So, Momentum made a video huh?
To be honest, it’s kind of a classic of its genre. Once more with feeling everyone: Trans rights are just like gay rights. Anyone who thinks otherwise is some nasty backwards morally bankrupt fuddy-duddy asshole who is going to look back on their objections to the current trans rights agenda with an enormous eggy face-full of shame. Remember peoples, we’re just telling you this for your own good. YOU DON’T WANT TO GO GETTING CAUGHT ON THE WRONG SIDE OF HISTORY DO YOU NOW????
This parallel between gay and trans rights has been leveraged for all its worth by the trans rights movement. It’s one Owen Jones has trotted out endlessly to justify his point-blank refusal to listen to anything anyone – particularly female anyones – have to say on the matter. It’s embedded in the way trans rights is now the centre of activity for many LGBTQI+ organizations, and has come, most notably, to dominate Stonewall’s campaign agenda. And it’s present, perhaps most potently, in the way objections to trans rights are immediately dismissed as bigotry and ‘transphobia’ – a thought-terminating lifting of the notion of discrimination-as-phobia taken straight from gay-rights discourse.
This strategy has been incredibly effective. One of the reasons the trans rights movement has been able to make such an historically unprecedented ascent from obscurity to wall-to-wall dominance is because if you glance at it running from twenty paces, it does look exactly like the gay rights movement. And, right now the whole world is bascially going to shit and a lot of people are too up-to-their-eyes in grind, precarity, sugar and anxiety to do anything but look at it running from twenty paces. People just want to be told what the good right-thinking progressive position is and then get on with the business of trying to get on with their business. Fair enough. But there’s a massive problem with all this. And that’s because the parallel between gay rights and trans rights is as superficial and insubstantial as that glossy sound-bite-stuffed Momentum video.
What I want to do here is think through why the concept of ‘discrimination-as-phobia’ worked for the gay rights movement, and why, despite superficial similarities, it doesn’t accurately capture what is at stake in the trans rights debate, and actually serves as a tool of political propaganda and obfuscation to push that agenda through. That is, I’m going to argue that accusations of ‘homophobia’ were a politically powerful and basically on-the-money part of gay rights discourse, while the use of ‘transphobia’ is an inaccurate parallel which grossly distorts public perceptions of the issues involved in the trans rights debate, and is doing so in the service of actually preventing that debate taking place.
So, to get down to it. The discourse of ‘homophobia’ fundamentally relies on the idea that gay-people are discriminated against on the basis of moral disgust. And inside that are two more interwoven ideas. One, that moral disgust is not a legitimate basis for telling people what not to do. (Correct) Especially not when your disgust-feels are causing serious harm to other people. (Also correct) And even more especially given that moral disgust is a nasty, vicious emotion that tends to shade very easily into violence (and I mean that in the old-fashioned sense of ‘literal violence’). Two, that because discrimination against homosexuality was entirely mediated by moral disgust, there was, in fact, no legitimate basis for that discrimination, and all objections were, effectively, moral disgust in drag. That is, the success of gay rights was substantially down to disseminating the idea that that were no good reasons for anyone to object to their agenda, and that everyone objecting was just a nasty evil bigot whose ideas shouldn’t be given any weight as part of democratic political debate.
This structure has basically been transferred wholesale to the concept of ‘transphobia.’ And it’s doing important work for the trans rights movement in several ways. First, the idea of the visceral virulence of moral disgust has been taken and amplified to the hundredth power. Our response to things that disgust us is to try and eradicate them, and I think this resonance of the ‘phobia’ designation is doing a lot to undergird trans activist’s claims that any objection to their demands amounts to a ‘denial of their existence,’ or an effort to ‘exclude’ them bordering on intent to exterminate. (It’s also a key element of the endlessly recycled claim that a bunch of mostly left-wing feminist women are in cahoots with people who’d blend seamlessly into the Westboro Baptist Church or some such nonsense. (It’s wall-to-wall self-hating lesbians over here, honest)).
