Eddie Izzard and the denigration of women


Brendan O’Neill
 (Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images)

I’m done with being white. It’s boring. From now on I choose to identify as black and I insist that you all refer to me as a black man. Please do not mis-race me. Of course I am not going to do this because it would be mad and also a tad racist. Clearly I am not black. And I expect that calling myself black would be an affront to actual black people, who would rightfully point out that I am as white as the driven snow. ‘You can’t just put on the black identity like a piece of clothing’, they’d say, and rational people everywhere would agree.

So why, then, is it okay for Eddie Izzard to announce to the world that he is switching to ‘girl mode’? More than okay, in fact — since saying on a TV show last week that he wants to be referred to with female pronouns from now on, Izzard has won praise and accolades from newspapers and campaign groups.

Everyone, instantly and uncritically, has bowed down to his request. From the Guardian to Wikipedia, Izzard is now a woman, no questions asked. ‘Eddie Izzard is an English stand-up comedian [and] actress’, Wikipedia informs us. That was quick: from actor to actress with the click of manicured fingers.

Just imagine if a white celebrity said he was switching to ‘black mode’. Imagine the furore that would ensue. In fact we don’t have to imagine. We know. Remember Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter president, a white woman who passed herself off as black for many years? She still gets flak and ridicule for that. For a white woman to ‘identify as black’ is ludicrous, everyone says.

But it’s fine for a man to identify as a woman? It’s brilliant, in fact, for Izzard to go from ‘boy mode’ to ‘girl mode’? The female identity can be put on like a piece of clothing? Why this double standard?

Izzard announced his move into ‘girl mode’ last week on an episode of the Sky Arts TV show Portrait Artist of the Year. He said he intends ‘to be based in girl mode from now on’. He has previously identified as a transvestite, as transgender, and also as a ‘lesbian trapped in a man’s body’, which, I’m sorry, is bloody offensive to lesbians. Lesbianism is women being sexually attracted to women, not heterosexual men believing that their attraction to women is some fascinating transgressive identity rather than, you know, just straightness.

Izzard’s switch to ‘girl mode’ has been fawned over. Stonewall praised Izzard’s bravery, describing his public declaration of making a shift from ‘boy’ to ‘girl’ as ‘courageous’. Brave? Bravery is running into a burning building to save someone’s life or travelling to Syria to fight with the Kurds against Isis. It isn’t brave for a 58-year-old man to embrace the most media-celebrated identity of our times — genderfluidity.

This Izzard story is important because it forces us to confront the denigration of language, especially the language around biology, sex and gender. Most people are happy to use female pronouns for men who have been through some form of gender transition process. Even many of those who question whether such people really do become women are prepared to use female pronouns as a courtesy.

But Izzard is asking for something a little different. He is very clearly male. He’s the same as he always was. To the best of our knowledge he has not undergone any kind of meaningful medical transition. And yet he wants to be known as a woman. A serious question: what gives him the right to make this request? And shouldn’t the rest of us be at liberty to say, ‘I’m sorry, you are male. You may of course wear what you like and do what you like, but you are a ‘he’, not a ‘she’’?

I’m worried about what will happen if we don’t do this; if we fail to stand up for the meaning of words. Confusion will set in, especially among younger generations, and people’s right to describe reality itself will be shot down. Already people are being branded as ‘transphobes’ — and very often hounded and demonised by woke mobs — if they say sex is real, and immutable, and that if you were born male you will die male. These are all truths, but you will be punished for expressing them. It used to be a sin to say the Earth was not at the centre of the solar system; now it’s a sin to say that people with penises are men, not women.

Failing to defend truth and reason will lead to the denigration of what it means to be a woman. I think the reason it is acceptable for men to say they are women, where it wouldn’t be acceptable for a white person to claim to be a black person, is because womanhood has been robbed of all meaning by the more extreme elements in the genderfluidity movement.


It’s sometimes difficult even to say the word ‘woman’ these days. They’re referred to as ‘people who bleed’, ‘birthing people’, ‘womxn’, because apparently using the w-word is offensive to genderfluidity activists. It is this relentless denigration of what it means to be a woman, the transformation of womanhood into mere garb one can put on whenever one chooses, that means even people who are very clearly men can now demand: ‘Call me ‘she’.’

Eddie Izzard, like everyone else, deserves to have a happy, fulfilled life. But his needs do not and must not overrule the right of everyone else to talk about the real world as it exists. Someone needs to tell Eddie that womanhood is not a ‘mode’ — it’s a real thing, and it deserves some respect


Brendan O’Neill

Response on behalf of Focus: The Identity Trust

Suzy Eddie Izzard and the Denigration of Language?

Linda-May Ballard, CEO, Focus: the Identity Trust

Rereading this article a few years on from when it was first published, I’m again struck by the ‘common sense’ arguments it puts forward. It confronts us with the problems of Izzard’s perhaps less than sensitive remark, ‘I’m a wannabe lesbian’ (for example, Loose Women, Friday, 30 June 2017), and with the difficulties, even the dangers, of conflating gender identity, sexuality, gender fluidity and gender transition. It highlights the need for clear and precise language and the need to ‘describe reality as it is’. Izzard is back in the news this week, speaking among other things about her intention to stand as a Labour candidate in the next General Election. Journalist Nick Curtis reports that, when asked about her new silhouette, Izzard’s response is that ‘She’d rather not say if she’s had surgery: “There’s mental transitioning and physical transitioning, but I’m going to keep that to myself’ (Evening Standard, 24/5/23) and indeed, she has a right to this privacy. All those individuals who have transitioned in gender, acquired Gender Recognition Certificates and changed their birth certificates also have a right to confidentiality, to ‘disappear’ and to live their lives to the full in their ‘acquired’ gender without having this referred to ever again. On the one hand, their absolute right to ‘go off grid’ helps to render it difficult to garner facts about the lives and experiences of those who choose this route to privacy while living as transgender. On the other, their confidentiality is a fragile thing and they may well live with the constant anxiety of having deeply private aspects of their personal lives disclosed, even disclosed unintentionally, with potentially devastating consequences that may include effectively being hounded out of employment, irrespective of their legal rights, as a consequence of social and cultural pressures that are deeply rooted in prejudice and misunderstanding.

