16 Nov 2016

Talk/The New Normal Conference/12th Nov 2016

I’m Transgender: How to Respond

A Presentation on Gender Ideology


I have spent the past four years of my life immersed in all things ‘gender’: gender identity, gender expression, gender performativity; gender theory, gender ideology, gender mainstreaming; cisgender, transgender…My approach is that of the philosopher, rather than that of the medical practitioner, theologian or lawyer—although today I will be talking about law quite a lot.

The title of this seminar is I’m Transgender: How to Respond and in terms of this conference we are talking about responding to a huge political and cultural shift in our attitude towards what it means to be a human person. Of course, we cannot know how to respond to something unless we first know what that something is. After all, we need to know why that thing warrants a response. Likewise, we cannot know how to respond to transgenderism without first knowing what gender is.

With that in mind, this presentation will be broken down into three parts. Part one is ‘What is gender?’ What does that word mean and, just as importantly, what does it not mean? Part two will address the way in which sex and gender relate to one another, with part three looking at some of the ways in which we can respond to this ideology.

Background Snapshot

But before we start, I want to make sure that we have this conversation whilst being fully aware of the context in which we are having it. So, to focus minds, I want briefly to mention four of the ways in which the ideas of gender identity and transgenderism are presently manifesting themselves around the world.

In New York City we can now be fined up to $250,000 for using the wrong third-person personal pronoun. If a man asks us to refer to him as a ‘she’, or perhaps a ‘they’, or even something more exotic such as a ‘ze’, and if we decline and refer to him as a ‘he’, that can be a catastrophic fine. Note, then, that whereas the legislation purports to punish people for using the wrong pronoun, to refer to a man as a ‘he’ is to use the right pronoun. The legislation punishes people for using ordinary words in their ordinary way. What is that, if not an example of calling evil good and good evil?

Facebook, used by billions of people around the world (including young children), now allows us to choose from 71 gender identities, and if none of them resonate with us we can type in a customized gender identity—meaning that, in theory, there are infinite gender identities available.

Meanwhile in Denmark, if we wish to change (‘re-assign’) our gender identity we need to fill in a form. Six months later we need to fill in a second form, to confirm that we filled in the first form. And that’s it. What used to be seen as a medical procedure is now deemed an administrative one, something that happens not on an operating table with a scalpel but in an office with a pen.

And, just two weeks ago, the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States decided they would hear the case of a teenage schoolgirl, commonly known as Gavin Grimm, who insists on being allowed into the boys’ locker room at her school. An issue that ought to have been resolved in-house will instead be heard in the highest court in the land.

I don’t know about you, but to my mind these four examples are off-the-scale crazy. That, though, is the background to why we are here today, just a snapshot of some of the weirdness that is swirling round our heads. I think it’s fair to say we are living in interesting times…

What is Gender?

What is gender? The reason we need to ask this question is that this subject can be very confusing. There are lots of contradictions, lots of different opinions coming from lots of different angles, and ample scope for talking past each other rather than making progress.

Most of this confusion comes from the fact that the word ‘gender’ means different things to different people. So, we are going to do ourselves a massive favour and ‘de-clutter’ the conversation so that we can clearly see into the heart of the matter. (The heart of the matter is what we will come to in part two.) We will de-clutter things by working our way through three different meanings of the word ‘gender’, comparing them to the legal meaning. The reason why our focus needs to be on law is that man-made law—and only man-made law—has the power to impose its belief on us. For example, regardless of how you or I personally use the word, we do not have the power to force head teachers to allow boys into the girls’ showers.

Gender as Sex?

Our first meaning is that gender is just another word for sex. I think it is perfectly reasonable for people to assume that sex and gender are one and the same. We see forms asking us for our gender, and the options are male and female. But we are now starting to see forms that ask us whether we are male, female or…something else. When it comes to sex, there is no ‘something else’. There are only two, and their names just so happen to be male and female. If we are being given a third option, the forms are not asking us about embodied-ness.

So, for legal purposes, does gender mean sex? Our answer has to be no, not only because of the emergence of a third option on some forms, but also because more and more countries are allowing people to re-assign gender identity without surgery and without hormone injections. Without diagnosis, even.

We have already mentioned Denmark, but we can also mention Malta, Ireland, Italy, Argentina and Columbia. England and America look set to embrace this approach too, with the emerging gold standard for gender re-assignment laws being that they should revolve not around diagnosis and surgery but around self-declaration. It is as though when a man says he is a woman, it is his saying so that is the very thing which makes him so. 

What does all this mean? It means that if the Danish government is using ‘gender’ to mean sex, and if it believes that it is possible to re-assign gender without having an operation, then the Danish government believes that it is possible to change sex without, well, changing sex! From a legal perspective, no, gender does not mean sex.

Gender as Psychological Sex?

