Debunking Transphobic Talking Points
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On Biology and Language:
- "Trans rights are a threat to women's rights."
- "Sex is fundamental and undeniable. Trans people are denying reality."
- "'Cis' is a made up word I refuse to accept."
- "I'm not cis because I don't have a gender identity, only sex."
- "Cis is misgendering me, use my preferred pronouns."
- "Gender dysphoria is a mental illness."
- "Diseases affecting men and women differently prove sex differences are real."
- "Most young trans people grow out of it."
- "Gay children are being encouraged to be trans instead."
- "Children are being rushed into 'sex change operations/hormones' just because they want to play with different toys or wear different clothes."
- "There is a rash of 'Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria' among our young people."
- "I was a tomboy growing up; nowadays I'd be told I was trans."
- "Puberty blockers have negative long-term health effects."
- "Puberty blockers inevitably lead to hormone therapy; claims that they are reversible are wrong because no-one in practice ever comes off."
On Trans Women, Self-ID and Women's Spaces:
- "Trans women have an unfair advantage in women's sport."
- "Self-ID would let predatory men pose as trans women to gain access to women's spaces."
- "Penises in women's spaces must not be allowed."
- "Trans women are disproportionately likely to be sex offenders."
- "Trans women are working in jobs and volunteer positions that are women-only and give them access to girls (e.g. as Girl Guide leaders)."
- "Jessica Yaniv is trying to sue people who do bikini-waxing for refusing to wax her balls."
On Trans Men and the Patriarchy:
- "Testosterone has lots of negative health effects, e.g. increased risk of heart attacks."
- "Trans people who were assigned female at birth are just victims of a misogynistic society/buying into patriarchy."
- "Butch lesbians are being persuaded that they want to be men."
On Public "Debate":
- "There is a well-funded trans lobby that seeks to infiltrate political parties and convert them to trans ideology. Parties are in thrall to the trans lobby and people are afraid to speak out."
- "The majority of cis women silently agree with my opinion, but are too scared to say so. Those who speak up in favour of trans women have been brainwashed."
- "Trans activists only ever talk about trans women's rights and ignore trans men's rights and this shows how misogynistic they are."
- "JK Rowling didn't say anything objectionable and has been unfairly attacked by a mob."
- "Maya Forstater was 'forced out of her job for stating that sex is real'."
- "Stonewall's definition of 'trans' includes cross-dressers and that means that crossdressing men are women."
- "Lots of trans people who get surgery end up regretting the decision and say they were talked into it."
- "Trans activists want to force people to say 'menstruators' instead of 'women' and abolish the word 'women'."
- "We should concentrate on bread and butter issues that the public care about rather than fringe issues like toilet arrangements."
On Biology and Language
This is problematic on a couple of levels. Firstly, it's simply not true, for reasons that we will explore in some of the answers below. But it also ignores the fact that trans women are women too, and their struggles are not unrelated to other women's struggles. Pitting these two aspects of someone's identity against each other is not a helpful way to fight for the liberation of either women or trans people.
The idea that biological sex is destiny is not an idea that feminism, nor liberalism for that matter, has traditionally held dear. Bigots, on the other hand, have long clothed their beliefs in scientific language. The truth is that biology is not as simple or all-determining as transphobes like to assert.
The simplified story we were told in biology lessons at school helps to build a framework of understanding, but it's not the whole picture. As this article from Scientific American points out, "The truth is, your biological sex isn't carved in stone, but a living system with the potential for change." Modern understanding of biological sex is as a collection of characteristics, centring around genetics, neurobiology and endocrinology (hormones). In each of these areas, there is a "typical female" and "typical male" pattern, but the world is not wholly populated with "typical" people.
Most of us are assigned either male or female at birth by a doctor (based on our genitals), and may never have cause to question that assignment. We assume we know what our chromosomes are, what our hormonal balance is, etc. We assume our reproductive system will work a certain way. Most of us don't rigorously verify every assumption we have about our personal biology, because we have no cause to.
How set in stone one's "sex" is depends on what aspect of it you're talking about. Chromosomes (genetics) may be fixed, but are they the only factor? The evidence suggests not. The simple version is that XX = female, XY = male, but looking at real people, not everyone fits that story:
- XX individuals can present with testicles.
