Okay, below is a 7700-word summary and review of a book critiquing transgender ideology from an eclectic number of feminist, queer, disability, and psychoanalytic authors. It is a riveting read, one of the most illuminating and thought-provoking things I’ve read for a while, necessary for anyone wrestling with what transgenderism is and how to care for people with gender dysphoria. For a short summary, see the conclusion with my takeaway and my questions for the editors.
Heather Brunskell-Evans and Michele Moore (eds.)
Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body
Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2018.
Available at Cambridge Scholars and Amazon.com
Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Michael F. Bird
As a lecturer in a theological college, evangelical by ethos, I train men and women for Christian ministry, usually with a view to leading a parish, but in other contexts as well such as chaplaincy, youth work, and university ministry. One perennial issue of discussion among students is how do we make sense of trangenderism in a Christian framework and how do we pastor and care for persons with gender dysphoria and their families? My students are usually informed enough to know that sex and gender are not the same thing, they grasp the social factors shaping gender, and understand that glib responses like “God made you a girl so just be a girl” are naïve and simplistic. But they generally want to know how to understand and care for people with gender dysphoria and their families. They want to sympathize even while they harbor suspicions that the whole transgender ideology is challenging the integrity of male and female bodies thanks to the evangelical zeal of transgender activists and through government-sponsored programs in schools that permit no room for question or criticism of transgenderism.
For those of us in such a position, triangulated between being curious, caring, and critical, Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body is a much-needed book. It is not a religious book, it is secular; it is not Christian, it is resourced in queer, disabled, feminist, psychoanalytic, and de-transitioned perspectives; but it is necessary reading for anyone who wants to reasonably and responsibly grapple with transgender ideologies that are becoming increasingly present and often militant in our wider society.
This volume is edited by two British academics, Dr. Heather Brunskell-Evans, a social theorist and philosopher and Prof. Michele Moore, a leading researcher in disability studies and disability rights, and they mount a comprehensive challenge to what has now become accepted dogma about transgenderism and the transgendering of children. The editors and contributors will undoubtedly be assaulted with all sorts slurs and derisive epithets because of their effort to challenge what are now state-sanctioned dogmas about gender, redefinitions of biology, and experimental uses of drugs, as well as to point out the immense dangers being done to children and wider society as a result of promoting the transgendering of children. To be clear, this book does not deny gender dysphoria, nor that transitioning and even gender reassignment surgery is often an effective treatment for extreme cases of dysphoria. It is rather, a critical and scientific critique of the transgendering of children as part of a discursive sociological project.
The editors begin by noting the transgender activist enterprise of normalising and valorising transgenderism and setting themselves up as champions of tolerance and inclusion against bigotry and gender binaries. A corollary of this activism is the transgendering of children who exhibit traits of alleged gender dysphoria by gender reassignment, puberty blockers, and possibly even surgery. The rationale being that a child’s physical and psychological well-being is improved by transitioning and anything that resists or questions such a transition is inherently abusive towards the child.
Against this transgender activism and its enabling state actors the editors claim that “transgender children don’t exist” (2, italics original) and their collaborative venture “examines the theories and politics of transgenderism, and the medical, psychological, legal and educational practices associated with it, for the ways they discursively construct ‘the transgender child’’ (2). Their prima facie objection to transgendering children are: (i) Transgenderism treats biology as a social construct, while asserting that gender is a real thing located somewhere in the brain, soul, or body. To the contrary, they insist, it is gender not biology that is constructed. (ii) Transgenderism restricts children to traditional views of gender and the only escape mechanism is to reject pre-social notions of identity (2).
This book thus tries to open the debate about transgendering children that has often been censored and dismissed for simply being the prejudiced ravings of TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). Quite predicably some contributors have already received formal complaints and even been warned that they are allegedly breaching the British 2010 Equality Act. The editors plead that this is no intra-feminist minority report because while transgenderism is lauded as offering a new paradigm of thought and a revolution in values, the reality in their view is that “transgendering children is not progressive, but politically reactionary, medically dangerous, and abusive of children” (3). Not only that, but possible conflicts between women and transwomen are routinely ignored and unprecedented numbers of children are being transgendered with serious long-term medical, psychological, physical, and sociological consequences (4).
The editors “offer a call for critical resistance that contests the current status quo” (5). With a salvo of vitriolic criticism imminent, they protest that they are not transphobic, the proof of that is that they adhere to the overriding principle of “Do No Harm” and they wish to open a debate about the difference between “gender confusion and intervention” in order to attend to the welfare of confused children (15).
Stephanie Davies-Arai writes a provocative essay on “The Transgender Experiment on Children” which exposes the incoherence of transgender ideology and its detriment to children.
