There are a lot of bullshit arguments made against transgender people, and no person is better at debunking these arguments than Dr. Julia Serano. Serano is a PhD molecular biologist, writer, and musician whose books include Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism, and the surrealist novel 99 Erics. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, TIME, The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Salon, and elsewhere. She has written a number of articles patiently taking apart common misconceptions. Her “transgender glossary of sorts” is also an essential resource for those who find gender and sexuality terms confusing or imprecise.
Dr. Serano recently joined Current Affairs editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson on an episode of the Current Affairs podcast to examine claims made by J.K. Rowling, Helen Joyce, Deborah Soh, Abigail Shrier, and Ben Shapiro. They go through some of the most common arguments made about trans people in the popular press and show why they are pernicious, factually incorrect nonsense. Having previously spent two decades as a professional biologist, Dr. Serano corrects the laughably ignorant claims that transgender people misunderstand or ignore “biology.” In fact, it is the critics who are unacquainted with the basics of science.
A transcript of the interview follows. It has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
You’re a musician, a spoken word performer, and a writer. You have a blog. People can go to juliaserano.com to find out about all the many things you do. You are the author of a number of books, including a surrealist novel. But you also you have a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biophysics from Columbia and spent 17 years researching genetics and developmental and evolutionary biology, and I cite this fact when I mention your work, which I do fairly frequently because one of my special interests is responding to bullshit conservative arguments. And I do cite your credentials because the argument that is always trotted out by these right-wing pundits is, “Oh, well, you’re ignoring biology.” And when I cite you I always think “You know who could tell them something about biology?” Does this “trans people don’t understand biology” thing just drive you up the wall?
Yeah, pretty much. It’s understandable that they do it. I think that there’s become, especially in the last five years—although these arguments have been around for a long time—this tendency to separate out gender from sex. 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. We went through this period of time in the 60s through 80s when a lot of psychologists and sociologists and feminists were thinking in terms of sex-gender dichotomy, that there are two separate things, that sex is physical and gender is psychological or social. And basically, all these fields have decided that actually, that’s all crap. It’s a lot more complicated, and you can’t just pull those things apart. But I think what’s happened is that because a lot of the anti-discrimination policies protecting trans people are written with the language of protecting gender identity or gender expression, it becomes this convenient go-to to say, “Well, actually, we’re concerned about sex, which is different from gender.” So there’s a little bit of a hand wave there. But then again, it’s like sex and and the biology of sex is way more complicated than any of these anti-trans activists are willing to admit.
This is probably one of the reasons why they are so successful in the discourse. It’s really easy to succeed when your point is simple and a lot harder when your point is complex.
When you see someone like Ben Shapiro confront a college student and say, “Well, if I say I’m a moose, does that make me a moose?” or “biology is reality,” there is a very simple “logic” to what he says. But reality is complicated. It takes 10 seconds to say something that is wrong, but simple. And then it takes two minutes to explain something more complicated. When you encounter someone who begins with that, who has clearly swallowed the right-wing talking points, what is the first thing you say to them to begin to unpack or disentangle them and get them out of this?
So I do two things. Generally, one that I started doing a couple years ago that I find is a very useful analogy, for people who have at least some basic science background, is the idea of gravity. Gravity seems really simple. If I drop my keys, they fall to the ground, right? Really simple. We can all agree on that; it’s common sense knowledge. But if you actually study gravity, and you get into the weeds of it, you wind up with Einstein’s theory of relativity, which has some non-obvious realities to it, such as the fact that light bends when it encounters gravity, or that upon encountering a black hole, time slows down. That sounds weird, but it’s reality. And you only get there by looking a little bit deeper than the surface. So a lot of times, I find that that analogy will open people up to the idea that there’s a little bit more to this biological sex thing than meets the eye.
And so if people are open to listening, I’ll talk about something very commonly accepted in biology nowadays, which is that every single trait is a complex trait, which means that a trait has many, many different inputs. Some of them are biological, but some may be environmental. And there’s also a lot of random chance in biology. And all that stuff comes together to create a spectrum of outcomes. So take height, for example. Height is a really good example because we all understand it. And if you look at height, there’s not a male height and a female height, right? Even though it is a sexually dimorphic trait, you get these bell curves. There are these factors that go into it. There are over 100 genes that are known to have at least some impact on height. So you get these overlapping bell curves, such that even though there is a biological component like gender differences in height, we wouldn’t be surprised if we were to see a tall woman standing next to a shorter man. We see that every day. So there can be sex differences at the same time that they’re complex traits. And so there’s a lot of overlapping bell curves, if you just apply that, not only to every single physical trait between the sexes, but also, if you take into consideration gender identity and gender expression and sexual orientation, these are all concepts that trans people did not invent. These were invented by researchers in the late 20th century to describe different aspects of people that may not all align in the same person.
