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Criticism

Douglas Murray and Gender Illiteracy: Conservatives Don’t Like Science

I’ve spent a small amount of time on the conservative side of YouTube and have encountered interviews with Douglas Murray where he speaks on various topics but the one that stands out to me is his views on transgender issues. Murray comes off in some of the interviews as smarmy and makes some generally uninteresting if not unfounded statements around trans people that I wanted to explore further. These ideas he espouses stem from his 2019 book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity. It would therefore be unfair to take the snippets of comments he makes in interviews as the full articulation of his opinions, so I will instead be discussing the portion of his book which talks about trans people. Not to spoil this piece but overall, I find it fairly dissatisfying. If there’s one thing I find when I’m reading conservative voices, it’s that I’m jointly scared and excited that somehow my mind will be fundamentally changed by what I’m reading. This did not happen here. I think Murray put some time into this book (at least the chapter concerning trans people I’ve read), but it is woefully lacking in an engagement with the scientific and social literature on trans people, instead relying on individual case studies and anecdotes which at times raise appropriate concerns but overall muddy the wider picture of trans issues. My critique of this chapter is systematically and linearly picking through the text, so I apologise for the potential length of this piece.

            Murray begins with the case of Nathan Verhelst, a trans man from Belgium who was dissatisfied with his gender-affirming surgery and elected to die from Euthanasia four years later. Verhelst’s experience is undoubtedly sad for many reasons, he was treated poorly as a child by his parents, his surgical transition left him unhappy with his body, he chose to die over the possibility of detransitioning. What we have here is a very complicated case. Verhelst transitioned as an adult but surgery did not help how he felt. Could more have been done for him? It might have been possible to resume a life as a woman, there are those who regret transitioning and do revert back to their birth gender. For now I don’t want to talk too much about detransitioning as it will come up later but what I will say is it feels like Murray is treating Verhelst as the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the lived experiences of trans people.

            As a small point, when discussing the seemingly sudden arrival of trans people in the zeitgeist, Murray does refer back through history to various examples of gender-fluid and trans persons in the work of Ovid, the Indian Hijras, the Thai Kathoey, and the Samoan fa’afafine. It’s definitely important when discussing topics as wide ranging and deep as trans issues to look at the examples throughout history that give a place of recognition and cultural dignity to trans people. I like the effort made here, although later when Murray discusses non-binary people, we will see how these inclusions will bite him in the ass.

            Murray places a certain value of legitimacy on intersex people in comparison to trans people, owing to the inherently biological basis of intersex people’s identities as such. Murray states: ‘intersex people exist and should not be held responsible for a situation over which they have absolutely no control. A considerable amount of sympathy and understanding can be felt for anybody who is born intersex. What else should people feel about fellow human beings who have found themselves born with a set of cards which are – to say the least – sub-optimal? If anything in the world is undoubtedly a hardware issue then it is this.’ Murray laments the lack of attention paid to intersex people, inferring that trans people cast a large shadow over them. To make a slightly dumb sounding point, the acronym of LGBT is extended to LGBTQIA+, which includes intersex people. Intersex people are acknowledged in the queer community and trans people and intersex people fight in each other’s corners. This is not to say that intersex people and the LGBTQIA+ community do not have issues. Mauro Cabal, co-director of Global Action for Trans Equality (GATE), spoke about the actions trans people can take to help intersex people in a statement on Intersex Awareness Day 2016. Here, Cabal highlighted the problem of trans people conflating trans and intersex as categories. Whilst navigating the troubling medical patholigisation of intersex people, Cabal speaks of the coalition between trans and intersex people in this endeavour. I will quote him at length: ‘Recognizing and respecting intersectionalities differences while working on common goals is not only a good way of building emancipatory alliances: it’s the only way. When I started doing activism two decades ago I didn’t have the right words –for me, for my body, for my identity or for my sexuality. I just wanted to stop the hell I was going through. In the last 20 years I have seen many incredible changes produced by truly amazing activists from different movements. However, stories like mine –and many, many other stories of stigma and discrimination, ‘normalizing’ mutilation, rape, pain and silence- keep repeating, in different hospitals in my own country and, most likely, in your country too. We –you, me, all of us- deserve to see the first generation of intersex people fully enjoying their human rights. Let’s work together to make that happen in our lifetime.’ On top of this open discussion of coalition building between trans and intersex people, there is the 2013 Malta Declaration from 30(!) organisations where intersex activists wrote demands for the community at large. One of these demands was ‘to ensure that sex or gender classifications are amendable through a simple administrative procedure at the request of the individuals concerned. All adults and capable minors should be able to choose between female (F), male (M), non-binary or multiple options. In the future, as with race or religion, sex or gender should not be a category on birth certificates or identification documents for anybody.’ So it seems like there is definitely evidence to suggest intersex people are visible within society and can work alongside trans people to meet their goals and support one another.

