Book Review

Colonising gender identity

Print edition : November 19, 2021

Keegan, who identifies as gender creative, pours glitter on his head during his ninth birthday party at his home near Austin, Texas, on May 10, 2019. Critics of the notion that gender identity takes precedence over biological sex are fighting a stiff battle. Photo: REUTERS

Two new books, both by authors critical of gender identity ideology, take on the challenge of exploring the tide of sex denialism currently sweeping advanced capitalist societies.

A SPECTRE is haunting Europe, North America and every corner of what is collectively known as the West. Unlike the transformative revolutionary presence invoked by Marx in the opening line of The Communist Manifesto, this 21st century phenomenon is all about division, denial and muddled, anti-materialist thinking. Bedecked in alluring cotton candy shades of pink, blue and white, it appears on advertising hoardings and floodlit buildings. It sashays its way into public service promotional material and political party manifestos, onto police vehicles and riot shields, into school teaching guidelines and university curricula. It hovers over a swathe of public settings, from workplaces to changing rooms, from prisons to public toilets, from hospital wards to sports teams. Wherever it surfaces, it targets everyday language, replacing words rooted in, and expressive of, material reality with an alphabet soup of euphemisms, Orwellian neologisms and plain untruths.

This phantasm enjoins us to hack away at ‘wrong thinking’, by which it means the body of scientific knowledge that humans have built up over millennia of experience and collective effort. In its place, we must embrace a new orthodoxy: the notion that every human comes with a preformed, immutable ‘gender identity’, an inner state which only that individual can divine through arcane, unverifiable and mystical processes. Through the recitation of mantras and ‘proper’ use of pronouns, we must continually affirm the primacy of this ‘innate’ gender identity over an individual’s ‘socially constructed’ biological sex. Men can be women, women can be men, anyone can be ‘non-binary’ (neither man nor woman) or adhere to any variant on an ever-expanding menu of ‘genders’—on their own say-so, and regardless of the implications for those around them and society at large.

Welcome to the wacky world of gender identity ideology.

This world view, and the movement that has developed around it, has taken root in advanced capitalist societies with extraordinary speed. From its origins in the United States academia in the closing two decades of the last century, it has advanced primarily through the promotion of transgenderism, presented as some sort of new frontier in the global battle for social justice. On this basis, it has achieved a degree of exposure—and acceptance—that sets it apart from any other recent movement for social change.

Response of the Left

Despite the contrast this wildfire advance presents with, say, the long-drawn-out, often bloody campaigning characteristic of anti-racist struggle, gender identity ideology has attracted surprisingly little scrutiny on the Left. There seems to be little awareness here of how profoundly the goals of this ideology and its attendant movement differ from those of civil rights movements of the past (those of black people and gays, for instance). Whereas these historic movements battled for the universal rights to which all people are entitled, advocates of gender identity ideology are intent on appropriating the already-fought-for rights of another oppressed group: women.

Few on the Left seem willing to confront this ‘colonising’ impulse. In the U.S., where gender identity ideology has put down particularly deep roots, it receives as much ‘affirmation’ from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as it does from mainstream Democrats, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris among them.

For members of the British Labour Party, raising doubts about what strikes many as a nonsensical world view (in particular, the insistence that men can in a literal sense ‘be’ women, rather than simply choose to ‘live as’ the opposite sex) can result in name-calling, ostracism and even threats of violence (as in the case of the British MP Rosie Duffield, currently under fire for her gender critical views).

On the radical left, too, critics of the notion that gender identity takes precedence over biological sex are fighting a stiff battle. While some organisations (the Socialist Workers Party, for instance) have adopted an unalloyed pro-gender identity stance, others are maintaining a low profile, perhaps in the hope that the whole controversy will somehow fade away. Little attempt is being made to evaluate the long-term impact of this ideology, particularly for working-class and ethnic minority women. Some ‘progressives’ are calling for dangerous male criminals who ‘identify’ as women to be accommodated in women’s prison facilities—and for male-bodied people to have access to women’s rape centres and refuges.

