by Jane Clare Jones
Helen Joyce is The Economist’s Britain editor. Here she talks to Jane Clare Jones about her new book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, published in July 2021. The interview took place in June by video call, and it has been edited for length and clarity.
Jane Clare Jones: The first thing I’d like to ask is how you got involved in this conversation. What first attracted your attention?
Helen Joyce: It’s not the usual story. I think for most people, there’s something pragmatic that strikes their attention … a child identifies as trans, or they become slowly aware that there’s some crazy thing happening, like blokes getting into their local changing room. For me, it was journalistic. I had absolutely no idea any of this was happening. I was asked by my editor [at The Economist] in, I think, 2017, if I had any idea why so many kids were identifying as trans or non-binary, and I had no idea, so I said I’d look into it. I wrote a piece that, looking back, I think is 70 or 80% successful. I knew something was really weird. But I still believed, in some way that I now can’t understand, that it was possible that somebody could be in the wrong body.
Jane: It’s kind of like a spell …
Helen: I think it was just that I hadn’t thought about it. To most people, at drive-by speed, it just looks like ‘the next gay marriage.’ But straight away I did see two things. One was that there was a circular definition at its heart – that comes from my mathematical background. And two was the very obvious [thing that] people now call a ‘clash of rights.’ Personally, I don’t think ‘clash of rights’ is a good framing, because I don’t think it’s a ‘right’ to identify as something you’re not … but I thought at the time it was a clash of rights, and that this would be harmful for women. So I wrote a piece about that, [but] I was not happy; I hadn’t nailed it.1
I kept reading about it, and then the following year, for the 175th anniversary of The Economist’s founding, we had this programme called Open Future, which was a restatement of the magazine’s liberal values, and on impulse, I said we should do a debate on trans issues, because it’s about these values, especially open debate. I tried to commission a bunch of people, and most of the trans writers I knew at the time refused. These were nice people. They wrote me these long, apologetic emails in which they said, ‘You’re like somebody asking me to share a platform with Nazis. These are people who would literally shoot me if they could,’ and so on. I was completely astonished. And I think this is where too many organizations have said, ‘Oh, well, we can’t have a debate at all if one side won’t come along.’ But it’s the other way around. If you’re a journalist it should be what people don’t want you to say that you should be thinking hardest about saying. That’s the point: you’re meant to run towards the news, not away from it. We managed to pull together a series of essays, however, which I still think was a turning point.2
Then, in the summer of 2019 I was on holiday for two weeks, and I went right down the rabbit hole. I did nothing but think about this. I was downloading books every night, and by the time I finished that holiday, I realized that I had to write a book. But I still didn’t know whether I was really ready for that. Then I went to the Detransition Advocacy Network launch in Manchester in October. And I found that profoundly upsetting, much more upsetting than I had thought I would. I hadn’t really concretely understood that they were [surgically removing] girls’ insides. I really respect detransitioners’ rights to frame what’s happened to them in a way that allows them to move forward and grow, but I also have to look at the people who did this to people who were minors, or who were mentally ill, or were suffering very severe conditions like eating disorders – [they] absolutely did not live up to their duty of care.
Jane: What do you think is driving them?
Helen: I think some of them genuinely are ideologues. It’s amazing how far you can go when you start with a lie, that male can be female. You can end up literally anywhere; you could argue absolutely anything. I mean, that’s a mathematical fact …
Jane: We’ve talked about this before. Can you just expand on that a little bit? Because I find it very interesting, this thing about the central premise …
Helen: When I started writing the book, I could imagine that the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ meant something that’s not quite the same as ‘adult human female’ and ‘adult human male.’ But you can’t do that with ‘male’ and ‘female.’ They have really very specific meanings which are by no means just human meanings. When you say that a male person can be female, you can get to literally anything from that, because that’s like ‘zero equals one.’ During the research I was reading philosophy papers, and I remember [in] one paper I got to page 20 or something, and then there was a sentence: “I take it as axiomatic that trans women are women.” I actually shouted out loud, “For fuck’s sake!” How can you do that? That’s just like saying, ‘I take it as axiomatic that zero equals one.’ You’d have to do a lot of work, at the very least, to say that trans women are women. When I started writing the book, I thought that I was going to have to put in an entire appendix on arguments [that] ‘trans women are women’ and why they don’t work. And in the end, I just thought: “You know what, these are so shit.” These people are not debating, they’re not talking about their ideas; they’re just putting it out there. And people aren’t saying anything, because they’re afraid they’ll say something wrong. So unsurprisingly, this is the most pathetically weak, appalling, stupid body of work I’ve ever seen. You know that I’m not an academic philosopher, I’m not a philosopher at all, and I can look at this, and say, “Oh, that’s where you went wrong. That’s where you said zero equals one.”
