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Richard Dawkins used his new podcast to promote more transphobic lies
In a conversation with Helen Joyce, Dawkins showed he hasn't learned anything about this issue
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Richard Dawkins recently launched a podcast called “The Poetry of Reality,” which could easily be a wonderful venue for him to talk about evolution to an audience that hasn’t read his books yet. Instead, the only original episode so far (as opposed to older interviews or speeches) was just released over the weekend… and it’s with notorious transphobe Helen Joyce, who has no expertise in the subject matter but has been obsessed with the topic for years and has plenty of ties to the most notorious anti-trans voices online.
Joyce has previously said transgender people who have transitioned are “damaged” and “a huge problem to a sane world.” She believes “reducing” the number of people who transition is a moral imperative. A review of her book in the New York Times by someone else who’s anti-trans (commissioned by an editor who’s also anti-trans) created an uproar among LGBTQ people and allies.
If Dawkins brought her on to call her out on any of this, fair enough. But that’s not what he did. It was a 52-minute discussion in which he fawned over their shared bigotry.
It would take up a lot more space to explain every single problem with Joyce’s comments in this interview, but I figured I could at least point out the places Dawkins got things wrong and why I believe his support of people like Joyce is harmful to LGBTQ people as well as his own reputation—something I’ve written about before.
4:05: “Sex really is binary. No question about it. You're either male or female… It is to me, as a biologist, distinctly weird that people can simply declare ‘I am a woman though I have a penis.’”
The binary thing is literally not true, as just about any biologist could tell you, and it’s embarrassing that Dawkins is repeating it. He’s implying that male and female descriptions come down to simple gametes and genetics—whether you have XX or XY chromosomes and the parts to match it—but the situation can get much more complicated than that. If you acknowledge that intersex people exist (as Dawkins does) and that there are variations even within that category and that genetic blueprints don’t tell you someone’s entire story, the supposed binary stops being as clean-cut as he would have us believe. This recent video from YouTuber Jackson Wagon does a really good job of explaining the nuance:
12:25: “There is peer pressure and even teacher pressure… to really go against reality” [and affirm transgender children].
Dawkins led up to that quotation by citing a letter he received from a child who said she went to a school where being gay or trans was seen as “cool,” and that made her question being heterosexual. Dawkins just takes this as gospel and suggests this “peer pressure” and “teacher pressure” to be LGBTQ really exists.
Even if any of that was true, it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference. Your friends and teachers can’t turn you gay or trans. Even if this confused child thought for a while that she might be LGBTQ, that wouldn’t mean she actually was. More importantly, that’s not what any of the serious political debates/laws/controversies are about. Dawkins has empathy for that child, which is fine, but then he just parrots her own misunderstanding of the situation. If more people are coming out as trans these days, we ought to celebrate how people who were previously in the closet no longer feel the need to hide who they are. Not everything is a conspiracy theory.
If teachers accept a student’s self-identification (and use their pronouns and avoid their dead name), that’s not a form of pressure either. That’s just a sign of respect. Dawkins says in the interview that he does indeed respect trans people… and yet when others do just that, he mocks it.
16:03: “Love bomb. That’s what religious cults do.”
This line comes in response to people celebrating trans children. Joyce said people in a trans-friendly Facebook group she got access to were helping their kids transition, and others in the group were overwhelmingly supportive. Dawkins just can’t believe it, comparing their actions to religious cults… instead of just basic human decency.
To be clear, whatever Facebook group this is, transitioning doesn’t occur just because children declare themselves to be trans. Doctors don’t immediately put them on hormones, much less perform gender affirming surgery. There’s a lengthy process involved and studies have shown that accepting trans kids rather than demonizing them is (no surprise here) better for their mental health.
18:58: “JK Rowling is very brave.”
No. No she is not.
24:55: “I'm perfectly happy to address a trans person by their preferred name and preferred pronouns. I think it's just a matter of politeness, really. What I object to is the insistence that ‘I am a woman.’ I mean, you're not a woman. I'm perfectly prepared to call you ‘she’ if you like and call you whatever your preferred name is, but to say ‘I am a woman’ is a debauching of language, and that's where I draw the line.”
Dawkins wants you to think he’s a trans ally in this sense. He’ll treat trans people with respect… even though he dismisses their gender identity.
But he’s not actually respectful at all. Consider how, repeatedly in the interview, Joyce goes out of her way to deny trans identities. After Dawkins makes that comment, Joyce says it’s a slippery slope: If you use a trans woman’s pronoun, she’ll also demand you call her a woman. Elsewhere in the interview, she describes a group of trans men as “six young women, all of whom had thought they were boys.” (There are a number of examples like that.)
