What moderates get wrong in the trans debate

After race, trans is the second most explosive issue in today’s culture war. And unlike race, which has been a contentious subject for decades, it seems like trans came out of nowhere. In the recent study by David Rozado and colleagues (which I’ve discussed before) mentions of the term ‘transphobic’ in the media increased by a staggering 12,346% between 2010 and 2020. You read that right – not twelve hundred percent, but twelve thousand percent! (Even the hyperbolic term ‘white supremacy’ hasn’t increased in usage by that much; mentions of ‘white supremacy’ are “only” up by 2,862%.)

Another interesting aspect of the trans debate (aside from the suddenness with which it arose) is the fact that it has split the left more than probably any other issue. According to surveys, most Labour and Democrat voters believe that a transgender woman is a woman. (For those who’ve been off-grid for the past five years, a transgender woman is a biological male who identifies as female.) In a recent YouGov poll, 67% of Labour voters agreed with the statement, “A transgender woman is a woman”. And in a recent Pew Research survey, 63% of Democrats said that someone’s gender can be different from their “sex assigned at birth”.

However, a sizeable – and quite vocal – minority of the left takes the opposite view: that a transgender woman is not a woman; or even if they’re willing to concede that a transgender woman is in some sense a woman, they have significant reservations about redefining ‘sex’. Since most of these people oppose redefining ‘sex’ because they believe doing so will harm the interests of biological women, they’ve become known as “TERFs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). Although as I understand it, many of them consider this label pejorative, and prefer to describe themselves “gender critical”. (I don’t know why they don’t just go with “TERF”; it’s much catchier.)

The dispute between the “gender critical” feminists on the one hand, and the pro-trans leftists on the other, is no minor disagreement. And that’s putting it mildly. The two groups really can’t get along. The latest flare-up involved the Labour MP Rosie Duffield, who is a member of the “gender critical” camp. She opted not to attend her own party’s conference after receiving threats from transgender activists.

This led to the party’s leader, Sir Kier Starmer, being asked on television whether it’s “transphobic” to say that only women have a cervix. His response was, “It is something that shouldn’t be said. It is not right.” Another Labour MP was subsequently asked the same question, and her extremely erudite answer consisted of a series “umms” and “errs”, followed by the statement, “I don’t even know how to start answering these questions.” (High school biology can be tough.)

In addition to “gender critical” feminists and pro-trans leftists, there are of course several other groups in this debate. Most but by no means all conservatives agree with the “gender critical” position, although they wouldn’t generally use that designation. (In fact, many can’t help but enjoy the leftist in-fighting, and are content to watch the spectacle from a safe distance, as in the Michael Jackson eating popcorn meme.) I’m not exactly sure what libertarians believe, other than that the government should definitely not be involved! However, the group that I want to focus on here is the one I’d call “well-informed moderate liberals”.

These are people who’re aware of the profound biological differences between the sexes (which go well beyond reproductive anatomy), and aren’t really comfortable with the idea that we can change reality through an act of self-identification. At the same time, their moral foundations are emphatically liberal, meaning that they care about preventing harm and achieving fairness above all else. They see themselves as on the side that’s for science and against discrimination. The “well-informed moderate liberal” view on trans is exemplified by this Twitter thread from Scott Barry Kaufman. (I don’t mean to pick on Kaufman, whose work I’m fan of. It’s just that his thread was easy to track down.) Kaufman states:

I want to live in a world where we have transgender rights AND accurate scientific information about sex vs. gender, and that we can discuss the importance of both in a positive-sum way that both honors the humanity of trans people while also acknowledges the facts and nuance … scientists who attempt to explain their findings on biological sex should at least state at the outset that they believe in trans rights (protecting trans people from discrimination and harm), and explain how nothing in their findings dispute that humanitarian position.

Is this position tenable? I would say “no”. Kaufman is trying to please everyone, but that just isn’t possible. Almost the entire debate comes down to the question of which rights transgender people should have. I’m not talking about basic human rights: no one disputes that individuals have the right to identify as whatever gender they want, free from harassment and intimidation. If Kaufman is simply saying that transgender people should have those rights, he’s attacking a straw man. None of the prominent “gender critical” feminists – so far as I’m aware – believes it should be illegal to identify as the opposite gender.

Where the dispute actually lies is over things like: the right to enter women’s bathrooms; the right to access rape crisis centres; and the right to compete in women’s sport. If you believe – along with the pro-trans leftists – that transgender people should be able to do all those things, then you’re in favour of “transgender rights”. But if like the “gender critical” feminists and most conservatives, you believe they shouldn’t, you’re effectively opposed to “transgender rights”. Now, the things I just described may not be formal legal rights in the sense of the right to freedom from harassment and intimidation. But in practice, they amount to the same thing.

Should gyms be able to kick transgender people out of the women’s bathroom? Should rape crisis centres be able to bar entry to transgender people. Should sporting bodies be able to stop transgender people from competing in women’s divisions? These are the questions on which the debate centres. You can acknowledge all the “facts and nuance” you want, but at the end of the day, you have to take a position one way or the other. If you take the “pro-trans” position, you’ll end up enraging a lot of women. And if you take the “anti-trans” position, you’ll end up enraging a lot of transgender people.

Would Kaufman have scientists “state at the outset” that, say, transgender people should be able to compete in women’s sports? “We believe sporting competitions should be open to all, regardless of sex. We will now examine fundamental sex differences in sporting performance…” It’s unclear. But that’s certainly the kind of thing pro-trans leftists have in mind when they talk about protecting transgender rights. Of course, “gender critical” feminists would argue that letting transgender people into women’s sports violates their right to compete on a level playing field. Contrary to Kaufman, there’s no “humanitarian position” that everyone can get on board with.

Saying, “I believe in the importance of biological sex, but also that transgender people should have the same rights as other women” isn’t going to cut it. This would be like saying in the abortion debate, “I believe in the sanctity of life, but also that women should have the right to choose.” (I suppose you could accept that there are large and pervasive sex differences, while believing those have absolutely no implications for how we organise society. But I’m not sure anyone really holds this view.)

Again, I don’t mean to single out Kaufman (whom I like and respect). I’ve seen many other people express the same sentiment, basically: “Why does there have to be so much acrimony? Can’t we respect one group’s wishes, while also respecting another group’s wishes?” Unfortunately for these people, and for the Labour MP who didn’t “even know how to start” deciding whether men have a cervix, we can’t respect both groups wishes. The issue of who counts as a woman for the purpose of things like using bathrooms, accessing rape crisis centres, and competing in sports is strictly zero-sum. And it’s not going away any time soon.

Image: Women's points race, Lizzie Armistead in first place, 2008


The Daily Sceptic

I’ve written four more posts since last time. The first summarises a recent study finding that air filtration/UV light can remove airborne SARS-CoV-2 from hospital wards. The second notes that Democrat voters in the US still dramatically overestimate the risks of COVID. The third examines why people’s risk perceptions are so skewed. The fourth reviews evidence that natural immunity provides better protection against infection than the mRNA vaccines.


Thanks for reading. If you found this newsletter useful, please share it with your friends. And please consider subscribing if you haven’t done so already.