Critical questions need to be answered in transgender debate

By Robert Jensen

Published in San Antonio Express-News · August, 2017

Now that the “bathroom bill” has died in the Texas Legislature and the political fireworks are over — for the moment — we should step back and consider what makes the transgender issue so vexing.

Debates about gay rights and other hot-button “culture war” issues have long been divisive, but there’s something distinctive about this one: A large number of people are simply confused, for good reason. Many people don’t understand transgender activists’ claims about sex and gender, and the transgender movement has yet to offer a coherent explanation.

What does it mean for people born unambiguously male biologically — that is, not with one of the rare intersex conditions, a separate question from transgenderism — to claim to be female, or vice versa? As a matter of biology, male and female are categories defined by different roles in reproduction; a male human cannot be, or become, a female human. Hormones and surgery can create the appearance of a “sex change” but cannot transform a person into someone of the other sex category.

If the focus is on socially defined gender — the meaning a society makes of male/female sex differences —it’s easy to understand how someone born male might feel at odds with the norms of masculinity and more comfortable with the norms of femininity, or vice versa. People have a right to look and behave as they like without the constraints of patriarchal gender norms, but that does not require anyone to claim to have changed sex categories.

People who identify as transgender typically describe an internal subjective experience of belonging in the other category, and I am not challenging those self-reports. But an internal subjective experience doesn’t change physical realities in the world. For example, people who are dangerously underweight sometimes report an internal subjective experience of being overweight, but we don’t embrace that as reality and encourage them to diet.

When males who identify as transgender assert that they are female and, therefore, should be allowed in all-female spaces such as changing rooms or bathrooms, it’s no surprise that many people say, “I don’t understand.” That’s legitimate confusion, not bigotry or hate. But simply acknowledging the confusion can, in some places, lead to being labeled “transphobic,” and so many people keep quiet about their concerns.

This is very different from the debate over the status of gay men and lesbians. People who oppose gay marriage understand what same-sex attraction and intimacy is, even if they have not experienced it. When I argue for lesbian/gay rights, no one on the other side has ever said, “I don’t understand what it means to be attracted to someone of the same sex.”

The responses of transgender activists and supporters vary widely. Some argue that not just gender but even sex categories, male and female, are socially constructed, a claim that seems nonsensical to me and many others (the realities of sexual reproduction do not change based on social norms). Others propose that there can be a disconnection between chromosomal/gonadal/genital sex and “brain sex,” which could make sense only if there are meaningfully distinct male and female brains, which there aren’t. Others reject the idea of a binary, but human reproductive cells (called gametes) are either egg or sperm, which is a binary that can’t be wished away.

Let me be clear: I am not rejecting the internal subjective experiences reported by people who identify as transgender, nor am I suggesting that bigotry or violence against people who identify as transgender is acceptable. But until there is a coherent explanation of the transgender movement’s claims, it’s not discriminatory to maintain certain sex-segregated facilities, especially those that give girls and women privacy and safety from the routine intrusions of a male-dominated culture (not because transgender people are a distinctive threat, but because blurring the lines based on individuals’ unchallengeable assertion of an identity will lead to predators exploiting the ambiguity).

The underlying problem, from a critical feminist perspective, is institutionalized male dominance, what has long been called patriarchy. If we ever transcend the rigid, repressive and reactionary gender norms of patriarchy — which constrain all our lives — people would feel free to live authentically without claiming they belong in a sex category that is contrary to the physical reality of their bodies.

Transgender activists acknowledge that we know little about the etiology — the cause or causes — of transgenderism. Within the transgender movement there is disagreement about whether this is a condition that requires medical treatment or just an aspect of identity like any other. Based on current knowledge, responsible public policy should approach transgenderism with a mental health model that explores people’s distress without immediately making assumptions about what the symptoms mean for identity. As long as the movement demands that we accept transgender as an identity that cannot be questioned, the policy questions — not only bathrooms, but whether it is ethical to give children powerful drugs to suppress puberty as a treatment for gender dysphoria — will be not only unresolved but unresolvable.

The transgender movement normalizes dramatic interventions into the body without a coherent explanation for the treatment, suggesting anyone who hesitates to endorse this is a bigot. If this continues, will children who show any signs of gender nonconformity routinely be encouraged to identify as transgender, hence in need of treatment, rather than challenge patriarchal gender norms? Will girls and women be expected to abandon their legitimate interests in privacy and safety based on a claim they can’t understand?

Pressing these questions is evidence of critical thinking and a commitment to justice for girls and women, not bigotry. We can recognize the distress and needs of people who identify as transgender, and at the same time ask these crucial questions and offer a feminist challenge to repressive gender norms. Debates in which people are condemned for thinking critically are unlikely to lead to responsible public policy.