“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”—John 1:1
What’s up with the struggle between trans women and TERFs? What’s a TERF? Twitter is blowing up over this as I write this blog. I’ve had these questions put to me several times now by different individuals. “Dude, you’re a sociologist. You guys do sex and gender and social movements, right? Explain this to me.” I was asked this just last night at a dinner party (of which there are no images.) Okay, I will. But reluctantly, as you will see.
I wrote most of this blog a while ago but avoided posting it because I see what happens to people who talk about gender ideology in a direct way with words that do not affirm the truth of what has become a worldview for many—not a majority—of people. But I listened yesterday to a podcast in which Brendan O’Neill interviewed satirist Andrew Doyle and the discussion has moved me to be, well, more direct.
Andrew Doyle’s new book, The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World, was the subject of discussion on O’Neill’s show. I have not read the book, but I have read John McWhorter’s 2021 Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, and from the detailed interview O’Neill produced, I hear a lot of parallels.
The specific discussion point that brought me back to the draft of this blog was an email revealing Stonewall’s attempt to suppress a report about predatory males entering woman’s spaces in which an official of Stonewall branded lesbians “sexual racists” for raising concerns about being pressured into having sex with transwomen who have male genitals (and presumably even those who don’t). This was precisely the issue I raise in this blog. So here we are.
Stonewall is an activist organization in the United Kingdom describing itself as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights charity and recognized as such by the British government. It is the largest such organization in Europe. Stonewall rose to a position of policymaking power with New Labour (the takeover of labor by the professional-managerial class in association with transnational corporate power) in the latter 1990s. Its agenda was an admirable one, fighting for the equality of gays and lesbians, which was, as it was also in the United States, achieved. Seeking to keep the organization alive (you are surely familiar with the problem of bureaucratic inertia), it took up gender ideology and switched its advocacy to transgender interests. This has brought it into conflict with the interests of gays and lesbians.
I had not heard about the Stonewall email before Doyle brought it up. But I do remember hearing all my life that rude remark that all lesbians need to turn them around is some dick. I bet you’ve heard that rude remark, too. However, lesbians are women who don’t like dick—just like gays are men who don’t like pussy. And to bully lesbians into having sex with males with accusations of bigotry is quite a hateful thing to do.
It’s a lot like bullying heterosexual men into sex with transwomen by smearing them as “transphobic,” isn’t it? If a man wants to have sex with another male, whatever. I don’t care. I’m a libertarian. Why would I care? But for the same reason, if a man does not want to have sex with another male, then he shouldn’t be shamed for this. Moreover, for the same reason, I object to organizations with the state at their backs (power Stonewall enjoys) creating a climate of fear and consequence for individuals committed to their preferences when they smear them for their commitments.
As I tweeted a few hours ago, even if I disagreed with JK Rowling on the trans issue, I would have to defend her in the same way that I defend the cartoonist over Islamist threats. We have to be free to express contrary opinions without having to worry about losing anything.
We don’t have to accept the terms of gender ideology as a guide to whom we fuck or not. Nobody voted to install gender ideology as the operating system of western counties—and even if they did, it would be a tyrannical act of majoritarianism. Nor has the majority consented to this ideology (or to other woke ideologies, such as critical race theory). Doyle suggests that the public only doesn’t oppose gender ideology more vigorously because they’re scared. They see what happens to people who resist woke ideology. He has a point.
How could it be that lesbians could be accused of bigotry for not wanting to have sex with males to who they are by definition not attracted? The smear depends on an assumption, that identifying one’s self as a woman makes one also a female—that one literally changes their sex by saying they are of the opposite sex—and that therefore a heterosexual male can become a lesbian, a female with a penis who is attracted to women. It may be the case that this female with a penis is not attracted to other females with penis. Indeed, a true lesbian is only attracted to persons without penises. Here we find ourselves in a vast paradox. You can see it, right?
How do you get out of the paradox? Redefine the situation. Until recently, all dictionary definitions of woman went something like this: “an adult human female,” or “adult female person,” with female “denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova) which can be fertilized by male gametes.” Folks will tell you it’s complicated and so definitions need to change. Whenever I hear a person say this, the words of philosopher Roger Scruton echo through my skull: “Newspeak occurs whenever the primary purpose of language—which is to describe reality—is replaced by the rival purpose of asserting power over it.”
