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This episode contains language that might not be suitable for children.
So, for someone who’s never heard the term TERF, trans-exclusionary radical feminist,
what is a TERF? Where does that term come from and what does it describe?
Yeah, I’m not sure you’re getting quite how offensive a term it is to many people.
Journalist Helen Lewis, staff writer at The Atlantic and author of the book Difficult
Women, A History of Feminism in 11 Fights.
Think about it like the word queer, which some people are very happy to self-describe
as. And for other people, it’s the term that, you know, someone with a skinhead shouted
at them before trying to beat them up outside a nightclub. And that’s how a lot of women
feel about TERF. You know, some feel that they’ve reclaimed it. Others feel this is
a word that they associate with people who want to slit their throat. So it’s one that
I would handle with tongs, as it were.
It stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist, and it kind of doesn’t mean any of those things
anymore. I’m often called a TERF, even though I’ve written in print that I think trans-women
are women. It doesn’t matter, though. It just means this is a bad woman. You don’t need
to know any more about her. I mean, TERF is basically witch.
I had been becoming increasingly concerned about the way in which women were being shut
down. Women who I felt had some very valid concerns. I was starting to see activists
behaving in a very aggressive way outside feminist meetings. Like, what were they doing?
They were banging and kicking on windows. Very threatening. They were masked. I’m looking
at an assault now on freedom of speech, freedom of thought, even freedom of association.
Fuck you! Fuck you, you ugly piece of shit! You look like you’ve got your teeth knocked
out, you fucking fascist! Nobody knows who you are and nobody cares and you will die
alone! You will die alone and you will burn in hell!
Chapter 4. TERF Wars. Growing up, what did you understand feminism to be? Who were the
feminists that you looked up to and what did you see them fighting for?
I was very feminist in my late teens, early 20s. And I was reading books that even then
were a little outdated. People like Kate Millich, Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, obviously,
who was long dead by the time I came to her book. I would describe myself now and probably
then too as an idealist, definitely, but never really an ideologue. I was, and always
have been, passionately concerned about the plight of girls and women, not only in the
West but further afield. J.K. Rowling was born in 1965 and that means that she lives
her youth through a particularly vibrant time for the UK feminist movement. In 1971, the
first women’s refuge opened in Britain, in Chiswick in West London. And that was the
first time that women who had been beaten up by their partners, you know, had somewhere
to go. They had somewhere to leave. You’re saying there weren’t places like that until
1971? Yeah, the first one was founded by a woman called Erin Pitsy. Very shortly after
we started, women began to come and talk about the fact they were battered at home by their
husbands and they seemed to be able to get no help from the social services, from the
police or from their solicitors. And her stories about that first refuge are heartbreaking.
You know, women walking in covered with bruises, covered in cigarette burns. Nobody seemed
to be doing anything constructive to help. They just seemed to be sending these women
back to the men who beat them and some back to be killed. In 1971, when Rowling would
have just been a young girl heading off to primary school, the world was seeing the development
of something that women in my generation grew up largely taking for granted. A place to
go when you’ve been the victim of what we now call domestic violence.
He came home one day and he cut me right across the ear with a carving knife. I had to wait
until he collapsed and fell asleep, you know, before I could go to the hospital.
The things that people were going through in private behind closed doors during that
time are now quite horrifying to reflect on. He strangled me once and all I could remember
in the end was all this blood, thick, slimy blood, all coming out my mouth. I was on the
line between life and death. And it was part of a wider movement that decade
about the idea that you weren’t just talking about what police used to euphemistically
called wife beating, which was usually done in response, you know, to nagging and was
therefore just a domestic. All of that language got swept away and people instead began to
talk about domestic violence and that the idea that this was a crime and that was something
that caused real harm and needed to be prosecuted.
The shelter not only gave women a safe refuge, but it also raised awareness of how often
these things were happening. And that paved the way for real changes in law enforcement
and social services. This is the founder of that first shelter, Erin Pitsy, speaking
in 2014. And the other problem also, unless she had
a family to go to who would protect her, there was no money because as soon as she tried
to go to get some kind of security money from social security, they’d say to her, but your
husband in those days mostly, your husband wants you back. So therefore you’re not entitled
to anything. Protecting women from both partner violence
and the poverty that could befall them if they tried to leave their husbands became
a primary focus of British feminism throughout Rowling’s youth.
So that was a big theme of the seventies and eighties, as was Reclaim the Night.
Police are investigating the discovery of a woman’s body on a playing field in the Chapel
Town district of Leeds. The woman who hasn’t yet been identified was found by a milkman
on his early delivery round. Murder squad detectives…
So in 1977, you had Reclaim the Night, which was a response to the Yorkshire Ripper, who
was a serial killer of women. The Yorkshire Ripper. Like his Victorian predecessor,
Jack the Ripper, he mutilated his women victims. Sutcliffe murdered 13 women across Yorkshire
and the north-west of England between 1975 and 1980. He was also convicted of the attempted
murder of seven other women. And this provoked an enormous feminist backlash.
