Making No Sense of It All

There are a number of reasons why many people remain resistant to the cultural zeitgeist of transgenderism, chief among them the fact that it is a mental illness and many people are loathe to normalize and celebrate mental illness. But coming from a more practical perspective is the simple fact that nobody really seems to know what transgenderism is, or how to describe it, or how to define it. If you ask ten different people to quantify the transgender phenomenon, you are very likely to get ten different answers in response, each of them subtly yet critically different than the others.

Surely there is a way to explicate transgenderism in a manner that clarifies the issue sensibly and logically. You would think they would have nailed it after all this time. You would be wrong.

Consider the first few results one comes across when one asks Google to “define transgenderism,” a search that throws back a panoply of conflicting interpretations. Google’s dictionary bumper claims the word describes “a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.” Next in line, says it describes “a person whose gender identity does not correspond to that person’s biological sex assigned at birth.” Note the differences here: we’ve lost any reference to “personal identity” from the one definition to the next, and we’ve gone from “birth sex” to “biological sex assigned at birth.”

Next up, Wikipedia’s definition claims that transgender people “have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from their assigned sex.” So now in addition to gender identity, “gender expression” is a marker of transgenderism—an indication that actions, and not just essence, is a determining factor in one’s transgender status.

Urban Dictionary, on the other hand, claims that transgender people “identify as a gender other than what they were assigned at birth.” Wait—the other definitions claim that people are assigned a sex, not a gender, and that transgender peoples’ gender differs from the former, not the latter. Which one is correct?

Consider, next, the National Center for Transgender Equality’s definition: they claim the word is “a term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth.” So now, in addition to “gender identity” and “gender expression,” we have “gender behavior,” these factors now being qualified by the phrase “typically associated with their assigned sex at birth.” But then there is GLAAD’s definition, which is virtually identical to the NCTE’s—except they’ve left out the term “behavior.” The APA, meanwhile, interviews Columbia PhD Walter Bockting, who claims simply that transgenderism “refers to having a gender identity that differs from one’s sex assigned at birth,” with no mention of “expression” or “behavior.”

The fact that transgenderism has become such a powerhouse cultural phenomenon while remaining such an undefined mystery is rather baffling; activists should be seeking to consolidate these rather disparate definitions, not fragment them. But it’s not just the basic nuances of transgenderism that are at issue; the very terminology of the movement is beset by a weird irreconcilability that is difficult, if not impossible, to figure out.

Consider one of the core tenets of transgenderism, one that appears to varying degrees within most (albeit disparate and confusing) definitions of the term: the idea that transgender people are people whose gender identity does not “match” their biological sex in some way. Activists have traditionally drawn a bright line between “gender identity” (defined by the Human Rights Council as “one’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither”) and sex (which is an objective matter of biological chromosomes).

But wait: if gender identity and biological sex are two wholly different concepts, then how could they ever “match” in the first place?

Put another way, transgender activists would have us believe that two incompatible elements—biology on the one hand, “innermost concepts” on the other—somehow exist on a congruous spectrum of experience and can thus be “matched” (or else “unmatched”). But this doesn’t really make sense. If the “innermost concept” of gender is indeed an entirely distinct notion from that of sex, then it is meaningless to equate the two in the first place. It would be a little like saying, “My preference for spicy food does not match my shoe size.” The one has nothing to do with the other, and thus the two can never be “matched” in the first place.

There is a growing movement within the ranks of transgender activists to attempt to resolve this difficult conundrum by pointing to a burgeoning body of science that suggests that transgender individuals experience their gender dysphoria due to unique differences in brain structure; more specifically that, as Francine Russo wrote in Scientific American last year, “the brain structures of the trans people were more similar in some respects to the brains of their experienced gender than those of their natal gender.”

Here again we have a problem of definition: “natal gender,” is yet another confusing and unclear concept (one imagines the term actually refers to sex). But the proposition is itself odd and more than a little flawed. It is not clear, after all, why one biological phenomenon (i.e., “experienced gender”) should take precedent over another (i.e., genetic sex). If the biological basis for transgenderism is indeed airtight, what about the biological basis for genetic sex, which is far more widely understood and well-established? Put more simply: why should we say that a person’s “experienced gender” determines whether or not they are male or female, rather than their genes or their genitalia or some other genotypical or phenotypical factor?

To their credit, transgender activists appear to have recognized the difficulties inherent in reconciling their bizarre and rather inexplicable beliefs. As a result, the transgender debate has mostly centered not around the phenomenon itself—which is difficult if not impossible to cohere, and is ultimately nonsensical—but around the language of civil rights and bigotry and discrimination: it doesn’t matter if transgenderism is fundamentally a nonsense ideology, what matters is that you’re basically like Bull Connor or John Calhoun if you come down on the wrong side of it. This tactic, it should go without saying, is remarkably effective: many people seem content to just accept the tenets of transgenderism, even if those tenets make absolutely no sense at all. The rest of us, however, are skeptical—and for good and obvious reasons.

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