I have noted the act of dictionaries changing the definitions of words to align with woke political ideology (Some Sunday Thoughts: Speech, Progressivism, mRNA shots, and FBI Plots; What Lies Behind the Popular Reracialization of the Human Population?) Dictionary definitions have traditionally concerned common usages. The art of lexicography (obviously it is not a science) involves studying words and compiling these into dictionaries. Any word can be defined in a myriad of ways, so the lexicographer is interested in identifying the most common usages so that people can have reasonable certainty in what people mean by the words they use. However, and Doyle points this out in the interview, dictionary companies have changed the state of the art to produce dictionaries that change the usages of words to align with political movements, such as the movement guided by gender ideology. Dictionaries have been captured by narrow but influential political forces and no longer represent common and organic usages of those words the powerful wish to repurpose for elite social engineering.
The specific problem here is that descriptions of reality are not inclusive of those who, while not female, nonetheless want others to consider them as women and even female—and inclusivity, we are told, is a virtue we must signal. “Trans women are women” has become a common slogan used by trans activists and many queer folk. The slogan means to tell us that a woman does not need to be an adult human female or adult female person to identify as a woman. A woman can be an adult human male. She can have a male genitalia. She is what she says she is.
According to Merriam-Webster, a girl is now “a person whose gender identity is female,” but while they were busy inserting the construct of “gender identity” into the definition, they were also busy changing the definition of “female.” A female is now a person “having a gender identity that is the opposite of male,” which is, of course, a person who identifies as such. How do I know this? Because the same dictionary redefines male as a person who identifies as such, natural history notwithstanding. Hardly anybody in the world believes that this is possible. The vast majority of people use gender and sex not in the way the dictionaries would have those who look up words believe. This is a perfect an instantiation of what Orwell warned us about as one can imagine.
Why are activities and elites trying to change the usage of words? A core element of trans gender doctrine is the praxis of transgression. Transgression is the political act of questioning structures of knowledge and ways of knowing, not in a rational or scientific way, but as a means of disrupting ordinary understanding with the goal of undermining prevailing social relations and transforming society into something that fits a particular ideology.
Knowledge structures and ways of knowing are, as postmodernism and critical theory would have these, stood up by the oppressors to control others with language. Transgression is therefore a challenge to power, and part of this challenge involves changing our understanding of language so that in the shift from description to manipulation Scruton identifies, the latter becomes language’s normative function.
Orwell, from whom Scruton borrows the idea of newspeak, warns the world in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the paradigm critique of totalitarian desire and situation, that language is manipulated to serve the interests of those with the power to manipulate language in a world where this mode of social control has been normalized. The complaint of postmodernists that language is used to control people is thus the projection of a desire to use language to control people. I suppose that’s one function of language, but it’s not a very democratic or liberal one, which is to say that it promotes the opposite of what a free people would desire for the basis of social interaction.
The praxis of transgression asserts that, since language is action (the speech act), power can be reconfigured through the transformation of language and thought. This notion has a definite religious quality to it. It’s found, for example, lying at the heart of the Christian tradition. James (3:5) tells us that through the tongue is but a small organ, a small spark can set a ranging forest fire. A verse later, James tells us that words are fire—fire that burns the entire course of life (and history). Proverbs (18:21) tells its followers: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” And don’t forget the first verse in John, quoted at the outset of this blog, where he tells us: “In the beginning was the word.” It is not accidental that gender ideology, alongside critical race theory, is a religious movement fulfilling the needs of those longing for meaning in a secular world where secular institutions are being delegitimized through transgressive politics.
TERF is an acronym for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” My understanding is that this term was invented in 2008 by a radical feminist who wished to differentiate trans-inclusive radical feminists from other feminists (lesbians, primarily) who do not agree that men can be women. It has since become a smear, similar to such smears as “homophobe” and “racist” (which is not to say in those cases that there are no such persons). Proponents of gender ideology define TERFs as “cis-women who don’t believe trans people truly exist and who believe women’s rights are damaged when trans women are treated equally and with dignity.” It would be accurate to say, then, that TERFs, or gender critical feminists, do not accept the trans slogan “Trans women are women.” Does anybody deny that trans people exist? How could that be possible given the visibility of trans gender people in cultural and social life? So those smearing feminists with this term indicates something else.