- XY individuals can have ovaries and give birth.
- People with neither configuration exist, some of whom are intersex.
Sex is part of a long list of factors that make people who they are, and lots of people (not just trans people) choose to control or change aspects of their sex, either for medical reasons, or simply because they prefer their bodies that way. As liberals, we support their freedom to do so.
"Cis" is short for "cisgender". The word "cis" is simply the opposite of "trans". Its origins are in Latin, it means roughly "on this side of", as opposed to trans which means roughly "on the other side of". "Cis-" and "trans-" have long been used in English as prefixes in a number of contexts, for example "Cisalpine" has been used for "On this (the Roman) side of the Alps", and in organic chemistry isomers can be either cis- or trans- depending on the arrangement of their molecules. When "transgender" was coined to describe the experiences of some gender-non-conforming people, it was logical that "cisgender" would be its opposite.
"Cis", like any other adjective, only describes one aspect of a person, just like "tall", "young", "curly-haired", and "sleepy". It is not intended to define an entire identity any more than any adjective can do. It simply means "not trans". Resistance to the need for a label to mean "not trans" has a lot of similarities to the way some people used to reject the use of the word "straight" to mean "heterosexual". You don't tend to hear so many people arguing that "I'm not straight, I'm just normal" these days, but sadly we do still have some way to go with "I'm not cis, I'm just normal."
Much like saying "I don't have a sexuality, I'm just straight", this confuses having the most common gender identity for someone of a particular birth sex with having no gender identity at all. Perceiving that one's gender doesn't exist separately from one's sex is simply a way of describing one's perception of being cis.
This confuses "cis" for a gender in itself, rather than a characteristic of one's gender (i.e. that it matches one's birth sex). Preferred pronouns, whilst important, are not a meaningful alternative in any context where "cis" is used correctly.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (a standard text of mental health practitioners around the world) dropped "gender identity disorder" (GID) from its Fifth Edition (DSM5) in 2013, and added a new diagnosis of "Gender dysphoria" (GD), defined principally by "a marked incongruence between one's experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender". The new diagnosis recognised that a mismatch between one's assigned (birth) gender and one's identity was not necessarily pathological, and shifted the emphasis in treatment from fixing a disorder to resolving distress over the mismatch, including through treatments such as hormones and surgery.
Some people who experience gender dysphoria do not identify as trans, and some people who do identify as trans do not experience gender dysphoria. Diagnosing gender dysphoria is useful to some trans people in seeking medical assistance, but it should not be used as a means of gatekeeping trans identity, nor as a means of demonizing trans people or denying their mental competence to make choices about their own bodies.
This is a complicated one, and of course it depends what disease we're talking about. But most importantly, this talking point attacks a straw man: the position that sex differences aren't real. The truth is not that sex differences aren't real, but that they are more complicated and varied from one person to the next than transphobes usually want to admit.
In particular, whether the key factor in how a disease affects you is genetic or hormonal (or something else) is important, because it will alter the way it affects trans people. When Covid-19 first hit, many transphobes gleefully declared that trans women would be more vulnerable to it than cis women, because cis men had been observed to be dying at a higher rate and "you can't escape biology". This completely overlooked the fact that many trans women take female hormones and as such have more typically female levels of sex hormones like oestrogen. Not long afterwards, it was announced that trials of short-term oestrogen therapy as a treatment for Covid-19 were being rolled out. The majority of trans women, who were already on HRT, were likely to respond to the disease more like cis women than cis men.
This myth arose as the result of old, flawed research studies that did not distinguish between gender non-conforming cis children and trans children. The result was that these studies found that around 85% of gender non-conforming children went on to be cis adults, not that 85% of trans children go on to be cis adults. The studies also contained other methodological and analytical flaws. More recently, a widely cited paper by Steensma et al. has been used to suggest a desistance rate of 63%, but again, the methodology of that research has been widely criticised, and Steensma himself says "Providing these [desistance] numbers will only lead to wrong conclusions", because the study was not actually designed to measure desistance, but rather to look for factors which were good predictors of persistence.
