Being reasonable about trans

There are disputes about trans women in women’s spaces, on the Left. If people on both sides can genuinely be reasonable, some reconciliation might be possible. And, if you can appear reasonable to ordinary people who don’t take much interest in trans rights issues, you can win them over: defeating the other side, who are the enemy.

In The Atlantic on 6 July, Helen Lewis wrote that JK Rowling’s views on gender are “compassionate”! Rowling “wrote about her sympathy for transgender victims”. You don’t want to read yet more analysis of Rowling’s screed. I have gone through it again to find all the bits which could be said to show compassion to trans people, and that is a footnote to this post which only people who really want to need read.

I thought, reading Lewis’ article, but that’s ridiculous. I went back to Rowling’s post. All her attacks are on “trans rights activists” who say completely ridiculous things, in her view. All the threat is from them. For someone who sympathises with Rowling’s position, she could appear compassionate to trans people, and ordinary people who don’t really care could be persuaded.

For reconciliation to be possible, trans people would want trans excluders to admit some obvious facts:

1. Trans women have self declaration already.

We have self-declaration formally under the Equality Act since 2010 but informally from medical treatment and the government response, giving documents indicating trans women are female, from decades before. I wanted a bank card in my female name for when I was dressed female, before I went full time, and when I produced evidence I was seeing a psychiatrist about transition I got one. I was in women’s spaces twenty years ago. So:

2. Trans women are in women’s spaces now, and if “predatory men” wanted to go there too by pretending to be trans, they could, now.

Predatory men have far easier ways of attacking women than pretending to be trans. And transition is not a whim: we agonise about it, and many of us fight it as long as we can.

3. Trans women are mostly harmless, and do not deserve collective punishment.

In any group there are a few bad apples. There are bad people in all the groups I am a member of: Scots, left-handed people, Quakers… Just as I should not be treated with suspicion as a Scot in England, so I should not be treated with suspicion as trans.

Trans excluders- gender critical people, is the term they use, might want trans people to agree certain propositions too:

1. Sex is real.

Well, yes, but what conclusions do you draw? In an attempt at reconciliation, I would want to get beyond the zero sum game. Emma Nicholson (and WPUK) want no trans women in the changing rooms at Marks and Spencers. That’s the last thing we should look at. “We were constantly triggered”, wrote Amy Dyess.

2. Concerns about detransition, medicalisation, and loss of fertility or sexual function matter.

Yes. Some people detransition. And, medical treatment liberates trans people. Possibly, trans people would seek hormones and surgery less desperately if we were accepted without it.

I am not the best person to state their “obvious facts”. There’s a lot of quibble-room.

Lewis’ last line is about Severus Snape, saying he was morally complex: “A bully, a victim, a villain, and a hero: human”. She says Millennial Potterheads, and people in the trans debate, see in black and white, where there are only shades of grey.

On 7 July, a trans woman called Kim Humphery wrote in the Guardian about how many feminists are trans allies. She writes that the media portray a vicious social media battle between trans and feminist activists, but in reality trans and feminist theory cross-fertilizes, and most feminists see trans as allies. She says feminist voices need to be heard on institutional responses to sex and gender, and we need to abandon “the dead-end of territory-claiming wars over biology and rights”.

It can’t be done through social media. Most newspapers won’t do it either.


These are all the parts of Rowling’s post that could possibly be read as trans-friendly. To me, she is merely hostile, attacking trans women who stand up for ourselves, or even tweet occasionally. Is she, from a position of bad faith, merely pretending to be reasonable? Could she convince those centrists who don’t really care?

The image in my mind is (Male Stereotype ALERT!) of James Bond in Casino Royale, trying to rescue Vesper Lynd from drowning. He can’t reach her. She slowly drifts away, vanishing in the murky water.

I write this without any desire to add to that toxicity. I think she failed to avoid it.

My interest in trans issues pre-dated Maya’s case by almost two years, during which I followed the debate around the concept of gender identity closely. I’ve met trans people, and read sundry books, blogs and articles by trans people, gender specialists, intersex people, psychologists, safeguarding experts, social workers and doctors, and followed the discourse online and in traditional media.