And the backlash really to the idea that women weren’t safe in public spaces, you know,
that women were living under this constant threat of male violence and intimidation.
And that sparked marches all across the UK, in the world.
Night is magical for men. They hunt down random victims, find in the dark solace, sanction
and sanctuary. We will have to take back the night.
It’s very much a feature of the culture in which I grew up, that women, by virtue of
their biology, are subjected to specific harms, specific pressures, and require certain protections.
And that that is inextricably linked with our biology. And we cannot fight for our rights
without naming and accurately describing what makes us different from men.
Rowling says that this was all foundational to her understanding of why feminism was necessary.
Because for generations, the reality of male violence and predation was a fact that had
been ignored, downplayed, and even excused, until feminists fought for it to be recognized
and remedied in as many ways as possible.
My feminism must remain grounded in the sex class and the oppressions my sex class suffer.
That’s the basis for our oppression. That’s my understanding of why certain things have
happened to me.
And of course, we now know that Rowling herself needed these protections and services in her
own life. And while watching these women fight for their rights, Rowling says she also watched
as they were constantly vilified for it.
British feminism faced all the same attacks that American feminism did, that it was being
carried out by ultra leftists, by overgrown student protesters, by people who were probably
lesbians or not normal women in some other sense.
Feminists were hugely disparaged across the mainstream. They were ugly. They didn’t shave
their armpits. They were aggressive. They were butch. And I suppose I see real parallels
with now, with the slur that is TERF.
All the same tropes about a woman not behaving the way a woman is supposed to behave. You
know, all of the cliches.
Fuck you, you ugly piece of shit.
Which brings us to today.
We’ll be right back.
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Over the past couple of decades, the fight for LGBT rights has experienced many landmark
Hugging, kissing, and toasting in the streets.
Most notably, the legalization of same-sex marriage in both the UK and the US.
An historic milestone for gay couples in England and Wales.
Just one of many same-sex unions today proudly under the banner of love, but now also under
the protection of the US Constitution.
Today we can say, in no uncertain terms, that we’ve made our union a little more perfect.
Then, legal restrictions were dropped on same-sex couples’ ability to adopt children.
And a record number of LGBT candidates have been elected in races across the US.
Eighty percent of Fortune 500 companies protect their transgender employees.
Most major cities protect their transgender residents.
Starting today, transgender individuals may openly join the US military.
And in just the last decade, trans rights and acceptance in particular have come into
Culturally, with the visibility of trans celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn
Jenner, but also through a series of big institutional wins, from the dropping of
restrictions on military service to the Bostock decision from the US Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court has ruled that LGBT Americans are protected by the anti-discrimination
laws of this country.
Which in 2020, ruled that trans citizens have equal protection under the law and cannot
be discriminated against in areas like housing and the workplace.
This is a major civil rights opinion.
Overnight, protesters taking their battle cry for transgender rights directly to the
There’s also been a backlash to some of these gains.
Whether it’s from President Trump, who overturned Obama-era protections for trans
health care and military service.
Or populist leaders across the world, figures like Viktor Orban in Hungary, who are stoking
attacks on the very legitimacy of LGBT identities altogether.
But that was not the fight that J.K.
Rowling would eventually step into.
I think the hardest thing for outsiders to understand is that there are two different
arguments going on.
One is the traditional conservative right argument, which is anti-LGBT.
So someone like Viktor Orban in Hungary doesn’t think people should be allowed to transition
and, you know, wants to take away that right from them.
Which is part of a broader idea that kind of LGBT identities are decadent and postmodern
and, you know, are going to sort of sap the vital life force out of the country.
That is one criticism of modern LGBT politics.
The other one is a criticism from the left, in which it says sometimes male people and
female people have different interests, no matter how the male people identify.
And we need to work out those conflicts in policy and law.
Recently, a conflict has been growing within the political left, among many of the very
same people who have long fought for and cheered on these recent gains in LGBT rights.
A conflict about whether sometimes the fight for trans rights is ever at odds with the
hard-won gains of the women’s rights movement.
That is very different from saying someone’s a pervert or a degenerate, right?
It says you are perfectly free to live your life.
This is a perfectly valid identity to adopt.
However, there might be times when it comes into conflict with other identities.
Take, for example, women’s sports.
Transgender swimmer Leah Thomas is breaking barriers and records.
Leah Thomas to the wall first.
And that is a new Ivy League meeting record.
Recently, a swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania,
who competed on the men’s team as a freshman, sophomore and junior,
transitioned and began competing on the women’s team.
Leah Thomas dominated this weekend’s women’s swimming Ivy League championships.
Not only winning major championships, but also breaking women’s swimming records.
Thomas is eligible to compete under NCAA rules, which require transgender athletes
to complete at least one year of testosterone suppression treatments.
This prompted many to come out and argue that it’s unfair for someone who went
through male puberty to join the women’s team.
Because, they argued, the athletic advantages that come with male puberty
cannot be fully erased with hormone therapy.