Our understanding of gender identity has shifted substantially over the last 50 years. Reflecting this, Gender Identity Disorder was removed from DSM5 in 2013 and Gender Dysphoria was added. One under-appreciated consequence of this was that it tightened the diagnostic criteria considerably, such that whilst GID could include a wide range of those who experience anxiety because they are, in some way, gender non-conforming, GD required a more specific "strong desire to be of the other gender or an insistence that one is the other gender (or some alternative gender…)".
Studies conducted decades ago were operating under quite a different framework to the one we have today. To suggest today that old studies suggesting that 85% of children with GID would not end up transitioning is evidence that most children with GD today do not end up transitioning is disingenuous at best. Another issue which transphobes often deliberately confuse is the difference between outcomes for GD in young children and those in adolescents. Desistance rates for adolescents, the age when medical interventions are usually considered, are low.
In 2017 the Australian Royal Children's Hospital Gender Service stated that less than 4% of children assessed and diagnosed with gender dysphoria detransitioned up to and after late adolescence. It is fair to say that the research literature could be clearer at this time, with more rigorously designed longitudinal studies needed. But we do know enough to know that the 85% desistance myth is just that, a myth.
Besides, even if high levels of desistance in trans children were true, a loving and supportive parent should surely provide a safe environment for their child to experiment with different expressions of their identity, not shame and suppress them into conforming. If they end up moving away from gender-nonconformity, that's OK, if they don't, that's OK too. Predicting which of these outcomes will come true would only matter if you wanted to justify suppressing the child's identity, or if permanent medical interventions were being sought (on which, see below).
This is a frequently made claim with no evidence produced to demonstrate that it's actually happening, outside of Iran. People continue to identify as gay, lesbian and bi in increasing numbers, and young people are the most likely group to identify as LGB. Meanwhile, trans and non-binary people are considerably more likely to be LGB than their cis peers. In 2017, Stonewall/YouGov found that (pdf) 20 per cent of trans and non-binary respondents are gay or lesbian, 34 per cent are bi, 30 per cent use a different term to describe their sexual orientation and 13 per cent are straight. Sexual orientation and gender identity are two separate aspects of a person's identity, and young people deserve to know that whatever they identify as, they are loved unconditionally for who they are.
Contrary to the misleading sensationalist reporting of trans issues in the news media, it is not standard for trans youth to undergo medical interventions before puberty. The only children having surgical interventions that they arguably shouldn't be having are intersex children. The English NHS's Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) is typical in its approach to trans young people: before puberty, medical interventions are not available, but affirmation for a social transition (changing name, dressing differently, etc.) may be recommended, following an assessment by their specialists over several appointments.
Puberty does make irreversible changes to a young person's body, whether they want them or not (and many trans children unsurprisingly find them highly distressing). It is often the point at which gender dysphoria intensifies, and a trans child may seek further interventions. Even then, the process is built around keeping interventions reversible as late as possible. Puberty blockers are the earliest intervention, which serve to simply delay the effects of puberty, whilst the young person continues to grow emotionally and explore their identity. If they stop taking puberty blockers, their puberty will continue as before, so this treatment is reversible.
Only above age 16, and once they have continued down the track from puberty blockers, are hormone therapies considered, which are less reversible in as much as they will generally induce changes to the body which a typical puberty of the corresponding sex would make (e.g. oestrogen will cause the growth of breast tissues; testosterone will cause the voice to break, etc.). Surgical gender-affirming procedures are not available for under-18s at all, which you wouldn't guess from reading the press coverage of trans issues.
This supposed subtype of gender dysphoria was named in a widely criticised paper by American researcher Lisa Littman. In it, she surveyed parents who "had reported sudden or rapid onsets of gender dysphoria occurring in their teen or young adult children". A parent perceiving their child's trans identity to have arrived suddenly doesn't necessarily mean it did; many trans children go through lengthy (possibly years-long) introspection on the subject. Littman was also recruiting parents from internet forums specifically for unsupportive parents of trans children, where talk of sudden "outbreaks" of trans identities among their childrens' peers was widespread. There's more about the specific issues with the paper here.
