Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality by Helen Joyce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is not an academic review. I read this book because the issues are important to me, and I prefer to have an informed, considered, opinion, rather than one incubated on the toxic platform of Twitter. The opinions I express here are my own.
‘This is a book about an idea’, begins Helen Joyce in Trans, ‘one that seems simple but has far-reaching consequences.’ This idea – that anyone can identify as either man or woman (or neither) based on an innate emotive connection to the concept of either femininity or masculinity, is one that has gained increasing acceptance in our society today, and now pervades almost every aspect of our collective lives. The consequences of this idea that Joyce explores are not just far-reaching, but have proven to be divisive and toxic, generating heated debates across social media platforms, with cancel culture operating to attempt to silence those who dare speak out against unquestioning acceptance of this idea.
Given the controversy that arises in even discussing the issues, I took my time over this book, reading it carefully, marking up relevant passages, and thinking them over. Well written, well researched, and carefully considered, Joyce has clearly delineated what it is she is trying to do with the book, and also why she is writing it, recognising that in current discourse self-declared gender identity has been privileged over biological sex, and contrasting that against historical feminist thinking that has roughly classified sex as a biological category, sex being why women are oppressed, and gender as a historical category, being how women are oppressed. She also recognises that current gender identity politics is demanding a complete redefinition of categories and a rewriting of societal rules.
Three things are made clear from the outset – firstly, that gender self-identity is nothing of the sort, because it requires others to validate the self-proclaimed gender identity of an individual, secondly, and in my view, quite important to stress, that the book is not about trans people. Thirdly, and at the heart of what she explores in the book, is that the book is about trans activism, and the creep of it into all areas of our lives, which is particularly insidious for women because it is women’s compassion and spaces that are demanded by trans activism. The introductory chapter ends with a chilling thought that the gender identity ideology is incoherent and constantly shifting, and the slightest deviation is ‘ferociously punished.’ We only have to look at the experiences of women such as JK Rowling, Kathleen Stock, and Maya Forstater to know that this is true.
The book begins with a consideration of the origins and the development of gender identity ideology, and takes the reader to yet another ‘extraordinary’ conclusion, women are no longer considered to be a ‘group that merits a name.’ Moving forward in her analysis, Joyce turns to consider the very real issue of why teenage girls are identifying out of womanhood, looking at female sexuality, modern feminism, and social contagion as she does so, recognising that gender identity gives girls the opportunity to identify out of being female, not necessarily because they wish to identify into manhood, but simply because they wish to avoid being a woman – and all that comes with that when a girl faces puberty. (As an aside, I found Joyce’s discussion of bodily ‘dis-ease’ particularly interesting, in many ways reminding me of Gilbert and Gubar’s likening of female dis-ease with disease in their book The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, because in many ways, pathologizing this bodily dis-ease experienced by people with gender dysphoria is a real issue). She then turns to what is at stake with the acceptance of gender identity ideology, its reliance on sex stereotypes, and how it limits and harms all children, not merely those that identify out of their sex. The impact on safeguarding is also discussed.
The chapter I found the most powerful, and in many ways the most distressing, is the chapter entitled ‘She Who Must Not be Named’ because it deals with the way in which gender identity ideology erases women, refusing to allow us a word that defines us a sex class, naming us by reference to body parts while simultaneously telling us that we should not reduce people to their genitals. And this is a problem, because as Joyce puts it: ‘When women are limitless and formless ,they can have no political demands.’ (p. 136) Worse, it leads to the commodification of women – where women are carved up into pieces to be used for sexual and reproductive services. If it is just people with wombs, or people with vaginas who are exploited, then it can hardly be sexism, can it? After all, women is a fluid class that anyone can identify into. At least that seems to be the logical consequences of this way of thinking.
Making use of available statistics, Joyce is able to draw the inference that ‘allowing males to self-identify into women’s spaces makes women less safe.’ (p. 157) She does not state this to be hateful, but simply sets out her thoughts based on statistical data. It is not mud-slinging, or done to be cruel, but simply sets out the facts – important facts on which women’s safety should be prioritised. The chapter reflects on the fact that what ‘trans’ actually means is not generally understood by the general population, that it is not necessarily people who have surgically transitioned.
Women’s sports, women’s prisons, women’s rights to privacy and dignity are all covered, all areas that have been under attack through the trans activism movement, this contrasted with the simple statement that the right to be treated in every circumstance as members of the sex they identify with, rather than the sex they actually are ‘is not a human right at all’. (p. 224), and that the movement for trans rights works towards ensuring that male people can access female spaces and services, and the harm to children’s bodies through gender affirming hormonal treatment, the loss of women’s privacy, the affect on women’s sports, even the loss of the language we use is collateral damage in pursuit of this aim.
Joyce covers the no debate mentality that underlies much of the approach to gender identity ideology. ‘Control the discourse, and you control reality,’ (p. 255) she says, in many ways echoing the sentiments expressed by Kate Manne in Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, where she reflects that part of male dominance, especially on the part of the privileged and powerful, seems to be seizing control of the narrative, in order to control and enforce concurrence, so that the capacity for independent perspective is destroyed. As Manne notes, this closely resembles the moral aim of gaslighting.
The book, in many ways, makes for grim, depressing, reading, particularly if you are a woman, however, the chapter on how British women are fighting back allows some optimism to finish the book with. As Joyce comments, it is entirely feasible to give trans people legal protections without decimating women’s rights or denying the reality of sex, but as she states in her conclusion engaging in good faith is difficult in the context of such a toxic environment.
I was one of the women at the WPUK conference in January 2020 that Joyce mentions in that chapter. As I walked past the gauntlet of largely male protestors, I understood what it meant to feel threatened simply for attending an event that supported women’s rights. And I did feel fear as I walked in, until I stood with hundreds of women, who all believed that sex is real, sex matters, and that humans simply cannot change sex. Reading Joyce’s book is a timely reminder that women too have rights, and that our reality can and should challenge gender identity ideology.
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Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality by Helen Joyce