Davies-Arai begins by noting the resident media narrative about courageous children daring to be their authentic selves and the brave parents who support them in a climate of hatred and bigotry (16). Of course, underlying this narrative is the view that sex is cognitive not biological, being a girl is an abstract one can choose to be, and not a matter of biology (27). Furthermore, it is claimed that sterilising children by blocking their natural sexual development, medically altering their bodies with cross-sex hormones, often followed up with radical surgery and life-long medication, is necessary to prevent youth suicide (17). Against this view, Davies-Arai offers several penetrating critiques.
First, transgenderism is a socio-political movement with the characteristics of a religious cult (16-17, 30-31). The heartstring pulling media narratives about helping children become who they truly are, in reality, requires activists “to sanitise the story and obscure the reality” of the complexities and trauma associated with transitioning (17). Davies-Arai points out that while gender dysphoria is a known condition, yet “transgender” has become an incredibly broad umbrella encompassing things like gender questioning and being gender non-conforming. Consequently, what transgenderism represents is not a medical problem or even a psychological condition requiring treatment, but a species of adult identity politics being applied to children whose identities are not fixed, but are in development, and are therefore vulnerable to distortion and abuse (18). If, as Davies-Arai points out, 80% of children with gender dysphoria eventually desist or grow out of it, then it beggars belief why children and early adolescents are being cajoled into transitioning through pharmaceutical treatment (19). It is highly concerning that transgender activists have been known to deny that children can and do outgrow gender dysphoria (31).
Second, the drive towards transgendering is driven by the normalization of crass stereo-types, boys like boy toys and girls like girl toys, so if a boy likes girl toys, then the boy must be a girl (19-20). She points out that every media story about children transitioning has appealed to the toys they play with or the clothes they like wearing as proof of their true gender identity. If gender norms are defined rigidly in terms of expectations for femininity and masculinity, children who do not fit into certain gender boxes will be susceptible to suggestion that they are transgender. Transgenderism requires that “boy” and “girl” are insular and immutable categories with few shared traits between them (19-21, 23). Davies-Arai believes this rests on the view that body must only and always match your personality and gender stereo-type (26).
Third, a further problem with transgender ideology is that it assumes a “child-knows-best” model of parenting where children are deemed competent to determine their identity and medical needs (20-21). The result is that “children are seen as autonomous mini-adults with identifies impervious to influence, and who come ready-made in two varieties, pink or blue” (21). The problem is that however a six-year child knows themselves (which is unlikely to be without parental influence) they only know themselves as a six-year-old, with the cognitive development and decision-making tools of a child.
Fourth, teaching children that their true and authentic self is disassociated from their body entails acceptance of a mind-body dualism that Davies-Arai regards as a symptom of a psychological defect (24). (I disagree here with notion of mind-body dualism as a form of pathology, but the point should be taken, in transgenderism “identity” is basically a secular version of the soul, an invisible and incorporeal self, a personal essence beyond the senses and transcending any attempt at definition).
Fifth, transgenderism has a negative impact on adolescent females in particular (23-25). If girls are taught that they have no right to boundaries as a sex, that the feelings of a biological male takes precedent over their own rights for safety, they will be less likely to speak up for their rights over and against male power. If girls are taught that they cannot resist male incursions into female spaces, then girls will believe that male incursion is normal and resistance is inappropriate. What is more, to lodge any protest risks having themselves painted as transphobic and even threatened with punishment by law.
Sixth, the phenomenon of teenage girls transitioning in clusters is more of a witness to the pressures faced by female adolescents than to a more tolerant social matrix which supposedly makes being transgender safer (28-30). The emergence of “sudden onset gender dysphoria” (admittedly only a hypothesis at the moment and requires further study!) is often associated with mental health conditions that have connections with a variety of mental health disorders. These include discomfort or lack of confidence with one’s own body, disassociation, shame, anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, negative moods, negative body image, eating disorders, self-objectification, and self-harm. The phenomena of adolescent females uncomfortable with their own bodies might have less to do with a body-identity mismatch than it does with a failure to imbibe adolescent females with confidence and security with their own bodies perhaps caused by a culture of endemic objectification and sexualization of women. Such girls pose “a market in waiting for transgender activists” (29).
Seventh, children on the autism spectrum are particularly susceptible to manipulation in the area of identity (30). Referrals to gender clinics can include up to 50% of children with autism spectrum traits. Given that autism spectrum adolescents struggle to understand unstated social conventions and they typically engage in highly literalized thinking, for instance, boys are always X and girls are always Y, they are susceptible to be cajoled into identifying as transgender rather than simply having a different personality to the average boy or girl.
Eighth, transgender activists claim that biological sex is irrelevant to one’s true self and yet biological sex characteristics must be prevented from developing and be cosmetically altered (32-33). If biology and physical characteristics do not shape who I am, then what is the point in changing it with pharmaceutical treatment? Moreover, the effects of puberty blockers in the long-term are mostly unknown but what is known is the negative impact that synthetic hormones have in interrupting brain maturation and in causing long term health conditions such as heart failure, stroke, depression, aggression, liver toxicity and infertility. Transitioning kids with drugs is conducting a medical experiment on children and we do not know for certain what the long-term harm will be.
