Entering the parallel universe of transactivism
When people say things like “transwomen are women”, “transmen are men”, and “nonbinary people are neither women nor men”, what do they mean? In my book Material Girls I suggested that many of them are immersed in a fiction.
Getting immersed in fiction is a familiar state for most of us. Nearly all of us do it, and some of us do it several times a day. When you dip into a novel, binge on a box-set, or even just daydream furiously about succeeding romantically or seeing your enemies fail, you’re doing it. Kids get immersed in fictions when inventing elaborate situations for their toys or playing story-driven video games. Actors can get immersed when plunging into new stage roles; as can workers doing role-play at away days, David Brent-style. Historical re-enactment groups spend weekends getting immersed in collective fictions about the past.
When immersed in a fiction, your direct aim isn’t to recognise and respond to the world as it actually is, right now. To borrow a phrase from philosophy, your thoughts and behaviour aren’t directly “truth-tracking”. That’s usually OK, because fictions are supposed to be harmless bits of fun, or interesting encounters with possible-but-not-actual scenarios, or useful simulations of other people’s experiences, but what they are not supposed to be are accurate reports of reality as you personally find it now. When immersed, it’s as if many of your thoughts are flying parallel to earth without touching it.
As a trans person, there are different possible motives for immersing yourself in fictions of changing or escaping your sex. A well-known one is strong feelings of dysphoria. If you’re highly uncomfortable about the sexed aspects of your body - say, because they fail to fit prevalent bodily norms, or you think they do - you might experience relief to act as if you are of the opposite sex, or of no-sex. Worryingly high numbers of girls and young women are in this position at the moment. It’s reasonable to analyse this rise in the context of factors like the invention of the smartphone, the related spread of social media and pornography, and the over-sexualisation and objectification of young women in our culture generally.
A less well-known motive for immersion, specific to some but not all within the male trans demographic and also likely to be influenced by pornography, is the presence of a fetish known as autogynephilia (or “AGP”). In plain language: it’s a sexual turn-on for some males to enter into the fiction of being a woman. There’s a huge effort made by transactivists to deny this. And it seems particularly hard for people without much experience of the adult world of sexuality - idealistic young people, say, or university lecturers - to believe it. But numerous sources attest to it, and it’s important we recognise it clearly when it comes to discussing incursions into women’s rights. See, for instance, this Vice article from 2016, published before progressive media started to pretend autogynephilia could never happen, and frankly describing a club night where men go to cross-dress as women for sexual pleasure, sometimes also role-playing that they are being “forced” into “feminization” by a dominatrix. Residual doubters should also read Deirdre McCloskey’s transition memoir Crossing, where the sexual element is cheerfully admitted - or just look closely at this picture of a transwoman addressing the New York State Democratic Party.
Moving on: when it comes to people who aren’t trans, the typical motivations for immersion in transactivism’s foundational fictions seem of four main sorts. First, there’s a desire to be kind to trans people, without a lot of further thought about what that might look like. Second, there’s wanting to seem kind because of the social capital it brings you these days. Third, there’s a desire to avoid ostracisation, since you know you will be socially punished if you don’t. And fourth, there’s a desire to undo human sexed categories with the power of words, because you heard from some whackjob academic that this was a coherent and politically desirable thing to aim for.
I just suggested that many of the the fictions in which we immerse ourselves are harmless. But that isn’t the case with trans fictions, when disseminated at industrial scale and coercively maintained by the progressive Establishment. At the other end of this particular story arc are unhappily infertile young adults; women prisoners made to share facilities with male rapists; sportswomen crowded out of competition by men they can’t hope to beat; young lesbians guilted into dating males; wives being coerced into participation in the cross-dressing fantasies of their husbands; and trans people with wholly inadequate healthcare relative to their well-being.
Horrific as those plot twists are, though, in this post I want to take a more oblique look at the story leading up to them. For it seems to me that transactivism provides a fascinating case study of what can happen when a political movement abandons truth as a direct aim and pursues fiction instead. Maybe all movements pursue fiction some of the time, but few have truth-denial so firmly built into their foundational axioms. So here are four instructive features.
