Judging from the new cover of Vanity Fair, it appears that Bruce Jenner’s highly publicized transformation to purported womanhood has finally reached its climax. The title reads, “Call me Caitlyn.” The actual meaning? “Call me woman.”
As we’ve seen in recent months, the transgender movement sees itself as the next civil-rights frontier. It clearly hopes to copy the LGBT movement in winning public approval by securing more and more media exposure. But as the movement makes its public appeal, some internal contradictions in liberal sexual ideology are quickly emerging. One major contradiction looms large for the transgender movement, and it deserves attention.
The Deconstruction of Everything
For years, a major aim of the sexual revolution has been to deconstruct gender differences as being “social constructs,” mere cultural projections of what maleness and femaleness are and mean. This critique evacuated gender of any physical meaning and reduced it to an existential feeling—a feeling of being male or female, regardless of one’s sexual biology.
The effect of this critique has been to relativize gender, and thus to abolish it as a meaningful category. Because you can no longer tie “femaleness” to a normative set of traits or acts (for example, wearing dresses or marrying men), the category itself cannot help but lose its meaning. To call any particular act a “male” or “female” act would be to revert back to antiquated, repressive, patriarchal norms—norms that only serve to foster social inequality.
This is the ideology that governs liberal sexual philosophy, and it collides head-on with major aspects of the transgender movement. Transgenderism is unavoidably based on a kind of gender essentialism. It recognizes gender identities as being associated with certain socially accepted norms. What does it mean, for example, that Jenner’s “gender” is female? It means that he gets a sex change. It means that he poses in traditionally female attire for the cover of Vanity Fair. It means that he reaffirms traditional gender norms, even as he attempts to flee from them.
So Now Femininity Has Meaning?
In fact, he cannot help but reaffirm them, for they are the only tangible way of expressing gender. Inner feelings must inevitably take on flesh, and gender—understood as a mere feeling—must inevitably express itself in material form.
This is a problem for the broader liberal sexual movement. It wants to celebrate transgenderism, but it cannot do so without referring to—and thus, at least tacitly affirming—gender norms. To celebrate Jenner’s femininity is actually to commit a liberal heresy: to revert back to a form of gender essentialism.
There’s a flip side to this coin. As we noted, liberal sexual philosophy strips the term “gender” of all normative meaning. It reduces gender to a cultural phenomenon. In doing this, it robs transgenderism of its key claims to gender authenticity, and therefore of its right to moral affirmation. Consider it this way: If gender has no real connection to biology and certain social traits, then someone’s claim to a gender identity is virtually meaningless. And if it is meaningless, how can we be morally obliged to recognize it—let alone even understand it?
Marc Lamont Hill of the Huffington Post caught on to at least part of this problem on Twitter recently. After making clear that he supports for Jenner’s new gender identity, he wrote:
Between the Vanity Fair spread and "she's so pretty" convos, we've smuggled in the same old cis/Eurocentric narratives about womanhood.
— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) June 1, 2015
If we only celebrate and welcome Caitlyn Jenner bc she conforms to tradition cis/and European standards of beauty, we are making a mistake.
— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) June 1, 2015
Hill understands that affirming someone’s gender identity involves affirming some cultural instantiation of that gender identity. As a post-colonial liberal, he wants to tear down those standards because, in his view, they perpetuate social injustice and gender inequality. Hill wants to affirm people’s gender identity in the abstract, but refrain from affirming the particular instantiation of that identity.
Unfortunately for Hill, the transgender community is seeking an embodied affirmation, one that sees gender identities as rightly fitting with a certain biology, a certain set of clothes—a lived femininity. Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t want to be affirmed in the abstract. He wants America to affirm his gender identity in terms of a lived femininity, and that means affirming his sex change and clothes as feminine. Those cultural norms are exactly the kind of “repressive” gender norms that Hill and other progressives want to abolish.
Hence, the liberal contradiction. If you truly celebrate Jenner’s transition, you have to do it by recognizing some cultural narrative about womanhood, thereby perpetuating gender “inequality.” But if you’re committed to the abolition of gender norms, there’s no way you can affirm Jenner’s femininity, except in the meaningless abstract. It’s a lose-lose.
What Is Gender, Anyway?
The root problem that led to this contradiction was the divorcing of gender from sexual biology and social traits. Having critiqued gender norms as being social constructs (and oppressive ones at that), gender has now become a free-floating abstraction that is wholly disconnected from material norms.
The glaring problem is that for gender to actually mean anything, it must instantiated in particular ways of being—a particular biology, particular clothes, and a particular way of relating to the opposite sex. Even if these ways of being were all socially constructed, they would be essential to any meaningful understanding of gender. When gender is unhinged from biological sex and from generic social traits, it is an empty term, devoid of content and meaning.
The transformation of Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn Jenner only proves this reality. For Bruce to actualize his “true gender”—his femininity—he had to get a sex change and dress up as a woman. His “gender” had obvious implications for how he would live.
There’s no getting around this connection between gender and sex, between gender and social traits. It testifies to the eternal fact that human beings are fundamentally soul and body. However much we might try to be gender Gnostics and suppress this objective connection between the body and the soul, we cannot achieve the separation. Just as the soul depends on the body, gender depends on biology. If we wish to speak of gender, we must speak of the body—and that’s not going to change.