Joyce Activated, Issue 1
My road to writing about trans ideology has been long and winding. In my 20s I took a B.A. in mathematics from Trinity College Dublin, and earned a distinction in Part III Mathematics from Cambridge. I went on to gain a PhD in mathematics from University College London (my thesis was entitled “Packing measures, packing dimension and the existence of sets of positive finite measure”, in case you’re wondering) and undertook several years of post-doctoral study before deciding that academia was not for me.
I then spent several years working in public understanding of mathematics, as co-editor of Plus, the magazine of the Millennium Mathematics Project at Cambridge, and founding editor of Significance, the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society. I joined The Economist in 2005, initially as education correspondent, writing for the Britain section, and have been at the paper ever since, in various capacities.
My interest in the notion of “gender identity” dates from 2017, when I was asked to write about the rapid rise in the number of young people identifying as trans. It took me a while to think through the consequences of regarding this ineffable essence, something like a sexed soul, as the primary characteristic that determined whether someone was a man or woman—or indeed something else, such as non-binary, gender-neutral or pangender. But I was immediately, let us say, suspicious. Since we humans are mammals, we come in two and only two types, namely male and female. And those categories have deep evolutionary significance, having arisen on Earth more than a billion years ago. They didn’t seem like something we could ignore or redefine without consequence.
I had so many questions, and when I started to search for answers, I was only left with more questions. Where did the idea of gender identity come from? When did people first start to claim that being a woman didn’t simply mean being an adult human female? How did the distinction between the notions of “sex” and “gender” evolve? When did some people decide that everyone has an innate gender identity, and that it is your gender identity that makes you a man or a woman, no matter which of the two sorts of body you have? How on Earth does anyone think that sex is a spectrum, or a social construct?
And, above all, why was asking this sort of thing so verboten? Until what seemed like half a minute ago, everyone knew what men and women are, and no one pretended not to. The very idea that someone who actually was, in material reality, either male or female could in some sense really be the other would have seemed nuts. So why wasn’t I allowed to talk or write about this new idea that had come from seemingly nowhere?
I had been a journalist at that point for well over a decade, covering plenty of tricky topics, from political corruption to paedophilia, in various tricky places, including South America. And yet I had never received anything remotely like the response I got when I asked standard journalistic questions of the sort that any reporter worth their salt would naturally ask about any such a fast-moving social change or sudden ideological shift.
Questions such as: what does it mean for women if women-only spaces start admitting male people who identify as women? What does it mean for gay people if sexual orientation is now defined as depending on the gender identity—not the sex—of the people you regard as members of your dating pool? And what does it mean for children if we tell them that they are boys or girls according to which category they think fits them best, and when the only objective information they are given about the two categories is suffused with sex stereotypes?
In late 2018 I met some “detransitioners”—people who had identified as trans, undergone medical and in some cases surgical self-alteration, and then changed their mind. And finally I became certain that what by then I had started to call “gender-identity ideology” was no ivory-tower thought experiment, but a self-contradictory and totalising thought system with serious real-world consequences. The detransitioners I met first were all lesbians, who had been misled by their early and intense experiences of gender non-conformity into thinking that they were really boys, a conviction that led them to major medical interventions that they now regretted.
In the run-up to their trans identification those young women had suffered from a host of other issues, including eating disorders, depression and anxiety, trauma from early sexualisation or abuse, and autistic-spectrum traits. But no one had suggested they slow down and explore what might have led them to identify as boys or men. Instead they were told that if you think you’re trans, you must be, and the only possible outcomes are transition or suicide.
Everyone from teachers to friends (both real-world and online) to medical professionals had told them that it was possible to be “born in the wrong body”, and that the sole solution was a medical pathway that leads to major surgeries and lifelong medicalisation, reliant on cross-sex hormones, with limited sexual function and irremediably sterile. Not all of them had gone the whole way before turning back; but some had. I remember listening in horror to young women talking about having undergone hysterectomies in their late teens and early 20s, only to wake up as if from a nightmare a year or two later wondering what on Earth they had been thinking.
