The rights and social inclusion of trans people is a heated topic right now and, as usual in our present atmosphere, the most extreme views take center stage and completely polarize the issue. On the one hand, we have extreme social conservatives and gender critical radical feminists who claim that trans identity is a delusion and that the good of society depends on opposing it at every turn. On the other, we have extreme trans activists who claim not only that trans people straightforwardly are the gender they experience themselves to be but that everyone else must be compelled to accept this, use corresponding language, and be fully inclusive of trans people in their choice of sexual partners.
The problem is that most of us are not extremely socially conservative, radically feminist, or intersectional trans activists, and our ethics do not align with any of these rationales or approaches. Nevertheless, people are pressured to take a “yes or no” position in relation to both trans rights and the scientific reality of trans identity. This essay is aimed at everyone, transgender and trans-skeptical, who consider themselves to be liberal (in the broadest sense). Such people value gender equality, racial equality, and LGBT equality alongside freedom of speech and belief and a rational, evidence-based approach to the world.
What can we make of this issue? In considering this, we have to look at what is known scientifically about trans identity, specific contentious issues around trans inclusion, and how best to handle them. The issue demands being treated reasonably and fairly, and the conflict many of us are facing is how to apply liberal principles of freedom and fairness to what is a unique dilemma.
The Science of Trans Identity
When it comes to the science of trans identity, many well-informed people argue that the biological evidence is firmly in its favor. The strongest such evidence is found in the brain, where trans people are found to have brains anatomically more similar to the gender to which they identify. The science of gender differences in the brain is well-established. These differences are most clear in gray and white matter distributions that reveal patterns associated with each gender. Studies (and here) on brain function revealed function in the brains of trans people which fell in an intermediate position between that typical of the male and female brain.
In addition to evidence in brain structure and function, trans people identifying as women were found to have a longer version of a receptor gene which reduced the effect of testosterone, and those identifying as men were found to have an allele distribution of a genotype acting on sex hormones equivalent to that of cisgendered men. Further, twin studies have supported the hypothesis that transgenderism has a genetic component.
None of this science is fully conclusive yet, and although the arrow of evidence points clearly toward a biological basis for the trans identity, the question remains partly open. The study of trans identity is relatively new, the number of studies are small and so too, often, are sample sizes. Other studies (and here) have questioned these findings, and it has been suggested that the close correlation between trans identity and homosexuality in some studies indicate that the results could pertain to sexuality rather than gender identity. Nevertheless, the ever-growing number of studies supporting a biological basis for trans identity should be taken seriously by both trans activists and rationalists inclined to be skeptical.
Trans activists therefore would do well not to reject the science (NB: not Theory) of gender difference, which seems likely to come down in their favor in the not-too-distant future. Yet many align themselves with intersectional feminist approaches to activism, and thus have taken on cultural constructivist views of gender which deny biological gender differences in the name of gender equality. In all likelihood, then, their preferred approach to activism is a kind of shooting themselves in the foot. Similarly, those who consider themselves rationalists and are inclined to be skeptical of trans identity because it is so often associated with silly and demonstrably false claims about the culturally constructed nature of gender would do well not to dismiss it too hastily if they pride themselves on valuing science.
We now turn to addressing a few relevant claims being made regarding trans issues.
Issues and responses surrounding Trans Identity
Claim: To support a trans person’s identity is to enable them in a delusion that can only lead to unhappiness. A person’s gender is determined by their genitals and nothing will change that. It’s much kinder to insist they come to terms with that.
First of all, you do not know that trans identity is a delusion. Nobody does. At the most, you can only think that there is insufficient evidence to think it is real. If you insist that gender is entirely determined by the biological sex of a person’s gonads, you necessarily dismiss the neuroscientific and endocrinal evidence that gender differences exist. In this case, we can only ask that you consider leaving individual trans people alone and making your arguments less ideologically and more generally upon universal principles of human rights and dignity.
Claim: But it is for their own good! Look at how many trans people commit suicide after transitioning. And what about the people who change their mind after transitioning? I don’t want to be complicit in that.