And if you also take, for example, physical traits, there are a lot of different physical traits. There are chromosomes and hormones and reproductive systems. And every single one of these has a certain amount of overlapping bell curves. And so if you accept that, then it becomes really easy to not just accept trans people, but also people who vary in their sexual orientations and people who vary in their gender expression, which is whether you express yourself in a feminine or masculine manner. And so this becomes really obvious if we understand biological diversity. But you’re right in that the people who like to think of themselves as facts over feelings, who have the “gotcha” line in the debate, it seems easy for them to say that it’s obvious that there are males and females and that’s that.
The first thing to do, it seems to me, is to get people to be willing to listen and think for a minute. With someone like Ben Shapiro, I often think “How would I begin with that guy to try and sort him out and set him straight?” Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints has this wonderful video about Ben Shapiro. One thing she says that he needs to understand is that when we’re talking about “men” and “women,” we’re often talking as much about language as we’re talking about features of the real world. We’re talking about labels, we’re talking about categories, we’re talking about what terms we decide to use. We’re not having a debate in which some people “accept biology” and other people “reject biology.” I think that’s really helpful. But there are a lot of people who are very, very convinced that they know everything that they need to know, because they know they’ve heard the word chromosomes, and they know their chromosomes, and they know that there are two categories of people, and you assign people to a category. And that’s all you need to know. And how could it be more complicated than that?
We’re taught from a very early age to see two different genders. That’s something we learn at a young age. There’s lots of research into how children learn to understand gender. Their understanding of gender is very different from adults. It starts out being very flexible. 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. So there are all these different stages that have been chronicled. The last stage considered by psychologists who studied this to be the most mature or sophisticated stage was called gender constancy. 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. And they will probably have a slightly different understanding of gender than some of us who came up in past eras here, at least here in the U.S. and in the West. So these are things that we’re taught.
It’s difficult because you have to get past the point that people perceive a world where there are men and women, but they haven’t really investigated that. So I feel like a lot of people who are pointing to biology are doing so to try to justify the fact that when they look at the world, they see women and men, although as any trans person or even gender non-conforming person can tell you, a lot of times people look onto the world, and they’ll see you as a man, but that’s not how you identify, or they’ll see you as a woman, and that’s not how you identify. But I think a lot of the appeals to biology are sometimes motivated by opposition to trans people. Opponents will just use any argument they can find in their toolbox. But I think that for a lot of people, it comes from a different place. People look around the world and see women and men and then you’re telling them that that’s not true. So it’s sometimes a little bit difficult to get over.
One of the funniest things to me, the thing I cannot help laughing about really, is that people who look at the world and see women and men, when they’re going through that world, often they correctly gender trans people, and they can’t, in fact, carry out their ideological program. There’s this great clip of Ben Shapiro talking about Laverne Cox, and he correctly genders her by accident because he sees a world of men and women and he’s got fixed psychological categories. But Laverne Cox is in the “female” box in his head, and he has to try to forcibly pull her out of the female box in his head because he can’t help himself. A lot of these people can’t actually carry out their scheme because as you have mentioned in your writing, we don’t see people’s chromosomes. People suddenly say, “Oh, chromosomes are the end all, be all.” But that’s not, in fact, how the classifications operate. They are social categories.
Exactly. One of the things that really struck me during my transition—a lot of trans people have shared similar stories, but let me speak in “I” statements—one of the most startling things that I totally did not expect was that people who knew me before I transitioned were so invested in my being a he/him. Versus after I transitioned, and people started reading me as female, I would get the reverse situation—where people, upon finding out I was trans, were shocked. They 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. And so it’s very weird to be in a world where people just accept me as like she/her and nobody thinks about it. But then I’ll still have people from my past, who I don’t see all that often, who slip up and call me the wrong pronouns. And I think this is exactly what you’re saying. I think we have these boxes—I sometimes describe them as filing cabinets. Not like literal spaces in your brain, but basically, we organize people, or we’re taught to organize people, according to the man box or the woman box. And it creates difficulty for all of us, including myself.