That was when I realised that this ideology was leading to what I now believe is the 21st century’s greatest medical scandal. And so I decided to write a book. It took some time to find the right agent and editor, but in mid-2020 I managed, and after that everything went surprisingly smoothly. “Trans” came out in July 2021, just a year after my proposal was picked up by OneWorld, and the reception was beyond anything I could ever have hoped for. The book spent four of its first six weeks in the Times non-fiction bestseller list, got rave reviews in a huge number of publications and finished 2021 in several newspapers’ lists of the best books of the year.
Until March 2022 I worked full-time at The Economist, most recently as Britain editor. It was a wonderful job at a wonderful publication—one which, unlike so many others, has remained sane in the face of the latest fashionable unreason. Several of my colleagues were, and still are, writing intelligently and courageously on issues to do with gender-identity ideology, including the scandal unfolding in paediatric gender clinics and the absurdity of including male athletes in female sports. But I felt very strongly that there was somewhere else I needed to be. And so I have taken a leave of absence to work with an exciting new human-rights organisation, Sex Matters, co-founded in 2021 by Maya Forstater.
I had met Maya in 2018 before she lost her job at the Center for Global Development, a Washington-based think-tank that had uncritically signed up for the new orthodoxy on sex and gender. She was, and is, a thoughtful, reasonable and generous person—but not someone who goes along with nonsense for the sake of an easy life, or who can be intimidated into keeping quiet about failures of governance or policymaking by the implicit threat of retribution. Her measured remarks on social media about the dangers inherent in the British government’s proposals to introduce “gender self-identification”, that is, to allow anyone who wants to change the sex on their birth certificate pretty much at will, led me to reach out to her for a discussion—and, not long afterwards, led the CGD to deprive her of her job.
Since then, Maya has spent three years battling her ex-employers through hearing after hearing in employment tribunals. Along the way she has established a legal principle that is both enormously important for women’s rights and utterly obvious: that it is acceptable in a modern, secular, liberal democracy like Britain to hold so-called “gender-critical beliefs” (roughly speaking, that humans come in two sexes, male and female; that those sexes are immutable, and that acknowledging the reality and immutability of the two sexes is important for everyone’s rights and wellbeing, but most especially for women’s).
Maya and I have since become friends, and as I sometimes say to her, though I’m sure she will achieve many great things in the future, none will be as significant as losing her job in 2019. As I write this, in April 2022, she is awaiting the outcome of her latest hearing. This will determine whether it was in fact because of her gender-critical beliefs that the CGD deprived her of her job, in which case she will be due compensation, or whether it was for some other reason.
When Maya asked if I would consider working for Sex Matters as Director of Advocacy, I didn’t have to think about it for long. I foresee great things for the organisation, and I want to play a part. It is one of several impressive grassroots groups that are stepping up to rectify the failures of established campaigning charities, such as Stonewall and the Fawcett Society. The first of these has allowed gender-identity ideology first to weaken and then to destroy its mission of working for the good of same-sex-oriented people. The second, named for Suffragette Millicent Fawcett, whose most famous saying is “Courage calls to courage everywhere”, has dwindled into cowardly irrelevance, unable to advocate in any meaningful way for women, since that group now, in its opinion, includes men.
The other appeal of going freelance is that it gives me the time and freedom to do write in my own voice and under my own name (The Economist has no bylines). I’m in the early stages of planning my second book, and expect to write for a wide variety of journalistic outlets. But central to my new life will be this newsletter.
Joyce Activated is where I plan to keep abreast with what is happening in this strange cultural moment, to do my thinking aloud for my next book and, above all, to keep connected with people who found that my first one explained something about our times that had made them feel confused, angry and afraid, and who appreciated that explanation.
I’m figuring out how it will work as I go. But I can commit to writing at least one post a week. Subscribing is £5 monthly, or £50 for a year. And if you subscribe for a year, I’ll send you a signed paperback copy of my book, due out May 5th with a new foreword and afterword (free P&P inside the UK; we’ll work it out if you’re elsewhere). I also plan to arrange Zoom meetups for my yearly subscribers. I hope that my work to date makes it seem worthwhile to join me on this journey.
To receive future issues, become a subscriber to Joyce Activated.