You’re never going to be able to remove male physical advantage.
Not all of it.
You know, you may be able to remove a third of it,
or you may even be able to remove a half of it.
This included Olympic athletes like Sharon Davies, Michael Phelps.
I believe that we all should feel comfortable with who we are in our own skin.
But I think sports should all be played at an even playing field.
And Caitlyn Jenner.
It is just not fair.
And also, feminists.
At the heart of all of this, there really are just two issues that people feel strongly about.
Fairness in sports, on one hand,
and the importance of acceptance and inclusion on the other.
Many of these feminists point out that they have fought hard,
and are still fighting, for funding and resources for women’s sports.
And they see a real conflict in interest here that needs to be addressed.
But some trans athletes, like Thomas, ask,
how is this situation all that different from the fact that
there are real physical variations between all individuals?
I’m not a medical expert, but there’s a lot of variation among cis female athletes.
Quick note, the term cis refers to people who are not transgender.
There are cis women who are very tall and very muscular
and have more testosterone than another cis woman.
And should that then also disqualify them?
And many trans advocates say that attempts to prohibit trans women and girls
from playing women’s sports is a form of bigotry.
And this conflict becomes both more complicated and more contentious
when it’s not women’s sports at issue, but women’s spaces.
Spaces like women’s bathrooms, locker rooms, domestic violence shelters, and even prisons.
In recent years, that tension has become much more urgent,
especially for some feminists in the UK,
because of a proposed legal change that’s often referred to as self-ID.
Well, campaigners are worried about potential changes to the Gender Recognition Act,
which would allow men and women to choose their own gender,
arguing it could enable predatory men to abuse women in single-sex spaces.
The legal suggestion that it was going to be made much easier to change your legal gender
was what made this not just an abstract discussion among feminists and queer theorists,
but a matter of quite urgent public policy in Britain.
For years in the UK, if a trans person wanted to be fully recognized by the government
as their preferred gender, they needed to go through a medical evaluation
and receive a diagnosis of gender dysphoria,
which essentially is an intense discomfort that people can feel
if their gender identity does not match their body.
But this proposed change would allow people to alter their legal sex or gender
based largely on, as the name suggests, their self-declared gender identity,
without any medical requirements or diagnosis at all.
It was a change some trans people wanted,
in part because they felt that the need for a diagnosis was stigmatizing.
The arguments came about the idea that, as it stands, the procedure involves gatekeeping.
You know, you need to prove to doctors that you’re trans,
which is exactly what the trans activists hated about it,
the idea that someone else gets the final stamp on your very personal identity.
But the feminist argument was that some level of gatekeeping
was necessary in order to safeguard single-sex spaces.
In other words, the removal of that need for a medical diagnosis,
the elimination of that gatekeeping, concerned some feminists,
especially those shaped by movements like Take Back the Night.
They worried that predatory males would find some way to take advantage of these looser requirements
to harm women and girls.
They were concerned that, in a good faith effort to make things easier for trans people,
the government was aggravating risks to women.
I’ve been watching this.
I’ve been interested in it.
And I did a lot of reading around it.
And as this public debate grew, one of those concerned feminists was J.K. Rowling.
So I was already aware that the activism was arguing for this kind of self-identification.
Therefore, an entirely male-bodied male can, by self-declaration, become,
in inverted commas, a woman.
Conceptually, as it were.
He’s now conceptually a woman.
And I was troubled by that activism, because after a long life dealing with certain issues,
whether as a donor or an activist myself, or from being a woman,
I think I have a very realistic view, not a scaremongering view,
on what may happen when you loosen boundaries around single-sex spaces for women and girls.
So that troubled me.
Have you thought through what this could mean for women and girls?
I can already hear the screams of outrage.
You are saying that trans people are all predators.
Of course I am not.
Any more that I’m saying.
I’m a happily married straight woman.
I know perfectly well all men aren’t predators.
I know that.
I have good men in my life who are among my favorite people.
But I am also aware that 98 to 99% of sexual offenses are caused by those born with penises.
The problem is male violence.
All a predator wants is access.
And to open the doors of changing rooms or rape centers, domestic violence centers,
to open the doors to any male who says, I’m a woman and I have the right to be here,
it will constitute a risk to women and girls.
Now, that actually has very little to do with trans people
and a lot to do with what we know are the risks from men to women.
But this is the flashpoint.
The activists who would argue against me, I’ve seen them say, but these are now women.
And I say, well, here is where what a woman is becomes hugely important.
And I also asked myself a question I think is such a useful and basic question to ask yourself.
If you want to ascertain whether you’re being intellectually honest,
what proof would I need to see to change my opinion?
And so I asked myself that question.
Okay, so I thought, well, it’s being claimed that nobody has ever abused dressing as the
opposite sex and no trans woman has ever presented a physical threat to a woman in an intimate space.
Obviously, if I go looking and there’s literally no evidence that’s ever happened,
well, then clearly my fears are baseless.
