Tuesday, February 13, 2018

on being "trans"

This is a huge topic on which I have a few things to say, but for now, let me point you to two videos on transgenderism, one of which tackles the subject from a humorous perspective (I'd forgotten just how funny Joe Rogan can be), and one of which goes for the jugular and asserts that trans people are mentally ill—a common position among social conservatives.

Here's Joe Rogan:

And here's Ben Shapiro on the possibility that Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Olympian Bruce Jenner) might want to de-transition now:

A while back, when President Trump enacted what has come to be known as his "trans ban" for the US military (a ban that hasn't been held up by courts), pro-trans people were up in arms. Singer Lady Gaga famously tweeted on July 27 of last year: "Sincerely, did you [Trump] know of the group you singled out today, 45% of them [i.e., trans people] ages (18 to 24) have attempted suicide already?"

Conservatives immediately scoffed at Gaga's tweet, saying that she was basically proving the conservative point that mentally unstable people (on the assumption that being transgender is a mental illness) shouldn't be issued guns and trained to kill. Gaga's point was obviously that Trump's ban was exactly the sort of rejection and marginalization that could lead people to suicidal behavior, but in this instance, the conservatives themselves seem to have a point: if that large a fraction of the trans community is suicidal, then why indeed would anyone let those poor folks serve in the military?

Of course, there's the logically prior question of whether being transgender (which doesn't necessarily mean you've gone through a sex-change operation; it could simply mean you're experiencing gender dysphoria and are contemplating surgery) equates to being mentally ill. If you listen to Ben Shapiro in the above-embedded video, then yes, gender-identity disorder (GID) is clearly a mental illness. However, there is currently a debate going on among psychologists as to whether the condition actually counts as mental illness (or even as a disorder). Some scientists contend that the condition boils down to the distress that comes with identifying as a different sex/gender.

My own take on GID is this: I sincerely believe that people with gender dysphoria are utterly convinced that they are in the wrong body. If these people are so distressed about the bodies they have—to the point of seriously contemplating radical and risky surgery to correct their situation—then that's a clear indicator that they mean what they say. Does this conviction mean they're insane? I don't see how, and here's a thought-experiment: what if we were to give these people a general test for, say, schizophrenia, to determine how divorced they are from reality in general? How would these people score? How many could be diagnosed as specifically schizophrenic, or as generally unable to process reality? My guess is that most people with gender dysphoria are perfectly rational about everything in their lives, and it's only in this one narrow area—their perception of the rightness of their bodies—where they differ from the norm. That doesn't sound like insanity to me, or if it is insanity, it's a very narrow, very specific form of insanity.

As a consequence of this basic position, I advocate treating trans folks as I'd treat anyone else, i.e., as normal human beings, with no special consideration. A person's decision to alter an aspect of his or her body that is private and inaccessible to me (to wit, his/her plumbing) affects me in no way at all (although I grant the decision can affect someone with whom that person is in a conjugal relationship, e.g., a spouse).

I've already given my position on trans restrooms, but at the same time, I do think there's room for a discussion. Leaping over to the "anti-trans" side for a second, I can think of one major example of where being a trans female can cause problems: competitive sports that are separated by sex, i.e., most competitive sports. A recent case, from 2014, involving MMA fighters Tamikka Brents and Fallon Fox comes to mind. Fox is a trans female; she began her mixed-martial-arts career as a man, then transitioned and began fighting cis-women ("cis-" means, roughly, "natural-born," although some in the PC community might say "natural-born" is an offensive term). Fox defeated Brents so thoroughly that Brents ended up with a concussion and a broken eye socket—the natural, predictable consequence of a man fighting a woman. Brents's comment on the fight brought home the brutality of what she experienced:

I've never felt so overpowered ever in my life. I’ve fought a lot of women and have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night. I can’t answer whether it’s because [Fox] was born a man or not, because I’m not a doctor; I can only say, I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life, and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right. [Fox's] grip was different; I could usually move around in the clinch against... females but couldn’t move at all in Fox’s clinch.

