A Postmodern Critique of Gender
The answer to justifying transgender identities beyond appealing to their suffering is a postmodern critique of gender and language. This is my core argument for the validity of trans people. Don't bother reading if you're not going to read the entire thing. Let us begin.
"You don't become a woman the first time you put on a dress. You become a woman the first time an older female relative turns to you at a restaurant and says, 'You know, maybe you should order the salad sweetie.'"
Sex and Science
Sex is bimodal, not binary. There are common options (modes) and many rare exceptions. Binary systems only have room for two things. Binary code works with 0s and 1s, not 0s, 1s, and sometimes 2s. Intersex people exist. There is roughly the same amount of redheads as there are intersex people. Ignoring trans and intersex people in our analysis of sex and gender is like saying we shouldn't build wheelchair accessible ramps because most people can just walk. Sex is about reproduction and deals with genitals and gametes. Secondarily, it deals with things associated with those things like chromosomes, hormones, and secondary sexual characteristics. XY chromosomes aren't universally indicative of being male, since not all animals with sexual dimorphism go with XY chromosomes. Intersex conditions exist but from my understanding, one set of reproductive organs tends to work far better than the other. One person might bring up that a woman without a uterus or vagina is still considered to be of the female sex. Somebody else might argue it's not a perfect example for why a trans women who underwent genital surgery is a woman in terms of sex, because the woman without a uterus is obviously a woman without a uterus, and the trans woman with surgery done is a man who got surgery done. Then again, what if we've pumped that trans woman with hormones and their epigenetics and brain have changed as a result of that? There are many grey areas and exceptions when we try to sort through nature. There's no need to force trans people into one category or the other.
Sex Isn’t Even Binary
A man is currently 30. At 10 years old he was boy, but at 30 he is a man. At what point is the boy a man? There is no single dividing line when that occurs. The brain doesn’t like that, which is why it prefers binaries to spectrums. It’s also why many cultures have rituals to mark the instant a boy turns into a man. A rabbit is a rabbit, and its parents are rabbits too. But go back far enough and we don’t see a rabbit anymore. Something is or isn’t a rabbit, but that binary system is a feature of language and biology doesn’t care about our language. This is why evolution is hard to grasp. The boundaries of the concept ‘rabbit’ seem easy to grasp but actually setting those boundaries fail. This is the case for pretty much anything.
If we have to define man or woman by biological characteristics, what makes a man? If being a man is determined by genitals, then a man who lost their penis and a trans woman who had SRS are both not men. If one argues they're both men because of their chromosomes, then the goal post has been moved. Is being a man determined by genitals or not? If it's determined by chromosomes, what about people with atypical chromosomal makeup? Those with Swyer Syndrome have XY chromosomes yet are born with uterus, fallopian tubes, cervix, and vagina.
If we start writing up a checklist of characteristics which define a man or a woman, none of which alone are necessary or sufficient to define what it means to be a man, then we’re just making it up as we go along based on opinions. If we’re going to make stuff up, let’s do it in a way that’s more useful.
But fine. Let’s draw up a list of anatomical features like chromosomes, gonads, genitals, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics. Let’s say a female is a person with XX chromosomes, ovaries, vagina, a certain hormone balance, and secondary sex characteristics like breasts and soft skin. But wait, there are transsexual women with female secondary sexual characteristics, hormone levels, and genitals, but no ovaries or XX chromosomes. Insisting on a binary system for sex leaves unable to accurately describe the anatomy people who don’t conform to our preset categories. There will always be exceptions to a rule so trying to rigidly categorize people is futile.
If a person knows all this and still insists sex is binary, then they are forcing reality to fit their preconceived notions rather than adapting their concepts to fit reality. But none of that really matters, because defining man or woman in a social context has nothing to do with biology in practice or theory. A really simple and not entirely adequate saying here nonetheless gets the point across: Sex is what you have down there, and gender is what you have up here in your brain. Gender is about society.
Social Constructs & Language: Turtles All the Way Down
Categories of 'man' and 'woman' are social constructs. It doesn't mean those things don't exist, are useless, or must be totally arbitrary. Money is a social construct and should exist. If I ran out of money the effects on me would be as profound and tangible as the laws of gravity. However, gravity affects me the same way regardless of how humans behave, whereas the existence of money is contingent on shared human behaviors and beliefs. Investigating gold’s chemical properties to determine its monetary value is stupid. Instead one should investigate the economic behavior of human beings and the symbolic function of gold in our society. The same goes for gender. Peering into chromosomes and genitals doesn’t tell us which gender wears lipstick.
Is language prescriptive (dictionary tells us how to speak) or is it descriptive (based on how people actually speak)? It's the latter. The dictionary gets updated because language has updated since people feel like speaking differently. Otherwise language would never evolve, which is clearly does. Language is a human invention that changes over time. The definition of ‘literally’ in Merriam-Webster's dictionary includes "figuratively" because people keep using the word that way. The dictionary is a usage guide, not the Bible. In the internet age new words constantly get invented (often for little rhyme or reason). If somebody insists using Old English, then they end up being a crazy unintelligible person.