Claims that trans identities are a socially-contagious fad, a trend amongst young people on a par with flared trousers, mullets, or plaid shirts, are not only ridiculous, but also eerily reminiscent of the earlier moral panics directed at gay and lesbian young people. Then, as now, bigots who wanted to justify conversion therapies for young people claimed that adolescents might be persuaded to adopt a gay or trans identity by their peers, and the idea had enough advocates that large scale research was conducted. The research found that no, homosexuality wasn't socially contagious.
Whenever society has become more accepting of some previously repressed section of society, there has usually been an uptick in visible members of that community, and people have wondered where all these people "suddenly came from". The answer, as ever, is that they were always there, they just got more open about it when people stopped trying to force them to supress an aspect of themselves.
This is an unfounded assertion that isn't very specific about who it is that would be telling tomboys they are trans. Generally any medical intervention revolves around a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, which requires a "strong desire to be of the other gender or an insistence that one is the other gender (or some alternative gender…)". In other words, to be told they were trans, a hypothetical tomboy would have to be saying not simply "I tend to like boys' things", but "I am a boy". Even then, no medical interventions would be forthcoming before adolescence at the earliest, as described above.
Telling someone who insists that they are the opposite sex to the one they were assigned at birth that they are trans does not seem unreasonable. Telling someone they are trans just because they don't follow gendered stereotypes, on the other hand, is wrong, and most trans people would agree with that. Some misguided individuals might tell our hypothetical tomboy she is trans, but we can be confident that no professional with any expertise in gender identity would be telling anyone they were trans without good and specific reasons, above and beyond stereotypes.
Puberty blockers have been in use for decades. Longitudinal studies show that puberty blockers do not generally result in negative long-term health effects. Of course, all medicines can have side-effects, and their use needs to be justified by evaluating the risks and benefits to the patient of that medication. The long-term mental health effects of being denied puberty blockers can be significant.
Puberty blockers are not only prescribed and used for trans children. They have also been used for some time in managing precocious puberty, where the goal is clearly to resume puberty at the appropriate time. All patients who start using puberty blockers will cease using them at some point, either to progress to hormone replacement therapy or to continue with their puberty.
The idea nobody in practice ever ceases hormone treatment seems like an odd contradiction of the other common transphobic talking point that claims most young trans people desist later on (see above). In reality, desistance is rare but not unknown. The most important thing for gender non-conforming young people is to know they are accepted and supported whatever decisions they make about their treatment, that aspects of their transition are a decision for them which will be supported either way by those around them. This is made considerably harder by the toxic atmosphere around treatment of trans children created by transphobes in recent years.
On Trans Women, Self-ID and Women's Spaces
Theoretically, trans women may have an advantage in some sports, particularly if they have lived with a male assigned gender and/or birth sex for a long period of time. This can be the result of physical differences (e.g. height), but can also be the result of cultural norms (e.g. people perceived as male or masculine are more likely to play certain sports in their youth). On the other hand, trans people often face inclusion issues in sport, for instance marginalisation and lack of opportunity in sport due to correlative factors like poverty, which are often significant among trans people.
Sporting communities often have protocols on who can play women's sports and how, many of which grew out of a different concern: one of fraudulent participation by men which arose during the cold war era of sport as a proxy for wider international rivalry (PDF). Many sports, for example, require women competitors to have testosterone levels that are "typical" to women. These restrictions are usually well-intentioned, but they can pose unjustified barriers to cis women with naturally high testosterone, and to women with intersex characteristics. There are discussions in trans and intersex communities, and among women in general, as to the best approach to women's sport, which will necessarily vary widely from sport to sport. For example, the inclusivity criteria in chess will be very different from those in football.
What is important is that all women are represented and enjoy the best experience in women's sports, while being inclusive of intersex people and people with unusual hormone levels. It is also important to value and platform trans men, whose experiences in sport are usually ignored. Many sports communities hold welcoming, respectful, and positive approaches to trans people and to trans inclusion, not least the International Olympic Committee (PDF), and have done for some time, with little evidence that their sports are becoming "dominated" by trans women in the way that transphobes fear; no out trans women have won Olympic medals yet, for instance, despite being able to compete as women since 2004.
