Until the past few years, it wasn’t controversial to know or to say that there are two sexes, which are immutable; indeed, it was, and is, part of the background of our collective reality. But a competing belief system has emerged: that rather than the material reality of sex, we all have a “gender identity,” one that is sometimes in conflict with the bodies we receive from nature. Under the paradoxically menacing social imperative to “be kind,” new rules have been enshrined to sanctify this idea. Children, if they claim to be born in the wrong body, are put on puberty blockers to delay the onset of adulthood and, in some cases, prescribed cross-sex hormones and subjected to irreversible surgery, often rendering them infertile.
There are deep reasons for the emergence of this odd metaphysics: Among other shifts, the industrial age ushered in a great proximity between the sexes, treating humanity as only indifferently man or woman. The great heterodox Catholic thinker Ivan Illich noted in 1990 that male and female have become “neutered economic agents, stripped of any quality other than the functions of consumer and worker.” Sexual difference has been further reduced to a series of one-dimensional images, and our pornographic culture has reduced bodies to poses and parts. Our becoming-same has culminated in a hostile takeover of women by men, to the extent that our presence in language is erased: “Woman” becomes “body with vagina,” and “mother” becomes “birthing person.”
As part of this erasure, women’s often hard-won single-sex spaces and events—prisons, locker rooms, toilets, shelters, sports—are increasingly falling to “self-ID,” the idea that whatever sex someone says he is, he is. We don’t accept this argument when it comes to race, as the case of Rachel Dolezal demonstrated, or if someone says he is Napoleon (in which case we get him psychiatric help). Yet we are supposed to accept it when it comes to sex. Those men, women, and children who don’t believe that human beings can change sex—or that we should, for reasons of politeness, pretend that they can—are punished for not accepting the new worldview.
As the 2000s marched on, what was once a fringe view became a matter of growing public and media concern, though some of the tactics for pushing through changes in law were shadowy and deliberately rushed. While Britain’s 2004 Gender Recognition Act already permitted people to change their sex legally, for example, activists wanted a law that would make it easier and quicker to do so. By 2018, as James Kirkup notes, it became clear that “some people who campaign for trans-rights policies make a deliberate choice to do so in private settings, where the wider public cannot know or assess their arguments.” Pro-trans groups, such as Mermaids and Stonewall in Britain, had meanwhile infiltrated public bodies. Stonewall held institutions to a kind of moral ransom with its “Diversity Champions” program, which many big companies signed up for. Any feminism that wasn’t “for everyone” or “intersectional” was now a dirty word.
People imagine that when authoritarian ideas emerge, they will be brave enough to stand up and oppose them. The truth is that most will go along with dominant ideas, because they don’t want trouble, and they don’t want to lose jobs or friends. Many don’t want to look too closely, for fear of the whole thing unraveling. But when it comes to gender ideology, there are some who have resisted determinedly. Despite the accusations of “hatred,” “transphobia,” and even “fascism” leveled against anyone who questions the smallest aspect of this movement, opponents have persisted with level-headed and reasoned concerns.
This is especially the case in Britain. There has been so much successful UK pushback, on multiple fronts, that the country has come to be known as “TERF Island.” (“TERF,” short for “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” is the pejorative term used by gender ideologues to describe women who resist). And it is women at the forefront. In the face of death threats, job losses, and ostracism, many have stood up to defend their rights and to protect children from harm. They have now won several concrete victories that have set back gender ideology to a degree that its proponents no doubt find alarming.
Some, such as J.K. Rowling, are famous; many aren’t. There have been exposés and whistleblowers, and a slew of intelligent, well-researched, and widely read books. The umbrella of transgenderism bundles together whole groups of people who have nothing to do with one another: teenage girls who feel unhappy in their bodies alongside men in their 50s who fetishize what they imagine it’s like to be a woman. In reality, there is nothing that links these two groups. The whole language of transgenderism needs to be dismantled. The British women who began doing just that when it was institutionally unpopular—and dangerous to their careers and even their lives—deserve our gratitude.
Kathleen Stock is a philosopher and activist. The Scottish-born 50-year-old began teaching at the University of Sussex in 2003, rising to become professor. She was, by all accounts, a progressive feminist in good standing—that is, until she began publicly resisting gender ideology. In 2018, she spoke out against proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, at which point opposition began to swirl around her, utterly transforming her reception among the university left. Anonymous students from Sussex began a campaign to get Stock fired, which involved poster campaigns, protests, and intimidation. After the refusal of her university union to defend her position, Stock left in 2021.
