He’s not the messiah, he’s a transwoman

Transsexual Apostate is a disturbing book, written for disturbing times

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It is no fun being on the wrong side of “the trans debate”. Given the choice between rainbows and kindness, or binary sex and bigotry, who’d want to align themselves with the latter? This is why so many feminists, troubled by the insistence that “trans women are women”, go to great lengths to educate ourselves.

This whole thing can’t just be what it looks like — men deciding that nothing of ours cannot be theirs, not even the very experience of being us. There must, we tell ourselves, be more to it than that. Like Debbie Hayton, what we tend to find — at least if we dare to keep tugging at the thread — is that we were right to start with. Hayton, a post-operative transwoman who came to realise his sex could not be changed, found himself asking similar questions to feminists and drawing similar conclusions.

Gender identity “was impossible to pin down”; it “explained nothing”, or rather, “it explained away the truth”. Alas, there are women who could have told him that years ago. “If I had known in 2012 what I know now,” he writes, “would I have transitioned? In short, the answer is no.” Then again, as he muses a paragraph later, “maybe I did need to learn the hard way?”

Transsexual Apostate: My Journey Back to Reality, Debbie Hayton (Forum, £16.99)

Transsexual Apostate is a disturbing book, written for disturbing times. It is the story of a personal mania set against a broader cultural and political descent into madness. A decade ago, Hayton — a straight, middle-aged father of two — decided that the issues that had gripped him since childhood could be resolved if he became a woman. Online forums persuaded him that he had in fact always been one. “It might have been fantastic nonsense,” he notes, “but it was the message I wanted to hear [ … ] It was not for me to address a psychological disorder; instead the rest of society needed to affirm my true gender.”

It is refreshing, but also bizarre, to see this stated so clearly. One of the more comic aspects of Hayton’s account lies in the fact that he, someone who descended so far into delusion, ends up being out-deluded by the world that surrounds him. Hayton begins to see that the story he has told himself does not make sense just at the point when politicians, HR departments, trade unions and academic institutions commit themselves to repeating it back to him. It all starts to feel a bit Life of Brian. He, the transwoman, cannot persuade wannabe allies that he is not the messiah after all.

Hayton describes his desire to be a woman as “insatiable”, but this is not about a book about women. During the course of reading it, I felt torn between gratitude for Hayton’s honesty, and irritation at his lack of curiosity for women as people. There can be a glibness to it. When discussing how the male fantasy of womanhood can be maintained by engaging in “stereotypically feminine activities”, he jokes about not meaning housework (“the focus is on the self, not the wider world”).

It is discomforting how freely Hayton owns up to selfishness with regard to his wife and children. One gets the feeling that the reader must be made complicit, granting absolution in exchange for the truth. He cannot help it, we are told. The autogynephilic “compulsion to transition” is, we are informed, “driven by one of the most powerful forces known to man — the male sex drive”. Well, quite. It certainly isn’t driven by any great insight into female inner lives.

What did Hayton really aspire to be? The answer is somewhat disappointing: “trans people wish to be perceived as attractive members of the opposite sex”. Not boring old female subjects, but visually appealing objects of desire. It is better, I suppose, than Paris Lees vaunting the joys of “being eye-fucked on the escalator” or Andrea Long Chu defining “the barest essentials” of femaleness as “an open mouth, an expectant asshole, blank, blank eyes”.

Nonetheless, when one considers how much this debate has cost individuals — women losing jobs because they believe sex matters, rape victims denied single-sex care, teenage girls in flight from femaleness, lesbians pressured to sleep with males — one might have hoped for a little bit more. Is this really all this comes down to?

Part of me wonders whether becoming an “apostate” functions as a new hero’s journey

“No one ever asked women,” wrote Germaine Greer in The Whole Woman (1999), “if they recognized sex-change males as belonging to their sex or considered whether being obliged to accept MTF transsexuals as women was at all damaging to their identity or self-esteem … A good-hearted woman is not supposed to mind.” I am guessing that the number of times I scribbled “FFS!” in the margins of Transsexual Apostate would indicate that I am not a good-hearted woman. I do feel sympathy, all the same.

Getting back to reality has been made all the harder, argues Hayton, by a “verb shift from ‘to do’ to ‘to be’ — from gender reassignment to gender identity”. There is a tension between those who go to great lengths to pass as the opposite sex, and those who simply declare themselves to be such. As a story of transition as process — the book opens with a graphic account of Hayton’s reassignment surgery — Transsexual Apostate is very concerned with the doing. The narrative switch comes when transition ceases to provide things to do.

Noting the way in which seeing others transition increased his own compulsion to do so, Hayton admits that “it is much easier to live unachievable dreams — as I did throughout childhood — than it is to cope with the realisation that the magic treatment is just out of reach”. There is a part of me that wonders whether becoming an “apostate”, far from constituting a retracing of steps, functions as a new hero’s journey, another form of self-harm as self-affirmation. Which is not to suggest that Hayton’s voice is not important.

At times I found myself drawing comparisons with Hannah Barnes’ excellent Time to Think (2023), which chronicled the downfall of the Tavistock Gender Service for Children. Whilst very different in approach, there, too, I found myself thinking “but this is insane — all of it — so who cares about the details?” Yet I also know that, right now, details matter all too much.

Considered on their own, other people’s delusions and desires are not terribly interesting. As Martha Nussbaum wrote of Judith Butler, “If some individuals cannot live without the sexiness of domination, that seems sad, but it is not really our business.” Such things become our business, however, when workplaces demand we endorse them, when language is distorted to accommodate them, when individuals are demonised for failing to play along. Then we cannot look away.

We need those who are willing to speak from the inside — not just the never-deluded, but the un-deluded, too. Transsexual Apostate might have pissed me off, but perhaps the most unlikely truths can set us free.

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