Richard Dawkins loses the plot

Apparently, there’s a bit of a row going on over in the UK because Cambridge University is planning to impose a policy that would require Cambridge’s academics, students and visiting speakers to treat others and their opinions with “respect”. This is bugging a few people, who don’t want to respect others, and they want to change the word “respect” to “tolerate”, which is in itself a revealing bit of jiggery-pokery. I mean, really, asking people to treat others with respect is not an onerous demand: I’ve listened to creationists and Republicans speaking on campus, and managed treat them with respect even while regarding their ideas as horseshit, and being able to tear into them with questions. It’s not hard. It’s also a demand with a strange context.

Supported by the actor Stephen Fry, who read English at Cambridge, and Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering, Ahmed fears the new code could be used to stifle views deemed to be “disrespectful” on subjects such as transgender rights, anti-vaccination, religion, race or climate change. They fear it could lead to academics who satirise certain views being sacked.

Mock away! The only restriction I see that might be in place is that you don’t get to dehumanize people over their gender, their politics, their religion, or their race. What I see here is typical right-wing paranoia — a fear that they might be abused in the same way they abuse minorities.

As usual in these academic matters in the UK, we just have to get the opinion of Richard Dawkins. So he appeared on this radio program (skip ahead to the 1:44 mark to hear Dawkins), and just totally embarrasses himself.

The radio host brings up a message from a listener, Zoe. Zoe says “as a post-op transsexual woman married to a man and being a respectful member of society, I would hope to be respected as a person rather than being merely tolerated, otherwise incorrect assumptions and bigotry will thrive,” and akss what Dawkins would say to Zoe. This is his reply.

I would say if she wants to be called she, I am very happy to call her she. That’s a matter of courtesy. But if she wants me to say she’s a woman, when she has an XY karyotype, then as a biologist, then I would say that I would define a woman, as a biologist, as a member of the species Homo sapiens with XX karyotype. That’s a matter of definition. People can say what they want to be called, and I’m happy as a matter of courtesy, I do this myself, a person who was a man who becomes a woman, I’m happy to use pronouns like she, but I’m not happy to be dictated to and told that you must use this pronoun as a matter of law or coercion.

First problem: that doesn’t address the point at all! He’s rambling off on a tangent that has nothing to do with the issue brought up. Does he understand how someone might see “tolerance” as a minimal expectation? Zoe wants to be respected as an equal member of society, not as some aberration to be tolerated.

She’s not asking about what pronoun she’d prefer. He’s not being particularly magnaminous by conceding to address her as she wants, as if we should all appreciate his graciousness. This is minimal courtesy he is offering.

WHat does he do next? He offers some unasked-for pedantry, telling us how he, as a biologist, defines “woman”, as a way of saying that he does not regard Zoe as a woman. Very respectful!

He’s also wrong. “Woman” is a complex multifactorial entity, and it is not identical with “reproductive female”, as he is using it. As a biologist, I would not analogize womanhood with the function of one half of a breeding pair of fruit flies or spiders or zebrafish or mice. Furthermore, I would not make the mistake of correlating even that with a simplistic version of chromosome organization. A biologist should know better.

He’s not particularly consistent. He calls Zoe “a man who becomes a woman”, right after tellins us that she isn’t really a woman. He needs to get his story straight.

Finally, this petty declaration that he doesn’t like being dictated to…is he also being dictated to when polite convention tells him address a woman (even the ones he recognizes as a True Woman!) by masculine pronouns? No one is talking about legal impositions, and the only coercion is the same kind that compels us to behave in mutually respectful ways as members of a civil society.

So let’s get it straight: what the Richard Dawkinses and Stephen Frys want is to be able to exclude transgender men and women from their civil society.


  1. Ichthyic says

    wait… is this a reuse of a title from 10 years ago?

    because Dicky D lost the plot even long before that, IIRC.

    I expect him to come out as a Brexit supporter “and always has been” any day.

  2. says

    I feel like I’m missing something here. It doesn’t help that the original article is paywalled, but I can’t see where they make this leap from promoting respect for contrary opinions to gender issues. Does the new rule specifically say something about transgender people or is Dawkins just squawking BS again? It’s like they’re making a mountain out of a mole hill.

  3. llyris says

    It seems that there are certain people who won’t even follow the common courtesy of using someone’s preferred pronouns; you may think it’s a pretty low bar, but it’s too high for some.

    There are a lot of ideas I don’t want to treat with respect, so maybe there’s a point he’s trying to make, but he should have stuck to religion.

  4. says

    @#2, Ray Ceeya:

    The UK (and England in specific) is a hotbed of TERFism and general anti-trans-ness. It’s not just J. K. Rowling, it’s a whole bunch of major figures in media, academia, and government, most of whom are (wait for it) upper-class, rich, and white.

