As the dust settles on the resignation of Natasha Devon, another Natacha – Dr Natacha Kennedy, who is a sociologist of gender and education at Goldsmiths College, London University – takes a closer look at her decision and what the TES endorsement of Transgender Trend really means.
“Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.”
Hannah Arendt 1958
When a journalist of the quality and integrity of Natasha Devon MBE, star reporter at the teachers’ newspaper the Times Educational Supplement (TES), resigns so dramatically and on a matter of principle, people sit up and take notice. Her clearly stated reason for resigning included the following;
“TES’ front page article this week contains promotion of an organisation called ‘Transgender Trend’, which supports conversion therapy for trans young people and suggests being trans is a mental disorder.
“It is my understanding that Transgender Trend pretends to be an organisation which gives teachers tools to support transgender young people but in fact does the opposite…”
Very strong words indeed, her principled resignation and forthright condemnation of the TES for promoting Transgender Trend (TT) is something rarely seen in her profession. For a media platform such as the TES to lose its star reporter in such a way suggests real problems for what used to be a respected publication.
The offending article, over which she has resigned, tries to argue that the “best” guidance for schools in accommodating transgender children is that produced by this Transgender Trend group, yet as Pink News has reported this guidance advises teachers to tell classmates that “you can’t actually change from a boy to a girl”. It also informs teachers on multiple occasions that being transgender constitutes a “contagion”. On reading the article the response from the mother of a trans child at school in South London was one of great anger.
“Just like any other child mine has rights as a human being. Using the word ‘contagion’ takes that away and says that my child is a ‘disease’, like a danger to others. This document is harmful to trans children and young people, I would fight tooth-and-nail against it if I even thought there was a copy in my child’s school.”
It is also worth remembering that when it was published the TT ‘guidance’ was widely condemned by groups that actually work with young trans people including Educate and Celebrate, Stonewall and Gendered Intelligence.
Not only that but one of the main pieces of research that the TT document cites, a study by Littman in 2018, has now had to be extensively “corrected” and has been widely critiqued for ethical and methodological problems.
(Editor’s note: for a fuller background to this issue, see here on the StillHere site)
This research appeared to make “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD), referred to extensively in the TT “guidance” seem like a genuine mental health diagnosis. This prompted the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) to make a statement that ROGD “is not a medical entity recognised by any major professional association”. It does not take much to imagine how the association of ‘contagion’ with trans children might result in parents of other children telling them not to associate with their trans classmates. A kind of exclusion bullying by proxy. Recommending ‘guidance’ that uses such discredited research is pretty much as problematic as it gets for the TES.
The quotation from Hannah Arendt at the start of this article, in her characteristically intelligent, perceptive and elegant style, demolishes the essentialist arguments against trans people’s rights. Essentialist arguments like “you cannot change your sex/gender” deployed by anti-trans activists are where the problem with the TES article and the TT ‘guidance’ is particularly pernicious. This is from the TT ‘guidance’;
“Do answer such questions directly with factual (sic) information while still showing compassion “You can’t actually change from a boy to a girl, but he really feels like he is a girl and wants to be one.”
This misgendering here is a very revealing part of the ‘guidance’ and it is something subtly echoed in the TES article as well where the writer of that article advises the following;
“Gender-neutral pronouns – for example they/them – may be used as an alternative to sex-based pronouns”
This assertion seems reasonable until it is looked at more carefully and read alongside something else the writer asserts earlier in the article;
“It should be noted that we all have a sex and this is determined by our biology”
This echoes anti-trans activists’ “sex-is-different-from-gender-and-therefore-trans-people-don’t-actually-exist” dogma, a deeply (bio-)essentialist ideology that they have been pushing wherever they can of late. It is an ideology explicitly rejected by most distinguished feminist scholars including Professor Judith Butler and Professor Catherine Mckinnon, as well as Hannah Arendt.
By referring to “sex-based” pronouns the writer is in effect subtly attempting to essentialise pronouns. They also appear to be in agreement with the TT approach, namely that you should not use the correct pronouns – “he” for a trans boy and “she” for a trans girl – for binary trans children. Indeed there is nothing in either the ‘guidance’ or the TES article to encourage teachers to use the correct pronouns for trans kids, or even to advise that misgendering trans children is unacceptable.
Can you imagine being the only girl in the school who isn’t referred to as “she”?
The implications of the careful but opaque phrasing here are very worrying indeed. Research has shown clearly that the mental health of trans children who are supported in their identities is considerably better than those who are not. Anyone who does not think so should watch Nicole Maines’ emotional TED talk to understand the effects of social exclusion in school. To fail to advocate against misgendering children is beyond the pale. In my opinion it is encouraging bullying, victimisation and mental torture.
Dehumanising trans kids
As Arendt observes, the human condition is one of infinite diversity, therefore to fail to recognise and accommodate someone’s identity to the extent that you are using the wrong pronoun is to dehumanise them. And whether that means using “he” instead of “she” or “they” instead of “he” it is still using the wrong pronoun and it is still a dehumanisation. “They” is a non-binary pronoun and should normally be used for non-binary children. When the victims of this misgendering are children it is more than dehumanising. It is bullying. So let us be clear about this, the TES has frontpaged an article about trans children that fails to advise teachers to do the most basic and most important thing they can for a trans child; to recognise their humanity, who they are. Not only that, it has recommended ‘guidance’ that plainly advocates misgendering trans children in this dehumanising way.
