By David Warden
David is Chairman of Dorset Humanists, a member of LGBT Humanists, and the founding Chairman of the Dorset County Council LGBT Workers' Group. In this article, he argues that human rights have been weaponised in an unwinnable culture war. There is an alternative.
On 16th January 2023, I was invited by the Bournemouth town centre rector to an ethics forum to discuss gender identity. My co-panellists included representatives from the police and a local student union. The question to be discussed was this: ‘Do J K Rowling and Trans Activists share a common interest in science fiction?’ It was an odd question but I could sort of see what the question was getting at – the science, or lack of science, underpinning the concepts of gender identity and biological sex. We didn't actually discuss the author J K Rowling, who has been criticised for alleged transphobia, but we did explore a number of difficult and complex questions.
What is a woman?
The chairman asked each of us in turn the question now dreaded by every politician: "What is a woman?". I explained that the science underpinning biological sex is very clear: Homo sapiens is a sexually dimorphic species. The male of the species has reproductive cells which produce sperm and the female of the species has reproductive cells which produce eggs. Setting aside a number of sex development disorders sometimes referred to as 'intersex', we’re either male or female and this is determined by the chromosome delivered by the male sperm when a human egg is fertilised. If the sperm delivers an X chromosome the embryo will develop into a female and if the sperm delivers a Y chromosome the embryo will develop into a male, resulting from the presence of testosterone. Testosterone, or its absence, also seems to be a major factor in the development of sexual orientation and gender identity. If everything lines up as expected, a male human will have a male gender identity and be attracted to the opposite sex. But as we know, some males are attracted to other males, and some females are attracted to other females. We also know that some males have a powerful sense that they are or want to be female, and some females have a powerful sense that they are or want to be male. It seems these variations result from the activity, or lack of activity, of testosterone before birth. My explanation did not go unchallenged however. Another member of the panel said that a woman is anyone who says they are a woman.
Are transwomen women?
We didn't directly debate this particular question, but I think that a lot of confusion has been generated by the slogans ‘Trans women are women’ and ‘Trans men are men’. These are political slogans which were never intended to be taken literally – or at least they shouldn’t be taken literally. Let’s consider the case of transwomen. A transwoman is a biological male who has a powerful sense that they are or want to be female. The slogan ‘Trans women are women’ is really a call for transwomen to be able to live as women, recognised socially and legally as women, and able to access medical and surgical procedures to enable them to live as women should they wish to do so. So far so good. But this call for transwomen to be able to live as women encroaches upon the spaces which have hitherto been reserved for biological females (I’m using this term, 'biological female', as shorthand for a human with female reproductive capacities). This raises a whole host of difficult questions about sport, access to toilet and changing facilities, and women’s prisons and refuges. On the one side, we have trans activists who seem to demand that transwomen should have unfettered access to all of these spaces and on the other we have gender critical feminists arguing the opposite. The result is a kind of human rights warfare. The chairman of the ethics panel asked me whether I thought a transwoman convicted of a crime and sentenced to a prison term should go to a prison for men or a prison for women. I said I'm not an expert in prison policy and that this kind of question probably needed to be answered on a case-by-case basis. It might partly depend on where the transwoman is in terms of their transition pathway. A transwoman who has completed hormonal and surgical transition to her preferred gender is rather different from a transwoman who hasn't. Should this play a significant part in deciding the prison dilemma? I would have thought so.
"...the novel concept of 'gender blindness', whereby a person's gender or sex is no longer associated with their bodily presence in the world, is a revolutionary step"
The human rights frame is unhelpful
I think we need to step back from framing this debate in terms of a human rights struggle, because human rights tend to be couched in terms of absolute demands. When the human rights of different groups clash there can be a rapid escalation to war, whether actual or cultural. Reframing this debate as a practical problem - 'How can we meet everyone's needs for safety and dignity?' - can assist us in finding reasonable compromises and accommodations. For example, if a transwoman has hormonally and surgically transitioned to appear female, and 99.9% of strangers 'read' her as female, it may seem quite natural and uncontroversial for her to use female facilities. But if a transwoman is still 'read' as male by most strangers, it is much more difficult to argue that she should have unfettered access to female facilities. Sex segregation is based on how we read human bodies, not on invisible subjective identities and legal certificates. A human rights frame might lead some to insist that the two cases should be treated as completely equal. But this would amount to a radical and revolutionary step in human social life. It introduces the novel concept of 'gender blindness' whereby a person's gender or sex is no longer associated with their bodily presence in the world. I don't know for sure whether two of my co-panellists would have gone this far. One of them informed us that trans people are fearful to use any sex-segregated public facilities. Perhaps they would have argued for the provision of gender neutral facilities, in addition to segregated facilities, had we had more time to discuss this topic. It seems clear, however, that an exclusive emphasis on human rights is unlikely to lead to reasonable compromises between competing interest groups. A society which cares about the needs of everyone in the community for safety, dignity, and fairness should try to accommodate minority groups with compassion and consideration, but not to the detriment of everyone else.
