A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from Medium, saying that my account had been suspended because it was in violation of their rules on hate speech. I’m an academic, who has been using Medium since October 2018 to post public essays related to my research. In my nearly two years on the platform, I published 35 essays. Medium offered no explanation of how my essays constituted hate speech, and denied my appeal.
This is not the first time I have been kicked off a major online platform on the basis of unexplained allegations of hate. In 2019, I was suspended from Twitter, with the allegation that I violated their rules against hateful conduct. Although I appealed multiple times, my appeals were always denied and no justification was ever given.
I am a political philosopher and feminist researcher. In 2018, the UK ran a consultation over changes to their Gender Recognition Act, proposing to shift to a model of sex self-identification. Other countries introduced similar proposals, including New Zealand, where I’m from, and Australia, where I live. This issue struck me as having huge ramifications, especially for women, and yet many women were acting as if it were either a complete non-issue or as if anyone who suggested there might be something to discuss here was an appalling bigot.
Within my discipline, the conversation about the possible conflict of interest between women and people with “female gender identities” took centre stage after philosopher Kathleen Stock posted an essay on Medium asking why philosophers had been so silent on the issue. This was, she said, a perfect opportunity for public philosophy—so complex and controversial—where was everyone? Her essay provoked a chorus of denouncements from apparently progressive men and women who deemed it transphobic to ask these kinds of questions.
The new orthodoxy on sex and gender is that a person’s “gender identity” should replace sex as the relevant feature for social and legal purposes. In the Australian state of Victoria, where I live, legal sex can be changed by statutory declaration, and “gender identity” is protected under the federal sex discrimination and state equal opportunity laws. The main body dispensing advice about the application of anti-discrimination law in my state considers gender identity to take precedence in any conflict between protected attributes and therefore permits exemptions allowing women’s single-sex spaces and services to exclude males, but not males with “female”/”woman” gender identities. This means that people who were born male, raised as male, went through male puberty, were socialised as male and may be physically indistinguishable from any other male can now expect to be included in every public female-only space, service or provision (the only exception in my state is for competitive sport). Any goods that were secured by the fact that these spaces, services and provisions were female only will be compromised by this law, which makes them mixed sex. For example, male people with “female”/“woman” gender identities can now access the services of a charity set up for elderly lesbians, and if that charity attempts to remain female only, it will face legal challenges and loss of government funding.
In my Medium essays, I joined Kathleen in asking questions about this new orthodoxy and exploring issues that are supposedly not up for debate. I presented an analogy with racial ancestry to try to explain what is objectionable about identifying as a sex that you are not. I made the case against gender neutral bathrooms. I asked whether it’s actually possible to change sex. I explained what ContraPoints gets wrong in her video “Gender Critical” (which has more than 2.5 million views). I criticized the analogy between being a transwoman and an adoptive parent. I wrote about what gender identity is, and the diversity in the trans community, which is completely invisible to the public, and how merely self-identifying trans people are riding on the coattails of transsexuals in accessing the legal protections of the opposite sex. I argued that gender identity activists are crossing the picket line when it comes to feminist liberation projects. I wrote about how gender identity is a new term for an ancient and widely discredited philosophical idea. I asked how males with gender identities can possibly know they’re women, given the anti-woman propaganda our culture produces. Many of these essays provided starting points for my academic work.
The more I learned about the proposed legal changes, the more I became convinced not only that they were a bad idea, but that part of the reason why they were met with so much initial apathy and later controversy was due to the failures of a feminism that subscribes to the following beliefs: that sex is a social construct; gender is an identity; feminism is for everyone; multiply disadvantaged people are more oppressed than others; feminism should be about the most oppressed; the more advantaged should defer to the more disadvantaged; and choice is the most important value. Such a feminism will end up accepting that males with gender identities can be “women” and belong within feminism, and not see any issue with dismantling sex-based rights.
All of this made me want to retrace feminist footsteps, to see what went wrong, when and why. Back in the 1960s, at the start of the second wave, when radical feminist theory and activism began to emerge, it was clear that “woman” is a sex class: a social group whose overlapping common experience depends on aspects of the woman’s sexed body and the way she has been treated in virtue of that sexed body throughout history. Somewhere between the third wave and now, feminists lost sight of the importance of the body, and the importance of allowing women to define ourselves, rather than letting men define us. Rights and protections previous feminists struggled for are now being cheerfully given away. Worse, many feminists actively ostracise women who suggest that we should hold on to our rights, and think carefully about why we have them, what interests they serve, and whether it’s really a good idea to relinquish them in favour of “gender identity.”
