The transgender problem for diversity politics

By Robert Jensen

Published in Dallas Morning News · June, 2015

The surge of discussion about transgenderism — and growing support for policy goals of the transgender movement, such as public funding for sex-reassignment surgery — leaves many liberal/progressive people conflicted.

Of course, people who identify as transgender deserve empathy, respect, and justice, but what if some claims of the movement don’t make sense? What if the central claim seems incoherent?

Whatever one’s political position on racial justice and the problem of white supremacy, no one has trouble understanding the claims that people of color make.

Whatever one’s political position on sex equality and the problem of patriarchy, no one has trouble understanding the claims that women make.

Whatever one’s political position on sexual rights and the problem of heterosexism, no one has trouble understanding the claims that lesbians and gay men make.

But the political positions of the transgender movement are based on a claim that I don’t understand. Before accepting any particular policy proposal, I have to be able to understand the underlying claim.

When someone says — using the terms for sex categories, based on biology — “I was born male but actually am female,” I don’t know how to square that with my understanding of modern science.

Shifting to the terms for gender categories, based on culture, creates another problem. When someone says, “I was born a woman but am a man,” I don’t know how to square that with my commitment to feminist politics.

Feminism helped me understand that in a society based on institutionalized male dominance —what we should not be afraid to call “patriarchy” — gender roles are rigid, repressive and reactionary. In patriarchy, gender is a category that establishes and reinforces inequality.

So, if one understands gender categories (man and woman) as being primarily socially constructed under conditions of male dominance, then transgender ideology strengthens patriarchy’s gender norms by suggesting that to express fully the traits traditionally assigned to the other gender, a person must switch to inhabit that gender category. For years, radical feminists have argued that to resist patriarchy’s gender norms, we should fight not for the right to change gender categories within patriarchy but to dismantle the system of gendered inequality.

If one understands these socially defined gender categories as being primarily rooted in biological sex differences (male and female), then transgender claims are incoherent. Perhaps some future science will explain what it means when a male says, “I am female,” (or vice versa) but such an explanation does not exist today, and it’s difficult to imagine what such an explanation would look like. (Note that people born “intersex,” with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not clearly fit the definitions of female or male, typically distinguish their condition from transgenderism.)

If there is an essence of maleness and femaleness that is non-material, in the spiritual realm, then it’s not clear how surgical or chemical changes in the body transform a person. If that essence of maleness and femaleness is material, in the biological realm, then it’s not clear how those changes transform a person. People who identify as transgender can explain how they feel about these changes, and their accounts are important, but the feelings are not a coherent explanation of the phenomenon.

All of this creates a mess for liberal/progressive people who want to be on the correct side of any diversity debate by allying with the oppressed, which is a healthy political instinct. But to endorse the policy goals of the transgender movement requires that we accept claims that are either biologically incoherent or, for me as a feminist, politically counterproductive.

In writings online (see here, here and here), I have raised these questions and been denounced as transphobic. I neither hate nor fear people who identify as transgender, but simply asking these questions and offering an alternative explanation of how to challenge the rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms of patriarchy is enough to get labeled a bigot.

Liberal and progressive people, with the exception of some feminists, have mostly accepted the transgender movement’s claims or avoided asking questions in public. But a healthy political movement should not demand that we ignore relevant questions or attack people who pose such questions. Out of a desire to be compassionate, we should not abandon the right to ask questions in political dialogue and expect coherent answers.

Dallas Morning News, June 5, 2015. (subscription required)