If language is descriptive, then I am to be referred to with female pronouns because that's what people tend to do around me. If language is prescriptive and we default to linguistic tradition, then whether I am a man or a woman can't have anything to do with chromosomes because they weren't discovered when those words came into existence. As soon as we start cherry-picking how far we want linguistic traditions to go before they're invalid to our society, we are making value judgements and the entire deference to linguistic tradition dies.
Conservatives are concerned about postmodern critiques of society because they have low openness to experience and prefer rigid, defined hierarchies. Unfortunately, the world is under no obligation to be comforting to us. Even basic questions like what a human is rise from the realm of mental masturbation into practical and important discussions when dealing with abortion. When is a person a person? Is it the moment of conception? A zygote? After the first trimester? When they are born? What IS a person? It didn’t use to include black people. Then they became 3/5ths of a person, and then eventually an entire person. White in America used to only mean Anglo-Saxans. The deeper we go the fuzzier things get. In the future when humans would be mostly machine, are they still human? If a machine seems to exhibit the same behaviors I do are they just a human in a machine? Time and space seem like simple enough concepts, but if I approach the speed of light my mass shoots up towards infinity as I travel into the future because… space-time and Einstein and stuff.
Common sense deals with realms common to us. Push anything to the extremes and the results become confusing and muddled. Life is not clean and easy. It is difficult, messy, and constantly changing.
Our models of the world both in hard sciences and society in general are best guesses that get revised constantly as we learn more. That includes gender. If you’re never interested in rewriting the definition of gender then you’re not interested in learning because you are in principle closed off to change.
Why is it surprising that gender can change based on interpretation when so many cultures around the world have alternate views on gender? In our own American culture, the appropriate attire, colors, and hobbies for boys and girls have changed over time. It’s normal. Holding onto outdated ideas that we know might serve as an adequate security blanket, but then we lose all right to say facts don’t care about our feelings. Fear of change is a feeling.
Gender as It’s Actually Used
Male and female in a scientific sense provides utility to use by broadly describing the differences between a dimorphic species. It is useful in the realm of science but not necessarily in other domains. Man and woman in a gender sense very broadly describes a bimodal distribution of features in society. But that’s all they are. They’re not derived from science in a strict way.
The utility of categories of man or woman is not about their reproductive roles in society. Not all men or women are fertile yet they don’t get lumped together into a third category of infertile people. If I told you I met a woman from work and we’re hanging out later, you don’t know what her reproductive capability is. A ton of women are on menopause. Maybe she’s my age, but I still have to ask if they can have (or want) children regardless of gender identity. There are women with atypical sets of chromosomes that have no idea they were atypical in any way because they’ve never been tested or tried to have a baby. These are basic questions that have to be asked in a relationship either way. No matter how we reconstruct gender, that’s not a problem.
If I were to point out a cis man convincingly dressed as a woman in a red dress, I would refer to them as ‘the woman in the red dress’ because here man and woman are just categories of typical features people have and it’s convenient to just call them a woman in the red dress. Doing the opposite increases confusion. It’s funny to see Ben Shapiro fail at misgendering Caitlyn Jenner because he too operates under my description of how we define men or women. I don’t insist on calling Ben Shapiro Benjamin Shapiro due to his birth certificate because I realize names in practice usually deal with identity and not legal documentation. Calling him Ben Shapiro is not denying the law. Calling me a woman is not denial or disagreement about biology. It’s a disagreement about how language is used.
To say that categories of man and woman deal with reproduction first and foremost means people are looking at others constantly and thinking about whether they take sperm or give it. When I go to a clothing store and I see men’s clothes, it doesn’t mean “clothing meant people who reproduce on this side of the dimorphic dichotomy instead of the other”. There I think of a man as a person who wears certain types of clothing, exhibit certain types of behaviors with hair done a certain way and legs unshaven. It means a bunch of traits that a person may not actually exhibit.
That is how most people judge other people's gender in day to day life. While I don't look very masculine, people can still tell I'm trans because of my voice and Adam's Apple. Yet, people still mostly use female pronouns. Are all those people deluded about my biology? If so, then I'd expect more masculine-looking trans women to be gendered male and feminine-looking women which can still be clocked as trans to be gendered male at the same rates. That's not what happens. The more feminine I look and the more obvious I am trying to present femininely, the more I get gendered female in conversation. People gender others based on the vibe they give off rather than chromosomal tests or genital inspection.
The Pitch & The Pushback
Language is a social construct and that gives us the power to modify it as we see fit. We should modify our language to provide the most utility to the most people possible. And to that end, I submit to you that calling trans women, women, is the correct decision because the upside outweighs the downside (of which there is none).
Some insist ‘trans woman’ is its own separate group apart from man and woman. The point of transitioning is to fit in better to the category of man or woman, and to insist they are their own separate category in all cases undermines that. Besides, we consider gay men to be men even though they can’t reproduce with other men, are at risk for different diseases, have different life experiences, and are more likely to commit suicide or be homeless. Just because we can add another adjective to a gender to give extra context doesn’t mean it must be a different category. We can sub-divide categories.
