The transgender delusion

Shon Faye’s book confirms that transgenderism is about control, not autonomy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
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Topics Books Politics UK

Shon Faye is a man who believes he is a woman. He is wholly convinced that, while he might have reached ‘womanhood’ via a different method to, say, my mother, he is as much a woman as she is. I think he is mistaken. In fact, I think he is deluded. In my view, as sincerely held as Faye’s, a male who undergoes castrative surgery or hormonal treatment no more becomes a woman than a man who chops off his ear becomes Vincent van Gogh. I say this not to be insulting but rather to draw attention to one of the key moral dilemmas of the transgender issue – the question of whose belief system should enjoy precedence at the social and legal level. Mine, and others’, which holds that sex is immutable and that the consequences of pretending otherwise are often quite dire? Or Faye’s, and the trans movement’s more broadly, which posits that sex can be chosen, that children as young as three can be trans, and that anyone who refuses to accept these ‘facts’ is a bigot?

Reading Faye’s new book, The Transgender Issue, is a discombobulating experience. It is well written, in cool, measured tones, and yet it promotes a worldview that will feel wholly alien to most people. There is a disconnect between the steady, seemingly reasonable prose and the fundamentally preposterous claims that are made. So Faye critiques ‘the standardised relationship between one’s genitalia at birth and the assignment of one of two fixed gender identities’ – what the rest of us refer to as ‘declaring the sex of a newborn baby’. ‘Babies born with observable penises are recorded as male’, Faye huffs, as if this is unusual; as if this isn’t how the vast majority of humanity has always understood sex and truth, and still does.

Faye describes a colourful cohort of friends. Male friends ‘who date women with penises; lesbians with vulvas in relationships with women with penises; gay men in relationships with men with vulvas; women with penises in relationships with men with vulvas’. What? No doubt Faye and other genderfluid activists will think me a dreadful old square for asking ‘women with penises’? ‘Men with vulvas’? This is a distortion of language, of the common truths necessary for understanding in a pluralistic society. ‘Women with penises’ is an entirely Orwellian phrase, given it is designed to naturalise untruth, to transform a clearly observable deceit – that you can literally be a woman even if you have a penis – through the manipulation of language. As to ‘women with penises in relationships with men with vulvas’ – this dissembling word salad really just refers to ‘men in relationships with women’. It isn’t bigotry to point this out.

It is testament to the unthinking assumption of right on the part of the largely middle-class transgender lobby, one might even say to its privilege, that it can casually deploy phrases like ‘lesbians with penises’ and ‘men with vulvas’ with little consideration for the impact such manipulated terminology has on public discussion, public understanding and freedom of conscience. And, furthermore, on what it means to be a lesbian, or a woman, or a mother. If a lesbian can have a dick, then lesbianism becomes completely disassociated from the realm of same-sex attraction, of female love and pleasure. If there can be such a thing as a ‘woman with a penis’, then womanhood comes to be denuded of its biological, social and relational truths and is instead transformed into a costume that anyone, even someone with a penis, can wear. What strikes Faye and other woke types as normal, even positive expressions of a experimentative gender ideology look to the rest of us like top-down forms of newspeak designed to police our understanding of sex and to erase the foundational biological and social truths of sexual experience.

This is the root problem with The Transgender Issue, and indeed with the trans lobby more broadly. Trans activists like Faye present themselves as warriors for liberation – they genuinely think of themselves as such – but the consequences of their agitation are almost entirely authoritarian. The Transgender Issue captures this well. To use contemporary parlance, it identifies as a treatise for liberation; it bristles against the goals of ‘trans rights’ and ‘trans equality’ and calls instead for ‘trans liberation’. Such liberation would ‘improve the lives of everyone in our society’, Faye says. And yet Faye’s book feels more disciplinarian than libertine, more chastising than free-wheeling, and more concerned with correcting wrongthink than improving everyone’s lives through the expansion of autonomy.

The disciplinarian impulse is on full display in the chapters on feminism and LGBT rights. Faye thoroughly reprimands women and working-class people who refuse to genuflect to the newspeak of the ‘women with penises’ worldview. Faye seeks to educate feminists like Sarah Ditum and Julie Bindel, patronisingly reminding these women who think biological sex is real that ‘the word “female” comes from the Latin “femella”, which means “woman”, not “producer of eggs” or “possessing XX chromosomes”’. Got that, ladies?

In even more martinet tones, Faye takes a swipe at Kathleen Stock, a lesbian, for misunderstanding lesbianism. Stock is a philosopher and trans-sceptical thinker who recently published the book Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism. In 2018 Stock wrote a piece arguing that the expansion of the concept of woman to include people with penises could impact on how society understands lesbians, given that lesbians have ‘traditionally [been] understood as females with a sexual orientation towards other females’. Like a real-life version of that meme of the bloke on the internet who is always saying ‘Ackshually…’, Faye informs Stock that ‘the idea that there has been a longstanding “secure” understanding of the term “lesbian” is totally inaccurate’. Back in your box, ‘lesbian’.