There are strong arguments that the higher rate of suicide among trans people has more to do with prejudice and a lack of acceptance rather than a feeling that transitioning was unhelpful. If you care about it, you can best help reduce this problem by being kind and accepting or alternatively, simply leaving trans people alone to pursue their own happiness in their own ways. Although most cases of childhood dysphoria resolve on their own, less than 5% of adults who transition regret the decision.
With regard to this common line of argument in general, the very idea of saving people from themselves and banning things to protect people from themselves is profoundly illiberal. If you are concerned that trans people might not be aware of post-transition suicide and changes-of-mind, you could always look into the information people considering transitioning receive and campaign to make sure it includes this if it currently does not. Ultimately, in a liberal society, we provide education and information and leave people to make their own decisions, take their own risks, and handle their own consequences.
Claim: But I don’t want to pay for people’s transitioning operations and hormones when I don’t believe they should transition at all.
This is a separate argument which has much in common with not wanting to pay for other people’s birth control or for obesity or smoking-related illnesses. You can certainly make arguments that nationalized healthcare should only cover unavoidable illnesses or argue against nationalized healthcare generally. This is a separate issue though and should not affect how you engage with trans people.
Claim: If we accept that trans women are “really” women even if they have penises, then there will be penises in women’s changing rooms/restrooms. Women shouldn’t have to see that, particularly young girls.
This is a valid concern and one that requires practical solutions on the part of the changing rooms owners, which could include providing private stalls. Where this is not practical, it will be down to trans women with penises to refrain from displaying them. There is not yet any evidence that trans women are going into changing rooms and waving their penises around, and the vast majority would rather not do any such thing.
However, there is a troubling attitude among some trans activists which regards any fear or concern about this point as transphobia which needs discovering and “calling out,” so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that this could happen. Trans activists, please do not encourage this to happen. It can only alienate people from your cause of increasing acceptance of trans people and instead increase hostility and fear of what is probably the most marginalized group in society.
Claim: That doesn’t solve the problem because women shouldn’t have to see (what I consider to be) men in their private spaces at all. This can be frightening, especially if a woman is a survivor of male violence.
The trouble is that this problem doesn’t go away whatever rules are made around bathrooms and trans people. If it was decided that individuals must use the bathroom corresponding to the genitalia they were born with, women inclined to be fearful of men will be spared an encounter with this individual:
And instead encounter this one:
The problem then becomes one, not of whether or not someone is trans but whether they “pass.” Who would police that? How could it be done? Would there need to be a license? How and when should it be checked? Would women with more typically masculine features need to use men’s bathrooms? There have already been a few reports of over-zealous security guards manhandling women they have mistaken for men out of women’s bathrooms. Lesbians who favor a “butch” or androgynous appearance would be particularly vulnerable.
Claim: But what about men who are actually predators pretending to be women to gain access to women’s restrooms in order to victimize women?
This also is a valid concern, as such predators exist. The issue is that literally nothing stops them from cross-dressing well enough to “pass” and doing the same thing now. The validity buried in this concern is therefore that trans bathroom activism will result in normalizing circumstances that could more easily mask potential predatory behavior. The result will be a general increase in concern and discomfort for many women surrounding an everyday and necessary behavior: going to the bathroom. Trans activists simply need to acknowledge the validity of this concern and should ideally also engage in activism that helps minimize its impact.
Ultimately, this is a truly difficult issue. Hysteria needs to die down on both sides, and, though unsavory to many trans activists, this could be best achieved by trans people choosing bathrooms most suitable for the gender they are commonly perceived to be and everybody else accepting that trans people just need to pee. Although radical feminists have argued that trans women commit violent crime at the same rate as men and so should not be permitted to use women’s bathrooms, there are no reports of trans women attacking anyone in bathrooms. It is also unclear that people who are willing to commit the serious crime of sexual assault will be afraid to disregard a bathroom sign.
Claim: Trans women have an unfair advantage in sporting events.
