Looking back on her time in the “gender critical” feminist movement, [Amy Dyess] is unequivocal: it’s a cult.
A cult that groomed her when she was vulnerable and sleeping in her car; a cult that sought to control her, keeping tabs on her movements and dictating what she could and couldn’t say; a cult that was emotionally and sexually abusive towards her.
As Amy began to notice more and more red flags about the GC movement – like how it defended abusive women, how it wouldn’t let lesbians speak out about sexual assault perpetrated by women, and how it was forming alliances with homophobic groups – she started asking questions.
I definitely stuck a pin in this article when it popped up in my feeds. And yes, it’s old news by now, but I’m surprised so few people have discussed the central conceit: is the Gender Critical movement a cult?
[CONTENT WARNING: TERFs, sexism]
On the surface this may seem like mere rhetorical flourish; we often call things we don’t like “cults” as a sort of guilt-by-association. While people definitely do that, I think there also is a legitimate type of thing we can call a cult which is similar to, but distinct from, a religion.
I used to define religions and cults as a set of beliefs and rituals that were predicated on a falsehood or contradiction, and distinguished cults from religion by arguing the latter is what happens when these persist for multiple generations. Around the time of Proof of God, though, I started to shift to another definition: “religion is [a] social structure that benefits members by policing group behavior via a supernatural justice system.” Belief is just a MacGuffin for most (but not all!) believers, in reality religion is primarily about social control. This can be directed inwards, as per the supernatural justice system, or outwards towards non-believers. It’s a good thing I shifted, too, as that old definition considers science a religion.
The addition of social control creates an alternative dividing line between religions and cults. Say you’re a leader in the Church of England: how do you attract new members, and keep the flock you have? Name recognition isn’t a problem, the CoE have about 10,000 churches scattered across the United Kingdom, and claim to have 25 million members. When you’re big enough to go toe-to-toe with multinational corporations, your answers to these questions look like any other committee-produced steering document.
When you’re a small group of maybe a dozen people, however, you can’t toss millions of pounds toward building new churches. You’ve got no name recognition, no money, and the loss of even one person can be devastating. Your tactics will have to be much different, with a strong emphasis on deceit and coercion.
It took a while but now I realise it’s like any toxic relationship. If you go on a first date and somebody hits you, you don’t go on a second date. But they start with the romance, they seduce you, lure you in and that’s what they did.
Then what happens is they start giving you so many tasks that so much of your time is consumed in the group that you start distancing yourself from friends, family and activities you loved. Without realising it, my support structure started to disappear and the groupthink started to set in.
Then, after the two-year mark, they started introducing self-doubt.
Deb says one thing stands out about abusers: it’s as if they’ve studied some kind of domestic abuse handbook. “They all have the same tactics. So, for example, they may not come out and say, ‘I don’t want you seeing your friends, or having hobbies, or being around your parents,’ but they’ll just make it hard. Like, ‘What do you want to see them for? I don’t think they’re good for you.’ And eventually women go it’s just all too hard, because they don’t want the fight. So that’s how it starts over time … And then your world gets smaller. And then if the perpetrator becomes your main frame of reference, which is what happens, it’s very much like a cult. Because you’re essentially getting your main input from him.’”
But if we use the degree of abusive tactics as the dividing line between religions and cults, this creates a new problem: what’s the dividing line between cults and domestic abuse? It can’t be devotion to a specific leader, and in fact it may be possible to generate a cult without a leader.
[33:41] Like, if you don’t have a leader, can you just find yourself an authoritarian and treat him like one? And if he doesn’t give you enough directives, can you just make some up? And if you don’t have recruiters, can you find a conservative who speaks in thought-terminating clichés, mainly just because he thinks they win arguments – or find a conservative who speaks in meaningless diatribes, because he genuinely thinks he’s making sense – and then maneuver those speeches and videos in front of the people you want to recruit? If you’re sick of waiting for Moses to come down the mountain with the Word of God, can you just build your own God from whatever is handy? [For] every piece of this structure, you can find people, algorithms, and arguments that, put in a sequence, can generate disorganized attachment whether they’re trying to or not, which makes every part plausibly deniable [and] debatable. You just need to make it profitable enough for the ones involved that they don’t try to fix it. This is a system created collaboratively – on-the-fly, with the help of a lot of people from hate movements past – mostly by throwing a ton of shit against the wall and seeing what sticks.