I think most trans people would say the same thing, which is that once you learn more about gender, about trans people’s experiences, when you learn about non-binary people, there are these hurdles or obstacles you have to get over. You have to think about the world in a slightly different way to accommodate people who exist, people you didn’t know existed in the world before. And I think all of us do it to some degree, even if it’s not about gender. Almost all of us grow up in a very straight world. We think there are men and women and husbands and wives, and those are the only relationships. And then as you get older, you realize that there are same sex relationships. And that’s a hurdle that a lot of us get over at a certain point in time. We realize that there’s more diversity here. And so it’s not any different with trans people. It’s just that as a society, most of society has moved on. Not all, obviously. I don’t know specifically what Ben Shapiro’s opinion is on same sex relationships. [Editor’s note: Shapiro has claimed homosexuality is a mental illness and a sin.] But I think most people have accepted same sex relationships. And trans is a new thing to them, even though trans people have been around forever.
There’s this wretched, rancid new book by an editor of The Economist, Helen Joyce, called Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, which I’m sure you’ve heard about. Richard Dawkins, the biologist, says it’s “frighteningly necessary, thoroughly researched, passionate, and very brave.” And one of the disturbing things is that, obviously, it got reviewed very favorably in the right-wing press. But it also got a positive review in the New York Times. The Guardian was relatively positive on it. I wanted to go through a couple of things she wrote with you, I looked at Joyce’s book in preparation for this interview, just to see some of the ideas. It’s a really, really aggressive manifesto, claiming that a thing called “gender identity ideology” has been taking over. She writes:
“…underlying my objections to gender self-identification is a scientific fact. Biological sex has an objective basis lacked by other socially salient categories like race and nationality. Sexual dimorphism, the two sexes, male and female, first appeared on Earth 1.2 billion years ago. Mammals, animals that grow their young inside them rather than laying eggs,”—I think she forgot that platypuses exist—“date back 210 million years. No mammal has ever changed sex.”
Could you, as a biologist, respond to this?
Sure. I’ve gone through parts of her book. And as much as I didn’t want to do it, a couple of months ago, I went through all the more recent anti-trans books including the books by Kathleen Stock and Abigail Shrier. I know you’ve reviewed Shrier. There are several others too, including Debra Soh, who has a lot of anti-trans talking points. So I went through them and skimmed them. Sometimes I get angry comments like, “Well, you didn’t read the book.” And it’s like, I’m a biologist. You’re going to tell me that if somebody writes a book that’s wrong about evolution, that I’m not allowed to comment on it unless I read the whole book? I’ve been looking at writing about trans people, trans issues, and biology, for a large chunk of my life. So anyway, I went through them all. I haven’t read every single aspect of them.
First, even though each book has its own particular angle, they all go through the same talking points that are the ones that those of us who are familiar with anti-trans or trans-skeptical media articles can recognize. They touch on detransition and social contagion/rapid-onset gender dysphoria and desistance and all the autogynephilia. It’s basically the 10 anti-trans boxes you check. And they never provide the other side of the argument. None of them considers counter-arguments. And it’s really easy to make a one-sided argument. In my online writing critiquing the recent anti-trans backlash, I try to present both sides, while explaining why I favor one. And there’s sometimes truth to some of these arguments. For example, there are people who detransition. But the reality is more complex than they’re willing to concede.
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. And this happens for every single physical sex difference that exists, whether it’s chromosomes, whether it’s hormones and secondary sex characteristics, whether it’s reproductive organs. So it sounds like she’s not considering at all that that falls under my complex trait/bell curve/humans are diverse argument. She’s arguing that biology is a static truth that trans people fall outside of. But actually, we fall within the parameters of biology as seen for mammals. If she wants to talk about physical traits alone, then there’s sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity. We can’t ask animals how they identify. But in all species of mammals, there are same sex pairings. Oh yeah, not yet. Mammals display a diversity of attraction. Same sex attraction is found in every mammal that I think it’s been closely examined in, as is whatever a combination of gender identity or gender expression is, where a male of the species will behave like the females behave, and a female behaves like the males behave. And intersex animals have been found for every mammal species that has been closely examined. So, you can appeal to biology. Biology, including sexual orientation, including aspects of what we as humans called gender, you can call it like sexually dimorphic behaviors. But all of these things vary within mammals, too. And to just ignore that by saying that people have always been male or female ignores the existence of intersex animals. It’s just very overly simplistic.