So the intellectual reason was just how appalling this stuff was. It actually intellectually offended me. And then the personal reason was seeing these girls. That night after the Detransition Advocacy Network, I sat there and I couldn’t sleep and I just thought, “Yeah, I’ve got to write the book.” Suddenly there were no more questions. It was very straightforward: “They are sterilizing gay kids. And if I write this book, they might sterilize fewer gay kids.” So that’s simple.
Jane: My perception is that the trans rights project isn’t being driven primarily by pharmaceutical interests, but rather by the desire for validation. But by this point these interests have very strongly attached themselves to it, because of the money in it.
Helen: Of course; that’s the way they work. The two biggest lobby groups in America are hospitals and pharma companies, so of course they’re lobbying on this now. But that’s opportunistic. They come in afterwards. The first impulse is definitely middle-aged men whose desire for validation as women is greater than anything else; that’s the ‘zero equals one.’ They’re the people who insist that you say that they’re women. And once you say that lie, everything else follows.
Jane: Yeah, everything else is collateral damage. I mean, I think women’s spaces are a prime target, because they serve this validation function … but the kids are collateral damage, because they serve as evidence for the notion that gender identity is an essence.
Helen: That’s right, that it’s an essence, and that it’s not to do with sexuality. I mean, in fact, gender is a lot to do with sex … One of the best-known findings in all of child psychology is that children who are wildly gender non-conforming at age three are dozens of times more likely to identify as gay when they hit puberty.
Jane: This is an important point, which is related to propping up the central narrative about ‘trans children,’ because if you interfere with the processes of puberty, then children might never find out what their sexuality is, because their body won’t give them the information. You are intervening on the body from the perspective of an ideological structure and blocking the knowledge that the body would provide. I really don’t understand how a discourse of ‘being your authentic self’ can exist in relation to this kind of body dissociation.
Helen: It is a perfect storm, to use another cliché. I don’t think any of this could have taken off without the internet. For many reasons, one being that that’s how it spreads. But another one being that more people are really ignorant of what their body is saying to them than ever before. The way I would conceive of what is needed for children is that you can just be this funny little boy or this tomboyish little girl. It is natural for kids to experiment; it’s natural, also, for gay kids to be unusual in many ways before they know why. It’s natural for them to reach puberty and their bodies to tell them why that is. If you interfere with that process, you’re not doing something neutral; you’re creating a new reality for that person in which they will never experience all the things their body could have taught them. So puberty blockers, I think, are a horror. Maybe 30 years ago when they started using them, I could imagine thinking, alright, this just gives them a bit of space. But now we know it doesn’t give them space, it locks them in. You can’t put things on pause like that; that’s just something that should not be done. And you would only think of doing it if you think of people as some sort of homunculus living behind the eyes of a meat sack.
Jane: Exactly. And they really do say that …
Helen: Yeah, they do. You know, three years ago I didn’t stop and think, ‘This doesn’t make any sense,’ so I don’t want to be too condemnatory of people who think that way. But if you’ve thought about it, and you can still come to that conclusion, I wonder what your sex life is like; I wonder how you experience anything in the world. I just wonder, what’s their idea of sexual attraction? If they’ve ever experienced helpless lust for somebody for a reason that you couldn’t possibly put into words, that’s to do with things like their smell or how their neck looks.
Jane: There’s something about the denial of our animality in this entire discourse, which I find very distressing, because the denial of our animality is a source of a great deal of dis-ease, I think.
Helen: Yes, and of missing out on so many of the pleasures of life. I’m a very intellectual person, I spend all my time in my head thinking to myself. But even I understand that what makes life worth living is the smell of my babies when they were born, and touching my mother when I see her again after a long time. And these people, they’re telling small children a grotesque lie. I think a lot of those children actually believe that they can change sex; I don’t think they understand what your average middle-aged trans person does understand, which is that you can’t and that it may still be worth it because they’ve been so unhappy. There are trans people who undergo these bodily changes and feel a bit better. That’s not what the children are being sold. The children are being sold the story that you can change sex. Children don’t understand that people vary at the cellular level; they think it is about the clothes or the hair. [Boys] don’t understand that they are going to be turned into a simulacrum of a woman that will probably be quite convincing if you start puberty blockers early enough, but they’re going to be sterile and probably not have sexual function either.
