Chelsea Manning and other trans individuals like her are mentally ill deviants waging a “war on reality,” according to a feature published in National Review, the magazine that’s supposed to be the standard bearer for sophisticated conservative thought.
The author, Kevin Williamson, dresses up this flat denial that trans people exist in scientific language, and will no doubt attempt to claim he is being persecuted for “thoughtcrime” when his bigotry is labelled as such (it’s a common trope for people making pseudoscientific arguments in defense of hierarchy, like the purportedly genetic link between race and IQ.) But the truth of the matter is that Williamson’s argument is bigoted: it throws together a series of anecdotes and data wrenched out of context to tell an entire community of persons that they do not exist and are deluded, ill people who society must pathologize out of existence on pain of unspecified “ghastly results.”
Setting aside the odd stories that make up a good chunk of Williamson’s piece (including surprisingly involved diversions into Greek mythology and the word “genre”), his first substantive argument is that biological sex identity is the principal determinant of one’s gender identity. This is largely asserted: “A man who believes he is a woman trapped in a man’s body, no matter the intensity of his feeling [otherwise], is no such thing.” This is essentially equivalent to the “argument” that same-sex marriage is not marriage because “marriage is between a man and a woman;” not an argument so much as a venting of the author’s feelings.
Of course, there’s a good reason for separating gender identity and biological identity. Gender, as a social term, has long varied across time and space; different societies at different times have had different ideas of “maleness” and “femaleness” even as the basic biological equipment remained generally constant. These different social conceptions of gender, as 50 years of research by feminists and queer scholars have shown, have corresponded to different understandings of “normal” male and female behavior and gender expression. Gender identity and sex identity, in short, are not the same.
Williamson knows about these arguments, but fails to seriously challenge them (he gestures at the use of “sex discrimination” rather than “gender discrimination” in one legal case, even though the context he himself provides shows that the legal case is in question rests on gender identity issues). Since gender and sex are different, then it can be that some individuals’ dominant gender and sex identities end up mismatched. It is a socially-imposed lie to pretend that their biological sex determines the gender they ought to identify with.
Williamson believes that trans people who challenge his equation of gender with biology are, not to put too fine a point on it, mentally ill. “The duty of the medical profession is not to encourage and enable delusions,” he writes, “but to help those who suffer from them to cope with them.” The American Psychiatric Association (APA) disagrees: in December of last year, the APA removed the term “gender identity disorder” from the authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), replacing it with “gender dysphoria” to reflect that trans folks were suffering from a mismatch between their sex and gender rather than a delusional belief that they already were a member of the other sex in biological terms. The APA’s official view is that “appropriately evaluated transgender and gender variant individuals can benefit greatly from medical and surgical gender transition treatments,” and that the professional organization “opposes all public and private discrimination against transgender and gender variant individuals in such areas as health care, employment, housing, public accommodation, education, and licensing.”
Trans individuals and scholars still want more from the APA, but the organization’s policy change is a clear reflection of the fact that Williamson’s “mental disorder” view is in no way, shape, or form supportable by the available psychological evidence. He cites a 2004 Guardian article to say that there is “no robust scientific evidence that gender reassignment surgery is clinically effective,” but that’s entirely out of context: the Guardian’s point is that many trans people still suffer depression and attempt suicide after reassignment, a fact that could be explained by ongoing discrimination and family problems. A 2011 article that examined the most recent literature, by contrast, found a clear consensus in the examined literature that “sex reassignment of transsexual persons improves quality of life and gender dysphoria.”
Even Williamson’s cherished claims about “biological fact,” irrelevant as they are to questions of gender identity, are false. Several studies have found genetic and neurological differences between trans and cisgender people, suggesting that biology’s role in producing gender isn’t set by genitalia.
The problem here isn’t just that Williamson is wrong on every important matter of fact, though he is: it’s that his attempt to pathologize and ostracize trans individuals is common and deeply problematic. Forty-one percent of trans individuals attempt suicide, a rate over 20 times higher than the general population. That number rises in proportion to the amount of social abuse they receive; 51 percent of trans individuals who were harrassed in school attempt suicide and 61 percent of trans victims of physical assault do the same. Ninety percent of trans individuals report workplace harassment (which the vast majority felt improved after transition), 20 percent have been refused a home, and 19 percent have been refused medical care because of their gender identity. These numbers, from a 2011 survey, only scratch the surface of the brutal ways in which trans individuals are harassed by dint of their gender identity.
This harassment, above all else, is linked to the idea that trans people are deviants in need of correction. This is precisely the thesis of Williamson’s argument, which is why its intellectual pretensions merit response: it is the kind of argument seized on by bigots to make their bigotry sound respectable. But discrimination against trans individuals isn’t an illusion like Williamson’s purported slippery slope to people cutting off limbs because they want to. Transphobia is real now, and it actively costs real people their lives and livelihoods. National Review’s defense of it now will likely read about as well in a decade or two as its 1957 defense of segregation reads today.
An earlier version of this post identified the American Psychological Association as the DSM’s publisher. The American Psychiatric Association is the correct group.