A very confused dad (Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

June 7, 2023   7 mins

As a critic of transactivism, one thing you hear a lot is how you are “propping up” the Right — or even the far-Right. You may think that all you are doing is pointing out some fairly obvious downsides to putting violent unstable men in women’s prisons, say, or cutting off the healthy tissue of confused and distressed young people. It turns out, however, that the real sin for many Left-leaning people is not to do these things, but rather to talk in public about them.

At the weekend, in his Times column, Matthew Parris decried current media discourse about gender as unnecessarily polarising and a “gift” to the Right. Nearly everyone he mentioned got short shrift — “nutters in the Guardian”, professional anti-woke commentators, Stonewall fanatics, and “terfs” alike. As it happens, I was one of the few people cited in the piece to emerge unscathed. They say you shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you, but I’m afraid that in this case I’m feeling quite carnivorous.

On the face of it, Parris seemed to be taking a familiar route for nervous commentators entering the fray. This strategy involves acting a bit like a weary parent, coming across a fight between unruly children halfway through. You know you have slim hope of reconstructing exactly who did what to whom and why, so for the sake of expedience will put both on the naughty step, causing festering resentment all round. (When pursuing this strategy, it really helps if one of the concerned parties likes to wear masks, defame women and threaten violence, while the other looks middle-aged, female and terrifyingly cross.)

Certainly, this approach annoyed the hell out of me when presenter Ed Balls used it on Good Morning Britain last week. On the one hand, Balls castigated the transactivists who would harass me under the guise of protest as “extremists”. On the other, he implied that my views on sex and gender — of which he showed no detailed knowledge whatsoever — were also “extreme” and “not where the centre ground is”.

At one point in our rather confused discussion, the former Labour cabinet minister exclaimed dramatically: “Why do you want to tell a vulnerable 21-year-old that they cannot be a woman because you’ve decided not to allow them to be one?”. He seemed to think that womanhood was in my personal gift, either to bestow upon troubled young men or to withhold cruelly from them, a bit like driving lessons or a gap year.

But later on, Balls revealed that, like me, he also believes that a woman cannot have a penis — a view which only a few years ago might have caused his employer to investigate him for heresy. Luckily though, we “extremists” have made it acceptable for him to say this.

In contrast, when it comes to Parris’s approach, such intellectual confusion can’t be the right explanation. In the past, the journalist and former MP has voiced strong and coherent objections to transactivism — admirably so, in fact. I have no doubt that, as a co-founder and former supporter of Stonewall, he took some flak for doing so within his professional circle and friendship group. On what grounds, then, would he readily ostracise certain women of a roughly similar mindset, otherwise known as the “terfs”?

I suspect that part of the answer is implicit in his generously allowing that — presumably like him — I count as their acceptable earthly representative. And he isn’t alone in this. I seem to be the only gender-critical feminist neutrally mentioned in the Guardian or invited onto the BBC, even occasionally. Yet there are hundreds of immensely capable alternative candidates out there.

Much as I’d love to put this preference down to overwhelming magnetism on my part, I fear something else might be at work. A more compelling explanation is that, first, I’m a lesbian; but second and just as importantly for the purposes of optics, I’m a former Professor with the “right” vocabulary and vowel sounds. So-called “ordinary” women can say roughly the same things as me but in plainer, franker, or more ribald language, and still be considered unseemly, obsessive, or even unhinged.

Yet it’s thanks to the sustained efforts of thousands of such women that the Overton window for what counts as reasonable discussion has been moved, painfully, a bit further towards freer expression, and away from automatic accusations of transphobia. This was by no means a given when we started (or, more accurately, when they started, years before me). And yet now some onlookers seem to want to perch me on the windowsill, my views at the very limit of what counts as acceptable gender-critical discourse, looking down at those still shivering outside.

I won’t do it, though. The vast majority of my fellow combatants in the gender wars — including self-described “terfs”, radical feminists, gender-critical feminists, and women who refuse to call themselves feminists at all — are not extremist in any way. They are not the ones notifying bosses about employee wrongthink, harassing individuals or sending threats.

Rather, they organise meetings where women can speak in public about what matters to them. They think up publicity stunts with great wit and ingenuity. They write letters to MPs and sign petitions. They make podcasts and videos. They tell jokes, compose songs, and sticker everything that moves. They get involved in endless arguments online, including (of course) infighting like mad among themselves. You may find them completely inspiring or highly annoying — probably partly depending on your background attitude to your own mother — but extremist they are not.