Elite sports are a celebration of people whose particular combination of genetics, environment, psychology, cultural factors, and access to training have made them particularly good at a particular activity. The assumption that some trans characteristics being useful in a particular sport should automatically lead us to exclude trans people from that sport strikes us as rooted in a belief that trans people are somehow fraudulent. Nobody argues for Michael Phelps to be banned from competitive swimming because his long arms give him an advantage. Ultimately, conversations about fairness that don't start with the importance of inclusion seem destined to produce mean-spirited and problematic rules.
Self-ID, meaning someone's identity depending only on their personal statement of their own identity with no third party "verifying" it, is how the vast majority of life works. Occasions when admission to a single-sex space requires the presentation of ID, or a medical exam, or any other form of verification, are few and far between.
In this sense, we already have Self-ID in most cases, so the claim that it would lead to a particular problem with predatory men using it as a "loophole" has a problem: why isn't it happening systematically already? The sad truth is that predatory men have plenty of ways to target women without putting on a dress and pretending to be a woman. The way to combat them is through specifically prohibiting harmful behaviours (as we already do), and by tackling the toxic aspects of masculinity which drive these behaviours, which is ongoing work that many feminists and trans people are very interested in.
In the case of other spaces like rape and domestic violence shelters, there is already policy and enforcement on who is allowed in and who isn't. This will include having to keep some women out, because some of their residents have been abused by women, and also because male abusers sometimes recruit other women (sisters, mothers, new partners) to continue the harassment and abuse on their behalf. Just being a woman doesn't get you past an individual threat assessment. The same is true of women's prisons, where any woman who is thought to pose a threat to other inmates, cis or trans, can be dealt with accordingly.
People generally don't flaunt their genitalia in shared spaces. Trans women, especially, are generally not very keen on their penises (many eventually undergo surgery to change it), so are especially unlikely to want to display them. The reality is that the presence of penises in women's changing rooms or toilets is largely a hypothetical problem, in as much as generally nobody will know they are there unless they are particularly looking for them.
In practice, women with penises have been using women's spaces for years. The current NHS policy requires that trans people have been living "in role" for some time before they get surgery. Genital surgery is generally the last step in the process of transition (after all, it is the most disruptive and difficult to reverse change a trans person might make), so there are always going to be trans women around with penises - even if you only consider people who intend to have genital surgery to be "properly" trans (which, to be clear, we don't). They will often have otherwise feminine bodies, having been on hormones for some time, and be in all other respects presenting as a woman. What facilities should these women be using?
Since they clearly can't use the men's changing rooms, the only other options are that they can't use gendered facilities at all (the hostile and transphobic atmosphere around these issues has sadly made this a reality for increasing numbers of trans women), or that they use the women's changing rooms.
This claim arose from a "report" written by a trans-hostile UK organisation (Fair Play For Women). It had a number of flaws. The numbers issued by the Ministry of Justice rely on prisoners having identified themselves as trans to prison staff, and don't count anyone with a Gender Recognition Certificate. In practice, therefore, it only picked up prisoners who had "a case conference - a meeting of senior managers and other officials - to decide how to manage the trans person within the prison estate".
These are likely to be prisoners serving longer sentences, because there's little point having a case conference if the inmate won't be in prison long enough to benefit from it. Prisoners serving longer sentences are obviously disproportionately likely to have committed serious offences such as sex offences. The claim is a classic illustration of selection bias, and as such, any conclusions it draws are certainly not valid for "trans women", but may be somewhat true for "trans women who are in prison for major offences".
Trans people who have done bad things which harm others exist, just as cis people who have done bad things which harm others exist. The best way to respond to their actions is specific to their individual actions, not an assumption of collective guilt on the basis of a particular characteristic. That's why we have a justice system, and laws that prohibit specific behaviours rather than specific groups of people.
A basic principle of safeguarding is that some people (e.g. people with criminal convictions) are a higher risk than the general population and therefore should be prevented from having positions of authority over children. There are, of course, some cases of trans women abusing children. There are also cases of cis women abusing children. Unless there is evidence of the numbers of trans women abusing children being statistically significantly higher than the numbers of cis women (there isn't), there is no reason to stop trans women from working with children.
