Trans rights: a short case study in how the media spreads misinformation

Here’s an interesting example of how misinformation spreads through subtle misrepresentation of the facts.

‘Party refuses to let ‘gender-critical’ woman join’ reports The Times (£):

The Liberal Democrats have told a “gender non-conforming” woman who does not accept that humans can change sex to join another party.

This is accurate. The woman in question wrote an email to the Liberal Democrat’s, describing her views on transgender people and stating “I do not believe people can change biological sex.”

Someone from the Liberal Democrats responded. They recognised that the woman’s views on transgenderism were at odds with party policy, and politely told her she would be better off elsewhere.

But look how this exchange was written up by columnist Jenni Russell in the same newspaper four days later (£):

Jo Swinson claims anyone questioning trans rights is challenging human rights; this week her party said voters who don’t believe humans can change biological sex should vote elsewhere. 

They said no such thing. They said that someone who was opposed to transgender rights should probably not join the party. They did not engage her in whether humans can change biological sex, because the Lib Dem policy on trans rights does not depend on that assertion.

(Nor, for that matter, did they say that people who don’t believe humans can change biological sex ‘should vote elsewhere.’ They said that one particular woman should probably not join the party.)

Unfortunately, the incorrect and more fantastical version of this story will be the one that is shared by those opposed to transgender rights (and by those opposed to the Lib Dems).

I’ll paste a link to this blog post into the timeline of anyone I see has shared the inaccuracy, but that will have minimal impact. Those who are antagonistic to trans rights won’t bother fact-checking.

Note also the manufactured nature of this story. A ‘gender critical’ activist proactively baited a political party into suggesting that their views probably did not align with hers. The exchange was never in good faith. Instead, it was concocted precisely so it could be posted on MumsNet, the “ground zero for anti-trans organising in the U.K.” It was then picked up and distorted by one of the more socially conservative newspapers.

I’ve looked, but I cannot find examples of transgender activists claiming that it is possible to change biological sex.

And why would they? It’s impossible for humans to change biological sex. Our X and Y chromosomes are hardwired. Trans people and their allies know this.

Instead, transgender activists claim that gender and biological sex are different things, and that the former need not depend on the latter. This is a very different conceptual claim.

‘Trans women are women; but they’re not biologically female.’ Among those who support transgender rights, this is not a controversial statement. We should not perpetuate controversy by pretending that it is.

6 Replies to “Trans rights: a short case study in how the media spreads misinformation”

  1. Hi Rob.

    Yes, I was aware of this particular case, and I refrained from sharing because I suspected there was an element of ‘baiting’ going on.

    However, I’m a little concerned by the framing of your argument.
    “those opposed to transgender rights”, “those who are antagonistic to trans rights ” etc. In my experience, simply raising the fact that Self-ID can, in some cases, be problematic when protecting women’s sex-based rights is not inherently “opposed to transgender rights”. And yet the framing of this post suggests you believe it is.

    ‘Trans women are women; but they’re not biologically female.’ is a nice catchy phrase until you have to decide who qualifies as ‘female’ in competitive sports for example. Or women’s prisons. Or women’s refuges.

    1. Thanks for this. Yes, my phrasing is torturous and (I see now) unsatisfactory. I guess I was just trying to avoid using the phrase TERF, but I’ve probably made it worse in the way you suggest.

      ‘Critics’ ot ‘skeptics’ might have been simpler and better, though others would no doubt object to such gentle framing.

      ‘Trans women are women; but they’re not biologically female.’ is a nice catchy phrase until you have to decide who qualifies as ‘female’ in competitive sports for example. Or women’s prisons. Or women’s refuges.

      Yes we do, though as a man with no experience of being a woman, or being in prison, or in a refuge, I’m anxious not to pronounce on what sex-based rights I think could be modified to accommodate trans people, and which can not.

        1. There’s a lot going on in the discourse. The transgender people I speak to find that people who raise “concerns“ over self ID very quickly revealed a fundamental objection to the idea of trans-people at all. I have seen such discussions degenerate into quite unpleasant name-calling of trans-people. Many trans people have come to see the discussions over self ID as faux concern.

          One thing I’d like to see in the discourse is some data on the extent of the abuse of self ID. I am sure that there are men who abuse the system in order to gain access to women’s spaces. But how numerous are they, compared to trans-women who make genuine, legitimate use of those spaces?

          There’s a single famous case of a rapist being placed in a women’s prison for example, and I don’t see why such cases cannot be dealt with on an ad hoc basis.

          1. I am sure that there are men who abuse the system in order to gain access to women’s spaces. But how numerous are they, compared to trans-women who make genuine, legitimate use of those spaces?

            This sounds like you are prepared to risk the safety of vulnerable women because there are more cases of “genuine, legitimate use of those spaces”. I’m not sure I agree. It’s not good enough to create a system which allows predatory men to abuse vulnerable women and accept that is a price worth paying for self-ID.

            And I’m not sure I agree that self-ID doesn’t have a huge role to play here. These discussions were simply not being had before the proposal.

            For the avoidance of doubt, I absolutely support trans women, who have transitioned, to access these spaces. And I am *not* suggesting any correlation between trans women and predatory behaviour. What I *am* saying is that we *know* some men will go to extraordinary lengths to gain access to vulnerable women and we must make sure that any system in place has water tight protections for any such scenario. However, whenever I see this argument raised, all I see is TRAs claiming bad faith and suggesting we are comparing trans women to predators. Screaming TWAW is not a sufficient response to such concerns.

          2. “Risk the safety of vulnerable women” – I wouldn’t put it like that. Not least because the rejoinder from TRAs is that you would “risk the safety” of trans women by sticking them in a men’s prison.

            Rather, I think that it might be possible to resolve this particular conundrum by putting ad hoc measures in place. That could be either
            a) By default trans women go into men’s prisons unless a case-by-case decision is made to the contrary; or
            b) By default trans women go into women’s prisons, unless a case-by-case decision is made to the contrary.

            Which is the default and which is the exception would depend on which kind of incident is higher – men abusing self ID to gain access to a women’s prison; or trans women coming to harm in a men’s prison.

            But this is tangential to the main point of my original post, which is about a very specific claim about TRAs from people who are critical of their approach. I don’t think we need to take a view on self ID in prisons, or how people compete in sports, for us to see that the Times’ sloppy journalism is wrong.

            You’re right about TWAW. It has unfortunately become a mantra. Even if we accept that definition, it doesn’t persuade anyone who doesn’t already believe it.

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