    This is important for two reasons:

    They are adopting rhetoric which is literally recycled from Nazi propaganda. (For example: there is a checklist they’re circulating about “how to recognize a trans woman” which is something like 95% the same as a Nazi checklist about how to recognize Jews.) This is not particularly surprising to anybody who has been paying close attention, because TERFs embracing outright Naziism is common enough to be a recognizable pattern.
    UK anti-trans activists are working to create astroturf anti-trans movements around the world. (For example, there has recently been a bunch of online national trans-exclusionary groups with names which were variations on “LGB Alliance”, uniting under the name “LGB International”. With the exception of the Spanish one, all of them had more members in the UK than in the countries they supposedly represented, and the UK one had nearly all its members in England.)

    It is important to take note that England’s deliberate regression is leaning towards Oswald Mosley.

  5. says

    US evangelicals went straight to churches around the world to seed homophobic propaganda. The transphobes of the UK were smarter – they took over “liberal” media outlets in parallel with the tabloids, and have run a campaign about as successful as the pro-brexit. Shit looks really nasty. Bad as it can be to be trans in the USA, the UK has officially made it far worse there.

  6. Silentbob says

    But if she wants me to say she’s a woman, when she has an XY karyotype, then as a biologist, then I would say that I would define a woman, as a biologist, as a member of the species Homo sapiens with XX karyotype.

    I would never ever presume to lecture Richard Dawkins on biology.

    *Ahem* oh excuse me.


  7. PaulBC says

    But if she wants me to say she’s a woman, when she has an XY karyotype, then as a biologist, then I would say that I would define a woman, as a biologist, as a member of the species Homo sapiens with XX karyotype.

    I would expect him to understand “as a biologist” that having an XY chromosome only leads to very high probability of developing into a male. For example, the 1 in 80,000 people with Swyer syndrome have an XY chromosome, and a normal female anatomy aside from infertility and a higher risk for certain forms of cancer. Swyer women can go through a normal pregnancy with donor eggs, and some have. Many are never diagnosed. Old news to people here, but still, how can Dawkins be so ignorant?

    It goes without saying that throughout history, some Swyer women have lived normal lives as women, without the exception of not bearing children,. The ability to karyotype does not suddenly prove this common sense definition “wrong.” It only shows Dawkins mistaking the map for the territory, which I though was something life scientists in particular were wary of.

  8. pengothylacine says

    This kinda thinking infuriates me, because when I’m meeting someone, or talking to someone, I’m not asking about their Karyotype. Could be anything. I evaluate people based on their minds. Whatever pronoun they want to use, whatever! Doesn’t harm me in the slightest. Genetics is just a base blueprint, there are hundreds of thousands of factors that modify development. The mind is what matters, because the mind is what we interact with. Not a bunch of chromosomes.

  9. chrislawson says

    @9: “Old news to people here, but still, how can Dawkins be so ignorant?”

    Dawkins is an intelligent professional biologist who wrote a book about the evolutionary interaction between genotype, phenotype, and environment. The only plausible explanation is that he chooses to be ignorant rather than abandon his bigotry.

  10. PaulBC says

    chrislawson@12 Or just lying, because though I’m not a biologist, I actually have some direct experience with Swyer syndrome, and it was pretty mind-blowing to me when I first heard about it (but actually made perfect sense once I head the explanation). If I ever once after that found such a “definition” based on karyotype escaping my lips, I would have corrected it immediately. Assuming Dawkins knows a lot more biology than I do (which seems a safe assumption) it is almost more believable that he knew what he said was not actually a “definition” at all but just something that sounds authoritative coming from him.

  11. drew says

    PZ, “regarding their ideas as horseshit” is not treating “their opinions with ‘respect.'”

  12. lotharloo says

    @The Vicar

    Thanks for the context. I was also feeling that I was missing some major context here.

  13. klatu says

    Let’s just note that by Dawkins’ standards every person needs to advertise which chromosome configuration they have and, presumably, whether they are in fact members of the species homo sapiens before they can be afforded respect. Uhm… good luck with that?

    Nah. Dawkins, like so many other great old whites, just wants to retain his freedom™ to be an asshole without ever having to suffer the indignity of being persecuted critisized by mudpeople dear muslima.

  14. chrislawson says


    Wrong. PZ even gave two clear examples of treating people with respect even though their ideas are horseshit.

  15. chrislawson says

    It took me ages to find the actual policy recommendations (despite the numerous media sources writing opinions on it, none of them seemed at all eager to link directly to the subject matter).

    The key links are here and here.

    Commentary follows…

  16. chrislawson says

    Now I’m going to say that I don’t agree with these policy recommendations (more on this in a moment), but it’s quite clear that the opposition to these policies as reported in media are a crock of shit. Here are the money quotes:

    “An active speaker programme is fundamental to the academic and other activities of the University and staff and students are encouraged to invite a wide range of speakers and to engage critically but courteously with them. This Statement and the Code provide the only mechanism by which the University can cancel or impose conditions on meetings or events where this action is deemed necessary as a result of the event’s subject matter and/or speaker(s). This is to ensure that the use of University premises is not inappropriately denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with their beliefs or views or the policy or objectives of a body (with the exception of proscribed groups or organisations) of which they are a member. However, all speakers should anticipate that their views might be subject to robust debate, critique and challenge.”


