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Transgenderism, Queer Theory and the Degradation of Academic Debate

March 22, 2018Heather Brunskell-Evans

As co-editors of Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body  we were surprised by Rachel Pain’s review of our book (The Times Higher Education Magazine, March 15, 2018). We have asked for a right of reply on the grounds of fairness and accuracy. The review contains a centrally significant inaccuracy as well as making misleading statements.

Pain positions the collection of chapters as belonging to feminist studies, and as representative of a conflict between two ‘types’ of feminist commentator – the virtuous, sophisticated feminist who stands up for the marginalized and the oppressed, and the unreconstructed trans exclusionary radical feminist or TERF, a category to which we are relegated. To the uninitiated, TERF has become the epithet of choice to dismiss any female person who dares to critique the theory and practice of transgendering children. The other epithet is transphobe, and we see the slogan ‘transphobia’ emblazoned above Pain’s review.

In locating the book in feminist ideas and politics, Pain deflects from the substantive content of the book. The book’s focus is NOT feminism but is more properly located in transgender studies. She dismisses our authority to comment on transgenderism because we are “white and middle class”. If the voices of white, middle class academics are illegitimate, this also excludes the voice of Pain. Her self-proclaimed ability to escape cultural location arises from her knowledge of “subaltern or queer perspectives” which, she asserts, are crucial to the transgender child identity. She charges us with: not realizing trans children experience binary gender norms as tyrannical; not addressing queer theory; and not understanding that young people’s identities actively queer normative gender categories. She advances queer theory as beyond critique, cordons off transgender identity as immune from cultural context, and by implication elevates the unassailability of her own alleged intellectual authority.

Pain’s charges are simply not true. Chapters Nine and Eleven explore in depth the queer perspectives of young people. In Chapter Five, co-editor Heather Brunskell-Evans, a sociologist of sex and gender, addresses the historical, epistemological and political underpinnings of queer theory. In the sections “Queering the Child” and “Gendered Mis-Intelligence” she argues queer theory and practice ultimately reproduce binarism – the traditional idea that ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ are innate and pre-cultural. Using a feminist Foucauldian model of subjectivity as socially constructed, she analyses the popularization of the queer model and how queer perspectives become embodied in children’s and young people’s experience and self-understanding. The mechanisms of knowledge and power that drive identity include: trans-led organizations that provide resource packs, courses and workshops for school children, including children as young as three; online trans-led websites that provide social forums and clubs for young people; and trans-led organizations that run youth groups.

In Chapter Twelve, co-editor Michele Moore, psychologist and professor of inclusive education by background, compares the social model with the medical model. The medical model is lobbied for by trans activists as the solution for some gender non-conforming children born in ‘the wrong body’. Moore argues that the medical model carries the potential dangers of transitioning children whose identities are necessarily in flux and who are insufficiently mature to make informed decisions or predict possible future consequences on their bodies. “Children and young people need not be subjected to transgender identity if we are willing to transition our own beliefs about gender conformity in order to spare them the surgeon’s knife”.

Stephanie Davies-Arai, in Chapter Two and elsewhereii, suggests alternative resources for schools that are more gender freeing and do not lead to medicalization. Since she is not a sociologist or a medic, Pain dismisses her as someone unqualified to challenge “the wider medical and sociological evidence”. Importantly it is Davies-Arai, not Pain, who has grasped the important fact that the wider medical and sociological evidence is equivocal about transgendering children, and that medics also express concern. Davies-Arai’s authority and subtlety as a cultural commentator arise from her forensic capacity to examine statistics, to locate and tease out various academic contradictions and disagreements, and to reflect upon their material consequences.

In conclusion, the contributors do not ignore queer perspectives. On the contrary, we put queer orthodoxy under an analytical spotlight. Our purpose is ethical. None of us ignores the deeply felt experiences of trans identifying children. We disagree that queer theory is a liberatory prism through which to view children and gender; we provide alternative frameworks for practice. Our analyses can be challenged of course, and indeed one of our hoped-for outcomes is to open rather than foreclose debate. But Pain uses immoderate language, accusing the contributors of “epistemological chicanery”. Her approach exemplifies the trend within academia to proffer ad hominem comments rather than reasoned argumentation whenever contrary views about transgendering children are expressed. Interestingly, by shining a light on the way the slurs TERF and transphobia are used to shut down scrutiny of queer perspectives, the book is exceeding the scope of its original aim.

Prof. Michele Moore and Dr. Heather Brunskell-Evans

i Brunskell-Evans, H. and Moore, M. (Eds.) (2018) Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body, Cambridge Scholars Publishing: Newcastle
ii https://www.transgendertrend.com/transgender-schools-guidance/

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