Thus far, the Communist Party remains the only force on the British Left to have expressed unambiguous opposition to the ideology and its anti-materialist underpinnings.

No debate

Extreme hostility towards critics and non-believers is a defining feature of the gender ideology phenomenon. Dissenters can expect nothing but trouble, from accusations of bigotry, transphobia and ‘fascism’ to banishment from social media platforms, from the cancellation of speaking engagements to the loss of jobs and livelihoods. Women who, like the author J.K. Rowling, express even mild, carefully phrased gender critical views on social media will find themselves the target of rape and death threats.

In Scotland, where the devolved government headed by Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish Nationalist Party appears bent on outlawing all opposition to the new orthodoxy, critics may even find themselves confronting a court summons to face charges of ‘hate speech’.

The resulting atmosphere is one from which even the possibility of discussion and debate is being expunged. For extreme gender ideologues, the mere mention of debate, or the need to lower the temperature by sitting together around a table, is anathema.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, those at the sharp end of the pillorying and abuse are women. Despite the fact that many women critics of gender ideology are socialists who embrace the support of trans-identifying allies, a punchy acronym TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist), is now regularly deployed against them. Significantly, no equivalent slur has been coined for use against gender critical men.

There is in fact a striking degree of asymmetry in the way gender identity ideology has been applied in respect of the two sexes. The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. In a world characterised by an enduring sex hierarchy in which the sex class or category known as women is subordinated to that of men, it follows that gender ideology will have weightier implications and consequences for the former than the latter. Given the continuing hold of what Engels called the “world historic defeat of the female sex”, there can be no question of the application of genderism unfolding in the context of a level playing field between men and women.

In this situation, it is women who are bearing the brunt of the gender ideological offensive. Particularly startling has been the vehemence of efforts to delegitimise and even expunge words and language specific to women (including the term ‘woman’ itself). At the behest of powerful, well-funded lobbying organisations (Stonewall in the U.K.; the American Council for Civil Liberties (ACLU) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in the U.S.), public health messages and advertising copy aimed at women are increasingly adopting ugly Newspeak neologisms such as ‘menstruator’, ‘chest-feeder’, ‘cervix-haver’, ‘birthing parent’, and ‘bleeder’. Or, to quote the phrase selected by the influential medical publication The Lancet for the cover of a recent issue, ‘bodies with vaginas’.

Corporations, government departments, public sector bodies, and publicly funded services such as health and education get tutored in the new lexicon via lobbying organisations’ lucrative partnership schemes. In order to improve their ratings, subscribers strive to adopt what is presented to them as ‘best practice’ in terms of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’. As with the term TERF, changes in terminology are directed exclusively at women and their bodies; reciprocal terms for men (penis haver? Prostate owner?) have yet to appear.

Threat to single-sex spaces

Beyond the growing truncation of their language, women are also being ordered to open up their vital single-sex spaces: places of sanctuary and safety won through hard-fought struggles by earlier generations of women campaigners. Women-only toilets, changing rooms, shower facilities, hospital wards, rape centres, prisons and refuges for female victims of domestic violence: all have become grist to the ideology-driven demand for unqualified access to any man who ‘identifies’ as a woman. In women’s sports, too, competitors increasingly find themselves up against, or displaced by, male-bodied individuals who enjoy the considerable physical advantages gained from having passed through male puberty.

Under assault, too, are the institutions, procedures and reforms, introduced as the result of campaigning by women, designed to extend women a hand upwards in their battle for equality. All-women shortlists, introduced to boost the presence of women in elected bodies; women’s officer positions within political parties and trade unions: here, too, the terms of eligibility are being thrown wide open.

Where did the ideas firing this extraordinarily sweeping attack on women, their language and their sex-based rights originate? And what explains the rapidity of their advance over the past two decades?

Two new books, both by authors critical of this turn, take on the challenge of exploring the tide of sex denialism currently sweeping advanced capitalist societies.