Second, and we’ll deal with this in detail because it’s crucial. The use of the concept of ‘homophobia’ to dismiss objections to gay rights carried a ton of weight because the basis for a legitimate moral or political objection would be that something causes a harm, and in the case of gay rights there is a complete dearth of convincing arguments as to why homosexuality is a harm. It doesn’t harm homosexuals (whereas repressing it evidently does), and it doesn’t harm anyone else. But this is precisely where the ‘homophobia-transphobia’ parallel falls completely apart. Because in the case of the trans rights agenda there is actually a load of potential harms we might reasonably be worried about. Indeed, there is a kind of dull thudding irony to the fact that the very week Momentum decide to remind us that we’re all scaremongering bigots on the wrong side of history it also became public knowledge that Karen White – a trans woman on remand for rape – had been sent to a women’s jail where they sexually assaulted four inmates. (Who could have predicted it?)
The key thing to understand about trans rights activism is that, unlike gay rights activism, it is not just a movement seeking to ensure that trans people are not discriminated against. It is, rather, a movement committed to a fundamental reconceptualization of the very idea of what makes someone a man or a woman. In theory, this equally affects both men and women, but in practice, almost all the social pressure is coming from trans women towards the idea of ‘woman’ and the rights of women. And that’s because, when it comes down to it, this whole thing is being driven by male people who want something female people have, and that something, is, in fact, our very existence. Moreover, it turns out – who knew? – that male people have the inclination and social power to exert extreme coercive pressure on female people, and to court the sympathy and support of other males when they do so. (It’s almost as if sex is a thing and that it has something to do with power after all mmmm?).
The central thought of the present form of trans rights activism is that whether someone is a man or a woman has nothing to do with human sexual dimorphism – the patent existence of which they try, endlessly, to undermine – and is determined instead by someone’s ‘gender identity,’ some kind of internal gender essence of subjective sense of one’s own gender that many of us simply don’t recognise as a description of our own being as men or women. This ideological manoeuvre is embedded inside the phrase ‘trans women are women,’ which looks, on the face of it, like a reasonable plea for trans women to be given the respect most people want to give them, but is actually used in political argument to deny all distinction between the existence and interests of male born people living as women and the existence and interests of female people. It is under the rubric of ‘trans women are women’ that Karen White ended up in a female jail, because there’s no possible difference between Karen White and any other woman right? That is, there are, in fact, many concerning implications of this definitional change. To not slow this down for those of you familiar with this, I’ve put a full discussion of the potential harms in an appendix to this essay. (I’d like to say it’s short but I’d be lying). But to enumerate briefly(ish):
- Changing the definition of woman without the consent of women. Specifically changing the definition from one based in biology to one based on gender identity. It should be uncontroversial that all groups of people have a right to define themselves, and this is particularly true when that definition describes an oppressed class of persons. It seems further true that it might be a really big problem when that definition is being changed by people born into the oppressor class, and in the interests of people born into the oppressor class. This definitional change then leads to:
- The erasure of women, both as a biological class, and as a political category. This is profoundly dehumanizing, and results, specifically, in injunctions against women naming their bodies, and the political implications of their bodies. This then leads to:
- Making the description of the sex-based nature of women’s oppression unsayable, that is, making the feminist analysis of the mechanism of women’s oppression a thought and hate-crime. Injunctions against the naming of sex also lead to:
- Legislative changes which would interfere with the recording of natal sex. This will have an impact on the collection of data used to track and describe the sex-based oppression of women, including women’s representation in public life, the pay-gap, and very significantly, crime statistics and the analysis of male violence.
- The denial that there is any meaningful difference between male people who identify as women and female people then leads to the demand that all services for female people be open to male born people who identify as women. The current form of trans rights activism considers identification rather than transition to be the criteria that determines whether someone is a trans woman, and the current consultation on the Gender Recognition Act is about whether self-declared identification rather than transition should be the basis for someone’s birth sex being reassigned. In practice this will make all women and girl’s single-sex spaces and services open to any male person who claims they are a woman. That this is wide-open for abuse by predatory men and paedophiles should be evident to anyone who has not pickled their brain in an enormous vat of trans ideology.