    “The University will not unreasonably either refuse to allow events to be held on its premises or impose special conditions upon the running of those events. The lawful expression of controversial or unpopular views will not in itself constitute reasonable grounds for withholding permission for a meeting or event. Grounds for refusal, or the imposition of special conditions, would include, but are not limited to, a reasonable belief that the meeting or event is likely to:
    •include the expression of views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are the views of proscribed groups or organisations;
    •incite others to commit violent or otherwise unlawful acts;
    •include the expression of views that are unlawful because they are discriminatory or harassing;
    •pose a genuine risk to the welfare, health, or safety of members, students, or employees of the University, to visitors, or to the general public; or
    •give rise to a breach of the peace or pose an unacceptable security risk.”

    Far from demanding Cambridge people bow and scrape to stupid ideas, this policy makes it abundantly clear that speakers should expect rigorous criticism and dispute if they appear on campus.

  17. microraptor says

    Society needs to start recognizing that just because someone was respectable at one point in their life is no guarantee that they’ll stay respectable thereafter. And once they stop being respectable it’s time to stop treating them like someone who’s worth listening to.

  18. chrislawson says

    The reason I don’t agree with this policy is it does nothing to address the problem of fringe groups hiring out spaces in prestigious institutions in order to pretend they have the blessing of that institution. An obvious example is the creationist evangelising meetings that were booked at the Smithsonian for the sole purpose of presenting a false image of scientific acceptance.

    With the proposed policy, Cambridge would be completely unable to block this kind of scientific reputation laundering because the only groups disallowed are those with officially recognised terrorist associations. That means allowing creationists, Flat Earthers, red-pill misogynists, climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, QAnoners, David Icke…essentially there is no bar for intellectual integrity. And while I understand the difficulties of making decisions about what is acceptable and what isn’t, it seems a lazy way out to have no standard other than “not a terrorist organisation.” (Even though I personally think many red-pillers are terrorists, there’s no official recognition of this in any nation afaik.) And after all, it’s not like these voices are being silenced; there are plenty of spaces off-campus where these groups can meet.

    The policy also insists that people with terrible ideas should face no discrimination in the workplace. Well, I accept the importance of academic freedom, but should we really be forced to keep academics on staff who actively undermine academic standards? History has shown we can confuse crackpots and revolutionary thinkers, but again, we need some sort of acceptable standard of academic discourse. The proposed policy seems to make that impossile.

  19. Bernard Bumner says

    Whilst I know that many trams fans were disappointed that Fry has continued to voice audiobooks for JK Rowling, the characterisation of him as want to exclude transgender men and women from civil society is just wrong.

    Like in his admiration for Dawkins, Fry seems to value the euphemistically robust exchange of ideas above much else, and that seems to be why he engages with those people. He is also prone to being charmed by pretty language and scholarly trappings. It seems to me to be a deep personality flaw, although some might argue that his willingness to debate and discuss in abstraction is a strength.

    However, he has been and remains a vocal advocate for trans rights. He regularly gives time to LGBT+ causes and is an important and prominent voice in the UK.

    His position on this code seems to be that, although it is well motivated, respect cannot be demanded by mandate. I think that is a rather dusty and academic privilege when there can be real harm done. But I think that imputing his motives in the way this post does is just not accurate.

  20. mudpuddles says

    @ Bernard Bumner, #23:
    Glad to see that pointed out. Fry has been a welcome, consistent and vocal supporter of trans rights for many years. Far from wanting to exclude trans people from society, he has campaigned for the opposite.

  21. Bernard Bumner says

    And on why transphobia has penetrated the mainstream in the UK, I must first admit that I don’t know much about the historical emergence of TERMS. However, having recently fallen out with a friend over it, and seeing how her concerns echo those mainstream talking points, I do have some ideas.

    It seems to me that the uptake of transphobic opinions by otherwise moderates is driven in no small part by a horrible and dangerous overcorrection in response to the UK’s failure to deal with violence towards women and children. I think that can be the only thing that leads the otherwise progressive or liberally minded people I’ve encountered to adopt those positions. I think that TERFs have used that as a jumping on point to groom social attitudes where there was already a great deal of energy to try to combat male sexual and physical violence towards others. Certainly, all that I’ve encountered started from a point of advocating against domestic violence or working with shelters and refuges.

    Everything after that point is dressed up in the language of concern and a gloss of social science that equates restrictions on trans rights with protection of women and children. Old and terrible rhetoric, which I think would have no traction if the UK hadn’t failed so long and so badly to protect vulnerable people. Particularly in high profile cases where celebrity perpetrators manipulated public perceptions to hide in plain sight. Perception has become badly skewed towards the notion that offenders are arch manipulators who will go to cartoonish lengths to commit abuse.

    That is sad because it ignores the reality of who commits most abuse. Sad that people who should know better from bitter personal experience buy into it.

    And I cannot exactly say why these ideas go unchallenged so often in the mainstream, and why there is so little discussion of what actually happens rather than fearful hypotheticals.