Never once does Dawkins correct Joyce when she misgenders people. He doesn’t ask her to show trans people the respect he claims to have for them. He just rolls with it because it doesn’t actually bother him.
28:48: “Let's talk about sports for a moment. Somebody who a moderately good swimmer as a man but kind of mediocre, and then suddenly just says ‘I am a woman’… and, because he says ‘I'm a woman,’ he's then allowed to go and break all the records of female swimming. That seems to be unserious…”
So much for respecting their pronouns. Dawkins thinks trans people include those who just get up one day and insist they’re a different gender. That’s not how it works.
But let’s talk about sports for a second. Dawkins thinks a male swimmer who’s just okay can claim to be a woman and then “break all the records of female swimming.” Again, that’s not how it works. The NCAA, for example, requires trans women to undergo testosterone testing before competition. An earlier policy called for at least “one year of testosterone suppression treatment” before a trans athlete was eligible to participate in women’s sports. Lia Thomas, the trans swimmer who broke some records and has been the focus of many bigots, had already qualified under the NCAA’s older rules; the NCAA’s more recent updates led to some backlash even among LGBTQ supporters because the rules can be confusing. But you would think collegiate and professional leagues have a vested interest in preserving competition. They’re taking this seriously and have no desire to create loopholes for athletes looking to gain an unfair edge. (It’s telling that trans women have not dominated women’s sports even if they occasionally win some meets.)
More than anything, the idea that a mediocre male athlete would pretend to be a trans woman for the chance to win some college swim meets is ludicrous on the surface. What glory are they hoping to find?! Most people don’t give a damn about college swimming (regardless of gender). I watch SportsCenter all the time and I can’t name a single male swimmer who hasn’t been in the Olympics. I would bet good money that just about all the people who insist men are pretending to be trans to get a leg up in women’s sports couldn’t tell you who the recent national champions were in college swimming (much less high school). They probably couldn’t even tell you who won the women’s NCAA basketball tournament, which gets plenty of national buzz. Hell, I doubt they could tell you the starting lineup of a single WNBA team. The notion that some people are choosing to be trans, and dealing with all the bullshit that people like Thomas have had to face, all to win competitions that rarely result in sponsorship deals or media attention, makes no sense whatsoever.
Even if that ever happened, most collegiate athletes never go professional. The opportunities in sports that don’t have an active professional league is even slimmer. Pretending to be trans for life for the chance to compete for a couple of years in a college sport so you can maybe win a medal or two just fails every test of common sense.
If the argument is that trans women have biological advantages that are unfair, well, so does Michael Phelps. He’s a human freak of nature. But no one’s suggesting he should’ve been banned from swimming because of that.
Either way, Dawkins is flat-out wrong to claim a male athlete can just declare himself to be a woman in order to win a competition.
38:46: “Nobody wants to be called a bigot, but why does all the abuse go one way?… Why did all the bullying go one way?”
This is how in-a-bubble Dawkins is. He thinks trans people and their allies are too mean to the bigots. He thinks the “bullying” only goes in one direction. Meanwhile, 20 states have considered or passed laws banning gender affirming care while a few are considering the same for trans adults. These laws wreak havoc on the families of trans people. When trans people are in the public eye for reasons that have nothing to do with them being trans, they’re repeatedly harassed by right-wing trolls.
But Dawkins once had an award rescinded because of his anti-trans comments… so he thinks the bullying only goes in one direction.
None of this is new for Dawkins. He’s been pushing right-wing anti-trans talking points for years now. I’m bothered because I hate that his otherwise excellent science writing is tarnished by this bizarre obsession. Tarnished because I no longer feel comfortable recommending his books to people who want to educate themselves about evolution. It’s shocking to me that one of the best long-form science writers of all time has turned out to be one of the worst short-form writers, as seen on Twitter.
I’m also annoyed because, whether I like it or not, Dawkins remains the go-to atheist for reporters and authors. The guy whose whole schtick is spreading reason has decided to spread bullshit on an issue he clearly doesn’t understand, and he continues to surround himself with people who echo his ignorance. The Center for Inquiry, which merged with his foundation, has refused to break ties with him.
Questioning trans identities is nothing more than a fun little hypothetical for him. Meanwhile, trans people are subject to political attacks and dehumanizing laws. Dawkins has not used his massive platforms to denounce those attacks. Instead, he gives an hour of airtime to people like Joyce.
Just this past week, Dawkins published an essay answering the question “What is a woman?” (His answer? A woman is “an adult human female, free of Y chromosomes.”) Nowhere in the essay did he point out the injustices faced by trans people just trying to get through the damn day while facing conservative-created obstacles to their well-being. He doesn’t care. He thinks calling trans people by their names and pronouns is more than enough. When other people spend their careers making trans lives worse, he’s more than happy to help them spread their message.
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