Over the last few years, mainstream acceptance of gender identity ideology has grown rapidly. It seems like every week, another media outlet, student union, Ministry or educational organisation is strengthening its commitment to “trans rights”. This commitment often precludes any possibility of critical discussion, since the ideology is so rigid.
As the climate becomes increasigly hostile to any kind of questioning, hesitation or challenge, injustices that bear the mark of inconvenient truth go by largely undiscussed. A Northland teenager received little attention for speaking out about the damage that gender transition did to her earlier this year. Wealthy New Zealander Gavin Hubbard took a Samoan woman’s weightlifting medal, in front of a similarly apathetic media. That same media was happy to trash Laura though, a teenage girl from Marlborough who wanted to be consulted when her Girls’ College changed their bathroom policy.
There is much to be concerned about here. It is concerning when romantic, essentialist ideas gain rapid traction in organisations we rely on to have robust, evidence-based public debate. It is concerning that the essentialist ideas about gender becoming more commonplace today, actually have the potential to sublimate girls and women out of legal existence, and that girls and women are being scapegoated and demonised for raising critiques or objections. Perhaps most concerning is that all this is taking place through the vehicle of a thoroughly medicalised ideology.
Seeing this ideology move so quickly, while it is characterised by medical experimentation, pseudoscience, romanticism and routine scapegoating, has lead me to pick up a copy of Robert Jay Lifton’s 1986 book The Nazi Doctors. Those characteristics sound familiar, and I want to see if Lifton’s book has anything to reveal about where the trends that I am witnessing stem from, and where they might be leading.
This does not mean that I have any interest in accusing anybody of being or acting “like a Nazi”. I am neither reading, nor writing, in order to accuse or intimidate; my intention in exploring these connections are much the same as Lifton’s were in writing his book. He wrote it in part because of what mystifies so many of us about the Nazi era. Its doctrines became so widely acceptable, with such relatively little vocal dissent, that it is very difficult to characterise the era in terms of inherently “good” and “evil” people. Lifton says that the decisive factor was a transformation undergone by doctors, “from healer to killer”. This went hand in hand with public acceptance of doctrine, through brutality and propaganda.
“Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to dictatorship,” writes Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent. “We live entangled in webs of endless deceit,” he says, “in a highly indoctrinated society where elementary truths are easily buried.” This is why we need to be vigilant in our response to sanctioned ideas that are sentimental, but not robust – popular ideas that are rigid and hostile to questioning, romantic, essentialist and pseudoscientific, can be dangerous. The doctrine of gender identity is all of these.
First of all, gender identity doctrine is rigid and hostile to questioning. The fundamental notion on which proponents tend to be totally unmoveable, is that “transwomen are women”. This means that the gender identity claimed by anyone male bodied has to be accepted. If a male declares he is female, that is gospel. As far as I can see, this is the most non-negotiable and commonly shared bottom line in transactivism. Anyone who questions it is told that they are putting lives at risk, in ways like this:
We know that people’s experience of having their natural selves invalidated, be that by their family, or society more generally, can have fatal consequences.
Interestingly, “transmen are men” is a line I rarely see, a reflection of the fact that men have the most power and influence on public discourse, and the majority of people who opt for gender reassignment surgery are male.
The idea that men can just “switch” gender is justified through pseudoscience. Sometimes the argument goes like this:
The gender they identify as is different to their biological sex.
At other times, gender and sex are the pretty much the same, but divorced from the body, so that, for instance, a penis can be female based on identity. There are also arguments that biological sex simply does not exist at all – that it is a debunked myth. It’s a moveable feast, and partly for that reason, is often packaged in high stakes, romantic language. This is the language of life and death, but also freedom of expression, “living life to the fullest”, “validation”, belonging and acceptance, and love.
The pseudoscience itself too, is generally essentialist, meaning that it rests on defining gender as an unspecified, but deterministic essence. This is a statement from an Auckland-based sexual health physician:
What we do appreciate now though, is that your gender identity seems to be decided before you are born. So that your journey in life is fundamentally decided before birth. Gender identity seems to be something that is a biological thing – so perhaps it’s affected by genetics, or hormones, rather than something that happens after we are born, so we don’t think that parenting styles or society pressure is determining what your gender identity is.
Nazi doctors were also enamored of essentialism, as Lifton writes when he defines the word Volk, which referred to
the union of a group of people with a transcendental ‘essence’… which might be called ‘nature’ or ‘cosmos’ or ‘mythos’, but in each instance… was fused to man’s innermost nature, and represented the source of his creativity his depth of feeling, his individuality, and his unity with other members of the Volk.
It is perhaps mere coincidence that transactivists often refer to “trans folk” – but this sounds very much like the way that gender and gender identity is discussed today, as a spiritual, transcendental essence and life force.
What this romantic essentialism justified, for Nazi doctors, was medical experimentation. Lifton talks about the “National Socialist breakdown of the distinction between research and healing, since the results of the work of the researcher are for the benefit of the Volk.” There we have a definite similarity to transgenderism. This is a testimony from “Lisa”, a New Zealand male who went to Bangkok for gender reassignment.