Both writers rise commendably to the challenge. For Kathleen Stock, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sussex, the contradictions and muddled thinking that riddle gender ideology demand exposure to the clear light of day. Helen Joyce, a journalist at The Economist, draws on her skills as a writer to dissect the trans phenomenon, the most visible manifestation of this ideological offensive. Taken together, these two books constitute a cogent and intelligent introduction to the controversy for readers new to the subject, and an invaluable source of arguments and references for those seeking to sharpen their gender critical thinking—and action.

For Kathleen Stock, a stalwart of the intellectual battle against the new idealism whose cool rationalism tends to incense opponents (among them faculty and students at her university), upholding the distinction between sex and gender is essential to the task of liberating women from oppression. As its title announces, Material Girls is a thoroughgoing defence and celebration of women’s materiality, a lucid evocation of the many dimensions that constitute women’s embodied reality. Sex matters, argues Kathleen Stock, because it simply cannot be written out of the script. Across countless dimensions of life—from medical treatment to sport, from access to jobs to physical safety—their sexed bodies have a profound impact on women’s lives.

As Kathleen Stock underlines, none of the above can coexist with a gender identity world view whose core axioms dismiss the very notion of material reality. These central tenets are summarised thus:

“1. You and I, and everyone else, have an important inner state called a gender identity.

2. For some people, inner gender identity fails to match the biological sex— male or female—originally assigned to them at birth by medics. These are trans people.

3. Gender identity, not biological sex, is what makes you a man or a woman (or neither).

4. The existence of trans people generates a moral obligation upon all of us to recognise and legally to protect gender identity and not biological sex.” (p.11)

She has little difficulty making mincemeat of each of the above. She is especially good at teasing out confusions and contradictions, at probing the way in which words and their meanings have fallen prey to manipulation and casuistry by one side of the ‘debate’. A case in point is the word ‘gender’: the beating heart of what strikes many commentators as a quasi-religious, cult-like world view. She notes:

“It is a standing feature of almost any argument between feminists and trans activists that the word ‘gender’ will appear there in several different senses, often unnoticed and in a way that increases confusion and toxicity exponentially. Cultural historian Bernice Hausman captures the confusion well when she writes how … she began to realise that ‘although most people adhered to a distinction between “sex” and “gender” that relegates the first term to nature and the second to culture, some were beginning to use “gender” to refer to both realms’.” (p.37)

To guide readers through the gender labyrinth, Kathleen Stock lays out four distinct ways in which ‘gender’ can be understood.

Firstly, there’s ‘gender-as-euphemism’: a “polite-sounding word for the division between men and women… thought to have the benefit of an absence of embarrassing connotations of sexiness in the copulatory sense.” (p.38) She calls this GENDER1.

Next, there’s gender as a descriptor of “social stereotypes, expectations and norms of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’” (p.39), variable to a degree across cultures. This is GENDER2 in her typology.

Thirdly, gender can be used to designate the division between men and women, as understood to exist between two distinct sets of people: “those who have the social role of masculinity projected on to them, and those who have the social role of femininity projected on to them.” (p.38) GENDER3 incarnates this sense of womanhood versus manhood.

Finally, with GENDER4, we arrive at the pairing of ‘gender’ with ‘identity’. Here gender takes on yet another sense: that of the private experience of gender role: “roughly, whether you relate to yourself psychologically as a boy or man, girl or woman, or neither, in a way that has nothing directly to do with your sex.” (p.38) It is purely in this sense that ‘gender’ is being invoked by sex denialist theoreticians and ideologues.

