The Man Who Mistook The Point For A Cat
How polarised political responses to a single incident in a school hide the systemic failures that led to it.
In the past week a story has been making headlines revolving around a recording made secretly in school by a pair of girls (age 12-13) which captured a disagreement with their teacher over sex and gender identity. However, in the days since it first broke the most important elements have been almost completely lost in a slanging match between a reactionary right-wing seeking to make political hay from this event and a notionally progressive opposition so keen to contradict the narrative from the right that it has become a polar opposite source of misinformation.
First I want to give my own commentary on the transcript, what it shows, and what I think is concerning about it, before moving on to the maddening oppositional mudslinging that sprang up in its aftermath, and very specifically the role played by Otto English and Byline Times.
For completeness, I include the full transcript at the very end of this piece, as best as I managed to transcribe it.
The recording starts after some prior exchange, so we don’t know exactly what the precipitating event was. From the outset the teacher accuses one girl of saying another student needed to be put in an asylum, which they strenuously deny. The teacher is cross that having said the example of “identifying as a cat” is insane, the students are questioning someone’s identity.
The teacher is extremely dismissive of the idea that “there are only two genders”, questioning where the girl heard this. The pupil is not permitted to have any other opinion - the teacher states “it is not an opinion you can have”.
The girls say there’s only girls and boys, no other “private parts”, and the teacher responds that “gender is not linked to the parts that you were born with”. The teacher tells the student that there are three sexes.
The teacher says there’s multiple genders, and the girls retort that they think that boys have a penis and girls have a vagina and that’s it. The teacher says that what the girls are saying is that if you aren’t “cisgender” you’re “weird” and thinking that is “despicable”. When one girl says her mum would agree, the teacher calls this sad.
The teacher likens this to homophobia, which again the girls dispute, saying they have “no problem with lesbians and gays”, and that this isn’t homophobia, its about transgender. The teacher says they are related, that the child is “so wrong”, that they are “confusing sex and gender”, and when the girls say again that if you have a vagina you’re a girl and a penis you’re a boy, the teacher says this isn’t an opinion they can express in this school and if they don’t like they “need to go to a different school”.
I urge you to read the whole transcript or listen to the audio, because I found the whole exchange shocking and saddening.
Throughout the recording the teacher struggles badly to articulate what gender actually is and the whole thing demonstrates what happens when handwaving about bodies and identity and being who you are collides with someone willing to ask what you actually mean in plain language.
Fundamentally, it is wrong to tell a class of adolescent girls that if you don’t meet the social expectations of how a girl is supposed to look and act and feel - that if you feel discomfort in your own sexed body - then you might be a boy. I don’t think the teacher even understands enough about the subject to see that is what is happening, because the chain of handwaving and circular definitions is baffling, and when you’re socially penalised for questioning any of it of course you aren’t going to think too deeply about it.
But at the same time, I don’t think it is right to blame the teacher who is frankly just following the school’s guidance. The school itself is part of a multi-academy trust, who ultimately provide this guidance, and thus this whole framework is a result of Conservative schools policy since 2010, with its focus on fragmentation, outsourcing and private sector involvement.
The top-down imposition of a particular set of beliefs around sex and gender in schools has been enabled by many factors, including the requirement for schools to implement their own PSHE curriculum or buy in external providers, walking a tightrope of having to teach “gender identity” while the politics of the subject are in flux, combined with the confusion over interpretation of the Equality act since 2010. Now teachers in the classroom are expected to somehow defend the position there are indeed three sexes and hundreds of genders because they were told that they have to, while also risking that doing so in the wrong way might be discriminatory, with no clear guidance on the right or wrong way of doing any of this.
This is as much as anything the result of cutting funding, liberalising and outsourcing provision and the ridiculous idea that parental choice would act as “the invisible hand of the market” when it comes to education.
It is damning of the entire system that young students feel forced to record the incoherent nonsense their teacher is desperately forced to defend while walking the minefield of DEI policies themselves, and tragically the world responds by picking sides and turning either the students or the teacher into a target for hate and invective.
