Transgenderism’s can of worms: age, race, and species

One set of popular theses in contemporary political discourse is connected to the recognition and rights of transgender persons: persons who, in some sense, feel either that they are of a different gender to that assigned to them at birth, or to that of their biological sex . While, as conservatives, we are crucially committed to the equality and dignity of transgender persons, we here cast doubt on what we take to be some of the more outlandish claims of these activists, and suggest that—at the very least—modest conservative positions on the issue are not straightforwardly incognisant or bigoted, as they are commonly taken to be.

We are not aiming to offer a comprehensive evaluation of the relevant theses, nor exhaust our arguments for our own position. Rather, we are merely exploring one set of parallels which give reason to be hesitant about certain claims.

What’s at stake?

There is a temptation to see the issue as primarily terminological. Conservatives will typically suggest that biological sex correlates (in most cases) with chromosomes and genitalia, and that men or women (determined by these biological characteristics) may be more masculine or feminine depending on certain characteristics. Transgenderism activists will often grant more or less the same points, but judge that our terminology (most saliently, our pronouns) should follow the gender with which a person identifies rather than biological facts. Other proponents will eschew biological categories and suggest that gender is the only salient categorisation. Here, we aim to identify the precise disagreement between conservatives and the former group.

Given the increasing trend towards eschewing gender roles, stereotypes, and segregation, it is more difficult to understand what material difference may result from identifying as a gender other than that assigned at birth. Nevertheless, there are still some examples of culturally endorsed segregation or discrimination: segregation in sport, for example, or positive discrimination in employment. So it seems as though the real issue dividing the right and left here is: should biological or personal-cultural categories be determinative in cases of culturally accepted segregation and discrimination? We propose that the parallels between gender, race, species and age indicate—at the very least—that it is not crazy or evil to think that biological categories ought sometimes take precedence.

Gender, Age, Race, and Species: The Parallels

We want to suggest that the parallels between the case of gender, on the one hand, and the cases of age, race, and species, on the other, are extremely close. Specifically, here are four similarities:

Firstly, as we’ve noted already, in each case there are two aspects that can be discerned: on the one hand, there are biological facts—facts about what sort of chromosomes and reproductive organs one possesses; about how many years have elapsed since one was born; about the amount of melanin in one’s skin; about whether one walks upright, has fur or feathers, and so on—and on the other hand, there are what we might term ‘cultural trappings’—certain ways of dressing (or not dressing); certain ways of behaving; certain preferences regarding food, music, and so on.

Secondly, in each case, we find that human cultures employ categories which people stereotypically associate with certain cultural trappings—for instance, in Western cultures the category of ‘teenager’ is stereotypically associated with traits like rebelliousness and independence and with listening to loud music. As noted earlier, these cultural categories seem to be important in determining what sorts of legal and political rights one enjoys. In the UK, being classified as a child entitles one to receive around £20 per week from the government.

Thirdly, in each case, for most of human history, most people have tended to believe (whether rightly or wrongly) that there exists a tight correlation between biological facts and the cultural category to which one belongs.

Fourthly, in each case, some individuals undergo surgical and non-surgical procedures in an attempt to acquire certain biological traits that are stereotypically associated with a cultural category other than the one that they were initially assumed to belong to, and what’s more, engage in behaviours that are stereotypically associated with a cultural category other than the one they were initially assumed to belong to. Caitlyn Jenner is a recent and prominent example with respect to gender. Having been alive for 52 years, Stefonknee Wolscht now identifies as a six-year-old and dresses and behaves accordingly. Rachel Dolezal, born white-skinned, identifies as black and adorns herself with skin-darkening makeup and dreadlocks. Dennis Avner underwent extensive facial surgery and bodily implants in a concerted attempt to take on the appearance of a tiger.

Further, it seems as though some initial grounds for differentiating the cases come apart on closer examination. For example, we might suppose that age, by definition, is just the time elapsed since birth. Gender, perhaps, has no such definition. But there seems to be no reason why, just as sex has traditionally been interpreted biologically with a non-correlative category of gender introduced in addition, we could not also have age* as a non-correlative category introduced in addition to age. Age* is just as to age as gender is to biological sex: it involves a certain broad pattern of behaviours, perhaps a tendency to make one’s own body ‘younger’, and so on. And it is not clear why law should respect age rather than age*.

Similarly, it might be supposed that species is not clearly analogous to gender in that species has no cultural component: it is purely a biological category. But there is no reason to suppose that this is true of species while not of gender. Both gender and species are associated with certain patterns of behaviour – the honey bee’s waggle dance, for example – but it seems grossly implausible that someone could gain trespassing rights and forfeit certain human rights by identifying as a hedgehog, or as an oak tree.

Finally, it may be possible to argue in the case of race, for example, that one cannot identify as a different race to that assigned at birth because race is inextricably related to a shared cultural history and, in particular, a shared history of oppression. While this may be a reason to think that white people cannot identify as black, however, it clearly will not do as a defence of transgenderism in general: after all, it is impossible to see, on this account, how any biological male could reasonably share in the history of oppression of women.


In summary, we have suggested that the parallels between the case of gender, on the one hand, and age, race, and species, on the other hand, are exceptionally close. Yet those on the Left have frequently been unsympathetic to the claims of people who have sought to transition their age, race or species identities. Rachel Dolezal, for example, has attracted scathing criticism from many on the Left for her claims to be black (see here and here, for example). By contrast, it has become virtually taboo to even raise the question as to whether gender classifications can really come apart from biological facts (e.g. there have been loud calls for Germaine Greer to be banned from speaking on university campuses because of remarks she made which questioned transgenderist claims). Our contention is simply this: upon close inspection there is no reason to treat the cases differently. If one thinks that membership of age, race, or species categories cannot come apart from certain biological facts, then one should take the same attitude with respect to the case of gender.

