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I am going to set out my current views about the transgender problem. It’s something that has caused a lot of discussion on twitter, much of it unpleasantly vituperative. When I refer to ‘problem’ I’m referring to the vituperation, not, of course, the existence of transgender people.  Short posts on twitter don’t allow nuance, so I thought it might be helpful to lay out my views here in the (doubtless vain) hope of being able to move on to talk about other things.  This will be my last word on it, because I feel that the time spent on this single problem has become counterproductive.

  1. The problem is very complicated and nobody knows the answers. Why, for example has the number of people referred to the Tavistock clinic increased 25-fold since 2009? Nobody knows. There has been a great deal of disagreement within the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) at the Tavistock about whether and when to refer children for treatment with puberty blockers or surgery. There was a good report by Deborah Cohen about this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTRnrp9pXHY 

  2. There’s also a good report from BBC Newsnight about people who have chosen to detransition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDi-jFVBLA8. It shows how much is not known, even by experts.

  3. Anyone who pretends that it’s a simple problem that can be solved with slogans just isn’t listening. The long term effects of hormone treatments are simply not known.

  4. This poses a real problem for doctors who are asked for advice by people who feel that they were born in the wrong sex. There is an empathetic discussion from the front line in a recent paper

  5.  I’m very conscious that trans people have often been subjected to discrimination and abuse. That’s totally unacceptable. It’s also unacceptable to vilify women whose views are a bit different.

  6. Most of the arguments have centred on the meanings of the words ‘woman’, ‘female’, ‘gender’ and ‘sex’.  Many of the bitter rows about this topic might be avoided if people defined these words before using them.

  7. ‘Sex’ and ‘gender’ are relatively easy.  When I was growing up, ‘gender’ was a grammatical term, unrelated to sex. Then it evolved to be used as a euphemism for ‘sex’ by those who were too squeamish to use the word ‘sex’. The current use of these words is quite different. It’s discussed at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gender#usage-1.

    “Sex as the preferred term for biological forms, and gender limited to its meanings involving behavioral, cultural, and psychological traits.“.

    This is a sensible distinction, I think. But beware that it’s by no means universally agreed. The meanings are changing all the time and you can get pilloried if you use the ‘wrong’ word.

  8. The words ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘women’ are much more contentious.  Some people say that they refer to biology, having XX chromosomes.  This is certainly the definition used in every dictionary I’ve seen.  The vast majority of people are born male or female. Apart from the small number of people who are born with chromosomal abnormalities, it’s unambiguous and can’t change.
  9. But other people now insist, often stridently, the ‘woman’ now refers to gender rather than sex. It would certainly help to avoid misapprehensions if, when using slogans like “trans women are women”, they made clear that they are using this new and unconventional definition of ‘woman’.
  10. Someone on twitter said that someone had said “transwomen are not women. That is transphobic. If she’d said that transwomen are not female, she’d have just been correct.” I doubt that this distinction is widely accepted.  Both statements seem to me to mean much the same thing, but again it’s a matter of definitions.
  11. If someone who is biologically male feels happier as a woman, that’s fine. They should be able to live as a woman safely, and without discrimination.  They should be treated as though they were women.  This I take to be the intention of the tweet from J.K. Rowling:

    Rowling tweet

  12. It seems to me to be totally unfair, and deeply misogynist, to pillory Rowling as a ‘transphobe’ on the basis of this (or anything else) she’s said. She’s had some pretty vile abuse. There’s already a problem of women getting abuse on social media, and that’s only added to by the way she’s been treated because of this tweet.
  13. It seems to me that there is a wafer-thin distinction between “trans women are women” and “trans women should be treated as though they were women”. Yet if you say the wrong one you can be pilloried.
  14. Many of my friends in what’s known loosely as the skeptical movement have been quite unreasonably exercised about this fine distinction.  Many of today’s problems arise from the extreme polarisation of views (on almost everything). This seems to me to be deeply unhelpful.
  15. I was pilloried by some people when I posted this tweet: “I’ve just finished reading the whole of the post by @jk_rowling. It only increases my admiration for her -a deeply empathetic human.  The attacks on her are utterly unjustified.”   It’s true that I gained several hundred followers after posting it (though I suspect that not all of them were followers that I would wish to have).
  16. The problems arise when a small minority of trans women who have male genitalia have used their access to spaces that have been traditionally reserved for women as an opportunity of voyeurism or even rape.  In such cases the law should take its course.  The existence of a few such cases shouldn’t be used as an excuse to discriminate against all trans women.
  17. Another case that’s often cited is sports.  Being biologically male gives advantages in many sports.  Given the huge advances that women have made in sports since the 1960s, it would be very unfortunate if they were to be beaten regularly by people who were biologically male (this has actually happened in sprinting and in weightlifting). In contact sports it could be dangerous. The Rugby Football Union has a policy which will have the effect of stopping most trans women from joining their women’s teams. That seems fair to me. Sports themselves should make the rules to ensure fair play. Some of the rules are summarised in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgender_people_in_sports.The problem is to weigh the discrimination against trans women against the discrimination against biological women.  In this case, you can’t have both.
  18. The trans problem has been particularly virulent in the Green Party.  I recently endorsed Dr Rosi Sexton for leadership of the Green Party, because she has committed to having better regard for evidence than the other candidates, and because she’s committed to inclusion of minority groups.  They are both good things.  She has also said “trans women are women”, and that led to prolonged harassment from some of my best skeptical friends. She’s undoubtedly aware of X and Y chromosomes so I take it that she’s using ‘woman’ in the sense of gender rather than sex.  Although I’d prefer slightly different words, such as “trans women should be treated as though they were women”, the difference between these two forms of wording seems to be far too small to justify the heat, and even hate, generated on both sides of the argument. Neither form of wording is “transphobic”. To say that they are is, in my opinion, absurd.
  19. All that I ask is that there should be less stridency and a bit more tolerance of views that don’t differ as much as people seem to think. Of course, anyone who advocates violence should be condemned. Be clear about definitions and don’t try to get people fired because their definitions are different from yours. Be kind to people.
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16 Responses to The transgender question

  • Thank you very much for a most helpful, and rational, review of a complex issue.

    Can DC please comment on the role/implication of the presence or otherwise of Barr bodies in drawing any distinction.

    Could a person with no Barr bodies legitimately claim to be a woman?

  • @Richard Rawlins

    I guess that comes under the heading of chromosomal abnormalities.  They are rare, and usually they are not the focus of the transgender wars.


  • Thanks for posting this. I don’t agree with some of it but it is just good to see someone clearly set out their reasoning on the issue. One point I did want to address though: you say “I feel that the time spent on this single problem has become counterproductive”; you’ve said the same on Twitter.

    To me, the debate on gender seems to be bound up with very fundamental principles in science and democracy: that reason and evidence should be used to settle matters, and that peer pressure, political bias, or fear of personal consequences should not be allowed to erode the free exchange of ideas. I believe what happens with regard to this debate will have repercussions far beyond laws about gender or sex. Scientific integrity cannot be switched on and off, neither can trust in experts.

    So I think any time spent trying to reach resolution on this – even if the only resolution we can reach any time soon is that we should be able to talk about it civilly and freely – is time well spent.

    The Prof’s article is most excellent and articulates the problems well.
    The real problem is that the facts of life stir emotions and feelings that are not always commensurate with rational decision making.
    As we have to communicate, we have to use language, and there are whole branches of science dealing with the subject – linguistics (and its sub-branches of cognitive, psycho and neuro-), semiotics, semantics and ‘science’ itself.
    When I studied biology, I learned of Barr bodies – Murray Barr described a “morphological distinction between the neurones of males and females” in 1949. The body is an inactive X chromosome in a cell with more than one X chromosome.
    I understand that in humans with more than one X chromosome, the number of visible Barr bodies is always one fewer than the total number of X chromosomes. Humans with two X chromosomes (such as most females) have one Barr body per somatic cell, males – none. (Setting aside those who have XXY or XXX).
    So my question is: Has the existence or otherwise of Barr bodies been used to determine (a) a person’s sex, (b) a person’s gender (by any definition) – and if not, why not?
    I am unaware of Barr body identification being used to assess athletes involved in these controversies. Is there any information available on this point?
    Just asking.