Davies-Arai concludes with bold pronouncement:
‘Transgender kids’ is not a scientific or medical term but a political one. There has been no scientific breakthrough over the last few years, no globally-trumped announcement of the discovery that sexual dimorphism in humans lies in their personal, subjective feelings and not in their male and female biology; no new theory of mind which bestows on children the power to change reality by wishing hard enough. What we have been witnessing is not only a medical experiment on some children’s bodies but a psychological experiment on all children’s minds. What will happen if we tell teenage girls that their male classmate is now a ‘girl’ and that the reality that he is male is not true? How will deception and gaslighting of children affect their security and their trust in adults? What will be the cumulative effects of cognitive dissonance on the mental health of children who are no longer allowed to name reality? In trying to protect a minority group we have redefined all boys and girls as ‘identifies’ rather than sexes. There is already plenty of evidence, not least in the confused words of children and adolescents themselves through the media, of the devastating impact of this mass societal abuse of young people’s trust (34-35).
Heather Brunskell-Evans’s contribution pertains to “Gendered Mis-Intelligence: The Fabrication of ‘The Transgender Child’”.
She begins by asserting that the transgender child has a provenance in a particular narrative that derived from transgender activism in the latter decades of the twentieth century where gender is fixed and sex is constructed. But the transgender child is a social construct, she argues, since the transgender child is no more real than “the pathological homosexual” or “the macho-man” (41). Brunskell-Evans declares in adversarial fashion, “In contrast to enabling freedom, by insisting gender is inherent rather than a social construct, the gendered intelligence offered by transgender doctrine to children, parents and society at large endorses the very gendered norms of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ it is purported to revolutionize. In contrast to the idea that transgendering a young person is a progressive and humane I argue it is politically reactionary and an egregious abrogation by society of responsibility to protect children from harm” (42).
Brunskell-Evans offers an anecdote to illustrate how deeply ingrained (or doctrinated) society has become with the notion that progressives support transgendering children whilst bigots do not (42-43). This derives from a movement she identifies whereby Queer politics changed from analysing structures of oppression to the rights of gay people to redefining gender norms (44). In the networking of the 1990s the ideology became clear: gender is inherent but sex is constructed, so that it is possible to be born into the wrong body (44-45). Far from being progressive or revolutionary, Brunskell-Evans contends that transgenderism gives currency to the very gender myths and stereo-types that gay activists originally spurned (45).
Brunskell-Evans credits the organizations Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES), Mermaids (another transgender education and support group), and Gendered Intelligence (educational support and advisory group) as leading the charge of not only reifying gender and destablilizing the idea of biological sex, but also changing UK medical guidelines for treating gender dysphoric children. The result is that health service guidelines began to urge parents to accept their child’s purportedly “real” gender and delay in transitioning was considered a form of abuse (47). Brunskell-Evans claims that these new guidelines are based on little other than gender stereo-types, the insecurity of a child’s identity, and some speculative neuro-science about how gender identity develops. Clinicians are now being overtly trained to reinforce the very gender binaries form which a person is allegedly to be emancipated from (49).
Brunskell-Evans attributes much of the success of the transgender lobby to the efforts of Jay Stewart, founder and CEO of Gendered Intelligence. Jay is a trans-man who explicitly connects his transgender beliefs to Fredrick Nietzsche’s will-to-power, a strange mis-reading of Simone de Beauvoire’s existential resistance to gender stereotypes, and a distortion of the feminism of Judith Butler. The result, which Brunskell-Evans chastises, is that Stewart reinforces a gender binary where gender is pre-social and interior (51-52). According to Brunskell-Evans, Stewart further believes that assigning sex to a child based upon genitalia limits the possibilities of their human expression and the gender binary is absurd, oppressive, and dangerous (53). Stewart’s emphasis on sex as non-binary and self-actualizing obtains is strange declarations that two women who identify as male can have gay sex (55).
The non-binary paradigm however collapses because: (i) It creates a new binary between the majority of people who are cis-gendered and the rest who are non-binary. (ii) If gender is a spectrum and no-one is purely male and female, then cis-gendered persons do not exist, because everyone is non-binary to some degree or other. (iii) A handful of persons are allowed to opt out of the gender spectrum and define themselves as non-gendered or a-gendered, yet cis-gendered people are not permitted this novelty or luxury of escape. (iv) If there are more than two genders then we are faced with the problem of how many there are and how can we possibly know (56).
Brunskell-Evans opines that if gender re-assignment laws get passed which allow persons to determine their gender by naked declaration rather than by medical certificate then there are host of negative corollaries for society and medicine (57-58). Finally, Brunskell-Evans worries that a “future generations may look back with astonishment at the sheer moral and intellectual certitude that ‘the transgender child’ is real. Perhaps people will wonder why the obvious inconsistencies of the knowledge on whose ground we accede children are ‘born in the wrong body’ were not questioned” (60).
