An academic exercise


It was reported in the news that Richard Dawkins – author and humanist – recently posted this on his Twitter account:

In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP, was vilified for identifying as Black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.

Richard Dawkins

After receiving criticism, he added:

“I do not intend to disparage trans people. I see that my academic ‘Discuss’ question has been misconstrued as such and I deplore this. It was also not my intent to ally in any way with Republican bigots in US now exploiting this issue.”

Richard Dawkins

The kindest thing I can say is that people make mistakes. A less forgiving view is that as someone who’s very visible in the media and is no stranger to having his views on atheism attacked, I would expect more thought and care from him.

Can we start with the point on discussion? The validity on being trans is not up for debate. Certainly no more than “are you sure you’re just not confused and might be straight?” Or, to be a little more tongue in cheek – and I can make this joke because I’m an atheist 🙂 – “You’re only an unbeliever because you’ve not heard the right sermons yet.” This is, of course, tosh.

Gee, I don’t believe in a god and I’m trans. Well, I guess we know where I’m going when I die. That’s right, nowhere 😉

I an part of the transgender spectrum and while I consider myself trans, or genderfluid, I do not consider myself a woman. I might present as one while out and that can put me at risk due to our society’s views on what it thinks it’s okay to do to women. However, for trans friends who have transitioned, they are very much their new gender.

To say otherwise is at best uninformed, leaning towards rude and possibly cruel at the other end of behaviour. If I was out and you yelled “that’s a man!”, two things would happen. One, I’d think you were rude and a dick. Secondly, those who overheard you would probably think the same. 😛

Joking aside, can you tell the difference at between a part timer like myself who does not consider themselves a woman, and sometime who has transitioned and who is a woman? To state “that’s a man” is incredibly rude and I would add that some women – as in ‘assigned female at birth’ – have had that said about them during the bathroom Bill debacle. To make this personal, imagine if someone said that to a female friend, a sister, your mum, etc. How might they feel?

To be neither a person of colour or trans, and then to ask for a discussion on those communities is insensitive. Right now, people of colour and trans folk are under attack. I make no joke when I say that in some parts of the world, you can die from being black, trans, or both. With TERFs and certain elements of the right wing pushing an anti-trans agenda, I think we can say, things are not going well. In dear Old Blighty, our current PM, believes that there’s not really a problem around race and it’s just a class issue. Again, someone in power who isn’t listening or looking, and is very much coming across as tone deaf and out of touch. Hell, I’m white with no friends from such communities and yet when I listen to the experiences of colleagues, to deny them seems… monumentally ignorant.

Apartheid 2.0

So, what should we be discussing? If you’d like an academic exercise, I’ll happily offer the following up as topics:

  • The continued success of anti-trans bills to block treatment and deny trans people access to sports. Include how this goes against expert and scientific based advice on what works well. Discuss the effect on the child’s and their family’s mental health.
  • In 2021, what it is about a fraction of the population wanting equal treatment in terms of employment, access to medical care, and the use of public services, that has united a group of disparate groups to hone their discrimination against a minority group? Discuss.
  • The rise of populism, fear politics, and othering in the media and society. How has this lead to a rise in hate crimes, attacks of women, and fascist ideology in the mainstream. Discuss.

L x

PS: please leave any essays in the usual pigeon hole for marking. The excuse of ‘The Daily Heil ate my homework’ will not be accepted 😉


  1. This is a weakness that surfaces from time to time in academic thinking made evident through their discourse – presenting as detached observer by choosing a particular style of expression which they imagine removes them from context. It is not enough to say ‘Discuss’ as if this removes all judgement from the foregoing. If the esteemed prof. had ended ‘only saying’ he would have blown his cover completely. It is legitimate to invite academic discussion of topics which means a considered examination of different viewpoints and whether there is evidence for them and with consideration of the sensitivities of those who have the lived experience but Twitter is axiomatically not a place for this kind of discussion. It is a place where people lob hand grenades then stand back to watch the carnage.
    Now he is claiming he did not intend to disrespect anyone, but this would be exposed by transactional analysis as playing the game of ‘I was only trying to help’ a version of ‘poor me’ or ‘I’m the victim here’. It’s not the adult response.

    If he wants the public to understand transgender identity then he should be promoting the accounts of transgender individuals first as these constitute the evidence. (Has he done this? I don’t know.) It’s very disappointing.

  2. Hi Lynn,

    A timely lead-in! I’m guessing I’ll not be the first to share the link to the news that the American Humanist Association has formally withdrawn its 1996 “Humanist of the Year” from Dawkins!


    1. Oddly enough, you are the first person to post that link. Well, at least here 🙂

      A few years back, I was listening to Richard talk on the BBC’s Infinite Monkey Cage about his experiences during a speaking tour of America. He said that after his talk, some of the attendees explained that it was easier – as in less hassle / less judgement – to be out as LGBTQ+ than open about their atheism.

