Conservatives and Transgender Community: A Time for Understanding

Dennis Sanders

Dennis is the pastor of a small Protestant congregation outside St. Paul, MN and also a part-time communications consultant. A native of Michigan, you can check out his writings over on Medium and subscribe to his Substack newsletter on religion and politics called Polite Company.  Dennis lives in Minneapolis with his husband Daniel.

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137 Responses

  1. j r says:

    one that already is emerging — to treat delusion as fact, or at the very least to agree to make subjective impressions superordinate to biological fact in matters both public and private.

    Williamson tips his hand right there. He likely has no actual problem with agreeing to respect other people’s subjective impressions. For instance, he likely has no problems with extending personal, legal and political recognition to other people’s religious views. He simply thinks that transgendered people are delusional; therefore, he deems them not worthy of that same recognition and respect. Of course, his own belief is just another form of subjective impression masquerading as objective biological fact.

    If we are going to talk biology, then we can very quickly see a certain hypocrisy in the conservative position. If you believe that human bodies and human brains are biologically gendered, (i.e. that people with biologically male bodies have biologically male brains and vice versa), then it logically follows that some percentage of people will be born with the opposite.

    Further, there is a certain type of conservative persona that likes to portray himself as an iconoclast, a brave truth teller, but in reality is simply an asshole. Williamson has always struck me as exactly that sort.Report

    • Jonathan McLeod in reply to j r says:

      That last paragraph of yours is really the heart of the matter.Report

    • DavidTC in reply to j r says:

      If we are going to talk biology, then we can very quickly see a certain hypocrisy in the conservative position. If you believe that human bodies and human brains are biologically gendered, (i.e. that people with biologically male bodies have biologically male brains and vice versa), then it logically follows that some percentage of people will be born with the opposite.

      Yes. Objectively speaking, it’s actually somewhat surreal that the same people who will swear day in and day out that there are differences between the genders besides the sexual characteristics, (including mental differences), fail to notice that this logically means that these differences could be out-of-sync with each other. I mean, we have plenty of evidence that can happen biologically, with intersex people and androgen insensitivity syndrome and whatnot. There’s no reason it couldn’t happen mentally.

      And it can look somewhat surreal on the other side, too, with people insisting on one hand there’s no real difference between the genders except the externals, and yet insisting some people are internally a different gender than they were born as. Except this actually makes sense…transgender people mostly are trying to fix how other people see them. It’s like how we can stand around saying that looks don’t matter and it’s what inside that counts, but people with serious facial deformities would still like plastic surgery to fix that. (And, of course, no one on the left contends that hormones don’t have an actual effect on thought, just that those hormones don’t limit anyone’s mental abilities.)

      Of course, getting back the paradox of the right, what the right actually has always cared about, and the only thing they care about WRT sexuality, is ‘traditional gender roles’. They don’t like transsexuals simply because of that, and believe it or not, that’s their entire objection to homosexuality also. Every single ‘social’ issue of theirs (Even abortion, although that has taken on a life of its own outside that.) can be understood in context of that.Report

  2. veronica dire says:

    Thank you for writing this, Dennis.Report

  3. James Hanley says:

    it would impose on society at large an obligation — possibly a legal obligation under civil-rights law, one that already is emerging — to treat delusion as fact, or at the very least to agree to make subjective impressions superordinate to biological fact in matters both public and private.

    This is appalling.

    The view that gender identity is solely determined by one’s biological bits is, of course, not an objective truth–there is no empirical research he can reference to support his belief–so he is in fact asking us to let his subjective impressions superordinate in law.

    And the assumption that he is in a position to know better than her what her actual identity is is both arrogant and insulting to Ms. Cox.Report

    • Mo in reply to James Hanley says:

      I wonder what Williamson thinks of a karyotypic male that is phenotypically female. What does biology say about that person’s gender?Report

    • Tim Kowal in reply to James Hanley says:

      What is a good place to start to catch up on the science on ‘gender identity’? The little bit I’ve read suggests the field of psychiatry, at least, is still in the relatively nascent stages and that sex-reassignment surgeries have had very mixed results as they concern patients’ emotional and psychological issues. This has led me to tentatively conclude that we should use caution in making policy in this area. More to the point, what is the baseline/starting fact? Has it always been the case that gender and sex have been treated medically/biologically distinct, or related?

      Elsewhere, Williamson states that his concern is not about ‘banning’ sex-resassignment but about putting the campaign ahead of the science.

  4. Michael M. says:

    I’m confused (as I often am by conservatives) about what you mean by “making gender so malleable that it becomes pointless.” Pointless for what purposes, or for whom? It seems to me that Facebook’s (to use your example) point in creating many options for gender is to allow its users to find something that fits. I have no idea how Facebook monetizes this data, but I presume their marketing folks are on that. I also presume that if Facebook determines it could make more money with 100 options or 25 options rather than the 50 some-odd options it currently has, that it will adjust accordingly. I realize I’m making a lot of assumptions here, but I’m not the one labeling this exercise as “pointless” nor claiming that more that three or four genders is chaotic, which I think is what you’re implying.

    As I understand use of the terms, “sex” is generally the term used to describe a person’s biological characteristics and “gender” to describe a person’s socially constructed role. The options for sex are constrained by biology, but the options for gender are not. It may be “easy … to equate gender with anatomy,” but isn’t the fact that what may be easy for conservatives (and everyone else) doesn’t work for an increasing number of people relevant here? I don’t really agree that the problem is that “sometimes [gender and anatomy] aren’t in sync.” That is a problem for some people, but you don’t need 50+ gender options to accommodate that group. The problem that having all those gender identities addresses is that a lot of people, whatever their biological sex, don’t feel comfortable with either of the two most popular options and those folks have identified with a variety of different terms they feel better describes their gender roles.

    I think many conservatives’ objections to the notion of transgender people is because conservatives generally have a lot invested in the binary distinction between masculine and feminine roles. Accepting, as you have, that transgender people aren’t delusional doesn’t necessarily challenge that binary, it simply accommodates those who don’t fit quite so neatly into either box. So I would agree with you that more and more conservatives will come around to accepting transgender people if they can do so in a way that doesn’t fundamentally disrupt their preconceived notions. However, allowing for a multiplicity of gender roles necessarily does challenge the status-quo, especially since many of those genders explicitly reject the binary.Report

    • DavidTC in reply to Michael M. says:

      I think many conservatives’ objections to the notion of transgender people is because conservatives generally have a lot invested in the binary distinction between masculine and feminine roles.


      All conservatives’ objections to the notion of transgender people is because conservatives generally have a lot invested in the binary distinction between masculine and feminine roles. 😉

      So I would agree with you that more and more conservatives will come around to accepting transgender people if they can do so in a way that doesn’t fundamentally disrupt their preconceived notions.

      This would make sense in logic-world. In logic world, transpeople practically prove their point for them. You can even imagine them using it to attack the left with: ‘How dare you say that men and women are identical? So I guess it doesn’t matter to you what gender someone is? Are you saying trans* people should just be happy with who they are?’

      Sadly, conservatives operate in emotion-world, and the thinking is more like this:

      The entire goal of men (aka, ‘real people’) is supposed to be conquering the vagina. They’ll maybe accept rules in this war to make it more civilized, hell, they’ve got their own vaginas (in daughters and mothers and sisters and wives) walking around they need to protect. So some rules, okay. Like they can accept some rules barring rape, they don’t want their collection of vaginas raped…to some extent, maybe. But only if men aren’t inconvenienced.

      But transwomen, like gay men, are traitors to their own side. The right can’t ever deal with that. They can’t allow that at all. If they allow real people (Aka, men) to just switch sides like that, then that would demonstrate their side isn’t the ultimatimate-ist side ever! That having penises doesn’t make people awesome, and vaginas aren’t the best goal ever! (Plus, a lot of transwomen don’t have vaginas, and even if they do, they’re not sure if they count…so they end up screwing up the score for men.)

      OTOH, transmen, like lesbians, are kinda funny almost-people trying to con their way into real-peopleness. They’re like dogs wearing sweaters. The right don’t actually care about them. Hell, at some point it almost become ‘You’re a credit to your gender…you, unlike most women, have realized the entire goal of goal of life is to get as much vagina as possible and have the biggest penis.’

      * I dislike the term ‘trans*’, because I always feel there’s a missing footnote. Why does that need a wildcard. Can’t it just be ‘trans’? Who decides this stuff, and where do I file a complaint?Report

      • veronica dire in reply to DavidTC says:

        @davidtc — “This would make sense in logic-world. In logic world, transpeople practically prove their point for them. You can even imagine them using it to attack the left with: ‘How dare you say that men and women are identical? So I guess it doesn’t matter to you what gender someone is? Are you saying trans* people should just be happy with who they are?’ ”

        You should meet the TERFS:

        And the asterisk is silly and folks kinda mock it most of the time.