1) Providing a convincing back story
What does a fiction need in order to seem vivid and realistic - to grip your attention and draw you in emotionally? Partly, it needs background detail that looks compelling to the average reader or viewer, and is distracting enough that she doesn’t question any plot-holes. And what more convincing-looking detail could you find than that supplied by people whose day-job it is to be clever and to know things? On this basis, parts of academia have been enlisted - enthusiastically - to furnish surrounding details for the foundational fictions of the trans industry.
A just-published article by philosopher Dan Williams describes a related phenomenon. In today's world, he argues, “pundits and opinion-producers” provide apparently supportive arguments and other justifications for conclusions that people were already motivated to believe anyway - and they do so “in exchange for money and social rewards”. A marketplace for the rationalisations of desired beliefs has developed, he suggests. In the domain of transactivism, I think that the rationalisations offered by academics tend to support immersion in fiction rather than full-blooded belief - after all, when deciding who to bully first, the transactivists still seem to know who the women and who the men are - but otherwise the process is similar to that described by Williams. The game for some academics is to provide convincing-looking backgrounds for predetermined fictional conclusions such as “transwomen are women”, “transmen are men”, and “nonbinary people are neither women nor men”. Since the system currently rewards them for doing this, I think their unconscious motive is often career advancement and social recognition from peers, though it’s inevitably dressed up as something moral.
In the area I’m most familiar with, academic Philosophy, a dedicated band of thinkers seek to provide complex and technical post hoc rationalisations for mantras first expressed by adolescents on Tumblr in 2011. The fact that truth in its traditional sense is not their object of inquiry could not be made plainer. See, for instance, philosopher Katharine Jenkins, who starts her 2016 article on the nature of womanhood, published in prestigious philosophy journal Ethics, by declaring: “The proposition that trans gender identities are entirely valid—that trans women are women and trans men are men—is a foundational premise of my argument, which I will not discuss further.” (It’s telling that “valid” is used here in the Tumblr sense of identities being validated like passports or parking tickets, and not in the sense of logical validity more traditional for academic philosophy). The conclusion of Jenkins’ paper, not enormously surprisingly under the circumstances, is that we should use the term “woman” to refer to all and only people who have a female gender identity, whether they are actually female or male.
Another example of this peculiar genre is a 2020 article by Elizabeth Barnes, who like Jenkins, makes explicit that her reasoning has been constrained in advance by a desire to fit with the conclusion that anyone who wants to be classified as a woman should be counted as a woman, and anyone who doesn’t want to be classified as a woman should not be. Once again, world-responsive categorisation as we ordinarily might think of it is neither here nor there. Barnes then advances a hilariously tortured rationalisation for claims like “transwomen are women”, arguing that there aren’t any “deep, language-independent facts about which people are women, which people are genderqueer, etc.” She justifies this partly by making an extremely involved analogy with metaphysical discussions of tables. In a nutshell: she argues that in metaphysical terms, there aren’t any tables, strictly speaking, though perhaps there are “simples arranged table-wise”. Nonetheless we can still utter the true sentence “there are tables”. Similarly, though for somewhat different reasons, the metaphysical facts about womanhood and other “gendered” groups come apart from the truth conditions of sentences involving … oh I give up, I don’t have to pretend to take this stuff seriously anymore, you have a go. (I confess, though, that I remain disappointed Barnes didn’t try to argue that women are “simples arranged woman-wise”).
In the social sciences, meanwhile, things don’t seem much better. Here the aim of research often seems to be to rationalise certain background beliefs. These beliefs are designed to make immersion in the original fictions appear beneficial or at least cost-free; or else to make refusal look costly in moral and social terms. (Effectively, failure to immerse is often equated with “transphobia”). For instance: “there is an extremely low prevalence of regret in transgender patients after surgery” (i.e. medically-assisted immersion is harmless);“administering cross-sex hormones to gender dysphoric adolescence lowers suicidal ideation” (i.e. medically-assisted immersion is beneficial); “questioning the ‘ontological reality’ of transgender identities leads to transphobic harassment” (i.e. as a non-trans person, refusing to immerse yourself in the fictions of trans people causes trans people to be harassed); “non-suicidal self-injury is common in trans youth and emphasises the need for interventions that reduce transphobia” (i.e. as a non-trans person, refusing to immerse yourself in the fictions of trans people causes trans youth to self-harm); and so on.