  • You’ve written, “The vast majority of people are born male or female. Apart from the small number of people who are born with chromosomal abnormalities, it’s unambiguous and can’t change.”.
    This isn’t so. Everyone is born male or female, including so-called intersex people. See Claire Graham’s blog. She is intersex.

    Is Sex a Spectrum? Sex Determination and Differentiation

    Otherwise, I’m sorry to say that “be kind” isn’t a helpful response to the extremely destructive ideology of transgenderism, which is irrational and damaging to the status of women and the health and well being of children. Dissent isn’t tolerated by transgender activists, and I have been reported to the police for simply stating a fact; that it is impossible to change your sex.
    See my blog post about my 15 minutes of fame

  • @Margaret Nelson. I don’t think that’s quite right. Most people are unambiguously male or female, but a few are not. The number of different chromosomal abnormalities is large, but all of them are rare: see the table, here. This does not make sex a spectrum. It means that there are two predominant categories, and one, very small and heterogeneous category.

  • Understanding what a sex is, is one of those almost humdrum but necessary things that needs to be done here as the postmodernists ideology of queer theory has appropriated this term and (like it does with all things) tried to deny the word ‘sex’ any meaning and stability. This is classic postmodernists tactics, as it then allows them to argue any shit they like when words do not have meaning. If we cannot talk with any clarity about males and females, then the terms men and women are obviously up for grabs. And if we cannot talk about sex then sexuality can also be dismantled so that no-one can have any personal sexual boundaries anymore. This is the explicit aim of queer theory and being done in plain sight as young lesbians (for example) are told daily online that they must date “women” with penises.

    So, Claire Graham’s article above is a must read as it makes clear that your sex is not defined by chromosomes – typical or atypical – or even by any specific phenotypic outcome. Sex is a billion+ year old reproductive method where distinct male and female reproductive roles have emerged and remained stable based on the asymmetry in gamete types – sperm and eggs. In organisms that have individuals that play one or either reproductive role, evolution has created precisely two (male and female) development paths that an organism can follow. As with all biological development, atypical variation can be followed *on each path* because of mutations, chromosome issues etc. But the male or female path is still followed. Hence we can still say 47, XXY individuals are still very much male and Triple-X individuals still very much female. There are some *exceedingly* rare individuals where there may be some genuine ambiguity. These are of course not new sexes but serious conditions of sex development.

    The conflations, misunderstandings and deliberate attempts never to properly define words like male and female are done for a very specific reason. The exemplar for this style of argument is perhaps Claire Ainsworth’s dire article in Nature News (Sex Redefined) where she uses such tactics to create a sense of helplessness in the reader such that sex can no longer be seen as a meaningful, let alone useful category, and so then is able to deliver the Queer Theory payload as the last sentence, “In other words, if you want to know whether someone is male or female, it may be best just to ask.” “Gender Identity” is left as the only “meaningful” concept with which to categorise people even if this concept is ill-defined, incoherent and pseudoscientific. But note, gender identity is never exposed to the same dismantling scrutiny that the concept of sex is.

    It is a trick that needs to be exposed as it is fatal for justice for women and gay and lesbian people.

  •  Two things.First, your paragraph 16 suggests that misuse of female only facilities should be dealt with under criminal law.  You appear to miss the point that such misuse may not be criminal.  A man who cross-dresses and obtains sexual gratification from entering women only spaces such as changing rooms may not be committing a crime;  indeed under self identification legislation still under consideration in Scotland, it could be a hate crime to question his bona fides. Consider the hypothetical example of a senior manager in a financial institution who presents as male or female depending on the day of the week.  His subordinates may encounter Briony in the women’s toilet and have to address her as such, when yesterday he presented as Brian.  No crime may be committed, but the power imbalance is disturbing.Second, and relatedly, you avoid any discussion of a conflict of rights.  If transwomen must be treated as women, where does that leave single sex spaces such as hospital wards, prisons and sports facilities? If a woman wishes to have her cervical smear done by a female health professional must she accept someone who has adopted a feminine identity but is clearly biologically male? Helen Staniland’s question puts it concisely:  do women and girls have the right to change, undress and shower in a penis free space?