My feeling listening to this was profound regret that students now had to deal with the incoherent nonsense I had once naively believed was confined to the more deranged corners of the internet. Regret and sorrow that the adults in charge failed to stop this, that children were now faced with teachers forced to defend half-understood incoherent ideology that cannot stand up to very simple challenge.
Sex and gender are different and sex is what you’re born and gender is who you are and gender is all about society’s expectations of your sex which are imposed when you’re assigned a sex at birth based on your parts, but isn’t your sex, and there’s three sexes and hundreds of genders including not having a gender, and gender definitely isn’t just clothing and hair and sexist stereotypes, and gender identity is a deeply held sense of self in relation to gender, which isn’t stereotypes, and not sex either, and boy and girl are genders and nothing to do with your parts or your sex, and gender identity is about how you feel about your gender which isn’t sex but if you’re a girl who feels like a boy because you don’t align with society’s expectations of girls, which is a gender, you might want opposite-sex hormones and surgery so your internal sense of your gender feels more aligned with your gender which isn’t your sex, and sexual orientation is attraction to gender, not sex, and so might be clothes and hair and personality but definitely isn’t just that, and is nothing to do with sex, and cisgender is when your deeply held sense of self aligns with society’s expectations of your sex, and thinking any of this is unclear or sexist or circular is transphobic.
Adults having been unable to manage amongst themselves the conflict between sex and gender without forcing compliance with insults and accusations of intolerance, we are now seeing the same dynamic playing out in the classroom. Incoherent claims that for years have been shielded from having to stand up to scrutiny now crumbling in the face of light questioning from schoolgirls.
It is disheartening that even as the demands and beliefs around gender identity have been brought into the light, supposedly sensible commentators have not reacted with shock at the bizarre claims being made in our classrooms and scrutinising how they actually got there, but instead spent days doubling down on condemning the students at the centre of it.
Once the story hit the right wing media and social media, it generated a mix of outrage and derision, all focused on the utterly irrelevant aspect of whether there was actually a student in the classroom who literally identified as a cat. The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, GB News and others all led on the idea of "children identifying as cats”, loudly decrying the apparent epidemic of kids in schools identifying as cats up and down the country. Some sample responses:
Pupil who questioned classmate ‘identifying as a cat’ called ‘despicable’ by teacher
Catgirl: today’s culture of affirmation is failing children
The rise of the 'furries': How schools are allowing kids to identify as cats, horses and dinosaurs - and teachers are 'failing to question them'
‘What is going on in this world when children can say that they are cats and be taken seriously?’
Whatever nonsense was going on in schools, the one thing you can be sure of is it was all the fault of “the woke left”.
All of which prompted those at the other end of the political spectrum to scoff at the absurd and ridiculous idea of anyone literally identifying as a cat, whilst ignoring everything else about the story.
On Twitter, journalist and author of “Fake History” Otto English pretty quickly settled on a narrative that would play out across social media and two articles over the subsequent days. His focus from the start was the questionable “cat” aspect and framing the incident as two pupils “clearly trying to wind up the teacher”. The teacher’s conduct was not touched upon.
Straight away the least important aspect - the “cat identity”, which was making headlines - was the focus of the debunking, whereas all other aspects are explained away by the pupils poor behaviour. Unruly. It’s not true. Fake news generated by students winding up the teacher.
After this initial salvo on social media, Byline Times published the following longer response piece by Otto English, titled “Fake Cats and the Legitimisation of Hate”.
In this, the events in the recording are framed as follows:
The teacher says “How dare you, you just really upset someone, saying things like ‘should be in an asylum’”. Otto does not mention that in the recording the girls immediately strenuously deny having said that at all.
He seems to mishear “cat” as “cow” early on and claims the “cat” element only comes in towards the end, and it is this which is the critical element enabling it to go viral. This piece was corrected later to acknowledge that the earlier “cow” could actually have been “cat”, but retains the claim that “cat” only comes towards the very end of the story, which is somewhat incoherent.