        (Personally I think gender identity labels should support full Perl5 regular expression, but I’m a regular freaking gender outlaw!)Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to DavidTC says:

        I often read the asterisk as “star”, as in A* and related search algorithms. I’m not sure how graph search algorithms apply to gender identity, but I haven’t made a deep study (or even a memory restricted or bounded depth study) of it.Report

      • veronica dire in reply to DavidTC says:

        @dragonfrog — The star was literally meant to match those filename wildcard things, so it could stand for “transgender” or “transsexual” or “genderqueer” (oh wait!).

        But yeah, that was the idea.Report

      • DavidTC in reply to DavidTC says:

        The TERFs appear to be what happens when certain women decide that the way to fix society is to wage war back against men.

        At which point they become concerned with trans people. Oddly enough, they seem to be more concerned about ‘infiltration’ (aka transwomen) than ‘defectors’ (aka transmen.). Unlike the men, who care about the exact opposites. (Which means…they both object to transwomen, and don’t care about transmen.)

        But, then again, feminists have always been ‘defectors’ in a sense, and the history of feminist has always been transgressing the gender barrier, and often literally passing themselves off as men, so ‘defecting’ has never been possible. So TERFs don’t care about that.

        There’s a civil war analogy here: Men are an entrenched force operating the government. They are the citizens living in cities. Women are operating a guerrilla war in the woods to take it down, they’re the rebels.

        The government can just ignore the rebels, but can’t have the citizens running off and joining the rebels…they’re worried other citizens might start thinking the rebels have a point. But they don’t really care about rebels that move into cities, reject the rebel way of life, and pretend to be citizens. Sure, occasionally such people step out of line, but they can just arrest them.

        Whereas the rebels are worried that the government is sending in informants and whatnot(1), so chooses not to accept citizens who have fled the cities, at least not one who are asserting they are rebels. But they’ve always infiltrated the cities, and don’t care if rebels do it on a semi-permanent basis.

        Of course, the actual problem here is that there is not actually a civil war going on, and both sides are wrong to think of it as one.

        1) Despite, interestingly enough, this never happening in the entire history of humanity. Seriously. Even in places where it would be reasonable to describe the interaction between men and women as ‘all-out war’, men have never tried to pass themselves as women to find out their plans or sabotage their efforts. In history, when men disguise themselves as women, it’s always to trick other men.

        The sort of men who would think of sneaking into a woman’s space and sabotaging it or attacking women is exactly the sort of man who never in a million years would consider pretending to be a woman(2), much less actually use surgery and hormones to make themselves physically closer to a woman. Too much of the identify of such men is tied up in their masculinity and gender roles.

        2) Of course, transwomen can be evil or violent also, and I’m sure one of them, somewhere, has raped women. But those attackers would legitimately be transwomen, they didn’t just decide to become them to get access to women. That’s an absurd amount of work to accomplish rape, which is, apparently, fairly easy to do and get away with. I rather suspect such attacks by transwomen would be of the same proportionality as lesbian rapes.

        (Personally I think gender identity labels should support full Perl5 regular expression, but I’m a regular freaking gender outlaw!)

        I support (.*) people.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to DavidTC says:


        I don’t even have real skin in the game, and reading the quotes made me gag. How the hell do you manage without giving in to the urge to take a baseball bat to their heads?Report

      • veronica dire in reply to DavidTC says:

        @james-hanley — Well, I’ll say this: threatening any form of violence against these women would prove very counter productive.

        About which, fine.

        Myself, I prefer to simply show others their words. I think that helps us more than anything else.

        (I content that Fred Phelps did much to help the broad fight for gay rights, by making homophobia seem perfectly disgusting. Likewise for these women.)Report

      • James Hanley in reply to DavidTC says:

        You’re probably right. I’m just a pretty live and let live kind of person, and become more so as I get older. But those who aren’t willing to just let others live? I figure they’ve asked for any grief they get.Report

      • veronica dire in reply to DavidTC says:

        Well, indeed I rather despise them. But given that their theory of us is this: we’re agents of the patriarchy trying to infiltrate women’s spaces to perform (sometimes literal) rape — well — it’s a minefield.Report

  5. Patrick says:

    His follow-up post was worse.Report

    • veronica dire in reply to Patrick says:

      I think I’ll skip it.Report

      • morat20 in reply to veronica dire says:

        Let me sum up: Whine, whine, they’re mean, that means I’m write, also they’re stupid and trans people are still super icky and wrong.

        Admittedly, I only skimmed it because partway through the first paragraph I sprained a muscle eyerolling, so I had to be careful after that.Report

      • danah in reply to veronica dire says:

        I couldn’t reply above so I am doing it here.

        Thanks for pointing out the broken links. I must have pasted the comment I made without “editing” in order to view the whole text. Whoops.

        As far as your other question, I’m not sure I understand it exactly.

        Here’s an explanation of those studies, by none other than Dr. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford

      • veronica dire in reply to veronica dire says:

        @danah — Well, if I am reading the box-and-whisker chart correctly, there were women (both trans and cis) with BSTc neuron numbers in the male range. Likewise, there were men with the measure in the female range. Which, of course, is no surprise. However, it does limit the assertion that this could be used as a test of transsexuality. Regardless of this measure, the patient could be one of those outliers.

        I could be one of the outliers.

        The idea that such things determine transsexuality can actually be dangerous.Report

      • danah in reply to veronica dire says:

        I have no idea why it allows you to reply to those comments – it won’t give me a reply link below.

        Yes, there are outliers, and demanding a *single* test for any condition in the brain is pretty dangerous – especially demanding a test as a prerequisite for diagnosis, when that test demands autopsy. My apologies – I assumed that went without saying, but I should have clarified.Report

  6. Kazzy says:

    “So I ask conservatives to start to learn about being transgender. And don’t worry if you don’t understand all of it- what matters more is to care for these people- even if it doesn’t make any damn sense. Because what does make sense is for us all to care for each other.”

    This. A thousand times this.Report

  7. Tod Kelly says:

    “Which is why I think conservatives will come around, just like they are when it comes to homosexuality. It will happen when they encounter people who are transgender. It’s one thing to tear apart a symbol, it’s quite different when your argument is flesh and blood.”


    And with more than just people who are transgender. It’s astounding just how many of the world’s social ills are cured by this one simple act, whether that act be purposeful or thrust upon you.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I initially bristled at that paragraph. “Really? Conservatives coming along on homosexuality?” But I realized two things: 1.) I was probably taking too micro, too recent a view and 2.) I was conflating “Prominent Conservative Media Members, Politicians, and General Money Hungry Provocateurs” with “conservatives”.

      The counter I was initially inclined to argue was that while some conservatives might have come around, many were still actively hostile towards homosexuality and many of those who weren’t were simply being politically expedient. But that’s wrong. That’s the case for that former group I described above. It might be true for some within the latter, but not the entirety of it.

      I think of a friend of mine who is probably the most conservative person I am close friends with. The last time we discussed homosexuality, it was while Zazzy was pregnant. He is the father of a daughter a little more than a year older than Mayo. “Dude, if you have a son, they can totally get married and we can unite our families.” (We were drunk at a wedding.) “Even if I have a daughter, they can still get married.” “I don’t know about that.” “It will almost surely be legal by then!” “Still. Let’s just hope for a boy.”

      It’d be easy to focus on the obvious moral opposition he has for same sex marriage and say, “Conservatives ain’t done shit on homosexuality.” But were you to take us back in time 10 years, odds are that conversation would have gone very differently. It probably would have been uglier, with opposition shifting from SSM to homosexuality in general. That wasn’t present. This is consistent with other conversations I’ve had with him wherein he proscribes to a “Hate the sin, love the sinner” approach. Not my cup of tea but surely one that is far more evolved than many other positions and I think more common now on the right than before.

      Something else that helped me to see beyond my initial kneejerk reaction is the on-the-ground conservatives I’ve gotten to know here. Thank you all for that.Report

  8. Mike Schilling says:

    You don’t tug on Superman’s cape
    You don’t spit into the wind
    You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger
    And you don’t
    argue with someone who writes for National Review about delusions.Report

  9. Hazumu Osaragi says:

    Point of grammar. The author and a portion of the commenters refer to ‘transgendered.’

    One is not ‘blacked’ or ‘whited,’ ‘riched’ or ‘poored,’ ‘smarted’ or ‘stupided,’ et cetera.

    People who happen to be transgender will tell you that they figured out at an early age – on average around age six, but as early as 3 and as late as 10 or 12 – that they had been assigned by society to the wrong gender.

