There’s a meme circulating among socially conservative Facebook users that poses what seems to be a fascinating dilemma for progressives:
It does seem that the two propositions are logically incompatible with each other, yet both are widely held among progressives.
But are they really incompatible?
Some radical feminists of the “second wave” that arose in the 1970s would say they are. Led by women like Germaine Greer, “transgender exclusionary radical feminists” (‘TERFs’ for short) refuse to accept as women those men who have “transitioned” to being female. In their view, one’s sex is determined simply by one’s inherited chromosomes and reproductive organs, and the word ‘gender’ should be used as a synonym for ‘sex’ in that sense. Obviously, one can mutilate or remove one’s organs, but one cannot change one’s chromosomes. So according to TERFs, people who feel they are of a different “gender” than their biological sex suffer from a disorder known as “gender dysphoria.” Specifically, men who change their appearance, act like women, take female hormones, and even have themselves castrated are not women. They are simply men who have chosen to distort and mutilate themselves as a pathetic way of trying to align what they are with what they feel themselves to be—and sometimes even just with what they would rather be.
In that respect, TERFs hold views almost exactly identical with those of most social conservatives. Their propagation of such views led, about a year ago, to a rather heated debate between TERFs and transgender activists. The latter call the former “transphobic.” In other words: “You hate us!”
Before we go any further, though, it’s important to define terms so that we can devote due care to evaluating the logic of the problem.
The TERFs are simply using well-established English when they use the word ‘sex’ to denote male and female as biological realities. (There have always, of course, been a few people born in an “intersex” condition. But I am not qualified scientifically to know whether such people can “become” one sex or the other, or are restricted to choosing to identify with one sex, the other, or neither. So I shall leave that issue aside.) And if chromosomes determine one’s “sex” in the traditional sense of the word, the TERFs are on firm ground. One’s gender is one’s sex; one’s sex is immutable; therefore, gender is not a social construct; it is also immutable. The dilemma posed by the meme thus disappears.
But what if we, as many do, reject the premise that sex and gender are the same? There seems to be good reason to distinguish between them. For masculine and feminine, which are gender terms, are much bigger categories than just the biological male and female. They are linguistic and, in much religion and poetry, metaphysical categories as well (we’ve all heard of ‘yin’ and ‘yang’). If sex and gender are thus distinguishable, that would explain why there are relatively “feminine” men and relatively “masculine” women who needn’t and don’t doubt their sexual identity.
So if one believes that “masculine” and “feminine” as personal qualities, not biological realities, are social constructs, the question becomes how one can be born as “the wrong gender”? The very idea that one can be born as the wrong gender suggests that, if one’s biological sex and inner experience are at odds, it is the former that should give way to the latter. But if the former is a biological given and the latter is a social construct, what sense would that make? Instead of pretending to change the unchangeable, we should simply change what is changeable, namely, the social construct of gender.
But that doesn’t seem to be the direction that the transgender movement wants to take. So I don’t see how they can avoid the meme’s dilemma—unless they want to argue that gender is not merely a social construct, but some sort of metaphysical reality that social constructs can embody, sometimes with greater success and sometimes with lesser.
In that case, their argument would be that the biological ought to give way to the spiritual as much as possible. That would at least make sense, even if TERFs and social conservatives would still disagree.