Here she portrays herself as a concerned, open-minded person listening to trans people.

She pictures eminently reasonable people with reasonable concerns, and claims they’re worried about a climate of fear that serves nobody – least of all trans youth – well. I’ve seen the horror and disgust transphobes have for children transitioning.

She’s not anti-trans, she would claim, she’s “worried about the new trans activism”. Creating a monster, the Trans Activist, she ties all trans women to it.

The writings of young trans men reveal a group of notably sensitive and clever people.  The more of their accounts of gender dysphoria I’ve read, with their insightful descriptions of anxiety, dissociation, eating disorders, self-harm and self-hatred, the more I’ve wondered whether, if I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition.

Trans men are “sensitive”, a “feminine” stereotype. She expresses sympathy with trans men, only to claim they are deluded.

I want to be very clear here: I know transition will be a solution for some gender dysphoric people, although I’m also aware through extensive research that studies have consistently shown that between 60-90% of gender dysphoric teens will grow out of their dysphoria. Again and again I’ve been told to ‘just meet some trans people.’ I have: in addition to a few younger people, who were all adorable, I happen to know a self-described transsexual woman who’s older than I am and wonderful. Although she’s open about her past as a gay man, I’ve always found it hard to think of her as anything other than a woman, and I believe (and certainly hope) she’s completely happy to have transitioned. Being older, though, she went through a long and rigorous process of evaluation, psychotherapy and staged transformation.

She has some trans friends, she says, but she uses her account of them to spread further myths about trans people.

If you could come inside my head and understand what I feel when I read about a trans woman dying at the hands of a violent man, you’d find solidarity and kinship. I have a visceral sense of the terror in which those trans women will have spent their last seconds on earth, because I too have known moments of blind fear when I realised that the only thing keeping me alive was the shaky self-restraint of my attacker.

I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.

So I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe.

She never says any anti-trans campaigner, not even Maya Forstater, could be unreasonable. She’s only concerned for safety. There are predatory men, and trans activists, who are a threat. Trans women’s place in women’s spaces should be contingent and restricted because of women’s reasonable needs. “I want trans women to be safe” is not enough to be a trans ally, if you monster anyone who tweets occasionally, or asks to be in women’s spaces.

She is clearly hostile, and in bad faith, but would she convince people? Quite possibly.

8 thoughts on “Being reasonable about trans

  1. Grim. She has perfected the art of concern trolling. The expressions of ’empathy’ that then lead inexorably to the same conclusions that some of the more ‘openly’ virulently anti-trans voices get to is so deceptive. Seductive. It’s one thing to say “I see you as a threat and I want to hurt you”, another to say, as she does, “I don’t see you as a threat, I care about you, I empathise with you. But I still want to hurt you”. Disingenuous. Dishonest. Its almost like she is being coached or even handled in some way by others who are guiding her on how to use her massive platform to cause real damage. When they recruited her, it must have been like every Christmas coming at once.

    Her Twitter feed says a lot. Her recent attack on support for trans kids is on the new frontier of bigotry. The claim that all psychological or medical support for young trans people is ‘conversion’ therapy and that most trans men are in fact lesbian women unable to deal with their own sexuality being fast-tracked into surgery is grotesque. This trope (tripe?) had been going for years. It says nothing about just how HARD it is to get anyone to help you, in the one clinic in the entire UK, with colossal waiting lists. It’s the absolute opposite of a fast track, with endless delays, endless barriers. And as we know, no-one ever even qualifies for surgery at all (i.e. might get on the waiting list) until they are 18 and this has been going on for years. It says nothing about the happy lives supported for years to come for those trans kids who do get help – now adults just living their lives. It refers to discredited, or even made up ‘data’. And it’s all out there now because the UK government has suggested that it wants to ban conversion therapy, and the organised trans haters of WPUK and FPFW et al want to see the definition of that ban include any attempt to support a trans teenager if they are thinking of transitioning. Handlers again?