So I went and looked and it’s with no pleasure that I say that there was
very clear evidence that that had happened.
Our top story tonight, a transgender prisoner sexually attacked inmates in a female jail.
So there’s a famous case in England of a trans woman called Karen White who was
convicted of sexual offences and sent to a women’s prison and then sexually assaulted two women.
The court heard how she used her transgender persona
to put herself in contact with vulnerable women.
She’d ended up in the female Newhall prison at Wakefield on remand
after a number of sexual offences, including rape.
Tonight, questions about how someone who’d raped women and who claimed to be transgender
ended up in a female jail before undergoing any proper gender reassignment
and was able to abuse fellow inmates.
That happened and it was quite a big moment, I think, for UK feminism,
for all these people who’d been told that this would never happen,
to finally have evidence that in fact it had happened.
Can you articulate where those on the opposing side of this debate are coming from?
Like, what is the steel man, good faith way to understand the argument that says
if your gender identity is female, then medical transition or not,
you should be housed in a women’s prison?
There is a completely reasonable argument,
which is that trans women are particularly at risk of sexual violence in male prisons.
And that is a fact.
There are lots of groups who are vulnerable, particularly in male prisons.
Male prisons are, in any case, a really horrible place to be.
The conditions are horrible.
You know, they’re violent, tense places to be.
And, you know, America, with its much greater rates of incarceration,
those problems are amplified.
So I do think there is a completely reasonable point to say,
if you are a trans woman who has been convicted of a non-violent crime,
is it going to be a huge risk to your safety to be put in a men’s prison?
Yes, it is.
And the conclusion that Britain has come to, really,
is that people with a gender recognition certificate,
that is people who have legally fully transitioned,
the presumption should be that they should be in the female estate.
And then for everybody else, it’s an individual case conference.
But with the presumption that if you’re convicted of a violent or sexual crime,
you cannot be safely held in the women’s prison estate.
Now, that’s not what’s happened in America at all.
And the ACLU, the great liberal organisation,
have been fighting on behalf of trans women,
some of whom have been convicted of violent offences,
to stay in the women’s estate.
And that is very alarming to me.
The ACLU has also been fighting on behalf of trans people
when it comes to bathroom access.
And there’s a similar argument playing out there.
Feminists are concerned when they hear of assaults by trans women,
or males who pose as trans women, in public bathrooms.
There’s one well-publicised example that involves an attack
on a 10-year-old girl in Scotland.
It’s rare, but it does happen.
There are extensively documented cases of it.
However, we should be really careful that we shouldn’t
play into a moral panic narrative that says that,
you know, people are going to transition just to predate on people.
The thing I would say is that predators exploit any loophole that they can.
You know, and that is something that we should always be alert to.
When you’re doing safeguarding,
you can’t have a kind of rosy view of humanity.
You have to look at what the worst that could happen is.
So I think while maintaining that it is rare,
I think you have to acknowledge that it happens.
Because assaults in bathrooms are so rare,
trans people often find it galling and humiliating
when decision-makers try to force them to use the bathroom of their sex at birth.
It’s just routine. Like, everyone goes to the restroom,
everyone gets out. It’s nothing, nothing. It’s not a big deal.
Many trans people report that they avoid public bathrooms as it is
out of fear of being called out or even attacked.
And this makes it difficult for them to just be in public
at a concert or a stadium, but even more importantly, at work or at school.
And advocates ask, when the risk to others is low,
why impose interventions that could make this tough situation any harder?
It’s just going to the bathroom.
You go do your business, then you wash your hands, and then you leave.
It’s just simple.
And when people make a big deal about it,
it just kind of gets blown out of proportion.
In an increasingly polarized world, gender issues have become the front line,
and it can be hard to know where to start, how to express an opinion,
if it’s even okay to voice one.
Yet as the chasm between opposing views increases,
it’s vulnerable children who’ve fallen into the abyss.
And finally, the issue that’s brought this once-obscure debate
into the center of culture is the medical transition of young people.
And that’s particularly acute because the composition
of the group of people trying to transition as children has changed,
and it has grown enormously.
Now, in recent years, there’s been a huge increase
in the number of children reporting gender dysphoria.
You know, we’re talking about a difference in Britain
between a couple of hundred people a year,
two thousands a year in the last decade or so.
The clinics here and in London see 3,000% more patients than they did 10 years ago.
Among girls, referrals are up more than 5,000%.
Across the Western world, there has been a sharp rise
in the number of minors who are seeking to transition,
especially among young females.
And in just the U.S., the number of clinics that help young people transition
has grown from zero to more than 100 in just the past 15 years.
There’s no question this service is helping children
who feel distressed in their own bodies.
But the full impact of children making decisions about their gender
at such young ages may not truly be clear until much later in their lives.
5,000 children were referred to the clinic last year,
and that’s a 20-fold increase on the number a decade ago.
That’s huge, isn’t it?
There’s definitely something going on there,
and whether or not those people are getting the right treatment is a big question
when the treatments are themselves so new.
