Considering the rapid rise of trans ideology in academia, we should follow the money

Universities are becoming more and more donor-driven — shouldn’t we be asking questions about how that funding shapes theory and discourse?

Image: iStockphoto/Shannon Henderson

Social scientists sometimes use the phrase “the structure/agency problem” to shorthand the perennial question of whether a particular outcome is the product of cultural, social, and historical structures or individual choices. Speaking very broadly, one could say liberal feminists put a little more emphasis on agency (the idea that women choose sex work, for example) and radical feminists put a little more emphasis on structure (the idea that prostitution exists within a larger context of capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy and exploits women, youths, and children). The structural framing has produced powerfully illuminating explanatory frameworks like “rape culture” and “structural injustice.” Nevertheless, preferentially looking to structural explanations cultivates habits of thought that are in some ways unhelpful at the present historical juncture.

The rapid and essentially unquestioned rise of trans ideology in academia is one example, though I think the pattern in question has negative impacts in other arenas as well. As many radical feminists have eloquently pointed out, trans activists have appropriated the rhetoric of feminist struggle and much of the actual history of gay and lesbian liberation movements. Trans activists have done this despite the fact that trans ideology comprises elements that are misogynist and homophobic, conceptually and, far more worryingly, in application.

Because trans activists use a familiar language of structural injustice (that is to say, by speaking in terms of civil rights, public access, and social discrimination), many academics have been reflexively supportive of their claims. But even skeptical analyses focus mostly on structural explanations. What is it about this moment in history that has produced such an incredible upswell in trans identification? Is it consumerist self-fashioning? Is it capitalist exploitation of the medicalized body? Is it the individualist search for meaning in an age of anomie? Is it globalization? Is it the internet?

With trans activism, we might do well to pay slightly less attention to structures, and quite a bit more to agents. Structures don’t organize repeated shutdowns of gender-critical blogs like GenderTrender, or, in a matter of days, accomplish the censoring of documentaries about transing children on the CBC, or endow university chairs. Particular agents do that stuff. Men, mostly.

As an academic, there are several things I notice about that endowment. Sociologist Aaron Devor, the first holder of the chair endowed by American transwoman billionaire Jennifer Pritzker, spent a decade prior to that appointment as a university administrator. There is a real tension in contemporary public universities between rank and file faculty, who generally believe that the mission of public universities is most realizable using public funding, and administrators, who are generally eager to attract funds from private donors. Earmarked donations to pursue particular research agendas raise troubling questions about academic freedom and investigative independence. In 2002, McGill University turned down funding for an endowed chair to be dedicated to the study of Ayn Rand’s philosophy; in 2008, the University of Texas at Austin created such a chair with funding from a different corporate donor. Many academics (myself included) saw this development as part of the sad downward slide of the unfettered public university, supported by public funding and devoted to the public interest.

More broadly, it is immediately obvious why students and faculty at the University of Calgary were horrified to learn of President Elizabeth Cannon’s toadying to corporate donor Enbridge and rightly worried about whether oil and gas industry funding to research on topics like fracking will produce robustly replicable data (to put it mildly). But a chair funded by an American billionaire with a deeply personal interest in trans ideology comes in for no such critical consideration; in fact, Aaron Devor is the 2017 recipient of the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ Equity Award. I don’t expect that an Asian STEM professor holding a chair endowed by Enbridge and doing research on fracking is going to win next time, though as it happens Asian STEM profs have quietly done quite a bit to dismantle fantasies of white supremacy over the years.

Of course, while public funding during (say) the Cold War era may have been more lavish, it was often earmarked to promote imperialistic agendas on everything from designing weapons systems to subverting peasant movements in the Global South. Academics are well prepared to write about such “structural” dynamics and have documented and critiqued them at length. But exactly this intellectual habit of looking for “structural” interpretations (capitalism, the state, patriarchy, compulsory heterosexuality) leaves us ill-prepared to comprehend key aspects of the present moment. Donor-driven agendas can very rapidly attain ascendancy in the cash-strapped, administrator-driven contemporary university; when they self-fashion, as is the case with trans ideology, as instances of “structural injustice,” too many academic observers don’t stop to look for agents.