Demotion of sex

A similar slipperiness, Kathleen Stock argues, surrounds gender identity ideology’s attempts to redefine—and demote—the concept of ‘sex’. As she notes, whichever definition of biological sex you opt for—whether the ‘gamete account’, which distinguishes between organisms on developmental pathways to produce small versus large gametes; or the ‘chromosome account’, which highlights the distinct chromosomes (XX and XY) typically possessed by women versus men; or the ‘cluster account’, which focuses on the combination of morphological characteristics (for instance, skeletal structure, genitalia at birth, fat distribution) relevant to identifying people as male or female—the binary nature of sex is incontestable:

“Properly understood, the ‘sex binary’ requires only that the vast majority of people fall into one category or the other. And on the three understandings of sex offered above, they do.” (p.59)

This matters because, for gender identity adherents, it is axiomatic that biological sex is non-binary and exists on a spectrum. Kathleen Stock has fun with the fanciful claims made by influential proselytisers of this claim, in particular the U.S. sexologist Anne Fausto-Sterling (of Brown University), who argues for the existence of at least five distinct human sexes.

The murky, postmodernist waters from which such views emanate also come in for appropriately tongue-in-cheek treatment. Kathleen Stock is particularly unimpressed by ‘queer theory’—currently the stock-in-trade of university gender studies and liberal arts departments throughout the West. This doctrine, most famously expounded by Judith Butler, professor of comparative literature at Berkeley, rests on key postmodernist claims about the nature of reality, in particular the view that nothing exists independently of its ‘social construction’ through language. There is no objective reality; there are no pregiven facts about natural selection; the notion of there being two naturally pregiven stable biological sexes is illusory; everything is up for grabs.

As Helen Joyce observes in her more explicit engagement with the ‘trans’ phenomenon, this is a world view tailor-made for the neoliberal age: one where the ‘individual’, their ‘choices’ and their ‘identity’ rule the day: “Within applied postmodernism, objectivity is essentially impossible. Logic and reason are not ideals to be striven for, but attempts to shore up privilege. Language is taken to shape reality, not describe it. Oppression is brought into existence by discourse. Equality is no longer achieved by replacing unjust laws and practices with new ones that give everyone the chance to thrive, but by individuals defining their own identities, and ‘troubling’ or ‘queering’ the definition of oppressed groups.” (p.61)

With a focus on the practical results of this kind of thinking, Helen Joyce identifies the institutions and special interests—lobbying groups, big corporations, and well-funded charitable foundations—that are driving this trend. But she also highlights another crucial aspect of gender identity ideology: the damage it is inflicting on society in general, and the danger it poses, most of all to working-class women and to children.

Reinforcing gender stereotypes

How does an individual set about divining their ‘innate’, ineffable, and fixed-for-all-time gender identity? According to the gender identity rulebook, on the basis of the traits, behaviour and preferences deemed to be ‘characteristic’ of men/boys versus women/girls. As Helen Joyce notes, whether in the material sent out by lobbying groups to schools or in social media ‘trans tutorials’ aimed at teenagers, the stereotypes are out in force:

“Bish, a British sex-education website for teenagers… recommends placing yourself on several ‘gender scales’. Listed under ‘looks masculine’ are rational, tough, takes charge, independent, headstrong, active and outgoing; under ‘looks feminine’ are emotional, soft, takes part, sharer, sensitive, passive and shy. It notes that these are what men and women are ‘supposed to be like.’” (pp.117-118)

Rather than being encouraged to question these stereotypes, young people are instructed to “work out for yourself where you are on each scale, and from that decide whether you are a boy or a girl, or something in between”. Determining/choosing your gender identity boils down to making a selection from a catalogue of reactionary, sexist cliches.

For readers new to the issues, Helen Joyce’s exploration of the ways in which gender identity ideology is impacting the lives of children will be particularly shocking. In a further show of the asymmetry which characterises the application of this world view, the most serious consequences are being felt not by adult men seeking to change gender (trans women) but by troubled, traumatised children and adolescents who are told their problems stem from ‘living in the wrong body’. On the basis of the ‘affirmation only’ policies in place in proliferating gender identity clinics, such youngsters are being encouraged along an experimental, poorly evidenced transition highway marked by powerful puberty-blocking drugs, cross-sex hormones and, ultimately, surgical interventions. At this end of the age spectrum, transition can result in permanent loss of fertility, lifelong dependence on medication and, for a growing number of detransitioners, profound regret for irreversible decisions made when they were far too young.