It’s a very fraught question indeed.
One controversy related to child transition
is a treatment often referred to as puberty blockers.
Now, these drugs are not new.
For decades, they’ve been used to treat a condition
where a child begins puberty early, sometimes as young as age 6 or 7.
Blockers halt that development,
and then a child can resume the process years later alongside their peers.
That’s a very different use case than the modern way of using them for trans children,
which is to block puberty in your natal sex
and then go straight on to cross-sex hormones from the other sex.
Young people with gender dysphoria tend to be extremely distressed by their changing bodies,
so gender clinicians began using these drugs off-label to halt their puberty,
and then later might introduce cross-sex hormones.
So, for example, a female would grow facial hair, or a male would develop breast tissue.
I’ve been concerned for some time that there are providers
who are not following the standards of care,
which historically have invoked the need for an individualized,
comprehensive biopsychosocial evaluation prior to the initiation of medicines.
This is Dr. Erica Anderson,
a psychologist who has worked extensively with transgender youth,
and who is herself a transgender woman.
She’s also a former board member of WPATH,
the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.
As Dr. Anderson told me, WPATH recommends that
before prescribing interventions like puberty blockers,
clinicians should methodically evaluate a young person,
that they should take time with a minor and their parents to investigate any underlying conditions,
and make sure that this is the right treatment for each individual.
But puberty blockers have become a flashpoint in part because some clinicians
do not appear to be following those guidelines.
So what I’ve seen in the USA, and this has been reported elsewhere,
is that there are some young people who are going to providers
and obtaining puberty blockers and hormones,
but not having a full mental health evaluation.
And I think that’s sloppy and bad practice.
Over the past decade, it has become increasingly common for parents and doctors
to adopt an approach where they affirm a child when they say they’re trans.
But Dr. Anderson says that some well-meaning clinics and doctors have gone further than that,
and that in their attempts to support gender non-conforming kids,
they have stopped asking important questions,
and often too quickly accept a child’s self-assessment.
Some trans advocates argue that that’s exactly what clinics should be doing,
as this popular TikTok video explains.
No one says that cisgender kids are too young to know that they are cisgender.
No, cisgender kids are pretty much always trusted to know their gender identity.
If cisgender kids are young enough to know that they are not transgender,
then transgender kids are young enough to know that they are transgender.
It’s as simple as that.
It’s not as simple as that.
Dr. Anderson says that, especially when dealing with kids,
you need to ensure that you’re diagnosing them correctly,
just as you would with any other medical condition.
But in addition, child and adolescent brains are still developing,
so rushing a young person into gender transition
without a full evaluation of other co-occurring conditions is bad practice.
And this, to me, flies in the face of the history of medicine,
clinical medicine and clinical psychology,
which the hallmark of which is an individualized evaluation before you provide treatment.
This concern on my part is further accentuated by the phenomenon
we’ve also seen in the last few years,
which is a flood of young people going to gender clinics expressing gender variance
way out of proportion to what we’ve ever seen before
and in numbers that are not entirely understandable.
Dr. Anderson and other clinicians still believe there are benefits
to using puberty blockers for some kids with gender dysphoria.
But they are also urging caution,
especially to doctors who offer these treatments
based largely on a young person’s request for them.
And that’s partly because these treatments,
puberty blockers followed by hormone therapy,
can lead to infertility and,
for young males whose puberty is blocked in its early stages,
a high likelihood of never experiencing an orgasm.
She says that doctors need to ensure that these treatments
are being provided just to those who need them
and that they aren’t misdiagnosing patients.
Ruby began identifying as male at 13 years old.
Now, 21, she’d been planning to have surgery to remove her breasts.
But in May, she made the decision to come off testosterone
and detransition to identify as female her sex at birth.
Stories about young people who regret their decision to transition
have been well publicized in recent years.
They often say that, as children,
they weren’t capable of consenting to treatments with lifelong consequences
that they couldn’t truly comprehend.
Others say they wish clinicians had spent more time
looking into their other mental health issues
before recommending medical transition.
One of these young women spoke with Sky News.
Ruby now feels her eating disorder was more of a factor
than she first realized in her gender dysphoria.
None of the therapists that I spoke to brought that up.
They didn’t think that it was linked.
I think so, yes, because they’re both kind of based in how I feel about my body.
So I’ve seen similarities between the two.
There’s currently no data for how many in the trans community detransition
and to talk about it can be viewed as transphobic.
But people like Ruby say more discussion is needed
as well as more options for people with gender dysphoria.
Accounts like these have served as confirmation for those concerned
that young people are not getting the support they need.
At the same time, they’ve been a source of deep frustration
to many trans advocates who say that regret is rare
and that we should trust kids to know that they are who they say they are
rather than putting them through months or years-long evaluations.
What complicates all of this is that the protocols for youth gender care are so new.
The current president of WPATH, Dr. Marcy Bowers,
cites a figure that about 80% of the research on youth gender medicine
has been done in just the last 10 years.
