Why the 'trans' subject is one of the most complex issues of our age
An exclusive excerpt from Douglas Murray's latest book, The Madness of Crowds, that examines the 21st century’s most divisive issues: sexuality, gender, technology and race.
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We are living through a postmodern era in which the grand narratives of religion and political ideology have collapsed. In their place have emerged a crusading desire to right perceived wrongs and a weaponisation of identity, both accelerated by the new forms of social and news media. Narrow sets of interests now dominate the agenda as society becomes more and more tribal – and, as author Douglas Murray shows, the casualties are mounting.
In his new book The Madness of Crowds, Murray examines the 21st century’s most divisive issues: sexuality, gender, technology and race. He reveals the astonishing new culture wars playing out in our workplaces, universities, schools and homes in the names of social justice, identity politics and ‘intersectionality’. Murray ends the book with an impassioned call for free speech, shared common values and sanity in an age of mass hysteria.
We present an excerpt from the chapter titled Trans.
The Madness of Crowds. Paperback. Rs 499. Publisher: Bloomsbury India.
Every age before this one has performed or permitted acts that to us are morally stupefying. So unless we have any reason to think we are more reasonable, morally better or wiser than at any time in the past, it is reasonable to assume there will be some things we are presently doing – possibly while flushed with moral virtue – that our descendants will whistle through their teeth at, and say ‘What the hell were they thinking?’ It is worth wondering what the blind spots of our age might be. What might we be doing that will be regarded by succeeding generations in the same way we now look on the slave trade or using Victorian children as chimney sweeps?
Take the case of Nathan Verhelst, who died in Belgium in September 2013. Nathan had been born a girl and was given the name Nancy by her parents. She grew up in a family of boys and always felt that her parents preferred her three brothers to her. There was certainly plenty that was strange about the family. After Verhelst’ s death his mother gave an interview to the local media in which she said, ‘When I saw “Nancy” for the first time, my dream was shattered. She was so ugly. I had a phantom birth. Her death does not bother me. I feel no sorrow, no doubt or remorse. We never had a bond. ’
For reasons that this and other comments make clear, Nancy grew up feeling rejected by her parents and at some stage settled on the idea that things might be better if she was a man. In 2009, in her late thirties, she began taking hormone therapy. Shortly after this, she had a double mastectomy and then a set of surgeries to try to construct a penis.
In total she had three major sex-change operations between 2009 and 2012. At the end of this process ‘Nathan’, as he then was, reacted to the results. ‘I was ready to celebrate my new birth. But when I looked in the mirror I was disgusted with myself. My new breasts did not match my expectations and my new penis had symptoms of rejection.’ There was significant scarring from all the surgery Verhelst had undergone, and he was clearly deeply unhappy in his new body. There is a photograph of Verhelst as ‘Nathan’ on a sparsely populated Belgian beach. He is squinting from the sunlight as he looks into the camera. Despite the tattoos covering part of his chest the scarring from the mastectomy is still visible. In a photo from another occasion he is lying on a bed in shoes and a suit, looking uncomfortable in his body.
The life that Nathan had clearly hoped for had not come about, and depression soon followed. So in September 2013, at the age of 44 – only a year after the last sex-change procedure – Verhelst was euthanized by the state. In his country of birth euthanasia is legal and the relevant medical authorities in Belgium agreed that Verhelst could be euthanized due to ‘unbearable psychological suffering ’. A week before the end he held a small party for some friends. Guests reportedly danced and laughed and raised glasses of champagne with the toast ‘To life’. A week later Verhelst made the journey to a university hospital in Brussels and was killed by lethal injection. ‘I do not want to be a monster,’ he said just before he died.
It is not hard to imagine future generations reading such a story in a spirit of amazement. ‘So the Belgian health service tried to turn a woman into a man, failed and then killed her?’ Hardest of all to comprehend might be the fact that the killing, like the operations that preceded it, was performed not in a spirit of malice or of cruelty, but solely in the spirit of kindness.
Of course the case of Verhelst is unusual in all sorts of ways. But it is worth focusing on precisely because some of the lessons it raises are reflected upon so little. What is trans? Who is trans? What makes someone trans? Are we sure that it exists as a category? And if so, are we certain that attempting to turn somebody physically from one sex to another is always possible? Or even the best way to deal with the conundrum this presents?
Among all the subjects in this book and all the complex issues of our age, none is so radical in the confusion and assumptions it elicits, and so virulent in the demands it makes, as the subject of trans. There is no other issue (let alone one affecting relatively few people) that has so swiftly reached the stage whereby whole pages of newspapers are devoted to its latest developments, and where there is a never-ending demand not just to change the language but to make up the science around it. The debate around gay rights moved too swiftly for some people, but it still took decades to go from acceptance that homosexuality existed and might need to be accommodated to the position where gay marriage was legalized. By contrast trans has become something close to a dogma in record time. Conservative ministers in the British government are campaigning to make it easier for people to change their birth certificates and alter their sex at birth. 4 A local authority has issued educational guidelines suggesting that in order to make transgender children feel more accepted, teachers in primary schools should tell children that ‘all genders’, including boys, can have periods. 5 And in the US a Federal bill was passed in May 2019 which redefines sex to include ‘gender identity’.
