Trying to figure out why so many TERFs are British, I think this answer hits the nail on the head.
The answer lies in part to the coalescence of a certain set of ideas in a very specific circle of voices in the early 21st century — voices that later went on to hold high profile positions in much of the U.K.’s print and broadcast media.
I’m referring here to the U.K. Skeptics movement of the early 2000s. Despite the fact that it was basically a loose network of people who were far too impressed with themselves for not believing in astrology and homeopathy, they have an outsized legacy. The movement consisted largely of groups meeting in pubs and organising talks promoting a specific brand of scientific skepticism and concerned primarily with the “debunking” of alternative medicine and pseudoscience. So far, so niche, but there is compelling evidence that suggests that both the ideological basis and some of the specific proponents of U.K. skepticism in the noughties are implicated in the spread of transphobic thinking into the mainstream media in this country.
While claiming to be the country’s foremost critical thinkers, the group was riddled with anti-humanities bias and a fetish for a certain kind of “science” that it held to reveal a set of immutable principles upon which the world was built with almost no regard whatsoever for interpretative analysis based on social or historical factors. Part of this mode of thinking was an especially reductivist biologism: the idea that there are immutable realities to be found in our DNA, and if we just paid enough attention to Science and stopped trying to split hairs and discover meaning over in the superfluous disciplines of the humanities, then everything would be much simpler. It’s precisely this kind of biological essentialism — which skirts dangerously close to eugenics — that leads people to think they can “debunk” a person’s claim to their gender identity, or that it should be subjected to rigorous testing by someone in a lab coat before we can believe the subject is who they say they are.
I saw the same thing in US skeptics, of course. But there was something fundamental going on that is also reflected in the British school of evolutionary biology, represented by Maynard Smith and Dawkins, that totally embraced reductive explanations and adaptationism, vs. the American subset led by Lewontin and Gould, who fiercely opposed eugenics and detested the arrogance of thinking biology could be reduced to a catalog of alleles. My experience may also be colored by the fact that there were several prominent UK skeptics (at least, I was told over and over that they were big names) who I had to ban here because they were persistently obnoxious and insistent that there are only two sexes/genders because “biology”.
Then there’s the outcome of all this activity by bigots claiming the mantle of science — some people actually believed them.
Tracey King, a skeptic activist who credits herself with establishing American-style organized skepticism in the U.K., has pointed out that the movement collapsed in the last decade. She attributes this to some good reasons (turns out it was full of sexists, which the rise of social justice concerns helped bring to light.) But these voices did not go away; many of the figures who made up the movement are now prominent voices at one level or another. Helen Lewis, for example, is the deputy editor of the center-left political magazine the New Statesman, and has promoted a barrage of anti-trans articles. Julie Bindel at the Guardian and elsewhere has a well-documented history of transphobia.
Then there’s Graham Linehan, a formerly beloved high-profile comedy writer who has recently been given a warning by police for directly harassing trans women online. Imagine if Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld suddenly started a social media hate campaign against a particular group of people that took up most of their time and you had to accept that was just part of your reality now. It feels a bit like that.
I met Linehan — he came to one of my talks in Dublin. Then, I was quite pleased to see him, but now…oh god what kind of wanker was I inspiring/being inspired by?
By the way, Seinfeld has been a loud voice whining about PC culture on college campuses — if I were him, I’d be wondering why smart young people no longer find him funny, rather than blaming it on a contrived slogan like “political correctness” — but at least he hasn’t carried his obsession as far as Linehan has.