Here’s why Andrew Sullivan’s proposed ‘truce’ on transgenderism doesn’t work

Protestors Rally At Stonewall Inn Against Withdrawal Of Transgender Protections on February 23, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Last week, Andrew Sullivan published an article proposing a “truce” in the “trans wars.” In general, I am a fan of truces. While in my youth I may have enjoyed warring for clicks or in an effort to appear righteous, these days I prefer some nuance. When I say there is no compromising on this issue (at least not in the way many suggest), I do not mean that I wish to war perpetually with trans-identified people, or that I believe there must only be one winner. There are fair approaches, just not in the ways Sullivan proposes.

The problem begins with the premise: that the category of “trans” is either a definable or rational category, distinguishable from those who do not identify as “trans.” Often, explaining that there is no such thing as a “trans person” is (disingenuously, in my opinion) interpreted to mean I wish to “deny the existence” of people who identify as trans. I do not. I am well aware there are people in this world who identify as transgender or who have attempted to “transition” to the opposite sex or gender. It is the category itself that makes no sense. Anyone could be trans, should they choose to claim it. It means nothing and demands nothing. Today I could be a woman, tomorrow I could decide I am trans, and nothing will have changed. The identity is no longer based on surgeries, body modifications, appearance, or medication. It is a feeling or pronouncement. Moreover, it is not possible to change sex. No amount of hormone treatments or cosmetic surgery can literally make a male female or vice versa. One may be able to appear a bit more like the desired sex, but those attempts are not generally particularly successful, nor do they actually change a person’s biological sex.

These arguments have nothing to do with radical feminism, despite the fact that many liberals who have at last begun to attempt to take on these debates and issues continue to refer to those of us who have been critical of gender identity ideology and defensive of women’s rights as “TERFs.” Any rational person should be able to understand what I’ve explained above, without understanding it as tied to “patriarchy” or a desire to upend social or political structures.

The question is also not and should not be one of “belief.” Stating “I believe trans people when they tell the stories of their lives,” as Sullivan writes, means nothing at all. What is it you believe? That these individuals feel at odds with their bodies? That they dislike the gender stereotypes imposed on them? Welcome to life. These feelings are not necessarily abnormal. And even for those individuals who may legitimately suffer from what is termed “gender dysphoria,” meaning that their body dysmorphia or rejection of either masculinity or femininity is so acute it constitutes a form of mental illness, “believing” them remains a meaningless approach. I also “believe” girls struggling with anorexia think they are fat, despite being dangerously thin. It doesn’t make them actually fat. These are just feelings and thoughts, which do not require the creation of an entire separate legal category of people, meaningfully distinguishable from the categories of “male” and “female.” It is simply not necessary — a person can be male and also reject masculinity and choose to get breast implants. It doesn’t make him not a male.

Sure, a feeling or thought can be “an integral part of your identity,” but we all have those. Are dog people a group in need of legal protection to distinguish themselves from cat people? Or is it ok to simply prefer dogs, the greater pet and companion?

I believe Sullivan when he says he is vilified both by radical feminists and by trans activists for attempting to take what he considers to be an empathetic, intermediary position. And I think this is unfair. Certainly I think that when one engages in such debates on Twitter, it is likely you will be subjected to hyperbole. And I am aware that some people approach these matters in a less than conciliatory way. At the same time, this attempt to find a “middle ground” is flawed. One truly does need to choose material reality, women’s rights, and the protection of children from dangerous medical practices at this point, because trans rights activism has gone so far. If we were simply talking about respecting people’s choices and chosen identities, that would be a different matter, but we are talking about legislation and material harm. There really is no middle ground when it comes to issues like whether a male should be permitted to compete with and against women in sport, or whether he should be allowed access to women’s change rooms or prisons. It doesn’t matter how he feels or what he prefers, in those scenarios, which is why some feminists have become so apparently rabid in their approach to trans rights activism.

There are areas I agree with Sullivan on: “In a free society, anyone over the age of 18 should be able to identify as they wish, call themselves what they wish, access full medical treatments to be the gender they believe they are, and be protected by civil rights law.”

I have always said adults may do what they wish with their lives and bodies, provided they aren’t hurting others in the process. So please do feel free to change your name, access cosmetic surgery, and believe yourself to be whatever you like. But you may not impose that belief on others, insist they play along, or demand legal rights that infringe upon hard won rights of women, based on biological and historical realities. We can treat people with dignity without lying to them or others, and without endangering vulnerable women and girls.

I also agree that separate facilities for trans-identified people, when it comes to shelters or prisons, makes sense if that means women’s facilities are protected. I have pointed out many times in talks that it is strange to me that trans activists don’t seek to create separate facilities for this apparently vulnerable minority group, instead demanding only that women and girls step aside for any man who announces he is a woman.

I do not agree that children should ever be prescribed hormone blockers and put through experimental medical procedures that will destroy their bodies and ability to reproduce and enjoy sex in the future, and that will harm them, health-wise, in a myriad of other ways. Once they turn 18, they can make those decisions, but a 12-year-old is simply not equipped to do so. “Helping” one’s “gender dysphoria” is not a good enough argument to allow the medical and pharmaceutical industries to experiment on children who can’t possibly understand the full repercussions of these treatments and surgeries.

Do these arguments make me a radical? I’d argue not. Indeed, I consider them quite rational. Empathy is one thing, and reality is another. Unfortunately some perceive reality to be cruel, and maybe it is. But I can’t help bristle at the efforts of big name liberals to position themselves as good and kind in comparison to dogmatic meanies who simply don’t care about the feelings of others.

I like Sullivan, but I think his efforts to avoid being tarred as “transphobic” or to simply be viewed as an open-minded liberal may be preventing him from assessing the trans debate clearly and honestly. I hope we have the opportunity to discuss it at some point in the future.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.