Why must trans activists smear those who put forth inconvenient narratives about ‘gender identity’?

Jesse Singal’s piece about “detransitioners” was both well-reported and empathetic — so why is he being attacked?

 

I read Jesse Singal’s feature story in The Atlantic about “detransitioners” (defined in the piece as “people who undergo social or physical transitions and later reverse them”) and “desisters” (“people who stop experiencing gender dysphoria without having fully transitioned socially or physically”) with soon-to-be-squashed interest. Singal has produced some great analysis and reporting on the transgender trend for The Cut, including a solid debunking of the smear campaign against Dr. Kenneth Zucker, which resulted in Zucker being fired from Toronto’s Child Youth and Family Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) in 2015. While Singal has not critiqued the notion of transgenderism outright (and unfortunately has failed to engage respectfully with feminists’ concerns about legislation that threatens women’s sex-based rights), he has, through his writing, managed to challenge the notion that a child’s professed “gender identity” must immediately be validated without question — a position trans activists reinforce through threats, harassment, libel, and the no-platforming of those who question this approach.

Singal’s most recent piece is heavily reported, and he mostly avoids editorializing about gender identity and the idea of “trans kids,” aside from expressing concern for the well-being of those who struggle with these issues. He speaks to a number of women who were led to believe they were, in fact, men, but after having begun transition, realized this was not the case. One of those women, Carey Callahan, has been relentlessly attacked since she began speaking publicly about detransitioning in 2016.

In a video accompanying the article, Callahan explains that when she was a child, she felt like “a tomboy,” and when forced to wear a school uniform as a teenager that included a kilt, she started to be sexually harassed by men. “It felt so unfair to me that I had to wear this ridiculous outfit,” she says. Once in college, she — like so many young women — was sexually assaulted, which she says “contributed to this feeling that I wanted to take my body off.” In other words, what trans activists frame as “gender dysphoria” was in fact just the regular old sexism most women and girls experience in a patriarchal society. After living as a trans man for four years (which included injecting testosterone for nine months), Callahan realized that transitioning hadn’t resolved any of her struggles. “This is not a trans thing, this is a trauma thing,” she says, adding that she now regrets transitioning, though luckily she had not yet gone so far as to get surgery as part of her transition.

Singal also spoke with 22-year-old Max Robinson, who explains that she “didn’t enjoy being treated like a girl” and “grew up a happy tomboy — until puberty,” at which point she, like Callahan, was sexualized, and began to get sexually harassed by boys. Robinson began to feel extreme discomfort with her body, something that was exacerbated after an 18-year-old man sexually exploited her when she was only 13. After learning about the existence of “trans men” on TV, Robinson decided the solution to these problems and feelings was to transition. She went on testosterone, then got “top surgery” (a mastectomy). Despite all this, Robinson’s discomfort did not go away, and she went back to identifying as a woman, believing she “misinterpreted her sexual orientation, as well as the effects of the misogyny and trauma she had experienced as a young person, as being about gender identity.”

A 14-year-old Singal interviewed named Claire became obsessed with transitioning at around 12, after she began to feel uncomfortable with her body and struggling with mental health issues, then coming across YouTube videos by trans-identified teenagers. “Maybe the reason I’m uncomfortable with my body is I’m supposed to be a guy,” she thought. Her parents tried to be as supportive as possible, without encouraging her to actually transition, despite the fact that most of the resources they came across insisted that “if [their] daughter said she was trans, she was trans” and that parents were obligated to “affirm” their children’s claims to be transgender. Eventually Claire came to believe that her feeling that she was a boy stemmed from rigid views of gender roles that she had internalized. She tells Singal:

“I think I really had it set in stone what a guy was supposed to be like and what a girl was supposed to be like. I thought that if you didn’t follow the stereotypes of a girl, you were a guy, and if you didn’t follow the stereotypes of a guy, you were a girl.”

These stories aren’t uncommon — most kids who believe they are trangender desist later on — but trans activists refuse to allow for these narratives and experiences. Today, we are told time and time again that transgenderism is innate — something you are born as. When we acknowledge that gender is in fact a social construction — a set of stereotypes applied to males and females — rather than something we are born with, the entire concept of “gender identity” falls apart.

