Until mid-January, I was a stalwart advocate of what is commonly referred to as “transgender rights.” I didn’t waver in my belief that transwomen are women and transmen are men, that transgender individuals should be granted access to single-sex spaces based on their chosen “gender” (including female change rooms, homeless shelters, prisons, sexual assault centres, transition houses, etc.), and that those who question such beliefs were misguided at best, and transphobic bigots at worst.
Certain aspects of trans activism would occasionally unsettle me, such as self-identification being the primary requirement needed for transwomen to compete against female athletes and on women’s sports teams, but I pushed those concerns aside. This wasn’t worth my attention, when transgender individuals were supposedly being discriminated against in so many areas of society. Further, I had repeatedly read that transgender youth had a high risk for suicidal ideation and attempts, so when it came to advocating for transgender people, it was clear to me that time was of the essence.
Most of my activism occurred safely behind a keyboard, on social media platforms like Twitter. During this period, I gained a number of friends and followers (both trans and non) whose similar beliefs in the importance of “transgender rights” galvanized me further.
I discounted those who didn’t agree with my belief system — or rather, shouted online at them, in 280 characters or less. I used my PhD in clinical psychology as a sword, despite the fact my knowledge of the science and psychology of sex and gender was minimal. Most people who disagreed with me were women, who repeatedly stated that males could not become female, and that while the rights of every individual in society must be respected and protected, the rights of one group (trans-identified people) cannot be realized at the expense of another (women).
When asked why I believed transwomen were, in fact, women, I asserted that some boys and girls are “born in the wrong body,” and that our brains are gendered (thus, transwomen had a male body, but a “woman’s brain”). When asked to elaborate, I pointed to vague notions of “knowing” and “feeling,” rather than terms that were rooted in science and could be operationalized. When asked to explain further, I resorted to circular reasoning: some men feel like women, and only women can feel like women, therefore some men are women. When pushed on the question of how it is possible to “feel like a woman,” I’d argue that because I “felt” like a woman, it must be true. Other times I resorted to name-calling, labeling women who said transwomen were male “bigots” who were “stuck in the ‘50s,” and didn’t believe in civil rights. If all else failed, I’d mention my PhD. Then, I would end the conversation, as I did not believe I needed to reflect upon this further. After all, I had federal law backing me. Clearly I was on the right side of history. And so, instead of listening, I kept climbing my personal peak, feeling more righteous the higher I went.
But early this year, everything changed. In January, information about the alleged misbehaviour of a self-declared transwoman (“JY”) was revealed. Initially known for filing human rights complaints against 16 Canadian women who declined to wax male genitals, JY was now alleged to have made predatory comments about young girls online. One comment JY allegedly left said, “Every single time I take that ferry there’s field trips with 10-12 year old girls on it… If a girl asks me for a pad or tampon and help on how to use it, if it’s her first time, what do I do?” A selfie of JY in the women’s washroom, which included girls standing in the background, also began to circulate. Understandably outraged, many women (and several men) tried to discuss their concerns about JY’s behaviour, only to be silenced for referring to JY as male. On Twitter, temporary (up to seven days) and permanent suspensions were doled out, making it increasingly clear that the transgender umbrella was successfully being used to shut down any discussion of JY’s actions. Once I became more aware of the policing happening around the supposed “misgendering” of JY, I began to notice this happening on a broader level. Women were being silenced en masse, simply for speaking their truth.
While I remained steadfast in my beliefs that transgender individuals were vulnerable, and that women should accommodate them, the situation involving Twitter and JY created a tiny crack in my previously impenetrable armour. How was it acceptable that those sounding the alarm about egregious actions were the ones being reprimanded?
In frustration, I contacted Morgane Oger, one of the most public faces of the Canadian transgender community and a Vice President of the British Columbia NDP, the province’s ruling party. Oger suggested we speak over the phone, an offer I considered quite generous. We spoke for almost an hour, and Oger listened to my concerns, telling me that other women had reached out regarding JY’s behaviour as well. Oger stated that it would be fruitless to bring such concerns to law enforcement unless there was concrete, verifiable evidence to present them with. I was encouraged to find possible sources and to get in touch if I found any. Based on our conversation, I felt Oger was troubled by the accusations that were being made against JY and was taking them seriously.
During our call, Oger mentioned an event that had occurred a few days earlier at the Vancouver Public Library, discussing gender identity ideology and women’s rights. While I was not at the presentation and could not comment on what occurred, I was struck by Oger’s description: “It was like 1933 Berlin.”
My husband and children are Jewish, and I couldn’t stop thinking about this simile, which struck me as extreme, particularly as it was made by a very public representative of a political party.
It was at that point — when I was told challenges to and questions about gender identity ideology in defense of women’s rights were equal to the lead up towards one of the worst genocides in human history — that I had my “WTF?” moment, and I began to tip.
In the days that followed, I found it more and more difficult to maintain cognitive consistency, a term coined by Leon Festinger in 1957 in his book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. The term describes an individual’s need to have behaviours match thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs. How could a feminist speaking at a public library about women’s rights be compared to the beginning of Hitler’s reign? It couldn’t be. And, more importantly, it shouldn’t be.
The fact that we had reached a point where a representative of a political party felt this comparison was acceptable and didn’t think saying such a thing would make anyone think twice was telling.
More conflicting thoughts followed. Was there any evidence that transgender people were at risk of imminent extermination, similar to vulnerable groups during the Holocaust? No.
Were transgender people, as a group, more vulnerable than women? I had no evidence to support this claim.
Was silencing women who say that transwomen are not women (and transmen are not men) a punishment that fits the “crime”? Should referring to a self-identified transwoman as “he,” even inadvertently, mean that women deserve to have online methods of communication (a vital tool for women, enabling them to participate in both public and private conversations) cut off? No.
