Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality
by Helen Joyce. 2021. 320 pages

There’s a term which has rapidly gained ground in recent years: “gaslighting”. To gaslight is subtly to change someone’s environment while insisting that things have always been this way, inducing a derangement where the target of the gaslighting can no longer treat memory as a reliable witness to past events.

In a world of chest-feeding (née breast-feeding) and birthing parents (née mothers), the word feels apt. “Shakespeare used singular ‘they’!” we’re admonished, expected to believe that Lady Macbeth took time out from handwashing to announce gender-neutral pronouns to her other half.

It is this kind of gaslighting — radical social upheaval, yet barely any admission of change whatsoever — on which Helen Joyce’s Trans focuses.

Joyce is not an ideologue. She is The Economist‘s Britain editor, where she has held several senior positions, including finance editor and international editor. She also has a PhD in mathematics.

Her best-selling book documents the rise and rise of the concept of gender identity, whereby it is not biological sex which determines whether one is a man or a woman, but the assertion of a gendered soul, to be taken on trust.

As this logic batters its way through sports, universities, toilets, changing rooms, prisons and even rape crisis centres, the task of establishing how this happened is no small one. Luckily for the reader, Joyce demonstrates a forensic knowledge of the history, theory and ramifications of the concept of gender identity. Trans, consequently, is no pamphlet.

While Joyce proves a powerful chronicler, she is far from emotionally detached. In detailing the birth of the (biologically inaccurate) notion of “sex as a spectrum”, the author takes pains to recognize the complex emotional states of the men whose bodies were used to pioneer medical transition from the male form to the female. Equally, she is keen to stress the potential sharpness of dysphoric feelings, especially in the formative stages of adolescence.

Faced with an individual in distress, a decent-minded person will show compassion. Yet this particular form of compassion, Joyce demonstrates, inadvertently blurs the lines between male and female, a pattern of attrition forcing the rewriting of personal and societal histories.

Yet Trans leaves little doubt about the murky history of medical transition (“cross-sex” hormones and surgery).

For example, readers may be familiar with the name Harry Benjamin. The World Professional Association of Transgender Health, proselytizer-in-chief of gender identity theory, was called the Harry Benjamin Foundation until 2006. Joyce points out that Benjamin — before he turned his hand to surgical interventions — was a hawker of fake tuberculosis vaccines. Other charlatans operating at the inception of this technological movement are also exposed, with equal mercilessness. While Joyce shows genuine sympathy for those who underwent these early experimental procedures, she pulls no punches when it comes to the ideologues who conducted them.

Trans also takes on the topics of homosexuality and atypical sexed behaviours (such as male effeminacy), both of which are muddled into today’s conceptualization of gender. Many parents of gender-questioning children in the early 2020s are exasperated by the younger generation’s apparent inability to distinguish gender identity (an entirely modern phenomenon) from homosexuality (rather ancient, no matter what one might think of it).

Those of us who happen to be gay and critical of the contemporary obsession with gender — as I am myself — will certainly welcome Joyce’s robust account of the interplay of these phenomena, worried as we are that young people are misinterpreting their sexual urges as siren calls to the surgeon’s knife. Whether it is optimism or just naïveté to imagine that her sober analysis will elbow its way into the rainbow-spangled HR departments of Australia remains to be seen.

Yet Joyce’s best work is probably her dissection of the means by which today’s trans ideology is reordering society.

Whether it’s the parasitizing of civil rights movements, the exploitation of little-understood notions such as the hijra of India, the unpersoning of women (oops: “cervix-havers”), the emotional bombardment from the transgender lobby’s most narcissistic polemicists, or the corrosive consequences for sex-segregated sports and spaces — and prisons in particular — Trans sets forth exactly how this gaslighting plays out in modern Western societies.

But while the details are deeply disquieting, Joyce’s voice is far from that of a firebrand. That so moderate a woman finds herself the author of such a work itself indicates the number of women who are aghast at the social turmoil which gender ideology leaves in its wake.

