“We shouldn’t get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be. They can’t; a man is a man and a woman is a woman. That’s just common sense.”
U.K. prime minister Rishi Sunak made these comments Wednesday at his party’s annual conference in Manchester, England. It drew one of the loudest cheers of his hour-long speech (as well as predictable denunciations—and praises—in the press and on social media). These words were clearly intended to be a vote-winner. Sunak’s odds of winning the next election are somewhere between infinitesimal and microscopic, but he’s trying. And so he claims “a man is a man” and expects it to be popular. This view is sometimes called “gender critical,” since it prizes biological sex over gender identity. But Sunak doesn’t call it that; he just calls it “common sense.”
Of course, such sense hasn’t been all that common in recent years. So we might wonder, Is this a sign of something shifting in the public discourse around sex, sexuality, and gender issues? Could British trends be replicated in the U.S.? And how might Christians respond?
Turning Tide in Britain
J. K. Rowling knew what she was doing in December 2019 when she made public her views that “sex is real”:
Dress however you please.
Call yourself whatever you like.
Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you.
Live your best life in peace and security.
But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?
With the hashtag #ThisIsNotADrill, Rowling signaled her awareness that this was a pivotal moment. She knew it would trigger klaxons everywhere, and it did. But what about that other hashtag? Who’s Maya?
Maya Forstater was a think-tank researcher whose gender-critical views sparked controversy. In 2018, she was asked on Twitter, “Are you saying that trans women are not women?” She replied,
Yes I think that male people are not women. I dont think being a woman/female is a matter of identity or womanly feelings. It is biology. People of either sex should not be constrained (or discriminated against) if they dont conform to traditional gender expectations.
Her contract wasn’t renewed. But she appealed in 2019, claiming this contravened the Equality Act. Nevertheless, the employment tribunal denied her appeal and deemed her views “not worthy of respect in a democratic society.” Hence Rowling’s #IStandWithMaya.
Things have shifted, though. Maya appealed the original decision and won—and earlier this year was awarded a £100,000 payout for discrimination. She’s gone on to found the charity Sex Matters and to appoint Helen Joyce as director of advocacy. Joyce is a senior journalist with the Economist and author of the international bestseller Trans, praised by the New York Times as an “intelligent, thorough rejoinder to an idea that has swept across much of the liberal world seemingly overnight.”
In other developments since 2019, the LGB Alliance has split from Stonewall—Europe’s largest LGBT-rights charity—over the trans issue. In response, trans-affirming youth charity Mermaids objected to the LGB Alliance and became the first-ever charity to lobby the U.K. government to remove the charitable status of another charity. (It not only lost the appeal but remains under several clouds of its own.)
Moreover, the National Health Service (NHS) has ordered its only “gender identity clinic” for children, the Tavistock Clinic, to shut down after 18 years of complaints and “thousands of damaged children.” And when Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, campaigned vociferously to get a Gender Recognition Act through the Scottish parliament, Rowling opposed it. It was roundly voted down by Westminster (the U.K. parliament). In the ideological clashes stirred by the debate, Scotland went from the least “trans-skeptical” part of the U.K. to the most.
Rowling herself has had something of a rehabilitation in the eyes of the wider public. Having been denounced for transphobia, many are now publicly reassessing the “witch trials” she’s been put through (as in a fascinating podcast from The Free Press). Journalists too are recognizing they spread a false narrative about her.
It genuinely seems a tide has turned, such that the U.K. prime minister can state not only that “men are men and women are women” but that there’s been “bullying” around the issue and we all need to return to “common sense.” More and more, public aspects of British society are expressing a skeptical no to key aspects of the trans movement.
And yet, however much people might feel it to be a return to “common sense,” this isn’t a return to a Christian vision. Not yet.
However much people might feel it to be a return to ‘common sense,’ this isn’t a return to a Christian vision. Certainly not yet.
The trans-skeptical movement in the U.K. is largely secular, led by gender-critical feminists and gay-rights activists for whom the sex binary is critical. And because it’s a largely secular movement, it’s had a good measure of success in changing popular opinion. When hearing trans-skeptical views, the average Brit doesn’t suspect a Christian agenda lurking beneath the surface. They don’t suspect Christians to be lurking anywhere (when asked if they know a Christian, half the population says no). It’s more difficult to dismiss the trans-skeptical movement as a Handmaid’s Tale dystopia when its outspoken proponents are lesbians like Julie Bindel or Kathleen Stock.
Yet those secular gains in popular appeal are offset by losses. There’s a fundamental instability to the “new normal.” It was captured perfectly by Rishi Sunak’s speech.