As I began to let such thoughts sink in, I started to open myself up to listening to the women I had previously shut down. Further, I began to actually use my training, and did some research.
Given my years working as a clinical psychologist, I was particularly interested in what was happening in the healthcare community with regard to gender dysphoric patients. I read the American Psychological Association’s 2015 Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People, and learned that psychologists needed to “educate themselves about the many ways that cisgender privilege and anti-trans prejudice may be expressed,” including the importance of examining “how their language… may reinforce the gender binary in overt or subtle and unintentional ways.” The guidelines also stated that psychologists “may need to provide TGNC [transgender and gender nonconforming] people with information about TGNC identities, offering language to describe the discordance and confusion TGNC people may be experiencing.”
Next, I turned to the Canadian Medical Association Journal’s (CMAJ) 2019 Management of Gender Dysphoria in Adolescents in Primary Care. I read and I read, and the more I uncovered, the more appalled I became. According to CMAJ guidelines, despite the fact that the “care of transgender youth is still a relatively young field, with a limited… body of research to inform care,” health-care practitioners were encouraged to engage in “affirmative care,” and “avoid influencing the adolescent to move down a path they would not have chosen for themselves.”
Further, I learned that clinical practice guidelines recommend hormonal suppression for youth with gender dysphoria at “pubertal stage Tanner II,” which occurs on average at 10.5 years for girls, and at 11.5 years in boys. The authors indicated that while the current recommended age to commence cross-sex hormones is 16, it could benefit children as young as 13.5 to be placed on hormone treatment “as many younger pubertal youth have been living in their affirmed gender for several years, and a prolonged delay of gender-affirming hormone therapy could potentially lead to negative mental health outcomes.” This recommendation was made despite the authors’ acknowledgement that, at 16, a youth’s future fertility could be permanently compromised as a result of hormone treatment, unless they choose to undergo fertility preservation procedures, such as sperm or egg harvesting. The authors then admit that “very few youth with gender dysphoria…[opt] for fertility preservation procedures.”
It’s no surprise that most 16-year-olds who are commencing cross-sex hormones (not to mention 13-year-olds) do not care about whether or not they will be fertile at 30. Given that the prefrontal cortex (a section of the brain that weighs outcomes, forms judgments, and controls impulses and emotions) of teenagers is not developed enough to truly anticipate long-term consequences, why would any health professional allow teens to make such a life-changing decision? How does this kind of advice not constitute malpractice?
Elsewhere, information I read regarding much younger children was equally as troubling. An article published by the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health, “Health considerations for gender non-conforming children and transgender adolescents,” informed readers that, despite the fact that typical one and a half year olds can only follow one- or two-step commands, often express their feelings through temper tantrums, and on average can only link two words together (“Me up!”), “children as young as 18-months-old have articulated information about their gender identity and gender expression preferences.” In the same article, the authors state, “Awareness of one’s gender identity does not require cognitive capacity acquired in adolescence.” This statement implies that a youth’s level of intellectual functioning need not be a deterrent when considering medical transitioning. Touching upon the issue of future fertility, the authors explain, “For youth whose pubertal process has been suspended in the earliest stages, followed by administration of gender-affirming hormones, development of mature sperm or eggs is unlikely at the present time.”
In studying various guidelines for health professionals, I found that the overriding message was the same: when it comes to trans-identified people, the situation is urgent. If you ask questions, you put the lives of vulnerable individuals at risk. It might already be too late! Affirmation is the only option, even if the interventions used on children and teens may lead to severe consequences, such as permanent infertility.
Like so many other women before me, I reached my “peak.” And finally, even though it may have taken a long time, I tipped, falling away from the beliefs ascribed by gender identity ideology, and onto firmer ground. I was no longer willing to “affirm” transgender individuals at any cost, especially if it cost us women’s rights. I was no longer willing to agree that the end (transitioning a teen) necessarily justifies the means (using scare tactics about suicide on parents). I was no longer willing to perceive every transgender person as made of finely spun glass, too fragile to be questioned, and capable of being broken by mere words. I was no longer willing to sacrifice truth and ethics for political correctness.
Now, when I reflect on my “switch” from being an unrelenting trans activist/“ally” to being critical of gender identity ideology and legislation, I’m chilled at how easy it was for me — a psychologist (now retired), ostensibly trained to understand the human mind — to become so caught up in the momentum of “trans rights” that I avoided critical thought, much like a new member of a cult. And, while I’m reluctant to call trans activism a “cult,” I’m aware of many disconcerting similarities: the absolute refusal to allow anyone to criticize issues; silencing, smearing, and ostracizing those who do ask questions (in this case, labeling them “transphobic”) about the ideology of transgenderism; and pressuring individuals (from parents to health professionals) to blindly adhere to the view that some people are “born in the wrong body,” and that the only way to “fix” this error is through medical intervention, such as puberty-suppressing drugs, cross-sex hormones, and various surgeries, rather than with psychological intervention. And, much like in a cult, those who push gender identity ideology discourage independent thought, and instead respond to requests for evidence and facts to support their beliefs with platitudes, mantras, and scare tactics, repeated over and over, until they become reality.
If I could become so easily and wholeheartedly sold on notions like the existence of a “lady brain,” I fear that almost anyone is susceptible to believing that this increasingly large emperor, his brazen nakedness filling the room, is in fact wearing clothes.
Alicia Hendley holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Windsor, and worked as a psychologist at University of Waterloo’s Counselling Services. Dr. Hendley’s research and clinical interests include eating disorders and distorted body image, as well as mood and anxiety disorders. She is also an author of fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and poetry. Follow her on Twitter @AliciaMHendley.