A second use of the word is that gender signifies not our sex but our ‘psychological sex’. It is a person’s inner sense of him or herself as either a male or a female. This is a nice manageable idea, as there are only four permutations: a male who perceives himself to be male; a male who perceives himself to be female; a female who perceives herself to be female; and a female who perceives herself to be male. Again, though, this use of the word doesn’t match up with law. It doesn’t explain how we get to 71 gender identities, or how we can be ‘both’ (male and female) or ‘neither’ (male nor female).

But let’s stick with this use of the word for a while longer as this seminar needs to be grounded in real life, in what is going on out there on the front line. To that end, we are now going to watch a video of an interview with Michelle Cretella, who is the president of the American College of Paediatricians. The ACP released a position statement earlier this year, titled Gender Ideology Harms Children. This was a pivotal release, as a paediatric organisation—at last!—stood up for the interests of children in the face of ideas such as puberty-blocking drugs.

As you watch, notice how Cretella defines gender and how she responds to the government’s attitude towards it.

The ACP, then, is using the term ‘gender’ in a consistent way, to mean our sense of ourselves defined in relation to sex—male and female. The ACP is also taking a strong and welcome line in defence of children and against the notion of what it calls, “surgical impersonation of the opposite sex.”

Gender as Social Sex?

Having looked at gender as sex and gender as psychological sex, our third use of the word is ‘social sex’. Feminists in particular use the word to denote the socio-cultural manifestation of sexual difference, which exists in the form of expected behaviours and appearances, i.e. stereotypes—things such as the idea that boys should have short hair and girls long hair; that blue is for boys and pink is for girls, and so on. On this reading, there is an artificial aspect to gender. Feminists see it as a limiting construct which needs to be erased. This means that when we hear people say, “Gender is a social construct,” they do not mean sex is a social construct. No, it is just another instance of the word being used in a different way.

Yet again, this use of the word does not correspond to the legal use. For example, it is not at all clear why an identity defined in terms of a social construct ought to be recognised and protected in law in the first place.

However, I do want to quote two English feminists at this point because their comments provide us with a couple of useful insights. This first quote is from Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, an analytical philosopher who has produced a lot of very good work highlighting the ways in which the present meaning of gender identity contradicts the established feminist understanding of gender. This quote comes from her essay, The Idea That Gender Is A Spectrum Is A New Gender Prison:

What is gender? This is a question that cuts to the very heart of feminist theory and practice, and is pivotal to current debates in social justice activism about class, identity and privilege. In everyday conversation, the word ‘gender’ is a synonym for what would more accurately be referred to as ‘sex’…The word ‘gender’ originally had a purely grammatical meaning in languages that classify their nouns as masculine, feminine or neuter. But since at least the 1960s, the word has taken on another meaning, allowing us to make a distinction between sex and gender. For feminists, this distinction has been important, because it enables us to acknowledge that some of the differences between women and men are traceable to biology, while others have their roots in environment, culture, upbringing and education.”

Two more quotes, both of them from the writer Sarah Ditum. The first is taken from a very long and very well received essay that appeared in the New Statesman earlier this year. Rather tellingly, it is titled What is Gender, Anyway?:

“This (gender) can be perplexing terrain, in which it’s not at all clear that everyone is speaking the same language, although they might be using the same words.”

And from an essay called How Society is Failing Transgender Children, published just a few weeks ago, again in the New Statesman:

“Remarkably, as I found out when I worked on a long feature on the subject, there isn’t any agreement on what gender identity is or how it relates to the physical body. Which means that transitioning children are receiving an untested treatment for an undefined condition.”

What do these quotes tell us? Well, firstly, they show that feminists are acutely aware that not everybody is on the same page when it comes to the use of the word ‘gender’. Secondly, the quotes illustrate that although feminists and conservative American paediatricians are using the word ‘gender’ in different ways, the two camps have something in common, as each is concerned about the way in which the modern understanding of gender identity is harming children.

In effect, English feminists are saying to the state, “You are getting gender wrong. Gender is a social construct, so why would anybody need surgery to change gender?” Similarly, the ACP is saying to the U.S. administration, “You are getting gender wrong. Gender is our psychological sex, so surely any incongruence between sex and gender can be treated only by treating the mind?”

What I am saying is this: law is not getting gender wrong. Rather, it is using the word in yet another way. So, what is that use, if not sex, psychological sex or social sex?

So Many Meanings; So Much Confusion

Just before moving on to part two let’s press pause and make a general observation. We are not in a situation of using the word ‘gender’ to signify an aspect of human identity plus, say, a brand of car, a kind of cheese, and a Pokemon character. If that were the situation, our particular use of the word at any one time would be more or less obvious from the context in which we are using it. For example, if I were to say, “I am looking forward to having gender on toast for lunch” you would know I am not talking about eating my car, right?