Jane: It’s so disturbing. There was this moment where [transactivist] Grace Lavery started making that really tasteless joke about scooping out reproductive organs like an ice-cream scoop or a melon baller. I mean, I thought as a society we had all agreed that sterilizing people was a human rights violation. And now you are painting us all as pearl-clutchers, as if only people with the most conservative instincts could be concerned about sterilizing children.
Helen: It is a massive human rights violation. And when it’s been done in the past – like when they non-consensually sterilized black women in America, or in Sweden, when they sterilized people they regarded as ‘mentally subnormal,’ or, going back further, women who were regarded as being ‘ungovernable’ – we recognize those things as the most serious category of human rights abuse. And yet, we’re actually doing it and we’re celebrating it as well. [Parents] get to be interviewed in newspapers and on television, and they get cheered on, and they’re sterilizing their children. At age three your child has been put on a path to being a simulacrum of the opposite sex, but they’re not going to be a fully functioning human being, if by that you mean somebody who understands their own body, listens to it, has sexual function, is able to have a child if that’s what they choose to do. And by the way, the positioning of wanting to have a child as some sort of frivolous thing that no feminist could possibly want to protect … I mean, it’s the central fact of my life that I have two children. I also have a PhD in maths and a big job, but I care about the children more than the rest.
Jane: This opens into the question of how this is framed in America, and also here to some extent, which is this idea that feminism has no space for mothering and was all about telling women not to have children. This has a lot to do with the difference between ‘equality feminism’ and a kind of feminism that’s more based on a recognition of difference and saying, ‘We need to reorganize the world so that it better accommodates women’s needs.’ You’re doing something extremely harmful if you’re insisting that the equality of women depends on pretending that women are men. There were parts of the second wave that had that idea of equality, and those were the parts that were most amenable to being fitted inside the existing system, so they were picked up and propagated. Because reorganizing the world so that it’s more equitable for the class of people who have babies requires large quantities of resources and very fundamental structural changes.
Helen: Yeah, that’s the hardest thing that society would have done since ending slavery. Right? And equally transformative.
Jane: Yeah. And obviously, I’m going to argue, very positively transformative.
Helen: It’s too hard, and it’s too disruptive to money and too difficult to do in an atomized society. I’ve really been influenced by you personally in this. Instinctively, I knew this stuff. I don’t talk much about my family life, because there are other people involved in my family, and that’s their private life too. But the things that are a matter of public knowledge: I’m the eldest of nine kids, and my family are the world’s most baby-mad family, it’s just babies wall to wall. And I’ve been like that since I was a little girl. There was a little baby boy born when I was 18 months old, and I have been baby mad ever since. I wanted nothing more than I wanted to be a mother. I really don’t think every woman has to be like this: I know lots of women aren’t, and it’s totally fine. But for a large number of women, having a child is the most beautiful, important, central fulfilling thing that they do. What are these people doing taking that possibility away from people? We are animals. We are mammals. We love our families. We love our children. These are very normal things to be and do and want.
Jane: You talk about atomization – there are questions about the fact that actually we evolved in a much less atomistic social structure, and I think it’s very important to talk about the way maternity confines women within a system of atomized nuclear families. We covered that in the last issue of the magazine, with an essay by Anna Ziggy Melamed about how reproduction and social reproduction could be done in a much more communal way, which is more supportive and provides more recognition for women.3 But now what’s happening is you get the Sophie Lewis version of that, which is like, ‘the mother-child bond is a lie and must be completely destroyed.’ It’s a performance of this kind of cyborgian dissociation … and I say this as someone who’s not particularly maternal and hasn’t had children. But I’m not going to deny the recognition of that among women as a collective because I’m not the single representative of female people as a kind.
Helen: And, you know, this dissociation and this idea that the perfect human is a man, but it’s not really a man, it’s a cyborg.