The main point of such articles seems to be to operate as a giant guilt-trip for the reader. As with the philosophers earlier, the ultimate aim here isn’t a relatively neutral pursuit of truth but rather a simulacrum of academic discourse which will bring the reader to accept certain predetermined conclusions. This is suggested, partly by the fact that many of the people who produce these sorts of articles seem to have vested interests, economic or personal, for keeping the whole fiction on the road; but also partly because what they produce is so often full of sloppy mistakes, and failures to observe even basic methodological norms. Others are more qualified than me to illustrate these flaws but, with respect to the research articles I linked to just now, this piece, this one, this one, this one, and this one seem revealing. A charitable explanation of this unusual level of incompetence is that the goal was never truth in the first place. If motivating others to become immersed in fictions is your aim, then the actual use of reliable truth-tracking methodologies is bound to be less important than the superficially convincing appearance of their use.
2) Exploring a parallel universe
A compelling fiction can give us a snapshot of what life might be like if our starting point was different to the world we know: what else might be true, say, if British people lived under a totalitarian dictatorship with powers of mass surveillance (1984); or if there was a species of otherwise human-like beings that had no fixed sex (The Left Hand of Darkness); or if Germany and Japan had won WWII (The Man in the High Castle), and so on. Filling in the fictional consequences of an initial made-up scenario is another way that authors make certain stories vivid and interesting. Kids immersed in make-believe stories do something more basic but still similar, using toys and other household props they have around them. So for instance, a kid’s make-believe game might go: if this doll is a “explorer”, and this chair is an “elephant”, then, if I put the doll on top of the chair, “an explorer is riding an elephant”.
So too does transactivism, with the help of the media and the academy, work to fill in the consequences of the original fictions that transwomen are "women”, transmen are “men”, and nonbinary people "are neither men nor women”. Partly this is a matter of working out what would follow logically, given the way the concepts “woman” and “man” usually work. For instance, if transwomen are “women”, then transwomen are a sub-set of women generally, so we also need a special word for the sub-set of women that aren’t trans: “cis women”. If transwomen are “women”, then, since women before the age of sexual maturity are “girls”, transwomen before the age of sexual maturity are “girls” too. Since women who have children are “mothers”, transwomen with children are also “mothers”. Since women exclusively sexually attracted to other women are “lesbians”, transwomen exclusively sexually attracted to other women are “lesbians” as well (and so on and so on). There is also a frequent fiction that transwomen are “female” (because transwomen are women, and women are female).
And then there’s the practice of extending the entitlements and resources of women to transwomen, because transwomen are “women”, so they are imagined to share precisely those entitlements and need exactly those resources too. As we now know to women’s cost, being immersed in the fiction that transwomen are “women” leads people to think that transwomen should be in women’s changing rooms, schools, dormitories, halls of residence, prisons, social groups, sports teams, rape crisis services, swimming ponds, domestic violence shelters, shortlists, political meetings … the list goes on and on. Dedicated single-sex services and resources built painstakingly over years are now effectively dismantled, largely in the pursuit of aesthetic verisimilitude for males.
Meanwhile, if transwomen are “women”, and certain events and experiences characteristically happen to women, then the logic of the fiction dictates that transwomen must undergo these too. So for instance, transwomen are supposed to suffer from “misogyny”, because women suffer from misogyny (a fiction given further oomph by the fact that experiencing misogyny or even sexual violence is a common sexual fantasy of autogynephilic males.) Transwomen have period symptoms, because women have period symptoms. Transwomen have menopause symptoms, because women have menopause symptoms. And so on. In these latter cases, just like the case of a chair counting as “an elephant” in a kids’ game of make-believe, some bits of the real world are brought in as props for the story. So: any actual discrimination faced by transwomen is rebadged as “misogyny”, and any physical side effects from taking oestrogen artificially are rebadged as “period symptoms” or “menopause symptoms”, in order to keep the fiction going.
This working out of fictional consequences goes on at the particular as well as the general level. Martine Rothblatt is a transwoman, and transwomen are female; Martine Rothblatt is paid more than any woman CEO in America; so this makes Rothblatt the “the highest paid female executive in America” according to New York magazine. Lia Thomas is a transwoman, and transwomen are women; Lia Thomas is a faster swimmer than any woman at the University of Pennsylvania; this means Lia Thomas has broken “women’s records” for swimming. Novelist Torrey Peters is a transwoman, and transwomen are women: this means Peters’ novel Detransition Baby is eligible for longlisting in the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.