Jessica Yaniv is a Canadian trans woman who made a discrimination complaint to the British Columbian Human Rights Council, alleging that aestheticians who had refused to offer her a Brazillian wax were discriminating on the basis of her trans status. The complaint was widely reported at the time, and became a talking point of transphobes around the world for largely bad faith reasons. The BCHRC dismissed her complaint, stating that she "targeted small businesses, manufactured the conditions for a human rights complaint, and then leveraged that complaint to pursue a financial settlement from parties who were unsophisticated and unlikely to mount a proper defence", and admonished her for using human rights law as a "weapon" to "penalise" marginalised women with a racial animus and for filing in such a volume (she targeted 19 different service providers) for financial gain. Yaniv purposely made complaints against aestheticians who did not offer scrotum-waxing services (which require different wax and technique), when plenty of such providers exist, and did so in as provocative a way as she could, and so arguably shouldn't have been surprised by the results she got.
Her case was not universally supported by trans women, many of whom saw in her at best an attention-seeker and provocateur rather than someone engaged in genuinely productive activism on trans issues. Yaniv appears to have behaved in highly problematic ways on a number of past occasions. Nonetheless, not all criticisms of her by transphobes and sensationalist media (often couched in inappropriate language) are justified.
On Trans Men and The Patriarchy
There are aspects of some hormone therapies that can carry health risks that need to be managed, but in the case of heart attack risks in trans men, it has not been found to be any higher than the risk to the population of cis men. It's worth noting that not all hormone treatments are the same, and research teasing out the details in that respect is still ongoing. Researchers in this area have found it difficult to separate out health outcomes which are a possible result of any medical treatments from outcomes associated with the generally poor levels of mental health amongst trans people and correlated high rate of health-impacting activities like smoking. The best thing we could do for trans people's health and wellbeing is not to prevent them from transitioning, but to make the world a more inclusive place for them.
It is impossible to entirely separate anyone's experience of their own identity and presentation from the social landscape in which they grow up, and transmasculine people (trans men and non-binary people who were assigned female at birth) are no different. Indeed, the requirement that many trans people feel to "pass" (to be as indistinguishable from cis members of their gender as possible, in order to reduce unwelcome attention) can act as an inducement for some trans men to adopt behaviours they otherwise might not in order to accrue enough "man points". Much the same way that trans women often feel "damned if you do, damned if you don't" about choosing how much they ought to play up to stereotypes of femininity, trans men and transmasculine non-binary people have a complex relationship to masculinity.
That doesn't mean that patriarchy was what made them want to transition in the first place, though. If growing up female in a patriarchal world is all that's needed to want to transition, why don't we see many more transmasculine people than we do? Many transmasculine people can give powerful testimony to the realities of sexism in our world, having lived life through both a pre- and post-transition lens, so they certainly are not blind to the harm that patriarchy does.
There is no evidence that this is the case. There are, of course, people who might in the past have found it simpler to identify as a butch lesbian because transition simply wasn't an option that was available to them, who nowadays do transition. But they do that of their own volition, nobody is talking them into it, any more than anyone was being talked into being gay thirty years ago when the idea of people being "recruited" by sinister homosexuals was being touted.
The other problem with this idea is that gay trans men exist, as do bi trans men, asexual trans men, and so on. Presumably, by the transphobes' logic, these were really butch straight women, butch bi women, etc.
On Public "Debate"
There is no evidence of this. Phrases like "trans lobby" and "trans ideology" recall similar, homophobic phrases like "gay lobby" and "gay ideology". They have no place in civic discourse and merely seek to marginalise and "other" LGBT+ people. It is a common tactic to make the powerless seem powerful, in order to generate fear and hatred. We often hear similar language targeting other minority groups. Liberal Democrats think this is wrong, and believe people who are marginalised should be supported, not silenced.
Where the supposedly generous funding of this "trans lobby" is coming from is rarely explored by transphobes. Ironically, for organisations that largely claim to be speaking as progressive feminists, many transphobic organisations are, on the other hand, taking money from the religious right.
Anonymous polling, both in the UK and across the English-speaking world, shows that support for trans rights is generally high, and higher among women than among men. A concerted campaign over the last few years against proposals for Self-ID, including a steady drip feed of hostile press stories, has barely managed to reduce these levels of support. The notion of a "silent majority" against trans rights is a myth, and completely in line with claims to speak for a silent majority which many varieties of bigot have often claimed in the past.