    Undertaking social and medical transition is under the control and agency of the individual, but it’s not a choice to become. It’s a choice to be authentic to who you’ve always been, but were prevented from showing.

    The act of transitioning is not so much an act of adding something that wasn’t there (‘transgendered‘,) as an act of dismantling something that was imposed.

    Please use ‘transgender.’Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Hazumu Osaragi says:

      Thanks, @hazumu-osaragi . I myself wondered about some of the terminology Dennis used in part because I am still trying to understand it myself. @veronica-dire has been helpful elsewhere in this regards. I figured/hoped people like yourself might pop up with some constructive feedback if any terms were used in error and I want to express my appreciation that you did so in a way that was respectful of the author’s intent while still informative both in terms of the ‘what’ and the ‘why’.


      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        Oi… and by “people like yourself” I mean “people who can educate those of us in need of it.” I don’t otherwise know what a person like yourself might be as I believe this is the first time I’ve come across your presence here. My apologies for sloppy phrasing.Report

    • veronica dire in reply to Hazumu Osaragi says:

      On the grammar stuff, GLAAD has good guidelines:

      And not every trans person figures out at a young age.Report

    • DavidTC in reply to Hazumu Osaragi says:

      You are correct that the term is ‘transgender people’, as that is a description of an attribute.

      But people who are transgender have, indeed, become transgender. Just the same way they became biologically one sex or the other. It was indeed involuntary, but humans do not start out as transgender, or even not transgender. Trying to make a distinction based on ‘becoming’ is not the correct objection.

      What you actually mean is that ‘transgender’ is not a verb. If it was a verb, it would almost certainly mean the same as ‘transition’…which is already a perfectly good verb. (And the people using it here aren’t even using as a verb meaning, they’re using it to mean exactly the same thing as ‘transgender’. Which is just silly)

      Incidentally, if people really want to use ‘transgender’ as a verb meaning ‘transition’, I must propose instead ‘transgend’. If you’re going to invent words, invent cool-sounding ones. ‘Next week, Pete is going to start transgending to a woman.’Report

    • Thanks from me as well. My own comment is fixed.Report

    • There is a little irony in enforcing unmalleable rules of grammar to aid the cause of the malleability of gender.

      ‘Transgender’ is a neologism to begin with, and its root, ‘gender,’ is a noun. Adding -ed is the most natural way to to make it an adjective.

      If people are offended by it, I will say that I think it is an oversensitivity that I will nonetheless probably try to accommodate. But please be aware that one of the unintended consequences of oversensitivity is that many people of goodwill will simply endeavor to ignore talking the topic altogether.

      “Let me ask you, is there a term besides ‘Mexican’ that you prefer? Something less offensive?”Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        In all fairness, @tim-kowal , @hazumu-osaragi expressed no taking of offense, only going so far as to point out the preferred terminology and the logic behind it.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        I might suggest a different tact here…

        When a group of people ask you not to call them something because they find it offensive, rather than tell them they shouldn’t be offended ask yourself in what way you are harmed by respecting their wishes.

        If your answer is basically “in no tangible way,” you might consider respecting their wishes out of nothing more complicated than common courtesy. If it helps, think of it as being like when you go to a dinner party at someone’s house and they ask everyone to take off your shoes before stepping on their white carpet.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Tim Kowal says:


        “…they ask everyone to take off your shoes…”

        Well, if @tim-kowal didn’t feel ganged up on before, he sure as hell will now…Report

      • veronica dire in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        Thing is, I normally have no love for grammar scolds, and I’ll use a word like “decimate” however a darn well please, thank you very much. So it seems rich for me to make a big deal over trans terms.

        But, anyway, yeah, “transgender” — I’m not sure who decided it must always and only be an adjective, but it seems to have stuck. Which is weird, actually, since “transsexual” seems to frolic happily across the noun-adjective divide. (But never a verb! for our dear “transsexual.”)

        “Transsexualed” ? ?

        So, like, anyway — point being, this doesn’t make much sense, and it seems a silly thing to worry about anyhow.

        But on the other hand, and I cannot really explain this, seeing “transgender” used as a noun (“a transgender” “those transgenders”) just bugs the crap out of me. It just strikes me as wrong, gross, and dismissive. And it seems like a lot of us trans folks feel this way. When I come across the term in a post or whatever, it sticks out in a big way.

        For some strange reason.

        Anyway, it seems an easy enough thing to get right with the slightest effort.Report

      • Tim Kowal in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        @tod-kelly That’s almost exactly what I did.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        @tim-kowal Then I would add to my previous analogy, “… while refraining from telling the hostess why they are wrong for wanting you to do so.”Report

      • DavidTC in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        While we’re talking about grammar, why am I the only person who ever says transpeople as one word?

        It seems like a perfectly reasonable generalization from transmen and transwomen (1), no one’s ever called me on it or claimed it was wrong…and yet no one else seems to use it.

        And @veronica-dire , ‘a transgender’ feels to me the same way as saying ‘a black’. I am aware that some people say that, and apparently it’s not offensive…but it sounds offensive to me. (But I’m not black, and thus can hardly take offense.) And I have the same issue with ‘an illegal’.

        People are not ‘a[n] adjective’, at least not in my book. They are ‘an adjective person’. (Or, if I’m feeling really liberal that day, they’re ‘a person who is adjective’.)

        1) In the same way you have Congressmen and Congresswomen and Congresscorporations, and together they make Congresspeople.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        you have Congressmen and Congresswomen and Congresscorporations, and together they make Congresspeople.

        Well, that sounds like a fustercluck all right.Report

      • Tim Kowal in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        @tod-kelly That’s the quid pro quo for the hot meal. 😉Report

      • veronica dire in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        @davidtc — It is “trans woman” not “transwoman.” The logic (such as it is) is that we want “trans” to function as an adjective to “woman,” much as “latina” does in “latina woman.” The claim is that “transwoman” starts to become a gender of its own and divides us from cis women (rather than ciswomen).

        Anyway, that’s the idea. The real reason: it’s what we’re asking for and it is easy enough to do.Report

      • DavidTC in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        It is “trans woman” not “transwoman.” The logic (such as it is) is that we want “trans” to function as an adjective to “woman,” much as “latina” does in “latina woman.” The claim is that “transwoman” starts to become a gender of its own and divides us from cis women (rather than ciswomen).

        Something seems slightly wrong in what you said, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s probably because ‘woman’ isn’t exactly ‘a gender’, at least not in my dictionary. (I have no problem with people state their gender as whatever they think best fits, but ‘woman’ is already a word used to describe humans of the female gender, so it would be pretty confusing for someone to claim it as a gender.)

        I see what you mean, though. People don’t want ‘transwoman’ as a distinction from ‘woman’. Trans is merely an attribute that a woman can possess, like ‘blonde’ or ‘tall’.

        So a better analogy instead of Congressman would be something like ‘Chinaman’. Which we don’t use anymore, exactly because it makes it sound like a ‘Chinaman’ is somehow different than a ‘man’.

        So it would be ‘trans people’ then to refer to both trans men and trans women. And ‘a trans person’ to avoid the silly noun usage of ‘a transgender’.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Tim Kowal says:


        I’d hate to see what your quid pro quo us for a meal of cold cuts and gazpacho! 😉Report

      • Tim Kowal in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        @james-hanley In that case I will tell you what I really think!Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to Hazumu Osaragi says:

      Ah, interesting point. Thank you.

      I think I have used “transgendered” by analogy with, say, “lefthanded” or “redheaded” – possessing a gender that is trans, as one might possess a dominant hand that is left, or hair that is red, rather than referring to an event in the past. I’ll try to avoid that.Report

  10. Francis says:

    Best of luck. But to get a sense of the opposition to normalizing any view of sex, gender and family other than the hetero couple with three kids, spend a little time at Rod Dreher’s blog.Report

  11. Mike Dwyer says:

    Side-note to the biological debate that I have been pondering: We’ve been watching the show Orphan Black which is about a woman who is one of many clones. The clones differ greatly in all sorts of learned behavior i.e. speech or habits, etc…but one of the clones is a lesbian. If homosexuality is rooted in biology i.e. a ‘gay gene’ then wouldn’t all of the clones have the same sexuality? I know a lot of anti-gay folks are pointing to identical twin studies as proof there is no gay gene. Is this bad science or is there some truth to it? I really don’t care if homosexuality (or transgender) comes from nature or nurture, I’m fine with it either way. but I do think it’s an interesting question.Report

    • morat20 in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      Ahem, the 10 second guide to genetics and homosexuality (warning: Topics will be massively simplified).

