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“No debate” no longer an option

Persuasion works: three new books by gender critical feminists have captured public attention in spite of publishers

Gender identity ideology began as a way to conceptualise transgender people. According to this belief system, they have a gender identity that doesn’t match the sex they were “assigned at birth”. This ideology currently has the endorsement of governments, educational institutions and NGOs worldwide — a state of affairs that has come about with remarkably little comment. Contradicting this dogma has become suddenly taboo, even via statements nobody would have considered controversial ten years ago, such as arguing that the national census should continue to collect data on people’s biological sex, or that sex itself is a fixed and binary characteristic.

In spite of the pressure, this summer has seen the publication of three new non-fiction books by “gender critical” feminist writers who oppose gender ideology.

Stock’s book amounts to a comprehensive vivisection of an ideology riddled with serious flaws

In May, philosopher Kathleen Stock turned a critical eye to the fundamentals of what she terms “gender identity theory” in her book Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism. Stock’s book is a study in meticulous, evenhanded analysis — but even so, this amounts to a pretty comprehensive vivisection of an ideology riddled with serious flaws: to circularly define a woman as “anyone who identifies as a woman”, for instance, makes as much sense as explaining that a teapot is “any object that is a teapot”. Reading her book, one almost feels sorry for the ideologues having to defend flimsy ideas from such straightforward criticisms.

In July came Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, a journalistic investigation into the real world consequences of gender ideology, from Helen Joyce, an editor at the Economist. And boy, are there consequences. From the housing of trans-identifying male sex offenders in prisons with highly vulnerable women, to the harms suffered by gender non-conforming children at the hands of an ideologically motivated medical establishment, it seems that reckonings are long overdue on many fronts. Joyce has said on Twitter that “ice cold fury” motivated the writing of this book, and it is not hard to understand why.

The most recent addition is Feminism For Women: The Real Route to Liberation by Julie Bindel. She was one of the very first journalists to draw attention to the conflicts between feminism and trans activism. As early as 2004, she wrote about a Vancouver women’s shelter sued by a trans woman over their policy of taking on only females as volunteers — eerily prescient in retrospect, since today the shelter has become the focus of international attention and increasingly hostile attacks over their “trans exclusionary” stance.

Feminism for Women takes a broader look at feminism in 21st century Britain; though this is not a book about gender identity, trans activism is unapologetically named as one of the antagonists. For instance, Bindel writes extensively on the aggressive no-platforming tactics used against individuals and groups whose feminism draws accusations of transphobia. What this book arguably lacks in clarity of prose in comparison to the other two, it makes up for with passion and refreshing bluntness. How many feminist journalists would insist that women have a right to prioritise their own needs over “men with fully intact genitalia who merely decide they are women at the time”?

All three books have landed well, with positive reviews in mainstream newspapers across the political spectrum, from the Telegraph to the Guardian.

Trans has been particularly well received: it reached number four in the Sunday Times bestseller list and was glowingly reviewed in The Times by David Aaronovitch, who wrote: “I’m off the fence […] The penis is a male sex organ, men don’t have babies. Women exist.”

It wasn’t easy finding publishers and editors

Another review in The Times compared Trans to The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice by Shon Faye, a book that takes the opposite stance, with Joyce coming out decisively on top: “It’s a strange experience […] to realise that many of these ideas are mainstream.” It has even reached the pages of the New York Times (ruffling the feathers of the American left-wing commentariat) — an impressive watershed for any book published outside the States.

Although these books have been released to strong sales and favourable reviews, it was not easy finding publishers and editors, says Caroline Hardman, the literary agent of Stock and Joyce. She tells me that while normally there would be “a bit of a bun fight” between agents and publishers for “an intelligent book on a hot topic, from someone with academic credentials”, there was instead a concerted lack of interest. Helen Joyce was dropped by her original agent; both Joyce and Stock were rejected by numerous publishing houses and have not found publishers in the United States (instead, the UK versions will be sold in America).

Additionally, many bookshop branches seem to have made the decision not to display any of these three titles prominently, or even at all. Of three large bookshops I checked since Trans was released, I only saw it in one of them, discreetly tucked away on a shelf and far from the table displays where one would expect to find a bestselling and well-reviewed new book — in contrast to the prominent placement enjoyed in all three shops I visited by Faye’s The Transgender Issue.

All of this, Hardman says, amounts to a disquieting “soft censorship” by the publishing and bookselling industry. Ultimately, it is also a bad business decision. The squeamishness of a small number of gatekeepers results in a failure of the free market to deliver books for which there is clearly an appetite — while Amazon scoops up the profit that Waterstones and Foyles are leaving untouched.

Despite this, these books’ publication, and especially their coverage in mainstream newspapers, lends a legitimacy to gender critical feminism that would have been inconceivable five short years ago. When I first became invested in the gender identity debate around 2014, it was rare to hear the issue discussed in the “real world” outside of university campuses. As gender ideology grew in dominance, critical perspectives were few and far between, largely limited to a few lonely blogs and social media groups.

What changed? It is hard to point to one single event, but a catalyst came in 2017, when Theresa May’s government proposed a reform of the Gender Recognition Act, which would have made legal sex a matter of personal declaration and removed women’s right to single-sex services. It was during the public consultation over this proposal that the discussion of gender identity seemed to suddenly move off Mumsnet and Twitter and into the real world. Grassroots groups such as Woman’s Place UK and Fair Play For Women sprung up, organising public meetings all over the country and leafleting in town centres to raise awareness. Though many of these meetings were heavily protested, facing blockades, disruptions and even a bomb threat, aggressive silencing techniques became less and less effective once a critical mass of attention had been raised.

Irreversible Damage has been almost completely ignored by the mainstream press

Beginning in 2019, there have also been several high-profile crowdfunded court cases centering on gender identity ideology. The most significant include the employment tribunal of Maya Forstater, who lost her job at a think tank after tweeting her thoughts on the Gender Recognition Act reform, and the judicial review brought by Keira Bell, a young woman who believes her treatment as a teenager by the NHS’s Gender Identity Development Service was harmful and unwarranted. Both of these garnered significant media attention. Though Bell’s initial victory was this week overturned on appeal, her case and Forstater’s shone daylight on dubious practices that had previously gone almost completely without scrutiny. Under the glare of cross-examination, it is not possible to rely on accusations of bigotry to deflect difficult questions.

Britain is lucky to have a relatively non-partisan judicial system and press, and gender identity ideology has both supporters and opponents in every political party. In America, where “culture wars” issues are deeply entrenched along party-political lines and courts and media increasingly polarised, it is hard to imagine what it would take to open a productive conversation on gender identity.

The difference in tenor across the Atlantic can be illustrated by the response to Irreversible Damage, a book published last year by American journalist Abigail Shrier that criticises the medical transition of teens. To date, it has been almost completely ignored by the mainstream press. Recently, the American Booksellers Association apologised for the “serious, violent incident” it committed by including Shrier’s book in a subscription box of recommended titles; when an editor of the well-regarded blog Science Based Medicine published a review of the book, the reaction of the other editors was to hastily retract the review and release a series of bizarre and error-filled posts denouncing it. These two editors later admitted that neither has read Irreversible Damage.

In the UK at least, it seems gender critical feminists have sufficiently grown in legitimacy that it will be increasingly difficult to avoid engaging with their arguments. Slogans like “Repeat after us: trans women are women” may work when dissenters can be blocked on Twitter, but now that “TERFs” have hit the mainstream, “no debate” is no longer an option. Debate is happening, like it or not: the only question is who will be willing to take their fingers out of their ears and participate.

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