We Need To Talk About These Things Openly and Without Fear

Content warnings: Lots of politics; lots of footnotes.  Sexual thoughts alluded to but only in the footnotes; if you want to avoid any hint of sexuality, avoid those, but you're safe to read the rest.

A few weeks ago I saw some friends (whom I'll call Betsy and Chris, since those aren't their names or anything remotely close to them) in person for the first time since the pandemic, and one of them said something to me which struck me powerfully.

The background here is this: when I met Betsy in college she was a lesbian (we've been close friends for decades); she later married a woman and had three kids with her; she spent much of her professional life as an LGBTQ activist in various ways (he said deliberately vaguely).  She and her wife divorced and she married Chris.  Chris is a trans guy.  He, too, has been at many points in his life a professional activist.  They self-identify as "queer" (even though nowadays they could pass for, and in some sense are, a straight couple).

So we got together, had dinner, and while washing up they started talking about the kids these days.  Mentioning up a young kid they knew who recently declared themselves nonbinary—whom, of course, they supported, called by the correct pronouns & name, etc, that goes without saying—Chris wondered aloud whether they were really suffering from gender dysphoria (Chris said: maybe they are, but I don't see anything like what I went through), and basically wondering what was going on in a way that, while far from identical with what I am writing here, made me think that they wouldn't instantly cut off a deep friendship on the grounds of political heresy.

Eventually, without outing myself (Yorick Penn, and the thoughts that gave rise to this mask,1 are unknown to all my friends), I said I was surprised that they would say these things.

"Why? Because we're queer?" asked Betsy, a twinkle in her eye.

"Because I thought that if I expressed wondering along these lines you'd cast me out for political heresy," I replied.

"No," she said. "It's all confusing. Of course in public you can't say these things; publically you have to toe the line. But really..."

I didn't contradict her, then.  I, Yorick, am part of that crew; my shouts go up with the rest.  Oh in some sense I am talking in public—you’re reading it now—but I am doing so from behind a mask; the me that other people know, my Teller name, remains silent on the matter.  Which is to say: I am following her advice to the letter.  As is she!

But while what we're both doing is understandable, what we're both doing is very wrong—not only broadly (although also that) but in a focused way: it’s wrong for trans rights.

For now, let me talk for a while on a meta level: talk about talking, and why we're not doing it.

I think there are two different reasons for not talking about these things, and that one applies to Betsy (and presumably Chris, although he didn't say anything at this point), and the other applies to me, although this is possibly a disservice to Betsy: she may be in my category too. (I didn't have the time in an all-too-brief visit to dig deeply on this, and anyway the occasion was inappropriate in various ways I won't specify; let's just say there are some things that are hard to discuss while skydiving and leave it at that.)  But from what little I said, I don't think she is, so I will take the liberty of describing views she might conceivably not hold to a name that isn't hers on a substack that neither she nor anyone she knows will ever read.

I don't talk because I'm scared. Which is to say: I'm a coward.2 I have already bruised one friendship, and utterly lost another, over this.  I am willing to say a few, very guarded, things to friends if they bring the topic up in a skeptical way first (e.g. with Betsy and Chris), but even there I am (at this point) cagey.  Twice bitten is thrice shy.3 I imagine that more friends of mine than I imagine4 would in fact be accepting; but some would not be, and I am a sufficiently lonely and loyal and needy and decent person to not one to lose a single friend.5  I am sufficiently unsuccessful in my career6 that I am unwilling to risk adding another millstone to my load, however light it may turn out to be.

Which is to say: I think on principle that not talking about these things is wrong, but I am too cowardly to do it.

Betsy is7 silent for a different reason: she believes it to be the best course of action. She thinks that people of good will on this issue (which she takes me to be, not I hope wrongly) ought to be silent.  That we ought to quell our doubts and keep up the side.

I have no standing to criticize the first reason while doing it (talking here, as poor Yorick, alas doesn't count).  But I want to say why I think the second reason is so deeply, deeply wrong.

I have written before (and will write at greater length in the future) about why I think it is wrong in principle: how freedom of thought, true freedom of thought, requires the freedom to explore, to toy with ideas, to wonder, to be wrong; that thinking is a social practice not an individual one, and one which requires open and honest and unafraid conversation.  But let me set that aside for a moment, and (counterfactually) assume that I'm willing to do anything to win.

It's still wrong.

