A family friend, whose teenage child has recently said they are trans, contacted me over the weekend because their child had been sent a piece saying that trans was really a delusion. Needless to say, the piece originated from a right-wing Christian “think tank” who also oppose same-sex marriage (or, it seems, any same-sex relationships at all) and abortion. In fact, that’s what they seem to focus on. Nothing about feeding the world and ending economic inequality, or research into effective and cheap cures for nasty diseases, or doing business in an ethical way. No – the focus is entirely on enforcing heteronormative, binary gendered sexual models as the “obvious” norm, placing everything else as harmful deviancy.
I’m all too aware that such pieces are often written from a point of view of (at best) well-meaning but very misdirected “concern”. However, as with similar media debates, they’re not a zero-sum game. On the one side you have an academic argument, which throws out ideas to see if they stand scrutiny or to provoke some kind of debate, while on the other you have people who stand to lose massively, in terms of emotional wellbeing, access to healthcare, employment and education, support from family and friends. Yet, somehow and repeatedly, there are calls for trans people to justify themselves – as if transgenderism was an entirely Western invention and pursuing this “lifestyle choice” will mean the end of civilisation as we know it. I wonder what would happen if we started to position the academic lifestyle as a choice (because it most definitely is a choice) harmful to society.
Such pieces are usually written from a perspective of “how things are meant to be” rather than “how things actually are”. Trans people are documented throughout history and across the world. It’s inevitable that we look at things through the perspective society gives us, and our Western society has been driven by Christianity and a very warped fifth century view of sex and purity – as Diarmaid MacCulloch’s excellent BBC series on “Sex and the Church” makes abundantly clear. It’s only relatively recently that lesbian and gay people have come to some form of societal acceptance. Trans people still linger behind, still labouring under the scrutiny of an uncomprehending media.
Nevertheless, I struggle to see how sending a teenager, who is struggling to come to terms with their identity and who has admitted that they are depressed, a piece like this is meant to be remotely helpful.
The piece starts by referencing Leelah Alcorn’s suicide, and refusing to call her Leelah because that was a “self-invented name” and “Joshua was not a girl”. In doing this straightaway there is a rigid straightjacket imposed on names – you may only call yourself what your parents called you. Goodbye to nicknames or aliases – if your parents called you Zebedee, then Zebedee you must remain. Of course, the logic of that will not apply to the author because, in his mind, trans is there to deceive and confuse, so it’s only right that “boys” cannot call themselves by “girl names”.
The piece moves right on to say that “no amount of surgical mutilation of body parts, effeminate behaviours, or artificial female appearances can make a man a woman.” Which would indicate that he has a pretty clear idea of what a man and a woman is. These arguments usually boil down to genitals – placing an importance on them while downplaying either the holistic view of a person or the idea of “brain sex”. The reasoning ends up at a place where your genitals become the most important thing about you (hint – they aren’t). Also, if you took your average man off the street and stuffed him full of estrogen and rearranged his genitals, he’d probably still identify as a man – and likewise forcing testosterone into your average woman won’t make her identify as anything other than a woman. The fact that trans people DO identify as a particular gender (and not the one given to them at birth) ought to point out that there is something different about them.
The piece moves on to dismissing the idea of “gender identity” and why this should define you. It draws two analogies – one is of a Finnish person who decide that they identify ”as being of sub-Sarahan African descent”, the other is someone in their 70s who believes they are a teenager. Of course the claim is made that these “analogies” are a “direct comparison” to transgenderism, as are dietary disorders. Well, firstly, believing that you’re “of sub-Sarahan African descent” would be easily proven by looking at your family tree (although, admittedly, it does depend on how many thousands of years you’re willing to go back), and the other “delusion” is also a matter of fact. In contrast, there does appear to be some limited scientific basis to the claim that trans people aren’t simply making this stuff up, unlike the two “analogies” claimed above. But why do these “delusions” matter? They’re not harming anyone else. The parents of one of my best friends at uni used to regularly go night-clubbing in their 60s. It seemed a little odd, but it made them happy.
Then comes the claim that “our mental facilities, like our physical ones, are ordered towards various ends”. That presupposes some element of design to our bodies – something that I’m simply not convinced of. And it betrays the same, simplistic attitude – each organ has a specific (and probably unique) function, and if it “goes wrong” it’s a “disorder”. Sure, some things going wrong will be very nasty indeed, but who’s to say if the brain has actually “gone wrong” in someone who’s trans? The brain is a magnificently complex organ, and medicine is still struggling to understand the basics of how it all works. Where is the incontrovertible proof that someone’s brain has to be 100% compatible with their body?
