Gender identity is everywhere. In recent years, countless celebrities have come out as trans or non-binary. Public and private institutions have signed up to schemes promoting trans pride and visibility. Numerous academics and public figures have been cancelled for questioning trans dogma. Kathleen Stock is professor of philosophy at Sussex University and author of Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism. She joined spiked editor Brendan O’Neill for the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. What follows is an edited extract from their conversation. Listen to the full episode here.
Brendan O’Neill: ‘Gender identity’ has become such a dominant term. People see it as a kind of inner psychological state, a feeling or a sensation. There are now efforts to make it a legally protected category. What does gender identity mean to trans campaigners, and why do you have an issue with it?
Kathleen Stock: The way it’s most frequently talked about by trans activists (as distinct from trans people in general) is as a fundamental part of the self. They say it’s your authentic self, your real self, the true you, who you really are. Sometimes it’s accompanied by the idea that your body is wrong, or your outside doesn’t match your inside. This is highly metaphorical, but it’s taken literally. And it’s often seen as innate. It’s like something inside all of us, waiting to burst out.
Once you become aware of having a misaligned gender identity, it would be morally wrong for anyone to tell you what your gender identity really is, or to try to suppress it on your behalf. It should be marked on your passport and birth certificate. That’s how it’s seen by trans activists.
I think there is such a thing as gender identity. But I don’t think we all have one. What it actually is, is a kind of strong psychological identification with an ideal of the opposite sex – or with androgyny if you are non-binary. It can be meaningful and valuable for you, or it can be distressing. It can last your whole life, or it can be temporary. But either way, it’s psychological. It doesn’t make any sense to say it’s a fundamental part of the self. And it’s certainly not innate.
O’Neill: There are growing numbers of people who claim to have a gender identity that misaligns with their biological sex. Or rather, they say that their gender identity is differnet to the sex they were assigned at birth – as if their sex was picked for them by a doctor. In your book, you describe how it’s gone from being something a few thousand people did a decade or so ago, to something tens of thousands of people do now. And it’s growing among young people. What’s driving this? Is it a fad? Is there an element of hysteria?
Stock: The idea of gender is vague, ill-formed and changeable. Many people don’t know what the hell it is. And if you don’t know what it is, then it’s easy to think you have one, because there are no tests you can run to disprove it. There’s lots of evidence that in the adolescent population there are increasing mental-health problems. There’s been a rise in self-harm and suicide attempts among girls, which you can partly trace to the rise of the smartphone and social media. What that tells us is that kids grab on to the tools that the culture offers them to express their distress.
Ten years ago, I was teaching classes where there were a lot of kids with scars all over their arms – there was a trend for self-harming. Now, there’s a trend for breast-binding. I don’t stand in judgement over that. But part of the problem with trans activism is that it shoves lots of different phenomena like these together. Obviously, there’s something very different between a married, 47-year-old male deciding he wants to wear dresses and be a woman, and a 15-year-old girl with a history of anorexia saying she wants to be a boy. But we can’t analyse these differences if we are told that we aren’t allowed to question any of it.