Note: Principle Five of the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights maintains human rights and nonhuman rights are inextricably intertwined and that:
Abolitionists reject all forms of human discrimination, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, and classism—just as they reject speciesism.
Many Abolitionists have asked me about what the Abolitionist position is about transphobia. The answer is clear: Transphobia is wrong. We should not discriminate against anyone based on their gender identity. Trans people should not be discriminated against in terms of access to jobs, renting/buying living accommodations, education, and elsewhere, etc. This makes perfect moral sense. The fact that someone is a trans person is completely irrelevant to their access to employment, housing, education, etc.
We do not, however, discriminate wrongly against trans persons by failing to believe their metaphysical/spiritual claims that trans women are literally women or that trans men are literally men, and by failing to eliminate all single-sex spaces and activities or otherwise not living our lives in conformity with their metaphysical spiritual beliefs. That is, it is not “transphobic” to refuse to embrace trans belief claims any more than it is “Christianphobic” not to accept that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, or “Catholicphobic” not to believe that when a Catholic priest says Mass, transubstantiation occurs and the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus.
To the extent that trans ideology requires us to ignore the basic human rights of biological women and girls, or to maintain that lesbians and gays who are not really bisexual are bigots, or to threaten the welfare of children, trans ideology violates Principle Five.
The following represents a more detailed discussion of my views.
To say that the trans-rights issue is controversial is very much an understatement. Part of the problem is that there is a great deal of confusion about exactly what issues are at stake. I would like to propose that the crux of the debate centers on whether respecting the equality claims of trans persons and not discriminating against them requires that we accept certain belief claims that at least some trans persons make. That is, does not discriminating against trans persons require we accept as literally true certain claims that they make, or, at the very least, that we live our lives as if we believe those claims to be literally true.
A majority of us believes that trans people should not be discriminated against in terms of access to jobs, renting/buying living accommodations, education, and elsewhere, etc. This makes perfect moral sense. The fact that someone is a trans person is completely irrelevant to their access to employment, housing, education, etc.
The problem is that some trans-rights activists (TRAs) maintain that it is “transphobic” (among other bad things) to not accept as factually or literally true the claims that biological males who identify as women are women and that biological females who identify as men are men. They also claim that, in light of the literal truth of these claims, it is transphobic to maintain single-sex spaces. They demand that we eliminate all single-sex spaces, such as toilets, changing rooms, shower facilities, prisons, rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, etc., as well as eliminate single-sex sports, and make other changes that are intended to eradicate the concept of biological sex from society.
So the issue is whether respecting the equality of trans persons and not discriminating against them requires that we accept these claims as true, or at least act as though we do, and eliminate single-sex spaces and activities as well as make whatever changes would follow from our believing in the literal truth of those claims.
Gender-critical feminists (GCFs), such as Kathleen Stock, Holly Lawford-Smith, Helen Joyce, Andrew Doyle, and many others clearly and unequivocally support the equality claims of trans people but reject TRA belief claims. That is, they maintain that an open and decent society should not discriminate against trans people but they reject that we wrongly discriminate against trans people by refusing to believe that trans women are women or that trans men are men. They do not support changes, including, but not limited to, the elimination of single-sex spaces and activities, or other changes that require that we reject the existence and importance of biological sex.
GCFs are sometimes referred to as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” or “TERFs.” “TERF” is viewed as a slur by many and suggests that those with gender-critical views reject both the equality and belief claims of trans people. But that is not the case. The leading spokespersons for the GCF position strongly support trans equality claims; they reject just the belief claims. Also, GCFs do not necessarily embrace radical feminism so that’s yet another reason to not use “TERF.”
It must be emphasized that not all trans people are TRAs. Many are not. An example is Debbie Hayton, a physics teacher and trade unionist from the U.K. who has been vocal in maintaining that we can respect the equality claims of trans people without compromising the equality rights of others. In other words, people like Hayton are asking for equality; they are not asking us to believe that TRA claims are literally true or that we must live our lives, and restructure social institutions, as if their claims were literally true.
Must We All Be Christian?
In order to explore the issue here — whether the equality of trans persons requires that we accept as literally true their belief claims — it would be useful to explore another context in which a similar issue is presented. I have chosen an example that involves an important and prevalent institution — Christianity — that very much concerns the fundamental identity of many involved in it.
Most of us think that discrimination on the basis of religion is wrong. Indeed, discrimination on the basis of religion is prohibited by law in the U.S., U.K., and many other places. We should not, for example, discriminate against Christians in employment, education, and elsewhere in society. We accept the equality of Christians.
Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. They do not believe that Jesus is a prophet, or a “special” human. They believe literally that he is divine. Many Christians maintain that they have the experience of a personal relationship with Jesus. Does our not discriminating against Christians require not only that we not place them at any disadvantage in employment, education, or other contexts, but that we also accept that Jesus is the Son of God and live our lives as though we believed this to be literally true?
