29 April 2024

How we misunderstood gender nonconformity


When scriptwriter Gareth Roberts was 14, he called a helpline promoted by a new organisation, one dedicated to helping gay and lesbian youth. The operator tried to set him up on a date with a 19-year-old. Fortunately, the young Roberts had the wit to realise this ‘was a very bad idea’. 

A related organisation opened the first – and, at the time, only gay youth club in the country. Roberts joined, only to discover meeting rooms and communal areas littered with literature from PIE. That, for readers who aren’t gay or lesbian and of a certain vintage, stands for ‘Paedophile Information Exchange’.

What you need to understand – as Roberts argues in his first book, Gay Shame: The Rise of Gender Ideology and the New Homophobiais ‘that there was a prominent streak of gay activism that was absolutely insane’. And, despite major successes borne of both a mature response to the AIDS crisis and opposition to Section 28, the bonkers quality never went away. That said, he admits he didn’t expect ‘the gay rights movement transmogrifying into a cross between the Church of Scientology, Heathers: the Musical and Act 4 of The Crucible’.

In Gay Shame, Roberts does two things. First, he explains how and why trans activism has become the ‘official’ gay rights movement that now (bitterly) divides gays and lesbians. It’s impossible not to notice the extent to which fights over trans issues often involve two opposed teams of homosexuals: Stonewall vs LGB Alliance. Roberts is a gay man and directs ordnance (for the most part) at gay men while also contextualising this division in an intelligent way. However, when feminist and lesbian adherents of the religion he calls ‘genderism’ cross his radar, they cop a similarly witty serve.

Secondly – and in a way that tracks the careful evidence-gathering of the Cass Review – he conveys the extent to which transgenderism represents ‘transing the gay away’. Most of the children who went through the Tavistock – 9,000 of them in all according to Cass – were same-sex attracted or simply gender nonconforming. Rising numbers, year-on-year, of glittery, swishy little boys and even more sporty but quirky little girls.

‘This is an ideology,’ Roberts points out in a coruscating passage, ‘that says there is something wrong with camp little boys and butch little girls and that they need to be fixed’.

This is impressive despite its grimness. Gay Shame only came out last Thursday, and – due to typical lead-times in publishing – was written in 2023. Despite a stint as a writer for Dr Who, Roberts didn’t nick the Tardis and get early access to the Cass report. This care and foresight has the effect of forcing readers – both heterosexual and homosexual – to think about how we respond to gender nonconforming behaviour. 

Most people do not understand what it’s like to be gender nonconforming or appreciate the extent to which gender nonconforming people stick out like sore thumbs. Gays, lesbians and bisexuals won social acceptance before everyone else properly ‘got’ us. Roberts’ hands must be a mess, because he grasps every bloody nettle on the gay male side of the equation: from the extent to which gay male sexuality is utterly unlike straight male sexuality (because it does not involve women) to taking aim at a string of overpraised, low-quality gay male contributions to popular culture. 

Does that mean every gay man on the planet sleeps around and adores Eurovision? No, of course not, but there are also no lesbian chemsex parties and heterosexuals really don’t have to pretend Eurovision is bloody marvellous. Meanwhile, if a straight man wanted some sort of chemsex equivalent, it would involve handing over a lot of cash to a group of women he doesn’t know in icky bits of London he would prefer not to frequent.

This absence of theory of mind – common but not universal when dealing with people unlike oneself – has implications. In a discussion of what he concedes is ‘a small minority of gay men,’ Roberts observes how ‘the Metropolitan Police’s shockingly inept handling of the case of the serial rapist and murderer Stephen Port in London in 2014/15 was partly down to their assumptions about the chemsex deaths of gay men’.

Of value is Roberts’ account of what he calls ‘the fall of Stonewall’, which was, in retrospect, astonishingly swift. ‘You can literally narrow it down to about three weeks in late 2014,’ he told me last week. He documents the extent to which Stonewall’s pivot to trans activism arose in part because it fell for queer theory (‘peer review is the process by which academics mark each other’s homework,’ he observes, tartly) and partly because it had won. ‘What was Stonewall for?’ Roberts asks. ‘It had no active political campaigns left to fight in the UK. But it had a huge staff, and a massive engine room of fundraising and campaigning machinery. A tender full of coal and no track’.

One effect of Stonewall’s pivot – and later persecution, along with Mermaids, of the LGB Alliance – was that the latter organisation spent years fighting off attacks on its charitable status, unable to do much else. Only recently has it been able to work normally, ‘doing,’ as Roberts says, ‘exactly the same work as Stonewall did before its fall to genderism’.

Gay Shame raises all sorts of difficult questions. It’s really striking, for example, what a recurrent feature the sexualising of children is within allegedly ‘liberatory’ streams of thought. This manifests in something Roberts calls ‘The Leap’. The Leap consists of the belief that ‘people (including, incredibly, children) are always what they claim to be, rather than what they are’.

Roberts’ discussion of gay men and gay male sexuality – and of male and female gender nonconformity more widely – also serves to remind the rest of us that we know very little about homosexuality. I know loads of ‘right-on’ straight parents who bought their son girl toys or their daughter boy toys. The kids simply blew them off. This, I’m afraid, is because most children are gender conforming. Gender has biological roots: the stereotyped behaviours it produces mean that deviations are really going to show. The thing is, gender nonconforming behaviour and the homosexuality and bisexuality that often accompany it also have biological roots, but we don’t know why

In biology, a spandrel is a phenotypic trait that’s a by-product of some other evolved characteristic, rather than a direct product of adaptive selection. It’s a term borrowed from cathedral architecture, where it refers to something decorative, but which provides no structural support. Maybe some homosexuals don’t mind the idea that we’re just the fancy bit at the corner of an arch, but we’re too common to be an evolutionary spandrel. We exist for a reason. Why would evolution throw up a group of people of both sexes who are attracted to their own sex? Not exactly going to contribute to reproducing the species, are we?

Gareth Roberts isn’t sure that ‘genderism’ will collapse. At the end of Gay Shame, he presents two plausible scenarios. One depicts a world where queer theory and all its works and all its ways has gone down the long slide and all seems well. The other shows what things look like in the event of a genderist win. And in that world, the grim joke that emerged among staff at the Tavistock has come true. There are no gay people left.  

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Helen Dale read Law at Oxford and Edinburgh 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.