Again, I say this not to be insulting but rather to try to get to a deeper truth about the transgender ideology – however much Faye tries to dress up such disciplining prose as an act of trans liberation, it really amounts to a born male telling women that they are wrong about feminism and lesbians that they are wrong about lesbianism. I’ve long disliked the word ‘mansplaining’ – it just doesn’t flow – but I think I now know what it means. It is perfectly understandable that many feminist writers and campaigners see the trans movement as a woke facade that born males can hide behind as they engage in that age-old practice of telling women they are wrong and silly.

Faye, who is impeccably middle class, tells off working-class people, too. He takes fire at me and Julie Burchill for our belief that the transgender lobby is ‘coddled, bourgeois and anti-working-class’. I stand by every word! Faye is furious that Burchill dared to suggest that ‘women of working-class origin’ like her are in a ‘standoff with the trannies’. Faye chastises me for arguing that ‘most ordinary people’ would believe that a 32-year-old bloke with a penis and a five o’clock shadow who identifies as a woman is, in fact, a man. I am a ‘reactionary’, says Faye. Sadly, that is becoming a common criticism of people from working-class backgrounds, like Burchill and I, who refuse to bow down to the high-status opinions of the new elites, which prominently includes the ideology of genderfluidity. Upper-middle-class opinion-formers looking down upon the reactionary working classes is, oddly, what passes for radicalism in the 21st century.

The chapter on class – in which an entirely hopeless and unconvincing effort is made to tie the trans issue to class politics – feels like the most defensive in the book. I got the impression that, at some level, Faye knows it is ridiculous to try to link the increasingly eccentric movement to recognise that lesbians can have penises and men can give birth with the noble and centuries-long struggle to improve the working and living conditions of the less well-off. Indeed, right now Stonewall, a capitalist-funded, highly bourgeois charity, is promoting a ‘workplace diversity scheme’ that seems to me to be more about promoting the right way to think on gender and other issues. The transgender issue is far more likely to be a tool of boss control in the workplace – your boss will likely give you a written warning for ‘misgendering’ a trans person or for wondering why there’s a man in the ladies’ bathroom – than an outlet for independent class struggle. Like identity politics more broadly, the trans issue undercuts working-class power; it emboldens the boss class and their reprimanding equal-opportunities departments far more than it does working men and women.

The trans issue is fundamentally about control, not liberation. Faye’s book confirms this, if unwittingly. And it isn’t only the critics of the trans ideology whose liberties are sacrificed – so, too, are those of trans people. What Faye and others present as ‘trans liberation’ sounds to me like a dystopian nightmare of minutely governed and medicalised lives. Faye’s propositions for liberation include pressuring the media to be more trans-friendly (there’s a section on why the Leveson Inquiry, that modern Star Chamber, that public scolding of the tabloids by the great and the good, should have done more to institutionalise fair trans reporting). There’s a bit on why ‘debate’ about trans issues is bad. Yes, ‘debate’ really is put in scare quotes, as if it were a phoney thing, a terrible thing. Faye lambasts the ‘endless fetishisation of “debate” in [the] British liberal media’. Perhaps we should all just nod along to the idea of ‘men with vulvas’ with no discussion at all. Very liberatory.

Alongside being forcefielded from debate, trans people must also have constant access to medical treatment, apparently. Faye acknowledges the authoritarian impulses that once lay behind the medical treatment of trans people, and yet can see no other way for trans people to become ‘themselves’ than through such treatment. ‘When medical transitioning was first devised as a technology, its primary purpose was not to help the trans patient, but to control gender variance in society’, Faye writes. What is striking here is that this is what many feminists and lesbian activists now argue – that trans medical intervention is being used to ‘correct’ young women, especially young lesbians, and that these interventions reflect a broader social view of what is ‘acceptable’. And yet they are thoroughly demonised for making these points, which are not wholly dissimilar to Faye’s own historical reflections.

It seems to me that the person who requires lifelong medical assistance, protection from public debate, and such extraordinary levels of external validation that every single person who questions your identity must be punished in some way – by being No Platformed, unpersoned or sacked – is not free at all. On the contrary, they are serfs to the politics of recognition, their ‘authenticity’ ironically and terrifyingly reliant upon the shielding and flattery of the establishment – the medical establishment, the opinion-shaping establishment, the political establishment. When your identity cannot survive without scaffolding constructed by others, there is a problem. A serious problem. It is the opposite of liberation.

This is why Faye’s comparison of the trans-rights movement to the gay liberation movement feels so unconvincing. Gay liberation was a profoundly important effort to win true autonomy by expelling controlling forces – whether psychiatrists, the state or the so-called ‘moral majority’ – from the lives of gay people. Let us be, it said. ‘Trans liberation’, on the other hand, invites controlling forces both to confer legitimacy on trans individuals and to punish dissenters from the trans ideology. Trans activism needs the medical establishment and the state to provide it with validation, and it pressures the moral majority to change their thinking and genuflect to correct-think. It seeks not autonomy, but affirmation; not freedom, but control – control of the parameters of trans people’s own sense of authenticity and control of other people’s ability to raise questions and assert truths.

This is the trans trap. It is bad for trans people and for non-trans people. Surely there is a better way to play with gender than by sacrificing oneself to the culture of therapy and compelling everyone else to say things that we all know, deep down, are not true – such as that women can have penises and men can have vulvas. Lies are a strange foundation on which to build a movement for freedom.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice, by Shon Faye, is published by Allen Lane. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Novara, published under a creative-commons licence.

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