            The next topic that caught my eye was Murray’s inclusion of autogynephilia. He presents it uncritically and seems to make apologies for the outrage it causes as a theory: ‘One of the most striking trends as the trans debate has picked up in recent years is that autogynephilia has come to be severely out of favour.’ He frames the understandable objections of trans people to the idea they are purely sexualised abnormalities as being unreasonable. Although Murray focuses mainly on Michael Bailey’s work within autogynephilia, it would make sense to consider Ray Blanchard’s originating research and why neither of these people should be taken seriously. Blanchard’s fundamental proposal that trans people exist due to a sexual drive e.g., a trans woman wearing a dress to get off, is unfounded and I could spend a lot of time dismantling the theory but there is one aspect in Julia Serano’s critique that got my attention. Blanchard did not control for cis people during his research. He apparently didn’t consider that cis people, particularly cis women, may feel a sense of arousal or sexual thrill from wearing certain clothing that they might find affirming i.e., fancy lingerie or heels. Data from C. Moser showed 65% of cis women surveyed agreed to prompts suggesting arousal from self-contemplation. Serano argues ‘it seems both illogical and needlessly stigmatising to single out trans women as supposedly being ‘autogynephiles’ for having similar erotic experiences (unless, of course, the label is primarily intended to pathologise trans women’s sexualities even when they are female-typical).’ Murray does not spend any time looking at data or studies which undeniably refute autogynephilia but instead clutches his pearls at the protests and hostility towards figures like Bailey who continue to push this reductive and illogical theory. ‘All this happened simply because Bailey had performed detailed research to get to the root of a crucial question and come back with an answer that had just become unpopular. Because for the best part of this century so far the idea that trans is in any way about sexual enjoyment has become an outrage and sexualizing slur.’ Bailey’s research and subsequent findings aren’t just unpopular, they’re incorrect. Murray neglects to consider why it is trans people want to avoid being heavily sexualised outside of the immediate undignified implication. Research from the 2015 U.S Transgender Survey suggests about half of trans people are sexually assaulted. The sexualisation of transgender people is an effort to dehumanise them, keeping them at an objectified distance whilst reaping the satisfaction of sexualising them.

            This next section might be my personal favourite. Murray describes the time Ben Shapiro went on a TV panel and was explicitly transphobic not only to Caitlyn Jenner (who wasn’t present) but also another panellist. The human embarrassment that is Ben Shapiro argued everyone was delusional for respecting Jenner’s identity. Despite being reprimanded, Shapiro continued to refer to Jenner using her old pronouns and claimed ‘How he feels on the inside is irrelevant to the question of his biological self.’ He bases this on the argument that all of Jenner’s body was still male. Unsurprisingly Shapiro does not understand the difference between sex and gender, a distinction many scientists and medical professionals have emphasised across studies. The interesting point is even if we consider Jenner’s body or ‘biological self’ to be wholly male, pronouns are a product of linguistics and social construction, they are not innate or objective. When Zoey Tur made the point that chromosomes didn’t necessarily convey someone was either male or female, Shapiro pushed back and referred to her as ‘Sir.’ Once again Murray clutches pearls at the idea that transgender people might get angry when they are mistreated or dehumanised. Tur threatened to put Shapiro in an ambulance if he misgendered her again. This whole episode is treated as something deeply concerning rather than an embarrassing display of bigotry by Shapiro.

            A small side note again, Murray’s general writing when referring to trans people seems pretty gross and misinformed. I say this because in sentences like ‘Rather than ‘unlocking’ the intersections of oppression, as the intersectionalists had claimed, trans simultaneously throws their own movement’s aims into the starkest possible relief and produces a veritable pile-up of logical contradictions’, the use of trans as a monolithic entity reads as clumsy and awkward, like someone who hasn’t spent time with trans people or studied trans issues.

