May 30, 2023 - 10:30am

Human beings are often irrational. They believe all sorts of improbable things, and demonise people who disagree with them. That’s what has happened to Professor Kathleen Stock, the philosopher who politely but firmly points out that people can’t change sex. But the opposing view has spread so widely that the Prime Minister has had to intervene, insisting on Stock’s right to be heard.

This evening, Stock is due to take part in an event at the Oxford Union, which has caused a furious reaction from trans activists. Now, into the echoing silence of other party leaders, Rishi Sunak has spoken. “University should be an environment where debate is supported, not stifled,” he said on Monday night. “We mustn’t allow a small but vocal few to shut down discussion. Kathleen Stock’s invitation to the Oxford Union should stand.” 

Trans activists will no doubt see the Prime Minister’s intervention as evidence that opposition to their ideology is part of a Right-wing plot. But if Conservative politicians are leading on this, it is only because the leaders of the UK’s supposedly progressive parties appear to have mislaid their principles in a fog of magical thinking. 

Of course Sunak can see some advantage in positioning the Tories as the party willing to defend traditional liberal values. That’s politics, and it’s not his fault that he’s shooting at an open goal. Sir Ed Davey and Sir Keir Starmer both affect to believe that some women have a penis, a proposition so risible that it’s hard to believe they’ve had any education at all. (What is it with these “sirs”? Does getting a knighthood now involve having critical faculties surgically extracted?)

Also this evening, Stock will appear in a Channel 4 documentary, Gender Wars, which some of the people who spew bile against her see as a “gotcha!” moment. How can she be “cancelled” when she’s on TV and appearing at the Oxford Union? It’s one of several bad arguments used by trans activists, who are effectively demanding a veto over when and where their opponents are allowed to speak. When one venue caves in to pressure, others soon follow suit, the aim of activists being to limit or shut down the expression of opposing views without appearing to do so. 

By any reasonable standard, Stock’s views on the subject of sex are “moderate”, as she described them to a petulant Ed Balls on Good Morning Britain yesterday. Until about a decade ago, the idea that human beings belong to one of two sexes was unexceptional, and there was no penalty on the rare occasions it needed to be said. Now, in an extraordinary reversal, the opposite is the case. Women like Stock, J.K. Rowling and the Labour MP Rosie Duffield are smeared and threatened because they won’t bow to a malignant new orthodoxy.

Sunak, too, is evidently a moderate in these matters. “Agree or disagree with her, Professor Stock is an important figure in this argument,” he told the Telegraph. “Students should be allowed to hear and debate her views.” It’s a measure of how far we are down the rabbit hole that such obviously sensible remarks constitute big news.

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.