The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Review
The book you need to read about trans
Toddlers transitioning, male rapists in women’s prisons – this is a jaw-dropping look at a world gone mad
320pp, Oneworld, T £14.99 (0844 871 1514), RRP £16.99, ebook £8.99
A revealing moment comes early on in this superlative critical analysis of trans activism by journalist Helen Joyce. She describes how trans women’s penises have been rebranded “girldicks” by some, adding that friends she has told about this insist it must be a hoax. As you read Joyce’s book and similarly jaw-dropping details accumulate, you realise that part of why trans activism has so often slipped under the public radar and achieved big results is that the rational part of your brain refuses to believe it’s happening.
Did you know, for instance, that, in an attempt to give an account of “woman” inclusive of males, the UN describes women as “multifaceted, intergenerational, international … limitless, formless”? That, according to Amnesty UK, Pharaoh Hatshepsut was a trans man? That in 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union produced a film proselytising the transition of a feminineacting four-year-old boy to a “girl” by his evangelical Christian parents – thereby making his later medical sterilisation quite likely – and that the film then won an Emmy? That a lesbian survivor of the 1999 nail bomb that targeted a gay pub in Soho was banned from dating app
Hinge for stating on her profile that she only wanted to meet females? That the crafting forum Ravelry has a crochet pattern for a “Bitty Bug”, a minute “bump” designed to put between female toddlers’ legs to simulate possession of a penis? And that male rapists – complete with their non-simulated girldicks – are now inmates in female prisons in many countries, including the UK? At this point, I wouldn’t blame you for checking what was in your morning cup of tea.
Unfortunately, though – and in the now-famous words of J K Rowling, courageously tweeting her reservations about trans activism in 2019 – #ThisIsNotADrill. As Joyce forensically relates, what began in the 20th century with often unethical medical experimentation on intersex and severely dysphoric gay people has since combined with the utopian posturings of academics, the funding streams of American billionaires, and the bodily selfloathing of a generation of teenagers to become an apparently unstoppable cultural force.
Joyce is clear that her book is about trans activism, not trans people. She has no ambitions to argue against the possibility of transitioning for those adults for whom it works well, though she is refreshingly clear that this results in no change of sex. Rather, her target is the political focus of modern trans activism: “gender identity”. This is the idea that your perceptually invisible inner feelings about whether you are really a man, a woman, or neither, should trump any facts about your actual sex, wherever those feelings may differ. Joyce deals with the philosophical contradictions of gender identity ideology briskly but efficiently. If, as the “thought-terminating” mantra goes, trans women are women, what then is a woman? How can the oft-repeated fact that clownfish change sex support the idea that there’s no distinction between males and females, when you need a distinction between males and females for it to be true that clownfish can change sex?
Overall though, there’s a sense that Joyce’s patience is limited for the metaphysical fireworks that cause gasps in university seminar rooms. Understandably, she is more interested in the firework-related injuries happening outside: on children, women, gay people, autistic people, and on trans people themselves. Joyce describes all of these in sobering detail. The stories of young “detransitioners” – those who identified out of their sex, until they didn’t, and many of whom are now left with irrevocable bodily presences or absences – are particularly searing.
Other important voices largely excluded from mainstream journalism are also here: wives of late-transitioning husbands, known colloquially as “trans widows”; a prison governor whose strong objections to males in the female prison estate are based on direct experience; women working in domestic violence services, unable to voice concerns about accommodating males in women’s refuges for fear of losing funding; and sceptical trans people. In all areas, the initial damage caused by the ideology is then compounded by the inability to freely discuss it, such are the aggressive accusations of transphobia launched against those that try. Joyce is scathing about the failures of liberal institutions to pursue or defend truth in this area, including journalism. Where, you might well ask, are the grown-ups?
Time and again, this book reveals how simply getting hold of more information can reorient trans activism’s initially emotive spin on a particular event. For instance, the sharp rise in numbers of young people transitioning and often permanently altering their bodies is routinely presented by a Stonewall-trained media as a narrative of brave selfdiscovery. Yet once you find out that many of those affected are wholly dependent on the internet for psychological connection – “on a backdrop of zero real-life relationships” as one therapist puts it, adding “they’ve never even held hands with another human being” – it starts to look different. Impassioned stories of particular trans woman convicts, whose feminine vulnerability morally necessitates their transfer to female prisons, appear somewhat different when you know the specifics of the highly violent crimes against women that put them in the male estate in the first place.
Indeed, taken as a whole, trans activism’s quasi-religious narratives of rebirth and redemption will look different to many when they realise that, as recounted by Joyce, unflinchingly but without judgment, significant aspects of trans activism are driven by the erotic yearnings of males to be women (as indicated, we learn, by voluntary studies using a pressure gauge “to measure tumescence” in response to deliberately boring statements such as “You put on your eye shadow, mascara and lipstick”). The significance of this point arguably shows up in the twin political obsessions of mainstream trans activism, prioritised over other possible goals: lobbying for males to enter female spaces, and removing barriers to medical transition, including for children. “These are not the needs of people on lower incomes in poor health. These are the desires of rich, powerful men who want to be classed as women”, says Joyce.
As befits her background as a writer and editor for The Economist, Joyce shows an impressive capacity to handle complex statistics, legal statutes, and other bits of evidence without losing clarity or narrative drive. The chapter on women’s sport is particularly good and I learnt a lot. The handling of the international context is also deft and detailed. This UK reader came away with renewed gratitude for the NHS, relative to the exploitative, money-grabbing free-for-all that passes for trans healthcare in the US. UK feminists are praised for their creative resistance to trans activism’s institutional grip, though given the book’s historical ambitions, I found puzzling the omission of early feminist objectors such as Sheila Jeffreys and Julie Bindel at the turn of the 20th century.
Above all, the reader is left with nowhere to hide from the consequences of going along with it all. Insistence that it’s just a matter of “being kind” falter in the face of a young woman’s heartfelt regrets about her radical hysterectomy at 21, or the projections of a parent boasting that all eight of her children are trans. With this fact-filled, humane, and brave book, a grownup has entered the room.
The damage caused by trans ideology is compounded by the inability to discuss it