Under the radar

The subterfuge and under-the-radar lobbying that underlie this developing tragedy come in for detailed scrutiny by both authors. In a chapter titled ‘How did we get here?’ Kathleen Stock explores the transformation of Stonewall, originally a campaigning organisation for gay and lesbian rights, into the U.K.’s primary promoter of ideologically driven transgenderism. This adroit shift ensured a continuing inflow of funds following the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the U.K. in 2013. On this basis, an amply resourced lobbying group has been able to influence not simply its ‘partners’ in business, education and local government but also Parliament itself. When in 2016 the Parliamentary Select Committee on Women and Equalities launched a public enquiry into transgender equality, the witnesses it called were overwhelmingly drawn from only one side of a dispute involving sharply conflicting interests.

This imbalance is now being addressed by grass roots women’s organisations and gender critical groups, some of them social media-based. Their efforts over the past three or four years have brought the subterranean activities of extreme gender ideologues to the attention of growing numbers of people and spurred a much-needed debate.

This fight-back against the more extreme claims and demands of gender identity ideologues has been particularly marked in the UK, where socialist, trade unionist and women’s organisations have deeper roots and greater reach than across the Atlantic. Activists from such circles form the backbone of organisations such as Women’s Place UK, Fair Play for Women and the Safe Schools Alliance (which is actively combating the infiltration of anti-scientific, stereotype-reinforcing material into schools). Gay activists critical of the sex denialism central to gender identity ideology (which targets the very notion of same-sex attraction) have quit Stonewall to set up a new organisation, the Lesbian and Gay Alliance, to defend their rights.

Despite their continuing efforts to close down meetings, silence opponents and in general ‘disallow’ any real discussion of a world view which so directly threatens women’s rights, language, safety and fight for equality, gender identity ideologues are increasingly finding themselves under challenge. In Scotland, the battle is on to retain the protections for women guaranteed by Britain’s 2010 Equality Act, which makes provision for women’s sex-based rights, including access to single sex spaces. Meanwhile, down in London, the Conservative government headed by Boris Johnson has pulled back from the idea of introducing gender self-identification: the ability to ‘change’ one’s legal status free of all regulation or scrutiny.

In this respect, Johnson and company seem to have read the room better than the official opposition. At its recent annual conference, the Labour Party revealed yet again the degree of ‘policy capture’ to which it has succumbed on this issue. In response to the question, posed during a TV interview: “is it transphobic to say only women have a cervix?” party leader Keir Starmer could only come up with: “Well it is something that shouldn’t be said. It is not right… this debate needs to be conducted in a proper way in which proper views are expressed.” Another prominent party figure, the MP David Lammy, described gender critical women as “dinosaurs” intent on “hoarding their rights”.

Luckily, other voices exist within the Labour Party. One of those belongs to Lachlan Stuart, a former policy adviser to Jeremy Corbyn, a defender of women’s rights and a gender-critical gay man. In a recent social media comment, Stuart set out the terms of the debate that, however difficult and irrespective of what might constitute ‘proper’ terminology, needs to take place:

“As a body politic, as a society, we cannot simply remove the fundamental buttresses underpinning progress towards liberation for half the population without stopping to question the impact on that population…. At the end of the day, it is the people who matter, the people who must be served. And the people know that we humans don’t change sex. Any party building a prospectus on that false foundation is going to fail. Sooner or later.”

Postscript: In early October, Kathleen Stock became the target of a vicious campaign of harassment, conducted by masked students and condoned by some faculty members, aimed at getting her sacked from her job because of her ‘transphobic’ views. While the Sussex University authorities, including the vice chancellor, have condemned these actions, Kathleen Stock has received no trade union backing despite the direct attack on her employment rights. Following police warnings about very real threats to her safety, she has cancelled her classes for the rest of the autumn term and will remain off-campus.