This month, the New York Times reported on a leaked memo from the Department of Health and Human Services that, if adopted, would reverse the Obama-era federal decision to interpret Title IX as prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity in addition to biological sex. According to the Times, this meant that transgender people “could be defined out of existence.”
While in America trans rights are the latest battle in the left–right culture war, in Britain they have sparked a bitter left-on-left conflict, and the most valiant opponents of trans militants have been not conservatives but a cohort of liberal women — or, as their detractors call them, “TERFs”: trans-exclusionary radical feminists.
Between July and October of this year, Britain’s Conservative party considered whether to reform the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA) so that any person could change his legal gender simply by filling out a form. The existing provisions of the GRA require that a person provide medical proof of gender dysphoria and live for at least two years as a member of his preferred gender. (The law does not require surgical transitions, as laws in some U.S. states do.) Trans activists maintain that the requirements are too demanding.
But if any man can become a woman without so much as shaving his beard, where does that leave natal females? Earlier this year, a sex offender named Karen White was incarcerated in a British women’s prison, where “she” sexually assaulted fellow inmates. And how did this “woman” sexually abuse other women? The prosecution explained: “Her penis was erect and sticking out of the top of her trousers.”
TERFs don’t buy the “her penis” theory. Neither do they take kindly to the suggestion that boys identifying as girls should be allowed to shower with girls, or that trans women (natal males) should be allowed to compete in women’s sports or be peer counselors for women who have been raped.
In this they are following their feminist foremothers, who argued for a clear distinction between two now much-abused concepts: sex and gender. Feminists of the latter half of the 20th century argued that gender was a social construct used to oppress the female sex (sex being, as the Trump administration has suggested, an immutable biological trait). But trans activists are now pushing the opposite idea: that a person’s self-identified gender is a liberating absolute that may, legally and medically, veto his sex.
TERFs, having realized that the proposed change to the GRA would undermine sex-based rights for women, started a number of grassroots women’s groups — such as Fair Play for Women, Standing for Women, and Women’s Place — aimed at educating the public. But they have faced hurdles. For instance, Standing for Women funded a billboard campaign to spread a dictionary definition of “woman” (“an adult human female”). When trans activists complained, the billboard company, Primesight Direct, removed the billboards, and its owner said his company had been “misled” about them. A museum in London, Wellcome Collection, decided to use the term “womxn” instead of “women” in a marketing campaign, explaining that it’s “important to create a space/venue that includes diverse perspectives.” (The museum later disavowed the unorthodox spelling.)
Such pandering to activists is indicative of the prevailing sense of fear. Indeed, trans activists resort to bullying tactics against those who don’t comply. After Rosa Freedman, a law professor at Reading University, argued against the GRA reform, a male student called her a “transphobic Nazi who should get raped.” For merely retweeting an announcement of a TERF event, the rector of the University of Edinburgh was accused by official student groups of enabling transphobia. Dame Jenni Murray, the presenter of BBC’s Woman’s Hour, who has questioned whether trans women are “real women,” was deterred from speaking at Oxford University by campus activists. Maria Maclachlan, a 61-year-old TERF, was assaulted at a feminist rally by a trans woman named Tara Wolf who had posted on Facebook, “I wanna f*** up some TERFs. They’re no better than fash [fascists].” Wolf, who is a biological male, has since been prosecuted and fined.
Perhaps intimidation from loud grassroots thugs also helps explain why a recent ComRes poll — taken during discussion of the GRA change — found that 69 percent of Tory MPs supported keeping the requirement for medical verification of gender dysphoria, yet 63 percent were afraid to voice their opinion lest they receive social-media abuse or be labeled “transphobic.” Or why the speaker of the House of Commons rejected a parliamentary request known as an “urgent question” (which requires a government minister to respond in person on the same day) from a Tory MP to discuss the issues raised by the case of Karen White, the transgender rapist. Or why the Conservative party allowed consideration of the GRA reform in the first place.
There is another reason the Conservative party is terrified of the trans mob, of course: Trans activists have piggybacked on the gay-rights movement and claimed a stripe of the rainbow flag. This is a sore spot for the Conservative party because of the legacy of the now widely despised Section 28 of its Local Government Act of 1988, which banned the public promotion of homosexuality and was repealed in the early 2000s. Though in practice there are many gay people who dissent from trans orthodoxy, the prevailing political wisdom is to see the LGBT crowd as one uniform electoral chunk — and to conclude that it’s better to say nothing at all than to die on that hill.
Similarly, it is a mistake to suppose that trans dogma is professed by all trans people. Trans people are first and foremost people, who, like anyone, may have a range of viewpoints or change their mind. They are not coextensive with trans activists, who aggressively pursue a specific ideological agenda.
For instance, Jamie Shupe, born male, is the first legally nonbinary person (i.e., neither legally male nor legally female) in the United States. Previously, as a trans woman, Shupe penned an op-ed for the New York Times consistent with the trans party line, insisting that he was in fact a woman. But after years of hormone treatment that he found both physically and emotionally unsuccessful, Shupe came to the conclusion that trans orthodoxy is a “cult.” When I asked what pronouns I should use, Shupe replied, “I don’t like being classified as female; I think it’s offensive to people that really are females.” Identifying as nonbinary, Shupe prefers “they” and “their” but said he was happy for me to use “he” and “him” in this instance.
Shupe’s experience illustrates a common TERF objection to trans ideology — the reinforcement of gender stereotypes. Shupe said that he and his trans friends felt as if they were under severe pressure to “appear like a female,” which meant “big breasts, long hair, and lots of makeup.” But the emphasis on hyperfemininity only increased his gender dysphoria. He felt a “crushing expectation” to “look like a woman,” and, despite a high dosage, hormones didn’t help.
Of course, it’s not just men’s opting in to womanhood that worries TERFs; it’s young girls’ opting out of it. In Britain, the number of teenage girls referred for transition treatment to become boys has risen from 40 to 1,806 in the last eight years. That’s an increase of over 4,000 percent. Historically, gender dysphoria has affected more boys than girls, but now it’s flipped. Lisa Littman, an assistant professor at the Brown University School of Public Health, conducted a study of parental reports to find out why. Her report on her research, published in the science journal PLOS One, suggested that “social and peer contagion” may be a factor. After pressure from activists, however, Brown University distanced itself from her study, removing the press release from its website. Littman told National Review, “When activists shut down gender-dysphoria research about potential risks and contraindications of transition, they are depriving the transgender community of their right to receive accurate information.”
Other stories commonly ignored by trans militants involve post-surgical regret. Julie Bindel, a TERF and a U.K. Guardian contributor who has fought for decades to protect women from violence, began writing about transgenderism in 2003 after she met Claudia, a gay man who had felt pressured into sex-change surgery by a partner. In an illuminating recent episode, the Guardian ran an editorial outlining “where rights collide” between trans activists (who want gender recognition) and feminists (who want sex-based protections). The editorial rejected “the idea that one of these positions is the right one — and the other wrong.” However, the staff of the U.S. Guardian were so alarmed by the editorial that they wrote a rebuttal accusing their British counterparts of promoting “transphobic viewpoints” that included “some of the same assertions about gender that US politicians are citing in their push to eliminate trans rights.”
“Trans rights are human rights” is the standard slogan of pro-trans activists. But in practice, trans rights have been a topsy-turvy means of state-sponsored censorship and coercion. Obviously, all people should be free from discrimination, harassment, and abuse. One could say, then, that human rights are trans rights. And that — as the TERFs suggest — women need them, too.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that Karen White had raped fellow inmates. White, who is a convicted rapist, sexually assaulted fellow prisoners.