Ian Danskin faced this problem when drawing parallels between the alt-Right, abuse, and cults; while traditional cults do have an obvious leader, there’s no such thing in the alt-Right. Leaders there can rapidly pop up and disappear, with little effect on the overall movement. His solution was to separate the process from the people, that it doesn’t matter if one person or twenty tries to (for instance) isolate you from a group via hate speech, so long as you are isolated. This too can be applied to TERFs.
As much as I love Danskin’s video, he never deals with the domestic abuse/cult distinction. As luck would have it, though, my old definition holds the key. In domestic abuse, the abuser does not claim to be a prophet, nor capable of raising the dead. Religion, in contrast, must always have a false or unproveable claim of some sort at its core, even one as minimal as deism. This allows us to come to a new, hybrid definition: a religion is a social structure predicated on rituals and behaviours that depend on at least one false or unproveable assertion about the world, which uses mechanisms of social control to benefit its members. A cult is a religion that extensively uses abusive tactics to recruit and maintain members.
With a definition of “cult” in hand, we can follow along with Danskin and tick boxes. TERFs make a number of false and unproveable assertions: sex is binary, violence is exclusive to men, and a small cabal of “transgender activists” have conspired to brainwash progressives into thinking otherwise. TERFs are not open to counter-arguments. There’s quite a bit of othering of transgender people, ranging from the extremes to even the mainstream. I still find it wild that in an article supposed to refute myths, some leading Gender Critical scholars spent over 700 words fearmongering about transgender people being inherently violent. They use an invented fear of transgender violence to rally the troops, and to excuse some of their own glorification of violence and verbal abuse. Harassment of perceived opponents is common (one example). “Humour” that punches down and is more about sharing in-group memes than being funny? Check. TERFs love meaningless diatribes, and while I’ve only blogged about one I’ve read several. Amy Dyess fills in the rest of the boxes.
“And that’s when she found me on Twitter,” Amy says, referring to the woman who brought her into the GC movement and had, perhaps, the most influence over her.
“She just noticed and she followed me, she started DMing with me,” she says. Months later, they met in person. “She kept riling me up – she would periodically check in to try to keep me radicalised or on point with the movement,” Amy says. “And we had these international lesbian leadership group chats.”
“She would try to get everybody on the same page about word choices. Like instead of saying ‘trans activists are anti-gay’, maybe say ‘extreme trans activists’.
“And they sold it and packaged it in a way that a fair-minded person would actually listen to some of their approaches.”
To be fair, it is quite dangerous to rely on a single testimonial. Thankfully, I have secondary confirmation.
So Prick News has finally revealed I am a cult leader that traffics vulnerable young lesbians to the UK & matches them with a mail-order bride. And Talcum X is delighted it has all come out. I would like to extend my apologies to the whole of Twitter for my outrageous behaviour. — Julie Bindel
I still can’t get over this Tweet. Bindel outs herself as the anonymous leader above, doesn’t deny anything in the article, but then brushes it off as if being abusive towards someone is no big deal. “Talcum X” is a slang term for Shaun King, but Bindel uses it to refer to Owen Jones. Apparently calling Bindel “anti-trans” and arguing that watching porn is generally OK is the equivalent of fighting for social justice while being a bastard. Note as well that “Talcum X” is an invention of the far-Right; there are also liberal critiques of Shaun King, but they don’t call him that nickname. Finally, Bindel admits all this and… nothing happens. There’s no self-reflection, in fact nobody seems to take the allegations seriously at all. Bindel keeps on being Bindel, raving about “misogyny, enabled by ‘progressives‘.“
Oh wait, I think I know why TERFs didn’t take this seriously. The story was published by “Pink News,” an LGBT+ news site that supports transgender people’s rights. As a part of the out-group, it can be safely mocked and the messenger freely shot.