The girls “seem to be deliberately trying to rile their teacher”, and when the teacher brings up homophobia it is because she has been “driven” to it.
The girls say “I’m fine with lesbians and gay people. I’ve got nothing against them.”, which Otto frames as “in other words, it’s OK to be transphobic.” This is a reprehensible twisting of the words of a child who said absolutely nothing of the sort.
The teacher saying “if you don’t like it you need to go to a different school” and calling one student “despicable” is waved away.
The two children are accused of “arguing so disrespectfully”
He stresses that the recording lacks context, and we cannot know what took place before the audio starts, which is fair enough, but then summarises the entire audio as follows:
In short, we are listening to an artfully selected piece of audio – that feeds into a larger, ongoing transphobic, fake news narrative.
And goes on to question who the “real victims” are, when the girls on the recording
have taken issue with a fellow pupil (for whatever reason) and suggested she should ‘be in an asylum’
While there is some room for subjective interpretation, I would say that having listened to it and written out the transcript this whole article is a heavily biased misrepresentation of the exchange, and that it is wrong to accuse children of transphobia and disrespect for what are completely reasonable questions phrased in language totally expected for 12 and 13-year-olds when challenged by a teacher who was quite simply talking indefensible gibberish.
Afterwards on Twitter, the entire story was dismissed as a “scare story”:
The students were dismissed as “class clowns”:
They were using “transphobic comments to elicit a reaction”:
And so on.
The next day a second piece was published by Byline Times, titled “Dead Cats and Transphobic Lies”. This is mostly about the reaction of the right-wing outrage machine to the story, but with the additional element of witness testimony from another student, which serves to confirm two things:
There was no student who literally identifies as a cat
What was said before the start of the recording was: “if you identify as a cat or a carrot you are insane.”.
So unfortunately while making everyone who focused heavily on the “cat” angle of the story look like an idiot - and there were many - it also demonstrates that Otto’s earlier claims that the girls at the centre had said a child should be “in an asylum” were false. So, somewhat of a pyrrhic victory.
I find this second piece immensely frustrating because there’s aspects I agree with. For example this paragraph:
The TikTok was swiftly picked up by the fringe elements of the right-wing and conservative media on both sides of the Atlantic and was spread by a Twitter account claiming to be run by the mother of one of the students. Tucker Carlson, late of Fox News, put it up on his youtube channel and soon it had been leapt on by the UK wing of the ‘Turning Point’ movement that has a recent history of demonstrating against ‘drag’ events in London pubs. From there it quickly bled into the mainstream and by Sunday the story was featuring prominently on the Telegraph website among others.
Yes, reactionary elements of the right were absolutely all over this story. Tucker Carlson, Fox, Turning Point - none of these are sources that should be taken at face value, all putting ridiculous political spin on events with no regard for the truth. For example, look at this absurd response from Priti Patel, sharing Turning Point:
The Tories have been in government for 13 years and overseen all the educational reforms that have led to this point, and yet it is somehow “left-wing indoctrination”. These are not serious people and they are not making decent points - they have a stick, and they will use it to bash “the left”.
But unfortunately, the response of Byline Times is a gift to these idiots, because rather than engage in a way that acknowledges the complexity of the situation and highlights the elements that are truly troubling, this has descended into a ridiculous pantomime over whether or not a student genuinely identified as a cat, a detail utterly irrelevant to anyone apart from headline writers and clickbait merchants.
While much coverage towards the right of the political spectrum may have led with the “cat” angle, they invariably did also cover the teacher’s conduct. So the effect is that Byline Times have debunked headlines, but by no means entire articles, and in pretending that they have, they actually manage to make their opposition look more reasonable. It turns out that quite a lot of people do actually have a problem with a teacher calling a child “despicable” for saying that boys have a penis and girls have a vagina.