And though there are currently no authoritative long-term studies
about the phenomenon of detransition,
nor about the overall effectiveness of some of these treatments in minors,
Finland, Sweden, and the UK are all currently re-evaluating their youth gender treatments
and calling for more resources, more studies, and tighter protocols to be put in place.
I’m pleasant as adolescence is.
I mean, I hated adolescence.
I do not romanticize adolescence.
I think it’s a dreadful time.
I remember times of pure joy when I was with my friends and I remember fun.
But if you ask me, do you want to go back to being 13 tomorrow and live it all again,
I would say absolutely bloody not.
I want to stay exactly where I am.
But I do think that it is a necessary part of our development.
Rowling told me that watching this sharp rise in youth transition,
especially the rise among young females,
started to feel like a particularly feminist concern
and something that resonated with her from her own childhood.
I grew up in what I would say was quite a misogynistic household.
Like all young girls, I grew up with certain standards of beauty and ideals of femininity.
And I felt I didn’t fit into either of those groups.
I didn’t feel particularly feminine.
And I certainly didn’t feel, you know, that I looked the way I was supposed to look.
I looked very androgynous at 11 and 12.
I had short hair.
And I can certainly remember in adolescence feeling acutely anxious.
I think this is so common.
In fact, I think I know more women who have felt it than not.
I felt very, very anxious about my changing body.
Because you become aware it’s attracting scrutiny that you don’t welcome.
You know, I can remember the comments about your body,
the difficulty of dealing with periods, period shaming,
particularly from boys at school,
this sort of squeamish fascination that young men have with female bodies
that is a mixture of disgust and desire.
It’s very difficult to cope with that.
I question my sexuality.
I’m thinking, well, I can tell my friends are pretty.
Does that mean I’m gay?
Which I think is very common.
I grew up to be a straight woman.
But I’ve never forgotten that feeling of anxiety around my body.
So is it your position that it’s too big of a decision essentially for a child to make,
to transition and experience these long-term consequences that they can’t yet comprehend?
Personally, I don’t believe even a 14-year-old
can truly understand what the loss of their fertility is.
At 14, if you’d said to me, do you want children?
I’d have said, no, I don’t want them.
But it has been the most joyful, wonderful thing in my life.
That doesn’t mean I think everyone should have kids.
It doesn’t mean I think to be a woman, you need to have kids.
I’m talking very personally.
For me, my children have been an unmatched joy and I wouldn’t change a thing.
And I couldn’t have comprehended that at 14.
I would have had no idea what I was giving up.
And yet, as I sat with Rowling and listened to her views about youth transition,
it was clear that they aren’t black and white.
My feeling is, and it’s a feeling that was strongly expressed in the Potter books,
that as many diverse life experiences as possible should be explored and expressed.
And having felt like an outsider in several different ways in my life,
I have a real feeling for the underdog.
And I have a real feeling for people who feel they don’t fit.
And I see that hugely, particularly among younger trans people.
I can understand that feeling only too well.
But seeing this recent surge in numbers seemed like something worth questioning soberly.
Gender dysphoria exists.
It causes massive distress.
I know it’s real.
And I know there will be, I believe, a minority of people for whom this will be a solution.
But in the numbers we’re currently seeing, particularly of young people coming forward,
I find cause for doubt and cause for concern.
So I did what I always tend to do when in that situation.
So I read a ton of books.
That is my instinct.
I, if I’m interested…
Rowling said that she went out and bought some of the big best-selling memoirs by trans authors.
Out of this gender identity movement.
So Jacob Tobias, Sissy, Andrea Long Chu, brilliant writer, females.
Gender Games, The Trouble With Men.
She read essays.
Is Gender Fluid, Dr. Sally White.
And academic literature from influential thinkers like Judith Butler.
And I’m reading countless blogs and articles.
You’re trying to have your views challenged.
Completely, because I really want to understand what is the thinking
through personal experience, but also the philosophy, the ideology.
I’m looking at this, I’m thinking, am I missing something?
We’ll be right back.
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Over the months and years that Rowling was immersing herself in queer theory
and memoirs of different trans thinkers,
this conflict between some feminists and trans activists continued to escalate.
The debates due to start in an hour and suddenly protestors come in wearing masks.
We’re putting on an event tonight, we’ve got all these young people in bandanas
trying to force their way in. They’ve got faces covered.
They’re actually being aggressive and violent.
In the past few years, as the feminists have tried to organise meetings and debates
to discuss everything from women’s sports,
to self-ID, to the proper treatment of gender dysphoria in kids,
they’ve been met with protestors trying to shut them down.
These are trans activists protesting outside a feminist meeting.
They’re shouting TERF. It stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists.
Across the country, clashes are erupting between the two groups.
These activists say that
trans women are women, full stop.
And to them, to engage in a debate at all is to engage in transphobic hate speech.
And then we come to the famous two-word slogan, the stock phrase,
no debate, no debate, no debate. We hear it all the time.