This is a very big mistake. Trends in global inequality mean, increasingly, that a tiny number of individuals hold a tremendous share of the world’s wealth. This is, perversely, a structural situation in which it makes a lot of sense to pay attention to individuals: rich ones, that is. The disproportionate influence of Silicon Valley gajillionaires in trans activism deserves almost infinitely more attention than it has hitherto received. But the pattern is general: as “the public” gets poorer, there is less and less public money available for public universities. As a result, administrators pursue high net worth donors more and more assiduously, and so the servicing of idiosyncratic research agendas (such as transgender studies or Objectivism studies) inevitably proliferates. Julie Bindel has done wonderful work, for example, on why “sex work is work” is now the dominant academic viewpoint, and the degree to which advocacy for the adoption of that view has been funded by the sex industry .

Turning to my own experience, just paying a bit of attention to the way that whatever the latest fad in higher education “innovation” is being promoted by my own university’s administration is being promoted at the exact same time with the exact same claims to cutting-edge originality by administrators at the universities at which friends and colleagues work across North America has been very clarifying. Almost inevitably these fads lead back to either the Lumina Foundation or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Recently, Bill Gates was surpassed as the highest net worth individual in the world by Jeff Bezos (of Amazon). You guessed it: the Bezos Family Foundation focuses on education. At the higher ed level, they are really interested in “youth leadership.” And would you believe it?  “Leadership” has become kind of a buzzword at universities lately. Funny that.

Structural analysis simply won’t reveal the full story of what’s going on right now and in many respects may actually obscure it.

Two final points. First: methodologically, the kind of work that needs to be done to understand these dynamics is more traditionally journalistic than traditionally scholarly. This division of labour (and a certain amount of accompanying academic snootiness about it — that is to say, journalists looked at particularities, while academics sought the big structural picture) worked okay for much of the twentieth century. Traditional investigative journalism, however, is itself practically defunded these days (Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, for the record) and academics (the tenured ones anyway) are some of the only citizens left who have the salary and job security to try and pick up some of the slack. Damningly for the academy, however, to date it has been non-academic bloggers doing almost all the necessary gumshoeing. Second: it’s at the very least interesting that we are nowadays constantly exhorted to be on guard against “conspiracy theories,” which are in large part defined as trying to track particular outcomes back to particular individuals and particular relationships; or, to put it another way, as paying too much attention to agents rather than concentrating, as a Serious Person Ought, on structures. Here’s the thing, though: “structures” don’t harass bloggers, they don’t organize censorship campaigns, and they don’t endow research chairs. Rich and powerful men do.

Kathleen Lowrey is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. She began following trans issues when they intersected with her primary field of research, lowland South American anthropology.

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  • A lot of food for thought and discussion here. I’ve seen Soros/Gates/Pritzker mentioned often in the gender wars and just as quickly the idea that they are exerting undue influence is shot down as tinfoil hat.

    • Hanakai

      George Soros has put his money behind the transgender movement. Billionaire Soros, through his Foundation to Promote Open Society, dedicated at least $2.7 million to the transgender cause in 2013 according to tax returns.

      Another big player, fund raiser and legal advocate for transgenderism is a humanoid going by the name of David Spade, who curiously is a law professor at Seattle University, a Jesuit university. How odd that the Catholic Church is underwriting trans-ideology.

      With a bit of effort, some of the money trails can be followed. Nonprofit corporations have to file Form 990 with the IRS and donors are identified on those documents, though not always on the 990s available online. For example, if you want to find out something about the financing of the National Center for Transgender Equality, you can find their 990 forms here: https://transequality.org/issues/resources/2015-irs-990 — I notice that they did not disclose the identities of their main donors. Nonetheless, the full document is available also from the IRS.

    • Jane Gaddin
  • Hekate Jayne

    And all of this is going to be even more obscured as a result of losing net neutrality (here in the states). We will be losing access to the bloggers and activists that we rely on for investigative reporting.

    • Cassandra

      I don’t know that we’ll lose them, Hekate Jayne. Their sites will just load very, very slowly. 🙁

  • Hanakai

    Absolutely follow the money. See who profits from the trans-insanity and trans-phenomenon. Who is funding the cultural meme? Figure out who is making trans-ideology preparatory to getting people to accept transhumans, robots and genetically-engineered monstrosities. Who benefits from screwing with people’s minds and putting out the insane idea that an individual gets to choose his sex by deciding he is the other sex, instead of Nature determining sex by chromosomes and morphology? Who is trying to make people sick in the head and get them to accept absurdities and unrealities? Which corporations are profiting from polluting the biosphere and young bodies with endocrine-disrupting chemicals that leave the young confused even about who and what they are.

    By the way, the NYT today has a piece titled “Why Is Fixing Sexism Women’s Work?” where more comments railing against the twisted “cis” and “cisgender” neologism are needed.