In as much as there is any truth to this, it is because trans women are so much more often under attack by transphobes than trans men. There certainly are issues facing trans men which deserve attention. Ironically, it is opponents of trans rights who spend so much of their time talking about trans women, and the supposed threat that they pose to the safety of other women. Their approach to trans men is different, typically revolving around apparent concern for people who they regard as misguided women, whereas they regard trans women as predatory men seeking fraudulent access to women's spaces. You can see this reflected in the talking points we have felt were common enough to respond to in this very resource.
We should begin by acknowledging that certainly Rowling, like most women in online spaces, has faced unacceptable abuse, including from some people acting in the name of the cause of trans rights. That is something which should be a cause of concern to all of us, and indeed many trans organisations and people were clear that they condemned that behaviour. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that liberation struggles have been opposed for centuries partly by pointing to the worst behaviour of their advocates, whilst downplaying any reasons that they might have for the anger that drives that behaviour.
What has been framed as a "debate" around trans rights in recent years is in reality a case of a marginalised community, trans people, being relentlessly maligned by a vocal minority of bigots. Most trans people simply want to be able to live their lives with dignity and free from abuse. Sadly, we do not yet live in that world, largely because transphobes have managed to turn what was first thought to be a minor step forward for trans people into a "debate" over trans people's right to viably live their lives at all. They have done this with a well-established playbook of "wedge issues" which strike many people unfamiliar with trans people as reasonable, such as the ones we have tackled here. The laundry list of talking points may be new to most people, but is well-known to many trans people, who deal with these misconceptions constantly.
As such, the reaction to JK Rowling's pronouncements on trans issues may have struck some observers as a knee-jerk, dismissive, and hostile one, when perhaps Rowling simply needed to learn more about these issues. To people intimately familiar with the "debate" playbook, however, it was immediately clear that Rowling was equally intimately acquainted with the transphobe talking points. This was not the intervention of a naive newcomer to the debate, but that of a committed opponent of trans rights, complete with all of the proclaimed concern for trans people which is common to the more insidious strands of transphobia.
What trans people saw, therefore, was someone lining up alongside all of the abusive bigotry that they have faced in their lives, and spreading the same insidious ideas which they have heard for years. Yes, the fight for trans rights might be more successful if all trans people had the endless patience and good grace to continually patiently rebut the nonsense which is constantly flung at them, but we must recognise that in real life that isn't always how things go, and it doesn't make trans people any less right about the realities of their own lives.
Maya Forstater was a "gender critical" consultant who did work for the Center for Global Development, until they decided not to renew their contract with her. Forstater made a complaint to an Employment Tribunal, alleging that she had suffered direct discrimination for having a protected belief under section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 (that protected belief being that sex is immutable and trans women are men, trans men are women, and non-binary people aren't really non-binary). The evidence given in the case made clear that she had not merely fallen foul of an isolated incidence of one careless remark, but rather she had been sustainedly arguing the usual anti-trans case on social media in a sometimes personalised way that had attracted complaints from her co-workers.
The case was dismissed, by a tribunal arguing that "Even paying due regard to the qualified right to freedom of expression, people cannot expect to be protected if their core belief involves violating others dignity and/or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. … I conclude from ... the totality of the evidence, that the Claimant is absolutist in her view of sex and it is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society."
In June 2021 a subsequent appeal heard at London's Employment Appeal Tribunal concluded that some of the reasoning for this original decision was faulty, and therefore Forstater was entitled to a fresh tribunal hearing should she want one. The judge writing the decision stated that "We have come to the conclusion that [the Claimant's belief as to the immutability of sex] does [amount to a philosophical belief]. That does not mean, however, that those with gender-critical beliefs can indiscriminately and gratuitously refer to trans persons in terms other than they would wish. Such conduct could, depending on the circumstances, amount to harassment of, or discrimination against, a trans person."
It is true that Stonewall list the term "crossdresser" in the definition of "trans" in their glossary of terms, alongside a long list of other terms which trans people may use:
"An umbrella term to describe people whose gender is not the same as, or does not sit comfortably with, the sex they were assigned at birth.