Helen: And that idea is something that children will pick up from the internet or from the fact that they’re indoors, and they’re not in nature. There’s a huge generational gap, because that wasn’t the case for our generation: most of us had very different childhoods.
Jane: We still grew up in the material world.
Helen: Yes. And so we learned about limits, but now we aren’t able to say that to these children – ‘No,’ and ‘You can’t,’ and so on.
Jane: It’s very interesting, this relation between denying material limits and a certain kind of individualism. What’s happening with this denial of materiality feels to me like a version of the American Dream, a kind of ‘I can have whatever I want, if I try hard enough, if I work hard enough.’ There’s a refusal to accept material limits, and also the limits that are placed on us by the subjectivity of other people. And to understand that becoming an ethical human being is about working out how to construct a life for yourself that is fulfilling, but within the boundaries of what is possible. And that sometimes you are going to feel pain, because sometimes you are going to want things that you can’t have. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re being oppressed, or that somebody is doing something wrong to you. There’s something very dangerous about creating a generation of kids who think that they must always get what they want. And when you look at the early formulations of trans ideology as well, it’s very clear there’s this really strong commitment to the idea that ‘we must have whatever we want, we must have our desires fulfilled.’
Helen: Yes. And what these children are being denied by the cowardice of people who won’t tell them the truth is an understanding of what’s material, where boundaries and limits are, and what it’s reasonable or not reasonable to ask other people to do. The next thing that these people don’t tell these poor children is, if we turn you into someone who can present themselves as a girl or a boy, that actually makes major claims on other people. They have to treat you like this. This is, I think, the foundational error of the early gender clinicians, who were not by and large people who were crazy. They didn’t think that they were turning people into the opposite sex, but they did assume that it was okay to impose this on everybody else. And the reason they thought that was because it was such tiny numbers, and because it involved surgery. I know that’s what they thought because I’ve asked them. I mean, if you’re talking about 40 or 50 people a year in a country the size of the UK, and you’ve done genital surgery on them, that’s kind of at the level of witness protection programmes.
Jane: Yeah. If you look at the original debates around the Gender Recognition Act, when this question comes up, and Baroness O’Cathain is very clear that other people are going to be put in situations where they’re forced to behave in a way that is contrary to either their perceptions or beliefs, that is just waved away by the government on the basis that it’s only going to involve such a tiny number of people.
Helen: Yeah, maybe it was never okay, but when it was such tiny numbers, it falls into the category of ‘every now and then shit happens, but there’s 1,000 other things to worry about.’ But step by step all of this happened. From the useful idiots who thought that it was just a tiny number and everybody wanted surgery, to the sex denial, and the gender essence, to finally conceiving of absolutely everybody as non-mammal.
Jane: This brings us to one of the other things it would be useful to talk about. You’ve done quite a lot of work in your book on looking at the history of trans ideology and how it developed. I’m very interested at the moment in trying to pull out the extent to which this is specifically an American cultural force, and has been produced by certain factors that are particularly notable features of American culture and politics and history, and how that is playing out in the differences between how this is advancing in North America and how it’s advancing in Europe, and how this relates to ‘the great mystery of TERF Island.’
Helen: If you look back through history, and if you look at what anthropologists say about different cultures, this idea that there are some people who are, in particular, a female soul in a male body is a common idea. They’re gay men. These are feminine gay men, but they can’t be accommodated in a patriarchal, sexist, rigid culture, because they’re too non-conforming. So they are reconceived as being a third category. And we’ve given this the label ‘third gender,’ which is one of those umbrella labels which encompasses many things that are very different from each other. The classic example is Samoa, where there is a third gender, the Fa’afafine, who are understood to be gay male people. They’re little boys who are very effeminate – I hate that word, I regard it as a variant of masculinity, but they’re very variantly masculine, right? Little characters who like dancing and singing and swish around the place at three or four or five, and it’s thought that this child is likely to be happier as a Fa’afafine, because they have no acceptance of male homosexuality except for this. So either he is going to have to butch up and marry a woman, or he’s allowed to be in the special category where he doesn’t undergo any body modifications whatsoever, but dresses much more like the women do. And they are seen as a third category. And that has popped up all over the place.