      1) Only a few traits are linked to single on/off, genes. Most traits are tied to multiple genes.
      2) Genes can have something called ‘penetrence’ — which is basically “They’re there, but only a certain % of them express” — which means twins can have identical genes, but only expressed in one of them.
      3) Environment matters! Just because it’s there, and just because it’s expressed and up and running, might not matter without the right conditions.
      4) Genetics is complex, and basically that Mendel stuff you learned in high school is like learning to stack blocks when geneticists are building space elevators.

      So, as to gay genetics: Studies indicate that (1) it is biological and (2) there seems to be some genetic component to it and (3) there seems to be some environmental thing to it (birth order is a big one), so by ‘environment’ we mean “the womb”. (Specifically, it looks like your older siblings are waging biological warfare against their youngest ones, because the older sibling would like help with his kids, not competition).

      So it’s a complex mess of factors (not even getting INTO the fact that, indeed, there are purely gay and purely straight people and then there are people in between or none of the above. Sexuality can be complex) and by all accounts it appears your sexuality is firmly nailed down by, oh, 5 or 6 at the latest and probably by the point you’re taking your first breath of air.

      Now, figuring it out for yourself in the maze of human culture can take awhile, which doesn’t help, because thinking and emotion and culture and sex and sexuality are a tangled mess too.

      But to answer your question: Twin studies actually show a definite genetic component. Some people (ie: Not biologists) think it doesn’t, because they think “Twin A is gay and Twin B is straight, ergo NOT BASED IN BIOLOGY” and they are wrong in much the same way a toddler finding out the he can’t stack wooden blocks more than a few feet high is wrong when he says skyscrapers thus can’t exist.Report

    • DavidTC in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      While I’ve never seen Orphan Black, but I’m somewhat aware of the premise, and I suppose all the clones were grown inside surrogate mothers, correct?

      If so, if that actually happened, it would address an interesting theory of homosexuality…When people talk about homosexuality being genetic, they actually mean ‘hormonal’, because hormones are basically the ways that genes influence sexual development. (To simplify, all genes do is flip ovaries to testicles. Everything else is up to that.)

      However, the hormones developed internally aren’t the only hormones a developing fetus are exposed to, and there have been studies showing that, statistically, a non-firstborn son is more likely to be gay, possibly because the hormones are different in the womb.

      Of course, this is incredibly hard to study, even identical twin studies can’t help, because they obviously grew up in the same womb even if separated at birth.

      But clones? Grown in different women? That actually would tell us something very interesting.

      Incidentally, if the anti-gay people are pointing at identical twin studies, they’re confused. Identical twins have a moderately higher correlation of having the same sexual orientation than other siblings, which rather demonstrates it is genetic to some extent. Of course, being genetically predisposed to something doesn’t mean ‘It always happens’, which I suspect is their nonsensical issue. (At this point, I think most people have moved past trying to figure out where gay people come from.)Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      A sci-fi show with lipstick lesbianism? What are the odds?

      (but really, the show and Tatiana Maslany deserves all the praise their getting, from the little bit I’ve seen of it)Report

    • danah in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      Not necessarily. In fact, there could be a number of factors.

      One of which could be that each of the clones is bisexual to some degree – allowing for different lived experiences to shape their sexuality – such as being (and I am loath to use this, but it’s convenient) a 3 or 4 on the kinsey scale.

      Another reason might be – and there seems to be some actual scientific evidence of this – that different conditions each fetus faced during gestation influenced their orientation (something that’s thought to cause transsexuality as well)Report

  12. Tim Kowal says:

    “what matters more is to care for these people- even if it doesn’t make any damn sense. Because what does make sense is for us all to care for each other.”

    Very nicely said. It is indeed distinct to say, on the one hand, that a person is deserving of dignity and respect and compassion, and on the other hand that you have some disagreements with them.Report

  13. Pinky says:

    “It’s not unheard of to have more than two genders.”

    I think that’s the key: Williamson wasn’t talking about the number of genders, but the number of sexes. He’s talking about the objective sex rather than the subjective gender. I think you’re blurring the distinction he made.Report

    • Dennis Sanders in reply to Pinky says:

      I don’t think Williamson was making a distinction. If he had done so, he would have called Ms. Cox a she and not he. In fact, he tends to conflate gender and sex.Report

    • j r in reply to Pinky says:

      Even if one concedes to the idea that there are two objective sexes, that doesn’t change the fact that sex expresses itself in a number of different ways. It expresses itself in the release of hormones that affect brain development and it expresses itself in the development of primary and secondary sex characteristics. What happens when those develop in two different ways? And more importantly why does Williamson think that he knows better than a person actually inhabiting that particular body?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to j r says:

        This is why his reference to biology is meaningless–in his usage it refers only to cocks and cunts.Report

      • veronica dire in reply to j r says:

        Of which, well, Laverne Cox has the latter. (Now, maybe we do not need to know that, but it turns out I do.)Report

      • Tim Kowal in reply to j r says:

        “why does Williamson think that he knows better than a person actually inhabiting that particular body?”

        The way I read some of these comments, they don’t seem to quite engage what Williamson is saying, or they presume Williamson is advocating for policies he’s actually not. I take him as having a discussion about policy, i.e., how the state sees trans people. This is different from a discussion about whether it exists, what moral questions are involved, etc. States require society to be legible and subject to certain rules that can be observed and measured against. Think quickening: No one ever thought a baby gained rights because the mother could feel it kick. Rather, the law needed a legible way of deciding when a woman was pregnant in the days before medical science made other means available. Quickening was a rule of evidence, not a measure of substantive rights, to serve that end.

        For similar reasons, anatomy is a good ‘rule of evidence’ in determining gender, even if imprecise.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to j r says:

        anatomy is a good ‘rule of evidence’ in determining gender, even if imprecise.

        Like quickening, it was good until we came up with something better.Report

      • veronica dire in reply to j r says:

        But “anatomy” is not so simple. For example, I now have a rather mixed anatomy.

        And I promise you, you seldom know the full anatomy of those you meet. For example, you will meet women (both trans and cis) who lack ovum or a uterus. You will meet women (both trans and cis) who do not have anything resembling a normal vagina. And you will meet women (both trans and cis) with a variety of chromosomal makeup, including XY.

        Likewise for any aspect of brain structure you care to measure. Likewise for any mental faculties. Likewise for body shape, muscle mass, strength, on and on. You will find women in all these places.

        Can you count the number of people in the world whose chromosomal makeup you actually know, including your own? Have you been tested? Your wife? Your children? Do you know?

        Nevertheless, in the face of all this ignorance, somehow society carries on, as it has for ages, despite the manifest illegibility of sex and gender.

        One thing is certain: trans women are infertile. But then, many cis women are infertile, some from birth, some due to circumstances.

        And if you want to assert that a woman is defined by her reproductive capacity, please say so loud and clear.

        Or, do you want to define woman by the presence of a vagina, regardless of what she and her actual sexual partners think. Does a birth defect in that region make a person a non-sexed entity? An injury? Do you really believe this? Consistently? Were it your wife or child, and were medicine unable to help, would you say, “Sorry, dear, you are now an unsexed entity”?

        Is a woman defined by her capacity to be penetrated by a man? Even me, a dyke?

        What is a woman?Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to j r says:


      • Pinky in reply to j r says:

        Tim – I think you’ve got it. Saying that there is a continuum of genders doesn’t argue against anything that Williamson says; in fact, he grants that.Report

      • Michael M. in reply to j r says:

        @tim-kowal , saying something exists but only as a delusion, which is Williamson’s point, is hardly different from saying it doesn’t exist at all. Williamson can’t deny the existence of trans people, but he can and does refute their claim to be anything other than male or female.

        Jay Michaelson made the point that in Romer v Evans, SCOTUS for the first time recognized that gay people exist. That set the stage for Lawrence v Texas and U.S. v Windsor. The implication is that the major difference in outcomes between Bowers v Hardwick in the 1980s and Lawrence is that the latter treats gay people as real, not delusional, and the former does not. As Michaelson puts it, “To Justice Scalia, homosexuality is something you do, not something you are. There are no gay people in Justice Scalia’s world; only gay acts, which the state can regulate at will. Beginning in 1996, Justice Kennedy took a different view: that gay people exist and that gays are a group. They are a class of people, and discriminating against them is not a neutral regulation of behavior but discrimination against a group.”

        “…How the state sees trans people” is integral to whether the state and society recognize that sex is not limited to the binary distinction between male and female. Williamson is denying this, saying it isn’t real. It doesn’t really matter whether he acknowledges that it exists in the sense that some people believe it to be real. He is arguing that because it is a delusion, we are under no obligation to treat it as fact and not obligated to adopt policies that recognize the rights of people suffering from a delusion. That’s on par with Scalia’s attitude toward gay people — he simply won’t recognize their existence as a class of people.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to j r says:


        Nicely said.Report

      • veronica dire in reply to j r says:

        So this is for @tim-kowal mostly. (This @pinky cat seems like a lost cause.)