In this story-world, women’s achievements are gradually reduced, to be replaced with altogether grimmer kinds of headline involving “women” engaged in characteristically male crimes such as paedophilia, violent assault, and indecent exposure. Last week, the Scottish Daily Record reported that Shay Sims, “a female” in court who had “pleaded guilty to three charges of assault by beating, criminal damage and outraging public decency”, had “raised her dress up and lowered her pants to reveal a penis and continued to walk 40 feet with the penis exposed”. And last Wednesday, the New York Times reported that an “83 year old woman”, already guilty of killing two other women, had been discovered carrying the torso of a dismembered woman out of an apartment building.
What, meanwhile, of the consequences of the original fictions that transmen are “men”, or the fiction that nonbinary people are “neither women nor men”? In the latter case, there’s frustratingly little work for would-be storytellers to do - because we don’t have a well worked-out concept of what “nonbinary” means, and certainly nothing like as well worked-out as the traditional concept of “woman”. The best that activists can do, it seems, when trying to fill in the gaps of the nonbinary fiction, is refer to negative points about what nonbinary people are not - they are neither men nor women, neither male nor female, and they don’t use “she” or “he” pronouns - but this is fairly thin gruel for an immersive storyline, and doesn’t leave campaigners with much positively to do (except to go on about how nonbinary people are “valid” in the Tumblr-Jenkins sense).
In the contrasting case of the fiction that transmen are “men”, given the centrality of the concept “man” to so many discourses, in theory there should be ample material for campaigners to get stuck into. To some extent they have: for instance, in the ongoing campaign in the UK to have a transman registered as a legal “father” on a birth certificate. But curiously, in most other areas men’s spaces, resources, entitlements, and achievements are being left untouched.
3) Retconning the past
Some story-makers engage in “retconning” - making new stories continuous with old ones by changing elements of the old one retrospectively. Famously - at least, for people my age and older - in the soap opera Dallas the character Bobby, previously killed off, was brought back a whole series later, alive, with the explanation that it had all been a dream while he was in the shower.
In transactivism, a form of retconning takes place all the time, as a further means of producing convincing back stories for current fictions. So much of the transactivist story-world depends on trans people having been a permanent feature of human life throughout history, no matter what the surrounding cultural or historical context. And so we find the retrospective fictional transing of notable sex-non-conforming figures from history: for instance, Marsha P. Johnson; Ewan Forbes; James Barry; Joan of Arc; Queen Hatshepsut; Kurt Cobain. We also get the creative reinterpretation of other cultural traditions, with the Hijra, Fa’afafine, Fakaleitī, and Kathoey people all anomalously represented under the essentially Western, relatively modern concept of “trans”.
And then, of course, we also get the fiction of the “trans” child - the most audacious retcon of them all. Transwomen who are “women” must once have been “girls”, and transmen who are “men” must once have been “boys” - which, by extrapolation, means that there must be “girls” in the population of male children, and “boys” in the population of female children, right now. “Trans” children (so often female, but never mind about that) “know who they are”, and should have the “freedom to be themselves”, we are told; yet this “freedom” may well involve a child’s taking drugs that will make her infertile; or give her premature osteoporosis; or bring about the surgical removal of her breasts, ovaries, and womb before she’s had any chance to reflect on the implications. Thousands of children and teens worldwide have been encouraged by adults to thoroughly immerse themselves in this fiction - indeed, to start believing in it, full stop - instead of treating it as one make-believe game among many, as part of a healthy development. Children’s bodies are being used as props in adult dramas they have no way of properly understanding until it’s too late for them.
4) Remembering to turn off your phone
When you go to the cinema, you’re sometimes reminded to switch off your phone. Annoying ringtones can grab the attention of someone immersed in a fiction and return them unpleasantly to consciousness of the real world. Equally, suddenly remembering that the actress you’re watching play Mary Boleyn is also an Avengers superhero can really take you out of Henry VIII’s court.