Trans people may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms, including (but not limited to) transgender, transsexual, gender-queer (GQ), gender-fluid, non-binary, gender-variant, crossdresser, genderless, agender, nongender, third gender, bi-gender, trans man, trans woman,trans masculine, trans feminine and neutrois."
What is equally clear from this list is that here they are describing a wide umbrella of gender non-conforming people, including many categories which would not be considered to fit the narrower description of "trans woman" or "trans man". As such it is clearly not the case that Stonewall are arguing that crossdressing men be considered women. The definition appears to have been written with a concern for acknowledging that not all trans people throughout history have used the terminology we use today, and that trans liberation is relevant to a wide group of gender-variant people.
This one is often deployed in combination with the idea that nefarious trans people are trying to recruit children, to support the idea that somehow impressionable people are being "transed". There is no evidence this is the case, indeed most trans people who get surgery are satisfied by the result, and report increased mental wellbeing, despite the transphobia that they may still face in wider society.
We should not pretend that there are no people who regret surgery whatsoever, of course, but we must take care to keep the numbers in proportion. We should also pay attention to the reasons why people regret surgery or de-transition. Often it is not because they have decided they made a mistake about their gender identity, but because of lack of support from their family or partner, or rare surgical complications. It should not be a surprise that in a world that is still as frequently openly hostile to trans people as ours is, some people find the experience of living as their true selves difficult. There are occasional cases of people who do detransition because their sense of their gender identity shifted. We must not lose sight of the fact that these cases are exceedingly rare (0.1% in the study linked above). For a surgery as major and disruptive as gender-affirmation surgery, the regret rates for it are astonishingly low, and compare favourably with other types of surgery.
The more we can do to increase understanding of trans identities and tackle the stigma around gender variance in society, the better placed people will be to make decisions about transition that are driven by who they are, not by the expectations of others around them. What will not help trans people is making it yet harder for trans people to access medical care by telling them they are delusional or by increasing the already extensive hoops they must jump through, or by promoting a view that gender is irrevocably tied to genitals which encourages trans people to think they must have surgery to be accepted.
No, they don't. What some have advocated is that in cases where inclusivity is important, for instance healthcare communications, language is used with care so as not to conflate gender with anatomy and biological functions. The widespread use of the word "woman" in everyday language is obviously still alive and well, and nobody is saying it shouldn't be.
Inclusive language can be a tricky area, and there are reasonable arguments to be made for various approaches. But we need to appreciate that people are coming from a position of inclusivity in these discussions, not one of trying to somehow erase half the population. To take the example of "menstruators": there are cis women, for instance, who do not menstruate, as well as transmasculine people who do. Using language that is clear about who it is talking about (and more accurate than the word "woman" would be if your target audience is, in fact, specifically people who menstruate) is not an attempt to do anything more sinister than that.
We also sometimes see language that trans people have created specifically for themselves (such as "chestfeeding" instead of "breastfeeding", "front hole" instead of "vagina", etc) being misrepresented by transphobes as a much wider project to force replacement words on everyone else. The purpose of these words is not to erase their alternates, it is to give trans people language they can use about their own bodies more comfortably.
As a political party, this is an argument we sometimes hear from our own party colleagues. Whilst it is absolutely fair that we should make sure we are making our positions clear on issues that affect a majority of the population, as liberals we have always believed in the importance of protecting individuals from the tyranny of the majority, as long as the individual in question is not harming anyone else. We may wish to spend our time talking about other issues (much like trans people don't particularly want to have to do activism just to be allowed to exist as themselves), but we cannot control what others ask us about. To abdicate the responsibility to defend liberal positions when challenged on them would be to lose our soul as a party.
We must not lose sight of the fact that trans people are people (and voters) too, and for them, living in a free society where they are able to live with dignity and free from conformity is not a trivial matter. They are as concerned about the state of the NHS when they face years-long waiting lists as anyone else. They are as worried about inclusive education free from bullying as anyone else. They are as worried about freedom from discrimination at work as anyone else. And they deserve the same chance to live life by their own lights as anyone else.