The seemingly compassionate progressive medical and clinical ‘recognition’ of the transgender ‘patient’ may in reality be reinforcing the heteronormative binary that long caused suffering and alienation both for homosexual and gender non-conforming heterosexual persons.
Transgender rights activists emphasise that they belong to a minority defined by gender identity. The ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’ of their minds is treated as an anatomical ‘thing’ akin to hair colour, genital sex, or skin pigmentation. However, adopting this biological account of their gendered ‘psyche’ requires that we first accept religiously conservative premises about gender. This might explain why so many ultra-conservative religious bodies in the world (from the Iranian Parliament and Pakistan’s Supreme Court, to the Church of England ), has thrown its weight behind transgender rights while remaining steadfastly homophobic. One thing that has always been built into gender is the heterosexuality of ‘men’ and ‘women’. Social ‘dis-ease’ (uneasiness) with gender non-conformism (including homosexuality) is today being re-conceptualised as a psychosexual abnormality within the constitution of the ‘patient’. Transgender as a conceptual model poses a greater danger to homosexuals (especially homosexual children) than any previous homophobic policy in history. Acknowledging this does not require the exclusion or stigmatisation of people who feel uncomfortable with their gender identity. It only requires us to reassess the ways in which some people’s discomfort with their bodies has been framed by clinicians and academics, some of whom have vested interests in providing treatment for this new medical condition.
Nature and Nurture
The biological sex into which we have been born actually determines very little about the kind of person we will become. What we ‘make’ of our genital sex is up to each of us. It is clear that only women can bear children, but the implications of this are quite undetermined and the current social division of labour is only one of a variety of possible social arrangements available to humans.
Culture teaches us gender stereotypes. Beliefs about what is ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ are widely circulated by parents, teachers, television, cinema, sport, literature, children’s toys, clothing, hairstyles, the beauty industry, and religion. The idea that all men share in common a set of heterosexual personality attributes different from and opposite to all women, and vice-versa, is a socially and politically conservative fiction. This heterosexual, dualist view of human persons has been the mainstay of religious doctrine for centuries.
By turning social gender norms into a form of theatre, drag performers showed that one could adopt and mimic gender roles irrespective of one’s genitalia. Courageous gender queer non-conformists have laid bare the truth that unlike one’s biological sex, gender is not natural and not biological. It is a learned, conventional form of role-play that can be put on or taken off (pace Judith Butler). Gender non-conformists of past generations – from Quentin Crisp to Billie Jean King and Boy George – exposed gender as a fictional construct propagated and maintained by religious conservatives.
The Obsession with Difference
Much of gender is constructed around heterosexism and the eroticisation of male-female sexual difference. Exaggerating differences between men and women far beyond reproductive biology, mystifying the opposite sex, and making unregulated sexual activity between men and women taboo only heightens the excitement of penetrating the mysteries of the ‘other’ and overcoming barriers to sexual fulfillment. This sexual repression breeds a perverse fixation on the other as primarily an object of sexual titillation or release. This discourages viewing the opposite sex primarily as a person like oneself, with similar human needs and desires, and exaggerates the primarily sexual aspects of persons. This might explain why pornography (with its degrading reduction of women to objects of male sexual gratification) is most popular in religiously conservative countries where sexual relations are strictly policed.
Theological ‘Science’: sex as reproductive function
Conservative religious views of ‘creation’ clung to the view that all healthy humans possess innate heterosexuality. This view was based on the compatibility of male and female genitals for procreation (reproduction). This model of human nature implied the bifurcation of humans into two opposite, mutually attracted types. Accordingly, homosexuals were defective or disordered heterosexuals. Even when religious conservatives and the Vatican finally acknowledged that homosexual orientation is innate (not a choice), they continued to see homosexual behaviour as ‘disordered’ and ‘sinful’. Hence the oft-repeated slogan of the 1990’s “love the sinner, hate the sin”. This meant that the homosexually orientated person was born with a predisposition to sin, which made the person’s homosexuality a kind of moral illness or defect. What is interesting in this view is that ‘illness’ is religiously defined. The ‘diseased patient’ actually feels better than ever before when he expresses his inner (“disordered”) nature; he thrives and experiences a sense of well-being that was not possible when he repressed his “illness”.
“Conservative religious views of ‘creation’ clung to the view that all healthy humans possess innate heterosexuality”
“Natural” human sexuality was produced (conceived) through the lenses of theological assumptions/bias, not through scientific methods of research and observation. Genital reproductive purpose was presupposed in all human sexuality, as a premise of the ‘research’. On the other hand, if homosexuality is among the naturally-occurring, healthy variants of human sexuality, then the heterosexist reproductive binary was an empirical mistake.
On the other hand, if sexual orientation is not exclusively ordered towards reproductive sexual function, then there may be a natural reason for this. The presence of homosexual individuals in the population lowers the overall reproductive rates (absent the intervention of modern technology). If survival is about cooperation and not only competition, as Darwin himself speculated, then where the rate of population growth outstrips scarce resources, homosexuality could be beneficial to the general welfare.
