“Human rights aren’t up for debate!”

This objection is fundamentally misleading. There is, of course, a sense in which it’s true that human rights aren’t up for debate; under most common conceptions, an individual’s rights are not determined by what any other person (or the individual themselves) believes about the world, and rights can’t be abrogated just because we wish they didn’t exist. However, there’s a clear distinction to be made between the actual existence of a particular human right, and the process by which we determine whether or not that right exists – and in that process, debate absolutely does play a central role. After all, how could a society come to any conclusions about what rights do and don’t exist without debate? The only alternative would be divine revelation or personal intuition, neither of which have great track records in the human rights realm.

In other words, transgender activists and others who use this slogan are attempting to conflate a metaphysical claim about rights (that they depend on human opinions for their veracity) with an epistemological claim about rights (that no one can ever challenge another’s assertion about their rights). This becomes obvious when you consider a situation where someone asserts some particularly bizarre right – say, the right to free ice cream on demand. If you responded by saying that, no, they were not allowed to demand such a thing, would My human rights are not up for debate! be a convincing rebuttal? Of course not. You would likely respond by agreeing that human rights are objective, and, from that position, arguing that they did not, in fact, possess the right they claimed. You wouldn’t be “stripping their right to free ice cream away” – you would merely be asserting that they were mistaken about possessing that right to begin with.

Radical feminists and other critics of transgender theory hold a similar position. With very, very few exceptions, no one seriously argues that transgender people ought to have their rights limited, violated, or removed. Instead, they simply argue that some rights transgender people claim – for example, the right to change legal documents in light of one’s self-conception or the right to compel other’s speech – are not, in fact, human rights at all. They may also argue that human beings do possess some rights that the demands of transgender activists violate, like the right to freedom of speech or sex segregation. The answers to these questions can only be answered through reasoned debate; simple assertions will only ever lead to a stalemate in which male priorities often take center stage.