Does it seem to anyone else that the explosion of issues surrounding transgender politics seemingly came stampeding out of nowhere? If we could display the quantity of articles discussing transgenderism on a graph, surely it would display a sudden, immense spike at around 2014 that has persisted ever since? Despite an urge for some schoolboy snickering over the topic, it is a hugely important issue no matter what side of the debate you find yourself on. If you agree that gender dysphoria is both real, common and under-recognised, it deserves serious consideration by medical professionals. If, however, you disagree and believe it to be more of a recent trend, you better think of your arguments fast: policies are being rushed through at a break-neck speed to ensure gender neutrality in all areas of life. There’s also a creeping possibility that regulation will be passed in numerous countries to punish those who fail to comply with this new way of gender neutrality policy and language.
So, what’s to be done? If the issue is simply a medical one, then the whole situation quickly becomes incredibly straight-forward. After all, a medical problem requires a medical solution. However, things develop a complexity closer to that of a seven-dimensional Rubix cube when we’re forced to ask ourselves: “what actually is gender?” This is a question that, like a collection of dirty cups, has been left on the side while more important things were accomplished. Thus, we find ourselves in the strange position of having to enact policies that hinge on debates that are not even well-defined, much less settled. Because of this, children younger than ten around the globe being given new, potentially dangerous, puberty blockers as well as invasive surgery, despite being well below the age of even being able to decide who to vote for, much less which gender they want to be.
Let’s not let ourselves fall into the trap that every generation falls into, thinking that what we’re doing won’t one day be looked upon as misguided or even ‘evil’. It’s entirely plausible that future generations will look upon the gender reassignment surgery of young teens as symptomatic of a temporary hysteria. Those who render children permanently infertile and needing long-term surgery and psychotherapy may be viewed with the same disdain as those who thought electroconvulsive therapy was beneficial for homosexuals. Despite some highly questionable articles, it certainly isn’t ‘extreme’ to think prepubescent children are yet not old enough to choose to have irreversible surgery; like the shock-therapy supporting conservatives of yesteryear, the desire to help others without any knowledge of the issue, can have disastrous consequences.
Our issue can be stripped down to a core problem: how much of transgenderism is based in biological reality? How many people truly are ‘born into the wrong body’? Is transgenderism a disorder that has been with our species since the beginning of time, but is only now able to be treated through modern hormone treatment and surgery? These are vital questions, but first, we need to perform a ‘genealogy’ of gender politics to figure out how we got here. Our first stop on this journey is to understand why (or at least how) our society began to treat biological sex with such an intense suspicion. In other words, ‘how did the idea of biological sex become to be seen as an illusion?’
The primary intellectual driving force was originally in French postmodernist philosophy. Starting with de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1947) in which she wrote: “one is not born but rather becomes a woman” the groundwork for the (then) radical idea that gender was an arbitrary and imposed role, was laid. This concept was milked for all it was worth, particularly in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990). A central idea to Butler and third-wave feminism was generally that gender was only a ‘performance’, completely unconnected with biological reality. The idea was that cultures assigned roles to genders at random and then re-enforced these arbitrary allocations through culture and language. The fact that there are clear and important biological differences in addition to massive cross-cultural overlap between cultures, both now and throughout history, seemed to contradict this theory, but nonetheless, it has persisted and is now viewed as what appears to be common knowledge, or at least seen through a supportive lens.
Because gender can inform behavior in numerous ways, the idea that it was ‘one big act’ was able to gain traction as modern living made these differences less important. Of course, in a sense, being an adult is also ‘performative’. Like gender, being an adult is something that is learned and requires development. It varies slightly from culture to culture but has massive overlaps, like gender. Despite this, it would seem insane to claim that there are no biological differences between the physiology of a child and an adult, however; this is now the current view with regards to gender.
So what evidence do we have to push against this received wisdom? Should we believe our instinctive assumptions – that gender is real and obvious – is akin to our view that the Sun revolves around the Earth, rather than vice versa? Should we learn to mistrust our senses and follow a more abstract set of beliefs instead? Or is the desire to obliterate our awareness of gender distinction something closer to an ideology, surviving only through repetition and not through empirical evidence?