Everywhere the feeling is the same. Among the crowd madnesses we are going through at the moment, trans has become like a battering ram – as though perhaps it is the last thing needed to break down some great patriarchal wall. The British gay rights group Stonewall is back with a new version of its old gay rights T-shirt. This one says, ‘Some people are trans. Get over it.’ But are they? And should we?
WHAT ISN’T STRANGE
It should be said that there is nothing very strange about where the ‘trans’ phenomenon started from. Today a great many things have got caught up together under this label. Trans has – just in recent decades – been used to describe a range of individuals, from people who occasionally dress as a member of the opposite sex to those who have undergone full-blown gender-reassignment surgery. And just one early confusion about all of this is that some aspects of trans are far more familiar than others.
Not only is some type of gender-ambiguity or gender-fluidity common across most cultures, it is hard to think of a culture in the world that does not include – and allow for – some variety of gender-ambiguity. It is not an invention of late modernity. As we have seen, Ovid wrote of a shifter between the sexes in the story of Tiresias. In India there are the Hijras – a class of intersex and transvestite – knowledge and acceptance of whom dates back centuries. In Thailand the Kathoey is a type of effeminate male who is widely accepted to be neither male nor female. And on the island of Samoa there are fa'afafine, men who live and dress as women.
Even parts of the world most hostile to male homosexuality have allowed for some category of person either between the sexes or who crosses the sexes. In Afghanistan there is the tradition of the Bacha posh in which parents who do not have a male heir select a daughter to become like a man. And in the early 1960s, long before the revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini published a ruling on the permissibility of sex-change operations. Indeed, since the 1979 revolution the Iranian state has disturbingly as a consequence become a leader in the region in sex-realignment surgery, in large part because undergoing it is one of the only ways in which people who are found to be gay can avoid punishments worse even than unwanted surgery.
So awareness of some blurring between the sexes exists in almost every culture and ranges from transvestitism (people dressing up as members of the opposite sex) all the way through to transsexualism (going through with a range of procedures in order to ‘become’ the opposite sex). Whatever the evolutionary factors behind this, a considerable range of cultures has adapted to the idea that some people may be born in one body but desire to live in another.
But who are these people, and what are the different lines, not just between them and other people, but within this loosely aligned group of individuals? This whole subject has become so emotive and incendiary that dealing with it requires a forensic approach, though even that will never be accurate enough to satisfy everyone. Still, it has to start somewhere. And perhaps the best place to begin is with the part of the trans debate that is the most fixed. Because once the most settled aspects of the debate are agreed upon then the least settled – which not coincidentally are the most bitterly fought over – can be seen more clearly.
If we place our trust in scientists, rather than social scientists, and if we agree that it is easier to respond to what people are than what they claim to be, then the aspect of the trans debate which becomes the least problematic to discuss is the whole question of intersex.
Intersex is the natural phenomenon known to the medical profession for centuries but necessarily obscure to everyone else. It is the fact that a small percentile of human beings are born either with ambiguous genitalia or turn out to have other biological attributes (for instance an unusually large clitoris, or an unusually small penis) which suggest that they may lie somewhere between the sexes. Not all of these symptoms are outwardly visible. In rare cases people may show outwardly the traits of one sex but also contain hidden traces of the organs of the other sex. For instance, Persistent Mullerian Duct Syndrome (PMDS) is the term for people born with male genitalia but who also turn out to have female reproductive organs such as fallopian tubes and even a uterus.
Medical professionals have been aware of these phenomena for centuries and there has been some very limited public awareness of it, though this tends to focus on the freakish. Circuses featured the ‘bearded woman’ as a freak of nature, while historical references to ‘hermaphrodites’ showed that a recognition of non-transvestite dwellers between the sexes existed. Although pushed to the margins of discussion, there was always some awareness that biology throws up certain complex and often cruel challenges.
Yet even today there is little understanding of how relatively common intersex is. It has been estimated that in America today around one in every two thousand children is born with sexual organs that are indeterminate, and around one in every three hundred will need to be referred to a specialist. Of course the more awareness there has been about intersex, the greater the debate over what to do with those born with this extra challenge in their lives. In the second half of the last century, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore developed a standard model whereby experts would examine a child referred to them, consider which sex was more prevalent or easier to fit the child into and then treat them accordingly, with surgery and hormones.