Why I liked J.K. Rowling's "transphobic" tweet

(But won't say so under my own name)

As the current count stands, I am one of the 200,800 people who have “liked” a tweet by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling that has been deemed “transphobic.”

She wrote: 

Within an hour, followers had sent me private messages to ask, politely, but insistently, why I had chosen to support such an obviously transphobic position. I feel compelled to offer an honest answer.

I liked it because that tweet is not transphobic. I do not believe that support for Maya Forstater — the woman Rowling backed in her now-infamous tweet — is bigoted. I do not believe someone should get fired for tweeting: “Yes I think that male people are not women. I don’t think being a woman/female is a matter of identity or womanly feelings. It is biology.” 

The court ruling against Forstater was remarkably clear: “The Claimant believes that ‘sex’ is a material reality which should not be conflated with ‘gender’ or ‘gender identity’. Being female is an immutable biological fact, not a feeling or an identity. Moreover, sex matters. It is important to be able to talk about and take action against the discrimination, violence and oppression that still affect women and girls because they were born female.”

This is the “absolutest” stance for which Maya Forstater was fired from her position as a tax expert. She challenged the dismissal with a U.K. employment tribunal. According to the judge who ruled against Forstater:

“It is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment,” he continued.

“The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.”

Forstater’s tweets, and her publicly stated philosophical position or the nature of gender and sex, has been deemed beyond the scope of debate in a “democratic society” — at least if one wants to keep his or her job. And Rowling’s tweet of support of Forstater led one of the most powerful and successful female authors in the world today to be subject to weeks of backlash, slander, and allegations of transphobia. Rowling has declined to back down, and good for her. Never apologize to the mob. They will eat you either way. 

Forstater’s actual tweets are worth examining directly. She explains her case in fuller detail here. Regardless of whether you believe she deserved to be fired for her public statements and behavior, Forstater’s broader position on sex and gender, is one that, I think, the vast majority of liberal-minded would generally agree with. Yet it’s an opinion I’m now afraid to express under my own name. 

I know exactly what would happen to me if I did. I rely on progressive organizations to make a living. And while I believe that gender expression is subjective, infinitely multifaceted, and can be expressed in a myriad of different ways — biological sex is dimorphic and immutable (intersex conditions notwithstanding). That doesn’t mean I believe that transgender people should be denied human rights — the right to live and love as they please, to work where they like, or have access to protection, healthcare, and resources. Their rights, as are mine, are grounded in our common humanity, not our gender expression, nor our biological sex.

However, merely expressing that position will get me hounded out of work. I would be accused of committing hate crimes. I fear it would turn me into a pariah among my much more progressive peers.

And it’s impossible for me to ignore how silly this is. The matter of gender vs. sex; what makes a man or a woman, or a non-binary individual, is complicated and interesting. Good, reasonable people can have a wide variety of opinions on all of these debates and still be supportive of trans people, as individuals, and as a group. We don’t need to have uniform views on the nature of gender and sex in order to agree that it is right to uphold the fundamental dignity and rights of transgender people. I am happy to respect preferred pronouns, for example, although I don’t think it’s the appropriate role of the state to compel people to do so. Nor do I think it is any great concession to welcome transgender people into the spaces belonging to the gender they identify with though this, too, can get complicated and is worth unpacking. Wear dresses, buy lipstick, play rugby, call yourself whatever you please. Whatever makes you happy.

But to take the most extreme possible position on these matters — that transgender women are identical to biological women. That biological sex literally doesn’t exist, or that it’s gender-is-a-social-construct all the way down — and then accusing anyone who dissents from these newly minted, socially mandated positions as “transphobic” is, frankly, insane. Transgender people themselves have not come to a consensus on these issues.

As Sophia Narwaz, pointed out; without the reality of biological sex, there would be no need for transgender people to transition at all. This is a point that is so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be made, but here we are. If biological sex were fictional, and the whole show were nothing more than a social construct, transgender people wouldn’t need very biological hormones and very biological gender affirmation surgery. We could all be whatever sex and/or gender we chose to be whenever we wanted with no biological interventions whatsoever. Transgender people themselves are living examples of the primacy of biology and sex.

Yet even the esteemed LGBTQ rights organization, GLAAD, decided to weigh in: 

I can hardly begin to explain why I find this statement so creepy. The claim that a philosophical position is “anti-science” mirrors the language used by anti-abortion activists who will insist that “science” proves that life begins at conception. As if “science” could possibly prove such a thing.

Scientific study can provide useful insight to help guide our moral decisions, such as when a fetus feels pain, or when fetal brain activity might indicate a spark of sentience. But the question of when “life” — or, more usefully, when we, as a society, should assign a fetus the legal and moral protections of personhood, is a deeper question of ethics and philosophy. Questions like: “How do we define ‘life’?” can’t really be answered by a double-blind study. The only people who enjoy total certainty on that one are not scientists, but zealots.

