In his 4 September Daily Beast article, Jay Michaelson painted a misleading picture of radical feminists and Conservative Christians allied by their intolerance for Transgender people. Importantly, Michaelson’s claims cannot be analysed effectively without an understanding of the broader bioethical issues to which they link. In politics as in chess, one has to think several steps ahead in order to foresee the full implications of the opponent’s moves
First, feminists and the religious right will never be bedfellows unless through a semantic redefinition of ‘feminism’. Secondly, feminists are not intolerant of transgender people, but are sceptical about the motives of (financially interested) clinicians and the ways in which gender dysphoric peoples’ ‘condition’ is being framed by media culture and biomedical institutions. Moreover, while a few quotes might serve to give the impression that the religious right’s pundits are opposed to Transgender individuals, religious conservatives have much to gain through the medicalisation of gender dysphoria and religious bioethicists have a longstanding investment in the transgender movement’s success. The right-wing Family Research Council’s pundits effectively claim that transgender people are ‘sick’, a concept that is consistent with the underlying assumptions of the Transgender movement itself, which is why they endorse sexual reassignment as the remedy. Heteronormative society’s gender “misfits” are being medicalised; society’s “dis-ease” with their existence is redefined as a psychological disease within the genderqueer individual’s very nature – one that demands the “right” of acknowledgement by others and a clinical cure. This is exactly what the Family Research Council recommends, in the form of ‘reparative therapy’.
The Christian Right’s spokespeople are tactical enough not to directly advertise their support, as that would make the Transgender movement look exactly like what it is – a reactionary heterosexist movement that advances the eugenic aims of the conservative Christian right. In order to understand why this is so, we first need to understand the ways in which Christian Conservatives have traditionally formulated their homophobia. It will also be crucial to understand the extent to which Christian conservatives have been involved in the biotech business and what shape their interests in human genetics have taken.
Because virtually all transgender people are also homosexual, although not vice-versa, it is difficult to disentangle these two groups in any clear-cut way. We need to start with the question of how exactly the science of sexual orientation (gay essentialism) destabilises the Christian right’s heteronormative model of binary human sexuality and the homophobia that stems from it. In the West, homophobia originated in patriarchal Christianity’s false belief that homosexuals were defective, dysfunctional, or rebellious heterosexuals. (Sound familiar?) In Christian tradition, St. Paul pictured homosexuals as liars about ‘creation’ (i.e. the reproductive purpose of their own bodies), and therefore rebels against the Creator. This view was adopted by Christian theologians and the Roman Catholic Church. While Catholic doctrine has consistently referenced Paul’s primitive natural law reasoning, it later emphasised Thomas Aquinas’s natural law approach to sexual ethics. The Roman Catholic Church retained the view that homosexuals were deviant heterosexuals misinterpreting their own natures until 1975 when, in a single stroke, it simultaneously acknowledged new empirical evidence that strongly indicated homosexuality is innate in some peoples’ nature and pathologized it, calling it “intrinsically disordered” and “incurable”
In the 1990’s, with the human genome project underway, and as research methods improved, geneticists began to suggest the possibility of a “gay gene” or some biological cause for differing sexual orientations. The now famous LeVay/Hamer research findings were reconfirmed only last year with the release of a study from Dr. Alan Sanders, who studied the genes on 409 pairs of gay brothers and found they shared notable patterns in two regions of the human genome, on the X chromosome and chromosome 8.
The Roman Catholic Church’s natural law approach to sexual ethics had exhorted Christians to ‘read the language of the body in truth’. In the nineties, with the scientific literature metaphorically describing the human genetic code as the ‘book of life’ and suggesting that homosexual orientation lay hidden in one of its chapters, the Church’s model stood to fail on its own terms. If reading the language of the body in truth would mean reading even the biological substructure, down to the genes and chromosomes, Christians might find things there which clashed with their traditional wisdom about the universal heterosexuality of God’s creation.