The piece moves on to dismissing medical intervention, including the skewed claim that children have genital reassignment surgery (hint – they don’t). Sure, some children who identify as trans do decide, later on in life, to revert back to living in their birth gender. Again, I don’t really see why this is a problem – but also I suspect that no studies have been done on the difficulties trans children face living in a world where people are constantly questioning your basic identity, and what effect that social pressure might have on decisions to de-transition. (I notice that, in the recent Louis Theroux documentary, Cole/Crystal did seem to be subjected to a fair amount of pressure by their father – which is bound to have an effect. Whether Cole/Crystal is actually happy with the decision they feel forced to make is a different question, bearing in mind that superficial happiness can be caused by making other people happy.)
The flawed statistic that “individuals who undergo gender reassignment surgery are 20 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population” also ignores the effect such social pressure has, and also mis-references an old Swedish study which actually made the conclusion that better counselling and therapy services should be made available to trans people after surgery (as opposed to not doing the surgeries at all). Even if the suicide rates for post-operative trans people are higher than societal averages (and I suspect they may be marginally higher), you should look at the suicide rates of trans people before they seek medical assistance. Survey after survey after survey indicates around 40% of trans people have attempted suicide at least once, and that suicide ideation and depression moves markedly towards societal averages after treatment. The reason that such surgery and treatment is classified as a medical procedure is that it works. Medics wouldn’t be able to justify it otherwise, and courts support this viewpoint.
The twisted logic that the piece follows then baldly states that it is “a great evil to condone such surgical procedures” because of the intentional damage to “perfectly functioning bodily faculties by twisting them to an end toward which they are not ordered”. Again, this is clearly someone who knows exactly how things are supposed to be. It’s a very rare medical intervention that doesn’t cause damage to healthy tissue, and medics often have to make a call as to whether the damage done is proportionate to the cure sought. OK – the objection here is to the removal of whole, functioning organs, but that presupposes that there is another way to treat trans people.
Then comes a condemnation of the calls to ban reparative therapy. The calls are there because such therapy has been shown to be harmful. Whilst it may give the appearance of working in a small number of cases, and actually work in an even smaller number, such therapy usually works to create a sense of disgust towards oneself, instilling a belief that you will be a social pariah if you persist in this “misguided” belief or practice. Again, no account is given of the social pressure such therapies insist on placing on the individual, or the terrible effects that social pressure has. Telling someone their innermost thoughts are a disgrace typically won’t remove those thoughts – instead they’ll be driven undercover, causing even more stress.
The author then tries to dismiss the gendered brain theories. Well, the science behind such theories is weak, but it is there. Whether things like the BsTC are moulded by practice or moulded by hormones in utero, or dichotic hearing can be trained or not, the science does show that trans people do have some biological basis (however caused) for feeling the way they do. And, more importantly, no-one has shown any scientific research whatsoever that any therapy can reverse or “normalise” these.
At least the author has heard of intersex people, despite claiming they’re “exceedingly rare”. But he dismisses the idea that transgenderism might be another form of development akin to intersex conditions. Why?
Finally, he comes to the “why does it matter” argument – which I touched on above. Here he argues it does matter within wider society because of the legal protections which are being sought and the provision of medical treatment. Unsurprisingly the “toilet defence” comes out here too – we can’t possibly let “men who identify as women be able to use women’s restrooms.” This is, presumably, to protect women against sexual predation. But, if this is serious, where are the calls to ban gay men from men’s facilities, or lesbians from women’s?
The piece is predicated on the harm to society that sexual confusion does. The harm to the trans individual is simply not considered. It’s also predicated on a “right way to do sex”. Elsewhere on the site are pieces that say that the best environment to bring up children is with a mother and a father. This simplistic thinking leads to situations whereby 72-hour celebrity marriages are considered OK, but that considering that long-term gay relationships cause irreparable damage to society. It ignores the existence of abusive heterosexual relationships, or the existence of single-sex parents. In short, it’s predicated on a 19th century vision of “how society ought to be”, rather than a 21st century understanding of how complex life actually is.
To be honest, the idea that someone could send a piece like this to someone who is struggling with life and their identity makes me both angry and sick. I’m staggered at the imbalance between campaigners like me who are calling for rights and treatment for people as they are, but are not seeking to “convert” anybody (as if we could), and a worldview like the one espoused which is so convinced of its moral rightness yet fabricating outrage at the minimal impact trans people cause – and aiming to convert them into some straightjacket of righteousness. There has been no thought to the fragility of people who are wrestling with aspects of their identity, or who are unsure whether their close circle, let alone wider society, will accept them for who they are. And for such a thing to be done “in love” is absolutely detestable.
I have no idea whether the teenager in question needs to transition, or express themselves publicly as the “other sex”. But I do know that questions of identity go right to your core, and it’s still, unfairly, open season to question the existence and validity of trans people. That, to me, is the truly evil act.