How to stage a study: The transgender lobby in British academia

An enormous amount of money has been thrown at academics who are using public funds for political activism within a dishonestly formulated project.
Julian Vigo Italy

Six researchers from the UK have recently been awarded a grant by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) for a project entitled “Reforming Legal Gender Identity: A Socio-Legal Evaluation,” which runs from May 2018 through April 2021. This project is funded by the ESRC for £579,717 with the remaining 20% of funding coming from the host institution, bringing the total research funds to £724,000. This is an enormous amount of money for a research project whose aim, according to the project website, is to delineate these four aims:

  1. To critically explore different ways of reforming legal gender status, focusing on England and Wales, while drawing on experiences in other countries, the different legal approaches taken towards other social characteristics, such as religion, disability, ethnicity and sexuality, and the views of activists, policy-makers, NGOs, lawyers and the wider public.
  2. To contribute to ongoing policy and political discussions relating to current legal reform proposals, while taking a longer-term approach.
  3. To understand different people’s hopes and worries in relation to both the current legal framework and different approaches to legal reform.
  4. To contribute to broader discussions about the changing character of gender and the contribution law can make to how it is changing.

Headed by Davina Cooper, Research Professor in Law at King’s College London, this project questions if “we still need a legal gender status at all” while conterminously making the claim that the “project will draw on experiences in other countries, the legal approach taken towards other social characteristics, such as religion, ethnicity and sexuality, and the views of activists, policy-makers, NGOs, lawyers and the wider public.” All this seems rather ambiguous and ill-defined given that the entire research team does not define its terms on its website regarding gender or sex and it consistently demonstrates a lack of understanding of the somatic, or corporeal, in relation to sex. After all, what does it mean to engage the “changing character of gender” when this terminology has not at all been agreed upon nor clearly defined within the project itself and this term is used as a surrogate to sex, even to annex sex entirely?

I requested a copy of the grant proposal from the ESRC which informed me that they “do not disclose grant applications.” I also wrote to Davina Cooper, the Principle Investigator for this project, and never received responses to my questions regarding the projects phases and more specifically, the troubling obfuscation of terms used in the survey which does not bode well for a project of this budget and with such wide-flung aspirations within the sectors of policy and law. Cooper did write me back to clarify that, “This a feminist project, and we are currently exploring different perspectives in order to think about law reform in relation to gender and sex-related forms of subordination.” Yet, I see no evidence whatsoever of any feminist analysis represented in what is laid bare by the project’s website profile.

For instance, the research team led by Cooper consists of Emily Grabham, Elizabeth Peel, Flora Renz, Robyn Emerton, and Han Newman. All these researchers have pro-transgender agendas in their professional and public profiles, publications, and virtually nothing related to feminism. Intersectionality appears throughout many researchers’ bios, but this term has long ago been hijacked from feminism and is today very much a discourse that is used to instruct women that they are being “exclusionary” should they not focus feminism on men who claim to be women.

Historically, intersectionality is a concept that was introduced and coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to help explain the oppression of African-American women in the larger conversation of racial justice, identity politics, and policing. Today, feminists are not in agreement at all that feminism has anything to do with males who identify as transgender, hence this term is not a sign of feminist leanings but is very much an indication of the subject’s belief in gender identity. And gender identity, which many feminists regard as a form of somatic essentialism embraced by trans-identified people, largely functions to cement gender stereotypes (since gender is stereotype). While it is not surprising that the words “trans” and “queer” regularly pop up in these researchers’ profiles, only one of the researchers has published a few articles marginally addressing feminism or women’s rights. And one co-authored piece clearly weighs the importance of gender over sex. All this leaves me wondering how this research project is anything other than a set-up for trans affirmative views and not a “wide range of people.” Presumably, a very narrow set of viewpoints espoused by this project’s website are being framed for investigation.

