We must demand better theory, better research and much more careful practice.
Last month I began, in the pages of this magazine, to share my deep concerns about the rapid ingress of the transgender movement into so many of our professional and personal lives. I did so out of psychological, clinical and personal concern for the welfare of us all and of a more particular caution for women and children. The response was encouraging and convinced me of the importance of continuing this public education project. It is not hyperbole to say that I write here most of all for those whose lives I might save. Just one life is enough.
The fact that both psychologists and medical doctors have largely abrogated their responsibility for careful diagnosis and even more careful treatment frightens me. The public turns to the experts, but where are they? In the pocket of big money or just in the dark? Thinking that they are doing good or not thinking? Until the professions with which I am associated wake up to their responsibilities, I feel compelled to fill in for them by asking the best questions that I can and by offering my own expertise to this scarcely beginning and long-overdue discussion.
I am trying here to open, rather than to foreclose on, a careful discussion of the issues and the consequences of this contemporary movement. I also write out of comradeship and collegiality with my colleagues, whom I hope can receive it in that spirit. I wish I did not have to say all this that it could be taken for granted but, in these contentious and divided times, I know that I must. In that spirit, I pose my first question.
I ask “How has it happened that so many of my colleagues and even the professional organizations are unquestioningly supporting the transgender movement?” For clearly it is a movement rather than the transgender 1.0 with which we have dealt clinically and humanistically since the 1950’s. We face now a new and redesigned transgender 2.0, a contemporary and carefully packaged approach that is scooping up many innocent children, adolescents and others in its insistent wake.
This movement burst into mainstream consciousness wrapped in the garb of a human rights movement, a clearly Western set of values. And of course, all decent people support human rights and do not want to be considered bigots, an accusation that is baked into the very presentation. I know I do not want to be called names in the service of an epistemology or a movement. I actually do not want to be called names at all. Nor is such name-calling worthy of a profession or a desire for understanding. Yet it has been one of the main dangers to those of us who are calling for open discussion.
I can not sign on unquestioningly, not without considering carefully various perspectives on the question, particularly those of groups who are, at the same time, losing rights. Rights come with responsibility after all and superseding the rights of other groups, including those of women and parents of children and adolescents, should never be part of any package.
All of us who have grown up in consumer society know that packaging and branding matter, sometimes as much or more than the actual product. Psychologists who work in this arena have long studied the differences between yellow and red packages, between the exquisitely designed Apple products and competitors’ designs, and even between packaging and not packaging consumer products. Branding has become imperative for social networking success.
Wrapped in the garb of human rights, this movement demands unequivocal and unquestioning support. If you withhold enthusiastic support you are subject to cancellation, intimidation or being labeled a bigot. It is that simple and that powerful. Additionally, on many college campuses and in many “progressive” organizations, questioning transgender ideology brings down on the head of the questioner student wrath, boycotts and sometimes actual loss of employment. Only the timid survive.
My own research involves the epistemology and presentation of gender, sex and sexuality. These require three different words because they are three different, albeit interrelated, things. Interrelated does not equal identical. For those unfamiliar with the distinctions, which gender identity theory elides, sex is a biological fact until it can be determined otherwise empirically and not just argued philosophically. Gender is largely constructed and learned. Sexuality is a practice.
When and how does an anomaly become a spectrum? That is, does the presence of a small set of individuals who do not fit genetically into the sex binary demonstrate that sex is a spectrum? If not, then what would be enough support to change such a basic concept? And if it is indeed changed, would not the different gender identities, now numbering in the 20s or more in some quarters, not have to be matched to different chromosomal variations? There is a smattering of discussion, but very little research on this topic. Yet it is put forth as a dictum, a given truth. Can we instead ask it as a question?
Gender itself is neither binary nor a spectrum and most theorists agree that it is largely learned or socially constructed. While providing an influence, it is far from identical to sex. Finally, many of the claimed “sexes,” for example “asexual”, are actually sexual practices or sexuality, which gender identity theory also conflates with sex.
Finally, Butler and other gender identity philosophers claim that sex (which they call gender) is performative rather than genetic or biological. Performativity is not a new idea to psychology or sociology and is well exemplified by the field of ethnology and ethnomethodology associated with Garfinkel (1967) and others. Even Shakespeare proclaimed that “All the world is a stage and the men and women players.” That is to say, performativity is neither a new nor a useful construct as it is used by Butler et al. as an underpinning for gender identity theory. It would be patently absurd to say that all sex is performative rather than that performativity is one, albeit influential, aspect. After all, it takes a body to perform, doesn’t it?
As there is both influence and difference between theory, research and practice, so there is between gender, sex and sexual practice. We must demand better theory, better research and much more careful practice.
Can we please talk now?