Last year, many were caught in the crossfire of the transgender wars. Maya Forstater, a researcher and writer, was forced out of her job. J.K. Rowling, beloved children’s author, was attacked as a bigot. Debbie Hayton, a transsexual and science teacher, faces a ban from a union committee. And why? Because each of them, either directly or indirectly, dared to challenge a popular superstition. One that is not going away.

Today, “gender identity” is used, often unthinkingly, to refer to an inner sense of being male, female or neither that every person supposedly has. “Transgenderism”, meanwhile, is used to refer to a person whose “gender identity” (begging the question) puts him or her at odds with the sexed body that he or she was supposedly “assigned”. Replete with impenetrable jargon, this transgender theory is poorly understood and highly contentious, both inside and outside of the medical profession.

As Helen Joyce explains in her meticulously researched essay for Quillette, theories about “gender identity” can be traced back to “two lines of thinking that originated in America in the 1950s and [were] fused into a single, dominant narrative half a century later”. First, Robert Stoller, an American psychoanalyst, coined the phrase “gender identity.” As well as transsexualism, Stoller wrote enthusiastically about “consensual sadomasochism”, pornography, perversion (which he didn’t believe in), and men achieving an erection during “the height [of] the female experience”, or transvestitism.

Stoller’s ideas about gender identity were further popularised by John Money, a psychologist who proposed a new taxonomy called “fuckology”, a term which proved less catchy than gender identity. Having helped set up the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins University, Money then conducted a famous experiment on twin boys, which he left to other people to reveal as a disaster.

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In this experimental study, Money advised the parents of twin boys, Bruce and Brian Reimer, to raise Bruce as a girl (called Brenda) after his penis had been damaged by a botched circumcision procedure in infancy. This brought Money international acclaim. However, when researchers tracked the Reimers down, decades later, it turned out that “Brenda” had been miserable under Money’s treatment and had reverted to a male identity in adolescence. After a lifetime of suffering from depression, both twins killed themselves. Before their deaths, the brothers maintained that Money had ruined their childhood; the supporting evidence for which has been well-documented by journalist John Colapinto in his investigative book, As Nature Made Him.

Paul McHugh MD, the University Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who was also active in debunking the false memory craze, told me: “Since the 1970s, I have listened to many people such as John Money explaining this concept [gender identity] but most of them are working on a definition, not of something clear and coherent, but an idea that will permit them to do what they want with patients.”

McHugh is not the only person with doubts. Ray Blanchard, a sexologist, and much-cited expert on transsexualism, told me that gender identity is a redundant term when applied to those of us who are not uncomfortable with our natal sex:

“It’s only at very unusual moments that a normal man or woman has a conscious awareness of ‘I’m a woman’ or ‘I’m a man,’ and this is often a highly emotional situation. . . The concept of cross-gender identity is really not a normal gender identity which has found itself lodged in the wrong body. Cross-gender identity is a constant preoccupation with, and unhappiness about, the individual’s gender. So, I guess you could say I believe in cross-gender identity, but I don’t much believe in gender identity.”

Of course, the Reimer tragedy could have been an opportunity to dispassionately examine the concept of “gender identity”. But psychologists, journalists and academics have overwhelmingly gone in the other direction, retroactively redefining “gender identity” rather than learning lessons from its ugly past.

When reminded of the Reimer tragedy, transgender activists suggest that the problem was that Bruce Reimer was really “cisgender” (newspeak for a person at ease with his natal sex; or a “normal man or woman”, per Blanchard). But such people are overlooking the more obvious fact that Bruce Reimer was a boy who was told repeatedly from his authority figures that he was a girl, as well as the more credible argument that misinforming a child about his basic biology can be psychologically damaging.

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In his essay Science as Falsification, the philosopher Karl Popper suggested some criteria for the scientific character or status of a theory, and how we might tell science apart from pseudo-science. He warned of grand theories offering “explanatory” solutions to complex (and sometimes unrelated) issues, writing:

“Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers — for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by reinterpreting the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status.”

The distress and desire to change one’s sex is a highly complex mental disorder, the root causes of which vary widely from person to person. In 1994, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) defined this condition as “gender identity disorder”. Then, in 2013, under further pressure from activists, as “gender dysphoria”. The latter is how the condition is listed in the most current edition of the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

But responding to activist pressure, the World Health Organization has recently indicated that they no longer consider “gender identity disorder” to be a “mental health condition”. This is quite a conundrum. If such feelings aren’t a problem, then why do trans people need chemical and surgical treatments at all? And if sex-change treatments are purely cosmetic, then why should British taxpayers (or American insurance providers) pay for them?

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There are no good answers to these questions, no way out of the gnarled web of contradiction. Presumably, this is why curiosity on the subject is not encouraged. Instead, transgenderism, the new theory of “gender identity”, has become a catch-all: an ideologically fashionable belief system, promising salvation to believers and damnation for heretics.

Those who don’t believe in the new idea of gender identity have become like atheists living in a theocratic society. Imagine, for instance, if an atheist wanted to have a debate with a Christian about the existence of God. But that, as a condition of the debate, the Christian demanded that the atheist not blaspheme, as well as refer to him throughout as a “child of God”. Further, imagine if those facilitating the debate expected the atheist to acquiesce to this demand or else be considered malicious or ignorant. This is precisely what is happening with the transgender debate every time a non-believer feels obligated to use words such as “transgender”, “gender identity”, or pronouns that do not match the sex of his or her opponent.

Of course, the balance between truth and tact, empirical reality and empathy, can be challenging. What pronouns should I use that respect the other’s self-presentation without betraying my argument? How far should I go in adopting the newspeak? Interpersonal conversations are one thing. But political debates are quite another. In what other debate do we allow our opponents to dictate our language?

Of course, often it’s best to politely get on with people, especially with people who are vulnerable and struggling, as many individuals with gender issues are. But when those in positions of power insist that you say something you don’t believe, participate in something you don’t support, or apostatise science and common sense, it’s only right to object.

Ask yourself which of the following you find to be more convincing. That everybody was born “in” a body, then “assigned” a sex by some careless God or whimsical doctor. Or that everybody is a body: immutably sexed (which is, to some extent, disguisable). One of these positions is settled science: self-evident and, until recently, uncontroversial. The other is an oversimplification of a mental disorder, at best. And at worst, a superstition.