We may find out someday that Christians were right and that everyone else was wrong and Jesus is the Son of God. But we certainly cannot say that now, and we cannot maintain that others should be required to believe it, or at the very least, to live as though they believed it, as a condition of not discriminating against Christians. That is, we do not discriminate against Christians if we refuse to believe in the divinity of Jesus. We do not discriminate against Christians if we refuse to eliminate other non-Christian religions. If Christians want to attend a Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu service and proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God over the objection of the Jews, Muslims, or Hindus, we do not unjustifiably discriminate against Christians by prohibiting them from doing so.
To not believe that Jesus is divine does not make one “Christianphobic.” To the extent that some Christians suggest that we should all convert to Christianity, or that the practitioners of other religions are “doomed” or are “evil,” we regard those people as zealots and cranks. We certainly don’t think we have to agree that their beliefs are true or that we must live in accordance with them. For example, the debate about regulating abortion from conception or very early in the pregnancy term focuses in part about whether those seeking to restrict access to abortion are doing so for religious reasons and, to the extent they are, that forms the basis for an objection, at least in the United States, that the government cannot establish a religion.
In any event, Christians have a right to believe what they want; everyone else has an obligation to not engage in wrongful discrimination against Christians. But respecting the equality claims of Christians does not require that we accept Christian belief claims that Jesus is God or allow Christians to act out their metaphysical or spiritual beliefs in the spaces of others.
Now let’s apply this to the trans issue, which involves the same issue: does not discriminating require the acceptance of certain belief claims as literally true?
Sex and Religion
Sex is biologically determined and it is binary. There are only two sexes — male and female. Males are those whose function is to produce the small gamete (sperm); females are those whose function is to produce the large gamete (ova). This is not up for grabs. This is not a poststructuralist issue about how one uses language. This is the biological fact of the matter. If you want to have offspring, you must find a member of the opposite sex.
There are instances in which sex is ambiguous, but cases involving “intersexed” persons are rare and do not establish that there is a third sex or that sex is on some sort of spectrum. There are only two kinds of gametes and, therefore, only two sexes. Variations within males and within females concern variations in anatomy, not variations in sex, and do not support the position that there are more than two sexes. “Male” and “female” are real categories.
Some TRAs may choose to reject the fact that sex is binary and that the categories of biological male and biological female are real. They may claim that, despite their biological sex, they have the soul or spirit, or intangible feeling of identity, of the other sex, or of no sex (non-binary), or of alternating sexes (gender fluid). That’s fine. They may believe that if they wish. They may live their lives as though their beliefs are literally true.
But that does not mean that we must live our lives as though their beliefs are literally true any more than we must all accept as literally true Christian beliefs about the divinity of Jesus.
I chose Christianity as an example but there are many other religions and other spiritual belief systems that represent truth to their adherents and provide those adherents with a sense — often a very strong sense — of identity. In a pluralistic society, we do not question the right of people to believe what they wish to believe and to live their lives in accordance with their spiritual beliefs. But, in a pluralistic society, we also do not question the right of others to choose to reject those beliefs and to not live their lives as though those beliefs are literally true.
No one has the right to demand that others accept their metaphysical beliefs as literally true, and to change their conduct to accommodate the supposed truth of those beliefs.
But that is exactly what TRAs demand. They are demanding adherence to a belief system that is indistinguishable from a religion (1,2). Trans women may claim to be women but they cannot deny that they are biological males. That is a simple, indisputable, and undeniable fact. They are trans women precisely because they have “transed” from being something else — biological males. To pretend that trans women are not biological males is to do just that — pretend. Trans men may claim to be men but they cannot deny that they are biological females. That is a simple, indiisputable, and undeniable fact. They are trans men precisely because they have “transed” from being something else — biological females. To pretend that trans men are not biological females is to do just that — pretend. If that is what trans people and others want to do, they can do that. But there is no way that we can require others who are unwilling to embrace this belief to do so any more than we can require Jews to accept the divinity of Jesus.
It has been noted that TRA ideology is similar to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. This doctrine, which is not shared by other Christian sects, holds that when the priest celebrates the Mass, the bread and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. This is not just a matter of symbolism; it is a matter of spiritual ontology — the bread and wine becomes the spiritual body and blood of Jesus. Trans persons believe similarly that they have somehow transcended beyond the physical world and their biological reality. They can believe that they have “trans-substantiated” if they wish just as Catholics believe in transubstantiation. But just as Catholics cannot make the rest of us believe in transubstantiation and live our lives as if it were true, TRAs cannot make the rest of us believe in “trans-substantiation” and live our lives as if it were true.
TRA ideology traces its origin to postmodernism, which declares that there is no truth and that everything is a matter of social construction. Facts don’t matter; “lived experience” and choice do. Postmodernism has certainly been useful to challenge the notion that certain hegemonies (e.g., that of the Western white male) are universal or represent truth. The past few years of listening to politicians denying what are clearly facts by invoking the mantra of “fake news” should make it clear that postmodernism understood as a rejection of all universals is, at best, an intoxicating distraction for some undergraduates but is an absolute nightmare for the rest of us — and a most serious threat to society. I am happy to concede (as most scientists do) that even science embraces some metaphysical elements (e.g., causation), but there are facts. And if you are going to be skeptical about the claim that biological males and biological females are real categories, you cannot arbitrarily restrict your skepticism, and you need to accept that you may be a disembodied brain in a vat being stimulated by electrodes to believe that you are reading this. But, in that case, discussions about sex would be largely irrelevant.