But that’s not the present situation. No, we are using the word to signify sex, psychological sex, social sex and some kind of legal identity. All four uses occupy the same conceptual space: human identity. I cannot for the life of me think of another word that has not only so many meanings but also so many overlapping meanings.  I make this point so as to suggest that gender, as seen as an ideology, relies heavily on confusion and deception. Interesting times…

Sex and Gender

So, from a legal perspective, what exactly is meant by this phrase, ‘gender identity’? Sadly, and at the risk of sounding underwhelming, it is very difficult to answer that question. The definitions provided to us, be they from law, websites or various organisations, are always so vague. Indeed, the typical definition is that our gender identity is—wait for it—the identity of our gender. I am sure you can see why such a definition is so inadequate. It goes round in circles. It is not a definition at all. It’s the same as saying, “Brexit means Brexit” and we all know the confusion being caused by that vagueness.

However, despite not being able to put our finger on a decent definition, there is a neat little trick we can fall back on, which is to define gender identity in terms of the properties it claims to have. (This is the technique employed by the aforementioned Rebecca Reilly-Cooper in her presentation, Critically Examining the Doctrine of Gender Identity.)

To explain what I mean by the properties gender claims to have, just imagine I tell you that I don’t know what the word ‘elephant’ means. Now, you could say, “An elephant is a kind of animal,” or you could say something like this: “An elephant is grey. You might find one in Africa. Elephants are bigger than a car but smaller than a house,” and so on. You can talk ‘around’ the fact that an elephant is an animal.

This is pretty much what we are reduced to doing in terms of building a picture of what a gender identity is. For example, we can say that in terms of number, there are a particular number of sexes—two—whereas there is no particular number of gender identities. Likewise, in the case of sex we are referring to a physical identity whereas when it comes to gender we are referring to a state of mind—an immaterial identity. Two more examples: sex is given in conception whereas gender identity is chosen, and our sex cannot change whereas our gender identity apparently can.

The beauty of looking at gender identity in this way is that it allows us to put distance between sex and gender, in turn cutting down confusion. By isolating gender identity, we can see it more clearly. A useful exercise is to imagine a thick vertical line dividing all things sex and all things gender. On the sex side of the line we have words such as body, physical, two, given, and fixed, whereas on gender’s side we have mind, immaterial, infinite, chosen, and fluid. The trick is to make sure that no word or idea crosses from one side of the line to the other. For as long as we can keep these two sets of words and ideas separate we can retain a sharp picture of their differences.

It quickly becomes apparent that sex and gender aren’t just different. They are opposites.

Mind over Matter

Still, the question can be asked: why does any of this matter? Surely all that counts is that our legal identity is a legal recognition of our embodied identity? So what difference does it make whether the government believes we also have something called a ‘gender identity’, and that it can be changed? Well, here we have reached the crux of the matter. You see, according to law our gender identity is superior to our sex—hence people being allowed to choose which loo to use.

Just take a few seconds to think about that. In law, our mind is deemed a more accurate indicator of our identity than our body. The changeable is deemed a better reference point than the fixed, and the visible is deemed less trustworthy than the invisible.

At this point we have well and truly left behind the comforts of reality and have plunged headlong into the arms of an ideology; an idea that can never be true. For in claiming to be superior to sex, ‘gender identity’ represents an active legal denial of our created, embodied identity as male or female. The effect is that we are ‘downgraded’ in law; legally considered to be less than who we really are. In short, gender identity is nothing less than an attack on sex. If you are male, this affects you. If you are female, this affects you. Quite simply, the legal version of gender identity is nothing less than a lie.

From Psychological Sex to Psychological Gender

Note how far away we now are from the notion of gender as psychological sex. We have made a subtle but devastating shift, from gender as ‘the sex you think you are’ to gender as ‘the gender you think you are’. I realise, of course, that the notion of gender-defined-only-in-terms-of-gender makes no sense—I am just the messenger!—but this shift does something bizarre. It detaches the concept of gender from sex, and therefore from the body, and therefore from any objective reference point. We now have an explanation for the proliferation in the number of available gender identities, as the legal reading of gender exists ‘beyond’ the binary of sexual difference.

This shift is such a vital point that I would like to offer an analogy to help illuminate it. It’s a half-jokey analogy, but one that makes a serious point. I would like you to think about the size of your feet and the size of your shoes. I’m guessing—hoping—that everybody here today is wearing shoes that are not too big and not to small; shoes that fit. But why do we wear shoes that fit? It is because of the presence of a norm. There is a normal connection between the size of our feet and the size of our shoes, with the latter determined by the former. The two ought to match. Likewise, there is a normal connection between the sex we are and the sex we perceive ourselves to be. The two ought to match.

