OK, so, the hot topic of transgenderism.
My colleagues once joked with me saying that they struggle to “find my off switch”- but, sincerely, I’ve actually tried to stay out of this space as much as possible for all sorts of reasons. Nonetheless, as time goes on, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to ignore, and, I’m reaching the threshold where I’ve done a whole lot of listening to a whole lot of people, and now want to do some writing to make sense of it all in my head.
My engagement in this topic is driven by two primary forces, though, other emotions will feature as well:
I’m sincerely trying to understand. There’s an excited philosopher in my head that’s talking a lot, and sometimes even keeping me up at night. We’re working on the “willingness to sleep” part but, in all sincerity, it’s clear I feel a need to understand and make sense of this space.
In that vein, feel free to comment at the bottom of this post with your open thoughts. All thoughtful comments are welcome.
I’m seeing a lot of anger, hurt, disgust, confusion, and even hatred on all sides of this debate. I wish I could help people hurt less. If my post helps someone that’d be great, but, given how unwilling I am to “take harsh sides” on this issue, I’m not sure that it would. Somehow I guess writing this post might well only help me.
I’ve experienced other emotions as well of course. But at the moment, I’m not personally hurt or angry, mainly because this hasn’t personally touched my life much.
Inspirations and references
This post is inspired by all sorts of content I’ve consumed, but most recently, these two popular videos (check them out, if you’re interested):
YouTube only has a million more videos on this topic. If you’d like to take the time to watch those for context, feel free, otherwise, here goes.
The alien anthropologist framing
When it comes to personal, social or political issues I’ve found this idea particularly useful. I call it the “alien anthropologist” framing.
Imagine for a minute that there’s a highly advanced alien civilization that’s populated vast swaths of the Milky Way. They’re everything you can imagine: technologically advanced, sophisticated, incredibly powerful and, generally speaking, peaceful and benign.
They’re aware that humans exist on earth, but they’re not particularly bothered by us. We’re just one of many planets they’ve catalogued, and our species is at a pre-space age point that they generally understand quite well. They have other fish to fry, (there are Dyson spheres to maintain, for instance). They have their own affairs to take care of and we’re just some backwater planet and species.
However, one day, a budding alien PhD student comes to his supervisor:
“I’d really like to study the humans on earth.” he says.
“Humans! Uh, what species is that again?” his supervisor asks.
“Um, Homo Sapiens, sir” the student says.
“Homo… ” The supervisor looks into an advanced database on his quantum computer… “Sapiens! Yes. Hmm, yes, I remember this one.” (She pauses for a moment, brushing an itch on her tentacle.) So, what’s so special about them? The notes from the probe say they’re just another pre-warp civilization, information age, computing, industry, 6 billion population, and…” (she scrolls down a few lines) “Oh yeah, headed for extinction within the next few hundred years with several high probability events”
The student is a little nervous at this point. He replies: “What’s so special about them? I mean- not much really, but, I have to get my PhD on something and, there’s this social phenomenon we’re recording on their cultural database called Transgenderism and I’d like to dig into it further, it seems quite unique and intriguing, it’s generating quite the political upheaval down there. Lots of humans are hurting and angry.”
The grumpy supervisor gives a big “hmpf”. She’s not convinced. But the problem is, the aliens already know so much about so much, and this really is something they’ve not done research on before. She ponders it for a few minutes, discussing some potential avenues of fruitful research with the student, and eventually (and somewhat reluctantly) gives the go-ahead.
Our budding PhD student gets his own cloaked shuttlecraft, research budget, and gets to spend a few years in Earth’s orbit, secretly observations on humans to study the transgender phenomenon.
As the student begins his research, he starts to develop a soft-spot for the Sapiens species. They’re really not all that bad and capable of great acts of kindness and generosity. They’re doomed to wipe themselves out in a few decades but our budding PhD student can’t help but feel sorry for them. Maybe he’ll even campaign on their behalf once he finishes his research.