That alarms me, really alarms me.
I can’t think of a purer instance of authoritarianism than no debate.
In fact, that is the attitude of the fundamentalist.
You may not challenge my ideas. That makes you evil.
I am righteous. I don’t have to explain my righteousness.
I don’t have to explain my righteousness.
And I am entitled, therefore, to bully you, to harass you, to silence you,
to take away your livelihood, all the way up to attacking you.
I’ve had things thrown at me. I’ve been accused of things I have never done or said.
People seem to have no concern about evidence or even about libel.
Many of the feminists labeled as TERFs have been attacked and received death threats,
along with accusations that, despite what they say, they are actually Nazis and fascists.
There have been physical assaults. A woman called Maria McLaughlin,
she was at Speaker’s Corner in London, which is an infamous site for freedom of speech.
It’s where people can go say whatever they like, pretty much.
And she went there to a feminist meeting and she was physically assaulted.
By a trans woman called Tara Wolf, who was convicted of assault,
who had said online before going to that meeting, I want to fuck up some TERFs.
You know, when I cover this subject, I often say that afterwards I need to relax by covering
something uncontroversial like Israel-Palestine or abortion, right? It’s extremely fraught.
This is Michelle Goldberg, reporter and columnist at The New York Times.
And one reason it’s extremely fraught is that you have two groups of people who feel,
legitimately feel, extremely embattled.
You wrote about this conflict in The New Yorker in 2014 in an article called,
What is a Woman? And even back then, you talked about how intense the threats
and intimidation tactics were towards feminists who were voicing these views.
You quote some of the online threats in the article, which said things like,
Kill TERFs 2014. How about slowly and horrendously murder TERFs in saw-like
torture machines and contraptions? A young blogger holding a knife posted a selfie with a caption,
Fetch me a TERF. Such threats, you write,
have become so common that radical feminist websites have taken to cataloging them.
Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, those quotes that you just read,
I don’t think those people are representative of the trans rights movement.
But nevertheless, there’s a lot of feminists who feel like aggrieved at people kind of
constantly saying, if you don’t recognize me as a woman, I’m going to rape you.
They just, they feel like there is this very vicious online dialogue in which
a really brute sort of misogyny is dressed up in progressive clothes. And so, you know,
to add insult to injury, you’re not even supposed to complain about it within feminist spaces.
It should be possible to have a discussion where there are a range of different people
who can enter into a dialogue about this.
These feminists believe that their views are not only inside the bounds of respectable discourse,
but also that the accusations that they are violent transphobes feels less like a sincere
criticism and more like an attempt to smear them so that no one will listen to them.
I mean, what we’re seeing in the world is more and more people shutting down free speech. You’re
censoring ideas. You’re shutting down controversy.
And in a democratic society, that’s how we come to a better understanding of each other.
And beyond just online insults, this approach from activists has had real-life consequences.
Women expressing these views have lost their jobs. In publishing, in academia, in journalism,
and the arts. Women athletes have been dropped by advertisers. Authors dropped from book deals.
For voicing her concerns, Dr. Erica Anderson, a trans woman who’s helped dozens of kids medically
transition, has been labeled a TERF and disinvited from public events.
Michelle, from your reporting on this over the years, what is the best way to understand the
side of the protesters in this conflict? The people who are calling to silence these debates,
where are they coming from? And what do they feel is at stake in all of this?
Well, look, what’s at stake for a lot of people is just the ability to
live their lives with any sort of dignity and security. And again, I just want to emphasize,
and I hope this makes it into the podcast, that that is why I think the temperature of this is
so high. Because, you know, especially in the United States, trans people are so embattled.
You know, you have these sweeping oppressive laws.
119 anti-transgender bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year alone.
Suing the state of Alabama after the governor signed it.
Making their way through Ohio’s legislature.
Arkansas passing a bill blocking gender-affirming care for trans.
Activists are calling the move an attack on the LGBTQ community.
Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that protects transgender Americans from discrimination,
and despite President Biden overturning the Trump-era policies against trans healthcare
and military service, there have been hundreds of proposed or recently passed laws that have
sought to limit trans people’s access to bathrooms, their participation in girls'
and women’s sports, and to restrict medical transition for minors.
And some of the laws come with severe penalties.
Last week, Alabama became the third state in the nation to pass a measure restricting
gender-affirming care for transgender and non-binary youth. But it’s the first state
to actually impose criminal penalties. The law would make providing that care a felony,
punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Additionally, online, just as there are some trans advocates who send violent and harassing
threats toward the people they call TERFs, there are also many others, often coming from
the right and the alt-right, who send violent and harassing threats towards trans activists
and their allies. Some based on accusations that any attempt to teach kids about trans identities
is actually a smokescreen for a desire to sexually exploit young children.
And in this climate, many activists feel that feminists calling for open dialogue and good
faith debate are really just opening them up to greater harm.
