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To Escape the Body: A Review of Helen Joyce’s Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, pt. 1 – the History of Transgenderism

Part 1 – The History of Transgenderism: r/theschism, r/BlockedAndReported,

Part 2 – the Causes and Rationalization of Transgenderism: r/theschism, r/BlockedAndReported,

Part 3 – How Transgenderism Harms Women And Children: r/theschism, r/BlockedAndReported,

Part 4 – How Transgenderism Took Over Institutions And How Some Women Are Fighting Back: r/theschism, r/BlockedAndReported,

Part 5 – Conclusion and Discussion: r/theschism, r/BlockedAndReported,

I had said in my last post that I wished to review a book that promised to be more red meat for the people here. But I had not expected to be posting this so soon, I thought I might find my book of choice boring enough to last me a month. Instead, I found myself engaged so deeply that I binged the entire work in a few days.

Helen Joyce is an Irish journalist and executive editor for “events business” at the Economist. She’s currently on sabbatical to do some work for Sex Matters, a UK non-profit that advises the public on the importance of biological sex as a category when making policy. In July of 2021, she published Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality. It purports to be a general book about the history of transgenderism, trans activism, and the issues that trans women pose to cis women.

It is the first one that we will focus on this post.

The Girl From Denmark

For Joyce, the story begins with Einar Wegener. Wegener was a Danish man born in 1882. He was an artist and married to Gerda Wegener. As the story goes, Gerda was convinced by Anna Larssen to have Einar take Larssen’s place for some modeling because the latter was running late. Wegener’s modeling for his wife was kept a secret for years. “Hardly anyone knew that Gerda’s sultry, sloe-eyed model was her cross-dressing husband,” Joyce writes. Eventually, the couple moved to Paris, but Einar was not the only person involved now. A new figure, named Lili, began to introduce herself as Gerda’s sister.

It was, you may have guessed, Einar. Over time, he seems to have grown weaker compared to the “woman in this body”, suggesting a battle in the mind over which identity was the real one. Doctors at the time diagnosed him as mad or homosexual. But this did nothing to resolve the conflict, and Einar was determined to either make Lili a reality or simply end his own persona.

In 1930, that opportunity would come at the hands of the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin and its founder Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld believed that people were all bisexual, but not in the sense that they were attracted to both, rather that they were both. This was naturally attractive to the ailing model because it allowed for the possibility that you could move from one sex to the other with enough work. He was willing to operate on Einar.

The surgeries were grueling and saw the removal of testicles and penis, then insertion of ovaries, and finally the construction of a “natural outlet”. This last part is not necessarily clear as the Nazis burned the institute’s records in 1933, leaving only Lili's memoir Man Into Woman. it would probably have been a neovagina or attempted womb transplant.

In any case, Einar ceased to exist in the operating room, and Lili was manifested into reality. Things could not have been better after the surgery, it seemed. The King of Denmark gave Lili a new passport that defined her sex as female and annulled her marriage to Gerda. She went on to get engaged to an art dealer.

Sadly, Lili would die before the marriage in September 1931 due to heart failure. But she wrote that she had found her 14 months of life as Lili to be a “whole and happy human life”.

Joyce commends Hirschfeld for his forward-thinking nature and willingness to support franchising women and supported decriminalizing homosexual relationships between men (he was himself gay), but excoriates his views on what it means to be a female. She suggests that his views had a conspicuously shaped hole named Charles Darwin. For Joyce, Darwin had conclusively demonstrated that there was no meaningful definition of sex apart from that about reproduction. She accuses believers in Hirschfeld’s model as being sexist and simply accommodating the existence of women scientists, poets and leaders by claiming they were simply being less womanly.

Lili does not get off scott-free either, Joyce relates passages from her memoir that suggest some unconscious sexism in her mind. Lili believed her validation as a woman would come about by having a child. She self-described as the character opposite to Einar: thoughtless to his thoughtfulness, illogical to his ingenuity, superficial to his sagacity. The last fulfilment of being a real woman, according to Lili, was to have a “sterner being, the husband” to protect her in life.

Lili's importance to this topic will become clear eventually, I promise.

“What American Woman Wouldn’t Be Happy?”

Following this lengthy account come yet another, this time about Christine Jorgensen, formerly known as George Jorgensen. Jorgensen was a 26-year-old New Yorker who went to Europe in 1950 to get treatment for “men like him”. The 1930s and 40s had seen the rise of synthetic sex hormones and antibiotics, with some doctors now claiming it was possible to move males to the female end of the spectrum. Jorgensen would return in 1952 having undergone castration, penectomy, and plastic surgery for his external female genitalia.

Crucially, however, the doctors who treated him did not regard themselves as making him the opposite sex. They saw him as a man so beset by “transvestism” as to be unable to live without presenting as a woman. Christine was the one who claimed to be a woman to the media (the title of this section is a paraphrasing of what she told reporters). The media that covered the story, and their readers, ate it up. They praised the results and cast no doubt on Jorgensen’s claims about what sex was or about her own intersex condition.

But for all the many requests that the doctors who did the operation received, all were turned down. Instead, Joyce argues, an enterprising fraud and German endocrinologist would take up this task. That man’s name? Harry Benjamin.

