This is a response to the piece “Transgender school policies are a safeguarding nightmare,” written by Stassja Frei, dated 12 February 2022, carried by The Spectator Australia.
Spectator Australia is the UK magazine The Spectator plus its Australian supplement, which was launched in 2008. The Spectator is owned by Press Holdings, which is owned by Sir Frederick H. Barclay, and which notably also owns the UK’s Daily Telegraph.
Stassja Frei is a “feminist” activist credited with founding the Coalition for Biological Reality, a TERF pressure group (Binary Australia, 2021).
My points of difference with Frei’s article, and where applicable the truth’s points of difference with the article, are more or less as follows.
Of course, Frei means that these schools have policies which allow trans girls to use the toilets, change rooms, and even overnight accommodation meant for girls. There is no requirement to gain consent from other students or to inform parents because those things are typically not required in order for girls to use facilities meant for girls.
Frei leaves enough detail out of this assertion to qualify it contextually as a lie. In the Loudoun County case, the attacker and the victim had a pre-existing sexual relationship, and the attack happened in the girls’ toilets because the victim invited the attacker to meet her there before telling him she wasn’t interested in having sex (“What really happened …?”, 2021). While the attacker was indeed wearing a skirt (Jouvenal, 2021), there’s no evidence he was trans or that it was a factor (“Students walk out,” 2021).
This changes precisely nothing about the attacker’s culpability for his conduct. However, Frei is attempting to use the story here in a misleading way, to support a narrative of opportunistic bathroom violence by trans girls and women against strangers. No part of the Loudoun County case backs that up.
Frei provides no evidence that this is the case. Per Hitchens’ razor, claims which can be made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
When trans girls are — correctly — admitted to girls’ teams, the right of the cis girls on those teams “to play sports exclusively with and against other girls” is not infringed in any way. Consequently, if a cis girl is “labelled [a] bigot,” it clearly isn’t because she wanted to counter an infringement of that right.
Moreover, this is a deceptive implication — stating that “x shouldn’t happen” to give the impression that x is happening, regardless of whether or not that’s true, while maintaining the fallback position that technically you never actually said x was happening.
Frei leaves enough detail out of this assertion to qualify it contextually as a lie. Thomas started HRT in 2019 and didn’t start swimming on the women’s team until 2021. For context, leading researchers on the subject of trans people’s athletic performance (Roberts et al., 2020) consider that it is “realistic” that adult trans women athletes will have normalised athletic performance relative to their cis peers at the Olympic level (Avery, 2021), well above the level at which Thomas swam.
While not directly relevant to the substance of Frei’s argument — if that term can be applied here — it seems apropos to mention at this point that at no time in this article does Frei ever refer to Lia Thomas by the pronoun “her.” Instead, she insistently refers to her by her surname, Thomas, which is also a male given name.
While that fact means that in this case this is likely intended to be implicit misgendering, referring to trans people solely by their names and refusing to use their pronouns is also a rhetorical tactic called “degendering,” which is often deployed punitively against trans people generally and trans women in particular.
This claim appears to have come via an extensive game of telephone, through The Washington Post (Maese, 2022) and possibly through Wikipedia, originally from an article in Swimming World Magazine (Rieder, 2021).
Precisely which records is important. Thomas has broken meet and pool records for the events in which she’s competed — which isn’t at all unusual. She does not hold any national records. This is notable precisely because “records,” unqualified, suggests “records” as in “records” — i.e., it suggests that Thomas is the fastest swimmer in the country, or the fastest swimmer in that kind of event in history, which is simply not the case (Zeigler, 2022). Thomas’ times reflect a swimmer who is certainly very capable, as is expected of someone at her level, but not magic.
“Long-distance” is the key here. In long-distance races in any discipline, the intervals at which athletes arrive at the end of the race are much wider than in shorter-distance races.
The race in question was the women’s 1,650-yard freestyle at the 2021 Zippy Invitational (“Women’s Swimming & Diving,” 2021). Thomas was placed first, with a time of 15 minutes 59.71 seconds; the second-placed competitor, her teammate Anna Sophia Kalandadze, recorded a time of 16:37.44 (“2021 Zippy Invitational,” 2021, pp. 85 et seq.).
The contention here might be that it would be impossible for a cis woman to set that kind of time. However, the Division 1 record, discussed above, which is the applicable record at this level of swimming and is given on the Zippy Invitational results sheet, is seven seconds faster than Thomas’ time and appears to have been set by a cis woman.