‘No to Trans, Yes to Gay Marriage’
Within four sentences of his “common sense” line, Sunak reminded the conference that “this Conservative Party [is] the party that legislated for same-sex marriage.” In 2013, half of Conservative MPs voted against gay marriage, but the legislation was indeed proposed and passed under a Conservative government. And in 2023, Sunak presents this as a Conservative accomplishment. Whatever else we make of that, it summarizes where the new normal might be settling in Britain. We may well be heading toward a skeptical no on trans, all the while maintaining a proud yes to gay marriage.
Twelve years earlier at the same conference, then prime minister David Cameron announced his support of gay marriage: “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.” Cameron’s reasoning was presented as a small-c conservative argument: “Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other.”
If marriage is good, more marriage is better. That was the argument and it has carried the day. Cameron had been emboldened by Douglas Murray’s influential article in the Spectator. A week before Cameron’s speech, Murray wrote that conservative-minded Brits should “welcome gay acceptance into the marital fold.” Widening the marital circle to include gay couples represents “not the making gay of marriage but the making conservative of gays.”
That was 2011. In the intervening years, Murray has gone on a journey. In 2019, he wrote The Madness of Crowds, charting some of the ways our society has taken a virtue like equality and (to use the book’s overarching analogy) “gone off the rails.” Just when the equality train “appeared to be reaching its desired destination, it suddenly picked up steam and went crashing off down the tracks and into the distance.”
From Murray’s telling, one gets the idea that he considers the crash to have happened relatively recently. Before advances like “gay marriage” came along, we were headed toward an equality equilibrium; but since then—perhaps in the last decade or so—we’ve smashed through the barriers with gay activism, pro-LGBT+ education, and much more. The rest of the book surveys what Murray considers to be the wreckage in chapters titled “Gay,” “Women,” “Race,” and “Trans.”
The analogy is both memorable and self-refuting. No crash-scene investigator would witness the carnage of a train platform—twisted metal and wreckage all around—and conclude the problem must’ve occurred at the end of its journey. Who would imagine that the train had slowed to a peaceful halt and then picked up momentum? That’s not how trains work. It’s not how history works either. Trends ending in moral confusion usually have causes centuries in the making. If we wish to diagnose a “madness” to modern society, we should probably look to deeper, older causes.
Trends ending in moral confusion usually have causes centuries in the making.
But modern trans-skeptics typically take the Douglas Murray view of history. We were heading in roughly the right direction—until an unpredictable bout of “madness” broke out in the 2010s. Murray ends his book with the trans movement, considering it the most obvious instance of the “madness” he speaks of. He expresses profound skepticism toward the idea that manhood and womanhood are merely a matter of “software” and not also of “hardware.” According to Murray, we should think again if we imagine that persons are gender-neutral. But here’s the irony: Murray has advocated strongly to make marriage gender-neutral.
And that’s the fundamental instability of the new normal. It’s a problem and also an opportunity.
If People Aren’t Gender-Neutral, Why Is Marriage?
In New York City earlier this year, I was crammed into a basement with 150 others for the launch of Mary Harrington’s new book Feminism Against Progress. As a British author, she fits the profile of so many at the forefront of the gender-critical movement: she spent a long time on the political left and in same-sex relationships. (Though she’s shifted significantly in recent years. She’s now a mother, happily married to a man, a self-proclaimed antiprogressive, and the writer of plenty of Christian-adjacent as well as Christian-affirming works.)
Among many other issues, the book takes aim at the trans movement as the most obvious example of what she calls “Meat Lego Gnosticism.” It’s an enjoyable and enlightening read. Harrison uses words like “smelling salts” and her analysis benefits from covering a much longer historical sweep than The Madness of Crowds.
The book launch organizers had to scramble to relocate after the original venue canceled under pressure from protestors. This is one more sign that, at the moment, the U.K. and U.S. are in different places culturally. Harrington’s U.K. launch suffered no such dramas. But this gathered crowd on the Lower East Side was in awe as she spoke truths far more accepted on her side of the Atlantic.
At the end, I began a conversation with my neighbor—a Wall Street banker and lapsed Catholic. He seemed representative of many I met that night. Five years ago, he had been yes and yes to gay marriage and trans. Now he was yes and no, and he predicted (as did I) that yes and no will become far more accepted in the States in the future, with “the Brits leading the way.”
But I wanted him to consider whether the consistent position was no and no. So I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t think I’ll convince you in this conversation, but I’ll leave you with a thought: if people aren’t gender-neutral, then maybe marriages aren’t either.” He gave every impression of receiving that thought as both new and worthy of serious consideration. We got onto talking about more important things, Jesus mainly. But if I were to tease out what I meant by my gender-neutral line, here’s how I’d do it. I’d try to find common ground on these seven admissions.
Can We Agree That . . .
1. Sexual activity is significant.
If people aren’t gender-neutral, then maybe marriages aren’t either.
We know it’s significant because we’re rightly protective of female spaces. It’s not that trans people are more likely to be perpetrators of sexual crimes; it’s simply that we want to exercise an abundance of caution about anyone’s access to changing rooms, rape crisis centers, female prisons, and so on. Why? Because the potential for anyone to perpetrate violations of a sexual nature is significant.