The activist organization Gender Justice is the source of the definition of TERF used above. Gender Justice “envisions a world where everyone can thrive regardless of their gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.” The organization works towards “dismantling legal, structural, and cultural barriers that contribute to gender inequity.” Equality for groups like Gender Justice means opening women’s spaces (such girls and women’s locker rooms) and activities (such as sports) to “male-bodied” persons. Gender Justice “work(s) to ensure that people of all genders have a meaningful right to bodily autonomy, safety, health, and opportunity.” These are the goals of Stonewall, as well.
Straight away we see the ontological problem of whether trans women are women and an epistemological fight over how we would address this problem, i.e., is reality what powerful people say it or is there any objective way of accurately ascertaining reality, e.g., science. But the struggle goes deeper than this, and it’s this practical., indeed interpersonal piece that I believe is most important for understanding why Twitter is blowing up right now over the presence of lesbians and other women attempting to assert their rights in law and policy.
Many gender critical feminists are lesbians. A lesbian is a homosexual woman, that is, a woman who is attracted to women, not men. Here men are defined as “adult human males” or “adult male persons.” Homosexuality is defined as same-sex attraction. Lesbians are therefore not attracted to those who have penises or, often, even to those who used to have penises. (Most trans women still have penises.)
This may be obvious, but a trans woman can be attracted to men or women or both, as well as to people who claim to be neither (nonbinary). According to gender ideology, if a trans woman is attracted to men, and trans woman are women, then the trans woman is heterosexual. Heterosexual men should, therefore, accept trans women in their dating circles.
If, on the other hand, a trans woman is attracted to women, and trans women are women, then the trans woman is a lesbian. The doctrine makes it possible, then, for a person, with male chromosomes, gametes, and genitalia, who is attracted to women, to identify as a lesbian if this person identifies as a woman. This shifts the meaning of lesbian from same-sex attraction to same-gender attraction, with gender becoming self-designating.
If a lesbian does not accept the trans gender slogan “Trans women are women,” then that lesbian is not interested in having a romantic or sexual encounter or relationship with trans woman, as the lesbian is homosexual (not heterosexual)—and the trans woman is not a woman. In other words, if one does not accept the alchemy of trans activism, the trans woman is either a heterosexual male attracted to women or a homosexual male attracted to men, since the character of the person’s sexual orientation is same-sex attraction.
I need to something briefly about the matter of human rights here because there is a threat to fundamental rights when ideologues wrap themselves in cloak of universal justice while advocating for privileges for specific groups to define reality in self-interested ways with the force of law or scientific authority behind them. If the idea that an individual can be any sex they claim they are is allowed to colonize science, the one objective method for determining (albeit provisionally) the truth of reality, scientists will not be able to say without consequence that sex does not change when one changes gender.
We are close to the point where rules will be instituted in scientific practice that will keep us from upholding the integrity of scientific truth—or at least the pursuit of it. The editorial board of Nature Human Behavior has published an editorial, “Science must respect the dignity and rights of all humans,” in which the idea of human rights are used to advance the political agendas of (some) groups over against the rights of individuals—for example the right of to ask and answer questions that may offend the sensibilities of others. (There is a right to offend, as I am sure you well know, but no right to not be offended in western society, despite what the British police say.)
“In this guidance, we urge authors to be respectful of the dignity and rights of the human groups they study,” goes the editorial, using language that amounts to an exercise in reification. Objectively, there are very few actual groups among humans. Identitarianism manufactures groups hand-over-fist and then picks their representatives. Watch out for politics that appeals to the dignity and rights of such groups—it’s often backed by power that punishes those who challenge the legitimacy of claims made by these groups. The alchemy here is to turn opposition to and the interrogation of ideologies into acts of harming persons. Watch out for the rhetoric of asymmetrical power for it often presumes coherent groups of persons with common interests.
The neologism “cis gendered” is quite revealing here in this regard. A cis gendered person is a person who identifies with the gender (or sex) he or she was “assigned” at birth. If you have male genitalia and identify as a male, then you are a male; if you have male genitalia and identify as a woman, then you are women—and your penis and testicles (and prostate, etc.) all become female. The person whose gender and sex match is thus made equal to the person for whom these do not align by giving the former a prefix, too (the power of words). Since, in this world view, reality depends entirely on how you define it, it’s your truth, since only you can know your “true” or “authentic” self—and those around you are obligated to affirm that truth or risk being labeled “transphobic.” In this way, ideology is conflated with supposedly actually existing reality determined by personal subjectivity and a regime that demands others affirm, if not that subjectivity, then the person’s right to it over against the rights of others—no discussion.