- The fact that it is, therefore, in the interests of the trans rights movement to consistently deny the reality of male violence against women and girls is, by itself, evidence of the fact that trans women who are committed to the present form of trans ideology are not capable of representing the political interests of women, and are not capable of acting politically with women in feminist solidarity. The election of trans women in political positions normally occupied by women is, therefore, a harm to the political interests of women.
- In addition to the problems that arise from the denial of the reality of human sexual dimorphism, trans ideology is also committed to a regressive theory of essentialist gender identity. This actually serves to reinforce patriarchal gender conformity by making all gender non-conforming people a different ‘class.’ Rather than viewing gender non-conformity as evidence of the fact that gender conformity is a patriarchal straightjacket, trans ideology thus propagates the idea that feminine men, and masculine women, are something other than their natal sex.
- The association between gender non-conformity and trans identity is of particular concern with regard to the medicalization of gender non-conforming and gay children. There are serious potential consequences of that medicalization, including sterility, effects on sexual function, and other side-effects of life-long use of cross-sex hormones. None of these effects have been subjected to thorough research. There was nothing in the gay rights movement which was remotely equivalent to the potential harms of this medicalization, and, moreover, these harms are potentially being directed largely at homosexuals.
- The potential unnecessary medicalization of children is of particular concern with respect to female children, because the massive increase in referrals to gender identity specialists since the beginning of this phase of trans rights advocacy has seen a hugely disproportionate referral of girls. This is worrying because there are reasons to believe a substantial proportion of these girls are lesbians, many are on the autistic spectrum, and there may also be issues thrown up by the trauma girls experience going through puberty in a patriarchy, especially sexual abuse and objectification.
- Because of the erasure of women in general and the views of feminist women in particular, the trans rights movement is creating particular issues for the recognition and respect of lesbian women within the historic gay rights movements. As we’ll discuss later this is massively compounded by the fact that trans rights is committed to the erasure of sex, and hence cannot recognise same-sex attraction. This is of particular issue for lesbians because they are coming under increasing pressure to accept male bodied people who identify as women as sexual partners, in opposition to their sexual orientation. Charmingly, the trans rights movement has taken to calling exclusively same-sex attracted women, “vagina fetishists.” Nice work guys.
So, to recap: Calling people ‘homophobic’ was used by the gay rights movement to dismiss all objections to their political agenda as illegitimate moral disgust. Calling people ‘transphobic’ is playing on the same trope – and is doing a hell of a lot of work to shut down all concerns about trans rights by painting them as sketchy hate-speech beyond the pale of legitimate democratic discourse. This is massive distortion of what is actually going on here, because, as I’ve indicated above, there is a far from insignificant number of very legitimate questions about potential harms of restructuring our core ideas about sex and gender. This maneuver is, however, an absolutely central plank of trans rights’ political strategy, because as those of you who have been out there trying to argue this know well enough, trans activists actually have no substantive answers to our questions and concerns. At all.
A few weeks ago, for example, I spent 3 hours ‘arguing’ with people from that great bastion of intersectional right-thinking Everyday Feminism about what we do about the fact that under fundamentalist self-ID procedures it will become de facto impossible to stop any man entering women’s space. I was called a transphobe and a racist and a bigot (of course), there was attempted emotional blackmail (‘you come onto my TL talking about rape when I’m a survivor you evil heartless witch’ (‘well in that case don’t use your considerably larger platform to RT the testimony of other survivors so you can mock and dismiss them’)), and I was told that I was insinuating the trans woman I was talking to had a dick (I wasn’t – wouldn’t – and they couldn’t show I had). It was a litany of name-calling, deflection, and emotional manipulation. There was not one attempt to sincerely address the problem at hand with something approximating thought (unless you count ‘my rapist had brown eyes so should we try and ban brown-eyed people?’ a thought), and not one acknowledgement that women might have a reasonable interest in this or could be motivated by anything other than pure baseless spite. And this, apparently, is how we’re making public policy that will affect at least half the population now.