We can be inclusive in the way we group gender by starting with men, women, and other. And of the women there are cis and trans women, both of which are women based on the way they perform gender in society. Women would be a broader umbrella category under which different women have different experiences. When required, greater specificity can be given. If you’re my doctor, my file should state I am a trans woman because giving me care for cis men would be harmful. If we’re dating you would want to know about my biology. Otherwise, my biology is really none of your business. And just like that, we have helped trans people feel like they fit in better with society without harming cis folk.
It is not I who misunderstands biology; it is you who misunderstands language.
It might be edgy to say no matter how much an adoptive parent loves and cares for their baby, they’ll never be a parent because the person is not their biological parent. Adoptive parents are just glorified child kidnappers! That would be impolite and also wrong. An adoptive parent is socially and functionally as real of a parent as a biological parent. It's a similar thing here. I live my life as a woman. All the people close to me know me as a woman. Strangers call me she. To make a point in calling me “he” is really just politically motivated pedantry and sophistry masked with a veneer of cold, hard logic. It's out of touch with the reality of how language is used. I refuse to let Shapiro deceptively frame the debate as a debate about biology.
Pedantry can look like logic because it deals with definitions of things as if it's a mathematical proof. Such analogies don’t work for something as fluid as language. It has the aesthetics of logic, but it’s a distraction from the actual substance. It's like when fascists argue they're not fascists because they don't follow Benito Mussolini and fascism is the movement from the 1930s... blah blah blah. When normal people use that word they mean an authoritarian racist populist. To use such a narrow definition of fascism to dodge criticism is to use sleight of hand not logic.
It is not enough to say trans women are not women because to say so would be akin to saying A = not A. We’re dealing with how we feel like setting up society and group people (biology vs gender expression vs identity) and not deductive logic. When we consider a chair a table based on the way it’s used, we aren’t breaking fundamental rules of logic. We’re just changing how we define chair or table. Tautologies like ‘men are men’ are never useful arguments of their position either.
Debating pronouns is dumb because we're really arguing about values and how society should be. Both sides are political, it's just Shapiro isn't honest and forthright about it. It comes down to his wish to instill rigid, conservative gender roles because liberalism leads to deterioration of the 'social fabric'. Change scares him. I want pronouns my way because it's more practical and I want the world to be more open minded about different types of people. The conservative argument is the pinnacle of a feels over reals argument. The idea of the 'deterioration of the social fabric' or just garden-variety disgust towards sexual and gender minorities is based on feelings, not facts. They claim a postmodern critique of gender and language somehow destroys biology but they cannot concretely explain how. They start with a feeling (trans people are weird) and then justify it after (something incoherent about definitions of words and how homosexuality is bad for society). They learn that men have wee wees and women have boobies and they think they have the gender argument down pat.
Don’t conflate the question of whether trans woman should be allowed to be considered a woman and how we should refer to a person. I call people what they want to be called. I call Ben Shapiro Ben Shapiro instead of Benjamin Shapiro. We can have butch women who act like men but we still call women because they want us to because we realize gender is one giant meme that probably shouldn’t exist. At the same time, we can believe that trans woman should allowed to be considered women. These are not contradictory.
Random Closing Thoughts
Language is just an absurd, made up thing that’s full of contradictions. Languages like German or Spanish assign gender to all kinds of animate objects. In English most objects have no gender, but men often gender their cars and ships female when they clearly don't have the right chromosomes or genitals. It's very dehumanizing for people to go out of their way to gender and name their boats but not call me a she or use my changed legal name. In Finnish there is just one generic pronoun for people. Maybe Finnish people all have the same genitals. I’ll get back to you on that.
Did you know that girls used to be a catch-all term for children of a young age? It was a gender-neutral term. But if Ben Shapiro from that era time traveled to our era, he would say… I would be unwilling to change a biological fact of human experience. Girls are people of any gender up to 4-5 years of age. That’s just a biological fact, an immutable characteristic of human nature. The idea of only calling children which will be ladies after 4-5 years of age is ridiculous. What then do we call the young girl that would later become a man?! Do we just call them a ‘boy’? This is a ridiculous fundamental re-writing of a basic component of human nature! This goes against everything we understand and I will not kowtow to the general notion of re-writing human nature to appease the left.
What does it mean to be a man or a woman? These are philosophical questions, and we all know the defining feature of philosophical questions is they have no final answer. Gender roles today are inadequate and outdated, but that leads to gender abolitionism instead of traditional notions of gender. That is a topic for another day.
Categories of man and woman (gender) are socially constructed categories in that we chose to make these categories because it gives us utility. Its primary function isn’t to signal reproductive status in practice. Given how fuzzy sex and especially gender are, there is room to increase utility for everyone by grouping the two primary genders by their general characteristics, of which both cis and trans people of that gender reside. To supplement that we call people what they wish to be called and that takes priority. The upside outweighs the downside.