Since thoughts determine reality in this view of things, it follows that transphobic people can erase the existence of trans people by the power of thought. Questioning the doctrine thus becomes an act of erasure. As with Islam for the Islamist, you’re not allowed to question the doctrine because it denies the cosmology behind it. The TERF is a person—an apostate, heretic, infidel depending on where one stands in relation to the faith—with the power to erase trans people and therefore represent an existential threat to trans people. It follows that the lesbian’s existence suggests that trans women are not really women since trans women are rejected by women who are only attracted to women. A lesbian is by definition transphobic if she refuses intimacy with a trans woman—and if she doesn’t, then is she really a lesbian? See how definitions work? The accusation is a way of suppressing opposition to or even interrogating claims generated by the ideology.
Trans woman identifying as lesbian seek access to lesbian spaces as well as to lesbian bodies, spaces, and statuses and hold up this desire not only as a metric of equality but affirmation as their existence as women. Therefore lesbians who reject trans woman as romantic and sexual partners, along with women who do not want male bodies in female-only spaces, are oppressors. But from the lesbian’s standpoint, the trans woman is a man and the lesbian is not heterosexual and therefore she is not a bigot. (The same is true for women who do not want men in their spaces; are they bigots, or women who feel unsafe when men intrude into their spaces? In any case, they do not accept the slogan as the definition of the situation. And this makes them bad people.)
Words cannot erase groups of people. Only actions—real actions, not “speech acts”—can hurt people. Lesbians are not erased by trans women claiming they are gay women any more than trans women are erased by lesbians countering that trans women are males and cannot therefore be lesbians. However, lesbians may be erased as a group, in terms of their human rights, if laws and policies take up gender ideology, make it official, and impose this ideology on society at large. Gender ideologists will claim the same problem for their side. And this is why the conversation must be had—and precisely why there are those who do not wish society to have this conversation. If we do not protect and defend the right of people to challenge claims free of consequence, then no rational conversation is possible, no consensus is possible, and an ideology is imposed on others because power.
Doyle’s evoking of the Salem witch trials is a pretty apt one. Again, it’s not new. On July 13, 2020, I penned this blog: Witch Finder Boylan: Free Speech and Mass Hysteria. It concerns the attempt to cancel JK Rowling, who, it turns out, is, so far at least, uncancellable. But the attempt to scare Rowling into repentance is not the only goal of the denunciations against her. It is also the intent is to scare those who might agree with her into saying so. Doyle and O’Neill focus quite a bit on Rowling in the interview. Here’s what I wrote more than two years ago on Freedom and Reason:
“In case you haven’t been following all this, this witch Rowling apparently has the magical ability to harm people by noting that persons who menstruate have traditionally been called women. She has been speaking out for a while now about what she perceives as the cancelling of women.
“Rowling fails to chant the approved slogan, indeed appears to casts spells against it, because she is worried about the cancelling of women by defining them out of existence. Not just in rhetoric, but in law and policy and even science (according to some scientists). Rowling is not alone in this concern and is with her example producing what we call ‘mutual knowledge.’ Mutual knowledge often spells trouble for counter/movements if it catches on.
“Rowling is a powerful witch, i.e. difficult to cancel given her status and success. She uses her position to defend the right of others who do not enjoy her level of success to be free from the cancel mob. In other words, she is the leader of a coven of young and less powerful witches. Since she cannot be canceled by destroying her career, the witch finders are trying to make an example of her in order to silence others who can be destroyed.”
This is the greater goal of any inquisition. One might say that Rowling is being scapegoated, made to be a stand-in for whatever plagues the community. It is not quite apt here given that the community that seeks to purge the evil in its mists is not really a community as such, but a small group of activists seeking to sell an ideology as the next societal operating system.
A concern here not voiced by Doyle or O’Neill is that this project has in back of it transnational corporate power (I have written extensively about this problem on Freedom and Reason). I am not convinced by Doyle’s hopeful analysis that those elites who cow before the gender ideologists do so because they, too, like the elites at Salem, are scared, and that, in some five years time, this moment will pass. How could it possible that a small minority of activists could be more scary than the communists before whom the West collectively refused to grovel? Until the deeper source of power in all this is interrogated, I worry that our return to an open liberal order will not be forthcoming. I do hope I am wrong, though. Maybe that’s the same thing.