Is Izzard courageous in taking her current stance? Well, perhaps. As she said a few years ago, ‘I’m not wearing women’s clothes – I’m wearing clothes.’ In this respect, she may be as common sensical as Brendan O’Neill. I’m a woman, and no one has ever questioned my right to wear trousers or jeans, but it was not ever thus, even for the generation before mine. Clearly, this relates to how we construct our cultural concepts and understandings of gender, something which obviously changes over time (for instance, where have all the castrati gone?), and which in turn relates to how we use forms of communication including language to give this expression. It’s well known that some languages, Finnish, for instance, or Hungarian, are ‘genderless’ in the sense that they do not have pronouns indicative of gender. ‘The challenge in adding gender neutral language to gendered languages is not creating the word, it is creating the behavior. The culture has to adapt to the word [and, we might suggest, to the accommodation of, or to the reluctance or failure to accept, associated behaviours] for it to be widely and comfortably used’. (Anon, https://ingcointernational.com/non-binary-pronouns-impact-gendered-languages/). And of course, Izzard isn’t using neutral language, isn’t seeking to be known as ‘they’, despite the apparent duality of her persona: she prefers being called ‘Suzy’ and ‘she’, but ‘Eddie’ and ‘he’ are still acceptable to her. If the challenge is creating the behaviour, then how do we go about this in a reasonable, perhaps even a common sensical way that manages to enhance and develop language rather than assisting in its degeneration? O’Neill contends that ‘womanhood has been robbed of all meaning by the more extreme elements in the genderfluidity movement’. Izzard, on the other hand, wants ‘freedom of speech, tolerance, and understanding’. That’s not extreme, that’s common sense.

O’Neill concedes ‘Most people are happy to use female pronouns for men who have been through some form of gender transition process. Even many of those who question whether such people really do become women are prepared to use female pronouns as a courtesy’. This may be a little less than generous. It also ignores, as so often is the case,  the fact of female to male transition. One young transgender man was talking to me not long ago about the peer bullying that may be experienced in adolescence. For example, this young person, at a time when he was in the throes of a deeply painful transition – not at that stage of gender but from child to adulthood – once went into the lavatory of his all girl school to find that someone had scrawled ‘X [his given, female name and very obviously intended as a reference to him] is a homosexual male’. (He had not yet begun transition, although at the time it was becoming increasingly clear to him that he was transgender and was experiencing profound agony as a consequence of his gender identity)  At once, this highlights for us both the casual cruelty of schoolroom bullying and the casual accuracy of the young. I think it is salutatory to take this into consideration alongside O’Neill’s statement ‘Confusion will set in, especially among younger generations, and people’s right to describe reality itself will be shot down. Already people are being branded as ‘transphobes’ — and very often hounded and demonised by woke mobs — if they say sex is real’. The young transgender man to whom I refer is now happily involved in a long term and deeply committed, very loving relationship with another man.  The extraordinary thing is that in her nastiness, his bullying peer was uncannily accurate. So, are we ok with the idea that a transgender man may be gay [we might even dare say homosexual], are we happy to cover this with the fig leaf of ‘queer’, and how does it sit with O’Neill’s justifiable defence of lesbians? And how do we assist younger people to navigate confusion while realising that they may be more brutally aware of the reality than older heads realise. Complicated, isn’t it?

To take up O’Neill’s point about being ‘Branded as “transphobes”’, I’ve witnessed individuals who have gone through all the arduous processes of complying with the Gender Recognition Act only to be shouted down and accused of transphobia if they express opinions that do not comply with the views of what O’Neill identifies as ‘the more extreme elements in the genderfluidity movement’. I’ve been shouted down in the same way myself. I haven’t transitioned, so I find this less hurtful, easier to laugh off, than is the case for someone who has undergone that process. When I do laugh it off, the slur changes to ‘homophobic’. I’m neither homophobic nor transphobic. Let’s be quite clear, transphobia and homophobia are pernicious, wicked and deeply rooted in prejudice and misunderstanding. There is no excuse for using the terms as means of attack, as slogans to try to silence opinions that do not concur with one’s own.

I’d suggest that we hear all the voices, from the more to the less extreme. With Izzard, I’d suggest that we really do given freedom of speech a chance. I’d suggest that whatever our opinions, we speak in a quiet, measured, confident and respectful way. Among other things, I’d recommend that we need to recognise that being what is now loosely called ‘trans’ and transitioning in gender are not the same thing. While some people who transition in gender may do so while identifying as ‘gender fluid’, many others do not. Several of them simply ‘disappear’ after transition to get on with their lives and whether these lives are hetero, homo or bisexual is both another matter entirely and no one’s business but theirs. Theirs may be the most difficult voices to find for inclusion in the debate, so let’s not discourage them or shout them out if and when they do dare to speak. Of course, if we are going to hear the voices, we’re all going to need to know when to listen as well as when to speak. And when we speak, we need a vocabulary that is clear, precise and respectful of all. If the discourse is going be anything other than destructive, and if we want to ensure it produces more than hot air, we need as O’Neill points out, to be careful to ensure that it does not descend into the mere denigration of the very language through which we attempt to address and express it.