  • I think that the previous two comments make a mountain out of a mole hill. Nobody is less tolerant than I of post-modernist waffle, and some trans activists certainly do suffer from that tendency. They make a great deal of noise but they are, I think, small in number.  Most people who say that trans people should not suffer from discrimination understand XX and XY perfectly well. See paras 6 to 9, above.

    I think that the sensible trans activists are perfectly aware of the problems that can arise, for example, with women’s prisons. There is, at present, no automatic right for a trans woman to enter any  female space, and I don’t think that sensible advocates for trans rights are saying that there should be.

  • I have yet to see, anywhere, commentary on the importance/relevance of using the presence/absence of Barr Bodies to determine sex, or gender.
    I do not understand the relevance, but is there none?

  • Oh, dear.
    “I think that the previous two comments make a mountain out of a mole hill. Nobody is less tolerant than I of post-modernist waffle”
    Well I am, for one. If you think that the little ladies are getting into a tizzy over nothing, you might care to peruse this Twitter thread

    You appear to have no idea of the extent of regulatory, legislative, institutional, broadcast and print media and social medial capture by transactivism. There are women who have been banned from social media platforms for the hatespeech of asserting biological reality, attempts to dismiss academics for non-conformity with gender theory, an elderly feminist who was assaulted by a transactivist at Speakers’ Corner and was then compelled by the judge at his subsequent trial to refer to her assailant as “she” and recording by the police of non-crime “hate incidents” which will appear on criminal records checks. All this has passed you by.
    And as for
    “The vast majority of people are born male or female. Apart from the small number of people who are born with chromosomal abnormalities, it’s unambiguous and can’t change.”
    in your original post you miss the point that everyone is either male or female. There is no third gamete for people with DSDs (disorders of sexual development). Everyone is on a developmental pathway to either sperm or egg production, though sometimes the pathway does not complete successfully.
    I would recommend Dr Emma Hilton, Dr Jane Clare Jones and Prof Kathleen Stock on Twitter for a different perspective on the mountain/molehill spectrum.

  • And the relevance of Barr bodies is…?

  • And the relevance of Barr bodies is…?

    None.  Barr bodies are to do with biological reality.  The transgender question is a metaphysical one.

  • So,  a branch of philosophy.
    But might not Barr body presence, or otherwise, help authorities with decisions in sport or justice?

  • But might not Barr body presence, or otherwise, help authorities with decisions in sport or justice?

    No.  There is no uncertainty about the original biological sex of transwomen;  being male is an essential precondition.  Their claim is that their physical sex is irrelevant to their being a woman and that  they have an internal sense of their gender identity which overrides the physical evidence.  This can never be disproved, hence my comment about metaphysics.

  • For me, the mists are beginning to clear.
    This blog is about ‘The Transgender Question’ – that is the cultural and psychological traits by which people are, or want to be, known – irrespective of their biological sex.
    I hope I have precied DC well enough!
    The issues in the back of my mind about difficulties for sporting authorities with ‘sex’ are a different matter, e.g. Semenya, the RFU and team allocation. Here, Barr bodies might be helpful in determining biological sex. What the authorities do when they have that knowledge is another thing.
    And DC’s paragraph 19 above is the nub.
    So the question is, just why do trans people feel the way they do? Or anyone feel the way we do?
    Certainly a question for psychology, but metaphysics underpins it all, and I guess we will never really understand. Meantime, tolerance must be exercised – by all. And for the more scientifically minded, exact definitions should be agreed and accepted. That’s tough. It’s called ‘life’.

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