We recognize sex is in a different category, that it’s not a leisure activity. When leisure activities go wrong, we give one-star reviews. When sex goes wrong, we call the police. If you force a game of tennis on me, you’re simply weird. If you force sex on me, you’re a rapist. The exceptional evil of rape tells us there’s an exceptional sanctity to sex.
This means modern assumptions about “hookup culture” are nonsense. Sexual activity is significant. It’s a union of persons, not just a union of bodies. It’s profoundly meaningful and not casual or disposable.
2. Sexual self-expression isn’t a right.
I don’t have a right to unleash my sexual desires; I have a responsibility to tame them. And the taming of sexuality—especially male sexuality—is vital for the blessing and protection of others, especially women and children. This has been at the heart of the Christian sexual revolution that has built our modern sensibilities about consent and much more.
3. There are two sexes and they aren’t interchangeable.
All of us struggle in various ways with what it means to be a member of our sex. Culturally speaking, gender expression can indeed be fluid. But people aren’t gender-neutral or gender-interchangeable. Perhaps our neighbors and coworkers may balk at this. But many in the U.K. are returning to this “common sense” position, and I foresee many in the U.S. doing the same.
4. There are sex-defined spaces.
We’ve already mentioned some sex-defined spaces: changing rooms, male and female sports, prisons, rape crisis centers, and so on. You cannot claim a right to enter such spaces simply because you choose to. If I enter a female-only space, I haven’t wonderfully expanded that space to include different ways of being female. I have violated that space.
If I insist my human rights include the right to enter that space, then I, a man, have redefined “female” and essentially destroyed that space. And that isn’t right.
5. In this area, behaviors are more important than desires.
To forbid a biological male from entering a female-only space isn’t to deny his strong sense of being female. Nor does it erase his identity. Instead, in these circumstances, it’s to prioritize the external over the internal and the physical over the mental.
6. There are ways of caring for people who struggle without reordering society around them.
Sometimes inclusion rightly involves society-wide transformations (e.g., racial integration or disability access). But sometimes this isn’t possible or desirable. Our hearts genuinely go out to those who experience great discomfort with their bodies generally and their sex specifically. We want to do all we can to alleviate that discomfort—but we also must uphold the previous five admissions. Sometimes this will mean maintaining certain institutions and structures, and that doesn’t equal bigotry.
7. People have been called ‘bigots’ in this debate who really aren’t.
Passions run hot in the culture wars, and even hotter when it comes to matters of sex and identity. But at times, people have been unfairly called “bigoted” when in fact they’re prizing the well-being of a different overlooked group—such as the interests of women or children.
Marriage Is a Sex-Defined Space
These seven admissions can be agreed on by those who’ve become even a little trans-skeptical. They’re also foundational to the Christian sex ethic. The addition a Christian makes is to say that marriage is also a sex-defined space. It’s the ultimate sex-defined space. And again, if people aren’t gender-neutral, then we can ask our secular friends to consider whether marriage also isn’t gender-neutral. If that’s granted, then everything else in the Christian sexual ethic follows.
We say that sex is significant (1) and therefore sexual self-expression should be trained and restrained (2). We believe that sex (male or female) is integral to sex (the act) and that, because the sexes aren’t interchangeable (3), a male-male relationship is very different from a male-female relationship, which is very different from a female-female relationship. These are simply not the same things. So David Cameron is wrong: adding male-male and female-female relationships to the definition of marriage doesn’t expand marriage—it completely redefines it. (Just as adding biological males to your definition of female redefines “female.”)
Adding male-male and female-female relationships to the definition of marriage doesn’t expand marriage—it completely redefines it. (Just as adding biological males to your definition of female redefines ‘female.’)
I don’t have the right to enter into a sex-defined space simply because I want to (4). If I don’t fit that sex-defined space but insist they include me, I’m insisting they redefine their sex-defined space. But there are some things I don’t have a right to enter or redefine—and marriage is one of them.
This isn’t to erase the existence of those who are same-sex attracted. It’s just to say that, in this area, behaviors are more important than desires (5). We should care greatly for the minority of people who are exclusively same-sex attracted—just as we care greatly for the minority of people who experience gender dysphoria—but that doesn’t have to mean reordering our institutions or sexual ethic (6). Finally, we should admit some have been called bigots who, in fact, have been prizing institutions and often-overlooked groups (such as children) in their adherence to the Christian sexual ethic (7).
I’m not saying any of this will convince our secular friends—not in a single conversation, that’s for sure. But the journey we’ve been on in the U.K. is suggestive of what might happen with the trans conversation in the States and further afield. In the near future, making the case against gender-neutral marriage might, with some people, become easier, not harder.