Historically, when individuals did not conform to socially-constructed sexual stereotypes (i.e. gender), they were allegedly ‘reversing’, presumably real, fixed gender roles, and not exposing gender roles as fictions. However, if real individuals, when observed, do not actually conform to the social ideas of gender (unless taught to do so), then this ought to be taken as evidence that social ideas of gender are flawed. Instead, the gender roles/norms are presupposed as a given, and all evidence conflicting with these social norms is interpreted as ‘abnormal’ or ‘deviant’. This approach is a study in unscientific methodology!
Transgender: Reinforcing Conservative Assumptions
The new transgender movement is not an extension of past efforts to deconstruct the heterosexist gender mythology. Rather, it reinforces the myth that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are altogether different species of human beings, not just reproductively, but mentally — with different desires, different needs, different aptitudes, and different minds. Transgender’s spokespersons presuppose the traditionally conservative naturalisation of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ as innate psychological states, intrinsic in the human subject from birth and arising from brain chemistry or other hormonal interactions of the body. The progressive idea that there is no uniform way that all boys as such (or all girls as such) necessarily ‘feel’ or ‘think’ has been jettisoned. Now, instead of railing against a rigid heterosexist gender binary (as their rhetoric would suggest), Trans activists assume that their innate sense of self (‘identity’) is inherently ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ prior to socialisation. This is why the transgender rights discourse is replete with references to persons who are said to have a female’s body but a ‘male mind’, or vice-versa.
‘Transgender’s spokespersons presuppose the traditionally conservative naturalisation of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ as innate psychological states, intrinsic in the human subject from birth and arising from brain chemistry or other hormonal interactions of the body.’
Once binary gender has been naturalised and turned into one of two heterosexually gendered psychological states, this leaves only one option for biological males who feel a strong affinity with normatively ‘female’ behaviours and/or sexual attractions – they must actually become biological females. If they had an innate desire to “act like women” (according to cultural norms) while being biologically male, they would be sick (“dysphoric”). The same goes for biological females who feel a stronger affinity to normatively “masculine” social roles and sexual attractions. In this context, it would be unsurprising if homosexuals felt very confused.
Clinical ‘Treatment’ of Social Deviants
There is simply no way to test whether being unhappy with one’s biological body is a by-product of dogmatic gender enculturation or an innate condition, since all cultures indoctrinate kids with gender, albeit in slightly different ways. There is no control group against which we could compare gender-indoctrinated individuals. As a child, I wanted my body to be male so that I could do things that only males in my culture were permitted to do, such as playing football or marrying women. I was a homosexual who had internalised a set of culturally circulated stereotypes. In this confusing context, it becomes very difficult to distinguish the homosexual from the “transgendered person”. Given the sexual expectations built into social gender norms, homosexuality represents one very good reason why a subset of people simply cannot feel ‘at home’ in their bodies. The stereotypical expectation that all men are the same (and all women too) furnishes another excellent reason. This is not a disease in those persons, but a symptom of society’s ‘dis-ease’ with diversity.
‘Trans activists assume that their innate sense of self (‘identity’) is inherently ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ prior to socialisation. This is why the transgender rights discourse is replete with references to persons who are said to have a female’s body but a ‘male mind’, or vice-versa.’
That said, some individuals might still be happier to transition than to cross-dress or to live as a gender non-conformist. In a liberal society, the option to surgically transition to the opposite sex should not be off the table for consenting adults. However, this option should not enjoy automatic precedence over fighting for social reforms aimed at greater tolerance for gender non-conformists. Gender reassignment should be a decision taken by adults who are fully aware of the part that culture plays in their understanding of themselves and their sexuality.
Transgender’s clinicians identify gender ‘dysphoria’ (unhappiness) as an abnormal psycho-sexual condition within the “trans” patient. The political consequence is that criticism is redirected away from social institutions that might need reforming, and towards the aberrant individual: He must be altered to fit the norms of ‘human health’ and its institutions.
‘In a liberal society, the option to surgically transition to the opposite sex should not be off the table for consenting adults. However, this option should not enjoy automatic precedence over fighting for social reforms aimed at greater tolerance for gender non-conformists.’
To get some purchase on how this works in practice, we need only consider the situation for queers in Iran. Iran is a sexist, intolerant, homophobic theocracy, where fundamentalist religious laws strictly enforce the hetero-normative status quo. The official state solution to homosexuality is to either (1) punish or execute those who practice it openly, or (2) ‘encourage’ homosexuals to transition, surgically, to the ‘correct’ sex so that they can fit back into the heterosexual norm, i.e., the only norm Iran tolerates. Consequently, Iran has the second highest number of sexual reassignment surgeries in the world, second only to Thailand. This seems analogous to chemically lightening a black person’s skin to make him more comfortable in a racist society, when what should be done is to tackle the society’s racism. Instead of rejecting or deconstructing the heteronormative binary, the medical industry seems to be facilitating the transgender individual’s literal ‘deconstruction’ of herself – literally her very body — so that she can re-make it in the binary heterosexist image required. This is violence masquerading as compassion.
The seemingly compassionate progressive medical and clinical ‘recognition’ of the transgender ‘patient’ may in reality be reinforcing the heteronormative binary that long caused suffering and alienation both for homosexual and gender non-conforming heterosexual persons. We need not object to informed, consenting adults surgically transitioning to a body they feel comfortable living in. However, perhaps liberal progressives should consider for a moment the rush to embrace this option uncritically, or as the primary solution for youngsters who feel depressed about their bodies and the social myths and expectations inscribed on them.