The recent storm of media attention surrounding transgender youth may reflect much broader cultural anxieties. Certainly, it is a furore over a tiny population – of more than 13 million under-18s in the UK, 2,016 were referred to the NHS Gender Identity Development Service in 2016-17. This edited collection is positioned by its authors as heretical and marginalised, but reflects concerns voiced regularly in recent times. They identify as “gender critical feminists” (rather than “trans-exclusionary radical feminists”) but inhabit the same small but acrimonious position in a feminist movement that is otherwise predominantly inclusive of trans people.
The messages of the book are bold. The first is that “transgender children do not exist”. As an academic contribution to the debate, the promise is in its theoretical framework. Having dismissed the perspectives of youth, parents, charities, medicine, social policy and the law as “unproven” and “intellectually incoherent”, it suggests that trans youth are a discursive invention. “Transgenderism”, it contends, reinforces traditional gender binaries, propping up the patriarchy. This framework remains undeveloped and the chapters are inconsistent, offering a hotchpotch of pet clichés that sidestep the evidence-base. Trans youth are variously explained by tribal belonging; restrictive femininity; the distressing human condition; childhood trauma; male transvestites’ sexual desires; and really being gay.
Perhaps hopes were pinned on the highest-profile contributor, whose activism is currently aimed at blocking schools from accepting that children may be transgender. But of 57 sources cited in Stephanie Davies-Arai’s chapter, only seven are peer-reviewed research and these are cherry-picked and distort the wider medical and sociological evidence. Meanwhile, editor Michele Moore’s account of transgender theory leans on dated and inaccurate stereotypes of trans identities that make tiresome reappearances throughout. Nowhere is it acknowledged that many trans people experience binary gender norms as tyrannical, or that many (if not all) trans identities actively queer these binaries.
The second message is that children are “transgendered” by adults and that this is “abusive”. The book constructs an artifice of a society teeming with over-eager parents, whereas research consistently shows that trans youth are often rejected by their families and peers. While claiming that they are motivated by children’s well-being, the authors frequently misuse or ignore recent international studies that unequivocally show both high rates of depression, self-harm and suicide among trans adolescents and the safeguarding effects of gender-affirming support. Indefensibly, the book is almost silent on widely substantiated hate crime against trans youth. The authors’ account of secret meetings to plan the book – “each afraid of very real consequences for our families and livelihoods” – is the single point of resonance with the challenges faced by their subjects.
Gender critical feminists are often accused of recycling second-wave feminism’s failure to address differences between groups of women, but as “radical feminism” most of the arguments here are barely recognisable. Some fundamental principles are missing: powerful people shouldn’t dictate others’ identities, for example. More specifically, Brunskell-Evans and Moore reflect a white middle-class feminism untouched by subaltern or queer perspectives. Masquerading as scholarly text, this is epistemological chicanery, with the contributors adopting an already vocal repositioning as the silenced minority. In labelling “transgenderism” abusive, they don’t listen to the supposedly abused; in claiming to challenge “the seemingly unstoppable celebration of transgender ideology”, they present arguments neatly aligned with much recent media coverage. The irony is complete, the consequences no less serious.
Rachel Pain is professor of human geography at Newcastle University.
Transgender Children and Young People: Born In Your Own Body
Edited by Heather Brunskell-Evans and Michele Moore
Cambridge Scholars, 244pp, £61.99
Published 1 January 2018