        Okay, scenario: you are to meet a colleagues wife, who is a well known writer. In fact, you have read an article she once wrote for a publication produced by your church. She is a woman of substance.

        In her article she spoke of a “birth defect,” namely that she was born lacking ovaries or a uterus. Likewise, she had genital anomalies (which being in a church publication she does not detail). She writes of her struggles with this condition and the work she did to overcome it, the emotional baggage, the expectations of her family, her church. It is a touching article.

        On meeting her, you inform her of this: that you (regardless of how others feel) will not use female pronouns with her, nor will you call her a woman. “See,” you say to her, “a woman is defined by her anatomy. And you are missing some key pieces. So I cannot rightly call you a woman.” She looks stricken. Her husband, your colleague, looks furious.

        Can you even imagine this happening? Ever?

        Of course not.

        What about genetics? There are women, cis women, born and raised, who have an XY chromosome pair. One way this happens is called “androgen insensitivity” (you can Google that). There are perhaps others.

        Would you call such a person a “man”? say “sir”? “he”?


        Of course not.

        But when the topic of trans people come up, suddenly the tune changes and people become very strict in terms of anatomy and genetics. Now, these rules are not consistently applied. Cis women are not the targets. These things are only deployed against trans folks. People work very hard to find precise reasons to exclude us. But why do all this? Why work so hard?

        In my life an enormous number of people, including my state government, elements of the federal government, my doctors, my employers, my coworkers, my friends and associates, even my wife and lovers, have all come to accept me as a woman, and as female. No harm has come from this. And why should it? What harm is expected? Some vague social breakdown? If you want to say this, then make the argument. Connect the dots.

        Yes, there are anomalies, for example my bone structure — it is not particularly feminine. However, there are cis women with similar bone structure. (Sometimes such women get “accused” of being trans.) Of course, I am infertile. But my mother was also infertile, from birth. (If you are curious, I am adopted.) Her womanhood was never seriously questioned. And if someone had questioned her womanhood, we would consider them a troglodyte.

        We trans folks are people of significant courage, who have done something incredible. Changing one’s sex and gender is huge. We suffer much, both before and during the process. But the effects are profound, the new rightness we feel with our bodies, and more so with ourselves as people — and there is no better word than rightness. It really does feel that way, at last, right. In my transition I have found profound self love, which must have been there inside me, dormant, hidden beneath the sadness. But now, as a woman, it comes out. I glow. People see this. They tell me. They see my dignity.

        Things are changing. Now you get to decide which side of the wave you wish to be on.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to j r says:

        “androgen insensitivity” (you can Google that).

        I did, and as a public service I am going to quote from Genetics Home Reference.

        Androgen insensitivity syndrome is a condition that affects sexual development before birth and during puberty. People with this condition are genetically male, with one X chromosome and one Y chromosome in each cell. Because their bodies are unable to respond to certain male sex hormones (called androgens), they may have mostly female sex characteristics or signs of both male and female sexual development.

        Complete androgen insensitivity syndrome occurs when the body cannot use androgens at all. People with this form of the condition have the external sex characteristics of females, but do not have a uterus and therefore do not menstruate and are unable to conceive a child (infertile). They are typically raised as females and have a female gender identity. Affected individuals have male internal sex organs (testes) that are undescended, which means they are abnormally located in the pelvis or abdomen…

        People with partial androgen insensitivity (also called Reifenstein syndrome) can have normal female sex characteristics, both male and female sex characteristics, or normal male sex characteristics.

        How would we objectively determine the sex of these folks? Which particular biological characteristics would determine sex, and what is the justification for choosing those characteristics?

        Complete androgen insensitivity syndrome affects 2 to 5 per 100,000 people who are genetically male. Partial androgen insensitivity is thought to be at least as common as complete androgen insensitivity. Mild androgen insensitivity is much less common.

        Doing the math, there are between 12,000 and 30,000 people in the US with either complete or partial androgen insensitivity, a small city’s worth. Is it really politically/legally necessary to stick to a questionable biological standard, by which we–society, government, culture–tell people what their real identity is, rather than letting them tell us what their identity is? What real cost is there in letting them define themselves? What do we actually lose that would offset their gains?

        If the real issue is just one of discomfort with the unfamiliar, what about their discomfort? Is that not important?Report

      • Tim Kowal in reply to j r says:

        @veronica-dire I’m not hung up on the human relations issues, or even the language issues very much, even though that’s one of my beats. My issues are the second order effects, particularly as they influence policies affecting children. New CA law requires schools to open their locker rooms, bathrooms, and all other facilities to all students regardless of biological sex, dependent only on self-identified gender. I pointed out to the local commission on which I sit that schools in our county should promulgate rules to at least involve parents in the students decision. The only school district in the nation that currently makes girls rooms open to boys who sat they’re really girls is Los Angeles, and their regulations prevent school officials from contacting parents about students self identification of gender.

        So we had a Diversity counselor from LAUSD come speak to us. She impressed upon the group that they’ve had almost zero of the commonly feared instances of kids going on gender frolics. But there was no solace for parents’ concern that they would be left out of their kids’ gender self-selection. The District will not involve the parents even if the kids report their new gender identity to the schools for fear that some parents might respond non-optimally. More accurately paraphrased: The schools’ “primary client” is the child, not the parent. I had to pick my jaw off my desk when our staffer related that to me. The effect, if not the design, seems to be that many kids may self-identify as a different gender while still children and, upon maturity, qualify for state funding for hormone therapy or even sex-reassignment surgery, all without their parents ever knowing. And then what, after the same problems with relationships, work, and emotions continue, having received treatment only of the symptoms – if bathroom autonomy and happy talk from school administrators can be credited as “treatment” – and none of the underlying causes? Has anyone thought through these questions? Did anyone even ask?

        The concern is that some children may need professional help and that this feel-good policy only assuages the symptoms — and indeed may collaborate in hiding the symptoms from parents — while failing to afford that help to children or their parents. These policies have all the marks of feeling good without the serious work in assuring they’re actually doing good. I am very disturbed at this prospect of state policies and incentives coming between parents and their children in such a way.

        Contra LAUSD, I hope Orange County’s school administrators will involve parents, psychiatrists, or both in responding to kids confronted with these issues. But the gaps in science are too often filled by campaigning in these kinds of issues. The Chronicle of Higher Education observed (

        “Psychology, he argued in a recent blog post and an interview, has become addicted to surprising, counterintuitive findings that catch the news media’s eye, and that trend is warping the field. . . . In a forthcoming paper, also to appear in Psychological Science, Leslie K. John, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, and two co-authors report that about a third of the 2,000 academic psychologists they surveyed admit to questionable research practices. Those don’t include outright fraud, but rather such practices as stopping the collection of data when a desired result is found, or omitting from the final paper some of the variables tested.”

        The science and psychology in this field are still developing and seem in no way able to give assurances that they can replace parental care of children confronted with these issues.Report

      • zic in reply to j r says:


        Sometimes, the people a gay or trans child most need protection from are his or her parents. I realize and sympathize with the urge to be a child’s ultimate protector and decision maker. But parents do not own the child, they are guardians for the child. Too many, particularly in religious zeal, abuse and mentally torture, placing notions of sin and damnation above bodily integrity.

        If one of your children is gay or trans, what are you going to do? How are you going to handle it when you see that child growing up with stronger and stronger urges to take his or her own life for the pain of it? Are you going to compound that pain because of your notions of sin?

        I cannot answer those questions for you, but if the last is, “yes,” even if it’s not intent co compound pain, your child may well need protection and refuge from you.Report

      • veronica dire in reply to j r says:

        So we are switching from adults to children. I take it, then, that you fully support trans rights for adults, that this is not a distraction?

        Okay, so, some kids are trans. And some parents are abusive.

        Many trans children run away because their parents will not accept them. Others remain, living with the abuse, the rape, the other horrors. We cannot really stop this. But we can work to reduce the harm that occurs. At a minimum, we must let the child choose when and how to disclose their gender identity to their parents. Also, we must let the child negotiate their gender identity in a way that lets them thrive.

        Now, the exact mechanism that allows a child to present a persistent gender identity at school while hiding that from their parents — honestly that will be difficult. But if the child can find a way to do so, then we must let them, for “outing” them can be a near death sentence, and asking them to suppress their gender is a crushing weight. Contrastingly, living a life that expresses your natural gender is profoundly freeing.