In sum, postmodernism, which rejects facts, is no more a source about facts than is the Bible. Saying that trans women have “transed” from being biological males or that trans men have “transed” from being female is not an act of discrimination. It is a statement of fact. “Lived experience” has nothing to do with it.
Sex and Gender
Sperm and ova certainly do not tell us the entire story about human sexual behavior and identification, which involves a complicated combination of biological sex and gender. Gender is different from biological sex. Gender is a set of cultural ideas and practices that are imposed on us on the basis of our biological sex. We can think of gender as involving cultural stories about what it is to be male and female. Gender stories often become generalized into various standardized stories or stereotypes. These stories or stereotypes can and often do vary within societies and between societies, and can and often do change over time.
Sex and gender are different. That is the fact of the matter.
TRAs ritually invoke the quote from Simon de Beauvoir’s quote, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman,” as proof that sex is not something one is born with. They conveniently neglect the rest of the quote: “No biological, psychic, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine.” In other words, women are born with a sex but gender is a matter of social or cultural construction.
TRAs use the expression “cis-gendered” to describe a person who has the gender that person was “assigned at birth.” But no one is “assigned” a gender at birth. One’s biological sex is recognized at birth because sex is a fact that can be ascertained in all but a very minute number of cases where there are severe anatomical variations. So one is identified as male or female. There is no “assignment”; there is a factual determination that is made. What sort of male or female person that person will become — how that person will express his or her sexuality through whatever gender roles or stereotypes will be imposed on that person or that person will adopt — is not a matter that can be “assigned at birth.” That will happen afterward as that person interacts with his or her family, friends, society generally, and the world as he or she encounters it.
Evolutionary and developmental psychologists may debate about whether, for example, the attraction of many male children to things that can serve as weapons or of female children to dolls is a matter of instinct that has evolved or is solely a matter of cultural exposure, or of some combination thereof, but no one — other than TRAs — is saying that biological sex is a matter that is “assigned” at birth. Biological sex is recognized at birth.
If a biological male adopts the gender stereotypes of a female, that does not mean that the male was wrongly identified as male at birth and is really a biological female. It means that the biological male does not identify with, or feel any affinity for, male stereotypes. In any event, biological sex is not up for grabs at birth or at any other time. What is up for grabs is what gender stereotypes (including a rejection of any particular gender stereotype) someone may embrace. But that is going to occur after birth.
To the extent that the trans belief claim is that we are born with some “innate” sense or “feeling” of gender that is separate from our biological sex and that biological sex is irrelevant, that claim is and can be nothing more than a metaphysical belief. It is akin to the claim that despite our having physical bodies that have biological sex, we have souls or spirits or feelings that have a sexual identity that has nothing to do with our biological sex. If that is what someone wants to believe, it is fine. But to say that we must all believe that, and that we must change social institutions to accommodate that belief, is decidedly not fine. There is no requirement that we believe in souls or in what appears to be analogues of souls.
There are people who suffer from a recognized psychological condition called dysphoria. But genuine dysphoria, which, until very recently, has been rare, is a matter of distress or discomfort with one’s biological sex and not a matter of gender identity, and not any “proof” that biological sex is not a fact or that gender and sex are the same. They are not. There is sex. And there is gender. TRAs cannot abolish the fact of sex, try as they may.
Abolishing Biological Sex Perpetuates Sexism and Misogyny.
Although gender stereotypes differ from culture to culture, there is a disturbing constant: gender stereotypes of women are predominantly sexist; that is, the cultural story they often tell is of the inequality of women. That is why many people have been working hard for decades to bring about a social rejection of gender stereotypes, or at least of the more egregious ones that that objectify women as sex objects and otherwise as commodities. If we reject sex as a biological fact, and say that only gender determines one’s sexual identity, then we make gender the only reality for who we are sexually. And for women that means that being a woman is only and necessarily a matter of being some sexist and misogynist cultural stereotype. These stereotypes include, but certainly are not limited to, being submissive, weak, nurturing, intellectually inferior, obsessed with appearance, overly emotional, terribly fond of doing unpaid menial labor, etc.
We have made progress. Sexist/misogynistic stereotypes have less hold than they have had in the past. But making sexuality a matter of gender alone will necessarily affect that progress in an adverse way.
By the way, gender stereotypes may not be a great thing for biological males either. The idea of being the strong, silent tough guy who never shows emotion and controls or destroys anything in his path may, in fact, be making at least some men miserable. I have never much cared for traditional male stereotypes, to be honest. I reject completely the emotional limitations that gender stereotypes impose on men. I don’t think you should trust a man who can’t cry in the face of tragedy. I have never owned a gun or gone hunting. I have never been able to engage with cab drivers who often attempt to talk with male passengers about sports because, apart from knowing the different shapes of the things that people throw or kick around, I know nothing about sports.
If you are a biological male and don’t identify with male stereotypes, but you do identify with gender stereotypes associated with being female, or if you think all gender stereotypes are nonsense, or you want to pick and choose, that’s fine. Identify with whatever gender stereotypes you want, and live your life accordingly. But that does not and cannot change the empirical fact that you are a biological male. Your adoption of a gender stereotype associated with biological females does not make you a biological female. It makes you a biological male who identifies as a female. Moreover, and very importantly, whatever female gender stereotype you may adopt does not in any way define what a “woman” is for anyone else except you. It’s just a cultural convention you have adopted. It is not a reality that you can impose on anyone else or expect anyone else to adopt.
Abolishing Biological Sex Makes Gays and Lesbians Bigots.
A particularly bizarre manifestation of the TRA treatment of sex and gender is found in claims that it is bigotry or “sexual racism” for lesbians to be same-sex attracted rather than be same-gender attracted. That is, some TRAs claim that lesbians are bigots if they do not want to have sexual relationships with biological males who identify as trans women and as lesbians. The same thing is happening to gay men, who are being shamed for not wanting to have sexual relationships with biological women who identify as gay men. This is unquestionably a violation of the equality rights of lesbians and gays.
Homosexuality is a matter of being same-sex attracted, not being same-gender attracted. Trans women may claim to be women but they are biological males who do not appeal to lesbians. That does not make lesbians transphobes. It just makes them lesbians. If a lesbian decides that she is really bisexual and is attracted to trans women, that’s obviously her right. But it beggars belief to say that if a lesbian is not really bisexual, then she is a bigot. It beggars belief to say that unless a gay man is really bisexual and willing to have sex with a biological woman who identifies as a gay male, he is a bigot. That would be to declare as bigots or “sexual racists” all same-sex attracted people. That would be to erase homosexuality. That is bigotry.
Some argue that if a lesbian is not attracted to a trans woman, or if a gay man is not attracted to a trans man, that is merely a cultural prejudice that is no different from not being attracted to members of other races, and that reflects a morally objectionable prejudice. I accept that sexual attraction is, at least in part, a matter of cultural conditioning. And I have no doubt that, in a place like the United States, which had race-based slavery until 1865, “Jim Crow” laws that enforced racial segregation until the 1960s, and miscegenation laws until 1967, sexual attraction based on race was and is still influenced by all of that. I am not sure that I would say that blacks or whites are “racists” or “bigots” for not being attracted to each other as a regular matter, but that is already in the process of changing significantly as we get further away from the racism that has so adversely affected society.
But I do not think that recognizing that our sexual attraction to members of other races can be and in some cases certainly is shaped by prejudice and that in an ideal society, prejudice would cease to be a factor at all in attraction, commits us to say that, in an ideal society, we would all be bisexual. To say that anything other than bisexuality is bigotry is nonsense — and homophobic.
The Issue of Female-Only Spaces
Another empirical fact that cannot de disputed is that biological males engage in a great deal of violence against biological females. And violence against women and girls is increasing. Let’s be clear: violence against women is based on their biology, not their gender identity. That is, sexual batteries are performed with sex organs and larger body size/strength. It’s not a matter of gender. It’s a matter of sex.
One of the primary reasons that female-only spaces were established was to address concerns about violence from biological males. In addition, these spaces provide some protection for women from the exhibitionism and voyeurism of biological males — behaviors that may not involve physical violence but certainly involve psychological violence and are extremely common. Until the advent of trans activism, we have accepted without question that it is the right of biological women to not have biological males in toilets, changing rooms, shower rooms, rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, prisons, and in other situations in which biological women are vulnerable as biological women. This is not to say that society has provided sufficient protection to women and girls by any means in light of the considerable violence that they suffer. But it has provided some protection.
This minimal protection in the form of single-sex spaces for females is now the target of TRAs. Why? The answer is that at least some trans women do not feel safe in male-only spaces because they fear violence from biological men. Trans women want to be protected from biological males who may seek to do harm to them. Alternatively, they may just feel uncomfortable around biological males who don’t identify as trans women.
But those are exactly the reasons that biological females do not want biological males in their private spaces.
Please think about this for a second. TRAs are demanding that biological women welcome biological males into their private spaces because trans women, who are biological males, don’t feel safe or comfortable with/around other biological males. But neither do many biological women. The TRA demand is that we must ignore that biological females also do not feel safe or comfortable around biological males irrespective of how they identify in order to satisfy the demands of TRAs. There is a clear problem here: the TRA insists on the very same right — to not be with biological males — that they maintain we must deny to biological females.
And which biological males are women supposed to welcome into their private spaces? Part of trans ideology is that gender is a matter of self-identification. If someone says (or just thinks) that they are a woman, then they can freely use the private spaces of biological women. That is, any biological male can identify as a woman and insist on entry into single-sex spaces. Indeed, a biological male who is “gender fluid” may identify as a man today and be happy to use the men’s toilet, shower, or changing facilities but may identify as a woman tomorrow and want to use the women’s facilities. In those places where self-ID applies, depending on the jurisdiction, there may be steps required to change one’s sex or gender legally on government documents such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and passports. But the principle of self-identification means no medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria or medical treatment is required and, as a practical matter, self-identification means any biological male can enter women’s spaces.
Is there a violation of equality rights here? You bet there is. There is a blatant and egregious violation of the rights of biological women. It is discrimination against them because the similar interests of biological women are treated differently and accorded less protection than the interests of trans women. Treating similar cases in a different way is the very definition of being unfair. It is discrimination because biological women are being forced to believe someone else’s metaphysical or spiritual belief and to rearrange their lives on the basis of that belief and to give up a right they have.
It makes no sense to claim that you are being discriminated against if what you are asking for is the same right you want take away from someone else and you have no plausible argument that your claim of rights trump their claim of right.
Both biological women and trans women are asserting the same interest: to be in a space without biological men. But this interest cannot be satisfied for both biological females and trans women if they are going to be in the same space. So, if biological females and trans women are going to be in the same space, biological females are going to have to relinquish protection for their interest. There is no legitimate basis on which to argue that trans women have a right to feel safe or comfortable that involves their not being in the presence of biological males, but that biological females do not have this same right. That is, in order to treat trans women equally, we have to treat biological women unequally and compel them to accept as literally true the claim that trans women are women and admit them into their private and intimate spaces.
In an effort to claim that TRA rights should trump the rights of biological females, some claim that trans women are more likely to be the target of violence than are the biological women in the spaces trans women want to share and so, the claims of trans women is stronger. But that claim ignores that trans women are not at risk of being harmed by biological women; they are at risk of being harmed by biological males — the very same group that put biological females at risk.
It also unfair to say that the concern expressed by women to preserve their private spaces is a manifestation of “transphobia.” The fact that women are happy to share their private spaces with trans men, many of whom, by the way, also don’t want to use the spaces of biological men, shows that biological women are not “transphobic”: their concern is not about people being trans; the concern is about people being biological males regardless of how they self-identify.
Are Single-Sex Spaces Analogous to Apartheid?
I have heard some TRAs claim that excluding trans women from women’s toilets, changing rooms, shower facilities, etc. is analogous to racial apartheid. That claim is nonsense. Apartheid is morally wrong because it denies full membership in the moral and legal community based on the irrelevant criterion of race. Biological sex is not irrelevant to concerns about violence toward biological females. On the contrary, it is the characteristic most relevant to those concerns. No one is saying that racial discrimination is wrong because black people are really white people. But that is exactly what the trans activist claim is: separating biological males and biological females is wrong because some biological males are really women. That requires the acceptance of a metaphysical belief claim that no one is required to accept.
In response, a TRA may argue that we do not, say, allow sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, etc. views to be expressed in, say, state schools because those views are bigoted and are based on views about equality that are also metaphysical or spiritual in nature. Therefore, even if TRA belief claims about trans women being women are metaphysical, they are no more so than those other statements about equality and denying TRA belief claims is no less bigoted than denying those equality claims.
But this analysis would be wrong. Statements about equality are not necessarily based on metaphysical or spiritual views. They may reflect certain spiritual beliefs, such as that the equality of all humans is ordained by God. But those statements may also be entirely secular normative statements that we ought not use demonstrably irrational prejudice to deprive anyone of benefits. TRA belief claims are offered as statements of fact that are no more verifiable than saying that Jesus Christ is the Son of God or that the consecrated bread and wine are really the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Denying TRA belief claims is not, like denying claims about racial or other sorts of equality, intended to deprive trans women of any benefit; denying those claims is required if we are going to provide biological females protection for their legitimate interests in physical safety, privacy, and dignity.
This is not to say that trans women should not also receive that protection. In my view — and in the view of the GCFs I have read — they should. The problem is, as we saw above, the protection cannot be offered in the same space. That is, the rejection is not intended to privilege biological females; it is only intended to provide them with the exact same protection that trans women want and that cannot be provided if that protection is provided to trans women in the same space. The denial of the TRA claim is simply a statement that the rights of biological females are not going to be trumped by biological males who want the same right. Biological women and trans women want the same right but we cannot give it to both in the same space.
Again, the analogy to Christians and other religions is instructive. Excluding the Christians from proclaiming that Jesus is divine in a Jewish service is not an effort to privilege Jews. It is an effort to respect the freedom of religion of both sects and that cannot be respected if the right of Christians to proclaim their truth trumps the rights of Jews to have their service be free of non-Jewish elements.
And requiring biological women to allow biological males who identify as women into single-sex spaces is clearly worse than Christians entering a Jewish space and proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God. The Jews may be offended — perhaps very deeply offended — by the invasion of their space by the Christians. But barring a fist fight, there isn’t a risk of physical danger. On the other hand, biological males in the spaces of biological women does portend physical harm; that is precisely why the latter want to keep their separate spaces.
Separate But Equal?
The solution appears to be to have single-occupancy toilets, changing rooms, and showering facilities for everyone. Prisons, homeless shelters, and other institutions segregated by biological sex present a more complicated problem because trans women are at risk of being victims of violence from biological males in those places. A possible solution is to have separate institutional facilities for trans women. Some trans activists claim that this is objectionable because it is analogous to the “separate but equal” situation that characterized racial segregation.
Again, this objection ignores that racial segregation rested on an unjustifiable prejudice. Trans women do not want to be subjected to violence from biological males. But that is exactly what biological females want. The fear of violence from biological males is not analogous to an irrational prejudice based on race; it is a fear that is well-grounded and is shared by biological females and trans women alike.
What About Single-Sex Sports?
The evidence is overwhelming that there is a significant difference between male and female athletic performance. That is the fact of the matter. According to the authors of a 2020 study in the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy: “depending on the sport and event, the gap between the best male and female performances remains somewhere between 7 to 25 percent; and even the best female is consistently surpassed by many elite and nonelite males, including both boys and men.”
Women-only sports were created so that biological females would have a chance to compete fairly. If biological males who identify as women do not want to compete against other biological males, then perhaps the solution is to have a separate category for competition among trans women and a category limited to those who are biological females. The solution is not to require that we believe that a biological male is a female, ignore the fact that biological males have certain biological advantages over biological females, and then allow biological males to compete against biological females despite the fact of biological advantage. That makes no sense. And it undermines entirely the purpose for having sports contests that are limited to females.
What About Claims About Race? Age? Species?
The TRA claim is that we can ignore biological facts because our sex is a matter of our “lived experience” or choice or innate feeling of sexuality or whatever. The facts are irrelevant; all that is relevant is how we identify. But the postmodern rejection of facts cannot be limited to just the “lived experience” of sex. If we accept the claim that one can be a woman or a man simply by identifying as a woman or a man, what about other identity claims based on “lived experience,” choice, etc.? That is, we are being asked to accept as literally true that biological men are women and biological women are men based on their claims of gender identity. So on what basis can we exclude other claims that ignore physical reality but are as sincerely held as matters of gender self-identification? What is the principle that limits the ability to make claims based on identity?
That’s easy. There is no basis. There is no limiting principle here. There can be no limiting principle here. We can exclude other identity claims only in an unprincipled or arbitrary way.
For example, as Richard Dawkins and others have asked, if sex, which is biologically determined and binary, is really a matter of self-identification, then why isn’t race, which is also biologically determined but much less binary, also a matter of self-identification? So if I identify as black, why aren’t I really black? Why aren’t you “transphobic” if you don’t accept my trans-racial claim as literally true? People excoriated Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who had long been a campaigner for civil rights and had consistently claimed to be black, and who did not want to experience life as a white person. Why was she excoriated?
To the extent that trans activists even reply to this substantively (i.e., don’t just call you a “transphobe” or “Nazi” or worse and walk away), there are usually two responses. The first is that white people cannot know the oppression of black people. I completely understand that. Indeed, I agree with it. In a racist society, it is simply not possible for a member of the racially favored group to understand the lived experience of a member of the oppressed group. If I am a poor white person, I may have some understanding of the class component of racism. I cannot have an understanding of the race component. But it is also impossible for a biological male — however he identifies — to understand the lived experience of a biological woman, particularly in a patriarchal society (or for a biological female to understand the lived experience of a male). A female friend of mine who read this essay in draft commented that, even in a non-patriarchal society, men will never understand the biological reality of being a woman in her reproductive capacity, which is a significant determinant of her life experience. The fact that I had not even thought of that convinced me that my friend was right.
The second response is that trans people are just recognizing their “innate” sense of gender and there is no “innate” sense of race. Who says? Once we say that a biological male can have the spirit or soul or innate feeling or whatever of being a woman, and that makes the trans person a woman, what possible argument can be made that a white person (and keep in mind that race is less binary than sex) cannot have the soul or spirit or innate feeling of being black? Or of being Korean? As I was finishing the final draft of this essay, I saw a news report about those who practice RCTA (“race change to another”). There is now a debate about this. But then, how could there not be a debate about this? That’s my point.
And it does not stop at trans-racialism. Trans woman Dylan Mulvaney sometimes identifies as a six-year-old girl (as well as a toy doll). I have been a vegan for decades. I do not feel my age or anything near it. My “lived experience” is very much that of a younger person. Can I identify as a younger person, get a re-dated driver’s license, and demand lower life insurance rates? If I had not been a vegan, and l felt older than my chronological age (as do many of my non-vegan friends), should I be able to collect Social Security payments sooner?
There have been reports of humans identifying as animals. Why can’t humans be trans species? I have seen TRAs dismiss the trans-species situation as “silly.” But it wasn’t long ago that the position that a biological man can really be a woman was considered as “silly.” I remember seeing Monty Python’s Life of Brian in 1981. There was a skit about the claim of a biological man wanting to be a woman and have a baby. The audience was roaring with laughter. Who would have thought that a mere 42 years later, this would be the subject of serious controversy and that anyone who questioned it would be at risk of receiving death threats?
A Note About Children
I assume that, if you accept what I am saying up to this point, I do not need to convince you that we at least need to be having a serious social discussion about whether and under what circumstances we should be administering hormones to, and doing surgery on, gender non-conforming children, involving irreversible body changes and life-long medicalization. There are a number of issues here, and medical authorities are increasingly questioning the science behind and benefits provided by these procedures.
We at least need to be having a discussion when government-funded (reported to be in the amount of £500,000) sociologists/psychologists tell us that we need to consider prioritizing gender-affirming care over the health of a child and let pregnant trans men take testosterone despite it being a known risk to the children. But the TRA crowd is having none of it, and is continuing to promote these procedures and to fight legal attempts to restrict access to them, and to claim that anyone who even thinks we should be discussing this matter is condemning trans kids to death and denying gender affirming care. If you don’t accept what I am saying up to this point, my guess is that there is nothing I could say to convince you that we at least need to be having a social discussion about those matters.
Universities: Education or Entertainment?
It was appalling to see the efforts to block and then disrupt the appearance at the Oxford Union of philosopher Dr. Kathleen Stock on 30 May 2023. The Union has been a place where controversial positions have traditionally been welcomed. Indeed, back in the early 1990s, I debated at the Oxford Union on the matter of using animals in experiments despite widespread disagreement with, and rejection of, my views on animal rights. The spectacle of students and others at one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world trying to shut down discussion of Stock’s ideas was both shocking and sad.
It was encouraging to see more than 40 Oxford academics support Stock’s appearance. But it was disappointing to see more than 100 Oxford academics oppose her appearance. Whatever you think about the merits of Stock’s position, there can be no doubt that she expresses her views in a way that comports with the norms of academic discourse however you understand them. She is a scholar who conducts herself accordingly and her performance at the Union stands as a shining example of how to deal in a calm and reasoned way in a difficult situation.
That Stock was, in effect, forced to leave her university teaching position because of her views on TRA belief claims is a sad comment on how universities are less and less places of education and rigorous thinking and more and more places where young people go for increasingly expensive entertainment, and where the performers can get booed off the stage and are obsessed to keep the audience happy at any cost. This includes failing to teach students that they are going to have to learn to function in a world in which they will encounter disagreement, and that disagreement requires reasoned discourse and not just preventing your opponent from speaking or shouting your opponent down. The students of today are going to face a world that has many more serious challenges and more uncertainty than any prior generation has faced in terms of economic and environmental chaos. It is not clear that we are doing those students any favor by encouraging them to be traumatized and to feel unsafe as a result of having to encounter ideas with which they disagree.
As an academic for 40 years now, I am very concerned at what can only be considered the blatant censorship, violation of academic freedom, and viewpoint discrimination that are unquestionably occurring in higher education these days. Frankly, if there is anything that ought to be excluded from discussion within the academy, perhaps it is postmodernism. That’s tongue in cheek. I am not really advocating that we ought to stop the teaching of postmodernism because that would be to infringe the academic freedom of colleagues who regard that as worthy of teaching and scholarship. I am, however, saying that if we have to choose between an academy that reduces the concept of truth to a social construction and “lived experience” (excluding the “lived experience” of biological females, of course), and that actually penalizes anyone who doesn’t get in line with that, or an academy that excludes the idea that the postmodern rejection of truth is unquestionably true, that’s a no-brainer. I will choose the latter. And that’s the truth.
Who’s Right About Who’s Right?
TRAs claim that opposition to their position comes from the extreme right and, therefore, to oppose their position makes one an ideological ally of fascists, Nazis, etc. Many of the most thoughtful critics of trans ideology — Kathleen Stock, Holly Lawford-Smith, and Andrew Doyle to name just three — are anything but right wing, much less far-right wing. Irish journalist Helen Joyce used to be an editor for The Economist but that hardly qualifies her as a right-wing extremist.
It certainly is true that the far right focuses a lot on trans ideology, but I suspect that is more because they see the belief claims of TRAs as so disconnected from the lives of most people that those belief claims can be used to tar all other progressive issues. After all, if the right can point to progressives who think that it’s fine for a naked trans woman to be in the shower with 14-year old girls because the trans woman, despite having a penis that is on display for the girls, is really just another female, then, if those progressives also have a problem with institutional racism, the right can more easily marginalize or denigrate the latter, legitimate concern. It should not be that way but it is. Trans ideology is a gift for the far right.
And, if anything, TRAs often behave very much like the far right. Try arguing with someone from the far right. They ignore or dismiss facts and call you a “communist,” “socialist,” or “Marxist,” or at the very least question your patriotism. There is no reasoned analysis. Try arguing with a TRA. There is no discussion. They just call you a “transphobe,” “Nazi,” or “fascist,” or declare that even questioning TRA belief claims represents part of the genocidal “final solution” for trans people.
And TRAs, like the right, want to link “woman” with the same sexist, misogynistic stereotypes.
I consider my views progressive and left wing. When I first thought about this issue — about four or five years ago — I took my cues from other progressives, went along with the left groupthink, and believed that those rejecting TRA belief claims were making a mountain out of a molehill. I supported the idea that people could claim to be whatever they want and live however they want as long as they did not infringe on the rights of others. It was not clear to me then — but is clear to me now — that there are aspects of trans ideology that very much infringe on the rights of others. I was wrong. I stand corrected.
As a progressive, I am very concerned about changing language to remove words referring to females (e.g., “mother”) from the vocabulary and reducing women in a dehumanizing way to their body parts and functions, such as “womb carrier” and “menstruator,” or as possessors of a “bonus hole” or of “soft tissue” used to “chestfeed” babies. There is something terribly wrong when we are told that we must acknowledge that trans women, who are biological males, are women but that we cannot refer to biological females except as body parts or body functions. How is this not a return to commodifying biological females? That’s a rhetorical question.
As a progressive, I am concerned about the blatant inequality of ignoring the concerns of women about privacy, safety, and dignity so that those exact concerns as expressed by TRAs can be accommodated.
As a progressive, I am concerned that biological women and girls are, in effect, being stopped from expressing their views about what it means to be female, and that they are being marginalized and are becoming an inferior subclass of their own gender. Anyone who does not see that there is a massive suppression of free speech occurring around this issue isn’t paying attention.
As a progressive, I am concerned about imposing a new homophobia based on substituting same-gender attraction for same-sex attraction.
As a progressive, I am concerned about the violent misogyny that is promoted by some TRAs, and the failure of progressives, including supposedly progressive politicians and the police, to respond appropriately. Yes, there is certainly violence against trans people and it must be condemned by all of us and stopped. But the “both sides are violent” claims from progressives are unfounded. Violence against the trans community is not coming in any significant way from GCFs. It’s coming primarily from male bullies who feel threatened by trans people, gay people, black people — anyone other than straight white males. Violence against those who reject TRA belief claims is coming primarily from TRAs.
Women in the Scottish prison to which Isla Bryson was initially sent were concerned about the violence of Bryson, a biological male who had committed two rapes before identifying as a woman. That is, they were concerned about being imprisoned with a biological male who had battered women sexually. Bryson was relocated to an all-male facility and is complaining that the facility is “full of transphobic people.” That is, Bryson is concerned about biological men who have a prejudice against trans people. But the one constant thread in this narrative is the violence of biological men. It is a matter of concern to biological women and trans women. The source of the violence is not biological women who reject TRA belief claims.
And as a progressive, I am concerned that the ramifications for public policy of all of this are seriously problematic. The fact that many on the left do not see this (at least as of yet) is an indication that the left is sometimes every bit as knee jerk as the right, and a lesson that progressives should not outsource their thinking on issues like this if they don’t want to risk becoming a cult. There are signs that this may be changing. We can only hope.
I am a strong and longtime believer in the rights of nonhuman animals not to be treated as commodities or things. A central focus of my work for forty years has been that human and nonhuman rights are inextricably intertwined and that we should reject all forms of wrongful discrimination, not just speciesism. Indeed, this essay began as a (much) shorter statement to respond to questions I have been asked about discrimination against trans people. Let me be clear: I am unequivocally in favor of full equality for trans persons and I reject any discrimination against them. If you are a biological male and want to live as what you see as a woman, go for it. If you are a biological female and want to live as what you see as a man, go for it. No one should discriminate against you or harm you.
But I am also a strong and longtime believer in feminism, having resigned a tenured professorship at an Ivy League university back in 1989 over the failure to tenure a feminist academic. I have fought against sexism, misogyny, and sexual harassment during my entire academic career. I support the equality claims of biological females and I reject any discrimination against them. I do not believe that we wrongly discriminate against trans persons if we do not accept TRA belief claims as literally true or refuse to capitulate to TRA demands that we eliminate single-sex spaces, sporting activities, etc. We do not wrongly discriminate against trans persons if we refuse to demand that lesbians and gays must be bisexual.
We need to put our heads and hearts together to figure out how to ensure that trans people feel safe and comfortable. TRA ideology is an obstacle to that goal, just as the most extreme religious zealotry is an obstacle to the goal of religious tolerance and the harmonious coexistence we want it to foster.
NOTE: This essay was originally posted on Medium.com. I have been writing on Medium.com for several years. The essay was removed because “We do not allow content that may undermine the dignity and rights of transgender and/or non-binary individuals. This may include misgendering, dead-naming, claims that transgender individuals are not their gender identity (“trans women are men”), or erroneous claims based on disinformation or pseudoscience.” I apparently violated the rules because I stated the fact that trans women are biological males. I will have more to say about this at a later time.