The way that the accusation of ‘transphobia’ is being used to control and close down the debate around trans rights is also inherent in what we might call the ‘overreach’ of the definition of transphobia being put to work here. As I’ve said, ‘homophobia’ identifies, correctly I think, the fact that the discrimination against homosexuals, and especially gay men, was coming from moral disgust, and specifically, moral disgust about people’s sexual practices. If ‘transphobia’ is an analogue of ‘homophobia’ – and to ground the claim that it’s an illegitimate basis for political argument is needs to be – then it should, also, refer to a form of moral disgust, and moreover, as in the case of violence against gay people, there should be an obvious causal link between that moral disgust, the discrimination you’re trying to combat, and the arguments people are using against you.
None of this stacks up with how ‘transphobia’ is being used politically. If there is moral disgust aimed at trans people – which there’s no reason to dispute – then it would, one imagine, inhere in responses to people who are visibly transgressing patriarchal conventions by exhibiting gender expression in conflict with their natal sex. The people we’d expect to display such disgust would then be the kind of people who, say, find femininity in men distressing, i.e. patriarchally invested people, and particularly, patriarchally invested men. And indeed, the vast majority of literal violence suffered by trans people is, unsurprisingly, directed at trans women by non-trans men. However, what doesn’t seem at all evident is that the kind of concerns I listed above fall easily under the banner of ‘moral disgust.’ Nonetheless, accusations of ‘transphobia’ flow, overwhelmingly, from trans activists towards the speech of feminist women making just these kind of claims. Women who, importantly, are pretty much the last people on earth who’d be morally disgusted by someone transgressing patriarchal gender conventions, and whose speech show no empirically verifiable relationship with the kind of patriarchal violence directed at trans women. That is, accusations of transphobia are being directed against the group of people – women who have theoretical and political objections to the trans rights agenda – who are actually least likely to experience moral disgust over trans people’s gender expression, and this is being done for purely political reasons.
The politics of this becomes apparent when we look at the definition of ‘transphobia’ being circulated by trans advocacy organizations like Stonewall. As the inestimable Mr Jonathan Best has pointed out recently, ‘transphobia’ is, in fact, conceptualised by the trans rights movement as the “fear or dislike of someone based on the fact they are trans, including the denial/refusal to accept their gender identity.” (Emphasis added) That is, ‘transphobia’ is being politically leveraged to denote, not a form of illegitimate moral disgust, but any refusal to understand someone as the gender they identify as, and, given that trans ideology believes that gender identity determines sex, this definition seeks to mandate the view that trans women are female, and inscribe as hate speech the view that trans women are male people who identify as women. That is, this definition of ‘transphobia’ is seeking to enforce compliance with a deeply ideological prescription.
As I’ve already suggested, there’s nothing minor about this prescription. Trans rights politics is asking us to believe that human sexual dimorphism is not a thing, that men are women simply because they say they are, and is demanding a thoroughgoing social and political transformation on that basis. One which, to underline, because it really matters, amounts to the legal abolition of sex. That is, trans ideology is mandating nothing short of a fundamental rewriting of how we understand the world, one which runs entirely counter to the everyday perceptions of everyone who hasn’t been indoctrinated by trans ideology (and even those that have will sometimes inadvertently let it slip that, lo, they do in fact perceive sexual dimorphism.) Let me just state something really fucking obvious that apparently needs to be stated: You cannot mandate how people perceive the world. That is totalitarian as all living fuck. You cannot demand people perceive the world in line with your ideology and that perceiving something that ALL humans perceive is actually the same as being a genocidal racist. (And it may surprise you ‘sex was invented by Western patriarchy and/or colonialism’ philosophical-sophisticates-cum-idiots that that sounds racist af to everyone who hasn’t marinated their brains in tumblrized queer-theory for 8 years. And let’s not even get onto the ahistoricism and anachronism involved).
