Politics & Policy

‘Live Your Truth’

Signs at a protest against Trump administration’s reported transgender proposals at City Hall in New York City, U.S., October 24, 2018. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
We’re only just beginning to understand the wider implications of a new law allowing New Yorkers to declare their chosen gender on their birth certificates.

Imagine that a man walks into a courtroom and swears to tell “my truth, the whole of my truth, and nothing but my truth, so help you all.” Imagine your incredulity as, for whatever reason, he gives an outlandishly false testimony. Imagine your dismay as the judge explains that all subsequent evidence and, especially, all cross examination, must support the man’s “truth,” and as he instructs the members of the jury that they, too, must affirm it.

“You be you. Live your truth. And know that New York City will have your back,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told a cheering crowd last year. He was referring to the introduction of a bill — since passed and signed into law — that allows New York City residents to change the sex on their birth certificate to M, F, or, if they like, the gender-neutral X, in order to conform their legal status to their “gender identity.”

Unlike sex, which is an objective and observable fact, “gender identity” — one’s sense of being male, female, or something else — is entirely subjective. It is a feeling. To say so is not to be dismissive or hurtful toward individuals who experience a disconnect between their birth sex and their sense of gender identity (i.e., “gender dysphoria”). It is merely to insist that the purpose of public records, such as birth certificates, is not to affirm or reflect our feelings — however strong or distressing they may be — but to document the truth, rather than your truth or my truth, for practical, legal purposes.

Moreover, that complicated, elusive, and multifaceted feelings now form the overarching theory of “gender identity” is not, as is commonly suggested in the New York Times, the result of some recent scientific advancement. The emphasis on subjectivity is a result of the shifting cultural and political paradigms of the 20th century that have influenced the field of psychology.

The Economist’s Helen Joyce summarized the theoretical origins of “gender identity” in a recent Quillette essay. She explains that the therapeutic exploration of root causes — in other words, why a person might desire to “transition” from one gender to the other — was simplistically channeled into “two lines of thinking that originated in America in the 1950s” and that were subsequently “fused into a single, dominant narrative half a century later.”

One came from Robert Stoller, a psychoanalyst who worked with transsexuals. He coined the phrase “gender identity,” by which he meant a “complex system of beliefs about oneself: a sense of masculinity and femininity.” He did not say how it was formed (though, as traditional for psychoanalysts, he thought that if it was disturbed, the mother was probably to blame).

The other came from John Money, a sexologist who emphasized what he called “gender roles,” made up of “all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman.” Believing these to be malleable in early childhood, he recommended that baby boys born with abnormal genitalia, or maimed by botched circumcisions, be surgically altered so that their anatomy appeared female and brought up as girls. For years, he cited the results as proof that gender roles were indeed not innate. In fact, the best-known specimen turned out a tragic failure. The child, David Reimer, made an awkward, miserable girl and reverted to a male identity in his teens after learning the truth. He committed suicide in 2004, after a lifetime of depression. [Emphasis added.]

This is only part of the story, of course. For thereafter came the postmodernists, poststructuralists, and relativists championing subjective truth, the purveyors of anti-Enlightenment and anti-science groupthink and gobbledygook. One such thinker was Judith Butler, whose theory of “performative gender” remarried “gender identity” with sex, with the consequence of collapsing both into absurdity.

On “gender,” Butler wrote:

Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory framework that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being. [Emphasis added.]

Note that Butler uses “being and not doing, and recall Mayor de Blasio’s “you be you,” rather than you do you. This is strange. If “gender identity” is a social performance, then an atypical “gender identity” would not amount to anything more than eccentricity and, therefore, would not require any medical or legal intervention at all. You do you would be sufficient.

But, then, here’s Butler on “sex”:

If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called “sex” is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all. [Emphasis added.]

By what evidence does Butler posit that sex is not immutable? Is she referring to the existence of disorders of sex development (DSDs), such as “intersex” conditions? Because if so, she is misleading: Persons with DSDs may have ambiguous genitalia, but, as Joyce points out in her essay, they seldom have any doubt as to their gender identity. There is, of course, the separate issue of gender dysphoria (GD). But just as the majority of people with DSDs don’t have gender dysphoria, most people with gender dysphoria do not have DSDs. Rather, as experts from Boston Children’s Hospital have suggested, a significant portion of gender-nonconforming people have developmental disabilities or behavioral issues (such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, or autism). “Social contagion,” meanwhile, helps to explain the new subgroup of self-identifying teenagers, according to  Lisa Littman, M.D., of Brown University. While more research is needed, so far, the root causes of gender dysphoria appear to be more social and psychological than biological. And at any rate, sex is biological; it is just plain wrong to conflate it with “gender identity” or suggest that it may be “culturally constructed.”

Before 2014, New York City permitted a modification of the “gender” listed on one’s birth certificate only if the individual in question had undergone “gender-reassignment surgery,” a procedure more accurately described as “sex-change surgery,” though this is still not completely true, given that sex cannot literally be changed.

That previous status quo was an attempt to accommodate the very rare individuals who, after surgery, more closely resembled the opposite sex and would, for purposes of social integration, be better off legally defined as such. But gender morphed into gender identity, which then encroached on sex. “The truth” was replaced with “my truth.” After 2014, the requirement in New York City was lowered to a doctor’s note. Now, mere self-identification suffices.

Of course, the real reason that the original bar was so high for requesting a birth-certificate change was that the culture generally recognized that sex has serious implications. It matters, for instance, if “male-bodied” persons are legally allowed to compete in women’s sports or occupy all women’s spaces. In law enforcement, it matters if such persons are able to intimately search female suspects, and it also matters if they are incarcerated in female prisons. It matters if male-bodied adolescents can shower with girls or sleep overnight with them on school field trips. And it matters to feminism, whose very historical basis is sex-based rights.

It should be pointed out that New York City is not alone on this new legal frontier. California, Oregon, and Washington have similar policies, as will New Jersey come February. And at the federal level, the Equality Act — which would amend civil-rights legislation to explicitly include “gender identity” as a protected characteristic — is on the Democratic House’s agenda for the upcoming session of Congress.

The era of “gender identity” as a legal concept, with its sustained assault on the truth, is only just beginning.

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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