Aside from the research team, the advisory board shows a lack of balance where the word “woman” is eclipsed by the focus of most of these board members on issues directly related to gender, transgender, and queer identity. Notably, one of these board members, Cressida Heyes, was active in denouncing Canadian philosopher, Rebecca Tuvel, when her article on transracialism was published in Hypatia (2017). Heyes’s actions together with a letter calling for the retraction of Tuvel’s article unleashed an onslaught of harassment on Tuvel. Instead of offering a riposte to Tuvel’s piece, Heyes used her power as one of the editors of Hypatia to suggest that the article “should not have been published” while also publicly denouncing the article on her personal Facebook page. And where women are mentioned within the board members’ publications, they are generally framed within the discourse of “gender” and not sex. That is, of course, if women are mentioned at all. Overall, the professional profiles of most of these board members reveal academics who actively push transgender ideology within their professions and for whom women or sex-based theories like feminism are not even an afterthought.

But the eyebrow-raising moment for me in reading through the names of this advisory board was when I found Alex Sharpe on the list. A transgender-identified lawyer, Sharpe is well-known for harassing women on Twitter, generally calling any woman who disagrees with Sharpe a “TERF” (an epithet used against women to shut down debate quite frequently on social media especially) despite women’s many objections to this term. Sharpe also actively practices and publishes on the subject of “gender identity fraud,” namely when males or females fraudulently misrepresent their sex in order to procure sex from an unwitting person. Advocating against “sexual autonomy” and the guarding of physical boundaries, Sharpe frames sexual autonomy as “liberal” and suggests that the transsexual’s right to privacy takes precedence over the individual’s right to know the sex of the person with whom they might engage in coitus. And in another radio show last November, Sharpe compared women who are critical of gender ideology to the “bubonic plague” on Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour.”

In the research team’s section entitled “Support & Resources,” there are few women’s organizations mentioned and they include Sisters Uncut, a women’s advocacy group which has also supported a trans-identified male who violently attacked a woman in London in 2017. Of this list of organizations, only a few actually represent women’s rights and are dwarfed in number by 16 transgender organizations and two related transgender projects. Absent from this list are various organizations that represent women’s rights like Fair Play for Women, Woman’s Place UK, and Transgender Trend.

From the ground up, this project’s experts and advisory board have a clear agenda to install pro-transgender conclusions given the ethos of the research team, their political and theoretical motivations, and what seems to be a troubling push by many in academia around the English-speaking world to elide any discussions of material reality to the extent of removing sex as a legal characteristic.

But let’s move onto the actual “stuff” of this project. How does research which describes taking an “intersectional approach” and examining “the implications of different reform proposals for single-sex/gender activities, services and spaces, the wider equality agenda and other fields of statutory law” actually do this given that intersectional feminism has nothing to do with this conflation of “sex/gender”? Intersectionality is a theory that addresses the interstices of “race and sex discrimination” among females specifically and uniquely. Still “Reforming Legal Gender Identity” pretends that intersectionality is a vital component of gender theory even though Crenshaw’s work not only predates gender theory as it was published in 1989, but she does not even mention transgender people whatsoever, only using the term “gender” as a linguistic substitute for sex, as was common at the time for scholars to get around the confusion between sex, the act of coitus, and gender, a more delicate form of saying sex.

For anyone working on the subject of gender identity versus sex, the basis for any kind of coherent analysis would begin by acknowledging that gender and sex are not at all the same thing when discussing identity (gender) as opposed to the corporal reality of the body (sex). So, when the project page begins with, “Currently in Britain, we are all assigned a legal gender at birth,” we are forced to recognize this as a misrepresentation since nobody is ever assigned a gender legally. Sex is recorded?—?not assigned?—?at birth. This is done so through the observation of genitalia which is fairly accurate, notwithstanding the .018% birthrate of intersex conditions. For the rest, writing “male” or “female” on the basis of genitalia is a fairly accurate measure of record. So how is it that researchers who received approximately three-quarter of a million pounds do not know that birth sex and not gender is recorded and not assigned?

The project claims that it “will also explore what legal gender status means to people and whether it matters in their everyday lives.” The problem with this statement, as “Women’s Hour” indicated last Fall as listeners tweeting to the producers who stated that they simply do not understand what “cis” means, is this: if gender identity is confusing to the average Radio 4 listener who tends to be well-educated, it is very likely hugely confusing to the masses. Gender as a social construct does matter in most people’s lives because it is a restrictive narrative that affirms gender as stereotype. And there is no better place to see this confusion than in the study itself.