There is a story to be told in how the teacher was ever placed in the position where they thought this was the right thing to do, but in focusing on one specific detail and insisting that the story is “fake news” on that basis, they alienate everyone who can see there is more to it, and that the whole story isn’t remotely fake.
By this point though everything beyond the “cat” aspect has become irrelevant because it has been determined that the entire story was just a cover for “hate and transphobia”:
Meanwhile, after falsely accusing two children of saying a classmate should be “in an asylum” and calling them unruly, class clowns, disrespectful, that they were winding up the teacher, and that they thought it was “OK to be transphobic”, Otto was praised by Peter Jukes for treating all concerned with some care and respect:
After Kemi Badenoch wrote to Ofsted demanding an inspection because the teacher was “acting inappropriately regarding pupils’ beliefs”, again the whole story was dismissed as “fake”.
Here was an opportunity to point out that the teacher had been placed in this position by the school and the trust, who clearly believed they were following best practice in this area. Where did any of that come from? How did we get here? None of that gets an examination, because its just “fake”.
Look, even Richard Dawkins fell for it, even though all he said was that people should listen to the audio, and didn’t even mention the cat issue:
It is all a lie:
I fear that the right-wing exploitation of “culture war” issues has broken the brains of a certain section of the commentariat, who increasingly retreat into a polarised bunker, unable to cede any ground whatsoever. It is “right-wing transphobic fake news” or bust.
I understand the impulse to debunk lies and misrepresentations, I really, really do. When I see something being shared by Turning Point or Rebel News or whoever, my first instinct is to try to figure out exactly how and why it is incendiary exaggeration or an outright fabrication designed to push my buttons. But in this case I think that Byline Times has got it badly wrong. I believe that their overall position on the issues of sex and gender doesn’t allow enough space to see a more nuanced view of this situation. It would have been enough to highlight the way such events are exploited by right-wing provocateurs like Turning Point while conceding that the story overall is genuinely troubling - but that seems to not be possible. Any reasonable discussion of sex and gender issues has to be denied and dismissed.
I strongly suspect that if there was no mention of cats anywhere in the recording, or in the coverage, Otto English and Byline Times still would not have thought to support the girls’ position. They would not listen to their words and consider them understandable reactions to being taught gibberish. They would not question the guidance the teacher was following. To the contrary, they have demonstrated over and over in this debacle that they believe that questioning the dogma being taught is itself wrong. They cannot examine the question of how the guidance even got to this stage, and how teachers are left in the invidious position of having to fulfil it, because they don’t see a problem with the guidance.
If a student questions the teacher’s claim that there are three sexes and hundreds of genders, and the teacher calls the student “despicable”, it must be the student who is being unruly, and enabling hate and transphobia, for even asking the questions. Good and kind people know this is what you are supposed to believe, and if you don’t just accept it without question, well you can’t be good or kind, right?
The reality is that as a result of years of educational reforms and a mess of top-down guidance and outsourcing of equality and inclusion that all happened under this Tory government, a child was confronted with a teacher reciting mandatory absurdities, questioned it in language that wasn’t even remotely hateful or controversial, and was told they were “despicable” for it. They recorded the exchange, and that exchange ended up on TikTok. For days, this has been in the international press and all over social media, with politicans and pundits arguing whether or not a student really identified as a cat while dismissing them as unruly, hateful and disrespectful and transphobic.
Because you’re not allowed to disagree.
You have to just nod along and, if you don’t, well, as one student says in the audio: “Everyone else thinks it, they just don’t say it, because then all this happens”.
That’s the story.
Fuck off with your fucking cat.
In response to this controversy, The Guardian published the following opinion piece: “It doesn’t matter if a girl identified as a cat (she didn’t). The issue is how post-truth politics exploits it”.
This again focused almost exclusively on the exploitation of the issue by the right-wing press, with only the following concession to the actual audio itself:
She is scolded by the teacher, whose tone and language definitely to my ears from the short recording sounded troubling, and the wrong approach to such discussions.