I think that what is so painful for them is that, you know, they feel like these issues
of daily survival are being treated as secondary to culture war flashpoints, you know, around
these kind of relatively few handful of cases involving women’s sports. These few cases where
there’s really hard calls about things like prisons or domestic violence shelters. And
people that I’ve spoken to feel that the intense focus on these issues is itself kind of undermining
them, right? That like they feel so under siege. And when people are really scared and they’re
really under siege, then they don’t want to have a kind of searching, probing conversation about the
legitimacy of their identity for kind of obvious reasons.
And they don’t want to hear debates about, you know, nuanced issues when they feel like
they’re fighting for basic rights. Right. I mean, I think you’ll often hear
people say, you know, I’m not going to debate my basic humanity. And part of the difficulty
is that there are indeed certain issues which we have sort of decided somewhat collectively
with some sort of consensus are beyond the realm of debate. And I think that part of
what is so difficult about this issue is that there are certain people who think that this
kind of consensus can be imposed maybe as opposed to evolve organically. And so they’re
sort of desperately trying to shore it up in the hopes, I think, that if they can, they
will enjoy the same sort of assumed protection as other groups whose rights we’ve decided
are not up for public conversation. I think the problem is that we don’t actually have
a consensus about what gender means or what makes someone a boy or girl or woman or man.
And so you still have to talk these things out and have these conversations. And I think
there are plenty of trans people who believe that. But the people who are policing the discourse
have maybe outsized visibility. Okay. So let’s go back to 2016, 2017.
You obviously are a very public person. You are not shy in general about speaking your mind.
And it seems like you’ve had really strong views about what you were reading and you had done a
ton of reading and research and thinking. Did you want to join the public conversation at the time?
Did I want to join the public conversation? Yes. Why did I want to join it? Because I was watching
women being shut down. And it was as though there was no woman perfect enough to say her piece.
If she’s a regular woman with no particular platform, she’s a bigot. That’s that. You’re a
bigot. If she’s an informed woman who is working in a sphere where this will really have an impact,
and for example, I saw a prison governor speaking out, this is not okay. These are already
traumatized women. Huge abuse hurled at her. Shut up. You don’t really understand. What do you know
about being a trans woman? It seemed there was always a way to shut down women’s voices. People
are terrified, terrified of speaking up. So I really was starting to feel this moral obligation.
I knew what was coming, but I thought other people, there are people who probably, if I’m
honest, probably could speak and don’t want to speak. They’re not going to lose their livelihoods.
But there are a ton of women who are being forced not to speak because they literally won’t make
rent. So I actually wanted to join the conversation and speak up earlier than I did.
And I was not held back. I’m not saying that I couldn’t have done it anyway,
but there were people close to me who were begging me not to do it. I think out of concern
of what that would mean, they’d watched what had happened to other public figures.
And there was certainly a feeling of this is not a wise thing to do. Don’t do it.
So I’m living in this state, once again, actually, I’m living in what I feel is a duplicitous state.
I have this massive concern. I’m watching women being shut down and bullied. Their employers
being targeted by a movement that I see as authoritarian, illiberal. I’m hugely concerned
about young people, often the kind of young people who found a refuge in my books.
So, you know, there’s a feeling of empathy there because I was one of those young people myself.
And I absolutely can say that I was living in a state of real tension, similar to when I’m
planning to leave my ex-husband, because although I am not physically in danger,
I feel I am lying by omission. I should speak up. I feel the right thing here is to try and
force this conversation because on behalf of people I’m seeing shut down, who do not have my
I mean, let’s face it.
It is insulation. It is. Privileged white woman. Absolutely. I am protected in ways I never
dreamt I would be protected. Of course, I’m also exposed to threats that other people sometimes
aren’t exposed to. But it’s more than that. Whatever happens, if everyone decides you
are an evil witch, we will never buy your books again. I can feed my family. We all know I’m fine.
My world doesn’t crash. My kids don’t go hungry. I once lived that life. You know, that was the
potential of making a bad financial decision and spending two pounds too much one week.
So I reached a point of high tension and I have to say something.
You’re saying you felt obligated.
Yeah, there did come a point where I felt obligated because I felt,
you know, I’m being contacted by women. And by the way, these women aren’t even saying to me,
do it, do it, you do it. No one’s trying to coerce me into it. It’s just that I’m having
these conversations and the climate of fear was scaring me more than speaking out. You know,
what are we letting happen here? This is insane that there’s this much fear around a woman
arguing that she has the right to describe her life and her body in any way she chooses. This
is insanely regressive. But also I did reach a point where I thought I can’t keep living with
myself if I don’t say something. So it was personal as well. I have to speak. I just have to.
Believe you me, I did not feel any sense of joy in that. I didn’t think, yippee,
I can’t wait for this. This is going to be amazing. I really thought this is going to be
horrible, but I’ve got to do it. I cannot look myself in the mirror if I don’t do it. So I did.
More to come next time.
You’ve been listening to The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, produced by Andy Mills, Matthew Boll,
and me, Megan Phelps-Roper, and brought to you by The Free Press.
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