    Perhaps the UK is sadly more regressive and conservative than I hoped and feared. Possibly, that TERFs can exploit honest fears to perpetuate dishonest myths because UK society is receptive to the idea that giving rights to one group always requires sacrifice from another. That the smallest group in percentage points can unfortunately lose out and that is a price worth paying, because we can ultimately ignore those at the margins.

  22. raven says

    What I see here is typical right-wing paranoia — a fear that they might be abused in the same way they abuse minorities.

    The right wingnuts/fundie xians always oppose hate crime laws. Because their ideologies are based on hate and they know they will be caught up in them sooner or later.

  23. fergl says

    XY females already mentioned and you get XX males. Ok some Y chromosome genes can be found on one X but the karyotype as Dawkins uses is XX.

  24. says

    I do not know my own karyotype, because I never needed to know it. It is probably XY, but I do not know for sure. So how the fuck does Dawkins know the karyotype of some random person? He is a biologist, he definitively knows that karyotype is not binary and that even though its correlation with phenotype is very high, it is not 100%. So the only conclusion is that he is lying. What an epic asshole.

    However quick google search puts doubt on the saying that Stephen Fry wants to exclude trans people from society. He has been vocal on a number of occasions explicitly saying the exact opposite. He has flaws – as everyone does – he puts his foot in his mouth occasionally – as everyone does – and he seems to hold some contradictory views without realizing it – as everyone does – but to paint him as a TERF seems to be overly simplistic.

  25. ethicsgradient says

    Here’s a link to the controversial sections and proposed changes:

    It seems to me that the solution is to be respectful of people, and tolerant of ideas, ie

    “The University fosters an environment in which all of its staff and students can participate fully in University life, and feel able to question and test received wisdom, and to express new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions within the law, without fear of disrespect or discrimination. In exercising their right to freedom of expression, the University expects its staff, students and visitors to be tolerant of the differing opinions of others, in line with the University’s core value of freedom of expression. The University also expects its staff, students and visitors to be respectful of the diverse identities of others, in line with the University’s core value of freedom from discrimination.”

    Dawkins’ behaviour seems like a good example of not respecting a person. Hard

  26. Bernard Bumner says

    Dawkins simply wants everyone to trust in the decrees of R. Dawkins, renowned biologist.

    It is a shameless appeal to his own authority, and utterly at odds with the mission of the Professorship for Public Understanding of Science that he once held. Utterly self-absorbed elevation of his own opinion over proper description of a constellation of complex social and biological issues. He is purposefully misrepresenting science, but also in pretending that any academic description should be weighed against lived experience, he overvalues ideology and undervalues lives! It is nasty and pathetic.

  27. Allison says

    I can’t say I’m surprised. His persona seems to be a compendium of current UK bigotries. We’ve seen misogyny, islamophobia, racism, class prejudice, and I think homophobia and xenophobia are in there somewhere. (Have we seen anti-semitism yet?) Transphobia is just another one in a long list.

    Maybe he’s trying to be a new Ezra Pound.

  28. lanir says

    Respect in this context is easy.

    Debate and attack the ideas and not the person holding them.

    That’s it. Ideologies are up for debate because it’s a collection of choices people make. Gender isn’t nor are the various trappings associated with it. Those are about the person not their ideas.

    The reason that terrifies right wingers is because they like to separate people into a “real people” group and a “non-people” group based on qualifications that are not easily altered such as socio-economic class, gender and race. And the “non-people” group can be treated in any way you can get away with. I feel like any serious discussions about their ideology would eventually entail a discussion about why X quality should allow Y treatment. That’s an unwinnable argument for them because the treatment never has anything to do with the quality that supposedly justifies it. Different treatment is justifiable but the X and Y have to have a real relationship. Not aiming an ad campaign for menstrual products at trans women is treating them differently but the treatment follows from the quality. Deciding you won’t rent or sell goods to someone because of their race or gender but you’ll sell to everyone else is an example where the treatment does not relate to the quality you select for.

  29. C Sue says

    An ex-friend of mine tried to get into the whole “sex is binary and that is that” nonsense with me on my FB page. (And this person is an M.D., who really ought to know better, except I think she ignored any lessons on genetics. The only “lesson” she ever learned on that topic was “male and female created he them” bullshit.) One of my aunts was a hermaphrodite (not an accepted term now, but what I learned in the 70s) and was forced to have major surgery (in the 1930s) when she hit puberty because she started showing male sex characteristics. I mentioned this, and the M.D. tried to pass my aunt off (and every other non-XX/XY karyotype) as “well, there have ALWAYS been birth defects.” Infuriating. My aunt was not a defect. Aaaaand that was what got the M.D. blocked.

    Mind you, this was the same doctor who publicly referred to some of her patients as “lesbian crack whores,” so there’s THAT whole buncha bigotries, too. Aren’t fundies FUN?

  30. PaulBC says

    C Sue@36

    I mentioned this, and the M.D. tried to pass my aunt off (and every other non-XX/XY karyotype) as “well, there have ALWAYS been birth defects.”

    That’s infuriating, but typical.

