The myth of «Gender Identity»
Kathleen Stock, fotografiert von Sonali Fernando.

The myth of «Gender Identity»

The idée fixe of a sex unrelated to one’s body threatens feminist achievements und propels the hatred towards critical voices.

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I’m an academic philosopher working in a UK university. I believe trans people should be able to live free of discrimination, violence, and threat. I enthusiastically support equality law which names ‘gender reassignment’ as a protected characteristic, making it illegal to discriminate against trans people just for being trans.  But I also believe that humans cannot literally change their biological sex. I reject currently popular ideas about what is known as a ‘gender identity’ – a supposedly innate, ‘inner’ feeling of being female, male, or something else, which need not correspond to the facts about your sexed body. I deny that it is gender identity that automatically determines whether you are man or woman. I also deny that this feeling of gender identity determines which changing rooms you should enter, which sports teams you should play for, which prizes and political roles you should be eligible for, and which boxes you should tick in data-collection.

In fact, I would go further: I am sceptical that any feeling of gender identity is innate, and even more sceptical that everyone has a feeling of gender identity. Either way, I believe there are many social contexts in which it is appropriate to insist on sex, not gender identity. These include sport, space allocation, and data collection. I also believe that to assent to the currently popular mantra that ‘trans women are women’ is to immerse yourself in a benevolent-looking but not uncomplicated fiction: a fiction you might rationally and compassionately choose to adopt in certain contexts, but which should not be taken literally in every single context. I believe it can only be to the detriment of a society not to acknowledge this, and especially to the detriment of women and girls.

These views of mine are treated by some academic colleagues as heresies. Since I started to say them out loud, my name and professional reputation have been dragged through the mud. There have been protests on my campus, numerous open letters against me, and significant defamation from other academics. Several speaking invitations have been withdrawn after protest, and I now have to have security at any talks. I have also faced stressful internal investigations from within my university, triggered by complaints about my views. Across the UK, female academics and students with beliefs like mine, who dare to express them, are getting the same sort of treatment, while University managers look on apparently impassively. Many academics now feel too intimidated to say what they really think about sex and gender identity. Our critics call us ‘transphobes’ and ‘bigots’. They say that there should be #nodebate about the philosophical and political questions we are keen to raise.  I say, in turn, that something has gone very wrong in UK Universities. It is worth asking what that thing is, so that other countries don’t fall into the same trap.

Butler’s heritage

The sources of this strange situation are complex and stretch back over years. Some causes are relatively international. These include the rise, from roughly the 1980s onwards, of the Western philosophical stance which claims that biological sex is ‘socially constructed’.  This is not just the idea that males and females, understood as pre-existing material entities, then have different masculine and feminine meanings layered upon them, depending on their cultural background. It is the much more radical claim that sex is purely social: that it has no material underpinning at all and is entirely constructed through language. In other words – spelled out in simple terms – there are two categories of people, females and males, only because we collectively say there are; and if we collectively said something different, the categories would vanish. Moreover, the story continues: saying that there are females and males is a way of promoting ‘heteronormativity’ – normative standards prioritising heterosexuality and excluding other non-standard sexualities and body types. The high priestess of this view is the American academic Judith Butler, via her books Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter; but radical feminists of the 20th Century such as Catharine MacKinnon and Monique Wittig also played their part, by arguing that the division between males and females was entirely the result of ‘dominance’ of one group by another.

Transmuted into popular culture and championed by academics in Gender Studies, the absurd, anti-scientific idea that sex is an oppressive social construct has become a dogma of parts of the modern Left.  It is used to justify the dismantling of genuinely woman-only spaces and resources in the name of progress. Instead, it is said, people should be able to ‘self-identify’ into whatever spaces or resources best fit them. The idea that sex is a social construct is also the source of the now common English phrase that sex is ‘assigned at birth’ rather than something that is recorded by midwives and doctors.  In service of this absurd idea, the traumatic plight of the very small number of people who are born ‘intersex’ each year is instrumentalised by academics, to draw a conclusion supposedly applicable to the whole population. Traditional feminism – which relies on the assumption that biology makes a difference to average social outcomes for men and women – is now reviled as old-fashioned and bigoted.

Minorities’ Lobbyism

Another important factor has been the increasing power of LGBT lobbying groups worldwide. These groups have merged existing gay activism with trans activism, despite the fact that being trans is not a sexuality. For these activist groups, the radical cause is now obliteration of public discussion of biological sex. Instead, their aim is total acceptance, in every possible context, of ‘gender identity’. Gender identity is assumed to be what makes you a woman or a man, or neither, and is treated as an innate, fundamental part of a person, which it would be a supposed human rights violation to suppress or ignore. Lobbying groups argue ferociously that people of the male sex should have the right to enter women’s changing rooms, prisons, hostels, and hospital wards, simply on the basis of having a female gender identity. According to these groups, it is inner gender identity and not genital surgery or hormone ingestion that counts. LGBT lobbying groups also argue that birth certificates and passports should recognise gender identity, not sex; and that data collection should stop tracking sex and start tracking gender identity. Children who have gender identity disturbances should be ‘affirmed’ in their beliefs that they are ‘really’ of the opposite sex, and anything other than total affirmation – for instance, talking it through with a sceptical therapist – is couched as ‘conversion therapy’, on a par with coercively trying to change someone’s sexual orientation. Indeed, sexual orientations themselves are now couched by lobbying groups in terms of gender identity, not sex: on this view, for instance, males can be ‘lesbians’ as long as they have female gender identities and are sexually attracted to others with female gender identities (in other words, heterosexual males can be lesbians). Surgeries and drugs, where they happen, are presented as means of making your ‘outer’ body match what was always ‘inside’ you: your true nature.