The contention might then be that no cis woman could possibly lead another cis woman by that much. However, Kalandadze had that kind of lead over the 10th-placed competitor, Marij van der Mast (17:18.74), and everyone below her (there were 34 competitors total in that event).
The contention seems to be that a trans woman must be cheating if she sets a record or simply wins an event, notwithstanding that other women do that all the time. Frei puts in a lot of work here to make Thomas’ results seem impossible, almost alien, but unfortunately simply comes across as hating to see a girlboss winning.
I assume not, given that the feats which Thomas has managed with which Frei takes issue are feats which have previously been accomplished by cis female swimmers competing in the same league as those on the UPenn team, comparable to them, and presumably in some cases even on the team.
It is unclear how anyone would believe in good faith that there existed a right to complain about a woman being naked in a women’s change room.
Frei appears to take issue here with the fact that Thomas is openly sapphic (i.e., a woman who loves women). While I am fully aware that this is deployed to transphobic and transmisogynistic effect here (“Thomas isn’t a lesbian woman, Thomas is a straight man!”), it’s clearly double-edged. The other edge is homophobia, of a particularly regressive strain — “homos mustn’t be allowed in our changing rooms” was passé by the time I graduated high school in 2011 (e.g. Roberts, 2005).
This is, of course, another deceptive implication, as discussed above. In this case, however, it also erases the fact that cis girl students are already “subjected to the possibility of voyeurism, indecent exposure, and sexual harassment in their toilets and change rooms” — by other cis girls. It erases the actual violence that cis women do to other women in order to demonise trans women for allegedly presenting a threat that in reality simply does not exist (e.g. Solnit, 2020).
Tangentially, “even in the name of gender identity equality” doesn’t roll easily into the ear in this context — this sarcastic and contemptuous display of lip service to trans rights doesn’t mesh well with Frei’s attitude, and indeed career history, of anti-trans vitriol.
This is an attempt to monster trans teenage girls by sexualising them — portraying their mere presence in the correctly gendered space in a gender-segregated accommodation unit as ethically or materially equivalent to sexual intercourse. Frei’s apparent eagerness to sexualise teenage girls — or even people she incorrectly perceives as teenage boys — raises some particularly troubling questions.
Transcend Australia’s A guide for schools (2020) can, incidentally, be found on the reference list.
It is unclear how girls’ right to physical privacy in spaces containing one or more girls would be in any way infringed by the presence of one or more additional girls.
“Anecdotal evidence,” in this context, may as well be “I made it up.” This allegation is sufficiently crucial, and sufficiently pivotal to any policy approach we should adopt going forward, that Frei’s refusal to substantiate it should cause it to be set aside until and unless it is solidly substantiated.
It’s always fascinating to see white people criticising actions they don’t like for which other white people are responsible by comparing them to POC and POC-majority states.
This leaves out a critical part of the discourse surrounding public toilets in India — namely, that they specifically are single-sex toilets designated for men, and not women (Patel, 2021). The issue in India isn’t that women have access to toilets but those toilets are gender-neutral and thus unsafe; it’s that women have basically no toilet access, full stop. Universal gender-neutrality of toilets would actually be helpful in this case.
In the first place, this is a particularly irritating hallmark of TERF screedsmithing — providing absolutely no location or date details whatsoever. There is just enough information to make me think “Hang on, I want to know what happened here so that I can call bullshit in a nuanced and surgical way.” However, the intention of pieces like this one is that the reader should uncritically drink them in without following up their references, so of course Frei provides just little enough information to make constructing a Google query very difficult indeed.
In the second place, the way this paragraph is constructed makes it clear to anyone but the most obsequiously uncritical reader that something is being left out. The entire point of this article is that people the author perceives as boys/men are actually being treated as girls/women, and the author has a problem with that. In this case, if a large horde of young girls went directly to the girls’ toilets, etc., other girls would absolutely have the right to question them and teachers would absolutely have the right to demand they leave — so the question arises, what is different here? What are we not being told?
For the record, I cannot find a specific single story which corresponds exactly to the description here — I was able to find a piece from the Daily Mail naming Moredon Primary School in Swindon, Wiltshire (Dollimore, 2021), and a piece from The Times of London referring vaguely to “Scottish secondary schools” in general (McCann, 2021), but neither correspond exactly, and the Times piece is paywalled so I was unable to retrieve further information on that front.