If we fast forward to America today, it’s not that surprising that there were men who felt that they were women – there have been people like that all over the place, but how they’re dealt with is culturally specific. You can’t say, ‘Oh, there have always been trans people’ – that’s as mad as saying ‘There have always been Fa’afafine.’ It’s too culturally specific. But the country-specific version in America developed on campuses and grew out of queer theory. I’m sure it had a lot to do with America’s culture of ‘you can be anything you want to be’ – the idea of the self-made man, and a culture that’s quite prudish, quite body denying. Samoa’s version is Fa’afafine because they’re deeply homophobic and very patriarchal, while America’s version is that you can remake yourself to be anything: you are a self-made man or a self-made woman. And it metastasized because of the moment that we were in … Political polarization, the internet, and America’s cultural hegemony globally meant that this spread in a way that no idea has ever spread before. American ideas spread in a way no other people’s ideas spread, or have ever spread, not even the ancient Romans. They just did not have the same reach.
We know this from American versions of eating disorders, [which] have been picked up in other cultures. I think there’s a very strong analogy with anorexia. The idea of self-starvation pops up in small pockets everywhere, the same way the idea that you can be a female in a male body does, but it’s not common. And it doesn’t necessarily follow the same pattern as the American version of anorexia: in particular, it’s not common to have a distorted body image. It’s self-starvation because of self-hatred; it’s despair and a wish to die from despair. But the American version is culturally specific, and that spread and became a social contagion. People have written the history of how this happened in, for example, Hong Kong, which had no American-style anorexics, and then imported the idea and suddenly had loads of American-style anorexics.4 The same thing happened with multiple personality disorder – again a very American idea, that there could be multiple people in the same body, which is just bizarre. But again, people have had that idea in little bits and bobs around the place. But it took off like wildfire in America and was spread by Hollywood films, and TV chat shows, and books by therapists.
And now we’re watching another one. Again, it’s spread by the internet, the medical profession, in schools, and more than anywhere spread in universities. But this is an American conception, the whole idea that you can actually be born in the wrong body and that you treat it by intervening early with children, while of course, at the same time, it’s possible to just be a totally physiologically normal man who is really a woman – and somehow these two ideas go together. There’s a whole bundle of stuff that has been exported. It spreads to the culturally closest people first, and most strongly through the Anglosphere universities, which are all completely captured by this ideology. But there are other places where it’s easier to shake off, because they’re culturally further from the US, and it didn’t take such deep roots. Britain is kind of halfway; it’s exactly where some institutions have completely fallen, namely universities, the civil service, and big NGOs, the charity world, but there’s still a really strong opposition that isn’t easy to write off as being culturally conservative, Trumpian, anti-abortion, Christian, because it’s none of those things. So, there’s a massive fight. The UK is precisely where there are equally matched foes, and so it’s going to be a fight to a standstill.
Jane: And what do you think are the cultural traditions in Britain that have allowed that resistance to be articulated?
Helen: I don’t know a huge amount about the history of feminism, but my impression is that there’s a history [in the UK] that’s grounded in women organizing and trade unionism, in women fighting for maternity rights and getting abortion rights earlier. A history of success is very helpful. American feminism is one long history of failure; they don’t even have maternity rights. By comparison, British feminism is strong, it’s organized, it’s material. And not being politically polarized helps a lot because you can make coalitions across boundaries that you can’t very easily in America. There’s a sort of bolshiness in the British, and also not being very religious and being a lot less prudish helps. And then I think it’s very important to say that, in America, the whole discourse has been horribly distorted by false analogies with race. Which hasn’t happened in the UK, because the racial history is completely different.
Jane: That’s one of the arguments that’s ongoing, the way they’re imposing their racial history, and how that’s affecting their understanding of difference. Like, the claim that thinking males and females are different is like segregation, that it’s ‘separate but equal’ logic. And I’m like, “This is not our history.”
Helen: You have to be super Americanized to think like that, because it’s so unbelievably stupid and racist. I’m in an unusual position in that I’m from the only white country that was colonized by the English during that colonial period. So, I’m unusually free from neuralgia on this subject. I think there are two distinguishable things. One of them is racism, and one of them is slavery. And obviously, slavery relied on an extremely racist view of seeing the world, but it’s possible to be racist without having had slavery. Irish people can be very racist, but we literally never enslaved anybody. Slavery is just nothing to do with our history. I’m able to look at racism without having to jump straightaway to slavery, or to Jim Crow, or any of those things. Whereas in America, there’s a bit of their culture, a bit of their headspace, missing. They can’t conceive of the distinction between … you know, racism is distinction without a difference, whereas sex is a distinction because of the difference.
