What is it like to be a bat? In a famous 1974 article, philosopher Thomas Nagel addressed this question and declared, brazenly, that we can’t know. That may not sound like an impressive conclusion, but it’s actually an interesting essay. Nagel’s point is that subjective experience is by nature a closed book. Even if we managed (say) to fly through the night sky in bat-like fashion, we couldn’t replicate bat experiences, because we wouldn’t ever know whether we’d gotten it right. Other subjective experiences are the same. Tom Petty was on the money here: You really don’t know how it feels to be me.
What does it mean to be a man or a woman? This has always been a thought-provoking question, but for many leftists it has now become literally unanswerable, for the same reason that Nagel’s question was unanswerable. Manhood and womanhood, we are told, are defined by “an individual’s internal sense of gender.” In other words, we are what we feel. Physiologically it may be obvious enough that I have a female body, but only I can truly say whether I’m a woman. From the moment of conception, my four sons each had a Y chromosome, but only the boys themselves can tell us whether they’re boys.
In a better world, transgender theory might provide promising fodder for philosophical debate. Unfortunately, it’s escaped from the ivory tower. Foolish ideologies aren’t necessarily harmless; this one has already worked plenty of mischief. For a measured perspective on the current situation, readers should pick up Ryan T. Anderson’s newest book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.
Anderson is a Catholic intellectual who began his career as a marriage advocate. Some of his previous works have explained, with thorough and accessible arguments, why marriage is by nature a heterosexual institution. That same lucidity marks this treatment of transgenderism, which clearly reflects the author’s experience in broaching sensitive subjects. Anderson has a gift for managing controversy without losing human perspective. He is direct and even scathing in his dissection of incoherent ideologies, but his tone is markedly different when it comes to human beings. Progressives sometimes revile Anderson as a heartless ideologue, but it’s hard to maintain that view when one reads this book. What he is, in truth, is an Aristotelian. He cares about people, including their feelings and aspirations. But he also believes that human beings are happiest when they can align their feelings with material and moral realities. A rational life is better than one built on self-deception and false hope.
It’s easy to lose track of reality when we begin by elevating subjective experience to a position of infallible authority. The popular transgender narrative offers a harrowing illustration of how this can happen. Most of us have heard the stories of such children as Jazz Jennings and “Tyler” (the transgender poster child of the Washington Post), who resolutely declared from a young age that their gender was misaligned with their biological sex. “I’m a boy,” says the three-year-old Kathryn, seemingly quite resolute.
It’s a strange situation, and we readily sympathize with the parents who are coping with it. Who wouldn’t be inclined to consult a therapist and follow the recommended “best practice”? Especially for young children, however, the “transition” is steeped in fantasy. Prepubescent children have stark and uncompromising ideas about gender, but physically the sexes look similar. New clothes, toys, and activities may be pleasant enough for a time, but then childlike bodies start maturing. At puberty, a choice must be made — between, on one hand, a life of interminable explanations, and, on the other, an invasive, drawn-out process of frustrating and masking the body’s natural development. The child who gleefully exchanged her bunny slippers for soccer cleats might end up as a weirdly androgynous, baby-faced 20-year-old, scarred by surgery and sterile for life. These aren’t the after-effects of some terrible, unexpected accident. They are predictable consequences of elective procedures that are now being performed on minors, on the advice of licensed medical professionals. This is what happens when subjective experience is crowned king (or queen).
In a chapter on childhood dysphoria, Anderson explains that most gender-fluid children will, given time and appropriate therapy, eventually identify with their natal sex. In light of what we know about neuroplasticity and developing brains, it seems likely that early “transition” will diminish the chances of that ever happening. Activists are predictably enraged by efforts to “cure” a sincere expression of gender identity, but their protests are obtuse. Surely it is better, whenever possible, to help a suffering child in a way that doesn’t open the way to invasive medical procedures and likely lifelong sterility. It’s hard to tell children “no,” especially when their hearts are deeply set on something, but ultimately kids suffer far more when adults aren’t willing to be adults.
Activists insist that society must accept the transgendered “for who they are.” It’s a remarkable demand coming from people who celebrate surgical procedures explicitly designed to mimic the feminine form in a male body, or the masculine in a female one. As Anderson meticulously explains, it simply is not possible to make a male body female, or vice versa. The physiological differences extend all the way down to the molecular level. When efforts to uncover the authentic self lead to such gross distortions of reality, it should be obvious that something has gone awry.
In the book’s most heartbreaking segment, we hear the stories of several people who learned this truth for themselves, in the hardest possible way. These “detransitioners” were once advised by their therapists to identify as transgender and undergo recommended treatments. It didn’t help. In time, they discerned for themselves that they were not trapped in the wrong bodies: The dysphoria stemmed from other underlying issues that therapists had overlooked. Those issues remained unresolved. Meanwhile, some felt that the effort to change sexes had only deepened the alienation they were already feeling with respect to their physical bodies. The hormone treatments and surgeries had left their bodies permanently changed, and some detransitioners described the process of grieving over the loss of their fertility, their natural faces, and their true voices. “There is a very deep, painful symbolism,” writes one woman, “behind losing your original voice and having no way of getting it back.”
That looks a lot like medical malpractice. So why was it permitted to happen? One reason, undoubtedly, is that the transgender cause dovetails so nicely with the agenda of the hard Left. Under the Obama administration, activists pressed the transgender cause with all the grace and sensitivity of the mob at Pamplona. Clearly, this is about much more to them than just the social comfort of a fraction of a percent of the population. Transgenderism represents an opportunity to make an ambitious sortie in the ongoing battle against nature. The lawsuits and “Dear Colleague” letters contain an implicit challenge. Who is willing to stand up and declare that bodies mean something? What beleaguered traditionalist will insist that we must submit to the tyranny of an inflexible material world?
Culture wars are not the whole story, however. Many activists and practitioners do sincerely believe they are doing something good in championing the cause of the gender-fluid. They feel for people with gender dysphoria. So should we all. Is it really surprising that this malady would arise in a society that is deeply conflicted about the meaning of sex and gender? In an uncanny way, the transgender revolution itself testifies to the enduring significance of manhood and womanhood as meaningful and identity-forming concepts. Gender roles are a source of perpetual controversy, but almost no one favors bland androgyny as a solution. We want gender to mean something, but any meaning we give it is liable to leave someone feeling straitjacketed by stereotypes. Is there a way out of this conundrum that doesn’t lead back to the surgeon’s table?
Perhaps there is, though it surely won’t be as convenient as the capsule or the syringe. An “assigned” gender might feel less oppressive if we could help young people develop a richer and more nuanced appreciation of what men and women can be. Presenting children with a broad array of historical and literary heroes and heroines might help them to find exemplars that are appropriate for them personally. Single-sex associations might also be salutary, enabling young people to see for themselves that masculinity and femininity both admit of a wide range of expressions. Men are not all alike; neither are women. If children can appreciate this diversity, they might find it easier to reconcile their particular personalities with the reality of their physical bodies.
Of course, this is not a cure-all solution. Gender-identity disorders will likely exist for the foreseeable future, and sufferers will need therapy, along with compassion and community support. Even for those who suffer, though, might there not be a certain relief in accepting that womanhood and manhood genuinely mean something? Do we really want to be trapped in the solipsistic bubbles of our “internal sense of gender,” which may for all we know be entirely idiosyncratic?
I will never know what it’s like to be a bat. I have some idea what it is to be a woman. I intend to teach my sons what is involved in becoming a man. I can’t say how they’ll feel about that, but in the end it doesn’t matter. A happy life must be built on a recognition of what is real.