Robert Webb is best known for making people laugh, but he conducted himself with poise and grace when he was ambushed by American podcast host Jesse Thorn. Thorn had invited Webb and long-time collaborator David Mitchell to talk about their latest show, and their experiences performing together as a double act over the years. But the programme ended in yet another episode of the transgender inquisition.
This was personal. Thorn told listeners he has two gender non-conforming children, ‘one of who is transgender,’ as he called Webb to account for criticising gender charity Mermaids UK in December 2018.
Back then, Webb wrote a message of support for Times columnist Janice Turner, who had spoken out against ‘dangerous unscientific ideology’ after it emerged Mermaids had been awarded half a million pounds of lottery cash.
‘I’ve talked to some really nice trans people here and they have my solidarity,’ wrote Webb, ‘but Mermaids sucks’.
The onslaught was predictable. Webb – who later deleted the tweet – later said those words had ‘real-life professional consequences’. But nonetheless he was clear he didn’t regret what he wrote: in a recent interview, he lamented the fact that ‘you can’t acknowledge that there are going to be competing interests here and there without that becoming, ‘You are a bigot.’’
For all the furious reaction from the mob, many people agreed with Webb. It wasn’t the first time Webb had been brave enough to enter the gender debate. In his 2017 memoir How Not To Be a Boy, he explored the absurd expectations thrust upon men and boys. In the words of one reviewer, ‘he also examines, with enormous poignancy and insight, the damage that can be done when young boys are encouraged to behave in ways supposedly befitting their gender’.
It’s clear that Webb’s liberal credentials are impeccable. Yet for Thorn – who sounded uninterested in a nuanced debate on the subject – it wasn’t enough. After pointedly ignoring what Webb had to say on the matter, he fired his own opinions into the discussion. The subject of the last five minutes of the podcast wasn’t Webb – and certainly not David Mitchell who had been relegated to the status of startled bystander – but Thorn himself. He announced it was ‘kind of scary for me’ because his elder child ‘was transgender’ and came out to him when he was in kindergarten. Thorn went on to promote a US-based organisation that he claimed, ‘does many of the same things that Mermaids does’.
I may be transgender, but my feelings about Mermaids chime with Webb rather than Thorn. In my view, Mermaids’ unwillingness to properly question a child’s self-declared gender identity is deeply troubling. Children should be free to express themselves, without the burden of sexist expectations, but we must be honest with them: they cannot change sex. Otherwise, gender-non-conforming children might be led to believe they need unnecessary medical treatments that could mean lifelong medication and infertility.
Thorn’s final interrogation of Webb was unpleasant and uncomfortable, like a contemptuous headmaster chastising a student. Webb weathered it admirably, but the person I worry about most in this sorry saga is Thorn’s child. According to Thorn:
‘Our kid is nine. Puberty is on the horizon. This year for the first time she saw a doctor who specialises in adolescent medicine for trans kids. We’re so grateful we live in LA and have access to caring medical pros who are up on the latest research and standards of care.’Jesse Thorn – Twitter
I sympathise with Thorn’s child, but I’m deeply worried for them. Puberty blockers and cross sex-hormones are no cure for gender non-conforming behaviour.
As for Thorn, he certainly didn’t want to listen to Webb, a man who struggled with expectations of masculinity and even wrote a book about it. And Webb’s response – perhaps inevitably – will be to learn from his ‘mistake’ and never again speak out on the transgender debate. For those of us who value dissenting voices, that would be a great pity. But who could blame him?
Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.