For a movement that is supposedly about the latest oppressed minority gaining full human rights, transactivism has progressed remarkably far and fast.
What campaigners mean by “trans rights” is gender self-identification: that trans people be treated in every circumstance as members of the sex they identify with, rather than the sex they actually are.
This is not a human right at all. It is a demand that everyone else lose their rights to single-sex spaces, services, and activities. And in its requirement that everyone else accept trans people’s subjective beliefs as objective reality, it is akin to a new state religion, complete with blasphemy laws.
Even as one country after another introduces gender self-ID, very few voters know that this is happening, let alone support it.
In 2018 research by Populus, an independent pollster, crowdfunded by British feminists, found that only 15 percent of British adults agreed that legal sex change should be possible without a doctor’s sign-off. A majority classified a “person who was born male and has male genitalia but who identifies as a woman” as a man, and only tiny minorities said that such people should be allowed into women’s sports or changing rooms, or be incarcerated in a women’s prison if they committed a crime.
Two years later, YouGov found that half of British voters thought people should be “able to self-identify as a different gender to the one they were born in.” But two-thirds said legal sex change should only be possible with a doctor’s sign-off, with just 15 percent saying no sign-off should be needed. In other words, there is widespread support for people describing themselves as they wish, but not much for granting such self-descriptions legal status. The same poll also asked whether transwomen should be allowed in women’s sports and changing rooms, sometimes with a reminder that transwomen may have had no genital surgery, and sometimes without. The share saying yes was 20 percentage points lower with the reminder than without — again demonstrating widespread confusion about what being trans means, and that support for trans people does not imply support for self-declaration overriding reality.
A poll in Scotland in 2020 suggests that even young women, the demographic keenest on gender self-ID, become cooler when reminded of the practical implications. A slight majority of women aged 16 to 34 selected “anyone who says they’re a woman, regardless of their biology” as closer than “an adult human female, with XX chromosomes and female genitalia” to their conception of what the word “woman” means. (Young men were much less keen on the self-ID definition, though keener than older men. Overall, 72 percent of respondents chose the biological definition.) But that 52 percent share fell to 38 percent answering “yes” to: “Do you think someone who identifies as a woman, but was born male, and still has male genitalia, should be allowed to use female changing rooms where women and girls are undressing/showering, even if those women object?”
This pattern of broad sympathy for trans-identified people combined with opposition to the practical consequences of gender self-ID also holds in the U.S. In 2020, public-opinion polling in ten swing states found that at least three-quarters of likely voters — including a majority of registered Democrats — opposed allowing male people to compete in female sports. Proposals to ban puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones for minors also polled extremely well. Two more polls the same year, one in California shortly before state laws changed to grant male convicts who identified as women the right to be held in women’s prisons, and one in Idaho to gauge support for the state legislature’s efforts to keep males out of women’s sports, found large majorities supporting separation by sex rather than gender identity.
Gender self-ID does not even play well with left-leaning voters. In early 2020, Eric Kaufmann, a politics professor, gave a random sample of likely British voters some text about a “trans rights” pledge signed by all but one of the candidates for the Labour Party leadership. It described women’s groups campaigning to maintain sex-based rights as “trans exclusionist hate groups,” and said Labour members supporting them should be expelled. The share who said they were likely to vote Labour at the next election was ten percentage points lower than in a control group who read nothing. Progressive campaigners have used “taboos around minority sensitivity to amplify their influence,” Kaufmann concluded, enabling them to “advance unpopular platforms that both weaken the Left and contribute to cultural polarisation.”
A movement that focuses on the levers of power rather than building grassroots support is one in which a few wealthy people can have considerable sway. They have shaped the global agenda by funding briefing documents, campaign groups, research, and legal actions; endowing university chairs; and influencing health-care protocols.
One is an American transwoman billionaire, Jennifer (James) Pritzker, a retired soldier and one of the heirs to a vast family fortune. Pritzker’s personal foundation, Tawani, makes grants to universities, the ACLU, GLAAD, the HRC, and smaller activist groups. To cite a couple of examples, in 2016 it gave the University of Victoria $2 million to endow a chair of transgender studies, and throughout the “bathroom wars” it supported Equality Illinois Education Project, which is linked to a group campaigning for gender self-ID in the state.
Two other billionaires, neither transgender, also spend lavishly on transactivism. One is Jon Stryker, another heir to a fortune. His foundation, Arcus, supports the LGBT-campaign group ILGA and Transgender Europe, which channels funding to national self-ID campaigns. Arcus funds the LGBT Movement Advancement Project, which tracks gender-identity advocacy in dozens of countries (and partners with President Biden’s personal foundation on the Advancing Acceptance Initiative, which promotes early-childhood transition). In 2015 Arcus announced that it would give $15 million in the next five years to American trans-rights groups. Among the recipients were the ACLU, the Transgender Law Center, the Trans Justice Funding Project, and the Freedom Center for Social Justice, which campaigned against North Carolina’s bathroom law. In 2019, it gave $2 million to found a queer-studies program at Spelman College in Atlanta, and it funds Athlete Ally, the group that dropped Martina Navratilova as an ambassador when she opposed trans inclusion in female sports.
The third billionaire funder of transactivism is George Soros, via his Open Society Foundations (OSF), a network of independently managed philanthropic institutions. OSF has made large donations to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Watch (including $100 million in 2010, its biggest donation ever), and the HRC, all of which campaign for gender self-identification. OSF pays for the production of model laws and “best practice” documents on trans-related issues. To highlight just one example, in 2014 it supported “License to Be Yourself,” a guide to campaigning for national gender self-ID laws. This argued, among other things, that children of any age should be able to change their legal sex at will.
This pattern of funding helps explain the gap between trans-campaign groups’ rhetoric and the policies they pursue. The talk is about the world’s downtrodden: Poor, homeless trans people forced into survival sex work, lacking health care and harassed by the police. But the money comes in large part from the world’s most powerful people: rich, white American males. The two groups’ needs and desires barely overlap at all.
There certainly are trans people in harrowing circumstances. Many of the murders cited by transactivist groups to support the claim that trans people are uniquely at risk are of South American travestis — transwomen who retain male genitalia and often work in street prostitution. But the risks they face have little to do with being trans. Street prostitution is dangerous for anyone, as is being a gender-nonconforming male in South America. Mostly, these people need the same as their fellow citizens: better health care and policing, economic development, and an end to America’s drug war. They also need exit strategies from prostitution. Amended birth certificates stating travestis’ sex as female will do nothing to disguise their maleness, or protect them from violent pimps and johns.
Fortunately, the limited statistics available suggest that trans people in safer places are not at greatly elevated risk of violence. Their life expectancy depends mostly on the same things as everyone else’s — sex, occupation, state of health, and so on — and not on their identity. But they do have specific needs that would be worth addressing. They are on average poorer than their fellow citizens, and more likely to have mental-health problems. Above all, they would benefit from high-quality research into the origins of cross-sex identities, and how to care for a body altered by cross-sex hormones and surgeries as it ages.
But mainstream transactivism does none of this. It works largely towards two ends: ensuring that male people can access female spaces; and removing barriers to cross-sex hormones and surgeries, even in childhood. These are not the needs of people on low incomes at risk of poor health. They are the desires of rich, powerful males who want to be classed as women. Everything I have written about — the harm to children’s bodies; the loss of women’s privacy; the destruction of women’s sports; and the perversion of language — is collateral damage.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from the author’s book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality.