Standing Up to the Pronoun Police, Once and For All
The first effort to “no-platform” me caught me by surprise. It wasn’t until the day before I was due to speak at King’s College in London that I was made aware of a petition, signed by staff and students, calling on the university “to retract her invitation, cancel the event and publish a public apology.”
The petitioners claimed that I was “someone who opposes women, trans and non-binary people and their well-being and survival,” and so there was a “high risk” my advocacy for freedom of speech would result in “attacks on transgender people.”
I am critical of modern-day feminism. I have questioned the promotion of transgender issues among young children and I have challenged the idea that men should be legally recognized as women simply because they declare themselves to be women—what is known as “self-identification.” However, I was not planning to talk about any of this. My lecture was supposed to be a scholarly overview of the history of academic freedom. Yet in the eyes of campaigners, defending free speech today is tantamount to calling for violent attacks on vulnerable individuals. I needed to be silenced. And it seems I am not the only one.
In a very short space of time, it has become controversial to say what people have taken for granted since time immemorial: that humans are born either male or female. The newly correct view, enforced at every turn, is that gender is located in brains rather than in bodies. According to this way of thinking, cruel doctors jump to conclusions at the moment of a child’s birth and parents and teachers then force children to dress and behave in line with a misguided assumption about whether they are a boy or a girl.
Transgender activists argue gender is something we need to discover for ourselves and then reveal to a readily accepting world. Going along with this may seem like a small act of politeness, but it has huge consequences for how we organize society and, in particular, women’s place in it.
We routinely restrict access to public restrooms, healthcare provision, jails, sports, and some other educational and leisure activities according to sex. Often, this is just common sense. Men do not need midwifery services. Sometimes it is a question of safety. Vulnerable women looking to escape a violent male partner need a female-only refuge. Women and girls may not want to undress in unisex changing rooms. Sometimes it is a necessity. Segregation in sports allows women to compete and not have their place taken by taller, stronger, biological males.
Much is at stake if gender self-identification replaces biological sex. Yet those who so much as question this new orthodoxy rapidly find themselves denounced as heretics and transphobes by a new generation of activists. The upshot is that major social change is occurring in the absence of debate.
A serious discussion about gender might be expected to take place in universities and colleges. Yet, as I discovered, academics are at the forefront of ruling what can and more often cannot be said on this issue.
We got a foretaste of this with the publication, in March 2017, of an article by Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant philosophy professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, in which she contrasts the very different treatment of Caitlyn Jenner (who was born male but identifies as a woman) and Rachel Dolezal (who was born white but identifies as black). Tuvel points out that whereas Jenner was publicly celebrated and praised for bravery, Dolezal was met with “ridicule and condemnation,” though many of the same ideas underpin both transracialism and transgenderism.
Tuvel was met with a barrage of public criticism, primarily from other academics. She was labelled “transphobic,” “violent,” and an expression of “all that is wrong with white feminism.” Petitioners demanded the article be retracted because it caused “harm” to women of color and the transgender community by “deadnaming” a transwoman, using the term “transgenderism,” referring to “biological sex,” and using phrases “like male genitalia.” In other words, it was Tuvel’s words that were thought to inflict harm.
In the UK, female academics who question the impact gender self-identification has upon women find they are subjected to orchestrated campaigns designed to stop them from speaking on public platforms and to have their publications rejected. Some even face calls to be removed from teaching and editorial positions.
Philosophy professor Kathleen Stock has gathered testimony from over twenty academics who have all encountered attempts to have their views silenced by students, colleagues, or senior managers. One reports how students campaigned to have her fired and how her employers—the university—refused to defend her. Another records having been disinvited from speaking at two conferences—including one held at and organized by her own university.
Many academics recount students complaining about them on the basis of comments that have been misunderstood or taken out of context. Rather than being able to discuss their views and the charges against them openly, they are placed under formal investigation for transphobia without any opportunity to defend themselves. One professor notes, “I found myself in an Orwellian world wherein my words affirming the equal rights of trans people were taken as evidence that I was transphobic because I did not simply and uncritically accept the stated claims of a particular trans person regarding the theory of gender.”
Complaints initiated by students are followed by managers or editors implementing disciplinary proceedings or withdrawing invitations and publications. Less public but perhaps more insidious is a sense of being ostracized by colleagues and career opportunities being closed down for stepping even fractionally out of line.
Feminists who were once celebrated, such as Linda Bellos, Germaine Greer, and Julie Bindel have all been subjected to calls for no-platforming at British universities. In the U.S., Christina Hoff Sommers has had campus talks interrupted with shouts of “Trans Lives Matter.” Meanwhile, the Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy has been blocked from Twitter and faced calls to lose her job following accusations of transphobia.
On campus and in society more broadly, any discussion of transgender issues is presented as a threat to the safety and wellbeing of transgender people. This, in turn, justifies calls for censorship. People in positions of authority within the media, education, social work, local and national government, and the police force are quick to comply with such demands. This acquiescence means that a relatively small group of people are able to shape what can be spoken or written about gender today. This is to the detriment of everyone.
“Transgender” is used to refer to individuals who, for some or all of the time, identify with a gender other than their birth sex. Some may have had surgery and “transitioned” to bring their body in line with their self-perception, but not all transgender people follow this path. At the same time, “transgender” is also used to define and cohere a distinct political and social community.
These activists ensure that transgender issues are more prominent and influential than simply a numerical count of transgender individuals would suggest. In the U.S., it is estimated that 0.6 per cent of the population, or 1.4 million people, identify as transgender. By way of comparison, the gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities are thought to be more than six times larger at about 3.5 percent of the population.