I am one of a handful of academics around the world trying to write against the dominant feminist ideology. I have been vilified by some colleagues and students, and my views are considered so hateful as to be worth removing from the public domain entirely. Those views are that it’s not possible to change sex; that it’s okay to be attracted to people on the basis of sex rather than gender identity or gender expression; that gender identity isn’t a good candidate for a legally protected attribute; that sex should remain a legally protected attribute and not be reconceptualised to include gender identity; that women-only spaces should continue to operate on the basis of sex, not gender identity; and that women’s sports should operate on the basis of sex, not gender identity.
I am probably seen as discriminating on the grounds of gender identity. But I do not. I discriminate on the grounds of sex, against males, regardless of the “gender identities” to which they may lay claim. I do that because there’s insufficient empirical evidence that gender identities are anything more than a progressive gloss on a huge number of different things, virtually none of which warrant protection as the opposite sex. I am discriminating in exactly the way that is generally permitted under the law, which is to say, I advocate for the exclusion of all males from particular female-only spaces, services and provisions, because such facilities advance the interests of a disadvantaged social group, namely female people, who have still not achieved full equality with male people.
The motivation of companies like Medium and Twitter in removing accounts like mine, it seems, is to make the platforms more inclusive. The reasoning is that if certain kinds of speech are allowed, that will drive away people who are hurt, insulted or offended by that speech. But if we want a truly inclusive platform, we have to curate an environment that everyone can feel welcome participating in. We should kick some people out, if their speech makes others feel unwelcome. That makes perfect sense in cases like vilification on the basis of race or other morally arbitrary characteristics. The problem is that platforms like Medium and Twitter assume that “gender identity” should be on the list of protected attributes, alongside race.
But “gender identity” has nothing like the long and difficult history that exists for race. There have been terrible atrocities driven by racial hatred, involving huge numbers of people, sometimes dividing nations. Still, one might argue, homophobia doesn’t have a history of the same magnitude, but we still feel justified in trying to protect against hate speech targeting lesbian, gay and bisexual status—gender identity could be more like this. That might be plausible if the attribute were something more concrete, like being transsexual. But “gender identity” extends all the way to the subjective identification of a person who is indistinguishable from any other person of his sex. The result is preposterous: a woman is “hateful” because she refuses to believe that a male person’s claim to have a female/woman “gender identity” makes him literally female/a woman.
Good candidates for prohibited speech include slurs, dehumanising language (e.g. comparisons to animals or insects) and claims about moral inferiority or denial of equal moral standing. But gender identity activists claim that the accurate use of sex terms like male and female, woman and man is transphobic, that not using a person’s preferred pronouns or name is transphobic and that saying things like lesbian means a woman who is exclusively attracted to women is transphobic. Adding “gender identity” to the list of features you’re trying to protect and then deferring to gender identity activists on what kinds of speech count as hateful means forcing all platform users to capitulate to an ideology that is at odds with science and undermines important feminist projects.
Silencing women whose feminism is based in material reality is like silencing atheists because of the demands of a fringe religion. It is the suppression of competing ideas, masquerading as a civil rights moment. It is not clear whether platforms like Twitter and Medium understand what they are doing or have simply fallen for the propaganda. It wouldn’t matter so much if they didn’t each have a virtual monopoly, but they do. Many professionals are expected to have Twitter accounts; being prevented from having one makes a huge difference to one’s ability to connect with other people and share information and ideas. Medium is the go-to platform for essay writing and it’s much easier to disseminate work from there than from private websites. So what Twitter and Medium do has serious implications for public discussion.
It’s time for these platforms to reconsider their values. As liberals, we value the free exchange of ideas. We do not silence everyone who disagrees with us. We commit to having difficult conversations, even conversations in which feelings will inevitably be hurt, because we value truth and knowledge, and we know that we cannot achieve it in intellectual silos. When you find yourself suppressing the speech of left-wing feminists because they think that being female matters, you have taken a misstep. There are plenty of outstanding questions about “gender identity” and the best way to protect it. This is an issue in which women are a significant stakeholder. We should be part of the discussion. I can think of no other case in which one marginalised group has claimed the rights of another marginalised group. But that is happening right now, and many progressives are treating it as an open and shut case that women should simply shut up and take it. Medium, Twitter and other digital platforms should stop abusing their social power to force the conclusion of this debate in a way that prioritises the self-expression of males over the interests women have in sex-based rights.