    Reality is what actually happens. The rules we make up are rough guidelines to what we expect to happen. As soon as you refer to everything that contradicts your made-up rule as a “defect” you’ve closed out the possibility of comprehending reality. This is a classic “mistaking the map for the territory” fallacy, and when taken to extremes, the “solution” always involves “correcting” reality to match the map.

    The above is abstract, but clearly this fallacy causes a great deal of suffering to the people who don’t match your fake rules. The worst part is that it is carried out by many supposedly well-meaning or educated people. Some people really just hate not being able to box everything and everyone into categories.

  31. fergl says

    Sue. I deal with a lot of MDs and used to be surprised at their lack of knowledge in genetics. Sometimes with serious consequences for their patients. I realise now that they can think as strangely as the next person.

  32. jacksprocket says

    Go out and shake the hand
    Of someone you can’t stand,
    you can tolerate them if you try..

    Tome Lehrer

  33. PaulBC says


    I realise now that [MDs] can think as strangely as the next person.

    Not that I didn’t understand the general point, but I still found it mind-blowing when Ben Carson speculated that the Egyptian pyramids may have been grain silos built by the biblical Joseph.

    Before Carson achieved professional buffoon status, he wasn’t just some random doctor, but a super star pediatric brain surgeon. It goes to show how narrow a specialty can be, and no, there is absolutely no reason to expect an MD to think rationally outside their specialty. (Note: I actually like most of the doctors I interact with.)

  34. DanDare says

    There are a lot of ideas I disrespect and people I merely tolerate.
    I expect universities to have some minimal bar on ideas that can be presented under their auspices. Antivax, antitrans, creationist, global warming denial, conspiracy theories being promoted earnestly by a uni speaker should be right out. Its not like there aren’t enough other things to present. Talking about those bad ideas might be worthwhile however.

  35. says

    Funny enough, people like Dawkins are remarkably silent when the UK <a href="; actually imposes limits on free speech and free exchange of ideas
    It’s a dog that doesn’t bark a hell lot of times, but always and ever when old rich white men would be forced to treat people who are not rich old white men or Ayaan Hirsi Ali with some respect.

  36. naturalistguy says

    In U.K. news earlier today:

    Puberty blockers: under-16s ‘unlikely to be able to give informed consent’
    NHS says clinic has suspended new referrals after pair, including woman who took blockers, win court case

    Children under the age of 16 considering gender reassignment are unlikely to be mature enough to give informed consent to be prescribed puberty-blocking drugs, the high court has ruled.

    Even in cases involving teenagers under 18 doctors may need to consult the courts for authorisation for medical intervention, three senior judges have ruled in an action brought against the Tavistock and Portman NHS trust, which runs the UK’s main gender identity development service for children.

    An NHS spokesperson welcomed the “clarity” the decision had brought, adding: “The Tavistock have immediately suspended new referrals for puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones for the under 16s, which in future will only be permitted where a court specifically authorises it. Dr Hilary Cass is conducting a wider review on the future of gender identity services.”

  37. Bernard Bumner says

    Puberty blockers: under-16s ‘unlikely to be able to give informed consent’

    That is a really difficult case because it naturally rests on a narrow question of law as to when a child under 16 is competent to give informed consent to medical treatment. And of course, we recognise many different aspects of life where we don’t think children are generally competent to give informed consent, but there is also a large body of precedent around when medical consent can be presumed to be informed. I’m not surprised that the judgment was in favour of the Claimants.

    I think that the court deciding that the question of treatment is worth their time in future is probably a broadly positive outcome in what might otherwise be an utterly bleak judgment for some transgender children. At least the court decided that some children may be mature enough to be capable of giving informed consent, and the court should grant time to consider those cases. It is just a shame that it will take time expense and of course a great deal of resilience from the young person to have to test their capacity in court (and without any guarantee of success). The court also decided that 16 and 17 year old should be presumed to be able to give informed consent, which was not necessarily a given.

    A copy of the judgment can be found here. It reads as soundly and sensitively reasoned, from a legal perspective.

  38. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    I’m sorry. I’m trying to be progressive here, but I don’t get it. If someone expresses a very wrong-headed opinion, it would be against their policy for me to show disrespect? What is disrespect exactly? Can I say to a COVID-19 denier “your opinion is foolish, and you are a fool” ? That seems to be prohibited by the policy.

    To paraphrase (almost exact quote) the great Dan Dennett, there is no respectful way to say “Good sir or ma’am, have you considered the possibility that you’ve squandered away your life on a lie (religious activities and beliefs)?”.

    I don’t get it. It seems like a bad policy. It seems like a bad policy to require respect for differing opinions, and it seems like a bad policy to require respecting people who hold bad opinions.

  39. Aoife_b says

    Plenty of ink is spilled worrying if kids will regret going on blockers, but the TERFs own arguments admit that the vast majority of kids on blockers go on to transition. So much worry about the “irreversible effects” of blockers, but very little about the equally difficult to change effects of puberty

  40. logicalcat says

    I’m with @45 Gerrard here.