I had surgery about three years ago. I hoped that it would make me feel totally complete, as a “woman”… so I could get on with my life and start enjoying it… the surgeon pretty much stuffed things up. Sometimes I can be sitting here and next thing it’s like someone’s got a knife and just starts stabbing me. I instantly knew it was wrong, it was kind of like I got hit by a big truck. I had to come back here to New Zealand, where there was nothing they could do for me.
This is anything but an isolated incident. As Janice Raymond writes,
A not-so-incidental by-product of this particular medical theodicy is the enlargement of medical knowledge about manipulating organs of the body which specifically function to define biological sex. This, of course, works to the ultimate benefit of the sadistic side of the theodicy, enabling medical research and technology to acquire a specialised body of scientific knowledge on the manipulation of human sexuality that probably could not be acquired by any other accepted medical procedure.
Nazi doctors are reported to have carried out experimental reassignment surgeries on Holocaust prisoners. They also practised systematic sterilisation – of which gender reassignment is a variety – as part of a wider eugenics project. The Nazi Doctors also pioneered non-surgical methods of mass sterilization, and today, young people who take a course of puberty blockers followed by cross sex hormones are indeed sterilised non-surgically.
This practice is justified by the idea that “trans” people need this kind of intervention to survive, and it is on that basis that transactivists lobby for the increased availability of hormone medication and reassignment surgery in New Zealand, too. As Lifton writes,
We may say that the doctor standing at the ramp represented a kind of omega point, a mythical gatekeeper between the worlds of the dead and the living.
There are also commonalities between who the Nazi doctors, and who gender identity doctrine, selects as subjects. Primarily, it is those who do not conform to a racial ideal, in the former case; and gender norms in the latter. Nazi doctors also sterilized people because of mental illness like schizophrenia, manic depression, epilepsy and hereditary alcoholism, and they pathologised and sterilized homosexuals. When a Northland teenager recently spoke out about her detransition and the harm that gender transition did her, I was not surprised to see that she is both lesbian, and a sufferer of mental illness. This is consistent with international trends, and an example of why this doctrine and practice is being labelled gay eugenics, by critics.
Consider too that Lilac, Wellington’s lesbian library has been targeted by transactivists because the idea of female same-sex relationships is not valid under a gender identity model, where a male can identify as lesbian and sex is either an oppressive or a debunked idea. When gender is an essence, too, and not a heteronormative social system, lesbians are often seen as candidates for transition to “boys”. Gender conformity for women is based on having to groom oneself for the male gaze to be socially accepted – lesbians have probably the least interest in conforming to this norm of any woman, today making them targets for sterilisation.
When transactivists target places like lesbian libraries, the routine is to practice scapegoating and reversals. Lesbians are often accused of violence for insisting that males can’t be lesbian, because, as my early quotation stated, questioning identity is fatal. Another group frequently targeted are midwives and women’s health practitioners, which is what lead home-birth midwife MaryLou Singleton to be kicked out of the Midwives Association of North America (MANA), which she challenged for its capitulation to the demands of transactivists, who have insisted that MANA remove all references to “women” from their advocacy, to decouple the language of womanhood from the language of reproduction. Because men can give birth.
Under the Nazi regime, Jewish doctors were subjected to similar projections. While “claming” to be a healer, the Jewish doctor was said to have “threatened innocent Aryan girls with physical harm, rape, or abortion, undermined pure German womanhood, and was the enemy of the Aryan racial revitalisation.” Women-identified women – lesbians, midwives, abortion rights activists, workers at domestic violence shelters – are all subjected to these kinds of threatening projections, reversals and accusations of violence if they do not capitulate to a gender identity doctrine, and accept that womanhood is an essence, and not a material reality.
With the stakes high and the pressure on, this doctrine is quickly taking hold in New Zealand. Many doctors, counsellors and sexual health physicians accept it, and encouraging this further in the medical profession is a pillar of transactivism. Despite the movement’s direct threat to homosexuals, rainbow organisations are at the forefront of gender identity lobbying, and the Human Rights Commission, Mental Health Organisation, along with all university student unions have accepted gender identity doctrine.
The rainbow organisations and student unions are perhaps the most zealous, so what Lifton says about student activists sounds somewhat familiar.
[M]ilitant behaviour from the National Socialist Student League, which organised early, soon came to dominate or replace traditional student groups and formed an arrogant subculture with intense camaraderie and more than a tinge of violence. Its members broke up lectures that displeased them, and understood their task as opposing all teaching that was not rooted in National Socialist doctrine.
“No platforming” is the term used now for the aggressive shutting down of feminist writers, thinkers and academics by student transactivists.
The rapid uptake of gender identity ideology is allowing us now, to watch unmoved, or even congratulatory as a well-known media personality and psychologist promotes state supported, corrective, genital reassignment surgery for an otherwise healthy, young person suffering depression on nationwide television. All we need to know, it seems, is that this teenager suffers depression and does not conform to gender norms, and we will support medical intervention, too.
Lifton comments that there was also remarkably little opposition to sterilization when it was practised in the early stages of the Nazi era.
We need to start asking questions.