A personal contribution is made by the anonymous GenderCriticalDad (GCD) on “I’m not a hideously bigoted parent who doesn’t ‘get’ it’”. It is a deeply personal story about a middle-aged father desperately trying to love and support his adolescent daughter when she has, in his mind, been poisoned by transactivism.
GCD tells the story of how his daughter evolved from being “butch” to identifying as “transgender,” which in turn led him to investigate trans ideology and start the GenderCriticalDad blog. GCD initially thought trans was just slightly more gay, but soon realized it meant spending a lifetime on an artificial and untested hormone regime and the irreversible mutilation of his daughter’s body. Against the trans-accepting prescription of the BBC, NHS, the Guardian, and public schools, he couldn’t go along with the narrative (66-67). He was alarmed to learn that most male to female trans people do not have surgery nor intend to; and most female to male trans people started out as lesbians and when put on testosterone supplements became attracted to men. Further discoveries included websites claiming that trans women are real women and straight women can be denigrated for their cis-privilege. Plus, any mention of female biology, menstruation, or contraception was transphobic and could trigger trans-persons. Even the award-winning feminist play The Vagina Monologues is now viewed as exclusionary and banned because it hurts women without vaginas and men with vaginas. Also, lesbians who refuse to have sex with people with penises are bigoted and transphobic (68-70). GCD’s verdict after all of his research and reading was: “I found out just how sinister and wide ranging the transgender agenda was, that other people had realised it was woman hating and the view that transgender activism promotes the opposite of gay and lesbian liberation is widespread. Transgender activism could eradicate gays and lesbians in a generation. Eviscerate feminism and reframe the reality of women’s oppression to a bad consumer choice” (70). But BCD also discovered a world of critique and resistance to transactivism that challenged its dogmas and rhetoric (71).
The rest of the essay recounts GCD’s experience of trying to parent his daughter, the looks of shock and revulsion he receives when questioning transactivists, the solidarity he finds with like-minded parents, and joining the feminist resistance against transactivism (72-78).
Importantly, GCD talks about meeting other trans persons who recognize the extremism of transactivism, how many people transitioned because that was the best option presented to them, how porn culture has turned boys into violent misogynists, and the denigration of women and lesbian women by transactivism (78-80).
GCD offers riveting insights from a person who is at ground zero in the gender debates and on the forward edge of the battle area of transgender activism.
The experiences and concerns of lesbian women is expressed in Josephine Bartosch’s contribution “‘Trans’ Kids: LGB Adults Come Out.” Bartosch, herself a lesbian, examines “coming-out” stories by women who struggled with not fitting into gender norms and discovering their same-sex attraction during their adolescent years and how they think the transgender movement affects them now and could have adversely affected them if transactivism was around in their teenager years.
Bartosch’s own concern is that a whole generation of LGB youth are being denied the chance to accept themselves for who they are, and rather than wrestle with gender confusion and the growing pains of adolescence, they are being pathologized by transactivists, the pharmaceutical industry, and ill-informed liberal adults into a potentially harmful mode of transgenderism. She is suspicious of any movement that applies social pressure to women to compel them to alter their bodies to fit gender stereo-types and even things touted as progressive can be no more than a bolstering of the status quo (89).
The symptoms that the NHC Choices website suggests for being transgender in her mind are simply evidence for being same-sex attracted, having body image issues, or not fitting into gender stereo-types about femininity and masculinity (90). Even worse, contemporary Pride marches have become “a hollow celebration of ever more niche identities and a marketing opportunity for rainbow-clad corporate sponsors rather than a political protest” (103).
The various stories and anecdotes that Bartosch narrates suggests that some parts of transgenderism are homophobic and anti-feminist. For instance, there is the purported “cotton ceiling,” whereby lesbian women who refuse to have penetrative sex from a transwoman with a penis are considered transphobic (93). There is a claim that transactivism is eroding the number of lesbian women by cajoling them into being transgender (95-96). In each case, Bartosch points to women who were same-sex attracted, gender non-conforming, had problems with their own bodies ranging from eating disorders to anxiety, generally did not fit in, but are glad that they did not live in the era of transgenderism otherwise they might have been seduced by it (102).
The essay ends with Bartosch’s own impassioned plea:
We owe it to children to be adults who are not afraid to speak out; protection of children from known harm must come before our own desire to seem progressive. Furthermore, professionals must stop colluding in convenient lies to boost their careers and find the personal integrity to think and speak critically about the ideologies behind gender identity. It is sexism and homophobia that must change, not children’s bodies. No child has the “wrong” body, they have their own body and their body is their own (104).
