There you have it, folks: Vanity Fair has done a great service to American culture in revealing Jenner to us in her new form: Caitlyn. The magazine’s cover photo has been called “iconic,” and Jenner has even been compared to actress Jessica Lange. The world is, for the most part, overjoyed at Jenner’s “bravery,” “courage,” and “honesty” to her “authentic self.”
Her reveal is then politicized in a two-hour interview with Diane Sawyer. The Left sees Jenner as a powerful symbol of what Time calls the “Transgender Tipping Point”—the “next great civil rights movement”—while the Right sees Jenner as a wholly deluded man merely play-acting as a woman and the transgender movement as anything from the work of demonic forces to a mere symptom of the great cultural confusion post-1960s (depending on who is asked).
In any case, this watershed moment in the wider trans movement’s push for equal rights and cultural acceptance needs to be critiqued and analyzed further.
First, I think that the tendency for some on the Right to unswervingly insist on referring to “Caitlyn” as “Bruce” and to use masculine pronouns instead of Jenner’s preferred ones is both misguided and ultimately pointless.
It is misguided to continue to “misgender” Jenner because anyone can do what she has done, name-wise, that is. I can walk into my local county probate court and have my name legally changed to anything that I desire in a heartbeat. (These courts have even seen people request such iconic christenings as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley!)
Who are we to tell Jenner that she cannot change her assigned name, “Bruce,” to her preferred “Caitlyn”? And who are we to stop Jenner from requesting that those who interact with her use the feminine pronouns that she prefers they use? (The pronoun use is a bit trickier to accept, but ultimately it is consistent with the name change. In this brave new world, pronouns follow names, after all, not biology.) It is silly to continue to harangue this exceedingly minor point in the debate because legal avenues already exist to do what Jenner has done (albeit with less pomp and circumstance), and the pronoun issue is one that can be solved on a personal level with those who deal directly with Jenner.
It is ultimately pointless to become hung up on this issue of pronouns and naming because the debate does not live or die by grammar policing and word choice technicalities. No, the future of the debate rests in the hearts and minds of those embroiled in the struggle to reclaim the meanings of sex and gender (they are the same thing) and even the inherent existence—objectively, in spite of what gender “theorists” will spew from their ivory towers—of Man and Woman.
Man and Woman
The problem lies in the Left’s tendency to believe that human beings and language are endlessly malleable. They are not. Language, in the real world, has objective meaning. Insisting ad nauseam that anything written criticizing the trans movement, its objectives and make-up, trans people, etc. is “transphobic” is frankly ludicrous. The suffix -phobia is added onto words to make them mean “an intense fear of a specified thing”; hence, xenophobia means “fear of people from other countries” and arachnophobia is a “fear of spiders and other arachnids.” The classical understanding, however, is that this fear is irrational—phobias are psychiatric in origin. I do not oppose the transgender movement because I fear it per se; I oppose it because I believe it is wrong-headed and destructive.
Granted, there may indeed be people who oppose transgenderism on the grounds of phobic obsession. I believe, however, that this simply does not apply to the vast majority of those on the Right (and even some feminists on the Left). These people oppose transgenderism and the movement on its merits. The charge transphobe! is simply a clumsy cudgel that sophomoric debaters use to bully the opposition into silence and submission. This was exactly what the LGBT lobby did in its push for the legitimization of same-sex marriage (likely to reach its zenith in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges later this month): Lob the homophobe! bomb over the proverbial cultural wall, and bang! — “equal rights” achieved. Success!
Second, the error of transgenderism is multi-faceted. The movement’s historical origins are disturbing; its philosophical underpinnings and consequences are likewise on shaky ground; and, finally, the current practice of “transitioning,” according to one Dr. Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins Hospital, does not offer the benefits which it purports to offer.
Third, the idea of transgenderism makes mincemeat of any sort of historical understanding of male and female as primordial realities independent of modern-day psychologizing, emotive outbursts of “fairness,” and subjective speculations. Parker Molloy, an Upworthy.com contributor and transgender activist, penned a recent post regarding the horrid “gender binary”. She says that there are three new terms to which we should all acclimate ourselves in order to successfully remain in good standing in polite society: agender, bigender, and gender-fluid.