In the same year, she published Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism (2021), a key text in the effort to overcome gender ideology’s jumble of confusion with clear argument, rigor, and open-mindedness. In it, Stock systematically addresses many of the claims made for gender identity and tries to pin down what exactly is meant by “gender.” Above all, the fact that we have used it as a euphemism for (biological) sex out of politeness has been a disaster.
Alongside the feminist writer Julie Bindel, who has long campaigned against violence against women and girls, Stock has recently founded the Lesbian Project, which specifically seeks the well-being of same-sex-attracted females. Gender ideology depends for its force upon association with civil-rights movements of the past, and by attaching the “T” (trans) and the “Q” (queer—still an offensive term to many) to the gay-rights movement, it attempts to appear as part of a progressive suite of rights that all compassionate people would support.
But the forced-teaming is falling apart. The idea that gender identity matters more than bodily sex coerces gay women into regarding men who identify as lesbians as potential sexual partners. Prioritizing gender over sex, moreover, undermines the basis upon which sexual attraction is based, and gives an out for parents upset about having a gay child. As dissident gay-rights organizations such as the LGB Alliance have pointed out, “young gay men or lesbians are being sold a myth that they can be straight, that lesbians are really straight men and that gay men are really straight women.” This, they say, is tantamount to homophobic conversion therapy.
I asked Stock how and why women in particular were able to organize in the Britain. “Because,” she said, “there is a baseline of mainstream feminism already … because there’s a history of socialist organizing, and a strong tradition of socialist feminism … because the UK is easy to travel around, so people can meet with each other relatively easily.” Indeed, while opposition to gender ideology exists in the United States, pushback often comes from religious and conservative organizations. In more secular Britain, the gains of the women’s-liberation movement, from Wollstonecraft and the Suffragettes to consciousness-raising groups, still echo. The idea that sex is real but gender stereotypes are questionable still holds sway for many women who grew up as happy tomboys, or gender-nonconforming men liberated by punk and goth subcultures in the 1970s and ’80s.
It is worth reflecting here on the tensions within the coalition that has emerged in response to the mainstreaming of gender ideology. Feminists like Stock share with social conservatives a belief in the reality of sex, and both groups oppose medical intervention for children. But many social conservatives in the United States and elsewhere oppose gender ideology because they see it as blurring gender roles—and in this sense, as continuous with feminism. In contrast, progressive feminists like Stock here don’t defend the reality of sex because they want to preserve some notion of traditional gender roles. On the contrary, they want such rigid expectations to disappear, and regard gender ideology as in some ways perversely reinforcing them: “Becoming” a woman, for an avatar of the movement like Dylan Mulvaney, entails little more than wearing heels, fake nails, and short dresses.
The online dissemination of often pornographic gender stereotypes is perceived as regressive by many who defend instead the idea that boys, girls, men, and women should be free to explore whatever interests they choose, without being medicalized. The rush to pathologize is unsettling for those of us who grew up, instead, with an attitude of positive indifference to feminine boys and masculine girls. Unhappy children need to be listened to and guided, not slammed into identity categories enforced by hormones and surgery.
There is hope, though, that we can get back there, despite the seeming intractability of the discussion. As Stock concludes optimistically in Material Girls, “social problems will get solved by time-honored methods: finding out what exactly the problems are, with a focus on concrete evidence and listening to all affected parties; and finding out what causes those problems, and what would practically help to make a difference. And then doing it.”
She tells me simply that her working life “was made a misery” by gender ideologues. But otherwise, she adds, “I have gained enormously.”
Imagine going to court to defend the claim that the sky is, well, at least sometimes in Britain, blue. This is the situation Maya Forstater found herself in. While working for a think tank, the Centre for Global Development, she tweeted that a transgender woman couldn’t change sex. Forstater had been watching with alarm as gender ideology pervaded her workplace, threatening the hard-won rights of women. In response to her tweet, her contract was not renewed.
But Forstater wasn’t ready to call it quits. Instead, she lodged a wrongful-dismissal claim and brought a test case for her beliefs under the Equality Act. In 2021, on appeal, the court held that Forstater had a philosophical right to her belief that “biological sex is real, important, and immutable.” This belief, formerly known as “something everybody knew,” is now officially protected for all—thanks to Forstater. As J.K. Rowling gently put it in 2019 in support of Forstater: “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?”