    Its a bad policy. Whats respectful or not is highly subjective and can and has been used by assholes to preach bad ideas. Am I the only one who remembers that? When these people wanted to have their ideas respected and cried about campus censorship because we all had enough of their shitty unverified ideas?

    Maybe I’m missing something because the position has now reversed. Maybe the purveyors of bad ideas won that culture battle and are now trying to silence dissent. I’m not in college anymore so I don’t know. I think we are ceding the point to the bad guys that their ideas are merely “disrespectful” as opposed to just fucking wrong and stupid.

  41. Bernard Bumner says

    @46 Aoife_b – true, but that is an effect of the narrow legal question at play, which the court says is “…not deciding on the benefits or disbenefits of treating children with [gender dysphoria] with [puberty blockers]… That is not a matter for [the court]…”

    “The sole legal issue in the case is the circumstances in which a child or young person may be competent to give valid consent to treatment in law and the process by which consent to the treatment is obtained.”

    So unfortunately the question is not whether the potentially irreversible effects of blockers is a greater benefit than the potentially irreversible effects of puberty. It is a question of whether the child or young person is able to give informed consent to a medical procedure with potentially irreversible effects.

    History may well judge that society failed transgender children here, but the court is constrained to consider only the question of the law.

  42. Silentbob says

    @ 48 Bernard Bumner

    No I’m sorry, that court decision was entirely political. There are no irreversible effects of blockers – that’s the whole point. They are to prevent irreversible changes, natural or induced,  from occurring until a person is old enough to give informed consent.

    In the judgement you’ll see that more than once the judges noted that puberty blockers are used to delay precocious puberty in 7 or 8 year olds, but dismiss that as completely different. It’s not! They are used to delay puberty in both cases in the exact same way. The fact  they don’t care about young children being prescribed the exact same drugs for the exact same purpose – as long as they’re not trans – shows this is a political decision.

    And it’s a fucking tragedy, pardon my language. The UK already had horrendous waiting times for trans youth healthcare. This decision means all gender dysphoric youth will be forced through the puberty to which they are dysphoric, despite that being know to be associated with an increase in dysphoria, anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and a future need for harmful breast-binders and risky surgery.

    I’ve already heard of trans youth who are not out at school (that is, passing) who will now be forced through the wrong puberty – an outcome both personally and socially devastating.

    That decision sucks, basically is what I’m saying. :-(

  43. Bernard Bumner says

    I’ll respectfully disagree that the judgment is political. It is just that reality is not well served by a bland and narrow question of law. The purpose of the comparison to use of puberty blockers in cases of precocious puberty is to establish what evidence is available for reversibility. What the court is weighing there is not the relative benefits. And the court also notes that, in any case, even accepting an analogy with the use of blockers in that scenario it doesn’t help here. As the court notes, the Trusts themselves accept that children receiving treatment for precocious puberty are too young to be able to give informed consent. It goes back to that central question. That will be a personal tragedy to many effected, I don’t dispute. And that is heartbreaking and must be addressed.

    Whether or not the judgment is political, the entire could however all be solved politically by changing the law. If there was a legal duty to perform that balance from a starting point that treatment is the default, then that would change the calculus.

    I’m certainly not arguing that the UK doesn’t need to urgently change how it supports its young transgender people. I fear that society right through to government is hostile to what is needed, and that lives will continue to be broken and lost until that changes. And I’m sorry for that.

  44. klatu says

    From an article in January (emphasis mine):

    Nobody would deny a child with asthma their inhaler, or refuse cancer treatment for a child with cancer, she said, yet some parents express reservations about puberty blockers. When they do, she reminds them that these drugs can be a “life-saving option.” Some estimates show suicide attempts among the trans community as high as 40%. Other estimates have shown it’s twice the rate of their peers.

    By not allowing their child to use these drugs, that is not a neutral option,” said Forcier. “This is why this paper is so important. This access is associative into adulthood and is important for safety. We know that access can offer protective effects. This is something that will help a parent keep their child safe.”

    Seriosly, how is this complicated? There is no argument whether chemo-therapy should be a legally accessible treatment for children with cancer. Even if they may not fully understand what that entails. Yet giving them puberty blockers beforey they’re useless is somehow off the table. When doing so could save lives and when there is negligible risk of irreversible harm? Of course this is political. The law is political and always has been.

    @Bernard Bumner

    It is just a shame that it will take time expense and of course a great deal of resilience from the young person to have to test their capacity in court (and without any guarantee of success)

    That is precisely the fucking point, isn’t it? Making access to services more difficult. It’s weaponized bureaucracy and it’s been used for decades around the world to deny people basic dignity and freedom (if only statistically and not legally).

  45. Bernard Bumner says

    @53, klatu,

    I agree that it needs to change. But you also have to understand that the court can only rule on the question of law put before them. They were not assessing whether blockers are beneficial because that was not the basis of the claim, they were assessing whether in law children can provide informed consent given the nature of what they are being asked to consent to.

    The judgment clearly explains what that question was.

    Government needs to urgently address the law, because the courts cannot invent new law based on what the law should be.