Perhaps knowing this, Christian homophobes changed their tack. Throughout the nineties and into the early noughties, Christians evangelicals and Catholics alike took to the airwaves first to deny the science, making the “homosexual lifestyle” into a ubiquitous household phrase and attempting to persuade the public that homosexuality was a (bad) choice, but nevertheless a choice. In effect they were attempting to disassociate homosexuality from nature and to transfer it to the realm of behaviour (and unnatural behaviour at that). “Love the sinner, hate the sin” became the Catholic Church’s pet slogan, and evangelicals deployed the same logic on Christian radio stations all over America.
However, they needed to explain why homosexuals should not act on their ‘given’ nature while heterosexuals should. Andrew Sullivan, himself a practising Catholic and an ‘out’ gay man, threw down the gauntlet to the Catholic Church in his 1995 book Virtually Normal, in which he showed that the Church’s logic failed on its own terms. If there were nothing “unnatural” about the homosexual orientated person, then to preserve their ‘pathology’ interpretation, Christian homophobes would need to explain the “disorder” in terms of the intrinsic or extrinsic harm to which it led. And this they did, with extraordinary vigour. They compared homosexuality to alcoholism (to suggest that it is self-destructive), gave graphic accounts of the anal injuries and diseases to which gay male anal sex would lead, and assumed the high rates of depression in homosexual youth were related more to the condition than to parental and social rejection, stigma and repression. In the face of overwhelming evidence that homosexuals who ‘came out’ were flourishing and making positive contributions to society, these analogies didn’t stand up.
So Christian homophobes next sought out extrinsic harms (to others) that could be marshalled to justify a prohibition of homosexual behaviour. Analogies between innate homosexual attraction and genetic predispositions to paedophelia and aggression or violence began to circulate. But identifying ‘victims’ of homosexual behaviour per se proved quite difficult. Indeed it was as difficult as finding victims of heterosexual behaviour per se, since there is nothing intrinsically harmful (and a lot that is beneficial) about sex between consenting adults of either orientation. But Christian prohibitionists held out the hope of finding victims, and, at last fastened on the argument that the unabashed practice of the homosexual lifestyle was at least a public assault on their “religious freedoms” and their sacred institution of marriage. If they couldn’t find homosexuality’s victims elsewhere, they could turn themselves into its victims, thereby ensuring that ‘out’ gays and lesbians would still face some social discrimination.
The scientific jury remains out on the gay essentialist thesis, and LGBT activists disagree over whether homosexual behaviour (‘behaviour’ being a choice) can be vindicated on the grounds of biological difference, which would put gay rights on the same footing as anti-racist or feminist politics. Indeed, U.S. District Court Judge Vaughan Walker did just that in 2010 when he ruled that Proposition 8 (California’s same-sex marriage ban) targets gays and lesbians in a manner specific to their sexual orientation (‘orientation’ not being a choice). In addition he said that the plaintiffs’ equal protection claim was equivalent to “a claim of discrimination based on sex.” Walker made explicit the link between the behaviour in question (gay sexual relationships) and the nature of those who would wish to enter into them.
After same-sex marriage in the United States became legal nationwide in June 2015, the religious right’s homophobia at last dissolved into thin air and now, at long last, has disappeared forever. Twenty years ago, no one could have imagined such a fairytale ending to the centuries-long struggle between religious authoritarians’ age-old desire to control other peoples’ sexuality and sexual liberationists. But alas, it seems we will all live happily ever after.
Or will we? At the pop-culture level, it would seem that marriage equality and the Trans-rights movement’s overnight meteoric ascent signal the long-awaited end to fear and loathing of all things sexually queer. But at a deeper level, the very concept of the ‘transgendered person’ conceals conservative assumptions that will facilitate an even more dangerous response to homosexuality than anything LGBTI rights advocates could have dreamt of in the past. The ‘transgender’ concept represents a tactical re-branding of the old argument that homosexuals are really just confused, or dysfunctional heterosexuals. Whether homosexuals are “straight men trapped in women’s bodies” (and vice-versa) or a third category altogether, and therefore not defective or ‘trapped’ heterosexuals, is a question of fact, not of values. And if there are genetic reasons why some people are attracted to the same-sex rather than the opposite, then this would represent a new natural sexual variant in addition to the previously recognised binary, not a ‘defect’ or ‘genetic error’ in how that binary develops.