It is true that often the arguments get heated and insults are chucked about. I’m not saying this is good. I am saying that insulting people online, even horribly, doesn’t put you on a par with those who make banners saying “Arm Trans Kids” or who assault speakers at conferences, or who stop film screenings from going ahead, or who decide to show up every day at someone’s workplace until they leave their job. At worst, launching insults makes you a fairly standard sort of tweeter, easily triggered by algorithms and frustration. And that’s without facing all the usual doublethink, DARVO, bad faith takes, and random accusations of fascism from opponents that would turn the most sanguine of people into gibbering wrecks.

Nor are the conclusions of some of my fellow dissenters particularly extreme, even where they differ from my own. It does not make you an “extremist” to say that you won’t ever use the preferred pronouns of a transperson, as this admirably clear recent monologue by former transactivist ally Megyn Kelly also demonstrates. It doesn’t make you an “extremist” to argue that the Gender Recognition Act should be repealed, on the grounds that you think that the Equality Act (suitably clarified, at least) would protect trans people adequately anyway.  Neither of these positions are mine, but each falls within the ambit of reasonable debate and should be discussed. If Mizzy can get on Newsnight, I certainly don’t see why Maya Forstater or Kellie-Jay Keen can’t.

It’s a daft form of credentialism that means doors have opened for me that remain shut for others. Among a lot of progressives, there is deference to technical language and a love of quirky-looking, counterintuitive conclusions; a fondness for the kind of point that makes you look clever for grasping it, or at least pretending that you did. Many first became convinced that human biology was chimerical yet gender identities were real, simply because academics told them so. Now the only thing that will persuade them otherwise is a different academic, telling them that the first lot were talking nonsense. Most ordinary people have not been educated into this level of stupidity.

Even so, the women I fight alongside have learned all the jargon, analysed all the quasi-technical concepts, and launch themselves onto the internet every day to argue the toss with all-comers. A lot of them do philosophical and political analysis far better than transactivist academics intervening in the same debates. It’s my impression that, over time, blind adherence to a basically incoherent ideology tends to make you stupider — but trying to demolish that ideology sharpens you up.

They also do a brilliant job of explaining things for the watching public. Such is the contamination of everyday language with academic pseudo-technicality and impenetrable jargon that the average person cannot follow disputes about gender for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Is a “transwoman” a male who wants to be female, or a female who wants to be male? Is “nonbinary” a bit like “bisexual” or something else? What in god’s name does “cis” mean? These are not the questions of troglodytes or moral reprobates. They are the questions of your well-meaning, basically tolerant, but very confused dad.

But in fact, it’s worse than this. For, in tandem with academics, contemporary progressives have adopted a whole raft of new concepts, with which they try to control the speech of others. Whether by accident or by design, some of these concepts turn the language of those not versed in the relevant speech codes — that is, those who didn’t do the right degrees, or even go to university at all — into something suspect and potentially blameworthy.

Attempts to express kindness or curiosity about another person can get rebranded as “microaggressions”. Apparently sincere efforts to communicate a particular message in good faith are framed as “covert dog whistles”. Reasonable concerns are dismissed as “moral panics”. The phrase “cancel culture” — as good a tool as any other to discuss the silencing of many, via the visible punishing of a few — is batted back with lofty condescension, dismissed as conceptually deficient and not really capturing the right phenomenon in quite the right way. What does “cancellation” mean anyway? Are you really cancelled if you’re still upright after some horrendous ordeal or other? Was it even cancellation at all, or were you just facing “consequences”?

It’s almost as if the game is rigged. Parris would criticise a lot of this too, I think. Still, he says he detects in gender discourse “a growing relationship of mutual dependence, a symbiosis, between quite small, obsessive minorities on opposing fringes of a society that is itself neither divided nor angry, but enjoys the fireworks”. I think I detect something different. It’s the growing sound of women’s incandescent fury, as Left-liberal elite types trace a slightly more permissive boundary for polite discourse about sex and gender, and then put direct, unvarnished, angry or jokey working-class speech on the other side of it. Cue a lot of simmering or even boiling resentment, and the sense that Left-leaning people really don’t care about women’s interests at all. This, I’m afraid, will be the real gift to the Right if we don’t all watch out.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.