    The court could have remained silent or said that they don’t think the court should accept cases to determine if children and young people have capacity in specific cases. That is why it is a tiny positive in a bleak overall outcome. But I don’t think they erred in law.

    I think that the UK as a society has failed these children and that is what needs to change.

  46. Bernard Bumner says

    And I understand everyone ‘s frustration and anger. You’re right, but I think the target needs to be different.

  47. says

    Having read the Bell vs Tavistock judgment, it can best be described as unfortunate.

    Tavistock has been remiss in data gathering and follow up. Part of this is due to the principle that it is unethical to continue a 2 steam trial, placebo vs therapy, when the benefit of the therapy becomes obvious at an early stage.

    The intense distress and suicidal ideation associated with not providing “puberty blockers” is too obvious. On the other hand, puberty blockers alone do not suffice to cure GD, psychological tests show no improvement in anxiety, they just stop things from getting vastly worse, very rapidly.

    It would be highly desirable for the trust to expedite the gathering of this data, as the courts do not seem to give much credibility to such studies conducted outside the UK. Such studies could not have been started in the UK as until very recently, puberty blockers were not prescribed until age 16.

    The court hypothesised, without a shred of evidence, that administration of puberty blockers caused patients to seek cross sexed hormones later. This could be tested by administering puberty blockers to a cohort of children without a GD diagnosis, and measure how many requested cross sex hormones later. Highly unethical – unless puberty blockers were required for another reason, say, to alleviate precocious puberty. There is zero evidence of such patients going on to request cross sex hormones later. It is an unevidenced conjecture, yet the basis for the court making no distinction in competency requirements between stages I and II.

    Conversely, only the highest standards of proof for there being no significant side effects of puberty blockers are demanded. In view of this, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion of a double standard being applied.

    Existing evaluations and commonwealth caselaw dealing with this issue are not mentioned in the judgment, it seems the learned judges attention was not brought to them, nir the extensive medical evidence underlying them.

    ” In Re Jamie (2013), the Court (Family Court of Australia) overturned the law requiring an adolescent and their family to seek the Court’s approval to commence puberty blockers (Stage I) prior to the child turning 18 years old, provided the parents and the young person’s medical practitioner were in agreement.

    Four years later, the decision in Re Kelvin (2017), enabled young people to commence gender-affirming hormones treatment prior to age 18, without the Court’s approval. In this case, the Court did not comment on how a young person seeking to access gender-affirming hormones may do so if their parents were in dispute about the matter.

    The effect of this was that “stage 2” treatment was deemed therapeutic and was treatment for which consent no longer lay outside the bounds of parental authority (or required the Court’s approval) (reversing the position in Re Jamie). Re Kelvin also determined that, in respect of stage 2, if the child, the parents and the medical practitioners agree a child is Gillick competent, there was no need for the Court to determine Gillick competence (reversing the position in Re Jamie).”

    Source; Trans children and the right to gender-affirming treatment: The case of Re Imogen,

    The testomony of multiple adult witnesses that puberty blockers had literally saved their lives was mentioned, but no weight was given to it, nor was it discussed in any way. It was discarded, and apparently the learned judges viewd anyone with GD as suffering from a severe mental illness, their testimony not credible. The restimony of the complainant, who at age 20 so presumably Gillick competent, hsd had a mastectomy on the other hand was deemed reliable.

    Political? Such a conclusion is difficult to avoid.

    Right now, I am most concerned about the effect of this case on patients with 5alpha reductase deficiency or 17beta hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase deficiency. 5ARD and 17BHSD, Such adolescents are born looking female, but masculinise. This may induce GD or cure it. In the third of cases where the gender identity is female, and GD is induced, treatment initially using puberty blockers, then surgery, then feminising hormones and surgery is required.

    See for example RE: SALLY (SPECIAL MEDICAL PROCEDURE) [2010] FamCA 237

  48. Bernard Bumner says

    @56, zoebrain,

    I appreciate your reading, and clearly much greater insight into the issues than mine.

    “The testimony of the complainant, who at age 20 so presumably Gillick competent…”

    The claim was that the decision and reaction at age 20 is meant to speak to the claimant’s competence at age 15 when they started treatment. The Gillick decision is only relevant to children under 16, isn’t it?

    The court notes that case is not a tort action relating to those specific facts and that it won’t resolve any dispute of facts in that case. It is only recording the account.

    My reading, and I accept that others may be much better qualified and can correct me, is this. If a double standard emerges as the court seeks to weigh the nature of the treatment for which consent is being sought, then it is because the court recognises that that giving blockers is not a neutral process.

    It considers on the other hand that blockers which prevent the child “…going though puberty in the normal biological processes” (which sounds totally offensive, but might be best read as “unperturbed”) prevent “physical and consequential psychological changes that contribute to the understanding of a person’s identity. The court accepts the argument that using blockers may potentially itself be determinant of someone’s eventual accepted identity.