Inside the seemingly progressive Transgender Trojan horse’s belly is a regressive sexual politics that is prepared to use medicine and biotech to first surgically and chemically – and later maybe even genetically – engineer us back to our traditional roles within the age-old heterosexual binary. Social engineering traditionally done by means of discipline and punishment could soon be accomplished through biotechnology and genome editing.
To grasp the profound political implications of the transgender rights movement, we need to be clear about how its core concepts function in relation to women’s rights and LGBI rights, as well as to “liberal” eugenics. Only then can we glean how reactionary and conservative are its premises.
This does not mean that we cannot have compassion for people who feel that they are trapped in the ‘wrong’ biological body. What is troublesome, in my view, is not how these individuals feel. Rather the issue is how their feelings are being framed or interpreted, and this is partly owing to the socio-political contexts in which their feelings arise in the first place. If societies were organized around the assumption of gay essentialism, i.e., that natural human sexuality (attraction) is based both on genital reproductive ‘complementarity’ (penis + vagina) and genital similarity (vagina + vagina / penis + penis), not only would this go some way to eliminating the stigma associated with being born intersex, it would greatly diminish homophobia and (to a large extent) sexism. And because it would also break down many sexist myths about gender that alienate those who do not, and cannot, feel ‘at ease’ with the social roles assigned to them based on their genitals, it would likely increase social tolerance for those who feel they are trapped in the wrong body.
The idea that all men behave in one set of ways and all women behave in another largely revolves around a (probably) fictional heterosexual binary. This binary model pictures all men sharing a common sexual compatibility with women and vice versa. In patriarchal societies, ideas about gender roles are founded upon the idea that allhuman beings are biologically and erotically drawn to reproductive forms of sexual behaviour (and therefore to parenthood), which implies a more or less clear division of labour within the traditional patriarchal family. Women (all women) will presumably one day be child-rearing adults, nurturing and caring, with the home being their primary domain, while men (all men) will be suited to working and providing food, shelter and protection for the family, tasks generally achieved outside of the home. Conservative Christians designate as ‘complimentarian’ their separate-but-equal approach to social gender roles. This goes a long way to explaining why little girls (in general) are encouraged to play with dolls and why little boys (in general) are socialised with toy guns, police cars, and many other stereotypically ‘active’ toys.
Whether or not all individuals really are naturally drawn to reproductive forms of sexual behaviour, patriarchal societies have decided that all individuals should be regarded as such. Patriarchal religions have played an auxiliary role in reinforcing these social arrangements and stigmatising or punishing non-compliant forms of sexual behaviour as ‘sin’ or ‘haram’. Patriarchal religions have also decided that the nuclear family, with the male at its head, is the basic social unit upon which wider social institutions are to be modelled. Myths of gender–specific personality traits hang upon the more basic binary model of universal human heterosexuality.
However, the traditional notion that children need ‘male role models’ or ‘female role models’ suggests how far gender roles are constructs that must be both taught and learned, rather than naturally occurring patterns that would manifest independently of socialization. And where adult role models are absent, there is always religion, ceremonial rites and rituals, gender-based attire, cinema, television, advertising, fashion and cosmetics, boys and girls clubs, and books to keep the gender myths from slipping out-of-place.
In the nineties and since, a variety of religious and social conservative bioethicists have published widely in support of treating homosexuality as a pathology, using pseudo-medical language with a view to the future when reprogenetics or some similar treatment scenario will be viable. Now, instead of describing the given aspects of natural ‘creation’ as the very benchmark of God’s design and plan, Christian bioethicists emphasise how biotechnology might facilitate human interventions into creation in order to ‘restore’ it to ‘its full glory’. Homophobic Christian authors and educators were frighteningly well-positioned to influence public policy, from the 2004 appointment of Benjamin Carson to the President’s Council on Bioethics, to Nigel M. de S. Cameron’s Presidency of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies in Washington, D.C., and his founding of the journal Ethics and Medicine, to Michael J. Reiss’s numerous titles, among them Director of the Salters-Nuffield Advanced Biology Project, and editor of the journal Sex Education, to name just a few salient examples.