Diversity’s antifeminist bill

In the UK, the most powerful and well-funded LGBT lobbying group is called Stonewall. Building on its deserved reputation for effective gay rights advocacy in the past, Stonewall turned to trans advocacy in 2015. Since then it has been extraordinarily successful in convincing national organisations and political parties of each of the points just described above, as well as in convincing people that any dissent to these points can only be ‘hate speech’ and the result of personal animosity to trans people. Partly because of Stonewall, there are now males who say they have female gender identities in women’s prisons, sport teams, prize shortlists, and political roles, apparently irrespective of any impacts on the females already there. There is also a widespread rejection of any questioning of gender identities from therapists, so that ‘affirmation-only’ is the approach sanctioned by professional psychological organisations. Not unexpectedly in these circumstances, there has been a massive increase in numbers of trans-identified children in the UK: especially gay and autistic young females who think of themselves as straight men or as ‘non-binary’, and who seek surgery or hormones as soon as legally permitted.

In particular, Stonewall has forged a particularly close relationship with UK universities. Since the removal by the government in 2015 of an upper limit or ‘cap’ for annual admission numbers, UK universities have been in full competition with one another to attract a limited pool of applicants each year. As a result, they now try extra hard to look appealing to young people, including finding ways to appear – at least superficially – as ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’ as possible. In service of that goal, most Universities pay Stonewall to be able to brand themselves as ‘Stonewall Diversity Champions’. In return they receive a host of instructions about how to make their institutions more inclusive of trans people. These instructions go far beyond ordinary anti-discrimination measures and include – alarmingly – views on how academic speech about gender identity should be controlled and suppressed. One Stonewall document aimed specifically at Universities says that critics of gender identity ideology (like me) ‘cause LGBT people to feel deeply unsafe’. It implies they should not be invited as speakers. In response to these pressures and/or inducements, universities have produced ‘trans policies’, many of which are stunning in their authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism. Several universities have policies saying that ‘any materials within relevant courses and modules will positively represent trans people and trans lives’. (How then to discuss with students, for instance, whether male sex attackers should be housed in women’s prisons, as some currently are? How to criticise the idea of the male ‘lesbian’, or investigate the impact upon the existing lesbian community of this idea? How to discuss the medical treatment of trans-identified children? And so on.) Meanwhile, most university trans policies conflate deliberate failure to ‘respect’ a person’s gender identity with ‘bullying and harassment’. One policy (that of University College London) even goes so far as to say that ‘If a trans person informs a staff member that a word or phrasing is inappropriate or offensive, then that staff member should take their word for it, and adjust their phraseology accordingly’.

Another relatively local factor, in explaining the abject failure of UK universities to intervene to protect academic freedom around discussion of gender identity, is funding bodies’ relatively recent insistence that research should have demonstrable ‘impact’ on wider non-academic society, in order to be fundable. Relatedly, it is accepted that universities should have, as part of their core mission, the goals of ‘knowledge exchange’ and ‘public engagement’. As the London School of Economics puts it on their website ‘Knowledge exchange and public engagement cover any and all activities engaging non-academic audiences in or with your research, for example as partners, participants, collaborators and co-producers, or as audiences and users’. In practice, this has meant that, where the wider public has already been convinced by lobbying groups that gender identity is more important than sex, it is much easier for universities to flow with the public tide of opinion than against it. Academic activists who champion gender identity ideology under the deceptive guise of ‘trans human rights’ are an easy sell for universities to the general public, and their conferences and publications are celebrated, while dissenters like me are treated as an embarrassment or worse.

In this oppressive, one-sided intellectual climate, and with the well-being of women and girls at stake, it’s more important than ever that dissenting voices get through to the public. In May I’ve published my book Material Girls: Why Reality Matters For Feminism (Little Brown), explaining and defending my point of view for a general audience. I think it’s essential the UK public is made to understand the political, ethical, and medical complexities lying behind the simplistic feel-good mantras of lobbying groups and academic activists. This is also exceptionally important for trans people themselves. ‘Trans rights are human rights’ says one activist slogan: and as slogans go, it is absolutely accurate. But it is not a human right to have the material facts about your sex denied in all contexts, and nor is it a human right to have your inner feelings recognised by society no matter what the cost. And it harms many people, including trans people themselves, to pretend otherwise.

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