Here's the thing.  While trans activists often say, correctly, that this issue has been debated about and discussed for decades, they fail to see that within the umwelt of most people, it is a brand-new issue.  It has become a big political issue in basically the last five to six years—call it six years, arbitrarily but not unreasonably dating it to Catelyn Jenner’s appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair.  It is also an issue which requires major revisions in people's ontological understanding of issues that are central to human life and society: gender and sex. We lose this fact when we say it is just  a matter of bigotry.8 We are asking people to rethink categories that are basic to them.

Worse, trans activists tend to be asking people to rethink categories in ways which are pretty incoherent.  I've seen a lot of people say on Twitter in the last week that saying that "sex is real" is a strawman, that no one denies this. And maybe so!  But they also criticize people for saying it.  Kathleen Stock once put out a tweet saying sex is real, and then later noted that half of her commentators were yelling at her saying that no one was denying it and the other half were denying it.

Further, there is a strong sense that while sex is real, you oughtn't to talk about it.  Now partly this is because some people, feeling they can't say transphobic things they think about gender, say them about sex instead.  Which is to say: some people really do use it as a dogwhistle.  But (due to their umwelt, natch) trans activists then tend to assume that all people use them as dogwhistles—that they are only dogwhistles.  Whereas at least some people wonder about it out of genuine questioning—and, contrary to leftist activsts' current general picture of the world, telling them once and linking to an essay is often not enough to quell all their questionings. ("We explained this to them, and they persisted in their wrongthink!" is not the winning argument it is taken to be.)  Which is to say, even if you link to your no-doubt-conclusive essay on the matter, you wont' convince everyone, and that doesn't mean they are all bigots using dogwhistles.  In short, convincing people takes time.

What does this have to do with why Betsy should talk openly?

Imagine someone who is thinking about this.  They want to be inclusive to trans people, but they also believe the (they think inescapably true) fact that sex is real. If they saw a trans activist community in which these issues are debated—that is to say, a trans community which was welcome and open to disagreement (rather than riven by interdenominational squabbles that would do a classic socialist proud)—then they might think, "I can support trans rights even if I have doubts about trans activists' ontology".  People might look and say that this was a contentious issue, and that you could be in favor of trans rights even if you had doubts about it.

If, on the other hand, they see a trans rights community saying if you question anything in public you are a bigot, what's going to happen?

Well, different things; no doubt some will simply change their minds entirely. Their desire not to be a bigot will shut down any questions.  This seems to be what trans activists—like Betsy!—are expecting and hoping for.  But if, like Betsy, they have private doubts, that means they are counting on people being less intellectually curious, rigorous, and insightful than they themselves are.  They are counting on accusations which they don't believe to quiet people's doubt.

As I said, sometimes it happens, I'm sure.  A few people are just stupid; many more people are just not curious and are willing to shut down doubts on another's say-so.  But others will start to question whether being anti-trans is bigotry at all.  Or even, for some, whether they are in fact against bigotry—that is to say, whether anti-bigotry is even wrong. (If you define bigotry this way, they might think, then I am actually not against it!9)

Put it this way: if you say that if you doubt this point of orthodoxy, you are a bigot you will convince some people that the orthodoxy is right (an many more to say it is and keep their doubts private).  But a lot more will say then well, maybe I am a bigot.  And if you lead people to think they're bigots, some will then decide to change how they think; but others will decide maybe bigotry isn't so bad.

Right now, GC feminists are saying anyone who doubts these issues should join us; and trans activists are also saying that anyone who doubts these issues is GC (in their terms, a “TERF”).  What do you think will happen? Of course if both sides are saying doubters are GC, then a lot more people are going to be calling themselves GC!

Now, a lot of people will jump in and say that not everyone is saying if you doubt this you're a bigot.  (A few will jump and say that no one says that, but we can put them aside with the flat-earthers and climate change deniers.)  But the message isn't being sent by any one of those people.  It's being sent by the community as a whole.

And if people of good will are silencing their doubts, what people will see, the message that the community as a whole will be seen as sending—will in fact be sending—is that if you doubt this, you're a bigot.

And they are sending this message to convince people!

I am not asking (at least not in this essay) anyone who actually thinks that everyone with doubts—people like me and my friends Betsy and Chris—are bigots to change their mind on this point. Rather, I am asking people like Betsy and Chris, who are trans activists (and LGBTQ activists more broadly) to talk about those doubts.  I am asking them to talk about their doubts in order to promote trans rights.

