I knew that I would be courting controversy when I agreed to review Abigail Shrier’s provocative book, Irreversible Damage: Teenage Girls and the Transgender Craze, for The Tablet. The book had been positively reviewed by respected journals such as The Economist and The Sunday Times, and slated by no less respected journals such as The Los Angeles Review of Books. Having studied, taught and written about gender for many years, I felt qualified to review it.
I have long been a moving target of the U.S. Catholic Far Right, but my review of Shrier’s book turned the tables. This time, the counterblast came mostly from outraged U.S. Progressives on various social media platforms. I’d been expecting criticism, but the vehemence and vitriol from some I regard as thoughtful intellectuals astonished me.
I used the word “transgenderism,” not knowing that it had been added to what I might call the Index Verborum Prohibitorum—the Progressive equivalent of the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Apparently “transgenderism” implies an ideology and is therefore offensive. When I said to an English trans friend that I probably shouldn’t have used that word, she dismissed my concerns. “Let’s not get caught up in the culture wars,” she said.
I made clear in my review that the book was problematic and that Shrier was an unreliable witness. I wish that I had been more critical of her inflammatory use of words like “virus” and “contagion” in connection with those who are already disproportionately targets of violence, exclusion and abuse. Nevertheless, the book raises important questions about a dramatic increase in teenage girls developing gender dysphoria and being offered puberty blockers, testosterone and sometimes double mastectomies as they progress through the transitioning process, and what Shrier sees as the collusion of a powerful transgender lobby in suppressing any opposition.
It is to be expected that, as attitudes change, the number of trans persons will increase, because they no longer have to conceal what they believe to be their true gender. Moreover, when religious and political conservatives have reduced the rich diversity of human genders to two narrowly defined categories, it is hardly surprising that some question their own gendered identities if they fail to conform to such constricting stereotypes. But there is a difference between supporting young people who are experimenting with their identities, including their genders, and offering them life-changing medical interventions during the turbulent hormonal and sexual changes of adolescence. Puberty blockers risk infertility, and testosterone induces physical changes that are irreversible.
The High Court of England and Wales recently ruled that a court order must be obtained before those under age 16 can be treated with puberty blockers, on the basis that children of that age cannot give informed consent to such treatments. This has been one of several controversies surrounding the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) run by the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, which has been accused of failing to provide adequate therapeutic guidance before prescribing puberty blockers. Shrier’s book focuses on the U.S., but she addresses these issues. The response to my review has convinced me that she is on to something, in spite of her blatant prejudice.
Many who criticized my review refused to allow even a glimmer of doubt about the universal competence and reliability of teenage girls who self-diagnose as transgender and the therapists who support them. Meanwhile, a few stories have leaked through from concerned parents—some shared, a couple by way of private messages—who believe that their daughters are being exposed to the kind of pressures Shrier describes. These are liberal parents who are supportive of their daughters, despite their misgivings. One pointed out that her daughter’s gender dysphoria was the latest in a number of behavioral problems such as eating disorders and self-harm, another issue to which Shrier draws attention. Of course, in some cases such behavior might be symptomatic of the underlying anxiety associated with being transgender and fearing what it will mean to come out, but even so, I’m left with many questions that I don’t have space to explore here.
Like many feminists, I find myself under increasing pressure to explicitly include trans women in anything I want to say about the dignity and rights of women and girls. Yet there are injustices that are specific to anatomical females in relation to their sexual and reproductive capacities and the ways in which, to borrow Freud’s phrase, ‘anatomy is destiny.’ Not least of these is the continuing power that the Catholic hierarchy wields over women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights through its doctrinal and political interventions. Being born female condemns many millions to lives of poverty, illiteracy, domestic and sexual servitude and early death through causes associated with pregnancy and childbirth.
The female body is today an object of commodification, violation and exploitation in ways that are often first experienced in puberty. It is not transphobic to suggest that in some cases the onset of gender dysphoria may be a desperate desire to escape the body-shaming pressures and sexualized predations that eat away at the self-confidence of teenage girls, nor should it be wrong to argue that, before endorsing a self-diagnosis of transgender, every effort should be made by therapists and educators to understand the corrosive effects of an inherently misogynist social environment on the formation of female identity. None of this is to deny the different, but no less significant, challenges experienced by trans people, but there must surely be space for feminists to continue to explore what it means to be a woman, and even to challenge those who lay claim to that identity when many of us are just beginning to dismantle the essentialized and idealized concept of “Woman” that we have carried around as our God-given destiny since birth.
An ideology is a set of beliefs by which one seeks to bring about change in society, and as such it is a neutral term. However, benign ideologies seek change through understanding, not through diktat. They are open to different views and refined through debate and reflection. Destructive ideologies are those that impose their views on others and seek to silence or eliminate all dissent. These last few weeks, I have experienced the latter. I have in the past paid a high price for refusing to be silenced by the sexual ideologues of the Catholic Right. I am not now willing to be silenced by Progressive gender ideologues.
Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.