Book review of Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality by Helen Joyce

Helen Joyce who is an executive editor at the Economist makes it clear from the start that

 “This book is not a book about trans people. It is, rather a book about transactivism. It is a story of policy and institutional capture, of charitable foundations controlled by billionaires joining forces with activist groups to pump money into lobbying behind the scenes for legal change”.   

I found this book a joy to read.  It is all here, the history, the main players, the consequences all written in bite size chapters in a very readable prose.  It lacks the references some would like but this is not aimed at academics. It is for anyone who wants to understand what all the furore and headlines about trans rights are really about. Can it  be true that well known committed feminists and social activists, like  JK Rowling, Jenni Murray, Julie Bindel and Martina Navratilova  have it in for trans people? Of course not but then why would theirs and other women’s concerns about women’s rights  attract such vitriol. Women have lost work, jobs and been removed from social media for stating that biological sex is real and important. This book helps explain why.

The main goal of transactivism is to establish the ideology of gender identity both in everyday life and importantly legally. This dictates that gender identity, an inner feeling takes priority over biological sex. The quest to establish self- identification, which is happening de facto, in law would succeed in doing this. ‘the ultimate endpoint of gender-identity ideology is the abolition of sex as a concept in law’ quotes Joyce.

Helen Joyce,  an executive editor at the Economist takes the reader meticulously through the background to the current situation and analyses the consequences of adopting this ideology of self-identification on us a society, particularly on  women and importantly on children.  Her journalistic skills mean that huge amounts of information are written in a very readable and digestable way.

She starts with a brief history of transsexualism, which because of the very small number of sufferers remained a niche topic for a handful of psychiatrists and sexologists. It was always considered a medico/psychological problem.  Joyce then devotes a chapter to some theories of why some men want to be women and why some people don’t want you to know. Autogynephilia, a paraphilic disorder  in middle aged men and extremely effeminate gay  were identified as two categories of transsexuals by Ray Blanchard in 1989. No one in the wider world took much notice until another sexologist Michael Bailey, and wrote about it in 2003 with disturbing consequences. By then a growing global trans lobby had been busy doing some redefinitions of their own, trying to mainstream transsexualism into more of social identity, Bailey was subjected to a vile hateful campaign by activists. He and his family were harassed, threatened and they tried to destroy his career. Bioethicist and medical historian Alice Dreger met with Bailey and believed him and not the appalling accusations being thrown at him. In an essay in 2008 which later  grew into a book Galileo’s Middle Finger she debunked all the accusations and concluded that Bailey had been targeted for publicising ideas transactivists want buried.  But the censorship of any suggestion that there is a sexual element to being transwoman persists to this day. Referring to autogynephephilia provokes greater rage than any other sin against ‘wokeness’ because as Blanchard says it makes the task of ‘selling’ transness harder.

Joyce notes that that the combination of the refusal to consider complex psychological or sexual reasons for transsexualism  together with the rise of left wing entity politics meant that a more  ‘nuanced picture of transsexualism was simplified and erased.’ And in its place…

Gender identity. The rest of the book explores how this nebulous concept has taken root, been promoted and infiltrated into key institutions. From the rarified hallows of academia it has now spread to the boardrooms of large corporates as well as the classroom in a way that has surprised many of us.

What is it?  “gender identity  is an inner essence given public form by self declaration” is one definition given but there are many.  There is nothing physical or visible or objective in it. Your biological sex was, according to this ideology ‘assigned’ to you at birth rather than observed and your inner feelings are what make you male or female. These inner identities are manifested or expressed, says  Joyce, through  stereotypes of masculinity and femininity  and she  questions the wisdom of  seeing exaggerated notions of gendered stereotypes as evidence of someone’s sex? After all feminists have challenged gender stereotypes from the start as restricting the lives and outcomes particularly of women but also of men.

As we read on Joyce shows us that this is not about the rights of a small marginalised group of trans people to live a life free from discrimination and prejudice but a movement which is attempting to not just disrupt but re- categorise the sexes according to gender identity and not biological sex.

For this to be embedded it has to start with children and this explains why targeting schools has been a priority of lobbyists.  If gender identity is an inner reality it must be there from the start, you are born with it.  Joyce says that the adoption of an adult ideology to interpret gender dysphoric youngsters is a catastrophe. She recounts the massive increase in children with gender dysphoria and referrals to gender identity clinics and the enormous pressure on professionals to accept children’s belief that they are the wrong sex without exploring other possible issues that may be contributing to or even the main cause of the distress. The concern over the medicalisation of gender dysphoric  children has led to a recent spate of publicity and law cases which was for many the first time they had read anything about the issue.

The goal of replacing sex with gender identity, says Joyce is becoming more and more apparent as exemplified by large scale well-funded  research projects such as ‘The Future of Legal Gender’, the replacement of the word sex with gender identity in surveys and the current lobbying for passports to erase the category of sex in them. Why does any of this really matter?

Women share a universal identity through their biology.  If men can say they are women and think they are equally entitled to women’s rights then women as a universalist ahistorical category breaks down taking the meaning of feminism with it.  

It is also women who suffer most from the removal of sex segregated spaces. Joyce devotes a couple of chapters to the consequences of allowing biological males who say they are women into female prisons, hospital wards changing rooms, toilets and of course topically to compete in women’s sports. Women were granted these spaces for good reason and there is nothing that has changed to alter this.

For me the chapter entitled ‘She who must not be named’ is arguably the most important. Women must retain the ability to define ourselves. The chapter charts the gradual erasure of the word woman in public discourse. In a bid to be inclusive of trans men the word women and mother are increasingly replaced by names of body parts… people with a cervix, menstruaters, chest feeding instead of breast feeding.  It is as if acknowledging the very existence of biological women is now taboo.  Yet as Joyce points out this doesn’t happen nearly so much the other way round. We do not read about campaigns aimed at prostate owners or testicle havers even though that of course would include trans women.  You don’t have to be a feminist to realise that something misogynistic is going on.

 Joyce outlines in brief the origins of the concepts and language that are now in ordinary public discourse and explores just how far institutional capture has gone. This has been achieved not incidentally or by absorbing social and cultural norms but by deliberate and sophisticated lobbying on a global scale. We may see photos of strangely dressed young activists shouting in the street outside women’s meetings but it isn’t them who have changed country’s laws. It is the power, money and influence  of  three US billionaires among others, whose funding of trans rights groups and human rights groups as well as medical faculties which in turn promote the ideology of gender identity has been instrumental.

“They have shaped the global agenda by funding briefing documents, campaign groups, research and legal actions; endowing university chairs; and influencing health-care protocols”

And it must also be the collusion of a male dominated establishment that has facilitated their aims. Framing self ID within the context of human rights discourse rather than through equality has made any opposition very difficult because the objectors are positioned as ‘against human rights’. But is it a right to demand to be treated in exactly the same way as a woman when you have the body of a man?  Joyce answers  “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.”

She also notes the speed at which it has all happened, how a direct line to global human rights bodies has enabled bypassing of  public national debates. She believes this stealthy approach has been central to transactivism. Masen Davis, former director of the American Transgender Law Center, said “ we have largely achieved our successes by flying under radar…. We do a lot really quietly ….because we want to make sure we have the win more than we want to have the publicity”.

Sales of ‘Trans’ have been incredibly strong, despite the inevitable accusations of transphobia on social media. There is clearly a hunger to understand the issues even while there is still  fear in asking questions publicly let alone voice any contrary view. This book will give readers all the facts they need to break their silence.  

Trans is published by Oneworld Publications £16.99