This is a very long article on a subject that is far from my usual topics. I wrote it because I felt compelled to strike back at one of the most dangerous trends in today’s increasingly strange postmodern intellectual climate (it’s interesting to consider why so many of these strange beliefs seem to go along with anti-Zionism). Also my situation is such that I’m protected from the consequences of my heresy. If someone with an academic position in the USA or Canada (I am not sure about Israel) were to write something like this, they would almost certainly lose their job.
The transgender movement has come into existence only recently, but it has been flexing its muscles in a most alarming way. An academic or public person who expresses even mild disagreement with its radical pronouncements is vilified as “transphobic,” threatened with physical harm, subjected to online bullying (viz. J. K. Rowling), often forced to apologize abjectly, and sometimes fired or simply hounded from their job. “Transphobia” is defined as a form of “bigotry,” a sin which in many circles is considered the nadir of human depravity, the precursor to murder or genocide.
It is becoming more common for children to be encouraged to “transition” to a different gender role, or even to have puberty-blocking drugs administered, on the basis of the child’s questioning the gender role implied by their biological sex to overeager parents, doctors, or teachers. In some cases, this can happen against the wishes of parents.
This is unfortunate, because transgenderism (I am using the words “transgenderism” and “transgenderist” to refer to the doctrine and its proponents, not to individuals who are transgender) is logically incoherent. One danger is that it is being incorporated into administrative rules of educational, business, or media organizations, resulting in the punishment of those who don’t accept the new orthodoxy. A worse danger is that politicians will write nonsense into law. In the case of children, permanent psychological or physical damage can result from their manipulation by parents, teachers, counselors, or doctors, who have jumped on the bandwagon of this ideological fad.
The doctrine of transgenderism is a complex of metaphysical, epistemological, moral, and political beliefs. It rests on a mistake that I hope to expose in what follows.
First, we need a few definitions and explanations.
Everybody (I hope) agrees on what biological sex is. Except in very rare cases (the exact definition of “intersex” and its frequency are unclear, but it is probably a fraction of one percent), the sex of a human can be determined by inspection. It is easier to do for humans than for kittens.
Gender (or “gender role”) is the social and cultural package of customs, rules, expectations, and behaviors that are associated with maleness or femaleness. Gender is an important part of a person’s identity – possibly the most important – since it strongly influences how one interacts with other humans, and more broadly one’s role in almost every aspect of every human society. Until recently, it was assumed that a normal person’s gender role would be the one correlated with their biological sex.
Gender Identity is a person’s perception of the gender role that is appropriate for them to adopt in society.
There have always been people who wished that they were of the opposite gender, either because they felt that the other gender had more social advantages or for various other reasons. A much smaller number believed that in some sense they were the other gender: their biological gender seemed wrong to them. People who suffer distress because of such a feeling of wrongness have gender dysphoria. Prior to the advent of transgenderism, gender dysphoria was considered a psychological disorder.
Homosexuality is an entirely different issue. A person can be homosexual without being gender-dysphoric, or vice versa, although sometimes homophobic attitudes in society can influence a person who is homosexual to become gender-dysphoric.
I’ve broken the claims of made by transgender theorists into five propositions:
1) Everyone has a gender identity which may be different from the one usually associated with their biological sex.
2) Gender identity is a real property of the human organism (that is, not just a feeling or desire).
3) One’s own gender identity is directly perceptible by introspection. A person’s gender identity is epistemologically private; it is not directly observable by others, and therefore a person’s declaration of gender identity can’t be refuted.
4) Gender identity ought to be the sole determinant of the individual’s gender role – how one fits into the gender roles defined by the society.
5) An individual has an inalienable human right to choose their gender identity, which can be male, female, variable, “non-binary,” etc. and to be treated in accordance with that choice.
Anyone who does not respect another person’s gender choice, by referring to them with incorrect pronouns (“misgendering”) or insisting that they conform to a social role that does not agree with their gender identity, such as insisting that they choose a restroom or compete in sports based on their biological sex rather than their gender identity, is guilty of bigotry and denial of a basic human right.
In order to understand some of the consequences of this theory, note that language is a social activity, and proposition 4) implies that all references to gender in language must be understood in terms of gender identity rather than biological sex. So for transgenderists, the words “woman” and “man,” for example, now refer to people who identify as such, and not people with wombs and people with penises, as was previously the case.
This is why transgenderists can say that “men can get pregnant.” Obviously only a person with a womb can get pregnant, but if that person identifies as a man (a “transgender man”) then one has a pregnant man. And therefore such things as medical insurance policies must be changed to reflect the fact that men can become pregnant, women can get prostate cancer, and so on. This is why a serious debate can be held over whether one is obligated to tell someone their biological sex when asking them out on a date (a consistent transgenderist will say no, because it violates the transgendered person’s right to be considered a woman or man in every respect).
Transgenderism, if it turns out to be false, has the potential to do a great deal of harm, particularly to children, who are sometimes raised by overeager parents as though their “true” gender is different from their biological sex on the basis of flimsy evidence (children often display a temporary desire to be a different gender, or even a different species).
The coercive behavior of the transgender movement is also damaging to individuals who are publically targeted for their heresy and accused of bigotry and human rights violations.
