whether any viable gametes are produced. Sex is defined by reproductive function. If there are only two types of gametes, then there is no third sex, and sex is binary.

This evolutionary reality has consequences. Women are more vulnerable than men not only because they experience greater reproductive risks, particularly in childbirth, but because men are on average taller and larger, with bigger hearts and lungs, and heavier bones. The average adult man has 41% more non-fat body mass than the average woman, his legs are 65% stronger and his upper body is 90% stronger. Yes, of course, there are exceptions in statistical tails: I am one. I spent years being told to spar men in karate dojos (I have a Shotokan Shodan) because I’m 6’1″ and weigh 200lbs. However, while I was almost inevitably the biggest woman at training, there were always bigger men. The current fashion for depicting equal male and female contact-fighting capacity in films is the work of creators who don’t understand why boxing has weight divisions.

Trans was published in late July to immense fanfare (and controversy), and apart from its biological detail, it is broadly feminist in outlook. Perhaps because of her use of biology, Joyce’s feminism is disciplined and thoughtful. She’s one of the few I’ve encountered even to entertain the possibility that much gendered behaviour has genetic origins; she accepts, for example, that male and female brains are statistically different. During a thorough account of the very significant average differences between the sexes, she observes, drily, that ‘machine-learning algorithms can be taught to classify brain scans as male or female with around ninety-five percent accuracy’.

She also acknowledges the extent to which the transgender mess has roots in feminism’s historical tendency to make political claims unmoored from scientific or statistical facts. If there’s an ideology that’s seriously lost its way, feminism is it, particularly in its pseudoscientific assertion that evolution has only influenced homo sapiens from the neck down.

Yes, I’m aware career-orientated feminism did this to decouple womanhood from biological femaleness so it could prise labour markets open. Unfortunately, it involves treating male and female staff as interchangeable widgets, when biological motherhood alone means they are not. Transactivists have seized on this and are now making the claim that reproductive capacity is irrelevant to being a woman: female is a feeling.

It is fair to say that a feminism unable to deal intelligently with motherhood, making it incidental to being a woman — and that also insists on women forcing their way into male spaces — is already in a weak position. Joyce understands this at a visceral level. ‘The idea that being a man or a woman is a matter of declaration offers women several false promises,’ she observes. ‘One is that you can identify out of the exigencies of a female body’. The situation worsens when feminism is then called upon to resist an agenda that makes motherhood irrelevant to being a woman while insisting on forcing its way into female spaces.

Several things emerge from Joyce’s careful use of science. Perhaps the most important is that biological constraints are not oppression, and that girls who mistake them for oppression are now seeking to identify out of their sex. Being more constrained than others is also not oppression; disabled people deal with something like this every day. You can’t get everything you want. You can’t be everything you want. You can’t fly to the moon by flapping your arms. The idea there is some wonderful future that will get rid of all constraints irking you is a mirage. 

In the end, reality bites. 

I would like to thank my friend Lorenzo Warby for fruitful discussion & contributions to this review.

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Helen Dale read Law at Oxford and won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, 'The Hand that Signed the Paper'. Her latest novel is 'Kingdom of the Wicked'; it was shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize for science fiction.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.