Research into the biological causes of sexual orientation continues unabated. If private companies can profit from offering prospective parents a eugenic ‘treatment’ for homosexual orientation, we can be sure they will lobby hard for the liberty to do so. The “liberal eugenics” movement has already laid the discursive groundwork for a eugenic age in which parents will have unlimited liberty to manipulate the sexual orientation of their children before birth.
Reducing the biological substrate for homosexual attraction (if one exists) will almost certainly reduce homosexual behaviour. To deny this is to pretend that voluntary sexual acts are unrelated to involuntary sexual attraction. The very purpose of the reprogenetic interventions will be to eliminate individuals’ voluntary homosexual behaviour by eliminating their involuntary biological predisposition for it. This will happen not by taking away the individual’s free will, but by biologically steering the direction in which it is most likely to be expressed. Can those whose primary sexual orientation is heterosexual still engage in homoerotic acts? Of course. But that misses the point. Reprogenetic interventions to prohibit homosexual desire would constitute a form of social engineering that is not therapeutic in any medical sense, but aims at constraining another individual’s behaviour (without her consent) to the kinds of life goals that parents prefer. The future would be one in which homosexual persons would never rebel against the indoctrination of homophobic parents by “coming out” because they simply won’t wish to do so. Whereas liberals once dreaded the invasion of the state’s tentacles into the private lives of individuals, now they may have to fear the colonization of their very bodies by the will of others acting ‘in their best interests’. Personal decisions made in the privacy of a consultant’s office may soon have an immense impact on the very biological composition of future generations. We are entering an era of unprecedented self-design.
In the past, religious conservatives who wished to indoctrinate others with their own religious values ran up against the dominant liberal injunction to protect the sovereignty and liberty of the individual to pursue his own vision of ‘the good life’. “Liberal” eugenics places at religious conservatives’ disposal an ostensibly liberal means of avoiding this obstacle.
In order to define and target homosexual orientation as a medical condition suitable for ‘treatment’, it is necessary to distinguish this ‘treatment’ from homophobic medical violence, which would be too objectionable. All that is lacking to make the distinction viable is the assumption that the patient would happily give his consent to such a ‘treatment’. In their haste to embrace “Transgender rights”, well-meaning liberals are furnishing just that assumption. A homophobic eugenics movement has searched for the holy grail of biological sexual orientation with the aim of finding a way to change it. If they ever do locate a biological cause(s) for homosexual orientation, all they will lack to be permitted to ‘cure’ it is a conceptual framework that will allow homophobic genome editing to appear benevolent. Since the ‘treatment’ will be done to an unborn foetus, they will need to pathologise homosexuality in such a way that parents can assume the patient’s (offspring’s) consent. They could only make such an assumption if existing individuals with non-binary sexualities would consent to changing themselves. The Transgender movement is motivated by good intentions, but is unwittingly helping social conservatives to sell this eugenic agenda to the public, casting it as a form of enlightened tolerance of diversity.
Not only is the Transgender movement reifying gender (a social construct) as a biological entity within peoples’ bodies, and thus giving credence to the gender myths that progressives (feminists and queers) have deconstructed, it is simultaneously mis-representing non-compliance with the socially constructed gender binary as a pathology intrinsic in psyche of the deviant subject. He is unhappy in his gender not because social gender myths place constraints on how men and women can appear or behave, and with whom they can copulate, but rather because he himself is “sick”. What is the nature of his “sickness”? He finds himself inhabiting the “wrong body”. But “wrong” according to whom, or what? The transgendered subject wants to do things that are socially or culturally associated with the body of the opposite sex: the sex he is not. The solution is not to change society’s social constraints on what men and women can or should do or be, it is to change himself to conform to the binary norm of sex and gender. This is particularly difficult to grasp because gender is ‘written’ on the body. As such, it is conceptually very hard to disassociate gender from anatomical males and females.