Not that I’m making myself out to be anywhere near as sophisticated as our said aliens, but my point is, whenever I decide to deepdive into something cultural, I try my best to adopt a dispassionate, scientific “alien anthropologist” viewpoint when looking at the problem, and, often, along the way develop some compassion. When the alien makes his regular call-backs to his supervisor, which topics do they discuss? How does the supervisor guide the alien through the questions he’s asking towards greater clarity? If the alien had no skin in the game, what might he say as observations about what’s happening? What hypotheses might he put forward if it were safe to do so? This is how I frame this article as a curious (but concerned) bystander.
Summary of what I’m seeing
Very broadly, the cultural left/ the ‘trans community’ are exploring some personal, social and sometimes biological things which are attempting to deconstruct and redefine their personal interaction with gender identity within our social world. They’re running into heavy resistance (even hatred) from some other groups of people. As far as I can tell this debate has three major camps:
- ‘The left’/’The trans community’– the people doing things with their lives and gender identities/roles, and their ‘allies’ -those who create a circle of safety around them. Broadly, I’d consider myself in this camp by default, but it remains to be seen if my views fully conform to the zeitgeist of this group! Playfully- this group is otherwise known as ‘the trans ideologues’.
- ‘The right’/’The religious right’– the people who take issue with what the trans community are doing, citing feelings of disgust, confusion, (well, not ‘citing’ that would require a level of emotional intelligence not typical of this group 🤣 but, they’re obviously there) etc. along with all sorts of arguments. Otherwise known as ‘the bigots’.
- The scientific community– biologists, psychologists, etc. like Richard Dawkins, Niel DeGrasse Tyson, Frans de Wall, Jordan Peterson, etc. My present theory is that this community is “speaking up” is an attempt to support groups #1 and #2 in various ways and/or being actively recruited by groups #1 and #2 in support of their viewpoints.
As a curious bystander who is simply committed to making sense in the world and loving people, I can see how all three camps are exacerbated by this debate, and in desperate need of being heard. Like many issues of this nature, emotions run hot and folks dig their heels in further when people around us consistently demonstrate an unwillingness to listen to understand and we all suffer by not refining our viewpoints through listening.
So, some reflections towards and about all camps.
1. “None of my business”
This is first and foremost. Frankly, for the most part, how people act out their gender identities in the world is really none of my business (and probably none of yours either). What goes on in other people’s bedrooms, their showers, their walk-in wardrobes, their make-up drawers, their private and personal relationships, and how they choose to appear in the world etc. really has nothing to do with me and you. People have a right to privacy and autonomy. And frankly this article might actually be a better article for the world if it ended right here on this point.
But for some reason (not yet understood), we live in a culture that is obsessed with commenting on and meddling with each other’s affairs and sexuality. We’ve killed people because of their sexuality. So, yeah, silence doesn’t work as well as we’d hope- and silence and shame are close buddies, so, the article goes on.
2. Trans people are humans with the same rights
I wish this could go without saying, but ‘being trans’ ought to have zero impact on employability, the right to obtain housing, medical care, etc.
Things might get a bit more fuzzy when it comes to medical insurance if there were data on gender affirming surgeries having adverse long-term health effects. But I think the trans community should wrestle with this honestly. Is it discrimination to charge someone a higher premium for their personal surgical decisions? I know nothing about this area I have no idea where that’s going to go in the future.
3. Critiques of ‘the right’
Some things conservatives may tend to not understand, and need to, if they want to have constructive dialogue.
The world has evolved such deep gender constructs, roles and identities within our culture, and these are inculcated into the next generation so rigidly, that it actually becomes a kind of prison.