The same sort of approach is applicable in matters of gender and sex. Scientific studies can offer fascinating insights into brain structure, physiology, hormones and gender dysphoria. Surgery and drugs can make women seem identical to men, and vice versa. But the question of what makes a “woman”, or a “man” remains. That an individual can present as another gender is beyond dispute. But can such a biological sex be re-made with our current technology? Can the indelible nature of the chromosomes that pin all our cells be uncrossed with some pills and a new set of genitals? These are more complicated questions. And only certain types of people are convinced by simple answers to complicated questions.

I’m not sure how we can discuss the compromises and accommodations that are required in our societies when one sex tends to be physically weaker and the other more prone to violent, predatory behaviour if we can no longer acknowledge that there are sex-based differences that go deeper than the social constructs of gender. And specific sex-based rights hard won by the biological women who came before us rapidly collapse in on themselves if we can’t establish an objective, biologically based standard for sex.

*****

How do we align the following conundrum? Feminist Caroline Criado Perez has been lauded internationally for her recently published bookInvisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Her research found that the near universal bias toward male test subjects in everything from crash test dummies to drug trials has deleterious effects for women. Women are more likely to be more severely injured during a car crash, for example; or to take a dangerous dose of a sleeping pill. How do we come to terms with the idea that the very framing of this book is, by the current standard, transphobic? If I declare myself a man prior to getting into a car, will that reduce my risk of injury in the event of an accident? Will I start metabolizing Ambien at the standard, masculine rate? What if I take a testosterone pill and re-purpose my clitoris: what are my odds of surviving a car crash, then? If these latter questions seem entirely idiotic, well, what does that tell us about the assumptions underlying them?

Sports is another obviousexample of this dissonance. People who are born male generally enjoy physiological and hormonal advantages over people who are born female. That doesn’t mean women can’t beat men. It doesn’t mean individual women can’t be very strong, and individual men very weak. Nor does it mean that Average cis-Joe couch potato is going to beat Serena Williams at tennis. That’s not how population statistics work. The differences between sexes are not absolute, but the field is tilted. Put 1,000 men and women together in a room to play basketball and normal distributions will apply. Perhaps one woman in a billion would qualify for the NBA. It’s not a coincidence that all of the controversies concerning transgender people in sport involve transgender women — people who are born men and compete in female athletics. There is a glaringly obvious biological reason why trans men aren’t dominating, say, high school wrestling matches for males, or Mixed Martial Arts fighting.

Physiological advantages don’t disappear the moment a person declares themselves to be another gender. They don’t disappear even after a man begins to transition into a transgender woman, though they may be lessened.

We created parallel, sex-segregated sports to handle this problem. Forcing women to compete against men was, and is, equal but profoundly unfair. If it was unfair for women to compete against men before, why does it cease to be unfair the moment a male competitor identifies as a woman? I’m afraid you can’t simply recite anesthetizing jargon like “trans women are women” to make this problem go away. Not when we see transgender women who are benefiting from obvious and implacable physical advantages decimating elite levels of female sports.

Nor is it enough to claim that competing in a sex-segregated sport at an elite level is a human right. Not unless you subject “human rights” to extraordinary concept creep. It is not a human right to compete athletically against a class of humans who who suffer from an inherent biological disadvantage. Yet if I, an able-bodied woman, were a talented enough athlete to compete in the Special Olympics, but were disqualified for a lack of a disability, I have no doubt the current iteration of the ACLU would now take the case on. 

I am not someone who believes that trans people represent an existential threat to elite female sport, but if you do believe there are no innate, immutable biological differences between the sexes, why wouldn’t the logical conclusion to that position be the total elimination of sex-based segregation in sports? Why not make every sports league and competition co-ed?

In my part of the world, one can still find old red brick schools with the words “boys” and “girls” etched in stone above the classroom doors. It was once considered obvious, mandatory, even, to segregate the sexes in school. Now, this practice is mostly archaic. Times change. “Why not just eliminate sex segregation altogether, then?” is a useful heuristic to apply to for these rare, difficult requests for transgender accommodation. If there is a rationale for maintaining sex segregation, then that lens might be fitting to apply to question at hand. It’s a useful model, I think, because it leads me to different answers in different cases. For the life of me, I cannot bring myself to care about maintaining strict sex segregation in public washrooms, for example. If a transgender woman (or a man, for that matter) wants to use the bathroom stall next to me — as I am sure many have, unbeknownst to me — go to it. 

Sports? Even here, I have a hard time adopting an absolutist position. Maybe it depends on the sport. Perhaps there is a different rationale for table tennis and rowing than weightlifting or boxing. Maybe the question comes down to a case-by-case basis; the argument might be different for someone who transitioned in early puberty than it would be for someone who was a biological male well into adulthood.