There’s a part in Joyce’s book where she’s even more wrong, where she says,
“Gender self-identification is a demand for validation by others. But the label is a misnomer, because it’s about requiring others to identify you as a member of the sex you proclaim. Since evolution has equipped humans with the ability to recognize other people’s sex almost instantaneously, with exquisite accuracy, very few trans people pass as their desired sex. And so to see them as that sex, everyone else must discount what their senses are telling them.”
That just seems to be false.
Yes, on several different levels. You can tell that to all the people in my life who read me as female and assume I’m female. That happens with a lot of trans people. Sure, there are issues. 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. It implies that she doesn’t really know too many trans people. But then the idea of being biologically programmed to see the sexes differently—there’s a large body of psychological and social research into how children learn to see differences between the sexes. It’s pretty well established that it’s a learning process. That’s not to say that there isn’t a biological aspect to the differences. But we most certainly learn to do it. And we learned to do it differently than other groups of humans. Many human cultures, including Indigenous American cultures, have third and fourth genders that are acknowledged in society. And people see them as a separate gender from male and female. That’s a learned process. And so different cultures might interpret gender diversity differently.
A lot of people who have negative attitudes towards trans people also express concerns about being deceived by trans people. That’s long been out there as a meme in the media—you know, she isn’t really a she, right? Or people freaking out when they find out that the person they’re attracted to is trans. And it’s like, yeah, that kind of goes against this whole idea [that it’s easy to identify “sex”].
The other thing I want to add here—and this is something that blows my mind—is that these people keep pointing to chromosomes and reproductive organs and everything. We don’t see any of that. The physical differences that we see between women and men are secondary sex characteristics. For example, muscle and fat distribution, breasts or facial hair. These things are things that are brought on by hormones, which are the things that trans people often take when they transition. I don’t know how much of it with any given anti-trans writer is motivated reasoning, how much of it is cluelessness, like not actually being at all familiar with trans people. But yeah, there’s a lot of problems in that passage.
I don’t know how they go through their lives—and when I say they, I mean from J.K. Rowling to Ben Shapiro to Jordan Peterson to Helen Joyce to Debra Soh to Abigail Shrier. They must go through their lives trying to avoid having serious conversations with trans people. That’s the only way you could come up with this idea that there is a denial of biology. It’s so strange. Of all the people who deny human biology, trans people are not in that group. Nobody has a better understanding of what causes the body to be the way it is and the effects of hormones on the body. Nobody thinks about that more. There’s not a single biological fact that is being in any way denied by trans people.
Yeah. I would love to be at a point where—and obviously, we’ve taken this kind of backlash turn—we realize that trans people provide a lot of insight for everyday people about gender. People will debate the differences between the sexes, and it’s like, trans people have written about our experiences with, say, hormonal transitioning. And the answer is that yeah, there are very real differences. Experiences may vary. But again, humans are these overlapping bell curves. We, as trans people, have experience being members of both the male and female persuasions, and that relates to both physical and social aspects of gender. Having moved through the world as male and as female, we have very interesting experiences. And we have moved through the world as non-binary and have been read different ways and have experienced very real double standards.
A lot of these anti-trans people purport to be feminists. I’m not going to say they aren’t feminists, but their feminism seems a bit off to me. We can talk at great length about how sexist double standards are very real things—if you would stop fighting us. There are a lot of feminists who appreciate trans people’s insights and perspectives into these issues. 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.
I want to ask you about the definitions of terms like man and woman and what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man. One of the “gotchas” that the gender- critical—or whatever we want to call them—people argue is that the only categories that make sense are biological man and woman. And if we don’t use those, then any other definition is incoherent or is based upon stereotyped notions of femininity. I just want to read you two quick passages from Lionel Shriver and Helen Joyce. 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.
Okay, so where to start? Nowadays, we have the “trans women are women” kind of mantra. 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. Actually, let me take a step aside to say the following: There’s this assumption that trans people are kind of delusional and have overly simplistic notions of gender, often very stereotyped ideas of gender, and that we’re trying to fulfill these gender stereotypes. And it’s actually the opposite.
