Six years ago, I was working as a journalist at The Economist. One fateful day, the editor-in-chief asked me: “Why do kids keep coming home and saying ‘such and such is trans’?” I replied that I didn’t know, but would look into it. That conversation changed the course of my life.
The first sign that this topic was unlike any other was the way interviewees responded to straightforward questions as if simply asking them made me a bigot or fascist. Questions like: what does “transition” mean? Do people feel better afterwards? And the million-dollar one: should those feelings give them access to facilities for that sex? The second sign was the total lack of rigorous academic research on trans identification. Questioning the core mantra that “trans women are women” was verboten.
I became seriously concerned that grave harms were being caused by the emerging idea that when classifying humans as men or women, what matters is how people self-describe, not their biology. Men who identified as women were gaining entry to supposedly single-sex spaces and sports. Children were being taught that what made them boys or girls wasn’t their bodies but their adherence to regressive stereotypes.
I’d already been considering writing a book about what I was discovering, but had hesitated because of the grief it would bring. My doubts vanished. As a journalist you’re supposed to run towards the story, not away from it.
It wasn’t fun when I spoke in Cambridge last year and students banged pots and pans outside to drown me out
That book came out in July 2021, entitled Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality. I had hoped that once the book was published I would be able to move onto less depressing and crazy-making subjects, like literally anything else. But the trans bandwagon has rolled on, and I have found it impossible to look away. Far from the liberal, kind position adherents claim, it’s authoritarian, anti-rational and deeply cruel.
When men who identify as women are granted access to space and services set aside for us, that destroys women’s rights. We are physically weaker than men, who perpetrate nearly all physical and sexual violence against us. Our capacity to play a full part in public life therefore requires us to be able to exclude men — all men, however they identify — from places where we are naked or otherwise vulnerable.
According to “gender-identity ideology”, which is what I call this novel belief system, what turns a man into a woman is simply saying that’s what he is. For his words to take effect in the real world, everyone else must play along. And so trans activists are very keen on censorship. Anyone who refuses to believe that women can become men, and women men, is called hateful and must be silenced. It’s a very strange experience to be called “hateful” when all you’re doing is trying to protect human rights. I know what “hate” feels like. I recently had to report a threat made against me by a man who identifies as a woman. He tweeted saying that he would cut up my face and tear out my eyes.
I don’t say unpopular things for the fun of it. It wasn’t fun when I spoke at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, last year, and students banged pots and pans outside to drown me out. Nor was it fun when trans activist protesters blocked the entrance to a pub where I went after speaking at a conference in London, and I had to have a police escort to leave.
We protect free speech not because it’s fun but because it’s the only way we know of to do good research, to make good policy and to prevent ideologues from capturing governments, education and medicine. When we can’t speak freely, we can’t expose scandals. And right now there’s one unfolding in gender clinics, and it’s being perpetrated on children. Most people agree with me that feelings of gender identity should not be allowed to override the material reality of sex when it comes to the law and public policy. But as I know from my inbox, they fear the consequences of saying so: victimisation at work; harassment on social media; ejection from online and offline groups that have swallowed gender-identity ideology wholesale.
Six years ago I wouldn’t have believed that I’d be spending my days repeating patiently that there are just two sexes. I do it because I feel a moral imperative. You may not feel it. But I hope you can recognise that my free speech is your free speech. When you want to say something unpopular, I’ll stand up for you.
Helen Joyce is an author and journalist