For instance, the Phase 1 explanation gives a teleological view of history whereby transgender “self-declaration” serves some sort of progressive good by referring to “a growing number of countries, including Argentina, Republic of Ireland, Malta, Denmark and Colombia, now allow transgender people to change their assigned legal gender status by way of self-declaration.” This goes on to compare self-declaration with the UK where “a person who wants to change their assigned legal gender must provide evidence to a quasi-judicial panel, the Gender Recognition Panel, that they have lived in their ‘acquired gender’ for at least two years, and that they have been medically diagnosed with gender dysphoria.”

Yet, none of these terms really make any sense since no woman lives in a gender, much less any man. We live lives that are inflected by sex-specific realities (e.g. pregnancy or testicular cancer) and women disproportionately suffer discrimination based on older modalities for reading women’s bodies. In short, nobody really lives “in a gender” aside from these self-professed transgender persons. Despite the opaqueness of language here, the researchers propose to “identify different pathways for legal gender reform to take forward into Phase Two. Undoing gender inequality, gender as self-determination, and abolishing assigned gender are three possible starting points.” To recap, because several countries have included “self-declaration” (which is not on par with what is being proposed in the UK), that we must usher this in because…. Malta and Argentina. Got it.

The most damning part of this research project is the survey entitled “Attitudes to Gender” which can be viewed and taken here. This survey should be an alarm bell for anyone who wishes to investigate the use of public funds for research, much less academic research, which relies on obfuscation, misrepresentation, and word salad. This study is allegedly supposed to focus upon the issues of balance and the effects on women who represent 51% of the population yet can’t even speak to the somatic definition of sex, opening with: “How do you define yourself?” The choices are female, male, or other. This is followed by, “Does your current sex/gender match the sex you were given at birth?” These questions are nonsensical since sex is not a subjective definition, say where one person sees navy blue and the other black. Sex is rather clearly defined aside from the .018% who have intersex conditions. And there is no such thing as “sex/gender” since they are separate entities entirely.

Without defining crucial terms for meanings, such as “gender,” “sex” and “gender identity,” the questionnaire is impossible to answer. The questions are obtuse and carry ready-made assumptions which most people won’t understand because not even people like myself who have worked in the field of queer theory understand the terms, their conflations, their being paired with a slash, etc. Even among those who will understand some of the words (eg. those in the transgender community), there is a huge range of disagreement. There are many who think transgender is an umbrella term for transvestitism and intersex and those who do not; those who think transgender is uniquely transsexual and medicalized and those who do not; and there are many more variations of opinion within that community. Because of the lack of clear definitions, it is easy to see how any results produced by this study will be meaningless. Yet, because of the political ethos of the research team, we are not guaranteed any impartiality that would result in an admission that this study is gravely flawed, that this survey is nonsensical word salad, and that there has been an abuse of almost three-quarters of a million pounds.

One example of the misuse of terminology in the survey is a question that refers to “people who are not born male” instead of just using the term “female.” Such a choice of words reveals a deeper problem since the researchers clearly believe that “male” is a clearly-defined category hence the “not male” part of the question. It would then follow logically that the refusal to say “female” indicates that the female body is a discursive space of colonization?—?both linguistically and ontologically. After all, why is “not male” appropriate but “female” verboten? In other words, the question could have been worded: “people who are not born non-female.” Also, curiously absent on the survey was any question related to “people who are not born female.” The entire survey is incoherent and would not pass the muster for undergraduate thesis requirements. How is it that academics with PhDs not only got this study past an ethics committee but managed to get such an enormous amount of funding? And this study is just one of many others which are heavily funded by the ESRC and various UK universities where researchers either have direct links to pro-trans lobby groups and organizations and/or where they are working to influence policies within organizations like UNICEF.

Even researchers like Sally Hines in receipt of six-digit figure grants from British institutions, cannot explain the difference between sex and gender. Hines has received a grant from the ESRC (2017–2020), “Pregnant Men: An International Exploration of Trans Male Experiences and Practices of Reproduction.” This project ostensibly seeks “to gain an in-depth understanding of the practices, experiences, and health care needs of the growing number of men who may seek to, or become, pregnant and give birth after gender transition.” Additionally, Hines claims “to examine how trans male narratives of pregnancy and birth bring new understandings to the embodied and gendered processes of parenting.” So already, just at the descriptive level of the project, we note several problems of intellectual coherence whereby Hines staggers between calling these women who identify as transgender as “men” and then as “male.” Objectively speaking, however, these individuals are not “males” in any sense of the word. Moreover, examining the one moment in human life where biology (male, female) matters inasmuch as human reproduction is the result of biology, one would think that these terms are not only important but crucial to define correctly.