What about children?
The panel did not have time to discuss this topic, but one of the most troubling and controversial aspects of trans activism is the apparent demand that children of any age who say they are trans should be believed without question. The demand itself is put beyond question by the repeated claim that anything less than affirmative validation is a denial of the child's real existence which will increase their risk of suicide. The tragic flaw in this argument is that if gender identity has been uncoupled from the sexed body it's not entirely clear what is determining gender identity. It could be gender dysphoria caused by prenatal development, it could be a negative reaction to socially-constructed gender stereotypes, it could be unhappiness about the onset of puberty, it could be the postmodern notion that you can be any gender you want to be or none at all, it could be a social media cult, it could be homophobia, it could be autism, it could be magical thinking, it could be ideological materials which have been introduced into schools, it could be social contagion, or it could be a combination of these factors. How do we know which of these is driving a child's questioning of their gender identity? Some children may be genuinely trans in the sense that they may go on to live their adult lives with a powerful sense that they want to live in the gender which does not match their biological sex. But some children, a majority by some accounts, may be questioning their gender at a certain stage of their development but later come to the conclusion that they are comfortable in their sexed body and its associated gender. If well-meaning adults, or adults who are terrified of being labelled transphobic, put all of these children onto a gender transition pathway then we should expect there to be a mounting number of medical and surgical tragedies in the years to come, as in the high profile case of Keira Bell who transitioned from female to male under the care of the Tavistock Clinic and who later came to regret her decision. Transitioning, if it involves invasive medical and surgical procedures including puberty blockers, testosterone supplements, mastectomy, hysterectomy, castration, phalloplasty and so forth, is drastic and irreversible in many respects. Paediatric care for children questioning their gender identity should be guided by evidence and a holistic risk assessment, not driven by ideology and fear.
Two of my co-panellists identified as 'non-binary' and they seemed to be arguing that being a man or a woman - or neither - is simply a matter of self-declaration, with almost no reference to the morphology of our sexed bodies or gendered preferences. When pressed, however, one of them did concede that they were not arguing for the category of biological sex to be completely dismantled. In a medical setting, for example, they acknowledged that men and woman, understood biologically, sometimes have different health care needs. The forum was conducted in a polite and respectful way, but I came away with the impression that there is a huge generational divide over this issue. My views were initially formed in the 2000s and I'm broadly supportive of the Gender Recognition Act of 2004. But there's been a sea-change since around 2015 and the demands of trans activists have become more radical and revolutionary. My hunch is that this is because trans activism is now being driven by postmodernism and queer theory rather than the long-recognised condition of gender dysphoria. It's a completely different paradigm and one which is radicalising and divisive, and human rights have been marshalled as weapons in its struggle for hegemony.
So where do we go from here? Humanists want to support sexuality and gender minorities, which is why I am a member of LGBT Humanists, but we do need to understand where the new paradigm is coming from. In my experience, it's not from a place which is friendly towards humanism understood more generally. Postmodernism and queer theory and their offshoots are ideological and intolerant of dissent. Many people are now terrified to have conversations about the trans issue for fear of being labelled 'transphobic' and being sacked, cancelled, or even arrested. From this point of view, J K Rowling is the new Salman Rushdie. She has blasphemed against an intolerant ideology and she has had a kind of fatwa declared against her by people who think of themselves as kind and progressive. I think we need to call out postmodernism, queer theory and their offshoots as anti-humanist discourses which have coalesced into a new secular religion. We need to de-radicalise progressivism and pull it back into humanistic territory.
We can have discussions around trans issues, as we demonstrated in our ethics forum, but it requires bravery and an insistence on the principles of dialogue. Humanists UK promotes dialogue and provides training in how to conduct these kinds of conversations. We should be having more of these conversations, not just with traditional religions, but across the many different frontiers where people's moral and political views have become radicalised and polarised.
Further reading and information
Bell v Tavistock Wikipedia
LGBT Humanists here
Humanist dialogue here