Marchiano proposes that some forms of neurosis happen when persons struggle to find a place between the world of dreams/fantasy/imagination and the empirical world before us, an in-between location of liminality and metaphor. Furthermore, every neurosis is the attempt to find a cure for some underlying problem. Marchiano proposes that “transgender identity may be just an attempt to a cure on the part of young people struggling to find a meaningful initiation into adulthood” and “identifying as transgender is an attempt to transcend the limits of biology to live out an inner reality” (109). In which cases, the problem of gender dysphoria might not actually be a mismatch between biology and psychology, but rest on an underlying internal problem that a person develops a fixation about fixing by changing something in the external world including their sense of dress and/or physical body. Telling an eclectic story of several gender dysphoric adolescents under the moniker Mikayla/Mitch, Marchiano suggests that identifying as trans can sometimes acted as a ”defense against unbearable present reality and provided something transcendent to bridge the impasse” (118). According to Marchiano – if I’m understanding rightly – instead of gender exploration – a descent into an underworld of depression, anxiety, and rumination – teens need psychological tools to explore the metaphors of their experience, liminal safe-spaces we might say, to cope with change and anxiety, rather than translate all pathologies into something literal or empirical.
Susan Matthews writes on “The Body Factory: Twentieth Century Stories of Sex-Change” where she argues that transgenderism is not an enduring facet of human history but something enabled by medical advances and expressed in twentieth century story-telling, meaning that transgender identity is largely a product of our own cultural moment in history. According to Matthews, gender identity offers a type of transcendence normally offered by religion by which one can escape the travails of the body. Matthews also laments how the tragic story of David Reimer (who was turned into a girl after a botched circumcision, then transitioned back to being male, then committed suicide) is utilized by Judith Butler for her own vision of a genderless utopia. For Matthews, intersex people are victims of transgender ideology because the rightness or wrongness in intervening in their sexual make-up becomes relativized by the belief that such persons could be any gender that they want to be, so there never was a right or wrong gender for them. She concludes: “Escape from the body factory depends on recognising the fictional status of gender ideology” (136).
A particularly penetrating essay, “A Full Life Uninterrupted by Transition” by Miranda Yardley challenges the aetiology of much transgenderism and notes transgenderism’s negative impact on the LGB community.
Yardley begins by sounding the alarm over a 23-fold increase for female children and an 8.75 increase for male children being referred to treatment for gender dysphoria since 2010 in the United Kingdom. She declares that “If this were as result of a pathogen, there’s little doubt it would be treated as an epidemic” (140). Her thesis is that this increase is unrelated to the condition of children and the phenomenon is a direct result the suppression of scientific knowledge about the etiology of transsexualism (140).
Yardley finds it incredible that transgender activists profess to there being no discernible rhyme or reason why some people identify as one gender rather than another when sociologists have confidently plotted gender identity as something emerging from a cross-section of physiology and attitudinal influences from family and peers (141-43). Gender in the transgender lexicon becomes tantamount to “the internal sense of self’ (143). In examining the commonalities in the “transkids” narrative, several patterns emerge, principally gender non-conforming boys and homosexual females are referred for transgender treatment. Yardley is concerned that we are witnessing a type of “gay eugenics” whereby gender non-conforming and same-sex attracted adolescents are being medicated to the point of sterilisation to fit with gender constructs that girls like pink and boys like blue (145-46). Yardley sounds the alarm: “Should children continue to transition at the increasing rates we have been seeing, there is a danger this will annihilate our lesbian and gay population” (146).
Yardley refers to work in the field of sexocology that points to two types of male transsexuals: homosexual transsexuals (males attracted to other males, especially to heterosexual males) and non-homosexual transsexuals (often experiencing autogynephilia, characterized by fetishist transvestitism, sometimes influenced by transgender pornography). She places this taxonomy over and against the “feminine essence theory” whereby male-to-female transsexuals are neurological women trapped in physical male body. Such a theory fails since many of the traits of male-to-female transsexuals, such as autogynephilia, are not coded as male or female (153-54). For case in point, irrespective of what differences there are between male and female brains, there is no known part of the human brain that will manifest itself in a preference for pink (156). In fact, the feminine essence theory “has been used for political purposes to subvert the scientific understanding of what lies behind transsexuality to the detriment of not just transsexuals but science itself with the result that autogynephilic transsexuals are central to the promotion of transgenderism to younger children, in spite of the two types of transsexual having little in common” (158).
Yardley concludes that treatment for gender dysophoric children should be based upon an agreed aetiology for transsexualism, scientific enquiry should no longer be obstructed or intimidated with harassment, research should be done into pornography consumption and autogynephilia, and better research should be undertaken into avenues of gender dysphoria desistance and non-interventional options before any form of medical intervention is attempted (159-60).
Carey Maria Catt Callahan offers a courageous essay with “Unheard Voices of DeTransitioners” noting how some trans people de-transition and see themselves as effectively seduced or led astray by trans ideology.
