Public policy relating to transgender people is the issue of the moment. North Carolina’s “bathroom law” prompted Target to let transgender customers use their preferred bathroom. Now, the Obama administration has issued a transgender edict, the implications of which are still emerging. But though these latest policies are regarded as the natural continuation of the LGBTQ-rights movement, the contradictions inherent in transgenderism risk weakening the coherence of the movement’s whole intellectual edifice.
Transgenderism is thought to differ from gay and lesbian issues insofar as it concerns gender identity rather than sexual orientation. In this view, gender identity is considered to be independent of sexual orientation. Gender identity is one’s deepest perception of self as male or female or both or neither. It can be the same as or different from the sex assigned at birth.
Even when meeting social progressives on their own terms, though, there seem to be problems of basic consistency with how the notion of gender identity — as opposed to sexual orientation — is typically used in debate. Even if one grants that the male/female binary is entirely socially constructed and possibly pernicious, inconsistencies remain, at least in some mainstream discourse.
The following two beliefs make one such inconsistent pair:
(2) The existence of people with intersex genitalia and abnormal chromosomes provides evidence against the male/female binary.
Someone who holds these beliefs simultaneously is trying to have it both ways. If gender is unmoored from anatomy and chromosomes, then intersex genitalia can’t be cited as a counterexample to the gender binary — the idea that people are born either male or female, and that sex and gender always align or perhaps are synonymous. A person born with ambiguous genitalia might identify as genderqueer. But under belief (1), the person’s genitalia need not influence that identification. Perhaps one who holds these two beliefs might claim that anatomy is not entirely irrelevant to gender identity, even if it isn’t the final determinant. Yet, if a biological male who identifies as female really is female even though she has a penis, then it’s hard to imagine a consistent principle tying genitalia to gender identity in any way.
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If, on the other hand, one objects to the gender binary because it is “merely” socially constructed, then one must be deferring to some objective defining feature of gender, as in belief (2), that supersedes the social construct. One such recourse is a possible biological basis for the psychology of transgenderism, gender fluidity, etc. The existence of this basis has not been proven, but for the sake of argument, let’s say it does exist. It wouldn’t fix the inconsistency of beliefs (1) and (2); in such a case it would be the psychological state associated with being transgender, gender fluid, etc., that provided evidence against the binary, not the existence of abnormal genitalia and chromosomes.
The Left might respond to all this that regardless of whether gender identity is entirely a social construct, the real problem is heteronormativity and cis-gender privilege. The gender binary, they say, is oppressive, because it leaves no room for the sense of some individuals that their gender identity and biological sex are mismatched. So, the gender binary should be deconstructed and eradicated.
There is another problem with this contention that extends beyond the contradictions of the two beliefs outlined above. (And not every social progressive believes (2) in the first place.) Again there is belief (1) — that sex doesn’t determine gender. This belief is often held in conjunction with the view that transgender individuals rightfully believe their sex and gender are mismatched. Yet if sex is separate from gender identity, then it’s unclear what transgender persons mean when they feel their anatomy is misaligned with their gender identity.
If gender identity does not depend upon anatomy, how can gender and anatomy be misaligned?
If gender identity does not depend upon anatomy, how can gender and anatomy be misaligned? One’s gender identity is supposed to determine one’s gender. Anatomy isn’t even related to gender! The most obvious example is a gender-fluid person — whose gender identity varies over time but whose anatomy does not.
If we’ve destroyed the gender binary, or at least attenuated its authority, and if anatomy and biological functions don’t determine gender, then with what conceptions of gender are gender-fluid and transgender individuals identifying?
The yearning of some transgender persons to express their gender identity with surgical alteration of sex organs suggests, even in their minds, a dependence of gender upon anatomy. Indeed, they often speak in this language: A biological male senses that he is “a woman born in a man’s body,” for example. I don’t dispute the reality of this feeling or the suffering these people experience. But how are we to understand this desire?
There would seem to be an unbridgeable knowledge gap between such a person and the object of his desire. He reports a longing for the first-person experience of being a woman, but it is an experience he has never had. No number of observations of womanhood can amount to a first-person knowledge of being a woman. Hormone treatments and surgery might ape some aspects of being female, but he would receive these after his initial gender-dysphoric symptoms, not before. Though the psychological states of transgender persons are real, some of their reports seem not just troubled, but utterly unintelligible.
Maybe, however, this transgender person means that he wishes to live as if he were a woman, rather than to be a woman. Nonetheless, living as if one is a woman is not the same as being a woman, which is what gender identity is taken to mean. Living “as if” one is a woman appears to conflict with the idea that one’s gender is determined by one’s deepest self-perception. Surely the very concept of identity is what one is, not what one pretends or wishes to be.
Yet transgender persons would thus be understood as identifying with one side of the very gender binary that is considered oversimplified and even oppressive.
This conclusion makes possible this comment on Twitter:
.@BlueBoxDave He has facial hair, a short haircut, arm hair, and he’s wearing a man’s watch. That’s not a transgender woman.— Zack Ford (@ZackFord) April 18, 2016
ThinkProgress LGBT editor: DNA & genitalia don’t determine gender. Hair length & arm hair density determine gender. https://t.co/JQCxJ6Pcr1— Sean Davis (@seanmdav) April 18, 2016
Trying to explain gender identity apart from biology can result in hypocrisy and absurdity.
This conundrum also motivates the opposition of old-school radical feminists such as Germaine Greer and Sheila Jeffreys to the transgender movement. This rift within the Left is well-documented.
Jeffreys, herself a lesbian, writes in her book Unpacking Queer Politics,
Janice Raymond has argued convincingly that transsexual surgery is about social control. The medical industry that has grown up to profit from transsexualism pushes those who do not feel comfortable with politically constructed categories of gender and sexuality to mutilate their bodies to fit in. I have argued that transsexual surgery needs to be understood as a harmful cultural practice and a violation of human rights.
Unsurprisingly, Jeffreys has been denounced from within the Left.
Gender theorist Judith Butler has been one of those to decry Jeffreys. In an interview with The TERFs (“Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists”), Butler complains that Jeffreys glosses over the varied definitions of social construction, and that historically oppressive conceptions of femininity needn’t define a transgender woman’s gender identity:
I think that there are a variety of ways of understanding what a social construct is, and we have to be patient with terms like these. We have to find a way of understanding how one category of sex can be “assigned” from both and another sense of sex can lead us to resist and reject that sex assignment. How do we understand that second sense of sex? It is not the same as the first — it is not an assignment that others give us. But maybe it is an assignment we give ourselves? If so, do we not need a world of others, linguistic practices, social institutions, and political imaginaries in order to move forward to claim precisely those categories we require, and to reject those that work against us?
According to this view, a transgender woman can select the features of socially constructed notions of what it means to be female that don’t “work against” her. The problem with this view for the Left is that it leaves the gender binary more or less intact. Moreover, many biological women despise the features of the feminine construct that some transgender women choose to express; why should garish makeup and sexy clothing define womanhood, rather than the capacity for childbirth, or simply being biologically female?
The academic literature on gender theory is enormous and complicated, and no doubt internecine disagreements abound. Meanwhile, the rest of us engage with these ideas mostly at the mainstream and popular level and are expected to genuflect to LGBTQ worldviews as they are presented to us. But the fact is that some basic assumptions driving LGBTQ-oriented policy in the real world are at best unclear and at worst incoherent.
— Celina Durgin is a Collegiate Network fellow at National Review.