I don’t mean that every single trans person is alike and every single cisgender person is like that. I’m not making that argument. What I am saying is that—for me, speaking with “I” statements—I started out viewing gender the exact same as every kid that I grew up with. I’m Generation X. 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. 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. And I think most trans people are our first biggest critics, right? I was very suspicious of those thoughts. I tried to get rid of those thoughts. And I went through multiple stages of learning more and more about gender, learning more sexual diversity to the point where when I came out as trans, I can assure you that I questioned gender about a thousand times more than the average cisgender person. That’s not to say that cisgender people don’t question their genders—they do. I’m just saying, I spent a huge amount of my life questioning and doing research and meeting diverse people. Part of my journey was meeting other queer people and meeting other trans people. I’m not saying that every trans person is a perfect expert on gender. But what I am saying is that, by and large, we spend a lot more time thinking about and questioning gender than the average cisgender person. So I just want to throw out the idea that we have simplistic notions of gender.
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. I came up against the whole thing when I was first transitioning. 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 that’s a roundabout way of getting to your question and the passages you just read. I think that gender is really complicated. 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. Every day of my life that I walk through the world and people read me as female, I’ve experienced sexism. I’ve experienced people sexually objectifying me. I’ve experienced men talking over me. I have a very good sense of what it’s like to be a woman. I don’t see my experiences as a woman as being universal, or being just like any other person’s experiences of being a woman. And so it’s just really disingenuous for them to make up these ideas that we are just seeing ourselves as really stereotypical women. 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.
As long as you’re treating other people with respect and you’re not hurting other people or impinging on their lives, I think it should be fine. I don’t care how you understand your gender. I don’t care how you dress. Most trans people—I’m not going to say every trans person—have reached the point where we recognize that not all trans people have the same experience. And some trans people see themselves this way. 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. Trans people are very diverse in all these different aspects. Anyone who says that we’re all trying to be really stereotyped masculine men and feminine women just really doesn’t know any trans people. They just saw a couple interviews with, say, Caitlyn Jenner, or whoever. And they just made that assumption about everyone else.
I think they go through their lives making every effort to avoid having a conversation with anyone who could set them straight. Abigail Shrier’s book—one of the shocking things is the subtitle, “the transgender craze seducing our daughters.” This talking point is gross because it’s in the name of feminism, the idea that women and girls are being taught to hate themselves or what it means to be a woman. Shrier only talks to the parents of trans kids. And all of the parents she talks to are paranoid, and they’re saying, “Oh, you know, my daughter doesn’t want to be a girl anymore, it’s so tragic. I had to take her out of school and move across the state and inflict all this harm.” These parents also often sound like awful, awful people. And it’s like, well, maybe if you talk to the child, the child would give you a different story. But there’s this deliberate exclusion of anyone who could provide a counterpoint. And I noticed that your blog posts are meticulous and full of data and facts responding to every fucking talking point. I never see them respond. I never see them acknowledge that you’ve done this or that you exist.
Yeah. I’m pretty sure I’m not cited in any of those books. The only person who cited me in any of those books I saw was Kathleen Stock, who attributed the popularity of gender identity to my book Whipping Girl. Of course, gender identity has been around since the 1950s. When I transitioned, the official diagnosis for being trans was called “gender identity disorder.” In my book, I purposefully talk about the importance of sex. It’s why I refer to myself as a transsexual woman in the book rather than a transgender woman. I was talking about aspects of sex being really important. I don’t know whether I was purposefully misread or not really read. Maybe it was just a popular book around this period in the late aughts [2000-2009], which is when they think trans stuff happened. Before then there was no trans stuff, and then all of a sudden, trans stuff exploded. And they have to explain it. I don’t know. But yeah, as you said in the very beginning, they want to have the “gotcha” lines, but they don’t want to actually engage with realities and counterfactual data that doesn’t support their thesis.