Female prisons are a harder case, largely because the people who wind up in the prison system are often heterosexual men with histories of deception and anti-social behaviour. But, perhaps, even here there isn’t a simple answer. The transgender woman who transitioned many decades ago and is sentenced to prison time for a non-violent offence might be a very different case than someone who is claiming a different gender identification recently, or opportunistically, or who has a history of violence against women. Like this person, for example, a 52-year-old pre-operative transgender woman and was legally a male; she had committed multiple sexual offences against women before being sent to a female prison — where she assaulted two inmates.

Each of these examples represents a legitimate clash of competing rights between marginalized and less privileged classes of people. I don’t presume to have answers, but I am confident we’re getting nowhere good by screaming “transphobia” at every issue and individual demanding consideration.

I suspect that many of the issues around transgender rights are going to be tricky for women, in particular, to accept. Not only because these accommodations seem to be coming, disproportionately, at our expense, but also because most of us live with an inescapable, visceral connection to our biological sex. Many of us are constantly reminded of our comparative physical limitations when we watch our male friends and lovers complete tasks that we struggle with. Many of the men we love most in the world will never see us as people, and we know it. We bleed with the moon. We are disproportionately more often the victim of violence and rape; our bodies tear in childbirth; we scream when our wombs lose the babies we craved, and when they are put there before we are ready, or without our consent. Our nipples crack and bleed when milk comes in. And when I hear trans women insist that they, too, share and understand these experiences of sex, I think: “No. No you don’t. Of course you don’t.”

Our sex is a wild thing. It is beyond our control. It burdens, and buries, and it defines us. Our gender may be for show, but our sex sure as hell is not. Sex isn’t dresses or cosmetics or a killer heel, or victimization or pain. It isn’t something we can just put on. Of course, one need not share any or all experiences of a sex in order to present oneself as a specific gender. I don’t care if a trans woman wants to call herself a woman. Adopt whatever labels you want, just drop the sense of unfettered male entitlement while you’re here.

Perhaps one day, we will sterilize and medicalize and homogenize all of this. One day we will have the technology to strip away all the mystery of womanhood and humanity and the difference between sex and gender won’t matter. Perhaps none of us will be worse off for it. Perhaps I am wrong.

It’s OK to be wrong. But I am not without compassion, or empathy, or a belief in the dignity and rights of transgender people. I just don’t believe those rights are predicated on the need for us to be totally in agreement on some of these deeper questions. I also fully recognize that there are bad actors who do wish ill toward transgender people, which is partially why I have been reluctant to write about any of this.

I have no interest in bum rushing the trenches of the culture wars. I just assumed the adults in the room were eventually going to show up. The inconsistencies in this ideology were going to become so unavoidable that it would collapse on its own merits. To believe that there are no meaningful, immutable biological differences between the sexes is to deny the evidence of one’s own eyes. It’s a position that requires a level of intellectual self-abasement that I did not think a mass of reasonable people would believe. 

Instead, what we got was a New York Times publishing an op-ed article about the “Myth of Testosterone,” while a “crypto-fascist” outlet like Quillette explains in lucid, painstaking detail why that claim is absolute, anti-scientific hokum. (And If that isn’t a microcosm of the dwindling influence of mainstream media, I’m not sure what is.)

The failure, here, is also mine, for being unwilling to write under my own name. I am a coward for being unwilling to express a perspective that is, I believe, widely held. If you were to condemn me for that, your criticism would be reasonable and well placed. I have no excuses for myself. I have a life. There are people in my life who need me to be safe and well. I don’t want to be doxxed, bullied, and condemned. But I simply do not believe that the current apparent consensus on sex and gender is honest. And it’s better to say the truth under a pseudonym than to be silent. 

I was at a party recently and in this private gathering, the most woke woman in the room conceded that the transgender position had gone a little overboard, but considering the struggles this marginalized community had faced, well, that was understandable. I can empathize with that sentiment. But when women are losing their jobs, afraid to express concerns about obvious conflicts of rights, merely to support an ideology that is wound together not by reason, but by fear, we can no longer indulge over-correction. Illiberal tactics in the pursuit of liberal aims will eventually fail.

If trans people want women to be good allies, they have to be good allies. That means it’s time to respect gender-critical viewpoints. Don’t hound women out of their jobs. Don’t dox them. Don’t threaten them with death and rape. Don’t lie about them. And, for the love of everything, stop wasting your life policing thoughtcrimes on social media.

“Trans and non-binary people are not a threat to women,” Tweeted GLAAD. (Directing another wave of social media vitriol at a woman who defended another woman for expressing a gender-critical viewpoint. ) “And to imply otherwise puts trans people at risk.” (Because the people who injure transgender men and women are definitely taking their cues from, uh, gender-critical feminists and the author of the Harry Potter series. Words are violence, now. Enjoy your moral culpability, bitch.)

Like most liberal-minded people, I want transgender men and women to live well and happily, to love whomever will have them, to flourish in the career of their choice, and to live wherever they wish free of violence and fear. Right now, the people I see getting hounded out of work, threatened, or bullied into silence for asserting their identities are women.

-The Princess With A Thousand Enemies