Debunking trans rhetoric 2: Julia Serrano

Recently Current Affairs ran an interview with Julia Serrano:

I began to read it with something approaching trepidation. Surely a university professor in biology would have some devastating arguments in favour of gender ideology and against feminism, which doesn’t accept that men can be women or vice versa? The interview was so fawning, however, that I began to smell a rat pretty soon. And so it proved. We get the same tired tropes, the same irrelevancies, the same “well this is complex” deflections.

I’ve quoted Serrano’s own words, so you can tell I am not distorting them, and you can easily check them against their context online.

‘Sex is biology and science, and gender is this ephemeral identity stuff that isn’t based in concrete reality, which is a very bizarre separation to make in 2021.’

No. No, it’s not. This is precisely the distinction we need if women are ever to quit being sexually harassed, assaulted, and raped, exploited for sexual and reproductive labour, and take our rightful place as human beings alongside men. Gender is harmful for men, too, but it’s far, far worse for women.

(At one point Serrano claims that: ‘ Every day of my life that I walk through the world and people read me as female, I’ve experienced sexism.’ But, TBH, I doubt this was sexism. I think he has experienced the sort of suspicious reaction people have to men in dresses. Because he really, really doesn’t pass:

So when he says, ‘Depending upon when you transition and the randomness of other physical features, there are some trans people who don’t pass. But to say that most trans people don’t pass is a big jump right there’, whatever he may think, he falls in the former group. He adds: ‘[People who met him after transition] were just as shocked to find out that I was trans, when I presented as a woman, as the people who knew me as male were shocked when I came out to them as trans.’ Again, I doubt this. He is not the sort of feminine transwoman who could pass, with make-up and the right clothes.)

So I have to disagree with the claim that ‘basically, all these fields have decided that actually, that’s all crap’, because we are finding out just what happens when men claim to be women, and when girls think they are boys and cut their breasts off as a result. There are perfectly good reasons why girls and women want spaces where there are no men, especially pre-op transwomen, who are nothing like the gentle, feminine transsexuals of yore. And there are spaces where no male-bodied person should be, such as refuges and rape-crises centres. If transwomen cared about women, thought of women, this would not even have to be said.

‘And it’s the idea that there are only two sexes. And if you’re born a boy, you’ll always be a boy or a man; if you’re born a girl, you’ll always be a girl or woman. This is an idea that we’ve each been taught. Maybe nowadays, not all kids are being taught that.’

Which is extremely dangerous. It is contributing to the enormous increase in numbers of girls who want to transition. It is contributing to the increase in numbers of gender-neuter toilets and changing-rooms, where assaults are happening more and more, by trans-identified men and by men who want access to girls and women in vulnerable states of undress and will say and do anything to get it. It is leading to biological sex not being taught in medical schools, just as science is beginning to reveal just how different men and women are, physiologically. Women are not men without penises. We are a sex, not a garden variant.

‘So even once young children understand that there are girls and boys, they will still sometimes think it’s possible for a girl to become a boy or a boy to become a girl, which is why a lot of times young people are sometimes more accepting of trans people than are older people.’

There’s a canny slide here from ‘girls and boys’, who are still learning about sexual dimorphism, to ‘young people’, who are being indoctrinated into trans ideology. They are not the same thing. Yet. Feminists are trying desperately to prevent that ideology from poisoning children’s minds and from weakening basic safe-guarding.

‘So I wanted to start out by saying that, on the specifics of the biology part of her argument: for one thing, even amongst mammals, there’s a lot of sex diversity and species that don’t quite fit into rigid male and female dichotomies. For mammals, I will concede that, yes, unlike, say, certain types of fish that change sex midlife, mammals don’t have that. But there are mammals, including humans, who are intersex, which is a sexual dichotomy or sexual dimorphism and they don’t fall neatly into what’s considered male or female.’