We don’t have time to go through all of these common talking points that occur over and over and over. There’s the one about the detransitioners, where they talk about these people who regret their transitions. They profile the detransitioners. Obviously, there are people who detransition. But then there’s this effort to subtly convince you that this is the norm rather than the exception. You mentioned the “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” which is one of the things that is supposed to be causing this craze where young girls who are around other trans girls are affected like a social contagion. You’ve gone through and debunked these arguments very carefully. I’ve done some articles on it myself. When you actually look at the arguments that are being made in the name of facts, in the name of science, in the name of rationality, and you look closely at them, you find that the logic is just incredibly poor. They’re deliberately excluding all of the data that contradicts them. The rapid-onset gender dysphoria is all based around this study where they talked to the parents, and they didn’t even think about the fact that maybe young kids who are trans form social groups together for mutual support, rather than because they’re turning each other onto a trend, right? It’s just really poor stuff when you examine it closely. But it’s pseudo-science in that it dresses itself up very carefully. This is what the blurb from Dawkins is all about. This is what publishing a thing in a journal is all about. It’s the illusion of science.
I often describe a lot of anti-trans activism as being a lot like the anti-vax movement. Within the anti-vax movement, there are some people who can cite all these different sources and have all these different arguments about why vaccinations are bad, even though science tells us otherwise. But then there are just some people who feel like it sounds gross or contaminating to have this thing injected into you. With vaccinations, you get bad reactions [fever, body aches] because that’s your immune system actually fighting the potential virus that you may encounter in real life. So some people come in with facts or papers they can cite, and some don’t. Some want a little snippet about Bill Gates putting microchips into vaccines.
I think the anti-trans movement is a lot like that. There are some people who are just having a bad reaction to trans people, or they just view trans people as unnatural or immoral. And they just want it to stop. And they will just cite any argument that they can find. And some people will provide those arguments for them, even if they’re not well argued and they’re not actually taking into consideration the actual science and research that challenges those views. So I look at it like that. It’s very much a purposeful disinformation campaign. As a trans activist who’s been writing about these issues for a very long time, I find it’s like putting your mouth to a fire hydrant. There’s just so much disinformation out there. That disinformation is going to go out there, and it’s going to do stuff, no matter how hard you try. It’s very depressing, even though I and many other trans people continue on…
It is depressing. There really has been a great deal of success in recent years in pushing these new talking points. I mean, there are all these laws that Republicans are introducing around the country to try to ban medical care for trans youth and to try to ban the presence of trans people in the sports leagues of their gender. And then all the bathroom stuff. It’s really concerning. When you see positive reviews of things like that Helen Joyce book in the New York Times, and when you see stuff in The Guardian—liberal publications—it’s really, really concerning.
I wanted to finish by talking to you about transphobia and the way we should conceive of it. I think you’ve written about this in a way that is quite helpful. I think that when people hear the word “phobia,” they often think fear and everyone thinks, “Well, I’m not afraid. So I can’t be transphobic.” One of the things I learned from reading your writing is that it’s better to understand it as a kind of double standard for how you value people’s lives and experiences. As you mentioned earlier, the other half of the story or argument is always left out. For example, the J.K. Rowling argument is that “when you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who feels he’s a woman, then you open the door to all men who wish to come in,” suggesting that she cares a lot about the safety of cis women in bathrooms, but not about the safety of trans women who are forced to use the bathroom opposite their gender, and who are at much greater risk.
And the same with the medical care debate. We had a trans writer talking about her experiences with the NHS in England, where there’s this big famous case where a woman was supposedly pressured into transition by the NHS. There’s a big legal case. It’s cited as an example of people being pressured into medical care. But the writer who wrote for us had the opposite experience. She couldn’t get care. She was being discouraged at every stage. So this kind of story leaves out all of the trans people who seek care and face barriers to care all throughout their lives. So there is this emphasis on the exceptional cases and on constantly finding examples of a trans person who was assigned to a prison and assaulted someone in prison, but not thinking about, say, a trans woman being put into a men’s prison and the risk of assault. The core of transphobia is to just ignore trans people’s lives as if they don’t matter, that everything trans people say can be discounted.
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. There are two main strategies that anti-trans activists keep pushing. One is that the kids are being pushed transgender. There’s that whole thing. And then the other one is trans people supposedly being potential sexual predators in bathrooms. There’s a horrible BBC article from two weeks ago suggesting that trans women are pressuring lesbians into having sex with them. This is a common point over and over again. And some of the most extreme anti-trans activists just openly refer to trans people as grooming children, and as pedophiles, with no actual basis.
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. 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. There are more cis women sexual predators than there are probably trans people or trans sexual predators, just out of numbers. There are some cisgender women who commit sex offenses, right? So should all cisgender women not be allowed in bathrooms? There’s absolutely no evidence that trans women are a threat to women and children.
