It will not have escaped the eagle-eyed that something about modern transactivism seems to make otherwise Gillick-competent adults veer towards the infantile. From the EHRC’s recent clarification about the legality of single-sex spaces under the terms of the Equality Act, to the government’s announcement that it would no longer try to criminalise what is tendentiously named “conversion therapy” for people with incongruent gender identities, it seems that whenever an obstacle is thrown in the path of transactivists there is widespread wailing, dramatic pronouncements, and holding of breath until puce.
Given the radical scope of activist ambitions — basically, to restructure the English language so that no one refers accurately to males and females in any context it might matter — you’d think that they would be a bit more sanguine about the likelihood of an uphill struggle. But not so — every new challenge is received like an incomprehensible and crushing blow, and much drama inevitably follows.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
What is it that produces such childish regression in the initiates of the new gender religion? At least part of the answer seems to have to do with the example set by Stonewall. For years now, the charity has acted like a demented primary school teacher gone rogue, encouraging all sorts of unsavoury habits in those under its influence. Via the use of an elaborate reward chart — otherwise known as the UK Workplace Equality Index — it has sown widespread misunderstanding within hundreds of institutions about the actual state of equality law. It has scared people silly with lurid fairytales of murder, suicide threats, and the hate crime of “misgendering”. No wonder the more impressionable are now getting so worked up.
The latest example of Stonewall’s wayward moral leadership came at the weekend, when it was revealed that its flounce from the government’s scheduled “Safe To Be Me” LGBT rights conference will cost the taxpayer at least £650,000, and probably more. Having previously been paid to co-organise the conference, Stonewall’s withdrawal statement was larded with the usual purple prose: hearts were heavy about the government’s U-turn on conversion therapy, trust was shattered, and so on. You would think the government had just announced compulsory heterosexuality for all, and not a pause in legislation threatening to criminalise talking therapies for gender-questioning people, including for gay adolescents at risk of starting a medicalised pathway they might later regret.
Many of those fighting Stonewall’s agenda are mothers — or as the Stonewalled maternity hospital where I gave birth twice would now have it, “pregnant people”. Since the opposition seem desperate to project their serious mummy issues onto us anyway, I reckon we should just lean into it. As most mums know, it’s important to have a few strategies ready for when things get tricky. So — with a nod in solidarity to beleaguered adults across the land having to deal with transactivist drama in their organisations, homes, and friend groups — here are five supernanny-style rules from me.
- Encourage them to use their words
As with toddlers, in transactivism there is a lot of shouting and stamping and strutting about, but not a lot of thinking. When next a transactivist intones a Stonewall-approved mantra or slogan at you, gently encourage them to use their words and unpack it a bit. For instance, you might ask: if any male who feels like a woman is a transwoman, and transwomen are women, what then is a woman? Don’t be put off by furious complaints that you must be a bigot for asking such a thing — this is a distraction.
Equally, you could ask them: if, as Stonewall tells us, “to be nonbinary is to exist outside of society’s confines and expectations”, then what does this mean for the countless gay people who have spent their lives facing discrimination and sometimes violence because they don’t fit heterosexual norms? How does having an interesting haircut stack up against that, exactly?
Or if, as Stonewall’s new campaign on behalf of “asexuals” tells us, a “grey-asexual” is someone who “may experience sexual attraction very rarely or only under specific circumstances”, while “demisexual people only experience sexual attraction after developing a strong emotional bond with someone”, then in fact, aren’t most of us either grey-asexual or demisexual? And more to the point, how on earth does any of this count as a political campaign worthy of large amounts of taxpayers’ money?
- Praise the good
When raising offspring, it’s important to positively reinforce good behaviour when you see it. This can be an effective strategy with difficult people generally. Transactivists frequently claim that they want to break down regressive stereotypes about how males and females should be. If so, tell them this is fantastic! Give them lots of praise for it — though you might also ask them how they plan to smash stereotypes, when they also seem to think that playing with dolls and wearing dresses might turn a male child into a girl.