    • Cassandra

      So wish I had the stomach for the NYT and may yet wade in. You certainly have my respect; that paper is a sewer of neoliberal excrement.

      • Hanakai

        When you post a comment here, maybe it is read by dozens, maybe hundreds, who already agree with your thinking, and the patriarchy goes humming along entirely unscathed.

        The NYT has PAID newspaper circulation of over 1 million, an even greater digital circulation and is read worldwide and by politicians and influential humans, as it is the paper of record for the United States. When one writes a NYT comment that is published, it reaches a lot of humans and has the potential to influence thinking. Indeed, I have noted other people taking up and repeating my ideas, even using the same language. And some of my comments about trans-insanity gave others the courage to speak up as well.

        Nothing will change if there is no effort to influence the wider world. Effectuating change is going to take more than whining to the already-converted about the awfulness of the patriarchy and men. Cultural change happens when a concept achieves a critical mass in the larger populace. There will be no hope of ever dismantling the patriarchy if radical feminists cannot stomach carrying the struggle to the wider world and influencing the mass mind to its ideas.

        • Cassandra

          I have posted comments in the NYT many times and as I said, I may yet wade in. That doesn’t change the fact that the NYT is a neoliberal publication, particularly in regard to their open-armed acceptance and pushing of transgender ideology.

    • corvid

      “Which corporations are profiting from polluting the biosphere and young bodies with endocrine-disrupting chemicals that leave the young confused even about who and what they are.”

      Thank you for saying this, it needs to be emphasized. I’m unable to avoid thinking about it every day as I pluck out my thick, dark lady-goatee and contemplate my big-shouldered “mannish” form in the mirror. It occurs to me that man’s technology will, ironically, create a veritable army of angry Amazons like myself, born of the very things that men believed would propel us into a better world, forgotten by a health system that ignores and individualizes women’s concerns.

  • Cassandra

    This piece is fantastic, Ms. Lowrey. I actually muted this terrible movie I’m watching in the background, called the Ninth Gate, with terrible abuser Johnny Depp, to read it out loud. I want to scream with joy from every hilltop that someone with your critical thinking and writing skills still exists. I particularly enjoyed the mention of “conspiracy theories,” because that’s what one of my lib friends shot at me the one and only time we briefly discussed transgenderism. It continues to ASTOUND me how many so-called intelligent, progressive people have fallen for this utter fucking bullshit.

    “Rich and powerful men do.”

    That’s all anybody really needs to see.

  • northernTNT

    Brilliant text. I hope to read more of her.

  • Meghan Murphy

    It actually isn’t true that we are simply preaching to the choir (though of course mainstream outlets do have a bigger reach)… I get emails from people daily, from all over the world, who tell me how radically their minds have been changed about various issues, due to reading FC and the comments here. Keep in mind that most people who read articles online — here and elsewhere — don’t comment, so we have no real idea what they think 🙂 We have a significant reach, not only for a feminist site, but for an independent site in general, and have an audience that is comparable to other progressive/feminist sites. We are read by men, women, academics, professionals, politicians, and beyond. I wish I could share the kinds of emails I get with you all! You would be heartened.

    • Wren

      Yay!!

    • marian hyde

      Yes, When I read my first articles here, I was still under the impression that the support of Trans person was equivalent to the support of gay and lesbians, and no big deal. Since then I have really gained an understanding of its actual homophobic and misogynistic agenda, and questioned how it became so mainstream, supported by so many governments and the media so fast in comparison to all other oppressed groups.

      • Jane Gaddin

        FC helped me too after I began to see more of what was happening under the trans ideology that has swept the world up. And any publication at this point that speaks up *for women* is invaluable. I think, regarding trans issues currently, that many people naturally want to fight for what they perceive to be the underdog. Its how you can get so many Americans to cheer for “rebels” in other countries as opposed to “terrorists”. So many of us, in the beginning, naturally wanted to “protect” trans “rights”. I watched the first season of “transparent” and the only reason I didnt like it was because everyone in it was an asshole. When I watched the first couple seasons of o.i.t.n.b, I never once questioned whether or not a male trans person should be in a womens prison. I, like most others, felt sympathy for the character as an underdog. (Plus, he is very good at looking like a “woman”, and the brain is extremely responsive to visuals and images. So when someone visually perceives “a woman”, the brain responds at first as if it *is* a woman. Part of the reason why we dont see so many high profile people that don’t “pass” as well.)
        There are people very adept at the “propagandizing” of language, and how the human mind works in order to garner support.

