The world is abuzz with news that actor Laverne Cox has become the first transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine. If I understand the current state of the ever-shifting ethic and rhetoric of transgenderism, that is not quite true: Bradley Manning, whom we are expected now to call Chelsea, beat Cox to the punch by some time. Manning’s announcement of his intention to begin living his life as a woman and to undergo so-called sex-reassignment surgery came after Time’s story, but, given that we are expected to defer to all subjective experience in the matter of gender identity, it could not possibly be the case that Manning is a transgendered person today but was not at the time of the Time cover simply because Time was unaware of the fact, unless the issuance of a press release is now a critical step in the evolutionary process.
As I wrote at the time of the Manning announcement, Bradley Manning is not a woman. Neither is Laverne Cox.
Cox, a fine actor, has become a spokesman — no doubt he would object to the term — for trans people, whose characteristics may include a wide variety of self-conceptions and physical traits. Katie Couric famously asked him about whether he had undergone surgical alteration, and he rejected the question as invasive, though what counts as invasive when you are being interviewed by Katie Couric about features of your sexual identity is open to interpretation. Couric was roundly denounced for the question and for using “transgenders” as a noun, and God help her if she had misdeployed a pronoun, which is now considered practically a hate crime.
The phenomenon of the transgendered person is a thoroughly modern one, not in the sense that such conditions did not exist in the past — Cassius Dio relates a horrifying tale of an attempted sex-change operation — but because we in the 21st century have regressed to a very primitive understanding of reality, namely the sympathetic magic described by James George Frazer in The Golden Bough. The obsession with policing language on the theory that language mystically shapes reality is itself ancient — see the Old Testament — and sympathetic magic proceeds along similar lines, using imitation and related techniques as a means of controlling reality. The most famous example of this is the voodoo doll. If an effigy can be made sufficiently like the reality it is intended to represent, then it becomes, for the mystical purposes at hand, a reality in its own right. The infinite malleability of the postmodern idea of “gender,” as opposed to the stubborn concreteness of sex, is precisely the reason the concept was invented. For all of the high-academic theory attached to the question, it is simply a mystical exercise in rearranging words to rearrange reality. Facebook now has a few score options for describing one’s gender or sex, and no doubt they will soon match the number of names for the Almighty in one of the old mystery cults.
Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman. Sex is a biological reality, and it is not subordinate to subjective impressions, no matter how intense those impressions are, how sincerely they are held, or how painful they make facing the biological facts of life. No hormone injection or surgical mutilation is sufficient to change that.
Genital amputation and mutilation is the extreme expression of the phenomenon, but it is hardly outside the mainstream of contemporary medical practice. The trans self-conception, if the autobiographical literature is any guide, is partly a feeling that one should be living one’s life as a member of the opposite sex and partly a delusion that one is in fact a member of the opposite sex at some level of reality that transcends the biological facts in question. There are many possible therapeutic responses to that condition, but the offer to amputate healthy organs in the service of a delusional tendency is the moral equivalent of meeting a man who believes he is Jesus and inquiring as to whether his insurance plan covers crucifixion.
This seems to me a very different sort of phenomenon from simple homosexuality (though, for the record, I believe that our neat little categories of sexual orientation are yet another substitution of the conceptual for the actual, human sexual behavior being more complex and varied than the rhetoric of sexual orientation can accommodate). The question of the status of gay people interacts with politics to the extent that it in some cases challenges existing family law, but homosexual acts as such seem to me a matter that is obviously, and almost by definition, private. The mass delusion that we are inculcating on the question of transgendered people is a different sort of matter, to the extent that it would impose on society at large an obligation — possibly a legal obligation under civil-rights law, one that already is emerging — to treat delusion as fact, or at the very least to agree to make subjective impressions superordinate to biological fact in matters both public and private.
As a matter of government, I have little or no desire to police how Cox or any other man or woman conducts his or her personal life. But having a culture organized around the elevation of unreality over reality in the service of Eros, who is a sometimes savage god, is not only irrational but antirational. Cox’s situation gave him an intensely unhappy childhood and led to an eventual suicide attempt, and his story demands our sympathy; times being what they are, we might even offer our indulgence. But neither of those should be allowed to overwhelm the facts, which are not subject to our feelings, however sincere or well intended.