Transgender actress Laverne Cox, whose breakthrough role is in the part of Sophia in the Netflix original series Orange Is The New Black, is the cover girl on this week’s TIME magazine, which carries the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point.” The interior story is here (behind a paywall, and I’m not a subscriber and don’t own the print edition yet, so I haven’t read it). I reckon it’s about how transgender people are finally reaching a place of tolerance and acceptance in American culture.
Kevin D. Williamson, a writer for the online version of the conservative magazine National Review (NRO) wasted no time in getting out his hit piece:
Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman. Sex is a biological reality, and it is not subordinate to subjective impressions, no matter how intense those impressions are, how sincerely they are held, or how painful they make facing the biological facts of life. No hormone injection or surgical mutilation is sufficient to change that.
If Williamson has any medical or psychological credentials, I can’t find them. Which would have been fine, as long as his piece cited scientists, physicians, or institutions to back up his claim, but he didn’t do that either. Like so many conservatives, especially on the religious right, he seems to think the world should be a simple, easy to understand place, and simply asserting that it is will make it so.
In the case of gender identity dysphoria, he’s wrong, and pretty obviously just wrote a deliberately inflammatory piece at an opportune time to spike his hit counts.
Like Cox, I’m a transgender woman. Even though it’s probably why Ed Clint asked me to join the team (I’m a walking diversity checkbox), I haven’t discussed transgender or other LGB issues much here in this blog. That’s partly because I have a personal blog for such thoughts, partly because it feels like navel-gazing, and partly because I’ve had other interests I wanted to talk about. I’m not a one-trick pony.
In the eyes of conservatives like Williamson and his fellow traveler, Keith Ablow, sex (and gender, which they wrongly conflate with sex) begins and ends in the chromosomes, and transgender people, whose genotypes don’t usually match their preferred gender, are just delusional. They need psychological help, in these men’s eyes; not hormonal or surgical help.
Certainly, to a superficial analysis it can seem this way. Transgender individuals have a belief about their identities that cannot be confirmed by any empirical test known today. Blood tests, MRI scans, autopsies, usually shoe sizes will all imply that the transgender person’s biological sex is opposite from their gender (which, again, are two different things). This might be enough for many skeptics. Skeptics are, after all, empiricists.
On the other hand, skeptics are also scientists, and scientists recognize that just because we don’t understand a phenomenon doesn’t mean it isn’t real, and it’s clear that sex and gender are more complicated than chromosomes. Intersex conditions testify to this fact.
People with one such condition, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), have XY chromosomes, but are essentially allergic to testosterone, partially or completely, so only estrogen (estrogen and testosterone are present in both males and females) has any effects on their bodies. They’re usually assigned female at birth, identify as female throughout their lives, and if their androgen insensitivity is complete, at puberty they tend to develop hyper-feminine secondary sexual characteristics. No trace of maleness can be seen without an X-ray (which may reveal undescended, nonfunctional testes).
There are dozens of intersex conditions, most caused by genetic anomalies. The point is that the chromosomes don’t tell the story of an intersex person’s gender. People had gender identities before the 20th century, and no one had even heard of chromosomes or DNA. To say my genes are the boss of what gender I should accept for myself is reductive and ludicrous. Scientists may one day discover an empirical, objective, biological reason why some people have a biological sex/gender mismatch, just as chromosomes themselves were discovered a hundred years ago.
As for the argument that transgender people are delusional, there’s a pretty simple response to that. Delusional individuals do not get better if you treat their delusion like it’s real; they retreat further and further from reality and their lives become more and more difficult.
Transgender people, contrariwise, thrive when allowed to transition, and “transitioning” means living as one’s preferred gender, receiving hormonal and surgical interventions as desired. I speak from personal experience and from the data. I’ve never been happier or more at peace with myself and my life since I transitioned, even with all the problems that came with it.
I know it seems like an extreme course to offer medical and medicinal correctives to an (apparently) psychological condition, but the protocol was not arrived at lightly or without trial and error.
I encourage you to read the book How Sex Changed, a history of gender identity dysphoria by Joanne J. Meyerowitz. Doctors spent decades trying to “cure” transgender people of their need to transition. Testosterone shots (for transwomen), estrogen treatments (for transmen), talk therapy, aversion therapy, electroshock therapy: nothing helped. The patients just became more miserable. The only effective medical treatment, so far, is transitioning.
Kevin D. Williamson can say what he wants about people like me, but he’s out of step with what modern science knows about sex and gender. But I think he doesn’t really care about that; he’s just being an asshole.