After Callahan began transitioning from female-to-male she noticed that “The social expectations of performing ‘transman’ were not so different from the social expectations of performing ‘woman.’ I had naively expected transitioning would enable me to navigate the world without performance” (167). She relates to how being female or transmale felt like wearing a billboard pretending to be or to offer something that she was not. After talking to other de-transitioned women she came to the conclusion that “I got turned around from sexual trauma and the soup of sexism I had been living in” (169-70). Callahan speaks candidly of how it was expected that loyal trans persons would exercise “sexual availability” by “attending the right sex parties, proving you would date or at least have sex with every gender in every kind of body” and had to “prove ourselves righteous standard bearers for a radical queer politic that more than our action, more than our intelligence, more than our solidarity, demanded sexual access” (171).
She points out that the average age of female transitioners is 17 while de-transitioners is 21 (174). Callahan provides further anecdotal evidence from websites like desisterresister.wordpress.com about those who have detransitioned, people who now in hindsight see their original problem not as a body identity disorder, but as things like anxiety and autism. Persons who now face the stigma of being labelled as traitors to the transgender cause for detransitioning.
Callahan’s chief insight is, I think, her comment that women can be cajoled into thinking that they are trans if they simply don’t fit the feminine stereotype, and it is here that feminism has failed women. She writes: “Young women trying to make sense of why their patterns of thought seem different from other women, why they can’t function in the same way, why they can’t perform femininity, why they are compulsive, why their bodies don’t feel real, why they return to feeling sad again and again. Feminism now offers the narrative that if you feel uncomfortable with the stereotypes projected onto members of your sex, your gender identity is the culprit” (178). Instead, Callahan observes that what feminism needs is a view that prizes the health and well-being of the female body and not simply a physical sleeve for the ideas floating around in her head (178).
Another psychoanalytic and clinical view comes from Robert Withers in “The View from the Consulting Room,” which suggests that psychoanalytic psychotherapy can offer an alternative to medical intervention to resolve gender dysphoria. This is premised on the idea that, unlike being intersex, there is no evidence of an underlying biological cause of gender dysphoria. In the very least it is “medically unexplained” (186). He proposes that some of the underlying causes can be things like (i) fear of adult sexuality, (ii) mind-body disassociation, (iii) identification as a substitute for dealing with emotions like grief (182-84). Following Canadian psychologist Ken Zucker, Withers says we should not be surprised at the prospect of an underlying psychological or emotional cause to gender dysphoria because “Gender identity in adolescence is not stable.” So offering people irreversible medical treatment then is a mistake. Most will grow out of their cross-sex identification quite naturally and after a period of experimentation are quite likely to become happily gay, bi-sexual, gender fluid or even straight” plus “adolescents with autistic traits sometimes self-identify as trans” and “help with their autism would be more appropriate than irreversible medical treatment for them too” (184). Withers provides notes from clients on why early medical intervention should be resisted even when there is a “powerful compulsion to the medical route once it is embarked upon” (188). Questioning a biological cause of gender dysphoria and treating it psychoanalytically might even be preferably to “shepherding trans-people into mutilating surgery and lifetime of hormone treatment by closing that discussion down out of fear of stigmatising them further?”
The penultimate essay is by Jen Izaakson concerning “Trans Utopias: Transhumaism, Transfeminism, and Manufacturing the Self” who identifies transgenderism within a wider philosophy of transhumanism which treats the body as an outdated and obsolete “bag of flesh” to be artificially augmented and improved (change that to “sack of excrement” and it sounds positively Marcionistic to us theologians!) (206). It is a philosophically dense essay that questions the use of medical intervention to create a kind of somatic utopia. If I’m reading Izaakson correctly, she worries that transgenderism sees androgyny as a path to a kind of homo deus existence that instantiates a particular configuration of gender as the eschatological telos of human life. As such, “the body becomes a centrally contested site and bodily intervention becomes construed as unremittingly desirable, to the point of fetishism” (207). Izaakson points to how gender theorists have morphed in a mere five years from warning against self-proclamations of identity to enthusiastically embracing them as authoritative pronouncements. The result is a coercive process that mitigates medical maleficence because it is necessary in order to meet trans dogmas (207-9). It is here that de-transitioned persons are perceived as a threat to this gender identity ideology because they show that gender is not essential or absolute (214).
In the concluding essay Michele Moore offers a bare-knuckled and startling challenge to the transgender movement from the perspective of disability studies in her essay “Standing Up for Girls and Boys.” To begin with, Moore rejects the medical model for disabled children on the grounds that disabled bodies are not the problem, the problem is social attitudes and physical obstacles to disabled bodies (225-26).