Jane: I think that’s absolutely right. And, because of the nature of their racial history and how deep the wound is, they can’t grasp the idea that you could make a distinction, and it could not turn into a hierarchy. The kind of difference feminist tradition which I would situate more coming out of France, the lineage that comes from Beauvoir, recognizes that, actually, what is happening in the oppression of women is not caused by difference; it’s the refusal to recognize the salience of a difference. To me, that’s what Caroline Criado Perez’s book [Invisible Women] demonstrated so well, that a lot of injustice for women is not about making a difference where there isn’t one, it’s about refusing to recognize a difference where there is one.
Helen: Beautifully put. And maybe that’s why American feminism has been so neutered. It’s been unable ever to articulate that, because at the same time that the early feminists needed to be able to say, ‘We’re different, we need the world to accommodate us,’ they – I don’t mean just feminists, all Americans – were imposing a lie of difference on black people. I think countries have original sins, and America’s original sin is obviously slavery.
Jane: Is there anything else you’d like to add about what you learned in the process of working on the book?
Helen: I’m not someone who had thought much about sex differences before. Nowadays, we’re getting rid of the unnecessary sex differences, like you can only marry someone of the opposite sex, women are kept out of professions, whatever. And then when sex mattered, it was sex that mattered. I understood that … sports, changing rooms, rape crisis centres, prisons. And that was where I was living. But now in this discourse of sex not being real, I have seen sex differences more clearly than ever before. It’s amazing how obvious they are. And one of the places they’re most obvious is the enormous difference between boys and men who identify as girls or women, and vice versa. There is nothing as different as the reasons why males identify as women and females identify as men.
Jane: Yes, they’re not even the same phenomenon. That’s why there’s a problem with grouping it all under the label of ‘trans.’ What does a 16-year-old autistic lesbian have in common with a late-transitioning 45-year-old male?
Helen: Right. And there’s actually a parallel there among the third genders. They’re mostly about homosexual men, but there are a few third genders that are about women – in particular the sworn virgins of Albania and Balkan societies. Actually, one of the very last things I added to the book was a bit of research into them. Sworn virgins have to swear to never have a child, because it’s too disruptive that a ‘man’ would have a child. And the reason they identify out of their sex is because they’re in deeply patriarchal societies where only men can inherit property. So, you might want one of your daughters to identify as a man in order to keep the property in the family. But more than that, these are cultures where marriages are arranged very young, and if an arranged marriage doesn’t happen, it starts a blood feud. If you very badly want to get out of a marriage that’s been arranged, there is one way and one way only they’ll allow you to do it. So, women identify as a third gender to keep property in the family, or to save their brothers’ lives. They’re doing it for very pragmatic reasons, and mostly not to do with sexuality. Whereas the third genders that are to do with males identifying out of manhood, it’s because it’s too disruptive to allow a feminine gay male to count as a man. So you expel them from manhood.
Jane: Yeah, and again, it’s another example of the cultural imperialism – this idea you can just go around the globe, picking up these different things that are highly specific and folding them all into the same thing. This is what’s interesting to me about this discourse, coming from an academic lineage of post-structuralism. Because what you’re doing is producing this universal narrative, whereas if you were being true to the lineage that you claim justifies this, you should be really attentive to the cultural specificity of all of these things, understanding that the hijra are not the same as the Fa’afafine, who are not the same as the travestis, who are not the same as Joan of Arc. You’ve just gone around the whole of the globe, and human history, and picked up all of these things, and assimilated them into a concept that you invented in the United States in the 90s. This is not an intellectually respectable thing to do.
Helen: I think that the false analogy with being gay is part of the reason. It’s funny, because queer theory is very clear that what it means to be gay, or whatever the equivalent of that is, really varies from place to place. Like, they look at Ancient Greece, where many men took young boys as sexual partners, and use that to claim that homosexuality varies from place to place, but actually it varies a shitload less than the variation in third-gender cultures. There is a core there: there are people who are destined to grow up to just not find the opposite sex attractive, there really are. So now this other thing comes along, which is completely different and genuinely culturally constructed. And I think that a lot of people who understood very well that being gay was real think being trans is the same thing. I’ve seen people I respect and admire who aren’t prone to bullshit write sentences like, ‘There have always been trans people.’ Because there have always been gay people. So people are willing to believe the lie and think that there is something at the core of ‘transness’ because there was something at the core of being gay.