But this is not all, the TES article argues that the TT ‘guidance’ is better because it is supposed to be most compatible with guidance issued by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. This stretches credibility beyond breaking point; the EHRC clearly states that misgendering constitutes harassment under the Equality Act 2010, indeed it suggests that it is humiliating, offensive and degrading and would be illegal under the Equality Act. In my view to suggest that this part of the TT ’guidance’ even comes close to adhering to either the 2010 Act or to EHRC guidance is fanciful.
But what is particularly illuminating about this whole sorry incident is what it reveals about the ideology that opposes trans people’s human rights. An essentialism that is so profound that it can’t even bring itself to use the correct pronouns for children is abhorrent. It is an essentialism that, as Arendt observes, constitutes such a profound dehumanisation in that it fails to recognise that which is most important in making us human; our individuality and right to selfhood.
In fact it is likely that ultimately all forms of discrimination, bigotry and hatred are rooted in essentialism; the xenophobic racism of Farage, the creepy misogyny of Trump, the rank homophobia of the Sultan of Brunei, each constitute a dehumanzation based on an essentialisation of how other people are “supposed to be”. An ugly esprit fasciste. Ultimately it is my view that both the TES article and the ‘guidance’ that it recommends are deeply ideological texts, both underpinned by a dehumanising dogma. Deeply dehumanising oppressive ideologies have existed throughout history of course as humanity has experienced to its cost. When a dehumanising ideology is aimed at children however that is doubly an ideology too far.
In my view one of the most problematic elements of the document recommended by the TES is that it is produced by a group calling itself “Transgender Trend”. Why Trend especially? The implication here is that being trans is just a fashion or a fad, something that was said about gay men and lesbians back in the 1970s and 80s. The TT ‘guidance’ pushes this narrative, it contains some assertions that diversity training for teachers is telling them that “Tomboys are not allowed” and that being a trans boy is a more “fashionable” identity, yet no evidence is provided to support this. The document asserts that “Many of these young girls [tomboys] defined as lesbians when they reached adolescence. This is no longer allowed.” Something that also is not supported by any evidence.
You do not have to talk to many young trans people to realise that the opposite is the case, and a recent survey of young trans people in Scotland showed that more that 95% have self-harmed. When I visited a trans youth group in the north of England I found that every single member had self-harmed. If you start talking to trans kids you will soon realise that being trans is not at all “trendy” or “fashionable”. Not long ago an 11-year-old trans girl in a school in Manchester was shot after months of constant bullying. More recently there was an incident in which a young trans girl was attacked so violently that she was left with a boot mark on her head and a trans boy had his face slashed with a knife. Young trans people being mistakenly identified as gay or lesbian are not uncommon. Some even declare they are gay or lesbian instead of trans because they feel they are less likely to be bullied if they do so.
The TES article features a graph showing how numbers of trans children and young people are currently growing year-on-year. This feeds into this “trend” narrative. By failing to contextualise this the TES article is potentially feeding this misleading line. Trans people have existed not just for decades but for millennia. Archaeologists have found evidence of trans people predating Christianity in Iran and in the Czech Republic. Anthropologists reported trans people, including trans children, existing amongst native American peoples long before Columbus.
This failure to contextualise is important. In Victorian times the number of left-handed people in the UK was around 3%. By the second world war that number had increased to more than 10%. No-one seriously puts this down to a “fashion”. The cause was the gradual lifting of cultural non-acceptance. The word “sinister” actually used to mean “left-handed”, and was in general use for left-handed people before the twentieth century. What we are seeing now is the same thing, it is not a “trend” but a gradual lifting of cultural prohibitions against trans people, in the same way that cultural taboos against left-handed people were removed in the early 20th century and against gay and lesbian people in the late 20th century. To characterise this as a “trend” or “fashion” is, in my view profoundly dishonest.
Given that the TT ‘guidance’ has all these problems, this raises the question as to why the TES has decided to recommend it over all the other, less controversial guidance, guidance produced collaboratively by multiple agencies and in consultation with people with knowledge and experience of working with and advocating for trans children. Indeed the article fails to mention the furore over the TT ‘guidance’ and how controversial it is. Ultimately I cannot see anything in the TT ‘guidance’ or the TES article that the worlds transphobe-in-chief Donald Trump would disagree with. The TT ‘guidance’ would also appears to contradict the TES’ article’s own advice;
“protect the privacy and dignity of trans students in the same way that you would any student and never gossip about them to third parties.”
which does not square with the TT advice that advocates misgendering a trans girl to another child.
No wonder Natasha Devon resigned: money can’t buy integrity. People may not have long memories but the internet does and dissociating oneself from a publication that advocates this kind of conduct towards a group of already marginalised and disempowered children demonstrates a rare integrity in the fourth estate these days. As for the TES, it has demeaned itself and shredded its credibility. A sad end to a once-respected publication.