But that is such a classic card to play in creating the moral panics. It came up during Civil Rights and segregation. During the 60s and 70s, it came up in [anti-gay-rights activist] Anita Bryant against gays and lesbians being teachers who are recruiting students. It’s been used against other groups such as immigrants and Jewish people. It’s a standard card you play. So I definitely wanted to address that.
To get back to the other question you asked about how to think about transphobia, I definitely agree that sometimes activist language can backfire or be misinterpreted. And what I mean by that is: anyone who has more than a passing understanding about sexism or racism, understands that it’s more complex than something like, I literally hate women, or, I can’t be racist because I have a Black friend, right? It’s more complicated than that. These forms of marginalization are systemic throughout culture, and sometimes they’re built into the language. Sometimes they’re built into unconscious perceptions of other people or stereotypes that we project onto people. These are complex phenomena. So when you say that what J.K. Rowling said is transphobic, then people make a big deal out of that. And it’s very endlessly frustrating.
One useful thing is to recognize that transphobia is systemic and often unconscious. A lot of times within trans communities, we’ll talk about cisnormativity, which kind of has its origins in the term heteronormativity. Heteronormativity means, not that you hate gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, but that we live in a society where being heterosexual is the norm and is seen as the ideal. And if people don’t live up to that ideal, they’re seen as inferior or defective, or having some kind of failing. And so it’s not that you hate them, but you look down on them, or you see them as being lesser than or less legitimate. The idea that same sex marriages shouldn’t happen is based on the idea that that mariage is not as legitimate as my heterosexual marriage. That’s the idea there. With cisnormativity, the ideal is that all people should be cisgender and therefore, because of that ideal, being trans is seen as a bad outcome.
So there are some people who are not completely trans-antagonistic, or ideologically opposed to trans people. I would call them trans-suspicious or trans-skeptical in that they acknowledge that trans people exist. They think we should be tolerated and that we shouldn’t be, say, outlawed or anything. But they’re very suspicious because they have a very cisnormative view of the world. The idea is that every single thing possible should be done to make sure people don’t turn out trans. But they don’t acknowledge the harm in that and what that does to trans people. Or they’ll assume that trans people’s perspectives are automatically suspect, whereas the cisgender norm is just accepted. Even if heteronormative people don’t outright hate trans people, these ideas explain the dynamics that are going on. 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. And it makes a lot more sense to realize that saying people are anti-trans or transphobic is not to say that they’re all coming from the same ideological position. It’s just that the things that they do have a negative impact on trans people’s lives, whether they are aware of that or not.
It’s like racism. People say, “I don’t hate anyone.” Ok, you don’t hate, but do you have the same amount of empathy for people who are of different racial groups than yourself? Do you value their lives and experiences equally? Or are you suspicious of them? Do you shift the burden of proof onto them subtly so that they have to show you that they’re not a threat? That’s definitely the case with all this concern-trolling. Oh, we’re very sincerely worried about the young girls, but we’re not going to talk to them.
Well, Dr. Serano, thank you so much for joining me. I’ve wanted to talk to you for a long time. There are so many bad arguments to debunk. You know—you’ve written in depth on pretty much everything. And so people can go to your website and they can go to your Medium. They can listen to your music and buy your books, and they can follow you on social media if they’d like more of your work to stanch the outpouring coming from the fire hose that you mentioned earlier. Thank you so much for talking.
Thank you, Nathan. It’s been great.
We didn’t get to all of the major talking points but you can check out Julia’s writings on some of the common ones here:
- Bathrooms and Sexual Predators – examining the claim that allowing people to use the bathroom of their choice will increase instances of sexual victimization. In fact, the opposite is the case.
- Extinction of Lesbians – examining the claim that increased trans identification is a threat to the existence of lesbians
- Social Contagion – examining the claim that young girls are experiencing “rapid onset gender dysphoria” and becoming trans because of peer influence
- Autogynephilia – examining the claim that trans identities are built around sexual desire
- Desistance and Detransition – examining the claim that trans children will grow out of it or are being pressured to
- “Trans Women Aren’t Women” – examining the claim that trans people are delusional about their biology
- “Biological sex” – examining faulty claims made about biology
Here in Current Affairs you can read Nathan’s own articles on J.K. Rowling, Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, and the debate about trans women in sports.