Opinion

Lost in Translation: Difficult Conversations in Gender Politics

It’s 2020. The lampposts, post boxes and dustbins of Oxford are emblazoned with handmade stickers affirming our queer and trans neighbours. Oxford has been called ‘one of the most trans-friendly cities’ in the UK,.

Yet just this week Merton College (hardly known for its engagement in student politics) has twice found itself the battle ground for gender wars; and on Wednesday a ‘landmark’ case suing the Tavistock Gender Identity Clinic reached the UK’s High Court, brought by two women attempting to stop hormones being prescribed to transgender children. It’s been a busy week for Gender Politics.

The Tavistock and Portman Gender Identity Clinic, in London, is the UK’s biggest and oldest gender identity clinic. Over the last decade, as prevailing social attitudes shifted incrementally towards greater tolerance, the Tavistock has seen an unprecedented rise in referrals. Thousands of people occupy the waiting list for appointments. But it’s not just numbers that are changing. The demographics are changing too. Until a decade ago, a majority of young people referred to gender identity clinics were assigned male at birth. Now, nearly 70% of children and teenagers referred to Tavistock were assigned female at birth. Statistics do not undermine the legitimacy of any of these individuals’ gender identities. Nonetheless, the rapid swing in ratios has prompted many to question what brought about this demographic change.

One of the women referred as a teenager to the Tavistock is Keira Bell. Like me, Bell was referred to the Tavistock identifying as trans; like me, she has now detransitioned, no longer identifying as transmasculine but instead as female. Unlike me, Bell went through extensive medical transition before detransitioning. Bell and I are not alone: detransition is far more common than either the mainstream media or the trans movement typically admit. Unfortunately, detransition is very difficult to measure accurately, and probably chronically underreported.

I understand why the trans movement is reluctant to talk about detransitioners. It’s easy for the religious right to co-opt our experiences to fuel homophobic, sexist narratives. But the queer community betrays detransitioners when it averts its gaze. Paradoxically, in doing so, the trans movement also harms itself. Detransition is a painful process. It often costs us the acceptance and belonging we once found in the trans community. It doesn’t often offer substantial escape from transphobia and homophobia. If the trans movement wants to defend equality and the right for all of us to live our lives authentically, then it must acknowledge the lived experiences of detransitioners too. For some trans people, medical transition offers the only conceivable escape from debilitating dysphoria. It would be wrong to deny these people the medical resources they genuinely need. For others, it causes irreversible bodily harm. We owe it to them, to the detransitioners, to give everyone identifying as trans (even temporarily) adequate opportunity to figure out, with professional help, whether their needs will truly be met by transition.

Keira Bell’s experience of transition was one shared by many detransitioners: for her, the ‘permanent and life-changing’ medical interventions were ‘torturous and unnecessary’. Bell’s pain matters, but much more significant is what Bell is telling us about the seriousness of transition. If the stakes are this high, then therapists, doctors and those in positions of responsibility must proceed with huge caution. They have a duty of care to vulnerable young people and minors who may lack the legal capacity to give informed consent. If these professionals help a young person to begin their medical transition (typically with hormone blockers, which almost always are followed by full, irreversible transition), then they have a duty to make certain that doing so will bring relief, rather than pain. Bell and her co-claimant are right to turn to the High Court to ensure that the Tavistock acts according to the best interests of the people who it exists to support.

But none of this will happen unless we acknowledge that different people experience gender transition in radically different ways. No socially progressive movement will get everything right all of the time. The trans movement should not underestimate how much it can learn from listening deeply to detransitioners. Doing so will require us to replace dogma with openness to a genuine diversity of perspectives on gender.

Closer to home, opportunities to test the limits of this tolerance seem to be in short supply. At 9am on Tuesday morning, the Telegraph released an article regaling an all-too-familiar tale of a clash between freedom of speech and the University’s commitment to validation and affirmation of trans identities.

On 3rd February, Merton will be hosting an ‘Equality Conversation’ exploring ‘perspectives on trans intersectionality,’ featuring a panel of three trans people. The Telegraph expressed disdain at the requirement that attendees should ‘refrain from using language or putting forward views intended to undermine the validity of trans and gender diverse identities,’ predicting the possibility that Merton might forbid attendees from expressing ‘the view that there is a difference between sex and gender identity’, or that ‘those who are biologically women are not exactly the same as transgender women.’ The Telegraph reiterated claims that Merton adopted a ‘“draconian” stance by “suppressing gender-critical thought”.’ Merton College has since issued reassurances that it will champion ‘the protection both of academic freedom and of [its] members from unlawful discrimination,’ and reiterated its commitment to fostering ‘an inclusive, diverse environment … free from discrimination, harassment and victimisation.’

The importance of both academic freedom and the pursuit of equality should not be underestimated – but we make a mistake when we speak as though these values will be limited by competition with one another. It is not enough simply to pay lip service to academic freedom, if in practice we cannot question the widely accepted narrative for fear of being called prejudiced or discriminatory. Equally, we can do better than the minimal standard of freedom from discrimination, harassment and victimisation. To safeguard young people, and to create in our Colleges and University a climate of genuine respect and mutual understanding, we cannot shy away from difficult questions of detransition, iatrogenic harm and the broader implications of our gender paradigms. We have a duty to listen to uncomfortable narratives. So, after Gloria Steinem, ‘these truths might piss us off, but then they will set us free’.