So although the interviewer criticizes Helen Joyce for failing to mention non-placental mammals such as platypuses, Serrano does realize he’s on a hiding to nothing with that line of attack. But equally, for a biology professor, he shows a remarkable insouciance about, well, biology. For the 1000th time: humans are not clownfish. In fact, and this may come as a surprise, they are not fish at all. Talk about what happens in the rest of nature is not relevant when we are discussing primate morphology and sexual dimorphism and the two kinds of gamete that the male body and the female body produce.

One of the most disappointing, yet most-to-be-expected parts of the interview concern the following problem, and, to be fair, the interviewer does quote some sources here:

‘Helen Joyce: “there’s a circularity to the mantra that trans women are women, which raises and leaves unanswered the question of what then the word woman means.” And Lionel Shriver says that “in order to construct a spectrum, it’s necessary to understand what it means to be a man or woman…. We are told the trans woman may have been born a man but feels like a woman. I do not mean to be perverse, but I have no idea what it feels like to be a woman, and I am one.” And she says that the trans movement seems to think that being a woman has a lot to do with what clothes you choose to wear and mascara and heels and so forth. And that’s mild compared to some of the stuff that people like Germaine Greer say.’

So what is Serrano’s answer to this conundrum?

Spoiler alert: he doesn’t have one. Here we go.

‘When I was writing my book, the one that most people were familiar with was, “I’m a woman trapped inside a man’s body” or “I’m a man trapped inside a woman’s body,” which served the same purpose.

‘But because I was trans, I inexplicably had these really strong feelings, first and foremost, thinking that there was something wrong with my being a boy. But more importantly, just as inexplicable a feeling that I should be a girl. And that really scared me. And it didn’t make any sense to me.’

Note ‘because I was trans.’ So here Serrano is assuming he was always trans, when what could have been happening is simply that as a small child he was made to do stuff for boys when he really wanted to play with the girls, and, being a child, he thought that means he was a girl. Because small children haven’t yet learned that there is a big difference between sex and gender, in part because they haven’t yet learned about the full range of differences between male bodies and female bodies—at any rate, if they have, then there has been a terrible failure of safe-guarding.

So what we want now is a non-metaphorical explanation of the “trapped in the wrong body” mantra. Serrano, being a biology professor, must know that one’s brain is part of one’s body, and therefore that it makes no sense to say one has the “wrong brain”. One’s brain just is (part of) one’s body. So, how does he explain his sense of dysphoria?

‘So going back to the question of trans women are women or a woman trapped inside a man’s body, these statements from a transgender perspective very clearly are attempts to explain something really complicated in a very simple way to people who might not get it.’

So, please, go ahead, explain it.

‘We were all taught to see gender a particular way. It involved stereotypes of bodies, it involved things you’re supposed to do, things you would grow up to be, all these learned ideas, things that were supposed to be inevitable.’

Stereotypes of bodies? Well, yes. We learn that men look a certain way, and women look another way, broadly speaking. This is for a simple reason: for the most part, men look a certain way, and women look another way. It is called sexual dimorphism. What he is talking about is gender: the expectations, imposed by society but subsequently internalized by most people, that women do and like certain things and activities, and men do and like different things and activities.

But there is one basic truth about bodies, one that older girls in particular learn: they can get pregnant. It is the single most important thing they learn growing up. That and the fact that, on the whole, men will be stronger than them, especially upper-body strength. These differences are not gender. What is gender is the societal and/or familial expectation that they will get pregnant in the “natural” course of affairs, that they will have sole or principal care of their children, that they will have no control over when they have sex or whether they will get pregnant, that they will tend to the house and (perhaps) not work for money outside it, and so on.

Later on Serrano says:

‘It’s very problematic, because the overwhelming majority of people who seem to be living up to stereotypical ideals of manhood or womanhood are cisgender people. There are a lot of cisgender people who seem really invested in those gender stereotypes.’