In 2022, Forstater and others, including Economist editor Helen Joyce, whose book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality takes a serious and meticulously researched look at gender ideology, set up Sex Matters. The organization promotes the fundamental, used-to-be-common-sense view that “sex matters in life and in law. It shouldn’t take courage to say so.” Among other things, the organization campaigns for clarity around the word “sex” in law, because many institutions have replaced clear sex-based rules with nebulous “gender” categories.
“I think it was a combination of factors that have created a perfect storm in the UK,” she told me. “Firstly, because of our common language and cultural ties, we had front-row seats to what was going on in the US and Canada.” Like Stock, she noted that Britain is “a small enough country that organizing is not impossible. A small organization like Woman’s Place UK can organize meetings all over the country. But we are not as small as a country like Ireland or Malta, where the international trans lobby could swallow the policy process in one gulp. We fought back.” She noted, too, the prevalence of left-wing women with backgrounds in trade unionism and the importance of the online forum Mumsnet, where several years ago mothers en masse began to question gender ideology.
While Britain’s National Health Service has come under severe scrutiny for the promotion and practice of gender provision at certain clinics, Forstater notes that a system that is free at the point of use has its advantages: “Losing your job doesn’t mean losing your health care.” Britain’s collective investment in the system also means that we have “a single point of leverage and scrutiny over gender medicine.” This week, Forstater is back in court, battling for compensation for injury to feelings, aggravated damages, lost earnings, and future earnings against the employer that punished her for her now-protected belief that sex is real and material.
Victoria Smith is a British author and “old lady feminist,” according to her Twitter bio. Her feminism isn’t the fun kind that pretends that prostitution is liberation, or that men can be women. She is the author of the newly released book Hags: The Demonization of Middle-Aged Women. In it, she stands up for “Karens” everywhere, by exploring how the backlash against women and mothers has unfolded. “Hag hate,” she writes, “provides a ‘culturally approved script’ to legitimize extreme fantasies of violence against older women.”
Mothers and older women have indeed become the targets of hatred from young men who resent being told what to do and by young women, who have been encouraged to think that they will somehow never suffer the ravages of time. Mothers are boring; mothers are dinosaurs. J.K. Rowling, one of the most successful self-made women alive, is symbolically burned over and over again for refusing to accept the role of mousy middle-aged woman.
Smith noticed that the hag hate she received in response to her own gender-critical statements came particularly from the left. Indeed, this has been one of the most depressing features of the past few years for many of us, when our male peers simply decided to stop listening to us. “I would say it’s damaged my trust in people,” she told me, “especially men on the left. With the men, it has been quite shocking to see how many have embraced telling women to shut up, that they are ignorant, that their speech is murderous etc. now that they have an excuse—as though they have been waiting all these years! With women, I understand that it’s too dangerous for many to speak out, but I have been disappointed in those who say one thing in private then openly denounce ‘TERFs’ in public.” But organizing has flourished, even so.
Smith told me that, for her, it was the lack of partisan positioning on the issue that permitted organizing: “I think it’s been easier for UK feminists to organize, because we haven’t been pushed into accepting it’s a left-right thing, and that if you’re not pro self-ID, you’re on the right.” She added: “I get the sense that in the US, the Republican-Democrat polarization has made it easier to claim that being trans and being gender nonconforming are the same thing, so you’re either all in or all out, and if you’re all out, your abortion rights are on the line, too. For UK feminists, it’s been possible to make the case on our own terms, because there was no one else we could tie ourselves to anyhow.”
There is no getting away from the fact that trans-rights activists do their utmost to taint left-wing and liberal feminists with a right-wing or even “Nazi” brush. So-called anti-fascists routinely turn up at women’s events wearing masks and intimidating those who gather. This deliberate hyperbole is grossly offensive to the victims of real fascism, and clearly seeks to create fear and hatred of concerned women. Along these lines, Smith’s Hags unpacks the many disrespectful and politicized characterizations of older women. In a chapter titled “Wrong Side of History Hag” she writes, “As long as any woman past the prime of youth can be used as a dumping ground for other people’s anxieties over the body and dependency, older women can be written off as reactionary.”
She notes that “there is a high psychological toll to being gaslit and told you are a bad person, particularly if you are trying so hard to say things carefully … then you realize there is no right way of saying it—either you don’t ask any questions at all, or your speech is evil.” It is hard not to see the desire to silence women as part of a long history that includes scolds’ bridles, witch burning, and early-20th-century anti-suffragette propaganda.