What we have here then is a politically driven ideology that:
- Refuses to engage in any meaningful debate about any of the implications of the changes it is forcing through and attempts to shut down every question or objection by screaming ‘phobia’ and ‘hate-speech’ and ‘genocide’ and
- Is attempting to legislate people’s basic perceptions of the world, and recast the very fact of that perception as a form of illegitimate moral disgust overlaid with resonances of intent to harm or even eradicate.
It should be pretty evident that any political program based on attempting to reframe such a fundamental aspect of human perception is only going to succeed by using totalitarian methods. By relentlessly drilling its axioms into public consciousness and by making people who reject them pay a very high social price. The phrase ‘Orwellian’ is madly overused, but it documents the methods of trans activism almost to the letter. We have the profligate rewriting of history – including the transing of the gender-non-conforming dead (um, I thought it was self-ID?), the transing of the drag-queens who started the Stonewall riot (even though they didn’t, because that was a black lesbian called Stormé DeLarverie), and the absurd suggestion that literature or history about people cross-dressing for social, political, or economic reasons harms trans people because past cross-dressers were actually just expressing their ‘authentic selves’ (you fucking bigot Shakespeare). It’s only slight hyperbole to say that right now a lot of us feel like we’re stuck in Room 101 except O’Brien looks like Riley Dennis and the ‘2+2=5’ is ‘Sex does not exist’ and the rats are a bunch of trans activists threatening us with baby blue and pink baseball bats (and in case you want to wilfully misinterpret me, I’m not saying trans people are vermin, I’m using the exact reference of the thing that scares Winston shitless and is used to coerce him). We could go on pointing out the parallels all day, but really people, when you start doing shit like this, you really should be asking yourself whether you’re getting a touch Ministry of Truth-y.
To make the point plain. Some aspects of gay-rights politics did involve the use of non-peaceful protest. As also did parts of the women’s rights and Black civil rights movement. What none of them involved was the demand that people change their fundamental perceptual systems – as opposed to value judgements about things they perceived – and the attempt to enforce that perception using our culture’s most lucid analysis of ‘this-is-what-totalitarianism-looks-like.’ (Clue: it was never supposed to be a ‘how to’ guide). The great sickening irony of all of this of course – as many gay-men are now waking up to – is that the abolition of sex implies the abolition of sexual orientation. Trans ideology’s conviction that the truth of our ‘authentic selves,’ and of whether we are man or woman, is based only and exclusively on ‘gender identity’ necessitates the effort to deny that we fuck people’s bodies (at least in good part) on the basis of the sex of those bodies, and that sexual attraction is sexual, in both senses of the word. That is, the gay rights movement has wedded itself to an ideology that cannot actually recognise that homosexuality is a thing. Given the social and physical power imbalances, this doesn’t necessarily involve a clear and present danger to gay-men (although it is an ideological one, and for those of you who have seen it, and are pitching in, I hope you know we see and value you). For lesbians, this is a first order existential threat. Not only are they being erased along with the class of women in general, but their right to be exclusively attracted to female-bodied people is being consistently challenged by some of the most rapey, entitled misogynist bullying I have seen in my entire life. To amend a famous slogan: Lesbians don’t do dick. Get over it.
How the LGBTQ+ institutions – and public policy more widely – came to be colonized by a totalitarian political ideology that is hostile to the interests of women and is, in its fundaments, hostile to the very existence of homosexuals, is a million dollar question. I strongly suspect that ‘millions of dollars’ is not just a turn of phrase here – and I hope, over time, we will come to better understand the deluge of cash and the corporate plutocratic interests that must inevitably be behind such a breath-taking take-over of gay and lesbian politics. Right now, women, feminists, lesbians, gay and straight men, intersex people, concerned parents, and many non-ideologue trans women are fighting tooth and nail to stop the roll back of rights we thought had already been secured. Time’s arrow is not pointing forwards. Right side of history my arse.