            Murray talks about the conflict between certain feminist figures and trans people on the grounds of what constitutes a woman. He cites Julie Bindel as concluding an article with a ‘flourish’: ‘‘I don’t have a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women, in the same way that shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s does not make you a man.’’ Ultimately, it’s hard to care what Bindel thinks, she has no scientific basis for this belief. After condemnation of a transphobic comment made by Suzanne Moore, Julie Burchill launched a vicious attack against trans people using terms like ‘‘dicks in chicks’ clothing’ and ‘a bunch of bedwetters in bad wigs.’’ Murray notes that Burchill’s career had suffered from this article, implying that this was potentially wrong. How dare someone suffer the consequences of their actions, I say. Then cometh Germaine Greer. ‘Perhaps the most famous modern feminist of all’, Murray declares. As Murray notes Greer essentially devotes one chapter in a single book to transgender people, unfortunately it’s a series of unfounded and gross opinions. Greer loses the potential favour she once possessed and is denied public talks in some instances. Murray says students at one university ‘didn’t want to hear from the most significant feminist of the late twentieth century.’ I can’t really recall the last time outside of transgender-related controversies that Greer was relevant to contemporary feminism. I’m not disputing at one time she probably had something to say but that time has long since passed. Murray seems to think it’s a sort of betrayal of previous feminist activism to dispose of Greer, but she was by no means the sole figure of the movement. There are many activists preceding and contemporary to Greer that would find her views reductive and useless. Here, I think of Judith Butler, Shulamith Firestone, Simone de Beauvoir, Leslie Feinberg, Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P. Johnson. Posie Parker (Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull) makes an appearance when she spent £700 hiring a billboard to display the dictionary definition of a woman. Apparently, she was concerned about the word becoming appropriated to mean anything, of course words do tend to change over time and therefore different definitions and requirements come along. Keen-Minshull spends most of her time campaigning against trans people and doesn’t seem to spend any money on fixing women’s, even just cis women’s, issues. She uses the same tired and disproven ideas around trans people being dangerous or predatory to cis women that every transphobe is inclined to use.

            Here I want to make another point about the discussion of TERFs or Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists in conflict with trans people. Murray states ‘perhaps the most obvious point of non-overlap with the trans movement is that in many ways trans does not challenge social constructs about gender, but reinforces them.’ Is this true though? Youtuber Blaire White is used as an example of a trans woman with ‘the body type of a sort of teenage male fantasy pin-up woman: all prominent breasts, flicking hair and pouting lips.’ The opposite end of this is activist Jane Fae who knitted during a panel at the University of Manchester. Surely two examples of two diverse representations of transwomen does not a good argument make. Trans people, whether they identify as male or female or non-binary present themselves in all manner of ways. There are trans women with shaved heads, there are trans men with man buns, there are non-binary people with beards and with clean faces. This seems like a pretty flimsy point to raise. People choose to present themselves how they feel best affirms them, it is not stereotyping if there is a broad range of gender expressions on display. Also, surely it is the pinnacle of feminism that a woman or a man or a non-binary person may choose to present themselves how they like. If people want to wear sun dresses and bake cakes why not? If people want to cultivate beards and wear spiky leather jackets good for them. I don’t see the fall of Western Civilisation coming (at least not from the self-determination of every individual in their gender expression).

            Next, Murray covers the general representation of trans people in the media and goes onto linking this with trans children. I think the concern Murray raises here is the possibility of detransitioning or regret. He finds it disconcerting that Dr Olson-Kennedy has at times prescribed hormones for children as young as 12. Murray calls Olson-Kennedy ‘dogmatic’ in her beliefs surrounding medical treatment for trans people, which is an interesting characterisation of somebody following the scientific outcomes which overwhelmingly state that those who transition whether with surgery or hormones or both feel no regret. He chides her for her off-hand comments about those who get chest surgery, her argument being ‘‘If you want breasts at a later point in your life you can go and get them.’’ His indignation at this seems fairly irrational: ‘Really? Where? How? Are people like blocks of Lego onto which new pieces can be stuck, taken off and replaced again at will?’ Perhaps a small amount of Googling would have told Murray that people who receive mastectomies can in fact have breast implants, as is evidenced by women who have mastectomies owing to breast cancer. Again, here Murray looks to the exception of those who regret surgery as being the rule. These people who detransition deserve an equal amount of treatment and care as trans people do, but they are in the absolute minority and it would be disingenuous to see their experience as some sort of wider problem within trans discourse. As if to compound Murray’s illiteracy or inability to see the facts, Olson-Kennedy’s study (which he cites), is where I take the overwhelmingly positive outcome of transitioning from.