This is all incredibly reminiscent of The Guardian’s handling of the Wi Spa controversy. I think they have learned little in the last two years, and continue to hope that if they just condemn “the right” strongly enough all these conflicts over sex and gender will just go away, whereas in reality their failure to deal with these issues honestly has resulted in their credibility spiralling the drain.
Elsewhere at The Guardian there are seeds of hope for actually balanced coverage of these issues by way of Lucy Mangan’s thoughtful review of The Clinic, a documentary about the failures at the Tavistock.
I suspect that in time, outlets like The Guardian will settle on a position that if only people had been less sensational and inflammatory, they would have covered these issues fairly, and are unlikely to ever adequately reflect on how they have contributed to the polarisation and fuelled what they consider “right wing disinformation” with their own censorious and dismissive approach.
Teacher’s words in bold, all students in italic.
How dare you. You’ve just really upset someone. Saying things like, you should be in an asylum.
I didn’t say that.
I didn’t say that.
I said if they genuinely identify as a cat or something then they are like genuinely unwell.
Yeah they are crazy.
You’re questioning their identity.
I wasn’t questioning […] I was just saying about the genders, I never said anything about them.
Where’d you get this idea from that there’s only two genders?
I just (giving) my opinion
If I’ve got to respect their opinion why can’t they respect my opinion?
It is not an opinion
Yes it is
It is not an opinion you can have
Loads of people think there’s only two genders
There’s only a boy and a girl
There’s no other private parts
Gender is not linked to do with the… gender is not linked to the parts that you were born with. Gender is about how you identify, which is what I said right from the very beginning of the lesson.
Well I just don’t agree with that
Why should I have to listen to it when I don’t agree with that
Biological sex, there is actually three biological sexes because you can be born intersex, you can be born with male, and female, body parts or hormones, did you know that?
Yeah that’s three, not three hundred
There’s three, biological sex, in terms of gender, there are lots of genders. There is transgender, there is agender, people that don’t believe they don’t have a gender at all
Yeah but you can’t have that
(What do you mean) you can’t have that, its not a law
Yeah its not a law, its our opinion, we just don’t agree with it
We think its all just
If you have a vagina you’re a girl, if you have a penis you’re a boy
But cisgender is not necessarily the way to be, if you are talking about the fact that, cisgender is the, the norm, that you identify with the gender that, of the sexual organs you’re born with, or you’re weird, that’s basically what you’re saying
Which is really despicable
If I called my mum right now, my mum would say, (garbled) she’d say
Well that’s very sad as well then
How is it?
Loads of people agree with it, there’s only a small, majority (sic) of people that think that
Why do you think we have so many problems in the world, with homophobia
Yeah but that’s not homophobia, that’s gender
Yes it is
I’m fine with lesbians and gay people, I’ve got nothing against them
But gender is, there is a link between it, you’re saying
You’re saying people can’t change who they want to be
Unless they get a penis attached
You’re so wrong
No I’m not
You’re confusing sex and gender
No I’m not though
Yes you are
Cos if you have a vagina you’re a girl and if you have a penis you’re a boy
You can’t be, you can’t have a vagina and be a dad
Unless you get surgery
Even then you’ve got those genes
It’s about how you identity, how you identify
Well I just don’t agree with it
Well that’s just not an opinion
Yes it is
You can express in this school, no its not, and if you don’t like it you need to go to a different school
I did go to a different school
I’m reporting (_____) you need to have a proper educational conversation about edu… about equality, diversity and inclusion, because I’m not having that expressed in my lesson, when I’m teaching you about, you can be who you want to be,
Everyone else thinks that
How you identify is up to you
Everyone else thinks it, they just don’t say it, because then all this happens
Maybe because they’re polite and maybe they’re sensitive
I’d never, I haven’t said anything, all of the lessons that I’ve been here, its just because they turned around and started saying something, so I said how can you identify as a cat, when you’re a girl
Well they’re now writing a statement, I would imagine
You’ll be able (asked?) to write a statement to
Yeah we will