Tracking the Transition
In a lengthy essay on trans narratives in the London Review of Books (Vol.38 No.9) Jacqueline Rose notes how recent is the modern distinction between sex and gender: ‘Robert Stoller… proposed the distinction in his 1968 study, Sex and Gender…For Stoller, gender was identity, sex was genital pleasure.’ This is a very significant and novel distinction, and has led us to the current state of play where there is an ever expanding range of gender descriptions. It has also brought us to the place where a journalist in a serious newspaper can write a paragraph like this, apparently without irony:
When he had his period, he wondered if he should revert to the girls’ bathroom, because there was no place to throw away his used tampons. But he had started feeling like an intruder in the girls’ bathroom, and the single bathrooms were so far out of the way it was hard to get to class on time.
In the US, bathroom wars are reaching a fever pitch, as President Obama has weighed in to say that everyone must be able to use bathrooms according to their self-identified gender, rather than their biological sex. (Why do the Americans describe as ‘bathrooms’ facilities that have no baths in them? Confusion reigns.) But this isn’t just about whether one stands or sits to pee. In a provocative article Stella Morabito argues that to de-sex us is to dehumanize us,
The transgender movement has never been about “gender.” It’s all about sex. Sex is the real target. “Gender” is merely the politicized linguistic vehicle that facilitates a legal ban on sex distinctions. There aren’t a whole lot of dots to connect to uncover the logic of where this leads: if you abolish sex distinctions in law, you can abolish state recognition of biological family ties, and the state can regulate personal relationships and consolidate power as never before.
The biological reality of male and female difference has led to a small group of ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ (the so-called TERFs) seeking to maintain women-only spaces, that trans women are not welcome in. Germaine Greer has received the most publicity for her TERF-ism. Having been no-platformed for her ‘transphobia’ Greer remarked, ‘What they are saying is that because I don’t think surgery will turn a man into a woman I should not be allowed to speak anywhere.’ The pace of change is extraordinary – that someone of Greer’s impeccable feminist credentials should be described as ‘hateful’ (as Jacqueline Rose does) for stating what not long ago would have been considered obvious by pretty much everyone indicates the momentum behind the trans movement.
One of the dangers of critiquing the trans movement is that we can find ourselves backed into a rhetorical corner that says opposing the trans agenda is to be hostile to trans people. In order to avoid this accusation it is all too easy to swallow the trans agenda with a mistaken definition of what it is to be loving. Carl Trueman addresses this very real problem,
All Christians are required to care for people—the stranger, the sojourner, the one who is suffering, saints and sinners all. The language of love thus resonates strongly with Christians, who are always (rightly) susceptible to its charms. Set that language of love in a world such as ours, where emotional aesthetics trump ethics every time, and it is very vulnerable to being co-opted as political rhetoric because of its power to move people and to place any resistance on the defensive from the outset. And when that happens—Love Wins!—the scene is set for confusion. Well-meaning Christians who rightly want to love and care for their neighbor can quickly become the unwitting dupes of those with much greater social and political ambitions than live-and-let-live. Even those who wish to resist are in a hard place, for they know that the opposite of “love” is “hate”—and so what vocabulary can they draw upon to express their dissent?
We also need to be careful not to be lured into the mistaken view that if we simply express ourselves we will be happy, with gender self-identification as part of that happiness creating self-expression. Sadly, for trans people this doesn’t seem to be the case. Not every trans person is a jolly Grayson Perry equivalent. Rose quotes statistics from Brighton (surely the most trans-friendly town in the UK) indicating just what tough lives many trans people experience,
26 per cent of trans people in Brighton and Hove are unemployed, and another 60 per cent earn less than £10,000 a year. This is also the reason so many, especially male-to-female transsexuals, take to the streets (to survive materially but also to make money for surgery).
If central to the message of the church is the call to remember the poor (Gal. 2:10), then engaging with trans people is going to be part of the outworking of this. But that engagement will also require clarity about the reality of male and female distinctiveness, rather than accepting a mental detachment from bodily reality. As radical feminist Rebecca Reilly-Cooper expresses it, changing the terms we use to describe people does nothing to change their biological reality,
For those who feel strongly that they should have been born female but were not, changing the definition of the word female so that it also applies to them will bring only a temporary alleviation of their suffering. It is not the existence of the words ‘female’ and ‘male’ that persons with dysphoria find distressing. It is the underlying biological facts to which they refer, as well as the socially constructed gender roles that are associated with being a member of that sex class, that they find intolerable. Neither of these sources of pain will be remedied by changing the label we use to refer to them.
As members of the church of Christ, we need to find better ways to help alleviate peoples pain then joining in the lie that men can become women, or women become men.
One area where the trans movement has yet to show its hand is sport. The BBC is relentlessly set on helping the normalisation process for transgenderism, with a constant stream of ‘awareness raising’ programmes. At the same time the broadcaster is working hard to raise the profile and status of womens sports. What will be interesting to observe is the point at which the promotion of women’s sports and the promotion of trans rights reach their inevitable incompatibility, for sport is an arena where the essential difference between the sexes is impossible to disguise. For example, compare the following record performances by English U17 men in track and field with the female World Record – the boys win hands down:
The reality is that if sexual distinctions were abandoned in sport women’s sport would effectively be over. In activities requiring speed or strength there is a huge advantage in being biologically male, so a small number of male-to-female trans would have a disproportionate impact in women’s sports – an impact that would make current concerns about the advantages conveyed by doping look like small beer. So it is likely there will be considerable resistance to allowing trans women to enter female sports. But how will that be sustained in a world where the right to choose one’s own gender identity trumps all other rights – a right which even the President of the United States fully supports?
The trans agenda isn’t going away: it has already captured the political and cultural establishment in the West. All of us will be affected by this, to one degree or another, and we need clarity in the confusion. We Christians must never lose sight of humanities essential shape, that,
God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:27)