Many radical feminists are at the forefront of arguing against gender self-identification, claiming it poses a threat to the safety and visibility of women. But the idea that biological sex is irrelevant and a socially constructed concept of gender is all-important has its roots in a different strand of feminist thought.
The French philosopher and author of The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir, famously argued that, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” She did not mean that people were born sex-less but that the meaning given to sex, in particular to being female, is created within a social context. However, more recent feminists have interpreted her words quite literally.
It was not until the 1970s that the word “gender” began to enter mainstream vocabulary. It took off with the emergence of second wave feminism and the debate it instigated about the rigid and sharply distinct social roles expected of men and women. Feminists of this time, like Germaine Greer, challenged the assumption that being a member of the female sex automatically meant conforming to a particular set of gendered expectations.
Later feminist writers went further in separating sex from gender. The American philosopher Judith Butler argues that gender is simply something we perform for other people and there is no “real” sex at all. In the UK and in some parts of the U.S. this view is now confirmed in legislation. Under the UK Gender Recognition Act (2014) an individual’s acquired or chosen gender becomes the sex he or she has recognized.
The importance of performance
According to Butler and her acolytes, it is the perception that someone is male or female that makes them a man or a woman, rather than their actually being male or female. The transgender person needs to act out their brain-based gender identity in order to make it visible. In turn, their performance needs an audience, participants who can respond appropriately.
It is only in interaction with others that the trans person’s “true” identity is confirmed or denied. If you are assumed to be a woman, then you are a woman. The responses and attitudes of others are all important. Eliciting the “correct” response from other people is essential acknowledgement that the transgender person really is the gender they have within their brain.
Today, social interaction takes place not just with the people we meet in our daily lives but with the people we are connected to through the Internet and social media. For the trans woman, being barred from a female-only changing room and being misgendered by an anonymous Twitter user are seen as equivalent offenses.
Indeed, the social media mis-gendering might be seen as a greater threat because it is performed in front of a far larger audience. When this happens, it becomes imperative that trans people assert their “true” identity and get others to fall in line.
Enter: pronoun badges
It is primarily through speech, and particularly through the use of pronouns, that we recognize someone as male or female. In recent years “pronoun badges” have been distributed to incoming students at some university campuses or to participants at academic conferences. Likewise, students are encouraged to introduce themselves to classmates with their name and their preferred pronouns. Public figures like presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren have, bizarrely, taken to stating their pronouns on their Twitter profiles.
Alongside this obsession with pronouns, a new vocabulary has emerged. The crime of “deadnaming” (referring to a person using the name they went by before transitioning) has become established, as has the use of the prefix “cis” to describe people whose “gender identity” (itself a new phrase) corresponds to the sex they were “assigned at birth” (another new phrase). The use of “cis” in particular is significant because it frames the majority of the population as no longer simply the norm (in terms of sex) but as also expressing a specific gender identity, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not.
Transgender activists want the freedom to override social and linguistic conventions and name themselves and the world as they decree. The expectation is that everyone else must use the language that the trans person prescribes. This not only restricts their free speech but, more significantly, in compelling speech in others it imposes a demand upon us that calls into question our freedom of conscience.
Adopting and enforcing these new linguistic rules allows the transgender rights movement to wield considerable influence. Transgender community leaders have constructed and policed a strong collective identity. In part, this success is down to political strategies consciously adopted. For example, efforts were made to align the transgender movement with gay rights groups. This allowed access to already established networks and funding at a time when, with same-sex marriage, gay rights has largely been achieved.
Crucially, there has been a readiness from people outside of the transgender community and in positions of authority not only to accept having their language and policies policed but to go further and play a role in enforcing speech and behavior codes.
The reasons for this rush to accept lie largely in the broader influence of identity politics. At a time when mainstream political parties are becoming increasingly distanced from their traditional demographics, identity based groups provide a ready-made constituency and sense of moral purpose that lend legitimacy and moral authority to action.
The fear of offending
It is now widely accepted that offensive words have an emotional and psychological impact that can be more damaging than merely physical wounds. However, this makes sense only when harm is experienced subjectively: if a person is hurt then a statement is, by definition, hurtful. When definitions of harm stretch from physical violence to psychological distress it becomes a question of safety to shut down harmful words—even if doing so requires the use of physical violence.
Providing protection from harm becomes an important source of moral authority for those in positions of power. Through acting on behalf of and in support of the transgender community, public officials assume the moral authority of the victim in order to legitimize increased regulation of speech and behavior.
This new exercise of authority, for example the (literal) policing of social media posts in the UK—with police officers issuing warnings to posters who have “misgendered” or made other supposedly transphobic remarks—is premised on a defense of the vulnerable. Although transgender rights are promoted in the name of tolerance, their enforcement is often extremely intolerant not just of criticism but of any degree of questioning.
Discussion of transgender issues, such as the best way to support transgender children or whether self-identification should be sufficient for a person to be legally accepted as a member of the opposite sex, is routinely presented as a threat by the transgender activists. They present any questioning of the broader transgender movement as challenging the right of trans people to exist.
In such a context, curtailing debate and censoring free expression takes on the mantle of a crusade for justice. Yet the consequence is to hound people out of public life. We now have a situation where women who have the most to lose from gender self-identification have been effectively silenced.
This cannot be allowed to continue. Significant social changes that impact women and girls have been implemented in the name of trans rights. It is imperative that the impact of these changes is opened up for critical and rigorous debate involving the public at large.
Joanna Williams in the director of the UK based think tank Cieo.