One who is agender is “someone without a gender at all.” One who is bigender is “someone who may most closely identify with both male and female genders.” And one who is gender-fluid is “someone whose gender shifts between male, female, and everything in between.” Needless to say, I think this is all malarkey; that is, all of this jargon is merely academic posturing dressed up in high-sounding definitional rhetoric—all to obscure a deeper reality: that modern gender theory is merely a cover under which those confused about their maleness or femaleness can work out their own misgivings, past hurts, and future insecurities under and within what appears to be a large, welcoming tent of legitimacy. It is no such thing.
In what way is it even possible for someone to have no gender at all, in any objective sense? I can (sort of) understand if someone believes that that they have no gender, but what does that mean for the rest of us? Are we to peer into someone’s mind—their inner life—and determine their nonconformity to any gender at all? How does this work itself out in any practical sense?
As for bigender and gender-fluid: In my own life— as is the case for every individual —I identify with traits and tendencies of both men and women. I tend to do things that people would consider manly, and I do other things at other times that people would consider womanly, and this is all constantly shifting. I am not, however, both a man and a woman at the same time or over time or more a man one day or more a woman the next or something else entirely. These feelings are not indicative of a need to reveal my true gendered-self to the world: They just make me human. Humans, and this was understood long ago, tend to exhibit traits of both sexes. Did our forebears tend to lionize certain traits in males and seek to diminish more feminine traits in their men, and vice versa? Yes, of course. But they still had those traits and feelings. These experiences do not make me or anyone else some sort of hybrid dual-gendered or non-gendered person. They just make me a person, nothing more, nothing less.
Fourth, where conservatives should oppose this movement is in its radical conception of humankind as endlessly customizable and changeable. The movement ignores the biological reality of chromosomal determinants of maleness and femaleness and pushes people to believe that what they do with their bodies is purely private—up to and including genital mutilation. (What always surprises me is how the same people who vehemently decry female genital mutilation in some African and Middle Eastern nations will celebrate a man’s having his penis removed pursuant to his “true identity”; what, ultimately, is the real, substantive difference between the two scenarios?)
I would also preempt the Well, the science is more complex than just chromosomes’ determining one’s sex argument. That is likely true. We can debate that all we want at some other time. My point is that liberals and progressives love seeing nuance in their world: on abortion, trans people, crime, family structures, etc. This is all well and good, but what if we apply their own logic to something else, say, sexual relations between adults and minors?
The law is awfully broad in its prohibition of sexual relations and activities between adults (those over the age of 18) and minors (those below the age of 18). First, 18 is a rather arbitrary number to begin with. Second, would progressives really have us believe (do they even believe it themselves?) that somewhere, some 14- or 17-year-old isn’t old enough to decide for herself that she would like to have sex with this 22-year-old man? Where is the progressive call for “tolerance” and nuance to account for this girl’s “real ‘lived experiences’”? Crickets, I expect, on this front: If biology and endocrinology and other medical sciences are unsettled on chromosomes’ role in determining sex and gender, then surely psychology is not quite at the point where it can say definitively that a 14-year-old isn’t capable of consenting to sex? (And even if it were, that is not the point. The point is that any particular 14-year-old might be mature enough and hence ready for such an encounter, just as any particular person’s chromosomes might not wholly determine their sex and gender. The law must be flexible for adult-minor sexual relations if it is to be flexible for trans people.)
In the final analysis, I would agree only in part with the diagnosis of those on the Right: Caitlyn Jenner may believe that she is a woman, but (even if she goes whole hog with “sex reassignment” surgery) she is then really only a man without a penis … and boobs, but we should use her preferred pronouns and new name.
That is not to say that Jenner should not be treated with the utmost respect: she should. What it does not mean, however, is playing along with her fantasies about taking on womanly attributes in order to transition to become a woman. That is simply impossible.
We should no more feed those delusions than we should those with BIID (Bodily Integrity Identity Disorder), “a terrible mental illness in which sufferers obsesses and truly anguish about becoming an amputee—which they perceive as their true identities.” (Those who promote this insanity are called “transableists”; look how quickly they co-opted the success of the transgender movement. It will go mainstream very, very quickly. Mark my words.)
My hope is that Jenner’s big news will spark a real debate in the mental health community about the best way to help people suffering from gender dysphoria that does not include indulging their delusions. This is probably being overly optimistic: In all likelihood, Jenner will be used as a prop/mallet to score political points.
But if Jenner can truly believe that she is a woman and get everyone to agree and go along with her story, then surely I am entitled to my (pie in the sky?) belief that this situation will ultimately work itself out for the good, no?
Only time will tell.
Deion Kathawa studies philosophy at the University of Michigan. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Deion tweets @DeionKathawa.