TERF war over women’s book prize

Familiar tropes are being used to stigmatise trans women, writes Diana Thomas

Novelist Torrey Peters PHOTO: DAWIT N.M.

This year began brilliantly for the American novelist Torrey Peters. For the past few years she had built a cult reputation writing online fiction, essays and reviews. But in January everything changed with the publication of Detransition, Baby – her first book for the mighty Penguin Random House publishing group.

Its heroine, Reese, is a trans woman. The cast also includes a natal man, who used to be a trans woman, but reverted, or “detransitioned” back to manhood and is fathering the book’s eponymous baby. That story could hardly be more quintessentially 2020s, and the critics loved it.

The New York Times called Detransition, Baby a “compassionate, convincing novel” in which “characters are so vividly drawn and human that the reader comes to feel personally close to them”. In a list of Ten New Books You Should Read, Time magazine described it as “a tender and bold exploration of gender, parenthood and love”.

The producers of hit American TV show Grey’s Anatomy are currently developing it for a TV series that’s bound to have Netflix, Amazon, Apple and HBO fighting for the screening rights. No wonder Detransition, Baby made the shortlist for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

But it turned out some people weren’t so impressed. A group called the Wild Woman Writing Club wrote an open letter to the organisers of the Women’s Prize, attacking them for “making male writers eligible for the sole major women’s literary prize”. Wait… what have men got to do with this? Nothing, obviously, unless you happen, like the Wild Women, to be TERFs, or TransExclusionary Radical Feminists.

You see, Torrey Peters is a trans woman. And the central pillar of TERF and other forms of anti-trans prejudice is a belief in the supposed scientific truth that there is essentially no such thing as gender transition and that trans women – I am one, too, by the way – can never, ever be anything other than the males we once were.

According to the Wild Women letter it is “counter-factual and pseudo-scientific… that people can change sex by changing their appearance”. It reduced the long, intense, often painful and massively expensive process of gender transition, which is supervised at every turn by specialist psychiatrists and doctors, to “simply… wearing lipstick and fantasising about occupying [women’s] bodies”. As if this condescending belittlement were not enough, the Wild Women also suggested Ms Peters was a sexual fetishist.

Detransition, Baby talks about sex. You might think that perfectly normal in a novel about the private lives of thirty-something men and women. But the Wild Women saw it as a sign Peters was exhibiting “the male paraphilia of autogynephilia” (i.e. men sexually aroused by the thought of themselves as women). They implied men who transition to women are essentially fetishists, whose interest in being female derives solely from fantasies about having sex as women.

It’s a nasty slur, which denies trans women our sexuality as well as our gender identity, and which no serious professional in the field believes for an instant. But by labelling trans women as sexual perverts, objectors justify their belief that we “fakefemales” should be segregated for the safety of natal women. It should be said that a number of women authors – notably Joanne Harris, who wrote Chocolat – leaped to Torrey Peters’ defence. And the organisers of the Women’s Prize insisted they are “firmly opposed to any form of discrimination on the basis of race, age, sexuality, gender identity… and deplore any attempts to malign or bully the judges or the  authors.”

But the Wild Women letter wasn’t quite so easy for Torrey Peters to dismiss. She described it as “a real outpouring of hate – which hurt my feelings and scared me, as it was intended to do.”

Still, one likes to think haters are in the minority. For me, at least, the experience of gender transition has been overwhelmingly one of kindness and acceptance. I feel blessed by the support of my sisters, friends, neighbours, and all the nurses, doctors, therapists, laser and electrolysis ladies, hairdressers, and (just the one!) voice coach who have enabled me to transition, and been so encouraging along the way.

My passport gives my gender as “F”, not “M”. My NHS records now show me to be female. I am always greeted as “madam”, “love” or (almost always from other women) “darling”, rather than “sir” or “mate”. The world looks at me and sees a woman. I am far happier in myself than I was as a man. I don’t feel angry about being trans. I’m in no sense an extremist about trans rights, and I disagree with some of the demands made by those who are.

For example, not all trans people decide to transition. So it worries me that giving irreversible hormone treatments and surgery to children and teens may prevent them having a full range of choices as an adult.