  • I’ve heard this theory and I was actually thinking about this while writing my comment, but I didn’t mention it because, like you say, it’s hard for an average person to prove. This type of “agency” theory really needs to be fleshed out and documented in book form by an experienced and talented investigative journalist. I wonder if this kind of journalist is reluctant to invest the considerable time it would take to research this angle, when we keep thinking “peak trans” is right around the corner.

  • Meghan Murphy

    I also never read comments on mainstream articles… There is too much garbage in there and I don’t have the time or interest… So many people tell me (and post in here) that this is the only site where they DO read the comments, because they are intelligent and thoughtful (and moderated!). Do many people actually bother reading the comments at the NYT? I’d be surprised…

  • Meghan Murphy

    Thank you for being here and for your contributions! xx

  • Cassandra

    Yes, I saw the Polanski double eww after looking the movie up because it is so strange. I loathe that fucker.

  • Cassandra

    Obama’s embrace of trans gender ideology is definitely a result of the $$ influence of the Pritzkers.

  • Omzig Online

    I know that the medical establishment is highly patriarchal, but I’d really like to believe that most surgeons would not castrate and flay open a set of healthy male genitals just because a patient doesn’t “identify” with them. The ethical issues involved with amputating healthy body parts are pretty obvious to most health care professionals.

    Even many plastic surgeons won’t do breast implants if the patient wants them to look cartoonish or unnatural, believe it or not. It reflects poorly on the surgeon’s practice to have former patients looking ridiculous. That’s why a lot of them won’t put implants on a male body. Of course, there’s plenty of doctors that will stuff a shitload of silicone in the male chest if you pay them enough money, but I’m happy to report that many won’t.

    And, of course, many transgender-identified people are regretting their surgeries. I predict that the number of regrets will only increase as this issue runs its course. The ones that I genuinely feel pity for are the kids on puberty blockers, whose parents and doctors should’ve known better.

    But teaching a child to love themselves and the amazing body they were born with isn’t exactly good for surgeons and pharmaceutical companies, is it?

    https://www.google.com/amp/dailysignal.com/2017/06/20/new-paper-says-puberty-blockers-arent-answer-gender-confusion/amp/

    https://www.google.com/amp/www.newsweek.com/transgender-women-transgender-men-sex-change-sex-reassignment-surgery-676777%3famp=1

    • Bernadette Lourdes

      Yes, the poor children, such as Jazz Jennings, who will never know how it is to live without bodily harm and abuse. Teaching children to believe in and trust their body is the most fundamental and important thing we can give them

  • Omzig Online

    Fair enough. I would really love to see a follow-up to this article that traces the money back to individual donors. The specific doctors and researchers that have taken money to spoon feed this issue to the public also need to be named.

    I’d like to see a deeper investigation into the profits of individual shareholders investing in pharmaceutical companies that sell cross-sex hormones to children, for instance. My guess is that there are many individuals that profit handsomely from experimenting on children while pushing a thoroughly unscientific agenda.

    I would also like to see an inquiry into certain members of academia that push the trans agenda. I think a little probing into who exactly funds their research, and who exactly “peer reviews” their research would reveal some enormous conflicts of interest, similar to what we’ve seen with the pro-prostitution camp.

    Kathleen Lowrey has a good point, though. But I think the profiting individuals within academia and the Med/psych field need to be investigated and shamed.

  • Meghan Murphy

    <3

  • Kathleen Lowrey

    Thanks OldPolarBear. and I totally agree with you — not every “conspiracy theory” belongs in the same box with the alien lizards or whatever!

  • Meghan Murphy

    I’m shocked. Nonetheless, I am unconvinced that most of the general public bothers to read the comments on mainstream articles. This is not to say many people don’t, but I’m pretty sure *most* don’t.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Interesting!

  • Cassandra

    Okay. You got me told!

  • Alienigena

    Well, if you know of any forensic accountants and journalists willing to take on the task of tracing the money maybe you could contact them about the possibility of researching this topic in depth.

  • Omzig Online

    You may have a point. I had to site that Daily Signal article because I couldn’t read the research that it cited without paying for several subscriptions that I don’t need. I’ve seen some bogus stuff coming from the Daily Signal, though, so I agree that they can be problematic.

  • MochaSoul

    One of the first things I noticed about questioning queer theory is that “Cui bono?” had become a question not to be asked or sought answers to. Thank you for this article.