    I’m not qualified to understand whether that is true or not, not specifically or generally, and I’d appreciate any insight. It sounds like a simple truism that also obscures a complex reality, because no-one has a control self and everyone deserves to be contented in their identity whatever their journey to that point is.

    It does mean that the court then decides that the use of blockers might itself lead to patients inexorably towards taking cross-sex hormones. That seems like a leap, but again, it might also hide a much more complicated reality. We can all recognise that correlation and causation are not straightforward. And does it matter, since we routinely don’t bother to evaluate how other decisions taken by and on behalf of young people can lead to complicated and unpredictable outcomes? We care about whether people feel happy and content.

    The court doesn’t have that discretion here though, because it isn’t being asked to and doesn’t offer a judgment on the benefits or disbenefits of blockers. What it is asling is whether the treatment meets the test of Gillick.

    Basically, I acknowledge that this is not a good outcome for many people, and I hope there is either an error that be corrected or that UK law changes to properly support.

  49. says

    @57 Bernard Burnner

    ” If a double standard emerges as the court seeks to weigh the nature of the treatment for which consent is being sought, then it is because the court recognises that that giving blockers is not a neutral process.”

    True. Giving blockers is not a neutral process, though it is as close to one as we can come.

    The problem is, and this the learned judges did not give sufficient weight to, is that not giving blockers is also not a neutral process. Pubescent changes proceed inexorably, and in advance of the child’s likely competence to agree to submit to the natural course of events.

    That these changes are “natural” does not really help. In the case of 5ARD, 17BHSD, and rarely, other situations such as 45X/46XY MGD, 3BHSD etc they cause a sex change. A natural one.

    Most children are not Trans. The Natural change causes them little if any distress. Boys with 5ARD or 17BHSD welcome the relief from Gender Dysphoria, their bodies no longer are in discord with their gender identity.

    For the girls with 5ARD etc, the unexpected and socially unacceptable change causes very intense distress indeed. Trans girls have had years to get used to their Gender Dysphoria, the natural change without blockers just intensifies the misery. With 5ARD etc, the change is a catastrophe, and psychological effects often even more severe.

    The learned judges seem to have assumed, contrary to the great mass of evidence, that Transsexuality is a mental illness, an undesirable psychological disorder to be eradicated, and not a physiological variation. I doubt they read the paper below, nor had it brought to their attention..


    Sexual Hormones and the Brain: An Essential Alliance for Sexual Identity and Sexual Orientation Garcia-Falgueras A, Swaab DF Endocr Dev. 2010;17:22-35

    The fetal brain develops during the intrauterine period in the male direction through a direct action of testosterone on the developing nerve cells, or in the female direction through the absence of this hormone surge. In this way, our gender identity (the conviction of belonging to the male or female gender) and sexual orientation are programmed or organized into our brain structures when we are still in the womb. However, since sexual differentiation of the genitals takes place in the first two months of pregnancy and sexual differentiation of the brain starts in the second half of pregnancy, these two processes can be influenced independently, which may result in extreme cases in trans-sexuality. This also means that in the event of ambiguous sex at birth, the degree of masculinization of the genitals may not reflect the degree of masculinization of the brain. There is no indication that social environment after birth has an effect on gender identity or sexual orientation.

    This paper over simplifies by necessity. Neither gender nor sex are strict binaries. Both are somewhat socially constructed, gender to a great degree, sex to a much lesser one++ but both have an objective physiological component. Perhaps 20% for Gender, 90% for Sex. But I digress, when debating whether the Earth is round or flat, stating that it is not spherical but an oblate spheroid can confuse rather than enlighten.

    Transition currently often involves surgery (with associated risk. No surgery, even a tooth extraction, is entirely risk free). Hormones are essential for the patient’s lifetime to avoid bone loss. While gametes may be stored, and there are promising procedures for womb transplants, fertility is always lessened, sterility the current norm. So I can understand that there are good arguments that it should be looked on as a last resort, not the first.

    On the other hand, transitioned patients do not endure such misery that death is a blessed relief to them. All too often at their own hand. All too often before they leave their teens in the most extreme cases. Sometimes the last resort has to be the first, on humanitarian grounds.

    ++ Extraordinary claims like this one, that sex is partly socially constructed, require extraordinary evidence. For that I refer you to
    Submission to the SCOTUS in re Gloucester County School Board v. G.G – interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth, et al.

    My thanks for your kind words. It is bizarre that one has to have some expertise in endocrinology, genetics, neuro physiology, psychology, medical imaging, law in multiple jurisdictions, and even theology just to argue for basic human rights. But it is what it is.

  50. Bernard Bumner says

    zoebrain – thank you for taking the time to provide a very detailed response. I will, of course, take some time to understand it as best I can.

    My instinct is that recognising that blockers are not neutral, but presumimg that allowing events to take a “natural” course is, will not amount to an error in law. Even if it is an injustice in a moral sense and in effect.

    I hope that this is a temporary situation and that those in power will do the right thing, but of course that will still take a cost in suffering and long term health impacts. Not that even setting this one thing right will make each journey simple.

    In the meantime, again thanks for the rich response, and I will take time to understand it.