Despite Singal’s capitulation to language like “cisgender,” “assigned female at birth” (sex is not “assigned” at birth, it is observed — this language stems from a history of doctors imposing a sex on intersex babies, which is no longer common practice) and “authentic gender” (what does this mean?), he allows for a narrative to emerge that gently questions the practice of immediately affirming “gender identity,” no questions asked, as well as the idea that youth who claim to be trans are in danger if they aren’t immediately put on puberty blockers.

Singal speaks with Laura Edwards-Leeper, a psychologist who runs Pacific University and Oregon’s Transgender Clinic and trains clinical-psychology doctoral students to conduct “readiness assessments” for young people who want to transition, but who has been challenged simply for doing assessments at all, which trans activists and families of so-called trans kids claim is “traumatizing.” Edwards-Leeper facilitates transitioning for kids, including putting them on puberty blockers when deemed appropriate, but still worries that the field is moving to a place where “we’re maybe not looking as critically at the issues as we should be.”

Singal also interviews clinicians who support the “affirming care” model (including the medical director of the Center for Transyouth Health and Development, who rejects mental health assessments when determining whether kids should begin transition, saying, “I don’t send someone to a therapist when I’m going to start them on insulin”), as well as trans activists who believe the “detransitioners” narrative makes it more difficult for trans-identified people to access the services they want. He speaks to a couple of young women who went through the transition process and claim to be happy (though they are both still very young, so it’s impossible to know how they will reflect on the experience as adults). He does not, on the other hand, so much as speak to a single person who is critical of the notion of internal gender or the idea that a child can be “born in the wrong body.” Though well-reported, the piece itself was not particularly hard-hitting. The idea that kids might change their mind about a trend that is very clearly rooted in the existence of rigid notions about differences in boys’ and girls’ personalities and preferences, as well as the challenges girls face when they go through puberty in a world wherein they are objectified, is common sense. Nonetheless, Singal has been attacked viciously online as “dangerous” and “transphobic.”


Writer Roxane Gay went so far as to suggest any piece about transgenderism should be “vetted” by trans-identified people, supporting an actually dangerous and unethical narrative that says journalists should not be permitted to work independently and should not publish journalism that upsets the status quo. Imagine if all reporting had to be vetted by ideologues and lobby groups before publication? Considering the intensity with which trans activists defend their ideology, it is comparable to suggesting journalism about climate change be “vetted” by climate change deniers or that articles about President Trump be “vetted” by his administration or supporters.

In an article at Jezebel entitled, “What’s Jesse Singal’s fucking deal,” Harron Walker argues Singal should not have interviewed detransitioned women for his story about detransitioning because they are not real trans people (how one tells the difference between fake trans people and real trans people is left unexplained) and that he should not be paid to write stories about “trans shit” at all, presumably because Singal does not erase all inconvenient narratives to placate those who subscribe to gender identity ideology. (It should be noted that despite Walker’s rather hysterical insistence that Singal has no right to be interested in — never mind write about — transgenderism, because Singal does not identify as transgender, Walker writes for what is supposedly a women’s site, thereby taking a job away from an actual woman.)

The notion that only trans-identified people should be concerned with or speak about “trans issues” or the idea of gender identity is ridiculous, of course. Gender identity ideology is affecting real kids’ lives, as well as things like legislation and society’s understanding of sex and gender more broadly — something that impacts us all. Feminists have expressed concern about the impact of all this on women’s sex-based rights and women-only spaces, which are under serious attack by trans activists. Yet we are being told we may not even speak about these issues.

Singal appears to be trying to bridge a gap that he believes will serve everyone, and report information and stories that he hopes will help people. That he produced a relatively balanced story, including perspectives and challenges from trans activists alongside questions and (mild) critiques of the popular “trans kids” narrative, and expressed a great deal of empathy towards youth who identify as trans or suffer from what he calls “gender dysphoria,” yet was still harassed and attacked viciously, speaks volumes about transgender ideology and its proponents. Those who cannot defend their own positions with integrity will avoid debate, or bully and otherwise try to silence and discredit dissenters. Indeed, we see this behaviour coming from the President of the United States himself, who has smeared the media and journalists, fired anyone who is not an unwavering yes-man from his administration, and repeated lies ad nauseam. The similarities between the tactics of trans activists and President Trump are not subtle, but considering the ongoing insistence of those who support transgender ideology that it is they who are “on the right side of history,” they may want to reconsider their tactics.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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