Suzanne Moore—much-beloved writer, Orwell Prize winner, and former Guardian journalist who now writes her own Substack—told me about her experience of censorship and ostracism after her position at the paper was made untenable. In March 2020, she published a column defending women’s right to organize, writing: “We have the right to speak and organize without being told that speech is itself dangerous. You can tell me to ‘die in a ditch, TERF’ all you like, as many have for years, but I self-identify as a woman who won’t go down quietly.”
More than 300 colleagues then wrote a letter criticizing Moore. How did this affect her? “I left The Guardian, as I could no longer write as I wished. My view is that journalism has to go to uncomfortable places but the paper was edited by cowards who were more concerned about competing with The New York Times than what was actually going on.”
Moore describes herself as “pretty inflammatory,” but when she mentioned to me that she told her children that they could change their names when they went to college to avoid threats directed at them, and to escape association with their mother, I felt terribly sad. How on earth did we get to a place where women have to imagine proposing severing ties with their family in order to protect them? Moore blames the rape and death threats she receives not on trans people, but on “activists who are using this ‘cause’ for good old-fashioned misogyny. I see it as part of the backlash against feminism.”
Moore agrees with Smith and Forstater about the specific confluence of forces in Britain: “Class is material, and many left-wing women understand that. We have a history of resistance via the trade-union movement from which many of those come … When shunned by the official left, for example, the Labour Party, we have still been able to organize elsewhere.”
Indeed, organizing effectively. In recent years, mainstream left and liberal politicians have struggled to answer the question, “What is a woman?” But perhaps the tide is beginning to turn. This year, the Scottish National Party leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s rule collapsed over the question of self-ID. She had clung to a dangerous position—namely, that a male rapist should be placed in a women’s prison because he identified as a woman—that the country didn’t support. Meanwhile, England’s Tavistock Clinic, notorious for transitioning children on a dime, has been shuttered.
I asked how Moore sees this all playing out: “I think the battle will go on, but eventually the science denial will end, and we will look back at the medicalization and sterilization of kids on an industrial scale as a huge scandal. It is ‘follow the money’ here.” She noted that “Europe is pulling back,” but that “the US, with its private medicine, will continue to profit from distress.” What of those in the media and captured institutions who have pushed these ideas for several years now? “They cannot be seen to have been wrong or to have been, in fact, on the wrong side of history, so there will be a lot of rewriting of the last few years.” Progress isn’t linear, she suggested, and we must be prepared to play the long game: “To persuade people to return to the reality they instinctively know: that we live in sexed bodies.”
Smith, too, foresees no quick unraveling: “I think there may be a pulling back from the medicalization of gender nonconforming children, but I don’t foresee any great reckoning or admission of wrongdoing.” Feminists have been in the middle, she told me, trying to say that “gender nonconformity is great, but saying people are born in the wrong body or that female people can’t have boundaries isn’t gender nonconformity.” But, she pointed out, “that’s not as slick or powerful a message as, ‘Only affirm!,’ or ‘Fight the groomers!’”
The desire for simplicity—for a black-and-white picture, of knowing which group deserves opprobrium—is extremely powerful. As Hags shows, and Smith pointed out to me, “people go for the big, broad-brush demonization of others, so I fear whatever happens, there will be a backlash against feminism and against gay and lesbian people—from one of the ‘big’ sides, or both at the same time. But it may also be that the whole thing just becomes less popular or interesting to people—I sense this with my own kids’ generation—and we’re just left with one particular generation of young adults who have been caught in the crossfire.”
And this is one of the saddest aspects of this whole historical episode, as the testimonies of the increasing numbers of detransitioners attest. The TERFs’ battle against gender ideology was always and only about the desire to avoid harm, particularly to the young. Of saying, “Hang on, let’s talk about this.” For this, many people, largely but not only women, have been forced out of work and socially cut-off. It is unlikely that many of the people who have been punished for their views will ever receive an apology. Those who pushed this ideology in public will simply move on to the next thing.
TERF Island has fought back, but the battle isn’t over. Sexual difference, smashed by modernity and grotesquely warped by the society of images, pushes us back, ultimately, to the most fundamental questions of all. How we answer these questions tell us everything about the respect we have for each other, and for the generations to come.