    Another avenue they all go down is the ‘trans activist’ lie. This term is used to describe anyone who is trans who wants to protect their own life and rights including to their own gender. Got a view on this? Want to say it? You’re a TRA! This construct is designed to suggest that those who are scared or who fight back are the marginal, the crazy minority. That there’s a compliant, silent majority who are not represented by those who speak up. Who are fine with all this. Who resent the ‘activists’ fighting for them etc. That’s a lie. Trump uses the same rhetoric to try and split those who seek their rights (eg BLM) from the mainstream.

    As for Helen Lewis…I met her once. Talked to her about all this, when she was editing the New Statesman. I was in a group (working with these guys and we made ourselves open and emotionally vulnerable to her and her colleagues to try and make the point that we are people, human, real not abstractions. She sat there, joined in, and then went back to writing bile in the NS and letting her phobic mates do so too. It was humiliating. I wish I hadn’t done it now.

    I’m spending time thinking about these things over here too:

    Liked by 1 person

    • Conversion therapy is not a problem in the UK. All professional bodies declare it unethical. So, yes: making “conversion therapy” illegal is an attack on trans people, to back up the myth that transition is gay conversion.

      Handler: possibly; but she’s been reading their stuff, she is capable of writing a novel sequence with common themes and threads developed through it, she’s not saying anything we haven’t read before, I don’t think it’s necessary.

      If a feminist thinks women’s space is primarily for cis women, who have women’s problems- cultural problems such as bleed-shaming, as well as vulnerability to male violence- and trans women’s admission should be contingent, possibly even on surgery, she would find Rowling’s points entirely acceptable. Some of them do think of themselves as pro-trans, or at least in favour of all the reasonable ones. After all, they would not object to “post-operative transsexuals”.

      That is an excellent post of yours. One to share with concerned friends. It might weigh on the undecided. I have edited your comment to add a link to your blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the “sex is real” thing is an interesting diversion, because nobody is saying that it isn’t. The argument, rather, is that gender is also real. Once you make this argument, you get attacked for upholding sexism. Well, does acknowledging language and culture make you a racist? Does acknowledging neurodiversity make you ableist? Does acknowledging that “sanitation worker” is a different job from “corporate lawyer” make you classist?

    Obviously not. If equality of human rights experiences is dependent on us all being clones of each other, the effort is dead in the water, because we are not. Equality is about a basic right to health and dignity that transcends all differences, whether biological or cultural.

    Whether it’s nature or nurture, many people experience a sense of gender that is part of our identity. Gender equality that only affirms the rights of those who “unlearn” the gender expression that makes them happy? That’s not affirming of human dignity. I actually grew up knowing many cis women who distanced themselves from feminism because they had negative experiences with “feminists” who demeaned their choices to have children, dress effeminately and leave their jobs for a time. I don’t think that was a fair stance, because the world of feminism is so much more complicated than those stances. Again, you don’t have to have a unified movement of unproblematic people to have a valid beef with society. But it illustrates how the desire to erase gender from society alienates far more than just a few fringe trans activists.

    “Shouldn’t we be trying to get rid of gender? Gender isn’t real, it’s all only biological sex.” To me, this is not a human rights stance, because it contradicts the lived experience of actual human beings. My battle isn’t against gender. It’s for the diversity of gender expressions, and against the idea that any of these beautiful expressions should limit your rights or potential.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Sensitively” put.


      “Sex is real” may just mean, the speaker wants trans women out of women’s space, and wants not to be criticised for that. When the question is reduced to whether trans women should be in women’s spaces, it’s not an argument, it’s a power struggle. There might be fruitful discourse around questions like “how can we subvert the patriarchy together?” The Theodosian Code would not condemn us to death if we trans women did not exist.


    • Yeah. There’s a lot of transphobia in it. And yet I love it. I have subscribed. I found this fascinating, on the hideous waste and cruelty of using 500lb bombs from B2 bombers on fewer than a hundred ragged ISIS fighters in the Libyan desert. If only the money spent on nineteen $2.1bn planes had been spent on building civil society in Africa. Each Hellfire missile cost $115,000.


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