        If you want to be skeptical of the research, well I cannot stop you. But then, what do you have? Posturing? Presumptions? “Concerns” that, by chance, seem to match exactly one’s prejudices?

        It was a long fight for trans folks to get the medical establishment to take us seriously, to do the hard work, to look honestly at our lives. With time they have come around, but only after significant social change. And it is no surprise that the forces of intolerance will now say, “Well those doctors must all be liberals or something.” Fine. Expected. But for us, the medical research has always been a tool, a means to an end, for I did not need a therapist to tell me I am a woman. These things we know.

        You should talk to some trans teens. You will find them frightened and confused, but their gender is real.

        If a trans teen asks you not to tell her dad, do not tell her dad.Report

      • Tim Kowal in reply to j r says:

        @michael-m : “saying something exists but only as a delusion, which is Williamson’s point, is hardly different from saying it doesn’t exist at all.”

        I do not endorse the “delusion” characterization. But to the extent it suggests we don’t yet know enough about the science and psychology of the broad range of issues under the “trans” heading (itself a subset of the still broader “human sexuality” heading) to come to the conclusion there’s nothing to worry about, he has a point, it seems to me. I’ll concede for the purpose of the argument (though it leads us to the problem of material determinism) that this is all determined by genetics and is not a function of biology or psychology. From a certain perspective, it’s a distinction without a difference. Whether gender is determined by biology, genes, or the brain is simply to quibble about which fields of physical science have jurisdiction to issue the final decision. Probably, it’s a combination. Regardless, it’s not very liberating.

        But settling that materialistic question with much confidence is still a ways off, it seems. So the presently viable options are just two: Presume one’s gender by the same method we’ve been using and that works reasonably well, or abort all presumptions other than the person’s self-identification. To reiterate, I don’t have a problem calling mature adults who self-identify opposite their biology by whatever name and pronoun combination they like. Williamson missteps, I think, but making too big a deal over this — though I hasten to add he’s not making any other policy prescriptions and does not support banning sex-reassignment or hormone therapy. He’s just generally talking about how little we can yet confidently know about the subject.

        But I cannot endorse throwing out presumptions that work reasonably well based on legible criteria. @veronica-dire asked what I would do if it were my own child. The answer is the same to any question you ask a parent about their child: It depends. Parents know their children better than anyone else, better even than the children themselves until a certain age (and beyond, in some respects). A parent’s response to a child’s desire to identify opposite his biology should be based on the child, his personality, his behavior, his friends, and other factors that might help the parent guide the child and decide with the child, over an appropriate period of time, whether the identification is a response to psychological, social, emotional, medical, and/or genetic issues. Each parent will also have their own values concerning sexuality and its role in one’s identity that will bear on the response as well. The objective is to maintain the family unit and allow their relationship and values to work through and have a place in the process, as well as to help minimize false positives. The decision of the child alone, or a policy of the state absent substantial evidence of likelihood of real abuse in each particular case, should not be permitted to overwhelm the usually reliable presumptions, such as those in favor of the family unit and biology.

        Again, this is quite a different thing from saying the issues aren’t real.

        Finally, to circle back to the question of whether this is all established by one’s molecules: Another reason it is perhaps less meaningful than we might think is because it leads us squarely back to the problems on the order of Do We Have Free Will? and What Is the Meaning of Life? Resisting classification because of such crude biological factors is futile if it means seeking refuge in crude genetic factors. If we are ruled by our molecules, then we are not free — we are merely trading biological determinism for genetic determinism. Which is why, ultimately, I think this conversation, a subset of sexual liberation generally, leads back to the quest for true meaning, which must be found beyond mere molecules.

        [Edited for clarity. -TMK]Report

      • j r in reply to j r says:

        So the presently viable options are just two: Presume one’s gender by the same method we’ve been using and that works reasonably well, or abort all presumptions other than the person’s self-identification.

        This would imply that there are only two modes of approaching this issue. You can either be a radical genderqueer feminist or you can be Kevin Williamson. Since, in fact, there are lots of people who are neither, you should see that there are more than just two viable options.Report

      • Tim Kowal in reply to j r says:

        @j-r As I said, I’m fine with the first second option for mature adults, and I’m no radical genderqueer feminist. What I’m saying is we should stick with what we have for now when it comes to policies that affect children.Report

      • veronica dire in reply to j r says:

        @tim-kowal — What I notice most about your response is how incredible vague it is, rambling on about the meaning of life and free will, which has fuck all to do with what happens when I take estrogen, and if in some bizarro world I have to wait around in sadness while religious conservatives pontificate about what Thomas Aquinas might have thought (or whatever) — well — I am not willing to wait.

        Whatever the meaning of life, this is mine and I am a woman.

        Which is why religious conservatives have been gradually losing this war, and why Dennis’s post serves a powerful truth. The dignity of our lives is plain to see, and we have come so far, learned so much, found the science that supports the truth we already knew, and we will not be silent. We are not near done, and if your religion contradicts this, so much worse for your religion. People tire of oppression, both the oppressor and the oppressed.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to j r says:

        a child’s desire to identify opposite his biology

        Objection. Assumes facts not in evidence.

        The question I asked above is directly on point, but this comment glosses right over it. So I ask again, what particular biological characteristics do you use to determine biological sex, and how do you justify using those particular characteristics, given that sometimes different biological characteristics conflict.

        I humbly submit that if you can’t answer that question, you ought not be blithely talking about biological sexual identification.Report

      • Tim Kowal in reply to j r says:

        @james-hanley I’m not interested in rigid determinism. If observable biological factors lead to a reasonable medical opinion, that seems to be a good one to start with. If other biological or behavioral factors lead to a different conclusion later, that would be something to consider. It’s a holistic approach. And the purpose is simply for parents, medical professionals, counselors, and the individual — and my emphasis is on children here — to help come to the best decision with the least amount of confusion and distress.

        The Burkean approach is not always invoked for the purpose of being mean and heartless.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to j r says:


        If observable biological factors lead to a reasonable medical opinion, that seems to be a good one to start with.

        Yes, we obviously need a starting point. The question is how much weight we give that starting point when other evidence appears. E.g., when the adolescent doesn’t feel like their outward biological characteristics, do we insist upon what we know about their genitalia, or do we listen to what they’re saying?*

        the purpose is simply for parents, medical professionals, counselors, and the individual — and my emphasis is on children here — to help come to the best decision with the least amount of confusion and distress.

        I don’t think anyone disagrees with this in principle. It’s the method that is being debated. And while as a parent–of kids in the relevant adolescent age range no less–I’m very sympathetic to schools and counselors keeping
        parents in the loop, I’m also very aware of the fact that some parents will respond non-productively, even violently. And it’s important to remember that while as parents we have certain real rights concerning our raising of our children, our children also have certain real rights independent of us parents. I don’t know how to balance those things. I distrust that anyone actually does.

        The Burkean approach is not always invoked for the purpose of being mean and heartless.

        As a Burkean myself, I’d be somewhat disheartened if it were.

        *There’s probably no non-condescending sounding way to say what follows, but I sincerely don’t mean it condescendingly. As a father for a decade and a half now, the one thing I’ve learned is that your children are who they are, and not who we want them to be, and the only way to understand them is to listen hard. I also was very much the not-what-he-wanted-me-to-be-son of a father who had no idea how to listen, and it wreaked havoc on our relationship. But I understand him now better than I did when I was young, and know that listening–seriously listening while reserving judgement–to kids who violate our expectations is really damned hard.Report

      • zic in reply to j r says:

        If observable biological factors lead to a reasonable medical opinion, that seems to be a good one to start with. If other biological or behavioral factors lead to a different conclusion later, that would be something to consider. It’s a holistic approach. And the purpose is simply for parents, medical professionals, counselors, and the individual — and my emphasis is on children here — to help come to the best decision with the least amount of confusion and distress.

        Interestingly, in many, many cases, a two week to one month experiment would tell the truth of the matter; estrogen makes men feel awful, testosterone makes women feel awful. Trans women and men, on the other hand, feel better. And with that small, short-term test, the direction of puberty could be better guided, the damage not done. Breasts do or don’t grow, beards do or don’t grow, voices remain high or dip low. Etc. etc. etc.

        It’s not even looked at as an option in the medical community; a legal prescription to hormones requires gate keeper activation that’s very expensive and time consuming, and the process itself is often quite degrading.Report

      • veronica dire in reply to j r says:

        I don’t think anything prevents a school counselor from guiding a child through the complex task of coming out to their parents, for if the parents are like those Tim speaks of, then indeed they can be a great help. For example, my family was amazing. Clearly zic is an awesome mom. But there is simply no way the school staff should go against the student’s wishes in this regard, for not all families are like mine or zic’s. Many families abuse. Many more simply oppress. The school counselor cannot fix this. They cannot undermine the parents authority at home, but they are not the parent’s proxy. They are child’s advocate.

