Commentary

The dangerous deception of Matt Walsh’s documentary “What is a Woman?”

Matt Walsh

The right-wing web is buzzing about the recently released anti-trans documentary What is a Woman? from Daily Wire columnist Matt Walsh. Everyone else seems to be ignoring it. And while I don’t fault the many film critics who allegedly declined to review the film, I decided to run toward the dumpster fire. Ignorance can indeed be frightening, but it must be confronted.

The propaganda project garnered push back even before its June 1 release, when trans activist Eli Erlick accused Walsh of seeking interviews under false pretenses. Erlick, who is a founder of the Trans Student Educational Project, took to Twitter in February to warn community members that the “Gender Unity Project” was not what it seemed.

Related: Anti-trans troll busted setting up fake org to trick trans activists into appearing on camera

It’s telling that the project’s Twitter account has since been suspended and its website no longer exists. Erlick’s claims were confirmed by other members of the transgender community who had been contacted by people involved in the film.

The resulting documentary is framed as an earnest inquiry into womanhood, but Walsh’s anti-trans agenda is clear from the start. No matter how many times he repeats the central question, Walsh is really asking: “Are trans people crazy or what?” and inviting viewers to join him in his conclusion that gender transition is a threat to both individuals and society.

The film opens on a birthday party scene so heavily gendered it calls to mind “But I’m a Cheerleader.” Boys are decked out in blues while girls are adorned in pinks. The boy gets a football while the girl gets a tiara. In a voice-over, Walsh reminisces about the differences between raising boys and girls.

“I got my son a BB gun, and that’s about all the emotional support he needs,” Walsh says, while the boy in the video holds a gun. “Some people say there’s no difference between the sexes. Those people are idiots.”

The film is slickly produced and includes interviews with some reputable sources. But Walsh seems more interested in “exposing” these experts than actually learning from them. He also allows his anti-transgender sources to spout off dangerous disinformation unchecked.

Still, Walsh seems to think he “owned the libs,” claiming that supporters of transgender people can’t debunk his film.

What’s more likely is that folks are hoping to avoid giving the disingenuous and damaging film any more attention. Or, they’ve seen it and they realize how tedious it would be to debunk every false claim. (Spoiler alert: They are plentiful.)

While Walsh’s film is heralded as groundbreaking by those who already oppose transgender rights, it is effectively a supercut of disinformation about — and mockery of — transgender people. What is a Woman? makes many false claims, but none of them are new and most are easily debunked by a quick Google search.

Here are some of the film’s most malignant myths.

Myth: Trans people who medically transition are at increased risk of suicide

In an effort to portray gender transition as dangerous, the film includes the assertion that transition makes people suicidal. This claim is likely rooted in a misinterpretation of the research, promoted by anti-transgender psychiatrist Dr Paul McHugh in a 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed. But the 2011 Swedish study he references was not designed to evaluate the efficacy of gender affirmation surgeries – and its authors caution against such an interpretation. 

Trans journalist Cristan Williams interviewed lead author Dr. Cecilia Dhejne, who expressed her frustration at the ways in which her research had been misrepresented. 

“I’ve even seen professors use my work to support ridiculous claims. I’ve often had to respond myself by commenting on articles, speaking with journalists, and talking about this problem at conferences,” Dhenje said. “People who misuse the study always omit the fact that the study clearly states that it is not an evaluation of gender dysphoria treatment. If we look at the literature, we find that several recent studies conclude that WPATH Standards of Care compliant treatment decrease gender dysphoria and improves mental health.”

Myth: Gender-affirming surgeries are experimental and dangerous

Some of the worst fear-mongering comes from transgender man Scott Newgent, who is on a crusade against medical transition for youth.

In the film, Newgent says that gender-affirming surgery comes with a 67 percent complication risk, and shows the scar from his phalloplasty related skin-graft for dramatic effect. Phalloplasty, a complex procedure, is not without risk of complications. However, rates are much lower than the 67 percent Newgent claims, and vary depending on the approach taken by the surgeon. A 2017 study found that rates of urethral complications were between 31.5 and 32.8 percent, depending on the approach.