To be clear, I don’t see any evidence that Benjamin didn’t believe what he said, and Joyce doesn’t directly argue this either. But the references to his quack background seem chosen to imply as much.

In any case, Benjamin was an outspoken advocate for using hormones and surgery to treat “transsexualists” as opposed to most doctors of the time who would have use electric shocks or mega-doses of the original sex’s hormones to “cure” the desire. In 1963, he took on a patient named Rita Erickson and transitioned her into Reed Erickson. Erickson was grateful and funded him for several research symposia. Erickson also went on to fund the Erickson Educational Foundation, which primarily focused on funding studies into transsexualism, as well as the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic.

In the following decade, other major medical centers would open up programs of a similar sort. Thus began a slow but continuous effort by doctors and researchers who would go on to be authorities and gatekeepers. They did their best to accommodate their patients. In 1979, they would all get together and found their own professional association, the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association.

Or, as you may know it after 2006, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.

Putting Your Money Where Your Benjamin Is

The history of transgenderism cannot be explained without talking about the man who coined the term “gender”. John Money was a Harvard psychologist from New Zealand who popularized the sex-gender distinction that people use even to this day.

Briefly, Money is the reason we talk about gender at all and make the distinction between sex and gender. For him, a woman or man was defined by taking on certain roles, which they were socialized (taught by others) into accepting. But some people were atypical for their sex and took on the roles of the other sex more easily/naturally. In other words, gender was what your roles were, and sex was your body.

Joyce describes their meeting as a moment when the stars aligned. You had Benjamin on one hand who believed that sex was a spectrum and people could move between the two ends, and Money on the other who believed that men and women were defined by what roles they took on, not by their bodies. Combined in a manner akin to Dragon Ball Z’s Fusion Dance, they created a powerful new theory of what caused cross-sex identification, what it meant, and what to do about it.

This can be found in Bejamin’s work The Transsexual Phenomenon. In it, he gave Hirschfeld’s depiction of a sex spectrum and described transsexuals as people suffering from a mind-body mismatch. He would also nod to Money’s ideas about “gender feeling” (a collection of feelings, attitudes, and desires). If this feeling was settled and mismatched to the body, then the body had to give.

We will discuss Money, his work, and his impact in a later post.

Handling Edge Cases

I mentioned previously that Lili Elbe had been granted a new passport by the Kingdom of Denmark that stated her sex as female. But, as Helen Joyce asks, what did this really mean to the people who made such decisions?

She relates the case of Corbett v. Corbett as a telling example in far more detail than really necessary. Arthur Corbett wanted his marriage to April Ashley annulled on the grounds that she was a trans woman. Corbett did not look totally good in this case, to be clear, as he was someone who broke up his previous marriage because he was obsessed with Ashley and only demanded an annulment when she started asking for the deeds to their house. The judge in that case delivered the following remarks (somewhat paraphrased) to a devastated Ashley.

Intercourse using the completely artificially constructed cavity could never constitute true intercourse…the respondent is not, and was not, a woman at the date of the ceremony of marriage, but was, at all times, a male.

Joyce characterizes the response by officials and governments in the first half of the 20th century as trying to resolve some small number of anomalous cases with varying amounts of compassion and logic. The British government of Ashley’s time (the 1960s) believed that no operation could change sex, so even if the NHS would perform sex-change operations, it would not allow the recipient to go about being treated as a woman by the government.

But why said governments went about it how they did is an important question, and Joyce attributes this to two factors: the rise of bureaucracy and the shift in what defined womanhood.

Firstly, there was always a legal significance to being a man or woman: voting, inheriting, or even controlling money was dependent upon this. But no laws defined sex because it seemed pointless. Everyone could just see and make an accurate assessment, and the few who cross-dressed or passed as the other sex could be seen by their naked body.

This obviously changed with Lili Elbe, who would not appear male under nudity. But the less obvious influence was the rise of government documentation that listed sex. If you showed these, they would count as proof that you were a man or woman. To someone who was trans, these documents were sought after as another bit of proof to help get society to validate the new identity. Persuading bureaucrats was now a useful goal.

Secondly, what it meant to have womanhood, or be a woman, changed significantly between Jorgensen’s return in 1952 and her death in 1989. For doctors, journalists, and lawyers who were involved with this topic, it was no longer about having a body that could under normal circumstances get pregnant. Now it was about being able to “receive” in heterosexual sex and an inner sense of being “female”.

At first glance, this does not sound too bad, but without reference to reproduction, Joyce argues that being a woman became more individualistic over communal. Reproductive service was about your role in your species, sexual service was about your role to your husband.

This, she argues, was the birth of “gender identity”.

The Role Of Leftist Thought

Joyce, surprisingly enough, does not really delve deeply into the role played by broader left-wing ideology in supporting and even promoting transgenderism. She does spend some effort to address what she calls “social justice” or “applied postmodernism” (AP). As she tells it, AP rejects objectivity, logic, and reason. Here, language prescribes instead of describes, meaning oppression springs from discourse. The focus on letting individuals reign supreme in defining themselves fits mind-body dualism perfectly, since it means being a man or woman can never be gatekept.