            Towards the end of this chapter, Murray says ‘The demand that everyone should agree to use new gender pronouns and get used to people of the opposite sex being in the same bathrooms is at the relatively frivolous end of the spectrum of demands.’ This is incorrect for many reasons. Using a person’s right pronouns is an obvious step in the right direction considering the major reason for trans people’s potential suicidality is being rejected by society. It is not unreasonable to become accustomed to trans people using the same spaces as cis people. One study shows when framed neutrally, 69% of respondents were supportive of transgender access to their preferred bathrooms. When transgender people were framed as a danger to women or children, the support dropped to 50%. Of course, the important point to note here is that there is no evidence to suggest that trans people pose any significant threat to cis people, if anything they are more likely at risk of attack or assault. It is usually framed as cis women being the victims of trans women yet according to one study cis women actually perceive trans women as less dangerous than cis men do. Not only this, but cis men are more likely to blame trans victims of assault and consider the assault of trans people less severe. Here we see a public perception of trans people (mostly from cis men) which does not correlate with the actual lived experiences of trans people. There is nothing frivolous here about using the right pronouns or allowing trans people into the same spaces as cis people.

            The final point I will highlight is a very small section on non-binary and gender fluid people which I think is where Murray shoots himself in the foot. For some reason Murray claims that non-binary and gender fluid people as ‘concepts’ have been invented from the atmosphere of trans discourse where cis people are not allowed to speak or object. Here, he is essentially arguing non-binary and gender fluid people exist because cis people can’t criticise trans people without being publicly shamed for it. Murray literally began this chapter with a history of non-binary and genderfluid people from varying cultures throughout history! Does he not remember when he wrote this? Non-binary and genderfluid people aren’t new, Douglas, you acknowledged this!!! He claims that the BBC video (you can find on YouTube) called Things Not to Say to a Non-Binary Person is just attention-seeking on the trans people’s part, but it’s a film that’s meant to raise awareness about a misunderstood demographic. That’s why they’re being filmed! The mind boggles.

            Murray concludes ‘The problem at present is not the disparity, but the certainty – the spurious certainty with which an unbelievably unclear issue is presented as though it was the clearest and best understood thing imaginable.’ As has been the case throughout the chapter, here when Murray argues that certainty on trans issues is spurious, he is suggesting that the vast majority of scientific literature which supports trans adults and youth is invalid on…some grounds? Of course, there is more research to be done and is being conducted all the time, but so far the scientists and medical professionals who are proponents of trans rights do so with full knowledge of the ongoing literature. Maybe next time Murray should cite some.

Further Reading:

On Intersex People: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/10/its-intersex-awareness-day-here-are-5-myths-we-need-to-shatter/
https://oiieurope.org/malta-declaration/
https://web.archive.org/web/20161103133403/https://transactivists.org/2016/10/26/iad2016-a-message-from-mauro-cabral/

Autogynephilia: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0038026120934690

Violence towards LGBTQIA+ people: https://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-assault-and-the-lgbt-community

Difference Between Sex and Gender: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2689237/

Chest Surgery: https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/reconstruction-fact-sheet#will-health-insurance-pay-for-breast-reconstruction

Detransitioning: https://www.stonewall.org.uk/about-us/news/dispelling-myths-around-detransition

Attitudes Towards Trans People: https://gap.hks.harvard.edu/using-experiments-understand-public-attitudes-towards-transgender-rights
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12147-016-9181-6

Things Not to Say to Non-Binary People film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8b4MZjMVgdk&ab_channel=BBCThree

Generally, a great resource on gender and sex science: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/stop-using-phony-science-to-justify-transphobia/

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