It’s also not the most commonly sought transition-related surgery. Trans-masculine individuals are much more likely to seek a double mastectomy (aka “top surgery”), which has a complication rate of about 12 percent. And many trans people don’t seek any surgical interventi0ns, which casts doubt on his claim that for every child “convinced” to transition, big pharma rakes in $1.3 million.

While it is unfortunate that Newgent had a negative experience of medical transition, his misguided efforts to protect others from his own fate is likely to do more harm than good.

Myth: “Real” transgender people are exceptionally rare

Anti-trans psychologist Dr. Miriam Grossman says in the film that she believes that people aren’t really transgender unless they experience gender dysphoria — a group she claims constitutes either 1 in 110,000 or 1 in 30,000 people. But even the more generous assessment vastly undercounts the number of transgender people. According to the Williams Institute at UCLA, at least 0.6 percent of the population is likely transgender, which is 200 times more than Grossman’s 0.003 percent.

And the numbers among younger generations are even higher. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that about 5 percent of people under the age of 30 are transgender or nonbinary.

Myth: If a child believes in Santa Claus they can’t know they are transgender

Walsh is so convinced that the gender identities of (trans) children are a figment of their imaginations that he wrote a children’s book about it. His book, Johnny the Walrus, tells the story of a child who believes he is a walrus and his mother’s efforts to affirm his identity. The mockery of trans people was initially miscategorized by Amazon, leading Walsh to claim he is a best-selling LGBTQ children’s book author.

But it is widely accepted by pediatric professionals that children develop an awareness of their gender as toddlers. This awareness is unquestioned when it aligns with the expectations of the parents (i.e. with cisgender children) but is treated as fantasy or mental illness when it doesn’t. And while not all gender non-conforming children grow up to be transgender, trans identities among adolescents tend to persist.

Myth: Transgender identities are a modern, Western invention

It’s clear that either Walsh hasn’t done his homework, or he doesn’t want to.

“For all of human existence, women were understood to be a certain thing,” he claims. “What changed?”

Walsh travels all the way to Kenya in an effort to portray transgender people as a ridiculous Western trend, when a simple search would have revealed that diverse, nonbinary gender identities are a global and historical reality. From the hijra in India to Two-Spirit identities in indigenous American cultures, trans-spectrum identities are not new.

His framing of womanhood as a simple, unchanging notion is not accurate either. While there are some common associations with what it means to be a woman — such as bearing children — every culture and time has a different take on womanhood. And few people would claim that not having children precludes someone from being a woman.

Myth: Walsh just wants to understand what it means to be a woman

If Walsh’s agenda were not apparent at the start of the film, it is crystal clear by the end. Toward the close of the film, Walsh shows footage of a stunt he pulled in Loudon County, Virginia, where false rumors of a transgender rapist swept the country. Far from being a neutral observer, Walsh rented a basement apartment in the area just so he could comment at a school board meeting and accuse its members of being child abusers and poisonous predators.

If that weren’t enough, Walsh has made it painstakingly clear on Twitter that his objective is to eliminate transgender people by “bring[ing] down gender ideology” and destroying the “gender cult.”

For those who take the film at face value, Walsh paints a frightening image of mutilated children and confused professionals — of an immoral ideology threatening the Western Christian way of life — all under the guise of a serious documentary. As a result, the film provides ammunition for those who seek to deprive transgender people of access to affirming and life-saving healthcare.

And as much as trans folks and their supporters would like the film to fade into obscurity, right-wing activists and politicians are eating it up. Among those promoting the film is Texas state Rep. Matt Schaefer (R).

Even “gender-critical feminists” (aka TERFs) are boosting the signal, despite some frustration over a man taking credit for the lies they’ve been telling for years. Ultimately, they both see transgender people as a “mutual enemy.”

Perhaps one of the biggest lies promoted by the film is that “the left” is unable to answer the “simple” question: What is a woman? In reality, all of the trans-supportive people interviewed offered an answer; Walsh just didn’t like the responses he got. At least, not until he asked his wife at the close of the film. She replied, “An adult human female — who needs help opening this,” as she handed him a jar of pickles.

Alison Bechdel eviscerates offensive “Fire Island” hot take. It passes the Bechdel Test now.

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