The examples are so abundant, entire books could (and probably have) be written about them. But to name a few:
3.1 Dress and appearance
Men and women tend to dress certain ways, and, be shamed or silently judged if they don’t. This is absurdly rigid in our culture. I remember the first time I read Sapiens a brief history of mankind and came across these two images illustrating this point. Credit: Sapiens
Eighteenth-century masculinity: an official portrait of King Louis XIV of France. Note the long wig, stockings, high-heeled shoes, dancers posture – and huge sword. In contemporary Europe, all these (except for the sword) would be considered marks of effeminacy. But in his time Louis was a European paragon of manhood and virility
Twenty-first-century masculinity: an official portrait of Barack Obama. What happened to the wig, stockings, high heels – and sword? Dominant men have never looked so dull and dreary as they do today. During most of history, dominant men have been colourful and flamboyant, such as American Indian chiefs with their feathered headdresses and Hindu maharajas decked out in silks and diamonds. Throughout the animal kingdom males tend to be more colourful and accessorised than females – think of peacocks’ tails and lions’ manes.
Some people want to show up in the world dressing in various ways that you may consider unconventional. I there anything wrong with that?
If you can’t see the ways in which gender functions as a social construct and plays out in a myriad of ways then you’re nowhere near being able to truly enter the debate. Gender roles affect a whole lot, from how we talk, to how we dress, to what kind of work we do, to how we’re seen or esteemed- etc. etc. For someone to wake up somewhere in the middle of their lives and say “I really don’t fit within this traditional gender role at all” is totally understandable.
Cultural gender roles are forced on us without consent. They’re boxes that we’re conditioned into from a very young age. People have every right to flex them and break them. They’re not hurting you by doing so. They’re probably still paying their taxes, paying their rent, and if you knew them personally, you’d know they’re lovely, kind, and highly intelligent people.
If you can hold space, realise they’re not ‘trans ideologues’- they’re just people with a high degree of creativity and openness who are experimenting and expressing themselves in the world in ways that are very unconventional.
3. Critiques of ‘the trans community’/’the left’
When we wholesale start using words differently to their traditional and conventional meanings, we can’t expect to run into no resistance, confusion, or even anger. Conventionally, ‘man’ means someone with a penis, ‘woman’ means someone with a vagina, breasts and a uterus. Women have XX sex chromosomes, while men have one X and one Y sex chromosome. There are fundamental biological differences between men and woman that precede our stories and cultural constructs about them. These are also obviously present throughout the animal kingdom. A man will never fall pregnant or push a newborn baby out of their penis, and a woman will never produce sperm and ejaculate it (as far as I know- who knows what might be biologically possible in the future if/when the demand for more sophisticated surgeries comes into effect, but AFAIK that’s the reality today).
When you hear from the scientific/the right community, this is probably what they’re trying to say (with a sense of bafflement). This is a fundamental biological layer of reality. Making these claims is no different to speaking of oxygen or electrons, they’re totally uncontroversial. This is where the Dawkins interview is coming from when he says “gender really is binary”.
When people get angry with you, one reason might be that they feel either confused or insulted. People in the scientific/political right community using words according to their conventional meanings will be baffled, and in extreme/(many?) cases, totally shut off by your arguments.
If you can hold space, realise that they’re not ‘bigots’, but probably just really confused about what you mean, since you’re deploying language in a way that is totally different from what they’re used to from literally millions of uses of those words throughout their lives.
On that front, I think the terms ‘trans man’, ‘trans woman’ and they/them are probably the closest to a compromise we’d practically be able to roll out. After all my reflection on this issue, I really like they/them as a pronoun linguistically as it skirts confusion and is actually quite straightforward and clear. They/them is, literally, ‘non-binary’.
5. Critiques, sadness, and compassion regarding body hatred (left & right)
This one’s a bit deeper, with the first bit more sadness and anger at both left & right.
A lot of the recent pushback from the right centres around gender clinics where young trans people obtain treatments (like puberty blockers, hormones, mastectomies, etc.).
Nothing could reveal the hypocrisy of the right better than hating gender clinics. Has anyone registered that the circumcision rate in the United States is 64% (and other countries much higher?) and is significantly a phenomenon of the religious right? People who routinely surgically remove the foreskin of their sons’ penises, thus altering their sex organs, as young helpless babies, with no consent, sometimes in a public ceremony (E.G Jewish community) seem to have problems with other older kids/youth/adults modifying their sex organs?