Further, transgenderism becomes a type of self-fulfulling prophecy whereby children are (led) into thinking that they are transgender, social and medical intervention takes place confirming the trans diagnosis, and parents and teachers are induced to affirm the transition (220). The problem is that this entire process seems manufactured and artificial. She writes:
The growing number of children identifying as transgender occurs against a backdrop of the media, the internet, medicine, education, social policy and politics, including transactivism. These interconnected influences provide the background to children’s every day lives and currently combine to popularise and make gender transitioning socially acceptable. This backdrop constructs for children an obvious and definitive set of ‘truths’ about transgenderism and about their own self-identification as transgender and is normalising gender dysphoria. Children and young people with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, living with trauma or diagnoses with autistic spectrum disorders are overrepresented amongst children who self-diagnose as transgender but minimal attention is paid to the question of whether and how children’s interests are being destabilised by the agenda of transactivists (220).
Moore offers an anecdote of “Robert and her mother” to how an adolescent can be propelled into being transgender, the pressure state authorities and activists put on the parents to conform, and how in the end the adolescent can simply grow out of it and wonder why she ever got convinced about trying to be a boy in the first place (221-23). This illustrates a pattern that Moore detects whereby a child is surveiled by his/her peers and lauded as trans, an approach encouraged by transactivists. After that, the child policies his or herself by monitoring appearance, behaviour, language, and reflecting on anxieties and reputation among peers. Then, once a trans identity is established, public control follows to make sure the trans identity is allowed to be manifested without suspicion or question (226-27).
For Moore this is dangerous because the promise made by transactivists is that changing a child’s body will better fit their (or society’s expectation) and it becomes irresponsible because it pits children against their own bodies (220). Research indicates a large number of teenagers desisting in their gender dysphoria and yet, “Transgender activism has a vested interest in making it difficult for trans identifying children and young people to change their minds in order to protect tis claims of gender as a biological phenomenon” (224). In addition, “Transgender ideology inducts children and families into the idea that contentment will elude them unless they hand their body over for social, chemical, and surgical experimentation. Such interventions – absurdly in my view – promise to bring children’s minds and genitals in to line with other people’s expectations of the clothes they like to wear and the things they like to do” (229). Even more concerning, “The children and young people whose bodies are medically intervened in accordance with transgender doctrine are part of a speculative project in social and biological engineering. Such interventions turn a healthy child into a life-long medical patient dependent on endless doctor visits, blood draws, radioactive scans and permanent reliance on medication. There is no public debate about the serious issues involved in transitioning children” (228-29).
In her conclusion, Moore does not hold back, “As someone whose life work has been, and always will be to advance the agenda for inclusion, I cannot collude in the irreversible harm of children to conform to an incoherent ideology that actually excludes them from their own bodies” (230-31).
I can’t say I read a lot of lesbian, feminist, and psychoanalytic literature these days. But as a priest, I am concerned how to respond to the transgender phenomenon and how to care for people with gender dysphoria. Similarly, as a father of an autistic son, I’m also interested because rates of gender dysphoria in autistic children are markedly higher, so it helps to know something about this.
For me there are several important takeaways.
First, on definitions, transgenderism is a broad umbrella term that involves the belief that gender and sexual anatomy are unrelated, an ability to disassociate the true self from the body, and it includes a variety of epiphenomenon including being gender fluid or pangender, etc. Importantly, transgenderism is not the same thing as gender dysphoria, the psychological trauma of experiencing a perceived mismatch between one’s biology and one’s psychological self-awareness. Consequently, transgenderism amounts to a socio-anthropological characterized by: (i) a radical androgyny, almost transhumanism, bent on erasing the distinction between the sexes or augmenting them with add-ons; (ii) it operates on the assumption that a human is a biological blank canvass (upon which one can create or project one’s own gendered reality); and (iii) it entails gender fluidity and detaching gender from biological sex and rendering gender as something abstract, plastic, malleable, and capable of sustaining hybridity.
Second, transgenderism is based on a quasi-religious view that the true and inner self that is removed from the physical body. In the transgender lexicon, “identity” has the same function as “soul” in platonic philosophy. Transgenderism is therefore seen as a kind of solution to various social ills and psychological pathologies to enable the true self inside the body to transcend the problems posed by the physical body. The tragedy of transgenderism is that it has perhaps confused individual personality with gender identity. Or else, transgenderism is a type of quasi-religion that enables persons to transcend the limitations and travails of the body.
Third, transgenderism is riddled with incoherent claims:
- Gender is a purely a social construct, but transgender is an empirical reality to be protected;
- Sex is irrelevant to gender, but it is imperative to alter the sexual organs of bodies to match a person’s perceived gender;
- It is claimed that there is no gender binary because no-one is purely male or female, rather, gender is a spectrum and we are all along it somewhere. However, it is possible to opt out of the gender spectrum, to become non-binary, but this in turn creates a new binary between those on the spectrum and those who are not.