This concern is likewise hard to dismiss. Even if trans women are taking hormone treatments to reduce their testosterone, they are still likely to have greater height, bone density, and muscularity than cis women, and to have benefited from what amount to endogenous performance-enhancing drugs for many years before transitioning. Whilst this is not an advantage for every sport and will not be true of every individual, biological differences between trans women and cis women do exist and complicate competitive sports divided into sex categories. Until sports scientists find a way to accurately measure physical advantages and disadvantages for trans people (and there is much disagreement), it seems likely that trans men and women will need athletic categories of their own lest women’s sports particularly suffer the consequences.
This potential solution is usually badly received by trans activists who argue that this is a hurtful and damaging failure to accept trans men and women as men and women. However, biological inequality is not something that can always be completely solved by social means. If it could, men could live as long as women and be required to carry half the babies. We can only work around such differences as best we can using liberal ethics of inclusiveness which also accept biological realities.
Claim: Trans women are vulnerable in men’s prisons and a danger to other women in women’s prisons.
This again is a genuine concern and again probably calls for unique measures. There have been accounts of trans women being brutally raped in men’s prisons and of trans women convicted of rape then sexually harassing women in women’s prisons. As much as some trans activists would like us to acknowledge no differences at all between trans and cis people, and as much as some trans-skeptics would like us to see trans women simply as men requiring no special consideration on the grounds of gender, there are some situations in which the only way to treat trans people fairly is to consider their rights and opportunities in a class of their own.
Claim: Trans people place an unreasonable burden on the military and divert funds necessary for the safety of our country.
This is not an issue that calls for unique measures. The military is well-prepared for evaluating psychological and physiological fitness and needs among its personnel and to fittingly assigning them to duties and roles in accordance with those needs and capabilities. Your political opinions against trans service are therefore unlikely to help anything. Trans people might well be in need of more medical support than average but some require none at all. They must be evaluated to the same high standards as everyone else, and, if surgeries and medication are required and are likely to make them unfit to serve or require a great deal of leave, the same rules should apply as to anyone else with any medical needs. The costs are negligible in relation to other more common medical requirements, including erectile dysfunction. The military knows what it is doing here, and there can be neither discrimination nor particular accommodation.
Claim: Trans women are men appropriating women’s very identity – it’s “womanface” and every bit as offensive as “blackface.”
Don’t be so ridiculous. There is no reason for anyone who is not an identity-politician to take this argument seriously. Nothing is taken from women if some people who were born with penises also identify as women. You must have the right to reject any science which supports this gender identity and to refuse to acknowledge trans women as women and trans men as men but not to insist that everybody else does too.
Claim: Trans people who “pass” worry me because I cannot be sure that I will not end up in bed with someone who has or once had genitalia that I am not attracted to.
This problem is one that only trans people can resolve by honesty and openness, but unfortunately some are ideologically motivated to do precisely the opposite. Some trans activists have claimed that it is transphobic to care what genitalia your partner has or once had if you were attracted to them before you knew this.
This is dangerous, illiberal nonsense reminiscent of the most intrusive forms of conversion therapy. People do not have to justify not being attracted to any set of genitalia or not being attracted to trans people. No-one has to justify their attractions at all. It is unethical to deceive a potential romantic or sexual partner in this way. This can only serve to increase hostility and suspicion of transgender people. Trans women who are not honest and open with partners and only reveal that they are trans when sexual activity begins put themselves at risk of rude or hurtful comments and rejection, and even of violence (which is unjustifiable and must be prosecuted). Those cis people who are not attracted to trans people can help make this easier by preparing themselves mentally for finding out that someone they have been flirting with is trans and withdrawing themselves from the flirtation graciously and kindly.
Claim: Children and teenagers are receiving surgery and taking hormones which permanently alter their bodies even though most childhood gender dysphoria resolves on its own.
This is the most serious issue. Unfortunately, puberty has to happen way before the age of consent, which means that for optimal results in transitioning, medical interventions have to start way before the person in question can be sure of what they’re getting into. It is significant that some studies have found that gender identity and sexual orientation are almost perfectly confounded in teenagers who do not yet possess the mature brain or the experience necessary to distinguish between these. There are serious ethical problems with having this decision made for them by well-meaning adults. Given that most cases of gender dysphoria in children resolve after puberty, often with the realisation that the child is gay or lesbian, transitioning children is difficult to justify ethically.