- Set boundaries
This appears to be a particularly hard one for transactivists to accept, tending as they do to think that all boundaries are fascist — so start small. Begin by casually saying things like “apples can’t be oranges” and “tables can’t be chairs”. (If they get cross and start calling you the “fruit police” or the “furniture police”, calmly ignore). Eventually, work your way up to males and females in non-human species on earth: “bucks are not does”, “bulls are not heifers”, and so on.
Once that information is well-tolerated, gently introduce the idea that humans are a sexually dimorphic species too; and that, as with other species, we need mutually exclusive names for the two human sexes in order to talk clearly about them. And after this radical idea has taken root, you could perhaps start to talk about other kinds of boundary too.
For instance, you could talk about the physical boundaries of women’s changing rooms and dormitories and refuges, and what those boundaries are actually supposed to do to protect their occupants from male predation. Or you could talk about the personal boundaries of women who say they don’t want men in public spaces where they undress.
At all times throughout this process, maintain your own boundaries by example. A firm and consistent “no” will be your friend.
- Ignore derailing attempts
Kids like to copy what you just said and repeat it back to you (“no, YOU are!”). Sometimes they do it just to annoy you. At other times, it’s because they want to argue the toss but don’t know how, so just parrot a version of what you just said in the hope it will stick. In a similar vein, some transactivists like to take points originally made by gender-critical feminists and throw them back, only lightly altered.
For instance, gender-critical feminists often express concerns about the lack of safe-guarding in self-ID policies, and about the negative effects of such policies on female survivors of male sexual violence. Not to be outdone, last week my former colleague and fervent transactivist Professor Alison Phipps wrote on twitter that: “When I go in a public toilet I am incredibly vigilant — I scrutinise every woman I come across and wonder whether she is a “gender-critical feminist”. Their obsession with what’s in everyone’s pants is frightening and as a cis woman and survivor, it makes me feel very unsafe”. Now, either this displays a level of paranoia on a par with Q-Anon worries about lizard people in the White House, or it’s an unsubtle attempt to wind gender-critical feminists up.
Or take Professor Grace Lavery of Berkeley University, in the UK to punt a new book about her penis on Woman’s Hour, and who gave a talk at UCL a few weeks ago. Lavery’s talk was entitled “The Gender Critical Movement Is the Biggest Threat to Academic Freedom in a Generation”. I am told that in the talk, my name came up — you know, that former Professor who got harassed out of her job for saying that biological sex matters — as someone supposedly personally responsible for recent serious declines in academic freedom of thought.
As with the more junior version, mindless “no YOU ares” like those of Phipps and Lavery are likely to drag you into pointless back-and-forths, which is probably the intention. Try not to let it get to you. Do what mums have done since time immemorial and pour yourself a large gin. Take a swig and read this marvellously warm, perceptive, and witty piece by English scholars Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed, written in response to an attempt of Grace Lavery — you know, that Professor who is Very Keen to protect academic freedom — to cancel them in 2018 for allegedly enabling transphobic “fascism” in their writing. (Their alleged crime, according to Lavery, was to defend the sometime use of trans birthnames and accurate sexed pronouns. And the cancellation attempt was eventually successful: the pair later released an abject apology, terrifying for its newly-leaden, generically contrite prose as much as for anything else.)
In particular, as you read Castiglia and Reed’s piece, linger over these prescient words: “what we too often face today in the academy is something that looks less like activism or scholarship and more like adolescent acting-out. Now that scientists have decided that adolescence — itself a recently invented identity closely linked to advanced capitalism — persists into the third decade of human life, perhaps we should not be surprised to find behaviors associated with adolescents proliferating, tolerated and sometimes even encouraged within educational institutions. To be specific, we identify as adolescent the furious response to the discovery that others do not perceive you exactly the way you’d like to imagine to yourself”.
- Get them out in the fresh air
This final one is simple enough. Get your transactivist troublemaker away from their screen or phone and into the great outdoors. Inhibit the flow of crazy pronouncements flying into innocent minds via LGBT organisations and bluetick accounts on Twitter. Encourage them instead to run around, take their shoes off and paddle, get muddy and out-of-breath, and generally to reconnect with their physical bodies and the natural world.
And if a member of the opposite sex is around, why not encourage them to arm-wrestle each other, or have a throwing contest? They both might learn something interesting. Perhaps this teaching moment could even feed into later conversations about transwomen in women’s sport