- Science is the alleged basis of transgender ideology, but scientists who espouse a sexual binary based on biology or point to evolution as shaping facets of gender behaviour are engaging in either biological essentialism or hetero-normative stereo-types.
Fourth, transgenderism can be dangerous in that:
- It argues that children are autonomous miniature adults who can without aid construct their own identity and children are even competent to determine their own medical needs. Whereas children are taught, “Only you know who you are!” two problems emerge. First, that children know themselves as children, with the cognitive abilities of a six, seven, or eight year old’s abilities. Precisely because of their limited cognitive capacity, no child is competent to determine if he or she should receive pharmaceutical treatment or genital altering surgery to deal with apparent gender dysphoria. Second, children do not know themselves in a vacuum or simply by intensely looking at themselves in a mirror. Gender identity develops from a child’s awareness of their sexual traits, from observing cultural cues and tropes about sexual differentiation, and how they perceive themselves in relationship to others. In effect, gender identity is the “You are Here” in a biological forest alive with a vibrant relational eco-system. As a direct result, while children can defy gender stereo-types and experience various psychological pathologies related to perception of their bodies, they will not immediately come to the conclusion of possessing a new gender identity without someone first making it plausible, possible, or preferable for them, that is, without some kind of prompting. Certainly the cultural norms of gender can be tested and broken, but that in no way equates to being gender dysphoric or even being gender non-binary. Resistance to cultural norms should not be used to funnel children, usually LGB children, into transgender directions. In which case, we must ask whether transgender children are found or whether they are (in many cases perhaps) created by social environmental factors.
- The espousal of early intervention in transitioning gender dysphoric children is not just premature it is pernicious given that 80% of gender dysphoric children desist in their condition. Transitioning children prematurely is further dangerous considering: (i) There is no evidence for a biological cause of gender dysphoria, it is a psychological condition as far as we know; (ii) The negative long-term effects of puberty blockers; and (iii) the stories of de-transitioners, people who have experienced chemical or surgical transitioning, and have profoundly regretted it, are routinely dismissed or silenced by transgender activists.
- Every argument for transitioning children trades in gender stereotypes and weaponizes peer pressure and parental guilt. It is astounding how prevalent the apparent choice of toys is in determining a child’s gender identity. Allegedly girls who play with boys’ toys are really boys trapped inside a girl’s body (rather than just girls who don’t fit the stereotype and like boy’s toys). There are examples of peer and social pressure being applied to children to either conform to gender stereo-types or to identify as transgender. Young women are being told that if they experience sexism, don’t match feminine stereo-types, feel uncomfortable in their bodies, then being female is simply a bad consumer choice, and they can escape it all by changing their gender. Transgender activists commonly equate symptoms of depression, gender confusion, and autism in adolescents with gender dysphoria and thus manufacture or even recruit transgender persons. The reality of rapid onset gender dysphoria – still controversial we know – would be further proof that identifying as transgender may have more to do with sociology than with a mismatch between psychology and biology. Parents are also intimidated with guilt or even with the threat of state intervention and legal action if they do not go along with a transgender activist’s diagnosis of their child’s new gender identity and the prescription for what to do about it.
- Transgender activists overly espouse the colonisation of female spaces by those with whole or partial male characteristic and thus create a social hierarchy in which women’s spaces and safety are subordinated to an activist movement often armed with the capacity to inflict legal prosecution on dissenters and critics.
- Transgenderism can even enter absurd and homophobic propositions including the “cotton ceiling.” This cotton ceiling refers to, for instance, lesbians who are transphobic if they refuse to have penetrative sex with a trans-woman who has a penis.
Questions for the Editors
That said, I did have several questions or potential criticism for the authors of the book and its essays.
First, while I appreciated the deconstruction of transgenderism as a type of mad-scientist anthropological experiment, I did wonder about the fate of children and adolescents who persist in gender dysphoria. When is transitioning a child or adolescent a medically responsible thing to do to alleviate the mental anguish of someone with gender dysphoria? In other words, we’ve heard a lot about why and when transitioning is bad, but I want to know when it is expedient or necessary for a person to transition. What about when transitioning seems to go well?
Second, if there is sexual fluidity (people evolve in their sexual orientation) and if gender is not the same thing as sex (hence the tacit possibility of gender fluidity too), exactly how much constraint does biological sex put on gender? I’m curious about finding a middle path between gender as social construct and gender as partially shaped by biology.
Third, if transgenderism has reified the experience of transgender people, what are the types of transphobia that we should be vigilant against even if we do not assent to the whole package of transgender revisionism? Removing the mad scientist running the transgender experiment still leaves us with vulnerable, ostracized, and wounded persons, experiencing confusion, still victimized by homophobia, still in need of care. We still need legal protections, pastoral care, and social etiquette for persons who are gender dysphoric and who do successfully transition to another gender.
In any case, I warmly recommend this volume as necessary reading for anyone interested in a response to transgenderism and its negative impacts on children.