This is particularly interesting because the only person to have compared sexuality and gender identity in the context of this article in any way is me, writing this response. Frei obviously wasn’t writing this article for me responding to it. She has not actually pointed out any such comparison — this is a sharp left turn which disorients the reader, presumably intentionally.
Moreover, although I certainly did make a comparison between sexuality and gender identity, and many such comparisons are regularly made by people who share my views, there is no “narrative that sexuality and ‘gender identity’ are in any way comparable” in respect to any of the circumstances and conditions that Frei addresses in this article.
It certainly is one thing! Not a good thing, but a thing.
There are multiple layers of pure ideology here, each of which require a slight rotation of the analytical lens.
On one level, “demand that all Australian schools obliterate biological sex as a legitimate basis for decision-making” is clearly hyperbolic and unserious language from the get-go. As a former teacher, there are many things I wish I could have obliterated from the educational environment — John Thompson Piano Course, I’m coming for you — but no one alive is that existentially capable.
On another level, very few of the decisions to which Frei objects in this piece are even arguably linked to anything which could conceivably be called “biological sex.” The question of Lia Thomas’ attraction to women is a question of sexuality — which, as Frei says, is not comparable to gender identity at all. The question of students’ safety in toilets is not linked in reality to any aspect of sex — the only link is Frei’s unevidenced implication that any additional risk of sexual misconduct correlated with the presence of cis men is somehow innate to some aspect of their biological makeup that trans women are asserted to share, a philosophical stance referred to as bioessentialism.
On yet another level, where an argument can be made about something called “biological sex,” it is unclear that a decision would need to be made. The fact is that inasmuch as sex can be “objectively” determined at all, gender transition changes it. Lia Thomas is statistically within the observed range of ability for female swimmers generally, notwithstanding any advantage that Frei believes she should have given her assigned sex at birth. Moreover — given that, as Frei explicitly mentions, Thomas competed on the equivalent men’s team prior to her transition — she clearly earned her place honestly, rather than being an incompetent coasting on a testosterone-fuelled afterburn, which in any event would be deeply physiologically implausible.
Lesbian cis girls are already at the same disadvantage and risk from their girlhood, or more correctly society’s misogyny, as are all other girls. There is no evidence that correctly gendering trans girls increases this disadvantage or risk. However, gender inclusion policies do protect gay kids — they protect trans girls, including bisexual and lesbian ones, from being forcibly grouped with cis boys, to whom society gives strong incentives to enforce transphobia in ways that do defenseless trans girls unprovoked harm.
For us to recognise this impact, it would need, in the first place, to be shown to exist.
Frei obviously holds that trans boys are girls. In the first place, this allows her to erase that trans boys are at risk of rape, trans boys who have ovaries and uteri are very much at risk of period shaming, and gay and bisexual trans boys are at risk of unwanted pregnancy. For someone who holds that trans boys are girls, and who professes to be concerned for their welfare as with “all other” girls here, Frei shows a genuinely shocking unconcern here. On reflection, it may not after all be particularly shocking, given how willing Frei was to openly and unashamedly sexualise trans girls earlier in the piece.
In the second place, current Endocrine Society guidelines (Hembree et al., 2017) permit trans boys to start taking hormones at 16 years of age — 10th or 11th grade equivalent — and taking testosterone above the body’s set point, as with masculinising HRT, does indeed appear to change athletic performance characteristics (Ivy, 2021). If it were true, as Frei asserts, that trans boys are female, then cis boys would be at very great risk indeed of losing to “female” competitors — but, because trans boys aren’t female, they’re not.
Nor, if such a rape happened here, would Australia need Stassja Frei to lie about it.
In Defence of Children — which appears to be run by Moira Deeming, a city councillor in Melton, Victoria, and committed transphobic activist (Millar, 2021) — appears to be an attempt to catch in a second bottle the debatable lightning that first sparked Holly Lawford-Smith’s No Conflict They Said. The intent appears to be to paper over No Conflict They Said‘s central flaw — namely, that it subsists on using the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (Holkins & Krahulik, 2004) to run interference for bitter, bigoted, mean-spirited and obviously false transphobic bullshit (Weinberg, 2021) — by using “Think of the children” to prompt readers to switch their brains off completely. Time will tell whether it works.
If you liked this piece, please feel free to chuck some coins in my ko-fi — like many people I am currently between jobs, and in moderate to severe need of medical care that doesn’t come cheap.
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