Kevin D. Williamson ignited a predictable but ferocious firestorm this week with his article in the National Review Online titled “Laverne Cox is not a Woman”. This is not Williamson’s first foray into this contentious issue, nor for that matter is it mine, but the fireworks are informative. Williamson has been called the worst person in the world on Twitter, which, I mean, who hasn’t. But even the respectable progressive press has shown its outrage towards his supposedly outdated and bigoted opinion. It’s not their opinion that Williamson’s ideas need to be refuted, it is that they are so reprehensible, ignorant and impolite that they should barely even be addressed.
Williamson is guilty of aligning gender with sex. Transsexual advocates argue that gender is a cultural construction while sex is a biological reality. They divide gender from sex by claiming one is physically demonstrable while the other is not. This gives trans advocates a higher bar to cross than Williamson. For Williamson gender is inextricably linked to biological reality. For trans advocates gender is whatever we decide it is. This being the case Trans advocates have a responsibility to explain why their social construction is better than other social constructions. Williamson’s theory entails no such responsibility.
This distinction is important because the charge of bigotry leveled against Williamson assumes that the separation of gender and sex is an established fact in the world. It is not. Even if we accept that gender is a social construct, society can construct it to be aligned with biological sex or not. Any of us may have myriad reasons for construing gender one way or another, and it is no more bigoted for a man to tell a trans woman that they are not a woman than it is for a trans woman to tell another woman that her gender has nothing to do with biology.
Even those who argue that biology itself is subjective cannot avoid falling into an ethical, rather than factual position. Samantha Allen makes this argument in the Daily Dot saying, “The idea that biology is an objective discipline that tells us the truth about ourselves is a relatively recent historical development. Every few decades, we turn to some new aspect of our bodies to tell us everything about ourselves: first, chromosomes, then DNA, now brain chemistry. University funding follows these trends closely: neuroscience is where all the money is going these days.” Regardless of where the money is going Ms. Allen does nothing to disprove Williamson’s claim that Cox is not a woman. At best she is arguing that there is really no such thing as a woman, and even if there was, it’s defintion is bound to constant change.
Here is where the paradox lies in separating gender from sex on the basis of the former’s subjectivity (or the subjectivity of both). If the basis of the “fact” that trans women are women is that gender is constructed rather than biologically defined, it simply cannot be a fact, it can only be, as Williamson rightly points out a metaphysical assertion. In it’s takedown of Williamson, Media Matters assures us that “gender identity is not a delusion, nor is it based on ‘subjective impressions.'” It invokes a handful of experts to support its claim, but this claim on its face makes no sense.
When Media Matters tells us that gender identity is not based on subjective impressions we have to ask upon what objective basis it exists. If gender is in fact a social construct, if it is a collection of beliefs and impressions subject to change then how can gender identity possibly be anything other than subjective? You can’t have it both ways. Unless Media Matters has tapped into a vein of an a priori Platonic ideal we arrive at a question that is absolutely subjective. There is no empirical basis upon which to refute the concept that gender should be tied to sex. So to argue that the two are distinct a different kind of appeal is needed, and it is generally an appeal to emotion.
The argument generally boils down to the idea that one “knows” their real gender. But what does knowing mean? Many people know that Jesus Christ is their lord and savior, other people say such a claim to knowledge is absurd. In what way does knowing one is of a certain gender differ from knowing that G-d exists and cares? And yet atheists are not considered bigots even though they claim to prove that something somebody knows about themselves is a delusion. Or as Germaine Greer put it, “Nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women’s names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn’t polite to say so. We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man’s delusion that he is female.”
There are a few stranger bedfellows than the writers for the National Review and Radical Feminists and yet on the issue of trans women there is almost uniform ideological overlap. In the parlance of the trans debate the term TERF (Trans Excluding Radical Feminist) refers to such backwards thinkers as feminist pioneer Greer among many others. These TERFS are accused of being just as bigoted as Williamson. Media Matters writes less about this phenomenon. But it’s a shame that the Radical Feminist critique of the trans movement is not paid more attention. Once again men, whether they identify as such or not are defining what it means to be a woman. One of central themes of the Radical Feminist critique is the hyper-sexualization of the female body by contemporary trans culture.
Trans women are presented as sexual objects, whether on reality TV or on the cover of Time magazine. The trick is that a straight guy might say “wow, she’s hot” and then be shocked to discover its a dude. For Radical Feminists the idea that gender constructs, such as existing to attract men should be cemented by granting any man who aspires to that goal full membership in the sisterhood is abhorrent. Many also cite a fear of sexual violence from cross dressing men granted access to their safe spaces. These are not Koch brothers funded extreme right fanatics, many are progressive feminists who simply share Williamson’s view of gender’s relationship to sex.
To Trans advocates and their allies in the academy and the creative class the transubstantiation of men into women and vice versa is settled science. Those who doubt it are troglodytes whose opinions are irrelevant and dangerous. It has even been suggested that opinions such as Williamson’s amount to hate speech and should be criminalized. But when and where was this new truth established? And why can’t it be challenged without charges of bigotry, phobia and animus?
It may be uncomfortable to draw gender lines, but in many cases it is also necessary. What people do or say in private is their own business, but what about public policy? When cities require contract bidders to hire a certain percentage of women owned businesses as subcontractors who qualifies? When women feel uncomfortable in bathrooms along side persons with penises why are we telling them to deal with their discomfort, rather than telling a trans person to deal with their’s by using the sex assigned bathroom?
For many progressives the answers to these questions are tied to privilege theory. It is argued that women born as women (described by some as cisgendered) have privileges that trans women do not and therefore we must redress the imbalance by changing our definition of gender. Rather than simply accepting people as who they are within our gender construct the entire construct must be rebuilt to accommodate the underprivileged. To question this idea is not bigoted.
The aggressive tone and title of Williamson’s piece suggest he was looking for a fight, and he got one. But its an important conversation and many people feel cowed by the threat of being called bigots if they question the new definition of gender. As is often the case progressives are asking all of us to accept something as true because they and some experts say so. Well it doesn’t work that way. As far as gender definition is concerned progressives would be better served by making their case to those of us with doubts rather than appealing to accusations of immoral bigotry. Many of us who doubt that Laverne Cox is a woman are ready to listen, so explain it to us. Calling us names doesn’t do anybody any good.