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Some of the most joyous and moving videos on YouTube are time-lapse records of sex reassignment or gender-affirming treatments. In the space of minutes that condense a process lasting months or years, we witness people who have felt betrayed by the mirror throughout their lives finally becoming themselves. They change from delicately featured to square-jawed and deep-voiced, from muscular to voluptuous, or undergo subtle alterations that shift perceptions of their gender.

With gay rights firmly entrenched in liberal democracies, the front line of the sexual rights battle has moved to the T in the LGBTQ+ alliance. Trans rights, though, differ from gay rights in crucial ways. As a consequence, trans activists do not command the universal backing of liberals that gay campaigners do. This was highlighted recently when J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, published tweets and an essay which evoked a hostile response from the trans community and its supporters.

Gay rights fundamentally concern the behaviours of consenting adults and therefore do not impinge on the rights of others. Trans rights, on the other hand, are perceived by some to curb female rights. How fair is it for trans women (males who identify as women) to compete in women’s sports, especially now that, as Rowling pointed out, “A man who intends to have no surgery and take no hormones may now secure himself a Gender Recognition Certificate and be a woman in the sight of the law"? Females stand to lose college scholarships and careers if there is a substantial influx of males into such events (for this piece I use “male" and “female" to refer to biology, or sex, and “men" and “women" to refer to self-perception, or gender).

Martina Navratilova, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, has been vocal in opposing loosened criteria for the entry of trans women into women’s sports. She, like Rowling, has faced accusations of being a TERF, or trans exclusionary radical feminist. The argument against Navratilova’s perspective is that gender reclassification loses much of its meaning if trans women have an asterisk placed next to their identity. The right of trans women to live their truth eclipses the issue of a few wins and losses on a sports field. A similar argument applies to the use of bathrooms, another area of friction given that many women are uncomfortable with the idea of sharing these spaces with males.

In the view of feminists like Rowling and Navratilova, since female experience is profoundly shaped by biology, sex has a legitimate role in any rights discourse. Trans activists counter that sex is a spectrum rather than a male-female binary and is irrelevant to the discussion of rights, which should focus entirely on gender identity. I lean towards the Rowling side of this debate.

Sex is not, in fact, the spectrum that many trans rights campaigners take it to be. To say, as is conventional nowadays, that we are “assigned" a sex at birth is a misnomer because it suggests a choice being made. Such a choice is only required somewhere between one or two times every ten thousand births, when intersex babies are born. Aside from such individuals whose sex is ambiguous, there are a few atypical conditions within the definition of “male" and “female" but these do not add up to a continuum.

Not only is sex not a spectrum, it is not fluid. No male can produce ova, no female can produce sperm, and no medical intervention can change that fact. Gender is both a spectrum and fluid. Non-binary, gender-fluid people fill all the space between “woman" and “man". Since modern medicine gives people the option of shaping their bodies to the specifications of their gender, non-binary people of means can express their identities physically.

Since gender is fluid, it is by definition mutable. The miraculous time-lapse transformations that I described at the start of this article have a sombre inverse on YouTube, in the form of videos by people who have de-transitioned, returning to their birth gender after a spell of hormone treatment. They are overwhelmingly girls who for a period during adolescence thought they were boys. Their stories point to the most troubling aspect of the debate around trans rights.

Gender dysphoria, or the sense of not belonging to your birth sex, can reveal itself very early in life. Doctors frequently prescribe hormones to minors who experience dysphoria, suppressing puberty in the hope of minimizing trauma associated with the development of secondary sexual characteristics. The trend in treatment has been towards giving children greater say in whether and when to begin treatment. The girls who speak about de-transitioning on YouTube mention how little resistance they faced to their stated desire to start taking testosterone.

In a parallel development, reported incidences of gender dysphoria have risen considerably, especially among girls. In the UK, the number of teenagers applying to transition went up from 77 in 2009 to 2,590 in 2019. The mix of those seeking to transition changed from over 70% male to 70% female.

Opponents of gay rights often claimed that celebrating alternate sexuality would create an avalanche of gayness in society. While greater openness has led to more sexual experimentation, the feared avalanche has not materialized. The number of people describing themselves as gay has held remarkably steady.

It is too early to make a judgement about the rise in gender dysphoria because the absolute numbers are small. We do not know whether the sharp growth in applications for transition reflects a previously suppressed desire now being freed, or whether children are being influenced by peers to present themselves as dysphoric. If it is the latter, we are likely to have a growing percentage of cases of de-transitioning or desisting.

Surely it is worth asking, as Rowling did, whether the bar for transitioning is being set too low for minors in West Europe and North America, particularly because some of the changes wrought by hormones are not fully reversible.

Sadly, the political space is not conducive to open discussion, having descended to labelling and name-calling. Research that hinted at social media driving some of the rise in gender dysphoria among girls has been dismissed out of hand by trans rights advocates rather than eliciting calls for larger follow-up studies.

For thousands of years, biology was all that counted in determining identity, dooming individuals whose self-perception did not match their physical sex to a lifetime of suffering, or to joining a marginalized community like India’s hijras. We are in a better space today, though a lot of work remains to be done in a majority of countries. I fear, however, that at the cutting edge of the discourse the pendulum has swung too far, to an unquestioning valorization of self-perception that comes with grave risks.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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