This is hard to accept for many trans people who know how much more successful transitioning is when undertaken before puberty and that a trans person’s happiness and future can depend on that procedure being successful. Still, this cannot justify permanently damaging the bodies of children whose gender dysphoria will resolve on its own. They cannot be trans “collateral damage” even for a very good cause. This again is another reason that trans activists should support science rather than trying to promote complicated and unevidenced cultural constructivist arguments about gender. Whilst it is liberal to present adults with all the information and allow them to make their own decisions, some confirming evidence of transgenderism in addition to immature perceptions would be necessary for it to become ethical to transition children and teenagers. With science making great strides in identifying brain differences and genetic indications, this could be possible in the near future. It would be wise to support that work, fund it, and campaign for more of it.
These cases represent relatively visible exceptions from the normal situation in which trans people can simply go about their business without anyone needing to worry about what genitals they were born with or whether or not they spent their teenage years producing strongly androgenic performance-enhancing substances. They can be managed without anyone needing to come down in favor of or in opposition to trans identity.
The Liberal Conflict of Freedom and Fairness.
If you still feel that it’s important to keep opposing trans identity, we’ll leave you here. We respect your right to state your view and will oppose any attempt to silence you or force you to use terms you don’t believe are valid. We’d hope that you, in return, would limit your objections to your own spaces and general conversation and not harass trans people going about their own business. We think most of you will.
If, on the other hand, like most liberals we speak to, you neither blindly accept that every trans person is deluded nor feel it is absolutely necessary to oppose their acceptance and to contradict their identity at every opportunity, there is another option that is liberal and rational and it is very simple.
Liberal ethics are generally rooted in freedom and fairness and in extending this liberty to everyone by removing barriers that hinder success and interfere in other people’s lives. That is, liberal ethics seek to restrict individuals as little as possible. Trans people being trans and going about their business is not a problem for most people, and it bears little relevance here. Whenever we speak to liberals who value equality and freedom generally, they are rarely concerned about encountering a trans person minding his or her own business. They are concerned that trans activists are going to get into theirs.
This concern is not unjustified. Although trans activists often complain that Gender-Critical Radical Feminists (whom they refer to as TERFs – the TE stands for “Trans-Exclusionary”) contribute to hostility towards trans people, it is almost unheard of for a liberal to say they became antagonistic towards trans issues after encountering a radical feminist. There are, however, very many who cite exchanges with trans activists as justification for being so. The problem comes down to two main complaints – authoritarianism and pretentious ideologizing.
The former complaint about trans activists stems from excessive language policing and attempts to force people to use certain pronouns and gender neutral terms. The controversy surrounding Jordan Peterson’s objection to nonstandard gender pronouns highlighted this issue among those concerned by the authoritarianism of Social Justice Activism movements more generally. One need not agree with Peterson on anything else to share his concern about this topic. Gender-critical feminists including Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer and Sarah Ditum have also been no-platformed and vilified for their views on trans identity, and these feminists frequently receive violent threats and death-wishes. Clearly, we needn’t agree with them either to condemn such illiberal behaviors.
In the present climate, even those of us who support trans identity are likely to come under fire for alleged misuse of language, which is a desperate problem given the inherent complexity of the situation it attempts to describe. It is common for people typing the words “both genders” or “pregnant women” on Twitter to be confronted by a trans activist (or bot) and accused of transphobia. The Vagina Monologues and the wearing of pussy hats at The Women’s March, for instance, have also been targeted as transphobic by activists. It is difficult to address the issue at all online without incurring the wrath of a trans activist. The most important thing to say about this atmosphere of hostility is that it does not endear people to the trans movement.