So why does he think that most people live up to those ideals of manhood or womanhood? Why, but because of the enormous societal pressure to do, and the enormous social costs if you don’t? Some pre-modern societies catered to the small percentage of feminine gay men by constructing the third genders Serrano refers to (as if this said something about being trans in a 21st c. post-industrial society), but we hear almost nothing (including from him) about lesbians of any stripe, presumably because, being women, they had no choice but to perform as women and conform to the female stereotype. (Sworn virgins are not necessarily lesbians, of course: that institution is a society’s way of ensuring ownership of property when ownership is reserved for males. Virgins get to have power by precisely not conforming to the stereotypical gender “female”. So don’t go down that route.)

Gay men and lesbians will tell you all about the risks of not conforming, even today, in many countries. Gay men and lesbians and bisexuals and all right-thinking people are glad that finally most Western countries have accepted these people as fully human with human rights, even if there are still clumps of homophobes still out there, doing their hateful stuff. Scientists are also recognizing that homosexuality is found in other mammalian species, it’s just that people hadn’t been looking for it until recently—which means men hadn’t been looking for it. But sexual orientation is not gender, and the question is not: Why does Serrano think he is gay? (I have no idea if he is or not.) It is: Why does he believe he can identify as female if the category “female” is cut free from female-sexed bodies? Where does female-as-a-gender come from, in that case?

‘I can assure you that I questioned gender about a thousand times more than the average cisgender person.

‘I spent a huge amount of my life questioning and doing research and meeting diverse people… So I just want to throw out the idea that we have simplistic notions of gender…

‘And other people might conceptualize themselves this other way. But we all fall under this umbrella of people who have the experience of understanding our genders in a way that’s different from the gender we were assigned at birth.’

But what did he learn that allowed him to identify as female without knowing what “female” is by personal experience, and also without there being sexed female bodies as the ones whose owners have to conform to the gendered expectations considered appropriate to females? Here’s the core of his answer:

‘What does it mean to be a woman trapped inside a man’s body?—which is never how I saw myself, but it was what I had to answer for the statement that other people would make. Growing up, I had no idea what other girls felt or what other boys felt. I had no idea; I only knew what I was experiencing. And so when I say I’m a trans woman, it’s not because I aspire to be a woman or have stereotyped notions of being a woman or that I’m making a crass assumption about what women really feel. I’ve no idea what anybody feels on the inside except me. There are some people who have really strong feelings. And you can say feelings—I would say it’s a little more complicated than that. I often describe it as being similar to cognitive dissonance, a kind of understanding that your body should be a particular way that it isn’t, and trying to sort that out.’

So, he does ‘not aspire to be a woman.’ Good, because he could never be one. Having uterus- and vagina-transplants is a goal for many, perhaps most, transwomen, but presumably not for Serrano. But if he has ‘no idea how anyone feels on the inside’, and so can’t make an argument based on “how women feel”—which is also good, as that isn’t a Thing anyway—then, once more: what is it for him to want to identify as female? He knows he can’t have a female-sexed body, and yet doesn’t recognize the simple truth that if female isn’t a sex, then there can’t be a gender associated with that sex. So he still hasn’t told us the answer to the question: given that he can’t identify as female in the sense of having a female-sexed body, so that he can at best identify with female-as-a-gender, where does he think that female-as-a-gender came from, except as the gender assigned originally to female-sexed bodies?

And he never does answer this question. Instead he says things like this:

‘And the problem isn’t that trans people won’t recognize or acknowledge the difference between trans women and cis women, it’s that people who hold anti-trans positions like Helen Joyce refuse to recognize our many similarities.’

Helen Joyce is not anti-trans. She is opposed to a pernicious and bogus ideology that is already undermining the hard-won rights of women and girls. And I have news for Serrano: There are men who identify as women who do not recognize any distinction between themselves and so-called cis women. Maybe he should call them out, for their misogyny and presumptuousness and arrogance, and leave feminists alone. That includes acknowledging that there are no relevant similarities between transwomen and women. We are all human. That’s about it. This is how he wraps up this bit of the conversation:

‘So that’s a roundabout way of getting to your question and the passages you just read. I think that gender is really complicated’.