I also don’t think anyone who has ever had an adult male body should compete in women’s sports. After three years of oestrogen patches, I am weaker than I was and my hormone levels are within the female range demanded by sporting bodies like the International Olympic Committee. But I am still stronger and quicker than my female peers. And if I were a young athlete, that would give me an unfair advantage.

“Self-Identification” is another movement I don’t agree with. You can’t just stand up and say, “I am a woman,” and expect the world to accept that without demur, any more than you can say, “I am an astronaut” and expect NASA to put you into space.

But… and it is a great big BUT… I could and did say “I am transgender” because I had the psychiatric diagnoses to prove it. And thanks to those shrinks I also know I’m neither irrational nor delusional, whatever dissenters might claim.

I can now say, fairly, that I am a trans woman. And at the end of this year, when I’ll have completed two years of “living in role” as a woman, I’ll be able to acquire my Gender Recognition Certificate, about which the UK.gov website says: “If you are granted a full GRC you will, from the date of issue, be considered in the eyes of the law to be of your acquired gender… entitled to all the rights appropriate to a person of your acquired gender.”

Then I will say “I am a woman” and it will be a matter of legal fact. So my one unshakable demand is that people recognise that fact and accept the reality of transgender identity and gender transition.

The science is on our side, too. The medical conception of gender incongruence has taken a very similar journey to that previously undergone by homosexuality. Both used to be considered forms of mental disorder, but are now recognised by organisations like the NHS, World Health Organisation and American Psychiatric Association as ways of being human.

No one knows for sure what precisely makes someone trans (or gay). But there’s an increasing body of research looking at the influence of hormones on the foetal brain
and their role in gender and transgender differentiation. It increasingly looks as though Lady Gaga was right: we’re born this way.

No one knows for sure what precisely makes someone trans (or gay). But there’s an increasing body of research looking at the influence of hormones on the foetal brain and their role in gender and transgender differentiation. It increasingly looks as though Lady Gaga was right: we’re born this way.

We also pose no threat to anyone. In the words of the Scottish Government’s 2019 report on trans women’s inclusion in women-only spaces and services: “Opposition to the inclusion of trans women in women-only spaces tends to be grounded in a belief that trans women are not ‘real’ women… [But] no evidence was identified to support the claim that trans women are more likely than cisgender women to sexually assault other women in women-only spaces.”

Ah, but what about that other great fear, that if you let trans women into female spaces, they’ll swiftly be followed by men pretending to be trans in order to “commit sexual violence”? Well, the Scots looked at that too and couldn’t find any evidence. I have to say I’ve never experienced the slightest problem in the eighteen months since I started using women’s loos. Yet I fear the anti-trans agenda is gaining ground in the mainstream media.

Barely a week passes without a broadsheet repeating myths about the absolutism of gender and the threat posed by trans women to natal women, or insisting that the very idea of “trans rights” is a sign of extremist woke politics and cancel culture. Even as I was writing this article, The Daily Telegraph published an admiring profile of Maya Forstater, headlined “I am fighting for the right to say that men can never be women”.

Ms Forstater is a TERF heroine. Eighteen months ago, her “absolutist” views were denounced by a judge for causing “enormous pain” and being “unworthy of respect in a democratic society”. A day later The Sunday Times carried a review of the book Material Girl, praising its author Kathleen Stock for her “methodical dismantling of weak, misleading and false arguments” about gender identity. The review admiringly quoted Stock’s warning that “immersion in a fiction about sexchange is being coercively required of people”.

In other words, my gender identity is a work of my imagination, and people are accepting me not out of kindness, but being forced to do so, against their better judgement.

Just imagine a magazine publishing a profile of a white campaigner against racial equality, headlined “I am fighting for the right to say that Blacks can never be British”. Or an unrepentant sexist being applauded for the statement: ”immersion in a fiction about sexual equality is being coercively required of people”?

Both are inconceivable, and yet few people seem to bat an eyelid when tropes once used to stigmatise and exclude Black, gay and Jewish people – that they are inferior, pose a threat, invade our space, and that all this is proven by science – are repeated again and again about trans women without public demur.

But to me, as to Torrey Peters, they represent a real outpouring of hate – which hurts me and scares me, as it is intended to do.

Diana Thomas is a journalist, editor and author who has published sixteen novels (of which three have been No.1 UK bestsellers), in more than 20 languages, under a variety of names, none of which is “Diana Thomas” … yet!


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