Finally, the social changes demanded by transgenderists are quite far reaching, much more than just the need to modify public restrooms to add urinals to the ladies’ rooms and tampon dispensers to the men’s rooms. The complexity of the theory, which insists that there are numerous genders in addition to “male” and “female,” combined with the insistence on proper speech – and the severe punishment for improper speech – would add layers of complexity to our social intercourse. Already, although only a small minority of the population actually accepts the theory, it is destroying women’s sports, a cultural structure established at great cost by women athletes fighting misogynist prejudice.
In analyzing the logic of transgenderism, we note that propositions 4) and 5), the basis of the social and political content of the theory, depend on proposition 2): “Gender identity is a real property of the human organism (that is, not just a feeling or desire).” If this proposition is false, and gender identity is not something real and inherent in the person, then the radical changes in the social structure implied by propositions 4) and 5) are not justified.
The transgenderists are correct in noting that everyone has a self-concept of gender that describes their own relationship to their culture’s gender roles. But simply saying that everyone thinks of themselves in such-and-such a way does not establish that there is something real that corresponds to their self-image. And in order for their argument to persuade us that this gender identity must be respected in the person’s social interactions, gender identity must be objectified, given an ontological status separate from the person’s feelings, wishes, desires, whims, needs, and yes, delusions. After all, I can think of myself in all sorts of ways, attributing rights, powers, or abilities to myself that I do not possesses, or even think of myself as a god. But society is not obligated to recognize my opinion.
Unless you insist that a person is a Cartesian ghost in the machine, a soul, spirit, or mind that is independent of but in some unexplainable way connected to a body, and which itself has a gender, there is no room for this additional entity, the “real” gender identity. There is a body with its biological characteristics, there are the social gender roles in the culture outside, and there are the person’s feelings and desires with respect to their place in society. Where is the “real” gender?
The fallacious argument is only persuasive because it equivocates between the existence of an idea of one’s gender, which is easy to establish but doesn’t imply that society is obligated to recognize it, and a “real” gender (analogous to biological sex but incorporeal) belonging to a person that can be perceived or discovered by introspection. The latter, if it existed, might arguably be a basis for the individual to be treated differently in society – but there is no reason to believe that such an entity exists, and the transgenderists cannot begin to prove that it does.
There is also a problem of verification. Science (including medicine) and law must be based on public, objective facts which can be agreed upon by multiple observers. Since transgenderists believe that a person’s “real” gender is epistemologically private (proposition 3), it does not meet this criterion. It is only directly observable by the individual in question and no outside observer has a right to disagree with or falsify a declaration of gender.
If a person goes to a doctor and says they have a pain in their back, the doctor can’t feel the pain, which is a private, subjective phenomenon. But the doctor can look for various objectively-verifiable physiological conditions that are known to cause back pain. In the case of transgenderism, there can be no evidence except the person’s word.
There is a phenomenon called “stolen valor” in which a person claims to have a military background that they are not entitled to. Valor thieves often convince themselves of the truth of their made-up history, and can speak persuasively about their experiences in combat. But because there is such a thing as military records, claims can be verified. Nobody thinks that just because someone tells war stories they should be eligible for veterans’ benefits. In the case of gender identity, however, there is in principle no way to verify a person’s declaration.
That is not to say that a person might not believe very strongly that the appropriate gender role for them in society is different from the one implied by their biological equipment. A person in this gender-dysphoric condition might be very unhappy and be unable to adjust to the social role that is (as the transgenderists say) “assigned” to them. Their belief could be an obsessive certainty which might dominate the person’s thoughts and cause them to behave in ways that would be problematic for their social relationships. I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of such a situation, but at the same time, the strength of such a belief does not establish that its subject has an objective existence.
If gender identity is not objective, then the project of redefining terms like “woman” or “man” is misguided. Rather than saying that a biological female can be a “transgender man” who can become pregnant, such a person would more correctly be referred to as a woman who chooses to adopt some of the aspects of the gender role usually assumed by men in a particular society (although hormones and surgery can go a long way toward changing an individual’s biological sex, and at some point it would be correct to use the language associated with the new gender).
I do think that there are some individuals who are gender-dysphoric to a degree that transitioning to a different gender, even including medical intervention, is the best course to ensure that they can live a fulfilling life. But I would understand this as a person changing their biological characteristics, to the extent possible, to make it possible for them to play a different gender role in society. I would not say that this person’s situation implies that the definition of “man” and “woman” needs to change.
The question becomes to what extent society should change in order to accommodate gender-dysphoric individuals. And here I think that the position of the transgenderists is wildly exaggerated. I suspect that the number of truly gender-dysphoric individuals is smaller than the number of biological women who would be very unhappy if women’s sports were allowed to disappear as a separate category as a result of being dominated by transgendered athletes.
Particularly in the case of children, who often play with the idea of having a different gender with greater or lesser degrees of seriousness, the assumption of transgenderism and the rush to begin living a new gender role – and even more so, to intervene medically – is dangerous.
The idea that it is a civil or human right to define one’s gender, and that violation of that “right” – for example, by using the wrong pronoun – is equivalent to racial or sex-based discrimination, even violence, can’t be justified logically. Further, the social approbation, sanctions, and even legal action taken against those who do not automatically accept an individual’s pronouncement of gender are destructive to society.
The idea of a “real” gender detectable only by introspection and unverifiable by public, objective criteria, is a logically and scientifically unsound fad. Using it to justify social, medical, and legal decisions is logically wrong, and unjust and dangerous as well.