Yesterday, award-winning investigative reporting news centre for important international and legitimate news, Pink News, published a brave tell all about a lesbian who escaped the “gender critical” cult. I was blown away. I had a lot of questions, and even more answers: first and foremost, why had I never been invited to join an international network of powerful lesbians? Was it because I wasn’t a lesbian? Rude, either way.
I realized that, all along, while I was travelling to various cities to explain to people that “men are not women” and “you cannot change your sex through declaration,” I had actually been brainwashed. I wasn’t fighting for women’s rights, I was being groomed into a cult. A cult of women who liked to have rights and go to the pub.
If you have been around gender critical circles in the last few years, you may already be familiar with Amy Dyess and her reputation. Writer Vic Parsons either did not Google Dyess, and therefore does not know she has issues, or does not care whether Pink News prints false or defamatory material.
Both explanations speak to the everyday level of journalistic integrity at the website derisively known as ‘Penis News.’
Set aside the entire argument between gender ideology and its critics for a moment. Answer this question. What would happen to a serious journalist, working at a serious outlet, who put the words “international network of powerful lesbians” in an article and seriously described them as a “cult,” but who based that statement on a single, unreliable source with a grudge and a long track record of insane statements?
As for me, I think Dyess’ claim is worth taking seriously.
[HJH 2020-06-15]: When writing that paragraph about Bindel, I suspected that she didn’t try to deny her connection to Dyess because Bindel knew Dyess could prove otherwise. I’m kicking myself for not including that in the final draft, because it turns out my private guess was bang-on:
In case you didn’t know, I’m reviewing 30K screenshots of my time working with gender critics. I left that movement. PinkNews wrote an overview of my experience, but I’ll soon tell my story. I’ve chosen to censor names in this thread because the point is to show the thoughts.
Dyess drops a few examples above. For instance, Dyess states this message came from a chat just after the White House proposal to define transgender people out of existence in October of 2018:
our group chats right now are: fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. I almost sent you a screenshot. Because we were going to send out 7000 emails about self ID today to all the unionists, Uni professors, teachers, schools and counsellours see
and we emailed every single politician last night quite an important email about self-ID… so timing wise this hitting major news is bad for our campaign. Obviously fully out of our control, but super inconvenient just with the timeframe we’re working in.
This part does restore some of my predictive ability.
TERFs know enough about feminism to know it’s heavily engaged in activism. If they look at transgender rights through an activist lens, the steady increase in tolerance is a major problem. Whatever they’re doing to raise public consciousness isn’t working, and redoubling their efforts isn’t going to be an effective use of time and money. Instead, the smarter choice is to concentrate on swaying the people who hold the levers of power. […] In the United States, conservative far-Right groups hold tremendous sway over how the government is run. […] And, as luck would have it, these groups are already transphobic and eager to collaborate.
If I’m reading this correctly, Dyess’ group was lobbying those who hold the levers of power against legal recognition of gender identity. Their success in this depends heavily on their ability to appear as part of a progressive feminist organization, with their messaging carefully tailored to promote that appearance; having the same arguments come from a government body captured by the regressive far-Right, invoking differently-tailored messaging, threatens to break the illusion. Some of the group were stopping their activism campaign, to wait until the discourse was more favourable. Others weren’t, and thought the news could be used to their advantage.
Person 1: We need to wait for the actual proposed regulations. Not a “leaked” memo. And remember [two] things…there will be a period of public comment… ie, [public] discourse to get feedback. And also remember the proposed regs. are [a] starting point for negotiation, so that any changes can be seen [as a] concession, initial extreme positions are common. It is like making a lowball offer on house. You know that you are not going to end up there as a settled price… best to stay calm and not buy into the frenzy.
Person 2: Agreed. We need more info.
Keep a close eye on this story, there’s still more to come.