Reminders of reality are also lurking out there, ready to distract those currently immersed in transactivist fictions. There’s the annoying fact that biological sex in humans is immutable. Remembering this can be a real buzzkill when you’re trying to persuade yourself that Lia Thomas is just an ordinary woman unusually good at swimming. This, I think, is why transactivists systematically object to statements that biological sex in humans can’t be transcended. In a recent instance, several student editors of the academic journal Law and Contemporary Problems publicly resigned when they found out their journal would be publishing an article of mine entitled “The Importance of Referring to Human Sex in Language”. (Please do read it to annoy them). There are several precedents for this, of course - most obviously, the anomalously severe treatment of Lisa Littman’s paper on rapid onset gender dysphoria a few years back.
A fear of breaking the fourth wall is also, I think, what makes transactivists panic so much about J.K. Rowling’s forthright interventions on the harms of modern transactivism to women and girls. Rowling has the courage to describe the reality of male behaviours that harm women and girls, regardless of the identities of either. Perhaps precisely because she understands so well the difference between fiction and reality, the famous creator of “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” is both willing and able to name things that others dare not name at all. She also has the communicative power and cultural clout to get her message out to millions. To those emotionally or indeed financially invested in trans fictions, and who desire others to remain immersed too, this must be terrifying.
And then there’s the Detrans Subreddit. It has 27K members, mostly young, and many of whom talk frankly about the harms to their bodies and minds caused by premature transition. Some of those that post on this subreddit are desperate for help, and their testimonies truly shocking. You might well wonder: why don’t those in the progressive media report on the phenomenon more unambiguously? For this is a medical scandal unfolding in plain sight.
The answer is that the existence of detransitioners reminds people that psychological identifications can be temporary, especially in adolescence, and that there’s no inevitability about transitioning on the basis of feelings of dysphoria. The idea that someone is “born trans” or has no choice but to transition, given “who they really are inside”, is a myth. Detransitioners establish this. Now, not all trans people are committed to ignoring this fact - far from it. But many do seem to be, as do large numbers of self-styled trans allies. And collectively they seem motivated to exert pressure on others to ignore it too, no matter what the public cost.
Even more painfully, perhaps, the phenomenon of detransitioners reminds parents of transitioned children that they might well be making a terrible mistake in allowing their child to be medicated - a mistake that may later cause grave and irrevocable problems for their child’s well-being. I hear that some of the prominent figures publicly engaged in trying to shut down balanced discussion about the welfare of trans children in the UK are privately in this position, and often wonder how it can be that such vested interests go undeclared. These people remind me of Christof, the Creator-character in The Truman Show - desperate to stop their child from reaching the artificial horizon of the little world that has, unbeknownst, been shaped just for them.
Speaking of fiction, my friends and I grew up on a heavy doses of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena the Warrior Princess. I often wonder how much of an impact the fantasy of a woman using her strength to beat up gangs of men has had on my generation's understanding of reality. As the only high school athlete in my friend group, I had daily exposure to the reality of the physical differences between boys and girls, but everyone else rarely encountered this. Twenty years later I'm having asinine conversations with the same friend group about whether TW's have an advantage in sport.
I think you go futher than in Material Girls on the dangers of fictions and yet I think there is futher to go yet. The extended fictions place life-long constraints on those imagining themselves other and on others to believe and to acquiesce to unusual demands. But what is the long term impact of providing those special rights to make a series of non-trivial demands on others when they are kept in place by threats, compulsion and even legal mandates?
Membership of this special group is on the basis of self-selection and thus open to groups of people who are likely to have one of the following characteristics a) high levels of existing, untreated mental health issues and b)never havinvg gone through puberty and have thus have not gone through the associated social maturation processes c) people who seek to take advantage of the special rights on offer who would not otherwise consider themselves to be transgender. Such a grouping is likely to make great demands of the coerction and legal remedies on offer to keep imagined realities aloft.
I expect over time self-id norms will permeate society at large. We will often not know who we are speaking to, (or even if we do will not be able to refer to the dissonance). We will not know who has a made up back story and who has not. We may begin to feel unable to speak frankly with or about anyone we have not known all their lives. Others will do the same with us in case we are not who we purport to be. I believe that we are entering unknown territory and self-id will break the social contract that we have with each other. The ways that groups of humans build bonds of trust are being altered massively at just the time we are facing huge new pressures - environment, climate change, deep fakes, changes from real-life to online relationships, authoritarian governments, the failure of liberalism and a low trust in democracy. As a result I do not believe we have any idea where this will end and what we may lose.