Author JK Rowling has entered the fractious debate over transsexuality Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

I’m a transwoman who signed the Harper’s letter with JK Rowling. Here’s why

Free speech includes the right of people to say silly, or even hateful, things
August 13, 2020
A few weeks ago, I was asked to sign the Harper’s Magazineopen letter supporting a bromidic recommendation that free speech, free of dogmatic “cancelling” from left or right, is a good idea. I did sign it, as did JK Rowling, who has got into trouble recently for saying silly things about some transwomen and trans activists. I’m a transwoman. She and I disagree—but we both believe in free speech. So does, to take another signatory most of whose ideas I disagree with, Noam Chomsky. I debated him last year at HowTheLightGetsIn festival in Hay-on-Wye. All this disagreement, though tiring, is rather the point. Over the entrance to the old city hall in Gouda in the Netherlands is affixed the commonplace medieval tag: Audite et alteram partem. Listen even to the other side. Good advice for city councillors and for the rest of us, eh? 

Take Rowling’s opinions on the trans issue. I do not want to ban her from conferences or stop people from reading her childish books. I just want her, and the numerous people who wax wroth when anyone says that gender is a social construction, to listen to the other side. I want to correct what I believe are her mistakes, as she can then correct mine. Nice. As an economist, I approve of mutually advantageous exchange. 

She is mistaken, for example, to believe that a sound reason to oppose gender change in say, children, is the alleged “accounts of detransitioners.” She seems to have believed the rhetoric of the “accounts of” her friends known as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFS, who are oddly virulent in Britain). The phrase reminds me of my lamentable President’s phrases “some people say that” or “I've heard that,” followed by one of his documented 20,000 public fabrications. The overwhelming bulk of transitioners, male-female or female-male (whose numbers, by the way, are about equal), are happy with their decision, whether they did it as children or as adults. “Ecstatic” is how I would describe it. I did it at age 53 in 1995, 20 years after the pioneer Jan Morris, the Welsh writer. The extremely small number of transitioners who are not ecstatic can return to their birth-assigned gender for most purposes.  

Like all choices in life there are consequences, such as infertility. So we are to prevent people from driving cars because there have consequences? In a free society we leave people alone if their choices do not harm others. According to proper liberal theory, your liberty extends all the way to my nose. (Not wearing a mask, for example, puts novel coronavirus up mine.) The TERFs fiercely oppose free choices by others, choices that do no harm to any of them. To justify their own choice they tell each other fairy tales about “men” sneaking around female public conveniences and about trans people “regretting” their transitions. The dogma is a set of hateful prejudices. I think we can agree that prejudice is not a sound basis for public policy.  

On the same matter, I have regularly criticised the Times columnist Janice Turner’s repetitive and ignorant opposition to trans rights. Too often, she goes after trans advocates. I tire of her rants, which always evoke cheers in the comments section from Tory indignati. But I have not called for her to be sacked or silenced. Thus the Harper’s letter. I have instead told her off. She is a fool on the matter, but since when has being foolish been grounds for dismissal as a newspaper columnist?    

We need misguided opinions like hers to be expressed openly, so that their ethical and factual errors can be criticised—"alternative facts,” as a defender of Trump famously put it. Turner has asserted on little or no evidence, and against the ethical principles of a liberal society, that transwomen are a danger to women in bathrooms; that people who transition often regret their transitions; that alleged fears by TERFs deserve to be honored, as one might honour the fears now of whites about protests by black people, or the fears 20 years ago of straight men about approaches by gay people; or the fears a century ago of anti-suffragists about votes for women. Turner is gravely mistaken. But I am sure she will be relieved to hear that I will defend her right to articulate them. Free speech. 

We Americans have for a hundred years (and not much earlier) doted on the clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution that “Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or the press.” It is not quite so, of course, in the first land of our liberties, with the British law of libel, the Communications Act of 2003, and the like.  

But earnest and fact-respecting listening is perhaps more to the point. On all sides no one is listening. The point of the crazy diversity of signatories to the Harper’s letter was to show that many and diverse people are worried by group-thinkers who won't listen.   

Listen to me, for example, a dangerous liberal economist, as follows: the minimum wage causes the poorest, especially in South Africa, to be without any work at all. And “protection” of American workers, something that the Democratic Senator Brown of Ohio and the undemocratic President Trump of Golfing both advocate, hurts American workers. And Brexit is not a free lunch. My assertions make your blood boil? You think I must hate the poor and lame? No. As Cromwell said to the Scottish Presbyters, in one last appeal before invading, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” Such policies said to help the poor may in fact be grievously hurting them.  

I doubt that there’s anyone on the Harper’s list who does not think that there are real problems more significant in the first instance than free speech. Whole groups of people in Britain and the States have been underrepresented. Black lives do matter. Trans people should not be banned from military service. And so forth. But it is more important than ever to listen to the other side.  

Read more: Why do so many girls want to become boys?