I got the impression that Serrano had either failed to recognize that trans ideology has moved on, or doesn’t want to do so. He knows things have changed, of course. Talking about his earlier discussions, he says:

‘I was talking about aspects of sex being really important. I don’t know whether I was purposefully misread or not really read.’

This certainly used to be the case. Most transsexuals, back then, recognized they were not women. They just wanted to be left alone to play house with a man as if they were women. There were so few of them their attempts to change birth certificates and so on didn’t go anywhere. So women didn’t feel in danger from them or their behaviour and attitudes. But this is no longer the case.

‘When I transitioned, the official diagnosis for being trans was called “gender identity disorder.”’

There’s a whole conversation to be had about the medical aspects of transitioning, and how trans people get classified (are they sick, in need of medical care? or are they healthy, but still, according to them, in need of medical care, and either way who pays?) but here I’ll just note that Serrano says ‘diagnosis’, and move on to Serrano’s next big lie:

‘Yeah. I wrote an essay earlier this year called “Transgender People, Bathrooms, and Sexual Predators, What the Data Say,” that touches on a couple different points.

‘So this is the sexual predator thing, like that J.K. Rowling quote you’re talking about. In my essay, I show a couple different empirical studies that show that trans women and trans inclusive bathroom policies—there’s no sign that that causes any harm to anybody.’

There is so much material to choose from here, relating to the harms that transwomen can get up to when allowed in women’s spaces. This is just a selection of what I know about, right now. I do not distinguish between ‘transwomen’ and ‘trans-identifying males’ and ‘transgender women’ because, for these purposes, it doesn’t matter. If sexual predators are accessing girls and women in states of undress, I do not care what they call themselves.

This last link is very much NSFW (scroll down). The compiler, Nig Heke, keeps getting banned from Twitter for posting material posted online by transwomen, some with penises:

Serrano adds: ‘And not only that, but there’s also other research studies showing that actually trans people face a disproportionate amount of harassment in bathrooms even when we can go into the appropriate bathroom.’

Now this is wrong, and sad, and should not happen. No-one should get harassed in a bathroom. But this is not women’s problem. It is men who do the harassing, and transwomen, who are men, should be talking up about the harm being done to them by other men. Not by women. Not by feminists.

Next, Serrano’s fourth big lie, after sex not being binary in mammals, his knowing what “female” is absent the female-bodied human, and trans-identifying males not getting up to mischief in women’s bathrooms and changing-rooms and prisons and refuges:

‘I often describe a lot of anti-trans activism as being a lot like the anti-vax movement. But then there are just some people who feel like it sounds gross or contaminating to have this thing injected into you.’

Being pro-women’s rights is not at all like the anti-vax movement. It is based precisely on biology and on empirical evidence about how women fare when men have untrammelled access to them, and on the history of how women have been exploited since the year dot for their unpaid labour. And if there is anything being injected into anyone, it is a so-called “woman’s penis” being inserted into women who do not want it there. That is gross and contaminating, especially as it can result in pregnancy. Young lesbians are forcing themselves to have sex with fully-intact males who call themsleves “lesbians”. Women are being raped in prison by fully-intact males who have decided to call themselves “women” for the purposes of getting into the women’s estate. This is happening, whatever Serrano may think about the issue.

‘There are some people who are just having a bad reaction to trans people, or they just view trans people as unnatural or immoral.’

What is “immoral” is men taking spaces and places that women have earned for themselves. From public places to pee to the vote to equal pay (we’re still hoping for that one) to equal representation politically and economically (ditto), women have sacrificed their time, energy, resources, and sometimes themselves, to get those things—and now they are being taken away from them. By men. Like Serrano. And this is not ‘a bad reaction’, which sounds like something that just happens to one. Feminists have spent the last 50 years or so trying to work out what it is about men and women that has got women into this mess. We have researched, argued, formulated ideas and theories, done more research, and so on. Reason and empirical evidence are actively exercised and discovered, respectively. There is nothing either passive or irrational about our reaction to men, and to men identifying as women in particular. Saying it is is just another example of things men have said about women since forever. So no surprise there, then.