If individuals, when observed, do not actually conform to the socially constructed ideas of gender, then this ought to be taken as evidence that social ideas of gender are flawed. Instead, gender roles are presupposed a priori, and evidence conflicting with them is interpreted as ‘abnormal’ or deviant, not as an indication that the presupposed ‘norm’ was flawed in the first place. Counter-examples should be proof of the flimsiness of the premises. The whole conceptual frame within which gender is ‘researched’ is circular.
Transgender’s clinicians identify gender dysphoria as an abnormal psycho-sexual condition. But is the dysphoria really a symptom of society’s misunderstanding of natural sexual biochemistry? If so, the disease is not intrinsic in the ‘patient’; it is the outcome of a relationship between the patient and his surrounding culture. Indeed, both liberal eugenicist Nicholas Agar and Christian bioethicists Michael J. Reiss and Roger Straughan construe disease as a socially constructed concept, or “in a sense, a relationship between a person and society”. Arguably, the nature of the relationship, not the nature of the transgender ‘patient’, is what causes the latter’s unhappiness. A social ‘dis-ease’ with difference is re-conceptualised, then, as a psychosexual abnormality intrinsic in the psyche of the patient. A disordered brain is seen as the cause of an unacceptable interaction of individuals and social organisations. But this inverts the actual situation, which is that the individual’s unacceptable interaction with social organisation causes the labelling of the individual’s brain as “disordered”. Politically, this deflects criticism away from intolerant social institutions, and directs the need for reform towards aberrant individuals. They must be altered to fit social institutions, not vice versa.
This is not entirely dissimilar to the Soviet-styled ‘medicine’ of the early 1970’s, in which the Soviet state used violence only as a last resort in dealing with her dissenting intelligentsia who had begun to press for greater political freedoms. Psychiatric investigations and diagnoses of mental illness (typically schizophrenia) became the preferred instrument through which dissidents’ incarceration in psychiatric hospitals could be effected. In light of the politically fraught historical relationship between the LGBTI rights movement and establishment political institutions, the current Transgender ‘treatment’ trend might best be analysed in light of Michel Foucault’s argument that the entire category of psychological disorders is the expression of power relationships within society. In a simplified form, what Foucault argued was that all societies require a category of individuals who can be dominated or scapegoated. In Foucault’s view, madness is not a property of the individual but a social definition wished by society on a proportion of its population.
For the sake of comparison, perhaps we should ponder the situation for homosexuals 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. This is anything but politically progressive. 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 tolerant, progressive medical and clinical ‘recognition’ of the transgender ‘patient’ may in reality be reinforcing the heteronormative binary that long caused suffering and alienation for a variety of genderqueer people. Liberals should not object to informed, consenting adults surgically transitioning to a body they feel comfortable living in. All I ask is that we consider for a moment the rush to embrace this option uncritically, or as the primary solution for those who suffer gender dysphoria before they have reached maturity. If the chief reason for their suffering is really an uneasy interaction between themselves and society, then perhaps society needs reforming. Perhaps adults need to recognise that biological males and females do not naturally develop into two narrow ‘personality types’ defined by gender-based clothes, toys, and activities. However, adults may not fully be able to reform the way they socialise children until they recognise themselves as products of gendered socialisation.
On the other hand, a liberal society should not obstruct consenting adults who can afford to alter their bodies from doing so through biochemical or surgical means. Humans are self-creators and we have differing ideas about how to construct our ‘selves’ and our lives. This ought to be permitted so long as no one else is harmed in the process and so long as claims are not made upon other people’s resources in order to facilitate the individual’s personal projects in self-design.
Christian bioethicists have already changed their rhetoric to pathologise biological homosexual orientation. While their arguments remain unconvincing, the transgender concept has done the work for them and made it unnecessary for them to disseminate a separate pathology of homosexuality. Meanwhile, “liberal” eugenicists and transhumanists have provided a political discourse to defend “parental liberty” to choose the sexual orientation of their offspring. Liberal progressives will have some catching up to do in order to meet the ethical challenges raised by the conjunction of the liberal eugenics and transgender movements, as genome editing will be the new means through which parents of ‘transgendered’ individuals express their compassion, or just their intolerance.