Let’s go a little deeper. A biology book I studied that once gave me a chuckle with the chapter title: ‘Why Have Males At All?’, despite sounding like a Guardian Op-Ed piece, presents an important question. Why do we not reproduce asexually, like plants do? The answer, to put things simply, is that it becomes too easy to replicate genetic mistakes in this way, at least in organisms more complex than bacteria and plants. As such, humans (along with most animals) have a male and a female variant of the species – a ‘fertiliser’ and a ‘fertilised’. Such differences have created sexual dimorphism in our species as well as distinct psychological differences when it comes to mating.
Although, as with all areas of science, there is debate, it appears that men are less discriminate maters compared with women. You can confirm this at your local night-club if you like. The reason for this is that women risk a hell of a lot in pregnancy – they are highly vulnerable for nine months, with extremely reduced mobility, and even risk death in the process of childbirth. As with all investors, high risk must return high reward; and women, being the selectors of our species, would not invest in a male who could not protect them during pregnancy, or whose offspring would likely perish. Up until a century ago, there was no fair guarantee that all of your children would even live beyond infancy. In other words, you better choose wisely. Species where females select and males compete usually have the largest size differences between males and females. As Darwin noted, humans are sexually selected for their best traits, a biological trick to ensure the species survives and prospers. Hence, the differences in attraction that define men and women were progressively created by the blind craftsman of evolution.
For example: aside from the obvious, (genitalia and hormones) men generally have more muscle mass. Controlling for size, men have significantly lower-pitched voices than women, as well as larger vocal chords and a much more prominent Adam’s apple. Men have stronger, denser bones, women, wider pelvises for child-birth. Women have to produce more white blood cells over a lifetime while men usually have higher blood pressure. Depression, anxiety, Alzheimers, and eating disorders disproportionately affect women, whereas ASD, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disproportionately affect men. Men typically show better neural connectivity between the front and back hemispheres of the brain, whereas women show better connectivity between the left and right.
Indeed, gender runs all the way up to visual perception. Recent studies have found women have a superior ability in colour detection whereas men have a superior ability in movement detection. This is hypothesised to stem from prehistoric gender roles, with men being selected for an ability to hunt while women developed an ability to pick non-poisonous fruit. We could go on, but whole books can be (and have been) written on human sex differences. A society that censors an awareness of these details does so at its own peril.
In short, the fact that ‘there are only two genders’ became seen as a rebellious political statement, and says more about our society than it does about the statement itself. Since our species created a wonderfully protective, secure, and technological-advanced society, it is difficult for us children of (post)modernity to understand the immense harshness of the world that molded the human species. It is not surprising, then, that even intelligent people can declare all gender differences were simply ‘created’ by society and, like Freddy Krueger, will disappear if you simply stop paying attention to them.
On one hand, we can see how some people would have wanted to avoid people being solely defined according to their group average. This is often called essentialism. But we should recall it isn’t just essentialists that can harm society. A re-occurring theme of many tyrannical societies is an obsession with re-making the human being from scratch. The Soviets were obsessed with re-making man free of ‘capitalist’ and ‘reactionary’ impulses. The result was the murder or imprisonment of nearly anyone who was seen as an enemy of this utopia, culminating in millions of deaths. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rogue went even further; declaring it to be ‘Year Zero’, Pol Pot ordered the mass murder of all educated Cambodians and marched all inhabitants out of the cities, forcing them to work in agriculture as little more than under-fed slaves. That isn’t to say this type of thing is still a risk, but such are the problems when all human nature is declared to be constructed and changeable at will, depending on who wields power.
In order to understand what to do, we have to be honest with ourselves. The doctrine of ‘reality as a social construct’ has been pushed so far as it is now a parody of itself. With such a highly technological society, it is easy to take for granted everything that led up to this point. Industrialisation, automation, medicine, birth control, reduced child mortality, year-long accessibility to food, reduced violence and warfare, declining testosterone levels, and many other factors have reduced some of the more obvious gender differences that would’ve been visible in our great-great-grandparents. But pretending that something doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away, and forcing policies to achieve the unachievable based on a 1970s university textbook is destined for disaster. If we’re going to help everyone in society, we should avoid the apparent re-emergence of mass superstition towards evolution and science, and instead expand our horizons a little bit to understand what kind of beings we truly are.
This is the first part of (Trans) Gender Troubles, a series of articles attempting to make sense of a seemingly insane atmosphere of gender politics. Part II will investigate gender reassignment surgery.
Featured Image Credits: Sam Ebohon