There are two topics on which I would like to linger in particular, and I hope that readers will forgive me if this places unequal emphasis on the many ideas that Trans explores.

The first of these is the consequence of gender ideology for children and adolescents, deftly covered in Chapters 4 through 6. In these passages, Joyce unflinchingly unpicks the euphemistic language which shields the gender industry from scrutiny by examining a number of well-known cases, including that of Keira Bell, who successfully took on Britain’s Tavistock Clinic in court, and Jazz Jennings, the poster-child for male-to-female transition whose public exposure has proven a lucrative little earner for other family members.

The transitioning of children is not just investigated from a layperson’s perspective, but incorporates the input of experts such as Sasha Ayad, Susan Bradley, Lisa Littman, Lisa Marchiano and James Cantor, to name but a few — not that Joyce’s detractors have recognized this assiduous approach.

The voices of detransitioners (those who undergo medical transition only to regret it, and to re-identify with their natal sex) prove a driving force in these chapters. It is often observed in gender-critical circles that detransition — much like biological males competing in women’s sports — is “the argument that makes itself”. Yet the contemporary era seems to have thrown a blanket over the whole topic of detransition, much as one might throw a blanket over a parrot’s cage to stop it squawking.

Detransitioners constitute a political embarrassment to the pro-transition lobby, and readers of Trans who are newcomers to genderland may not appreciate how rarely this phenomenon is addressed — nor indeed how difficult it is to write sensitively about detransition, a task at which Joyce excels. She tells these stories with a fondness that doesn’t descend into condescension, and — importantly — leaves room for hope.

The second topic of particular interest to me in Joyce’s book is the role of Big Pharma in the transition industry. If detransition is a thorny matter, corporate profiteering from medical transition is nothing short of barbed. Yet Joyce evidently believed that Trans would be incomplete without this discussion — which should certainly be to her credit, given the accusatory howls which immediately ensued.

To spell out precisely how nefarious the pharmaceutical industry’s behaviour has become, she cites the work of Jennifer Bilek, who has mapped out the labyrinthine financial networks connecting hospitals, commercial hormone providers, rights campaigns and politicians, each professing wide-eyed innocence while stashing the cash on the sly.

Much of the reaction to Trans has centred around this controversy. I should say that I have worked with Jennifer Bilek before, and found nothing about her to be prejudiced in any way. Yet Bilek has been accused of racism, simply because those she accuses happen to share a given ethnicity (unsurprising, seeing as many are members of the same family). Critically, no-one has actually disproven Bilek’s (and thus Joyce’s) claims, nor even disputed them. Just as Bilek should be praised for her investigative fortitude, so too should Joyce be credited for writing about a topic which would have been far easier to gloss over.

As Joyce states in her introduction, “ideas have consequences”; and whether it’s Olympic weightlifters or Scottish schoolchildren, today’s media landscape seems saturated by the consequences of gender ideology. In the final chapters of Trans, Joyce delves into the real-world ramifications of self-identification: the jobs lost; the legal protections eroded; the sporting medals denied; the undersexed misogynists reanimated by their confected hatred of so-called “Terfs” (“Trans-exclusionary radical feminists”).

My own nation — Britain, now dubbed “Terf Island” — receives special mention from Joyce for the contributions of its women’s rights campaigners. Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, the role of women like Posie Parker and Maya Forstater is critical in Britain’s valiant (and internationally isolated) counterattack on the trans rights activists; and Joyce gives credit where credit is due, bringing what begins as a theoretically and historically informed account very much into the now. A valedictory assessment of what will happen next offers optimism and trepidation: pick your poison.

Joyce’s work is proof that reasonable compromise between competing rights claims is possible; that we can be empathetic without straying into mawkishness; that we can be outraged without being disgusted; and that we can be open-minded without (to paraphrase Tim Minchin) our brains falling out.

When the history of this disembodied era is written, Trans — for all the shrieks of “extremism” — may well prove to be the fulcrum of common sense we needed all along.

Angus Fox is the pen name of a British academic. He is also managing director of the website Genspect. Check out his articles on Substack.