The Transgender Dialogue: what are we even talking about?
The word transgender is everywhere these days, and I have to be honest. Most of the time when I see it or hear it, I feel like Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride going...
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good argument! A truly great argument will leave all parties better for having been a part of it. But I also know that in order to argue effectively, we have to understand what it is we’re actually arguing about. We have to agree on our terms and definitions, and so far in this conversation, I don’t think we’ve been able to do that yet.
I first encountered the full magnitude of the transgender controversy back when I was working in the newsroom, and we were covering the story about a local correctional facility that would not provide hormone medication for a transsexual inmate. The law enforcement officials felt that taxpayers’ money should not pay for such things.
The inmate was a biological man taking female hormones to transition into living life as a woman. So we held a meeting to discuss how best to approach the subject, and our news directors made the call to refer to this person as a "Transgendered Man". We were to call this person “he” and “him”, because this person was biologically a man, and being held in a men’s correctional facility, so as journalists, we were to go with what evidence suggested. Because it’s journalism, right? So we go with the hard evidence. Right?
Oh Lord, have mercy! The backlash! So many hateful phone calls, emails, Facebook comments from viewers and readers lashing out at the station, calling us all ignorant, and even threatening violence.
As it would turn out, the appropriate term for such an individual is "Transgender Woman", because we're supposed to refer to them as what they want to be. And to add the "-ed" at the end of the word transgender was apparently as evil as punching a baby.
So we changed our approach, and referred to this person as a transgender woman, which is the AP standard, and of course this made the rest of humanity just as angry and volatile.
There was absolutely no way to tell that story without making a lot of people angry. From then on, any time we had a news story involving a transgender individual, most of us attempted to write the scripts and articles by tiptoeing around gender-specific pronouns as if they were landmines, and several of us worked to educate ourselves on how to appropriately employ the terminology of the transgender culture.
Pop Quiz: Which of the following individuals would be considered a transgender person?
A. Someone with male anatomy who believes he is truly a woman stuck in a man's body?
B. A woman who is sexually attracted to other women?
C. A man who likes to spend his personal time wearing floral dresses?
D. A person born with sex organs that are not clearly male or female?
E. Someone with female anatomy who has always felt more masculine than feminine?
This summer, I am taking a college course in Marriage as a prerequisite for studying Marriage and Family Therapy at the graduate level. I just aced the quiz for Chapter 3! That's the chapter called Gender. And while mastering Chapter 3 did clear up some of the confusion surrounding the transgender conversation, it also raised a lot more questions, and helped me to see just how convoluted the entire dialogue truly is.
Let’s just take a look at a few of my class notes, shall we?
"There is a very important distinction between sex and gender. Sex refers to the biological, anatomical characteristics. Gender refers to the social and cultural expectations."
“The word transgender is an umbrella term that is used to describe individuals whose gender identity or gender expression differs from the biological sex they were assigned at birth. Transsexuals are individuals who have the biological sex of one gender, but the self-concept of the other.”
"What we're seeing now is that people's sense of gender identity is not the same as their biological sex. People want to feel free and open to have whatever mix of masculinity and femininity seems right for them.”
Okay. So now, let’s look at the answers to our Pop Quiz question.
A. Someone with male anatomy who believes he is truly a woman stuck in a man's body is transgender, but can more specifically be referred to as transsexual. Not all transgender individuals are necessarily transsexual.
B. A woman who is sexually attracted to other women is homosexual, which is very different from transgender. While she is attracted to other women, she is still of the opinion that she is still a woman herself.
C. A man who likes to spend his personal time wearing floral dresses is a transvestite or cross-dresser, and not necessarily transgender if he still identifies as being a man, but enjoys pretending to be a woman.
D. A person born with organs that are not clearly male or female is an intersexed individual, formerly referred to as a hermaphrodite. About 2% of humans are born somewhere on this spectrum between fully male and fully female, but interestingly enough, these individuals are not necessarily transgender either. (For more information, see "Factors For Determining Biological Sex".)
E. Finally, with someone that has female anatomy, but has always felt more masculine than feminine, we now reach the most general category of transgender individuals—those whose gender identity or expression is characteristically different from their biological sex.
So in order to begin a clear conversation, we have to first look at this concept of seeing sex and gender as completely separate aspects of our identities. Sex—with its descriptors of male and female, masculine and feminine. And then, gender—also described as male and female, masculine and feminine.
Postmodern advocates of transgenderism claim that if we could abandon the social constructs of male and female gender, and embrace new social structures of self-determination, this would be a sign of evolutionary progress. I'm just not sure how that would be the case, because many of the characteristics associated with gender—mannerisms, clothing, interaction style, etc.—are actually a form of non-verbal language we use to communicate who we are to the world around us. Our biological sex assignments are important aspects of this communication—especially in regards to evolutionary progress. Why? Because they have to do with sex. And why is sex important? Because sex is how the human race keeps going. Generations are shaped by who procreates with whom, and what quality of life they provide for their offspring. So it seems it would behoove societies to maintain such basic communication in order to continue existing and thriving. We might even argue that gender exists because of evolutionary progress.
But let's say we could completely separate our concepts of sex and gender. Then, at this point, it would seem that the term transgender could be entirely misleading, and probably the reason why there is so much confusion. Right now, many of our most passionate conflicts under the umbrella term transgender issues aren’t really about gender issues at all, but biology. People who seek reassignment surgery are not attempting to alter their gender characteristics, but their biological characteristics (which is not entirely possible in most cases, and usually results in artificially intersexed individuals). Those who wish to maintain traditional societal rules and regulations regarding such collective issues as sports and public restrooms are saying these guidelines should be based on biological indicators, rather than psychological ones.
While any reasonable person would likely concede that there is a cultural component to gender expectations, reason also seems to suggest that we take a step back and figure out if that is even what we're talking about anymore. Are we arguing gender? Or sex? Probably both, but which one when? And to what extent? Because if it's gender, perhaps we can tango. But if it is sex, then the masses of humanity with deeply rooted beliefs about sex—including faithful Catholic Christians such as myself—will be found unswerving in the conviction that sex is sacred. Human sexuality is the dignified, holy context for conceiving new human life—which is also sacred. We may sometimes wish it were otherwise, but we also create major chaos and disorder for ourselves and each other when we attempt to alter the powerful reality of human sexuality, and make it out to be anything less than what it really is.
I recognize that most support for the transgender cause is driven by genuine compassion for people who feel displaced in their identity, and this comes in contrast with the blatant hatred of some extremists who act out violently towards people who see the world differently than they do. Compassion is such a beautiful and needed response. We all want and need to know who we are, and where we belong. But our compassion has to be rooted in wisdom and understanding. Likewise, critical thinking and sound reason are useless without compassion. While we may debate the concept separating gender from sex, the damage that results from divorcing compassion from wisdom is not debatable.
All of this has stirred my own compassion for the 2% of humanity born on the spectrum between male and female biology. Statistically speaking, that would be about 11 or 12 of my Facebook friends. This is not an arguably psychological condition, or abstract social construct, but a tangible reality, and I’d be more concerned with ensuring that these humans are understood and accepted by society. But let’s be honest, we’re not usually talking about intersexed individuals. We’re talking about transgender individuals who exist among the other 98% of us.
And sorry, but what exactly does transgender mean, again?
We can have this conversation. But first, we have to understand and agree on our terms and definitions. Let’s figure out what we’re really talking about. Then, we’ll have a truly great argument that will make us all better for having been a part of it.