But read through the description of Hines’ ongoing research and what we notice are the precise workings of the academic pyramid scheme I refer to above:

The project consultants, ‘Gendered Intelligence’, ‘Trans Bare All’, represent major international stakeholders. They will organise and run focus groups with the PI and UK Co-I to ensure that stakeholder impact is built into the project’s methods of data collection…The focus groups with representatives from relevant health professional organisations in each country will embed impact and dissemination into the project at all stages in each of the geographical sites. Project consultants will organise two health practitioner training events, which will be co-coordinated with Public Health England. Key target audiences here will be midwives organisations and general practitioners. Dissemination events with health professionals are planned in the UK, US, Australia, Poland and Italy, and are costed into the project’s broader impact strategy. Information Sheets for health practitioners will be developed to impact on care standards, and guidelines will be drawn up for policy makers at UK, European and international levels.

What Hines’ project reveals at just the grant proposal level is that her research already has a built-in conclusion which aims to “embed impact” when there ostensibly could be any number of conclusions from such a project, beginning with healthcare practitioners and midwives stating that perhaps referring to pregnant women as men might be a problem, as many are already on record as stating. Why spend £502,251 on a project where women are simultaneously referred to as “trans men”, then “males”, then “trans masculine,” and “gender diverse people” when the bar for examining pregnancy ought to begin with the reality of the female body? Also of worry in this research agenda are the ways Hines makes clear her alliances to political lobby groups like Gendered Intelligence which is not a healthcare organization whatsoever.

So what we are seeing through Hines’ research is how she is giving the academic Newspeak to a movement that is invested in full-on recruitment. You can see here a video produced by Gendered Intelligence which basically shows recruitment of a young woman who describes her experiences with GI as an adolescent: “So being part of the youth group with GI…It really helped me figure out stuff to do with my gender…I was really really confused about what was going on. I didn’t even really know what “transgender” was and then I went to my first GI meeting and it was just really awesome being with other people who were transgender and were just completely normal …” The fact that organizations and researchers like GI and Hines, receive public funding in order to lend legitimacy to the others’ schemes is precisely the “stuff” of an academic Ponzi scheme when there is no real meaning being explored but where jargon serves as the fluff of member recruitment through the promise of lending “real meaning” to one’s life. But when this meaning is produced through the sacrifice of truth, we must begin to wonder how university funding of such “research” (which really, at this point, must be put into quotes) is creating a social scene of legitimation without the normal open scientific reviews and critiques that are part of any healthy academic process.

Ultimately, research projects like those of Hines and Cooper are fundamentally academic pyramid schemes where researchers all share political and ideological alliances, where scholarship is about anything but objective research, and where there is a larger mandate to involve organizations that influence policy and law and that lend political legitimacy to ideas that have zero scientific merit. All this while academics achieve a heightened status and increased funding for similarly flimsy research in a field where evidence matters less than woke points. Indeed, one has to wonder what sentences like this even mean: “Are the traditional binary male and female gender roles relevant in an increasingly fluid and flexible world?” The central aim of much of this “research” is clear: to replace sex with gender throughout public policy both nationally and internationally.

Given the heated debates during the Reform of Gender Recognition Act consultation in the UK last summer, it is no secret that the issue of legal reforms to gender necessarily invokes the disappearance of sex as a category. For women, this is an important issue because females are raped and murdered by males irrespective of how they identify.

The imbalance in these studies bulldozes the survey-taker and passive reader into having to collude with the ethos that gender is “good.” These research projects never put into question the possibility that gender is uniquely a stereotype and harmful to males and females alike. The planned impact of Cooper’s project is formulated around the researcher’s assumption that the research findings will be “ideally placed to influence future legal and policy debate.” What this means, when you sift through the bios of the principal investigators and many on the advisory board who hold seats on other granting institutions, editorial committees, and institutional seats of great power, is this: that an enormous amount of money has been thrown at academics who are using public funds for political activism within a dishonestly formulated project.

Julian Vigo
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