Anyone who thinks that trans people should be protected against discrimination in employment and housing, should be able to be able to go out in public without worrying about where they can pee, and should be free of threats and fears of violence, should count as pro-trans.  If you count that way, the pro-trans side will be large and will be able to pass laws, and promote social changes, which will achieve those ends, which are good.

But you know what?  That includes a lot of gender critical feminists!  Not all of them; but many of them.  We know this, because they say so, a lot.10

But we live in a time of black and white thinking, of intense partisan rivalry.  The dynamics of how this plays out will shift people’s views.  If the pro-trans side, our side, is unwelcoming and silencing of doubts, then people who have doubts will drift away, not because they really were bad people all along, but because people, all people, care about identity and belonging and will come to agree with people by whom they feel welcomed and accepted.

One of the best things that the trans rights movement could do would be to count anyone who agrees with part of their agenda as a friend, not anyone who doubts part of it as an enemy.

But another thing they could do that would be almost as important (and which is, in fact, a prerequisite to the previous) would be to have respectful, welcoming, opening debate about these issues.  First of all, they might actually convince some people!  I know that the cool thing to say now is that debate convinces no one, but I, at least, disagree about this.11 And for others, whilie they might not be persuasive, but they might demonstrate that, even if the listeners disagree about the specific issue (whether sex is real or J. K. Rowling is a bigot) they can disagree about that and still be in favor of trans rights broadly.  They might, in other words, get more people to think they're pro trans.

The gender critical movement was small and marginal (really, who read Janice Raymond anyway?) until people felt that simply having doubts put them on the other side.  Because they really did have doubts!

The same ones that my friends Betsy and Chris, self-identified queer-activists (and one an actual trans person) do.

So anyone who is pro trans, who wants to support trans rights... should embrace doubts and questioning and change.  Should discuss, openly and without rancor,12 issues like whether sex is real and whether women who were born men should be on women’s sports teams and the other issues at play. Not just privately, but publicly and loudly.

Unless, like me, you're a coward.

If Betsy and Chris were cowards, I wouldn't blame them. They have more to lose than I do! They have more friends who would disown them, more professional opportunities they would lose.  Their lives would be damaged.  They might find themselves standing with people who really do want to do them harm.  I wouldn't ask them to do that.

But they aren't cowards.  And I think a lot of people are like them: with doubts, who are not cowards, but who are keeping quiet because they think it's a good strategy.

And this is just nuts. They are creating a community where the collective message—whatever anyone individually says—is if you doubt, you're against us.  They're doing this while having doubts.

Again, I am not asking anyone afraid of speaking for practical reasons to speak up (I am hardly in any position to do so!)  But of course the reason we cowards are afraid, the reason that Betsy and Chris would be right to be afraid if (as I don't think) they were, is not because lots of people genuinely think that anyone with doubts is in fact a bigot and an enemy. It's because of the wrongheaded strategic silence of people like Betsy and Chris.  They are creating an atmosphere where those as smart as they, as curious as they, as rigorous as they, with the same doubts they have, will look at the pro-trans side and think: I guess I'm not that.

Leftists nowadays look at those who decry cancel culture as secret bigots, as people who never really were on their side. What if, instead, they saw them as people whom they had alienated? If they considered whether or not they might have been wrong? (I’m not saying they have to conclude they were! Just have a real and not a pro-forma consideration of it.) What if they saw the cancel-culture-decriers as people who might actually be their allies, if they merely allowed them to air their disagreement?

If you're certain that if you say "if you're not with me you're against me" you will get a majority with you—and if you also no separate moral qualms about that as a tactic (even though you should)—then godspeed.  But if you're not—if you think transphobia is real, and that trans people have a lot of genuine enemies, people who not only doubt whether trans women are (or become) women but who actively want to prevent trans women from being employed and accessing medical help they need—then you need all the allies you can get.

And alliance, ultimately, is not a cookie bestowed by the righteous upon others.  Alliance is accepting help from people who are not you and don't think like you, because you damn well need the help. The left needs to stop seeing allyship as a treat they get to offer (“you don’t get to think of yourself as an ally if you…”) and start seeing it for what it is: an imperfect, conditional, but nevertheless real offer of help. Not all help, and not maybe all the help you want, but some help that we genuinely, really, desperately need.