But to convince others of this, you have to deny the objectivity of sex and instead insist that gender identities are the real thing. Judith Butler, described as the most influential gender theorist, has argued that sex and gender are not distinct and are both socially constructed. Tellingly, Butler defines transness as the mismatch between what society tells you to act as and what you know about yourself (notice the framing of society oppressing individual expression). Doctors, she argues, engage in performance when they register a baby’s sex, changing social reality by their very words.

Joyce discusses the terms AFAB/AMAB (assigned female at birth, assigned male at birth) and argues that they deny any argument that man/woman might be gender and male/female can be kept for sex. Instead, she argues, TRA ideology takes these terms to mean you are female or male should you define yourself that way.

This was a bold claim to me. I had even recently argued, among other things, that I did not know how many TRAs (trans rights activists) believed that a trans person was by nature the sex they identified as. Joyce would tell me that my definition of “sex” includes immutability, and I think that it a good definition of my position. I do not think we should define sex as anything other than what your natal body’s reproductive pathways are, but I remain open to arguments to the contrary.

With that said, I think Joyce has pointed to a gap in my own thinking. I had assumed that when terms like AFAB and AMAB are used, TRAs understood sex mostly as I did. But if they follow ideas like Butler’s, then sex and gender are both malleable to the extent that yes, TRAs would tell you they are actually the same in terms of body as people of the sex they identify as.

As for how widespread this idea is, I’ve found the following.

  1. Here are 3 studies published in 2017 and 2018 that use male/female as one would traditionally use man/woman.

  2. Wikipedia defines trans women as having a “female gender identity”.

  3. A 700 person Twitter poll from 2018 where about 50% said that trans women are female.

There is more, of course, but I think these at least suggest the idea sex and gender are to some people mutable. I’m still not clear on how prevalent this view of sex is, but I think it is at least not insignificant.

I’m a bit frustrated that Joyce doesn’t go further into the role of left-wing thought in the intellectual and ideological support for transgenderism. I think it would be worthwhile to discuss what drove, and arguable drives, left-wing support for glorifying all forms of individual expression. I myself covered one such motivation here.

That’s all for this post. Next time, we’ll go over the harm Joyce attributes to the version of pro-trans ideology that has come to define what it means in 2023 to be supportive, and maybe some other stuff as well. I hope you enjoyed!

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I was always under the impression that most people understand the terms "man" and "woman" to refer to one's gender, and "male" and "female" to refer to one's sex. The more I discuss this issue, the more I start to think that this distinction is not as widely employed as I previously believed. Lots of people use "man" and "male" interchangeably to refer to sex or gender, without endorsing the view that sex is mutable. You'll see people employing circumlocutions like "Caitlyn Jenner is a woman but is biologically/anatomically male"; if "male" was understood to exclusively refer to sex, the qualifiers "biologically" or "anatomically" would be redundant. This confusion over terminology is widespread enough to seriously affect survey results and the interpretation thereof:

Turban et al.’s most important claims rely on sex ratios, or what percentages of trans kids are biologically male versus female. They argue that since in 2017 and 2019 the ratio still favored natal males, this is evidence against ROGD. I think this reasoning is totally wrong, especially given that over this period the ratio shifted in the direction ROGD theorists would predict, but the bigger problem is we don’t actually have any idea what the real sex ratios are here.

The data set in question simply asks respondents whether they are transgender and “What is your sex?” — not “sex assigned at birth” or “biological sex” or other, more specific language. So the question is how a trans person responds when you ask them their “sex.”

The consensus, before this study was published, appeared to be that there’s simply no good, reliable way to know whether a trans person answering this specific question is referring to their biological sex versus their gender identity, which, for a trans person, are likely to have opposite answers. This is a widely known issue in this data set and this sort of research. For example, one group of researchers relying on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey demurred from making any claims pegged to respondents’ biological sex in their paper: “Because it is unclear whether transgender students’ responses to the sex question reflected their sex or gender identity, this analysis could not further disaggregate transgender students.”

I was always under the impression that most people understand the terms "man" and "woman" to refer to one's gender, and "male" and "female" to refer to one's sex.

To the best of my understanding, this distinction was introduced, or at least popularized, in the mid-20th century by Simone de Beauvoir. In a nod to horseshoe theory, the people who seem to most resist this in my experience are conservative people who make no distinction because they think social and biological roles are intertwined, and trans advocates who make no distinction because they object to the use of any language that helps to distinguish transsexuals from the biological categories they are emulating.

It seems to me that the trans movement is deeply committed to doing the opposite of tabooing their words. They're not the only ones--I think a lot of the political left, along with many conservative religious groups, flee from clarity a lot. My own prejudice is that this is because they know, at some level, that linguistic clarity undermines their ingroup activism. But Scott Alexander has written occasionally about preserving disclarity in ways that may help to arrive at a slightly more charitable take. Maybe.

Horseshoe theory is such a good way to describe the convergence. I myself try to maintain a distinction between man/woman and male/female but even someone as pathologically fastidious about words as me fails regularly.