Now, on the back of that false claim, comes Serrano’s fourth big lie: trans rights activism is like civil rights activism:

‘But that is such a classic card to play in creating the moral panics. It came up during Civil Rights and segregation.’

Segregation and apartheid were based on a false, harmful, destructive ideology, that whites or Westerners were superior in [name a positive characteristic here] to non-whites, and that they need to be kept separate from whites unless whites need their labour. The just comparison here is with sexism, which is also a false, harmful, destructive ideology, one that has inspired men to keep women separate from other women (as with patrilocal marriage), has figured women as inferior in [name a positive characteristic here], and has always tried to keep women in positions of inferiority, exploited for their labour, with very little to no control over their bodies.

Trans ideology, by contrast, is the bogus and pernicious idea that men can, just by saying so, count themselves as women, and what’s more everyone else has to count them as women too. It allows men to claim access to the bodies of lesbians, who by definition cut men out of their sex lives. It allows men to claim access to women’s spaces and places. It is based on nothing at all but a feeling in someone’s head, as Serrano’s non-explanation of “identifying as female” has just proved, coupled with some men’s sex drive and desire for control of everything about women—even our name.

And of course Serrano traduces his opponents as “anti-trans”, who, while not actually hating trans people, as promoting the views of those who do:

‘I don’t have any reason to believe that Helen Joyce, or people who give Helen Joyce a good review in the New York Times, actually hate trans people. Maybe they don’t. But they’re forwarding a lot of the same talking points as people who do outright hate trans people and outright want to exclude trans people from society.

Anyone who has read all of Joyce’s book will know this is false. (It seems Serrano didn’t, and doesn’t.) Nor does Serrano realize that pro-women’s rights writers do want to exclude trans people in a very narrow but crucial sense: we want to exclude TIMs from women’s spaces. Not because we hate transwomen, but because we are pro-women. And we are not going to shut up about the harms being done to women by this ideology, just because there are people who actively want to harm trans people and will take any excuse, any opportunity to do so.

Serrano also complains that “anti-trans” literature doesn’t give the other side of the story. Well, what did he expect? Except it’s false. The books he names do tell us about the ideology they are opposing. They quote sources. Documents, websites, laws, correspondence, interviews, books, articles, you name it. They do not, however, consult feelings in men’s heads. Maybe that is what Serrano means by “the other side of the story”? Or maybe it’s not centring trans people enough?

‘But this particular group of people, some of whom consider themselves to be feminists, just really don’t want to have that conversation. They only want to have one conversation, and it’s one where trans people don’t get to speak and where it ends with us being shown the door.’

He’s got that right, for once. Women decide on what their needs are. If we need to exclude men, we will do it. We will die on that hill. I will die on that hill.

Finally, trans kids. The interviewer and Serrano agree that it’s terrible that these “anti-trans” writers only interview the children. Now, apart from the fact that it would be unethical to interview and quote children without their parents’ consent, which Serrano and the interviewer may or may not have forgotten, the parents in question are all too familiar with the online material that their children are exposed to. They also accompany their children to therapists. They talk to their children and their children’s friends and their children’s friends’ parents. Their views are deeply informed by their knowledge of their children and their children’s lives, IRL and online.

And they know, above all, that their chldren, whom they love deeply, and who cannot legally drink or smoke, cannot consent to sexual intercourse, cannot marry, cannot drive, and cannot vote, are also, whatever the children or their therapists may think, in no position to take decisions that will irreversibly affect their bodies, in fact will harm their bodies in ways that are even now coming to light. Children too young to know what sex is, to know whether they are gay or straight, too young to know whether they want children or even what it is to want children, too young to have had an orgasm, cannot make decisions that will affect their fertility and sexual function as adults in what, for children, is the mistily unimaginable future, a whole 10 or 15 or 20 years hence.

One last little lie:

‘And I think most trans people are our first biggest critics, right?’

No. No, they’re not. Not by the longest of chalks.