So yes, there's room for discussion. It's obviously not a question that can be dismissed by saying "there are no biological differences between men and women—period," and I do think the right has a point when it says that, chromosomally speaking, your only sexual options are male or female: XY or XX (we'll assume supermales, who are XYY, are too marginal to include in this discussion and don't count as a third sex*). My point, though, is that you also can't dismiss the subjective experiences of all these gender-dysphoric people. Why would they go through the sheer expense, not to mention the danger, of such a radical physical transformation unless they were utterly convinced of the wrongness of their current bodies? A little empathy, I think, goes a long way, and I don't for a second consider this "humoring the insane," the way some uncharitable folks do. As I argued above, I think a general test of rationality/sanity would show that most of these people are perfectly sane.

There is, of course, a further wrinkle, recently brought to light by a rumor (now shown to be false, but which Ben Shapiro addresses in the above-embedded video) that Caitlyn Jenner had been experiencing a species of "post-op regret" that can strike people who undergo sex-change surgery, then realize too late that they have done nothing to cure their feelings of dysphoria. It's this demographic that is probably at greatest risk of committing suicide. Jenner might not actually want to de-transition, but the rumor about her supposed regret was enough to bring to light the fact that many who transition do, in fact, experience post-op regret and wish to de-transition, with regret rates being higher within the male-to-female trans community.

The decision to change one's own body is a momentous one, given that one's body so intimately represents the self we show to the world and is also an influencer of one's own interiority. Is the desire for such a change insane? I think not, but I would caution anyone contemplating a sex change to ponder the fact that, chromosomally, nothing will have changed and that, physically, natively feminine or masculine attributes will not simply disappear. As the above martial-arts example shows, the question isn't so simple: Fallon Fox retains important male attributes that make her no different from an actual cis-male fighter fighting a female opponent. The question of transgenderism is a delicate and complex one, requiring lengthy discussion. Simple answers and facile conclusions need to be treated with great caution, and I'd submit that compassion and understanding have to be moral guides in our exploration of this issue.

*There are other genetic conditions, sometimes considered syndromes, in which a chromosomal configuration is XXY or XXYY.


  1. Three thoughts...

    1) Bruce Jenner lived with a Kardashian. Huh?
    2) Joe Rogan is funny? I mean, I guess I'm not surprised that I didn't know this, but this is like finding out that Michael Jordan was a skilled poet.
    3) "You get to pick. Pick one of those stories. Those are the only two stories." Ah, I love the smell of false dichotomies in the morning!

  2. re: false dichotomy

    Yeah, I think Shapiro is a smart guy, but I wasn't happy with his fast-and-very-loose logic there.

    As for the Jenner/Kardashian thing: I'm tempted to say, "Where have you been all this time?" but the fact is that I don't follow the shenanigans on reality TV, either, so I'm largely clueless. I've been aware of the relation-by-marriage of the Jenners and the Kardashians, but I know none of the specifics. Here's an article from everyone's favorite tabloid to help you and me out on that score.

    re: Rogan

    I knew Joe Rogan first as host of "Fear Factor" before I saw him as a standup comedian, and then later, I found out about his martial-arts background. Standup is something he still does; I don't know how regularly he does it, but there are plenty of YouTube videos showing him getting into verbal fights with hecklers, with feminist comedians, and with comedians (like Carlos Mencia) whom he accuses of joke-stealing. The podcast side of his career is new to me; he doesn't come off as the brightest bulb in the box, but he's snagged interviews with some big-time nerds like Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. He seems to enjoy learning from people way smarter than he is, which I guess is a good quality.

  3. Dude, you would not believe how little I know about tabloid gossip. Just this morning, my wife was shocked that I didn't know that Rain (the singer, not the meteorological phenomenon) and Kim Tae-hee were married. I gave her the same reply that I always give her when she is shocked that I don't know some bit of celebrity news: "Why should I care about this?" Hey, at least I knew who these two people were. Often I have no idea who she is talking about.

    In that spirit, I am not going to click on that link to the Sun (although I do appreciate the effort that you put into finding it, and the emotional trauma you no doubt sustained reading it).

  4. "Does this conviction means they're insane?"

    Your grammar is wrong, so your entire post is wrong.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  5. Fixed now, Jeff, therefore right now. Thanks.

  6. Re: Trans in the Army. From my observation, the military has perhaps been more open minded about gays/trans than society as a whole. This issue with transgenders serving is really no different than the standards applied to the general population: Are you in condition to be deployed to the battlefield should circumstances require? I think fitness for duty decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis, but a fully functioning trans person should not be an issue. Of course, if the military is expected to pay for gender reassignment surgery, that's a budget concern.

    Anyway, as always your post was well-written and thought provoking.



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