With IDAHOBIT day being only a week behind us, we thought it worth exploring some related issues which we feel might not be receiving a full examination in the traditional media. The hypothesis below is an assumed distillation of a range of received wisdom positions which are presented regularly in the media discussion of the subject. Hopefully we’ve not fallen too far into the strawman trap by presenting this as the discussion point.
Hypothesis: Transphobia (Wiki: “a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward transgender or transsexual people”) is a form of irrational prejudice based on the incorrect assumption that gender is binary and acceptance of transgender or transsexual people is one of the best forms of support they can be offered.
The modern discussion of the subjects of gender identity and sexuality pivots significantly around definitions, much angst is expended on many sides of the discussion about what we mean when we talk of male, female, other proposed genders and various sexual preferences. Indeed, in some discussions, even the use of the noun; preferences comes with some baggage, with its inferred assumption that individuals have complete free will in deciding who to find attractive.
It’s unlikely that the problem of definitions is going to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction in the following exploration, so we’ll probably have to accept that and try to continue regardless.
How many human genders exist?
The first definition clarification to be made here is to break the link between gender and sexuality; who you are and who you find sexually attractive/what you desire to do with them are clearly not the same thing, as evidenced by many high-profile celebrity relationships that don’t fit the traditional model of a square-jawed, broad-shouldered alpha male coupled with a slightly subservient female (q.v. Bernie Ecclestone). If we accept that gender and sexuality require discrete definitions, we can continue to look at the definition of gender.
Physiologically, there are a range of versions of the arrangement of sex organs and, again, the Wikipedia page on this hints at the minefield of definitions and nouns in contention to describe these conditions. Depending on the version of definitions you choose, these conditions may account for between 0.018 to 1.7% of human births. Based on those statistics, physical differences from the “standard” male or female sex organs are rare, but not so rare for for us to never interact in everyday life with someone with one of the conditions. However, unless you meet them in a sauna or being intersex is like being gluten intolerant (“Q. How do you know if someone is gluten intolerant? A. They’ll tell you within 30 seconds of meeting you”), perhaps you’d never know.
Another group of individuals “identify” with a different gender to the one their physical sex organs might suggest. In most cases, there is little evidence to suggest that this identification is also reflected physically. The Williams Institute estimate that, in the USA, this accounts for around 0.3% of the population.
What is “gender”?
Of course, despite the statements about physical and mental differences, we still haven’t defined “gender”.
It seems the bifurcation of opinion here is that gender is either defined by the physical properties the person received at birth or whatever they later decide they prefer. Either gender is fixed by physical properties or is “fluid” based on the conclusion of a internal mental process. Only one, not both positions can be true.
For the 98% of us who have no physical or mental ambiguity or opposition to our what our physical sex organs suggest should be our gender, this might seem like an uninteresting if nuanced question. However, given that 2% of the population of, say, the USA equates to 6.5 million people, it’s important to a significant population.
What are the consequences of accepting the “mental decision equals gender” position?
The original hypothesis above suggests that universal acceptance of the personally-stated gender of an individual is one of the best methods of support the other 99.7% of us can offer to the 0.3%. This might take the form of using particular pronouns to describe them, accepting their use of the public toilet of their choice, allowing them to compete in sports events in the gender category they prefer, or not making disparaging comments about their appearance, etc.
At an individual level, this may act as a salve to the internal conflict between the physical and mental view of their gender. How effective a salve might that be though, if you have penis, a protruding jaw, large shoulders and the daily requirement to shave away a beard, yet every time you look in the mirror and tell yourself that you are female, the very confronting physical evidence suggests the opposite?
Suicide attempt rates for those who don’t identify as the gender suggested by their physiology are staggering – up to 40% in some studies, compared to 0.1% in the population as a whole. In fact, the only group in history we can find that have similar documented rates of suicide or attempted suicide were those subjected to the evil brutality in Nazi and Soviet concentration camps, yet the research suggests that even these desperate groups had suicide rates of “only” 25%.
Hopefully nobody reading this ever feels so hopeless that taking their life is a real option and there’s limited mileage to compare levels of despair and desperation but…. is it really possible that discrimination in a western democracy with all the attendant freedoms and protections under the rule of law is worse than being subjected to the horrors of Belsen or a Soviet era Siberian gulag?
Perhaps it is. If so, there’s likely to be some real life control experiments we can compare against. African Americans in the southern states in the Jim Crow era, Christians in modern day Middle East, women living under the Taliban in Afghanistan, for example. We can find no research which suggests an epidemic of suicide or attempted suicide even close to that of the 0.3% who identify as a gender counter to their physiological state. This strongly suggests that something in addition to just discrimination is the main cause of their suffering.
In fact, there’s research which suggests that the suicide and attempted suicide rates hardly drop, if at all, for those people who have gender reassignment surgery. Peace is clearly not found at the end of a scalpel.
Thought experiment; switch “transgender” for “anorexia”.
Using a slightly-modified version of the original hypothesis;
Anorexiaphobia (Wiki: “a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward anorexic people”) is a form of irrational prejudice based on the incorrect assumption that eating is necessary and acceptance of anorexic people is one of the best forms of support they can be offered.
That’s a crazy idea, isn’t it? We’re clearly not being kind to someone suffering from the, often fatal but certainly destructive, eating disorder anorexia. In fact, by not attempting to help the person with the condition come to terms with the problem and at least prevent them from further physically harming themselves we are probably being morally deficient in our duty as family, friends, neighbours.
Is the mental position that you are of a different gender to that suggested by your physiology so very different from the mental position that you are overweight despite the physical evidence to the contrary?
Taking the thought experiment to an extreme, what would be an appropriate response if this evening your loved one told you that they “identify” with a different species, say, an eagle, and they intend to act on this very real feeling of body dismorphia by building an eyrie at the top of the nearest mountain to live on? Most likely, you’d plead with them to seek help from a mental health professional and consider some type of intervention to physically protect them.
In the absence of physical evidence of irregular sex organs, it’s possible that someone who identifies with a sex not suggested by their physiology is suffering from a form of mental illness. Agreeing with this internal dichotomy and supporting or encouraging their transition through surgery is unlikely to improve their internal conflict and, in fact, the evidence suggests that they will be no happier following the gender reassignment procedures, just irreversibly physically different. Making a regrettable tattoo seem very mild by comparison.
If there’s even a slight possibility that we are not helping people with this problem by just agreeing with them, the conclusion must be that we’re missing the opportunity to help them in more tangible and effective ways. Therefore the moral case is the opposite of much of the proposed hypothesis; we should have sympathy and support these people but be brave enough call out that their delusions are harmful.