The trans revolution reached new heights of absurdity last week when the BBC asked Anneliese Dodds, the Labour party’s shadow secretary for women and equalities, to define “woman.” Dodds proved singularly incapable of doing so; after saying that “it does depend what the context is,” she equivocated for several minutes and refused to give a direct answer. Her party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, later came to the rescue, telling Pink News that “trans women are women.” That is not, of course, an argument.
In fact, by using the term “woman” without offering a definition, Starmer merely begs the question. But arguments and definitions are somewhat passé in our current political climate. Uncritical and obsequious recitation of the liturgical response that the progressive lobby demands is the order of the day. That not even all trans people buy into this mantra is never mentioned. They have, to use trendy progressive jargon, been made “invisible” by the political powers that be.
Dodds made a pitiful spectacle; she is an ironic victim of the anti-culture of endless inclusion that is now consuming the West. To be qualified for a job, one must have a basic understanding of the specific task at hand. The car mechanic needs to know what a car is; the brain surgeon needs to be able to recognize the brain. A politician tasked with safeguarding women’s rights should therefore know what a woman is and be able to articulate that understanding in public statements. “What is a woman?” hardly seems an unexpected or unfair question to ask the shadow secretary for women. And yet she fluffed it.
The rationale for the transgender movement is couched in arcane and rebarbative prose. But its underlying dynamic is nonetheless straightforward. It is based upon negations — denials and repudiations of traditional categories. Such categories, the gender theorists claim, create the illusion of an authority grounded in nature, posit ideological forms as the truth, and thus marginalize and exclude any who do not fit. By this logic, any definition of “woman” (or anything else, for that matter) sets up conceptual boundaries that inevitably exclude some people and establish new structures of power. That is why gender theory has moved beyond Judith Butler — she still acknowledges an underlying binary male-female conception based on biology, which feminists from Shulamith Firestone to Donna Haraway to Sophie Lewis have identified as tyrannical and alienating. A philosophy built on negations is a philosophy that can never build up — it can only tear down.
While trans-affirming feminists rule the airwaves and shut down all dissent, and while politicians like Dodds talk and talk and yet say nothing, real women’s rights are neglected and damaged. Trans ideology robs women of their history and takes male privilege to a whole new level — all in the name of women’s rights. Like the idea that pornography liberates women, transgender theory is arguably one of the most effective male confidence tricks in recent history: Nothing that women can lay claim to as women is now off-limits for men.
Hugh Hefner once declared that Playboy was good for women, to which Fr. Richard John Neuhaus responded, “As long as women know what they are good for.” Today, the progressive lobby presents trans rights as good for women, to which I might respond, “As long as women have no idea what a woman is.”
But the trans revolution goes far beyond allowing adult men to don the cloak of female victimhood: It is enabling the state-sanctioned abuse of children. We have had plagues of body dysmorphia before, most notoriously the anorexia and bulimia scourges of the late twentieth century. The difference is that those dysmorphias were seen for what they are: harmful conditions whose victims need love and care. Doctors and politicians worked hard to help the victims and enable them to flourish.
Today, the latest form of body dysmorphia — rapid-onset gender dysphoria — is fueled by extremely wealthy lobby groups with a vested interest in identity politics. Backed by a medical establishment for whom ethics is little more than a supine acceptance of technological possibilities, and enabled by a political class that lacks a moral backbone, these groups are shaping the country’s pediatric care. And the cost will be catastrophically high.
Bethany Mandel recently described the response to the current trans confusion among children as “a human rights violation. We have troubled kids, whom we are then sterilizing. You don’t get more dystopian than that.” Indeed. My prediction is that 200 years from now, our age will be judged as monstrous for engaging in the most brutal, government-supported mass mutilation and sterilization of confused children ever witnessed. It will be shameful. And our political class, wedded to the spirit of our age and mindlessly reciting the liturgy of the powers, will be seen as having enabled this.
In the meantime, real women should be afraid, very afraid: Their rights are being protected by those who do not even know what a woman is.
Originally published at First Things.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Rise and Triumpth of the Modern Self, The Creedal Imperative, Luther on the Christian Life, and Histories and Fallacies.