Britain must pray that it can still escape America’s vicious gender culture war

When Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson was asked to define the word “woman” at her Senate hearing last month, she dodged the question by saying that she was not a biologist. Labour top dogs Anneliese Dodds and Yvettte Cooper did the same thing that very week, Cooper declaring that to define woman was to go down a “rabbit hole”.

To be honest I don’t think that I could define “woman” all that easily, either – it’s the sort of thing you just know. But these chilly evasions came amid a row over the victory of the University of Pennsylvania student Lia Thomas, a transgender woman competing against biological women, in the NCAA 500 yard freestyle swimming championships in Atlanta.

These issues are as complex as they are urgent. Biological men competing against biological women can surely only demotivate girls from entering certain competitive sports, and rob them of the top spots. And, as the recent kerfuffle in Britain over whether the trans woman cyclist Emily Bridges could compete in the National Women’s Omnium championships made clear, they are only going to keep cropping up.

But in Britain, at least, there still appears to be space in our public discourse for some degree of rational discussion of these issues. Last week, the Prime Minister – one of the most Left-wing Tory PMs in history – managed to muster clarity, striking a balance between zest for LGBT rights and common sense.

In a TV interview, he said that he did not believe that biological men should be competing in female sporting events. He also weighed in on the row over the banning of conversion therapy: “We will have a ban on gay conversion therapy … but there are complexities and sensitivities when you move from the area of sexuality to the question of gender”. He weighed in further on the inadvisability of children changing gender without adult oversight, saying that there should be “parental involvement” at the very least. None of this meant, Boris insisted, that he was “not immensely sympathetic to people who want to change gender, to transition.”

These sorts of nuanced comments from any US politician at this point in time would be unimaginable. Yes, a few of the usual suspects were angered by Mr Johnson’s interventions. And I’m not pretending that the situation in the UK is all sweetness and light: just consider the appalling treatment meted out to courageous women – from Kathleen Stock to JK Rowling – who have stood up for women’s rights.

But as someone who spends a lot of time in America, the striking thing about the wider British discourse is the extent to which, radical activists aside, it seems to be inching towards a common sense middle ground in which trans people’s rights are respected, but in which competing interests are balanced pragmatically. This is the principle behind, for example, the new Equality and Human Rights Commission guidelines making clear that it is lawful for hospitals to have women-only wards and for rape crisis centres to not include biological men.

For in the US, the debate has become almost universally nasty, polarised and extreme. It is now just another layer of a culture war far worse than ours.

At the heart of this culture war, of course, is the issue of race: America’s uniquely dark history of slavery and subsequent racism and police brutality has yielded a discourse of terrible crudeness and anger. It is an environment that precludes any sort of middle ground or rational examination of the evidence – just two aggressive, and sometimes violent, sides warring over whether America is “systemically” racist or afflicted by “white privilege”. But the anger and division have spread far wider: the US is now so habituated to civil war that even the Russian invasion of Ukraine has become just another stick for Left and Right to beat each other with.

In the trans debate, it has manifested itself in political purity tests which demand that, if you are a Democrat, you must sign up without question to everything from teaching children about gender and sexuality at a very young age, to gender neutral bathrooms and a permissive attitude to biological men competing in women’s sports. Republicans, by contrast, must not just oppose these policies, but increasingly seem obliged to adopt a vitriolic and cruel attitude to trans people themselves. It’s a far cry from Boris Johnson’s “immense sympathy”.

You might have thought that, as the great conciliator, Joe Biden would have attempted to cool the fury. But no. In the wake of Lia Thomas’s swimming victory, his administration refused to comment and there hasn’t been a meaningful peep out of them since. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. They have firmly placed themselves on the side of radical trans policies.

Of course, here in Britain, we should never have got to a place where a biological man can compete against biological women in sports where testosterone matters, or where refusing to define what a woman is is the only politically correct option on the soft-Left. We got here in part because of our copycat problem. Britain has imported many of the horrors that gave rise to the American culture war, such as the doctrine of intersectionality, which pits people of varying degrees of “oppression” against each other.

We too have many vicious trans rights activists who will torment and bully those who argue that there is a fundamental biological component to womanhood. Unlike America, however, we are still a country where our leaders can speak clearly and with sensitivity on matters as vexed and uncomfortable as gender identity and its relationship to sexual anatomy. In Britain, at least, there’s still cause for hope that the current mess can be resolved decently.

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