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(Recurring) Notes on practical matters

This newsletter is a part of Confessions of an Autogynephile, an ongoing memoir in the form of a Stack of Sub essays (with occasional bonus politics thrown in, as there is this week), posting once a week, on Wednesdays. If you are interested in reading more, I would be very grateful for comments, responses, and subscriptions. I would be equally or more grateful if you would share it—publicly, on social media, or with friends—since, at the moment, I am known to no-one, having been just (re)born as poor Yorick: so there is no one to promote this newsletter to.  (For what I rather hope are obvious reasons, I will not send a link out to my friends and family!) So please: like, subscribe, comment, share.

If you liked this essay well enough to read this far, you should browse the archives. That link will send you to them in reverse chronological order (most recent first); this link will show them to you in proper chronological order. Or just browse.

If anyone wishes to contact me, I am reachable by email under the handle YorickPenn at gmail, and am on twitter as PennYorick.

Next week: The Question Isn't the Reality of Biological Sex; It's How and Whether We Can and Should Talk About It

The Week After: Finally one of those other posts I’ve been promising for weeks? But maybe not, I seem to be chasing a lot of shiny, fast-moving objects lately.

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1

The sexual/gender dysphoric thoughts, at least; my political leanings are not things I talk about at length but I have let them slip with some of my closer (and safer) friends.

2

Some people will think my openly calling myself an autogynephilic pervert who jacks off while imagining himself as a woman is a shocking thing to say in public; others will think that calling myself a coward is more shocking. Which, Reader, would you be more embarrassed or ashamed (not the same thing) to admit in public?  I think the answer says a lot about our values. Personally I think it is clearly far, far worse to be a coward. But since I am both a coward and an autogynephilic who jacks off to porn, I will admit both. I promised you honesty, after all; and having said so many negative things about myself, I will allow myself to say one positive: I keep my promises.

3

Yes, of course I know the original phrase. Some of us are just slow learners, I guess.

4

Yes, that's a contradiction. Haven't I already said I am nothing if not a follower of Whitman?

5

I have linked to the essay I posted on it twice already—well, thrice, now—so obviously the loss I already suffered cuts deep (pathetically so, some would say; and who am I, a pervert and a coward, to gainsay them?)

6

I suppose some will find being unsuccessful more shocking/embarassing/shameful to admit than autogynephilia, porn use, and cowardice.  Think, Reader, for that, too, will tell you about your values if it is true.

7

Although see the comment above about my uncertainty.

8

Although in truth a lot of bigotry falls into this category, and we are unwise to ignore that fact while trying to convert people. Liberals hate when conservatives cite Martin Luther King, saying correctly that his radicalism is ignored, but they too ignore an aspect of his radicalism, which is that he genuinely wanted to accept and love his enemies. He was a real, true, genuine Christian, in a way that will always be both radical and rare. He wanted to confront people in such a way that they would not feel hated, and would be able to switch sides. Today’s activists want to let people know they are despicable, and somehow expect them to switch sides.

9

I am reminded of people who try to argue that blogger Scott Alexander was a closet alt-rightist. To be clear: this is wrong. But their arguments at times took the form “Do you really think the alt-right is worth reading?1?”, to which my response was, “Well, no, I never did, but if you are counting Scott Alexander as one then I guess I do.” If you push a term too far, it loses its bite—and ought to lose its bite.

10

Some people say they’re lying, but this is a hard case to make. People will say they’re lying—Grace Laverny said it of Kathleen Stock yesterday. But this is petitio principii, assuming the question: the issue is whether keeping trans women off sports teams is discrimination. (Nearly everyone agrees, after all, that keeping some people off women’s sports teams is not discrimination!) The question is, are women’s sports teams intended for women (i.e. anyone who identifies as a woman, or at least medically transitions to some specified degree), or are they intended for females, i.e. someone born in a female body, regardless of what is medically done to it afterwards. This is why Laverny’s accusation of lying is disingenuous. Now it may well be that Laverny is right on this matter and Stock is wrong; but that doesn’t mean Stock is lying.

11

And maybe I’m wrong. But how will you convince me if you don’t try to change my mind?

12

So, for instance, without presuming (rather than arguing) that keeping male-born-women off women’s sports teams is discrimination (see footnote 10 above), and most especially without saying that having doubts on some part of the full suite of trans rights activists’ positions is engaging in hate or genocide or whatever.