Equally difficult for many to deal with is the complicated pretentiousness of some trans activists who assert the existence of as many as 114 genders, an almost as long list of gender pronouns, and the existence of gender fluidity in which these can change from day-to-day and even from hour to hour. This situation is nearly impossible to navigate, and it is a problem uniquely placed upon the natural allies, not enemies, of activists embracing it. Enemies merely make fun of this. On the other hand, it requires the supportive ally to ask and then remember how the genderfluid individual would like to be addressed before almost every conversation and to constantly expect missteps and offense. This situation is frankly chilling to engagement, which further alienates those that activism is meant to help. Rather than coming off as a legitimate attempt to help legitimate problems, then, this form of gender activism appears to many like an unappealing combination of ideologizing and attention-seeking and raises the question of whether everybody who says they are trans is sincere or correct. It seems likely that some people have jumped on the train due to an ideological commitment to gender non-conformity and many trans people themselves have complained of this and coined the term “transtrender” to describe it.
This wary, skeptical reaction to someone with a complicated understanding of their own gender might seem unsympathetic to someone who is struggling with their gender identity and trying to feel comfortable in it. Trans activists will argue that their comfort as a person experiencing struggle (and “oppression”) outweighs that of the cisgendered individual having to hear about it and to make efforts to comply. However, there is an unfortunate tendency for the authoritarian and the pretentious ideologizing aspects of trans activism to come as a package, and thus even the most sympathetic potential ally will often be wary of engaging with trans activists who take this attitude. Who does this hurt most? Trans people, of course, especially those who don’t want to politicize their identity and don’t want to be constantly identified as “trans” or talk about their gender identity but would rather just be known by their name and treated like anyone else.
I'm transgender and I have no idea why they keep trying to push all this stuff onto everyone it's just making a more hostile environment
— Tom (@tomnrobo) September 24, 2017
Yep the vast majority of us just want to get on with our lives but that's getting increasingly difficult
— Tom (@tomnrobo) September 24, 2017
The solution to this is relatively simple from a liberal perspective: Let adults do what they want (also deal with practical issues as well as possible as they arise and let emerging science inform decisions we make as we come to know more).
For trans activists, this requires accepting that they cannot dictate the language that other people use, the beliefs they have about gender, or who they have sex with. These attitudes can be painful for trans people, but other marginalized identities slowly gained acceptance, and the world seems ready to do that with trans people, though less fast and to a lesser degree than trans activists would want. It is true, whether trans is innate or otherwise (and more so if it’s innate), that trans people face a harder-than-average lot with things. They are statistically rare, and they challenge largely bedrock notions of sex and gender for most people. Their dating options will be more limited than average. Some people will remain uncomfortable with them, almost certainly, merely because of who they are. It sucks, and we can care and help—and we can encourage people to grow up around them and offer counselling to manage remaining pettiness—but ultimately, being trans is harder than not being trans, and it is not going to be made easier by “progressive” attempts to bully people.
For anti-trans people, this requires accepting that trans identity is none of their business. If the problem is authoritarianism or pretentious ideologizing rather than gender identity, authoritarianism and pretentious ideologizing are the grounds for avoiding or criticizing an individual rather than their gender identity. The problem with authoritarians and gender ideologues expands way beyond the gender identity issue and is rife within both the SocJus left and far right generally. Reasonable people manage to be critical of intersectional feminism, however, without being hostile to women and of critical race theory without antagonism towards non-white people. It may seem as though the Venn diagram which would show trans people and trans activists is almost a single circle but this is largely wrong because most trans people aren’t activists. They simply want to identify as their gender and not draw attention to the fact that it is also trans.
A liberal attitude on the part of trans people requires accepting that other people may or may not support your gender identity. If you are discriminated against or intimidated, you should be able to expect protection from a liberal society. Of course, reasonable activism to ensure this protection can be engaged in and supported by liberals generally. A liberal attitude towards trans people is the same as a liberal attitude towards everyone else: treat them as individuals. If they turn out to be pretentious, authoritarian ideologues, they can be responded to as such perfectly reasonably and ethically. If they turn out not to be any of that, there is no justification for negative generalizations and collective blame.
James A. Lindsay is a thinker, not a philosopher, with a doctorate in math and background in physics. He is the author of four books, most recently Life in Light of Death. His essays have appeared in TIME, Scientific American, and The Philosophers’ Magazine. He thinks everybody is wrong about God.
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- An Argument for a Liberal and Rational Approach to Transgender Rights and Inclusion - September 27, 2017