        LGBT status is not a mental illness. Tim’s attempts to relate gender dysphoria to mental impairment is both wrong and offensive, and goes against the findings of the major professional organizations. This is not like schizophrenia or suicidal depression, conditions that indeed requires specific medical intervention and thus parental involvement. Nor is anyone suggesting that schools prescribe hormones to children without parental consent. (Which is preposterous in any case — people who say this have no concept of the standards of care.) The law in CA (to my understanding) requires only that the school respect gender identity. This means you give Jenny her pronouns, call her by her chosen name (since schools happily will use nicknames in other cases), and let her use the appropriate restroom. Perhaps she will want to play sports. But then, if Jenny wants to be a cheerleader, I’m pretty sure she needs a signature from mom.Report

      • veronica dire in reply to j r says:

        @zic — The process can be unbearable, which is why I self-medicated during my initial rounds of therapy, while the therapist got to take his darn sweet time reaching a decision. (Note I made this choice as an adult.)

        Thing is, for teens the first step are hormone blockers, which delay the onset of puberty. The kid must then wait until age 16 to make a further decision. This to me seems the correct choice, at least for now, insofar as we have the technology to do this safely. Which we do.

        I envy very much trans kids with supportive parents. They will grow into a world so unlike mine.Report

    • danah in reply to Pinky says:

      Oh when people accept the sex binary as a given it sets my teeth on edge as well.

      Put simply – yes humans, like most animals have dimorphic characteristics, but there are many and there very people who exhibit perfectly male or perfectly female characteristics – and yes I’m speaking biologically. It’s not as simple as male vs. female, there are hundreds if not thousands of dimorphic traits exhibited by the human mind and body, each with a spectrum on which it can fall.

      As a thought experiment – define woman. Seriously. Find a set of traits that uniquely and positively encompasses *every* single woman and categorically puts her in the female category. You can’t.

      Even if you ignore that, and ignore the fact that even our science of male and female biology is anchored in this dualistic *social construction* of male and female, what are you left with? You still have to account for intersex people, and even lumping them all together as “other” that leaves you with no less than three sexes.Report

      • danah in reply to danah says:

        I meant *there are very few people who exhibit perfectly male or perfectly female characteristicsReport

      • j r in reply to danah says:

        Why does it set your teeth on edge?

        The male-female binary works quite well for lots of people. It works well for arguably the overwhelming majority of people. While I reject Williamson’s point off view, because it seeks to exclude a whole lot of people, I think that we can accept all those alternative points of view without having to scrap the whole thing.Report

      • Murali in reply to danah says:

        And asking for necessary and sufficient conditions is kind of stupid in light of the fact that there clearly is a family resemblance between most women and between most men.

      • danah in reply to danah says:

        @j-r Because people cling to it as though it’s biological reality, when it’s not, but a western construct and a very limited lens through which even science views sex differentiation.

        Because it’s demonstrably harmful, not only simply accepting things as object fact that clearly are not just because at first blush it seems to apply to most people – as I said in my initial post – it doesn’t, but because the upshot is that it erases people we’d classify as intersex, and marginalizes them, *and* because it categorically places people into boxes that almost nobody fits in – and whether you acknowledge it or not, it actually comes with a ton of biologically essentialist expectations that simply don’t apply to many, if not most people, as a whole.

        Maybe people like it because it’s easy – but I am reminded of a HL Mencken when he says “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”Report

      • danah in reply to danah says:

        @murali Could you expand on that? I think I see what you’re saying but I’m not sure enough to respond to it, and I don’t want to construct a straw man.Report

      • Murali in reply to danah says:

        A lot of people seem to think that the question of whether there is a sex or gender binary depends on there existing some set of necessary and sufficient conditions to classify someone as one gender or another. Your own call for a set of traits that uniquely and positively encompasses every woman is an example of such a thing.

        However, one thing we have learnt about a lot of our categories is that very often there aren’t any such criteria. Yet, this does not make our categories completely arbitrary. Instead of there being some traits which all and only women possess, there could be a cluster of traits such that someone counts as a woman if that person possesses many of the traits from the cluster, but no single trait is found in every woman.

        Now, of course nothing I have said so far shows that gender is in fact binary. All I have shown is that showing that there are no necessary and sufficient conditions for someone to count as a woman is not sufficient to show that gender is not binary.

        In fact, calling for such conditions could backfire as someone like Williamson will just say that being an adult human with 46 chromosomes in each cell, 2 of which are X chromosomes is a trait that uniquely and positively encompasses every woman. That is what his stupid article is all about. Your thought experiment does not, therefore, tell us anything that we did not already believe. If we were already inclined to conflate sex and gender and think that it was just a matter of chromosomes, we would answer in a way that confirmed to ourselves that trans women were not real women. If we were likely to think that gender does not depend on chromosomes, then we would answer in a way that confirmed to ourselves that trans women are real women.

        In fact, if you wanted to show that there were more than 2 genders, showing that there are some necessary and sufficient traits that define each gender would be an important step. If one could come up with such a set of necessary and sufficient conditions to count as a man and a woman, then showing that there are more than two genders is the rather trivial task of showing the existence of people who fit neither criteria.

        In fact, I’m going to bet that there is a single criterion that lots of trans friendly folk think uniquely and positively encompasses every single woman and categorically puts her in the female category: The fact that a given person self-identifies as a female is precisely such a trait. Similarly, the fact that there are people who self identify as male and those who self identify as neither male nor female would be sufficient to show that there are more than two genders (at least if we take gender to be essentially about how people self identify).

        To go somewhat pragmatic about this, questions about how many genders there are and who fits into which one is going to crucially depend on what role we want our concepts of sex and gender to play.Report

      • danah in reply to danah says:

        @murali Specifically what I was talking about was sex, not gender, which is why self-identification doesn’t enter into to it.

        Let me simplify my contention with sex.

        At it’s most simple, any spectrum can be turned into a binary, simply by drawing a line through it.

        I contend that the line is a social construct, not a biological reality.Report

      • Murali in reply to danah says:


        There is a trivial sense in which a lot of our scientific categories are socially constructed. But the mere fact that something is socially constructed need not say anything about whether there is some biological basis as well.

        Just looking at sex, the mere fact that there exist individuals who exist in between two archetypes does not mean that sex is a continuous variable. Biological sex can be binary because there are a cluster of traits or multiple overlapping clusters of traits that determine whether someone is male or female. Also note that biological categories need not be strict logical ones, but probabilistic ones. If there are, relatively speaking, a lot fewer individuals exhibiting in between phenotypes, then it is simpler to treat sex as binary and anything that does not fit neatly into the binary as an aberration or outlier.Report

      • veronica dire in reply to danah says:

        There is a plain sense that human sex is binary: there are people who have large gametes and who bear young and others with small gametes who provide fertilization to the first group. I mean, this is biology 101. And then of course their are those who have either large or small gametes, but who for various reasons are not able to provide this reproductive capacity. And there is a fourth group, who do not produce any gametes at all. These are the facts of the physical world.

        And then there are the material implications of these roles. For example, the first group, to perform their reproductive role, has to carry a baby around for nine months. And then at birth, that baby is pretty helpless. And hungry! But the first class of human has breasts that provide nourishment.

        In other words, we are mammals.

        But there is another consideration, one quite broad: the social construction of these roles. Childbirth and childrearing are physical facts, but the role of woman and man is a social fact.

        Women can hunt. Men can gather.

        We might call the first sort of thing “sex” and the latter “gender,” but I advise we not do this, for these things are not fully separate. The English language, by an accident of history, gives us two words. But many languages do not. And in fact these are not strictly separate concepts in our culture. Sure, we can treat them as separate, but in any gender studies class the students will have to be taught the difference. It does not arise naturally from the day to day. Surely the people who see me on the train do not reflect on the subtly when they decide whether to call me “miss” or “faggot.”

        In the modern world we have long set aside the notion that a person’s role begins and ends according to their reproductive capacity. In fact, we never quite fully believed this. An ancient king might have set aside his barren wife, for political reasons. But plenty of men would not, even at high social cost. As I have mentioned elsewhere, my mother, a woman of an earlier generation, was infertile from birth. In fact, by the time I was old enough to understand these things she no longer had ovum or a uterus. Doctors took those away. She was still a woman. No one ever doubted that.

        As am I.Report

      • Murali in reply to danah says:


        We might call the first sort of thing “sex” and the latter “gender,” but I advise we not do this, for these things are not fully separate.