Now, suppose we think not about the size of our shoes but about their colour. We are still talking about shoes but, suddenly, we are no longer talking about something that has any normal connection to the size of our feet—there is nothing about having, say, size nine feet that means we ought to wear, say, black shoes.

The analogy works because the difference between shoe size and shoe colour (with regard to the size of our feet) is the same as the difference between ‘gender as the sex you think you are’ and ‘gender as the gender you think you are’ (with regard to our sex). When we shift from gender-defined-in-terms-of-sex to gender-defined-in-terms-of-gender, we continue to use the word ‘gender’ but, suddenly, we have detached the word’s meaning from any normal connection to sex.

If we think back to the interview with Michelle Cretella, we can now see where all the confusion comes from. From the perspective of socially conservative paediatricians, when the U.S. administration instructs them to alter a child’s body rather than his or her mind the state is saying something like the equivalent of, “If your shoes are too big or too small, you should change the size of your feet,” which is crazy, right? Which is why the ACP thinks the law is crazy. But from the perspective of law something very different is being said. Law is saying something like the equivalent of, “The colour of a child’s shoes can never be wrong,” which is right, right? As far as the state is concerned our gender identity can never be wrong.

How to Respond?

I said at the top of this presentation that we cannot know how to respond unless we first know what we are responding to. And now we know. Going on the legal use of the word, our gender identity is a changeable identity, defined without reference to our body. I also said that without knowing what we are responding to we cannot know why that thing warrants a response. And now we know. It is because our gender identity is legally deemed to be superior to our sex, thereby downgrading us in law from somebody to ‘somemind’.

But there’s a third aspect of how to respond. After ‘what’ and ‘why’ comes ‘who’. Who will it be that brings us into contact with this ideology? Will it be our own son saying, “I think I’m a girl”? Will it be a colleague who is going through some kind of physical transition? Will it be the government instructing our local school to allow pupils to choose which set of showers they use, or insisting that we use ordinary words such as ‘he’ and ‘she’ in a new and extraordinary way?

Our response to all things ‘gender’, then, has to be informed by the fact that we are dealing with a very messy overlap between two things, which for the sake of convenience we can term illness and ideology. As recently as twenty years ago, a person who experienced incongruence between his or her sex and his or her psychological sex would have referred to him or herself as experiencing transsexualism. Nowadays, people with that same incongruence tend to refer to themselves as ‘transgender’. Thus they are being sucked into the orbit of the ideology. Without meaning to be too graphic, we can expect that in years to come certain men will look back and think, “You mean to tell me I could have become legally ‘female’ without having that operation?” The ideology is leaving bodies and body parts in its wake.

Personally, I have to say that I believe it would be a big mistake to concentrate all our resources, time and energy only on compassionately walking alongside those who have a genuine difficulty living in harmony with their God-given sex. What I am trying to say, I suppose, is that transsexualism affects less than 1% of people whereas by virtue of downgrading us in law the ideology affects 100% of us. The focus must be on the ideology. A deeper understanding of the ideology in turn enables us more accurately to understand the position in which people who identify as transgender find themselves—caught in the crossfire from an illness and an ideology; the medical and the legal.

But the group of people most affected by the ideology are children, as they are less able intellectually to fend off ideas that make no sense. To help bring things to a close we are now going to watch an excerpt from a video called The War on Children: The Comprehensive Sexuality Education Agenda. A joint project headed up by Family Watch International, the video itself is 35 minutes long but we will watch only the first four minutes forty five seconds.

A war on children. A war of ideas. That’s where we’re at on this one.

The important thing to understand in terms of this new and radical version of sex education is not so much what is being taught but what is not being taught: marriage and heteronormativity. It might sound a bit contradictory coming from somebody who has spent the past 50 minutes talking about gender but, actually, today’s problems exist not because we do not know enough about gender but because we have forgotten so much about sex. The emphasis should be on re-learning the nature and meaning of the human body made male and female, and on teaching it to children: the better their understanding of their embodied given identity, the stronger their immunization against the ideology.

Another step we can take is to stop using the word 'gender' when we mean ‘sex’. Sex means something real, observable and measureable, whereas the only meaning of ‘gender’ that has any historic roots is its use in relation to language. I am not saying we should not use the word at all. Rather, I think we should be aiming to use it in the same way as all other words, i.e. accurately.

Make no mistake, at root, what we are seeing is the worldwide implementation of an ideology which has the full backing of law and which insists that each and every one of us learns to be a person in a new way. But if it’s a new way it isn’t the old way, and if it isn’t the old way it isn’t the true way.

So, if we visualise our vertical line dividing sex and gender, we can now add a few more pairs of opposite terms to our list. We can add true and false, we can add freedom and whatever the opposite of freedom is, and we can add creature (who recognises that he has a Creator) and self-creator.

It turns out that the ‘new normal’ is that there is no normal.