Trans by Helen Joyce; Material Girls by Kathleen Stock – reviews

Two weighty books on the debate around gender-critical feminism and transgender rights strike different tones

Last month, the Royal Academy dropped the feminist artist Jess de Wahls’s work from its gift shop after objections to her views on trans rights. To some, it looked like a textbook case of so-called “cancel culture”, in which anyone challenging the idea that trans women are women in the fullest possible sense supposedly risks a career-ending backlash. But the story did not end there. After a flood of emails from women threatening to boycott the Academy’s exhibitions in protest, the institution swiftly un-cancelled De Wahls, who is now swamped with orders. Something, in short, seems to be shifting.

And that broadly fits the thesis of the Economist writer Helen Joyce’s Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, which argues that a tide is now turning. She sees support for the idea that individuals can change biological sex as a “crony belief”, one people mostly hold to look good in front of others, and that may be dropped quite easily if enough of those others start publicly challenging it. As the former Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies, vilified for arguing that trans athletes shouldn’t compete in female sporting categories, puts it: “It’s not that people disagree with me, it’s that they’re frightened of the activists.” Since recent YouGov polling finds falling numbers of Britons strongly agreeing that “a transgender woman is a woman”, and rising numbers either somewhat disagreeing or only somewhat agreeing, Joyce may be right about the broad trajectory of public opinion. Whether you find that heartening or terrifying determines whether you’ll want to read both this book and Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls, or throw them across the room.

The core of Joyce’s book is a string of familiar but disturbing cases like that of the convicted sex offender and trans woman Karen White, who sexually assaulted fellow inmates after being transferred to a female prison; Keira Bell, the 24-year-old who recently sued the Tavistock gender clinic for facilitating a teenage transition that she now feels was a terrible mistake; or Jessica Yaniv, who sued a Canadian beautician for refusing to provide a bikini wax. Most trans women wouldn’t dream of taking things as far as Yaniv, Joyce argues, but the law must guard against those who might.

Yet there are some curious holes in this book. Joyce pitches it as a tale of institutional capture by a “powerful new lobby” of billionaire-funded trans activists who are poorly representative of ordinary trans people, rather than a book about transness. If so, it would have benefited from fewer pages of highly contentious speculation about what makes people trans and more interviews with policymakers, activists, the ordinary trans people she considers misrepresented, and others capable of explaining exactly how a radical minority cause seemingly won over quite so many politicians, judges, employers and other traditionally conservative forces. Instead, we get an exasperated polemic accusing activists of so aggressively overreaching themselves as to provoke “a backlash that will harm ordinary trans people who simply want safety and social acceptance”. They’d be better off focusing on improving trans healthcare, Joyce argues, not demanding access to women-only spaces or puberty blockers for teenagers. But what if being able to use women’s changing rooms, rather than fearing violence in the men’s, is very much an issue of “safety and social acceptance” to many trans women – albeit one that may leave some women feeling less safe? Refusing to acknowledge these fundamental conflicts precludes finding solutions.

Stock’s is the more thought-provoking take, examining almost all the same issues and reaching many similar conclusions but through a cooler lens. Like Joyce, she generally uses preferred pronouns for individuals but repeatedly describes trans women as men or males, in ways some will find jarring or gratuitous and others outright hateful. But for gender-critical feminists, the freedom to say what they actually think about the immutability of biological sex is the whole point; they believe that being forced to pretend otherwise prevents women naming the thing they’re pretty sure they see, and may have learned the hard way to fear.

As an analytical philosopher, Stock focuses on abstract concepts not personal stories, but the book is much less dry than that makes it sound. It also more clearly explains why the debate has become viciously gridlocked; both sides are essentially talking past each other.

To gender-critical thinkers, gender is a social construct imposed on women and to be resisted, since it’s driven by what men want them to be (Stock describes herself as a gender non-conforming lesbian). But trans people use the phrase “gender identity” to mean an innate sense of being male or female, which is fundamental to their identity because it explains why they reject the sex others perceive them as. To one side, gender is a terrible trap; to the other, it’s liberation from a trap. That leads to conflict over whether discrimination law should prioritise protecting gender identity – crucial to trans people – or biological sex, on which women’s rights have historically depended. Debate is further complicated by the fact that trans activists see any refusal to accept declared gender identity as transphobic or hateful; Stock, however, argues that any philosophical concept should be capable of being generally debated, albeit with due sensitivity and respect for individuals’ rights not to be discriminated against. How can such polar opposites ever be reconciled?

The most intriguing chapter deals with what Stock calls “immersive fiction”, or the supposed capacity to feel, think and act as if it was true that trans women are women without considering this literally true. Like a legal fiction, an elegant device for reconciling opposing concepts in law, she argues it may allow two conflicting ideas to be comfortably held in mind. It’s a perceptive description of how many people probably do think, and perhaps even the glimmerings of a way forward, which might lie in accepting that people are who they say they are but that doesn’t preclude the need for safeguards and fine judgments in some circumstances. Where she will divide the room is by arguing that trans people too are immersed in their own fiction, requiring them to deny biological facts and insist others follow suit.

If you fundamentally reject that premise, neither book is for you. But if you aren’t sure, then Stock’s – which concludes that both sides must become “more non-binary”, seeking compromise where possible – is more likely to help you work it out.

Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality by Helen Joyce is published by Oneworld (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism by Kathleen Stock is published by Little, Brown (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Contributor

Gaby Hinsliff

The GuardianTramp

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