I remember a quote by Donald Trump is saying “What’s happening right now in gender clinics throughout our country is child abuse”. To the right I’d say transgender surgical modification is “just not the sex organ modification you’re used to”. Far more people get circumcised as children (64%) than even identify as transgender (source) much less go on to do gender reassignment/affirming surgery.
Dark humour moment: “God hates the tips of little babies dicks”
But that doesn’t mean I’m on the side of the gender clinics, at least, not for minors. Putting aside cosmetic arguments for a minute, actually I feel deeply saddened to live in a world that involves so much hanguppery and self-hatred about our genitals and sexual organs that we’re routinely trying to surgically alter them. From my vantage point, circumcision and gender reassignment surgery exist in the same physiological and psychological space- we hate our bodies, and we want to change them. Is that actually because there’s “something wrong with our bodies?”
This brings the topic over to gender dysphoria, or the feeling of distress and accompanying narrative that one was “born into the wrong body”. I find this a very difficult to parse. It’s certainly a very, very real feeling of very, very real distress (no doubt). But I wonder if it’s somewhat analogous to a panic attack. When you’re having a panic attack, most times, there’s actually nothing going wrong around you (you’re not being eaten by a lion), yet the subjective feeling is highly distressing and awful. When you go to therapy to talk about panic attacks, if you said “I feel so terrified, like a lion is eating me”, the psychologist never asks for a video recording of the event to find the lion and discuss defence strategies. It’s taken as a psychological claim, to be assessed as such- a highly distressing feeling to be investigated and unpacked in more detail.
Looking at the point “I was born into the wrong body” from a philosophical standpoint- I would point out- I wasn’t born into this body, I came out of it. My sense of self is constructed by this mind, my mind, (the default mode network) and developed slowly in my first 24 months of my life. When I was six weeks old, I was open consciousness at large without a sense of self, then the self developed and an identity was woven from the raw material of my experience & memories paired with nearby stories. In my case, every time I looked down, I saw a penis, and I heard people saying “boys have a penis, girls have a vagina” so I learned those linguistic associations. I would have no idea I could turn around and “identify as a woman” unless the story existed in my local environment and was repeated to me many times. (This is why the right finds this so baffling- they have no such story in their culture, it just doesn’t make sense to them).
As I’ve tried to make sense of gender dysphoria as an ex-religious person, this analogy really rings for me at the moment:
In Queensland right now there’s a man by the name of AJ Miller. He claims to be the reincarnated Jesus. Example:
He’s claiming to be Jesus. He self-identifies as Jesus. What’s his evidence?- Well, he really, really feels that he’s Jesus. Should I believe him? Some people do, and they’ve joined him in his compound. From my perspective, I have no reason to believe that he’s a reincarnated Jesus, and I’m yet to be provided with sufficient compelling evidence to believe him.
Returning to the trans debate. If someone born with a penis identifies as a woman (again, using the word “woman” in the conventional way), don’t be surprised when other people don’t buy in. We’re faced with all sorts of self-identifying claims regularly. People claim to be Jesus, people claim to be prophets of God, people claim to be aliens. My Mormon family and friends all self-identify as “children of God”. Am I denying them their reality by not believing them? Am I negatively affecting their life by not conferring on them the identity of a “child of God” or validating their feelings? Seen from another angle: who am I to even say anything about that claim? (All that I could really say with accuracy is “that person thinks they’re Jesus”)
Incidentally, I’d argue psychologically the trans community might have something to learn from the religious right. My Mormon family in South Africa do not give a shit whether I think they are actually “children of God”. My disbelief in their claim is not taken with any degree of hurt on their end. From their vantage point, “I’m just wrong”- their identity as children of God is not something that’s up for debate, and they need me to confer it on them socially. This is the identity they’ve adopted- it’s a story in their own head that doesn’t need external validation (but ironically, like all identities, has its source within external validation). Ironically, this gives them a certain psychological resilience. They don’t walk around worrying about how they’re perceived by others, or whether others truly understand or ‘get’ that they are indeed children of God. If you truly see yourself as being different from the gender you were ‘assigned at birth’, maybe you have something to learn from the reincarnated Jesus AKA AJ Miller. You might sleep better at night being a bit more unapologetic.