  3. I commented on another blog along these lines too, that Richard Dawkins is a master of his craft when it comes to explaining evolution and expounding biological theories, but when tackling matters outside his immediate field he is lazy and doesn’t do much research. Although his work on atheism is much appreciated by atheists (myself included), as someone who was previously religious I can see and understand where the other side is coming from, which Dawkins doesn’t. In writing “The God Delusion”, for instance, someone in his high position in academia could so easily have contacted colleagues in other fields that he touches on, such as psychology and neurology, to ensure he was accurate but instead writes sloppily on such matters, which is a pity since his works on evolutionary biology and genetics, by contrast, are clear, precise and visionary. So I think it is a great pity that someone with his background who could perhaps do more than anyone to clarify why some people might be trans from biological, evolutionary and genetic perspectives chooses to keep his contribution at the same sloppy level of sociopolitical polemic. Sue x

    1. I think I’d have been very interested to read on a collation of the biological, evolutionary, and genetic perspectives, Sue. More information on people who are intersex as well perhaps.

      I’ll add an extra star to your submission for use of the word polemic 😉

  4. “To be neither a person of colour or trans, and then to ask for a discussion on those communities is insensitive”

    A simple question, if your not trans or coloured how do you find out about those communities without asking questions? Its not as if you get lessons on the subject.

    Just how do you find out about the issues? Its not as if something like the Daily Wail is going to be objective!

    Somebody that understands or at least knows something about the typical situation that a trans or coloured persons has to endure is far more likely to be helpful or tell 3rd parties to back off

    1. I think there’s a complex system around academic freedoms, social acceptance, good manners, kindness, and dog whistle politics.

      PS: people of colour, not ‘coloured’, please ♥️

      So, I feel it’s one thing to ask about the experiences of people of colour. A good example of this would be Grayson Perry’s Tour of America in which he asks some quite probing questions to a group of people from the black community.

      Looking at the tweet from Dawkins, there’s a couple of danger points in there. Firstly, the situation around Rachel Dolezal needs to be treated with care. To many people, blackface and indeed yellowface, is deeply offensive. I am not saying RD did those things or did not do those things. From what I understand at a very basic level, she is from a white European heritage. Reading the Wikipedia article on the matter is just a summary. 🙂

      On top of that comes two more things, IMO. The wording of the phrase “some men choose to identify as women…” is clumsy at best and has also been used by anti-trans folk with air quotes to signal that’s it’s false. The latter is bigotry hidden in pedantry (not by Dawkins), and is often used to undermine a trans person transitioning to their new gender.

      There is also a whiff of comparing ‘blacking up’ or pretending to be another race with another complex situation, that of being transgender, and you top that off with the hypothetical speaker being the victim. That’s a card often played by folk who want to trigger a minority person into an angry reaction.

      On the subject of the latter, the term discuss also suggests that being trans is up for debate. No it isn’t. Being transgender is very much a real thing: as valid as being gay, straight, or bi. Academics do not get to debate our existence.

      There are ways in which Dawkins could have enquired – with tact 🙂 – about the transgender experience and the impact of challenging from a variety of views. Not a binary of progressive vs conservative, but a rounded investigation on children, teens, parents, adults, organisations, etc. I believe you can do that without being pro or anti, however it’s a minefield and not a discussion we really need. What we really need is to see the effect discrimination has on the vulnerable and to protect them.

      To answer your final question on how do you find out, there’s plenty of charities and organisations who represent people of colour and/or transgender people. Starting with reading their advice around respect, tolerance, and what you can do to help. IMO, that would be a great start.

  5. I agree. And I would add that he has used the cloak of ‘academic’ discourse …..’provocative comment. Discuss.’… rather disingenuously to appear neutral and then to offer the ‘I was only trying to help’ defence. Substitute ‘Only saying’ and the message becomes clearer – more golf club bar reflexive anti-diversity than Magdalen senior common room academic inquiry.
    It’s disappointing. The Selfish Gene remains a transformative read, though.

  6. Hi Lynn, good post. This is by way of a test to see if this reply gets posted as it’s the third reply I’ve made and so far none have been published. I’m starting to feel like Word Press have cancelled me 🤣. Not sure what I am doing wrong. I fill in the asterisked boxes. Swear to God I’m not a robot.
    Each attempt has got shorter so here’s the telegram version: ‘Rachel Dolezal comparison. Discuss’ is just academic cover for ‘Gender is biology. Only saying’. Frankly, disingenuous. You can do better than that Prof. D.

    1. If at any time you’ve used the phrase “Are you Sarah Connor?” you’re on the naughty step. Sorry, ‘thinking chair’ 😁

      Sometimes WP gets a bit fussy about people who post and then I have to approve their comment. Apologies for any inconvenience.

      Update: looking at your previous comments, they were all under the name Midnight and with an ‘ADB’ email address, whereas the one that got stuck had your male name and the same email. That may have been enough to make WordPress be uncertain, so it defaulted to waiting for approval. At least the antispam system didn’t eat your comment 🙂

      The ‘only saying’… yeah. That’s a cover for a few unpleasant conversations. 🙂

      1. I post as Anon, why? Its not that I don’t trust Lynn with real Ids, I just don’t like outfits like Google spying on what I have to say or what I do.

        It does have the problem that some there are all sorts of anti spam/bigot devices and filters to stop some of the nauseating crap that might otherwise get posted.

        1. I’m no WordPress expert, but from what I’ve seen so far, as a regular poster, so long as you are using the same name, email address, and – if you use it – a web address, the comments system generally lets you through without waiting.

          For new folk, you’ll need to be approved initially, but I know a few Google blogs that are like that.

          Talking of Google, there’s no Google Ads or integration with Blogger. The antispam CAPTCHA does use Google’s services, so there’s that. At least, until I can find a reliable, open, and stable alternative.

          Perhaps a burner email address with Proton? 🙂

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