Jane: I think that’s right. That’s one of the places where the analogy is doing the work. And I also think there’s this thing about people wanting to have a do-over. People realize we fucked up, because it took us 50-odd years to do the right thing, and thousands of people’s lives were harmed – chemically castrating men and sending them to prison and so on.
Helen: God, their analogies are so awful. [Laughs] One of the things that was also really interesting for me researching the book was reading some of the early autobiographies of trans people, because again, you really see the culturally constructed nature of what they believed about themselves. One thing I noticed that I think no one else has noticed is in the autobiography of Lili Elbe, who was the subject of The Danish Girl, the film from 2015 with Eddie Redmayne. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that his nose bleeds monthly, and he takes this as a sign that he’s really a woman. As well as reading Elbe’s autobiography I read a biography of Magnus Hirschfeld, who was the doctor who ran the institute where Elbe ended up, and I also read a few interesting books about psychosomatic illness. In one of those there’s an entire history of ‘reflex theory,’ which was the belief that one bit of your body affected other bits in ways that went not via the brain. And there was a theory of what they called ‘vicarious nasal menstruation.’ They believed that in a woman whose reproductive organs were going wrong, it might affect her nose, and she would menstruate through her nose. That was a well-known idea at the time. So when Elbe went to the clinic and said, ‘I have monthly nosebleeds,’ he was saying something they understood at the time as being a sign that he was really a woman. And now nobody believes in vicarious nasal menstruation, so nobody turns up at gender clinics saying, ‘My nosebleeds follow a monthly cycle.’ I think it’s an absolutely fabulous example of how, since the 1930s, the idea of what it is that makes you ‘really’ a woman has changed and is really, again, quite culturally specific.
One of the other things I found fascinating was thinking about body dissociation and Cartesianism. I was very influenced in the way that I started thinking about that from my conversations with you, early on, and in particular the [question] of why Mumsnet has been such a site of resistance to all this. We don’t ever really tell women what it’s like to get pregnant and give birth. And it comes as a shock, and a horrifying shock a lot of the time; it always has, in all of history, because it’s the most extraordinarily animal experience. I think that’s a lot to do with why many women are viscerally outraged by the body dissociation.
Helen: Because they’ve just been torn apart. Or they’ve been cut open. They’re leaking, getting no sleep, and people turn up to your house the week afterwards and say, ‘All right, pull your pants down, let me look at how those stitches are doing.’ You’re a totally different person from the person who could pretend that she was a sentient robot. Men are able to pretend they aren’t animals so much more easily, especially because we have positioned anger as not an emotion. So allegedly women are emotional, but actually men are much more emotional, if you count anger. Men go around pretending that the animal things they do aren’t animal, and if you’ve defined all of those things as ‘not animal,’ ‘not emotion,’ then you’re left with just this rational human being …
Jane: A brain on a stick.
Helen: Yeah. And over there are people who grow human beings inside them, and then expel them with a great deal of mess and blood, and then have to clean up the leakage and leak monthly and leak out of their breasts and who are just, you know, horribly disgusting animal creatures. And that’s very embarrassing for women, especially if only non-leaking-people are human.
Jane: Exactly. The fact is men are leaking animals too, but it’s much easier for them to conceal that from themselves.
Helen: It is. And they also reconceptualize not just the anger but the ejaculation as a sort of monumental, fantastic, wonderful, amazing, life-giving—
Jane: Sword-like emanation into the world.
Helen: Ha. It’s a clever trick. You turn all your leaks into non-leaks, and over there, you leave the other person to do the leaking. That was something I thought about a lot.
The other thing that has really horrified me is realizing that a lot of people just don’t give a shit about women. It is amazing to me still that there are people who dare to call themselves feminists who know that we are putting actual rapists in women’s prisons. And there’s so many people and NGOs and charities who don’t give a shit. All these organizations like the ACLU, Stonewall, HRC, GLAAD, and literally hundreds of smaller charities where, you know, the people who founded them have moved on, they’re run by people who are just career third-sector people. And they may be moving from doing something for animals to doing something for autism to doing something for women or something for LGBT people. I can’t say for any individual person whether they don’t give a shit or whether they haven’t worked out what’s going on or if they’re stupid or just doing it for the money. I don’t know what the details are. But as a whole, the third sector has become intellectually and morally corrupt.