But that’s not what I actually think is the ultimate solution. Ultimately, I’d love to see AJ Miller sincerely introspect about how and why he thinks he’s Jesus, deconstructing this self identity he’s built for himself, and navigate towards not building a cult compound.
Following this line of thinking, in extreme cases, the jokes from the right make sense to me. I’ve seen memes of green bins self-identifying as red bins. Can I self-identify as a penguin and complain that others not believing me really hurts my feelings? I’ve learned Mandarin Chinese for 15 years, I deeply love and resonate with the Chinese language and culture, but I am yet to claim that I should have been born Chinese and I was born “the wrong race” (or if I say this, I mean it only metaphorically). When trans people claim they feel they’re ‘born in the wrong body’- I think this wording could use a lot of polishing to make it more precise and emotionally salient. Not that I would know what is actually meant, but a starting point might be “I feel highly distressed and panicked when I consider my sexual and gender identity. I seem to be on a path towards a life that doesn’t resonate with certain parts of me at all.”
To wrap this part up, I see the solution not as identification, but de-identification, a much more freeing psychological move. Here’s my example as a ‘straight, white man’:
- I just happened to be born male. There’s a 50% chance I could have been born female.
- I just happened to be born white
- I just happened to be born South African, there’s a 0.75% chance I’d be born there.
- I just happened to be born to English speaking parents
- I just happened to be born into a Mormon family
- I’ve taken to the role of ‘male within society’, father, denizen of civiliation, entrepreneur, and many other roles- but there’s a whole lot I don’t like about them, and I continue to live in ambivalence about the whole thing on a frequent basis. Between you and I, when I’ve been woken up by a screaming baby for the 100th time in as many weeks, there are many times I’d like to stop identifying as a dad!
- I just happened to be born straight. When I reached about 12 years old, I began to feel sexual attraction and interest towards girls.
- I don’t take any of my ‘identities’ particularly seriously. They could well have turned out other ways, but they didn’t. I don’t culturally identify strongly with – well- pretty much any culture.
- When people ask me “where are you from?” the question strikes me as about as interesting as “how’s the weather today”?. Meh. It doesn’t matter where I was from, where I am now has even a chance of being interesting.
It’s actually all so straightforward and, pretty dull if I’m honest.
6. Conclusion: If there were a vote
At the end of the day though, these are just a bunch of words on a webpage. When the rubber meets the road on social issues- we go to the voting polls. Here’s how I would vote (today):
For Minors- I’d vote against gender reassignment/affirming surgery and biological interventions of all kinds (puberty blockers, genital surgery, mastectomies, etc.), just as I’d vote that circumcision be made illegal for minors, that a minor can’t get a vasectomy, or indeed a tattoo. Leave the permanent body-altering decisions to consenting adults.
On the flipside, when it comes to counselling, psychotherapy, and emotional support of all flavours- 100% in favour. It’s clear young trans-identifying people are in great mental health distress and need help & support. We should not be slow to offer them a compassionate, open-minded listening ear. And when they say “I’m not a girl, I’m a boy”, I think we should neither say ‘no’ nor ‘yes’ to them, but instead say “mmm, tell me more”.
For Adults- obviously it’s a different story. Get what you want from the market. But here’s where informed consent comes in. If there’s a surgery that alters people’s physiology, it should be presented with all the caveats and due diligence built-in, not a sales pitch of “just do this and you’ll feel better about yourself”.
In summary, on the cultural layer- do what you want. On the biological layer, do what you want when you’re old enough to have informed consent.
Not that anyone ever needed my permission- my opinion is just a drop in a very large ocean that is all happening on its own.