        I don’t quite understand why the considerations you put forward after this statement bear on why we shouldn’t distinguish between the two concepts. I mean, the distinguishing between sex and gender is an advance in theoretical understanding of the relevant phenomena right?Report

      • veronica dire in reply to danah says:

        @murali — Among experts, sure. A deeper theoretical understanding can be helpful. But as a political issue — and I do not apologize for being political on this issue; it is my life — it does not actually work. Keep in mind, the person on the street is not a gender theorist nor are they likely to become one. Just because I can discuss with my friends the finer points of sex, gender identity, and gender expression does not mean the public at large is tuned in. For me to thrive in my culture, I need to be seen as a woman, which in the public mind is inextricably tied up with the concept of female.

        Which, oddly, our society does seem to understand the difference between gender/sex and gender expression. If you say to a person, “she was a masculine woman,” they will understand what you mean. At least, they have a concept of what that might be like; they probably picture a butch woman. (That is what I picture.) On the other hand, if I say “female man,” they will be confused. The concepts are not separate.

        I doubt we can change this in a meaningful way, thus for me to thrive, the trans-political goals must be to ensure that trans women are categorized as “sufficiently female” and trans men as “sufficiently male.” Actually, our ultimate goal is to be considered “entirely female” and “entirely male,” but let us take baby steps first.

        I am for now setting aside the conversation about non-binary gender identities, such as genderfluid or genderqueer. Suffice it to say I do not believe we can radically deconstruct the gender binary, not effectively. So for such people to thrive, we must make room for them within the binary. But this is a separate conversation.Report

      • Murali in reply to danah says:


        I pretty much agree with what you’ve said.

        As a separate issue, regarding whether gender is binary or otherwise, do you think that people who see themselves as gender fluid/ gender queer are willing to occupy whatever space the rest of us happen to make for them within the existent binary framework? And don’t a lot of your official forms already have an other category in the sex/gender section?Report

      • veronica dire in reply to danah says:

        @murali — I can’t really answer that question, since it is their struggle.Report

  14. Jim Heffman says:

    Of course, the worst part of a gender change is when they dock your pay 23% because you identify as a woman now.Report

    • veronica dire in reply to Jim Heffman says:

      You joke, but statistically trans women do experience a drop in total earnings. However, this is probably mostly from those who lose their job. (Happens a lot.) Trans men do enjoy a small increase in salary.

      (Source: shit I read on Twitter.)Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Jim Heffman says:

      Dierdre McCloskey’s department chair made that joke when she came out.

      They apparently had a very good relationship, so that it was clearly just a joke.Report

  15. Road Scholar says:

    Nice post, Dennis. I hope you’re right but, like with many of your posts, I’m left wondering what it is that you actually believe conservatism is all about such that you harbor such hopes.

    I’m not meaning to imply that conservatives are ignorant or mean-spirited or anything. It’s just that it seems to me that the spirit of conservatism at it’s best is an attitude of caution and skepticism towards changes to a status quo that, to them at least, seems to be working just fine thank-you.

    Sometimes that skepticism makes good sense in a look-before-you-leap sort of way and other times it’s just deployed in the service of entrenched privilege and discrimination. Figuring out which it is in any particular case can sometimes be tricky and take some time and experience.Report

  16. LWA says:

    A plea for understanding of transgender is not the same as seeking to erase gender identity.

    I have 2 personal friends who are transgender, and from my observation, no one has as much invested in gender identity as they do. For most of us, our gender identity is invisible, something that just IS. For them, they are having to create it from scratch- creating a new name, deciding how to release the identity that they have always felt, but could never quite express.
    Its very important for them to be seen as women, to be addressed and referred to as women, and everything that comes with it.

    I wouldn’t even argue that the discomfort that Williamson feels is entirely unreasonable- we are wired, I believe to recognize gender through all sorts of subtle cues.

    Not all trans people are poised, sophisticated, and completely together like the people we see on tv. Often the process from one gender to another is rocky and unsettling, for all involved. Often you have people who make fumbling, confused attempts as they try to sort out the different feelings and drives that they have.

    Its biologically jarring when the cues get mixed, like when a 12 year old girl is made up to look like an adult. We get conflicting sets of impulses, and have to sort them out and override what our biology tells us.

    But thats probably the point- that our sex lives, our gender identities, our mortality istself IS confusing and jarring and uncomfortable. We don’t hear calls for adolescents to be hidden away from view until they get over that damned awkward stage. And we sure as hell don’t hear calls for saggy old men to cover up at the beach lest we be tormented by their pot bellies and man boobs.Report

    • Glyph in reply to LWA says:

      “And we sure as hell don’t hear calls for saggy old men to cover up at the beach lest we be tormented by their pot bellies and man boobs.”

      I for one would like to make such a call, here and now.Report

  17. zic says:

    Since childhood, my eldest child was troubled. A bright and caring child, but obviously discomforted by something. We went through all the hoops; testing beyond reason for learning disabilities, work with therapists, etc. But as the child grew, the deep depression and self loathing gripped harder.

    Two years ago, my child, who was now 25, lived a hermit-like existence; no friends, trouble dealing with school. Much of the time spent feeling suicidal, came to me and said she was a woman, not a man. I promised support and as much help as I could give through transition with the only request being she do it with the aid of medical professionals and not self-medicate. We began with our family doctor, who I spoke to first and clearly told, “don’t hinder, help.” There was a long, long line of hoops — therapist, psychiatrists, anti-depressants (again, they didn’t help), an endocrinologist; who finally, a year later prescribed estrogen and an anti-androgen.

    Within two weeks, the mental effects were profoundly obvious. My child, who for years and been discomforted around others, felt lonely, and wanted to be around people. This was so incredible to me, if I’d had any doubts before about the inner need of gender identification, they were completely forgotten. We are nearly a year in, this second puberty is nearly complete. My daughter lives in a major city now, in an apartment with three other people. She’s going back to complete her degree in computer science. She laughs, she engages, she takes selfies.

    I’ve tried to comprehend the differences. The closest I can get to understanding is that day of PMS some women get, when their estrogen drops before their monthly menses starts; it’s discomforting and upsetting. My daughter must have felt something like this each and every day of her life.

    If I had known what I do now, I would have helped her seek hormonal treatments when she was 12 and 13; I’d have spared her the deep voice, pronounced adams apple, and beard. I can never help her with her greatest wish — a uterus, a child. But I can love her for being herself, and I am tremendously proud of her courage, even as I fear for her. Because this world is full of assholes who think they know better than she knows. They don’t.Report

  18. hazemyth says:

    …some progressives have made gender so malleable that it becomes pointless (think Facebook and it’s long list of genders).

    Why does an increase in language equates to a reduction in meaning? People are using a broader range of taxonomies to describe gender precisely because they are trying to articulate more numerous and subtle aspects of meaning than are allowed by two terms alone.Report

    • Road Scholar in reply to hazemyth says:

      Because it’s a fail?

      Look… I’m a progressive, I’m an ally, I’m really not trying to be a smartass here. But I feel like I need a taxonomy or a flowchart or something because I was sort of lost in that Facebook list. Particular issues:

      1. Seemingly duplicates or worse. What’s the difference between “trans male”, “trans (male)”, and “transmale”? Something meaningful to the claimant I presume, but it’s pretty much lost on those not in the club.

      2. I used to know what “queer” meant. It was basically shorthand for LGBT, essentially the opposite of standard-issue, cis straight. Now I see LGBTQ popping up so apparently it acquired a new meaning when I wasn’t paying attention. Related: and just what the fuck is “genderqueer” to distinguish it from just queer since the whole conversation is about gender to start with?

      I suppose a lot of this represents theory in flux, evolving understanding and suchReport

    • Road Scholar in reply to hazemyth says:

      [Finishing prior comment; hit submit by accident] …but here’s the problem. While ya’ll are figuring this out the language is unsettled and, as a consequence, it ceases to function properly. For the time being it’s not fulfilling its purpose of transmitting semantic content from the speaker/writer to the listener/reader. IOW, those of us with other concerns, not intimately enmeshed in these issues, which is to say, most of us, simply don’t know what you’re on about half the time.

      And that’s the sense in which it becomes meaningless. Not that the terms lack meaning to the speaker but, due to lack of definitional clarity, they lack referents and therefore meaning to the listener.Report

      • veronica dire in reply to Road Scholar says:

        @road-scholar — What does “queer” mean, or “genderqueer”? Really, you don’t like these terms because they are new or used in a new way?

        Good grief, how “get off my lawn, kids, with your newfangled words!”

        Anyway, I’m not even going to bother posting an ironic “let me Google that for you” link. This is not an argument, it is grousing.Report