Jane: Absolutely. It’s one of the things that I think I’m only really beginning to process now that the battle feels somewhat less intense here, which is just the overwhelming contempt for women.
Helen: I try not to think about that too much because I get too angry. But it’s true. And they’re all trading on their good names. They were all founded by people like Maya Forstater … like Maya’s Sex Matters organization is driven by the pure white heat of rage at what is being done. She has worked unpaid, probably 80 or 90 hours a week, and she’s put up with vilification and defamation. That was what it was like back at the beginning of Stonewall, back at the beginning of the ACLU. And now we’ve got these well-paid careerists who are doing the exact opposite of what their organizations were founded to do. And that’s quite upsetting. And people haven’t noticed it. They still think these organizations stand for something.
I think the two things that are going to make the most difference, as this supertanker turns – one is definitely the sterilizing [of] kids, and the other one is sports. Because it’s just actually funny, like, awful but funny. I show people the pictures of Rachel McKinnon on the podium or Laurel Hubbard with the two Samoan women on either side. And I’ve never done it and not had the other person laugh.
Jane: Yeah. It’s absurd. And it’s the way of making it manifest in its clearest form – how absurd it is.
Helen: Also, the men really get the sports thing. They just say, ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous.’ But I think a lot of men don’t give a shit about women’s sports. In particular, the men who are the administrators in sports don’t give a shit about women’s sports, and all these decisions to allow men into women’s sports were made by men. But the other reason it happened is that people can’t actually believe you’re serious. A lot of this has been enabled because people just cannot believe something so crazy could be happening. So they assume you must be exaggerating. And then the people with ill intent can get in there and make all the changes …
Jane: Maybe this is a good place to end, because I think this is one of the great accomplishments of your book. As you say, one of the ways that this entire thing has been enabled is because what they’re trying to do is so bonkers that it’s taken us a very long time to convince people that they are actually trying to do what we say they are. It’s very easy to just go, ‘Oh, those are crazy women, they’re screaming about nothing. They’re hysterical. They just hate trans people.’ And one of the great achievements of your book is that you’ve managed to document this movement and its objectives, and you’ve done it with such lucidity and grace that it’s very compelling, and convincing, and it doesn’t sound like it’s you being the bonkers one.
Helen: Yeah, and on the other side as well, it’s very hard for a woman to decide, *deep sigh,* ‘I’m now going to dedicate two years of my life to something that’s mad.’ I know you can sympathize because you’ve done it too, but can [the] general [public] sympathize with somebody who has a million better things to be doing with their time and actually has to spend time writing down why we shouldn’t be putting rapists in women’s prisons?
Jane: That’s what makes me so angry, that we have to spend all this energy explaining …
Helen: I. Have. Better. Things. To. Do. With. My. Life.
The maddest bit of the whole book – there were many mad bits, but the maddest bit was saying, ‘Darwin actually worked out why there are two sexes.’ Sexual selection caused there to be two reproductive strategies, two reproductive pathways, bodies shaped by and directed towards two types of reproductive strategies. That’s it. There’s no other definition. It’s the same definition right across the animal and plant kingdom. That’s that. And I think that saved me a lot of time and stupid effort, although, God knows, I had to put a lot of time and stupid effort into this book. I mean, in a way, it’s been intellectually very interesting. But it’s also been ridiculous. And quite a lot of people in journalism have said to me, ‘Look, this is all so stupid, why are you wasting your time on it? Is this what you want to be known for?’ But the thing is, it’s all very well to think that this is so mad that someone will stop it. Well, someone has to be the someone.
1 Helen Joyce, ‘Making sense of the culture war over transgender identity,’ The Economist, 16 November 2017.
2 Helen Joyce, ‘Transgender identities: A series of invited essays,’ The Economist, 29 June 2018.
3 Anna Ziggy Melamed, ‘When the Mask Slips: Gendered Division of Labour in the COVID-19 Pandemic,’ Issue Three of THE RADICAL NOTION, pp. 74-80.
4 Editors’ Note: Research conducted by Sing Lee on this matter is outlined in Ethan Watters, ‘The Americanization of Mental Illness,’ New York Times Magazine, 8 January 2010.