We take it that transgender activists differ regarding whether or not biological sex is an appropriate category, whether it is determined by chromosomes, and so on. Our arguments here do not depend on any particular answers to these questions.

Robert Screwtape

Robert holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Oldest University in the English-Speaking World. He now teaches and publishes in philosophy somewhere in the UK. Not all that long ago Robert himself used to be an enthusiastic left-winger, so he knows how frustrating it can feel to witness the Path of Progress being obstructed by close-minded, nostalgic, xenophobic plebs (you know, the sort who voted for Brexit).

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  1. Hello,

    I’m neither a right-winger nor a left-winger, but I would say that while different people argue different things, some people on the left (including transgender activists) argue that gender identity is fixed at birth, and that that is a biological category, or at least fixed by it.
    A recent example is:
    On that sort of account, there are some features of the brain that make a person a woman or a man, and those features are fixed before birth.
    While the specific argument I linked to is vulnerable to objections like “but in order to detect whether one is a woman or a man, any mental/neurological system would have to do so based on other features (i.e., other than the sense of gender identity itself), which would in term determine whether a person is a woman or a man” (and other objections), the basic idea is not vulnerable to such objections: it holds that what makes a person a woman or a man is a biological feature of the brain (or a mental trait based on a brain feature), which isn’t changeable (at least, not without future tech that radically alters the brain), rather than biological facts about sexual and/or reproductive organs, chromosomes, etc.

    Also, that sort of account does not require redefining words, but rather, those defending it might argue that under the common meaning of the words, that’s what makes a person a man or a woman.
    That would be compatible with usual claims that a person realized/knew that he or she was a man or a woman, rather than saying that we’re redefining the terms, so that even though a person was a man(woman) under the traditional meaning of the words, under the new meaning she(he) is a woman(man) under the new definitions.

    I realize that you seem to prefer to avoid terminological issues and these are partly so, but I reckon that in order to be thorough in identifying and engaging views on gender that enjoy a significant degree of support (even if, as usual, also of rejection) on the left, views that are based on biological categories but not the same as those proposed by people on the right (and more specifically, fixed brain/mind based categories) should be addressed as well. Perhaps you could add these sort of theory to a later post?

  2. Excellent comment, Angra. I think your suggesting for a future post on this matter is a good one.

    Perhaps you could say more about how the basic idea (2nd paragraph) avoids the prior objections. I’m skeptical that it does. Suppose something in the brain determines that I (a male anatomically) identify as a woman. We’re left with the question of whether my identification is true. You ask me how I know that it’s true, and I say, “It’s because I have a woman’s brain (or the relevant portion of the brain which determines that one is a woman).” “How do you know you have a woman’s brain?” you ask.

    I might respond by saying that I know it, because everyone who has such a brain identifies as a woman. But then identification as a woman just is what it is to be a woman (even though the brain determines the identification). Or I might respond by saying that my brain is the one that most (anatomical) females have that brain and I just happen to be an exception.

  3. AR-15,

    Thanks; and I think the objection you is a serious objection to this kind of view – the most serious I’ve considered so far.
    It’s different from the other objection I sketched, at least as I intended it to be, since that one held that the part of the brain that picks whether a person is a man or a woman surely isn’t what makes the difference, since any part that ascertains what makes the difference has to do it on the basis of some information about something else (e.g., other behavioral traits, etc.).
    The objection you raise, instead, is epistemic, and is pretty strong.
    A potential reply in defense of the basic idea I mentioned (i.e., that which it holds that what makes a person a woman or a man is a biological feature of the brain, or a mental trait based on a brain feature, and which isn’t changeable) would be along the following lines:

    We intuitively assess whether a person is a man or a woman on the basis of different features, even if it’s difficult to pin point which ones.
    Usually, we do so just by looking at a fully clothed person, at the way they look. But clearly, that’s not the whole story. Facial features, etc., are just cues that let us make quick assessments about gender, but which do not make a person a man or a woman. It’s just that usually, people with certain facial traits, etc., are men, and those with some other such traits, are women.
    Similarly, sexual and reproductive organs are cues that let us make quick assessments about gender when we see a person naked. Those cues are better than those about, say, facial traits, or the neck, in the sense that they track gender more reliably. But they’re still not what makes a person a man or a woman. That’s a matter of having a female mind or a male mind, and from an anatomical perspective, a female brain or a male brain.
    Now, a person has introspective access to her or his own mind, allowing them to intuitively assess whether she or he is a woman or a man by comparing behavioral dispositions with other women or men; so, a person is in an epistemically privileged position to tell intuitively that she is a woman or that he is a man.
    Moreover, while you could expect that people with female(male) reproductive organs nearly always end up with female(male) brains/minds (or the relevant part), in a species with a mind/brain as complex as humans, and with a population as large as that of humans, it’s unsurprising that there are exceptions.
    The part about not being changeable is based on empirical observations so far.

    A clarification: this suggestion does not hold that the brain of a woman with XY chromosomes and male sexual and reproductive organs (for instance) would look anatomically more like normal female brains than male ones. Rather, only the part that is responsible for/associated to with distinctive female or male behavioral dispositions and/or traits would be (mostly) female-like; other parts would not have to be like that, so the brain would probably look neither entirely like the brains of males nor like those of females.

    That idea is to a considerable extent along the lines of the following essay:
    However, I think it might avoid some a potential vulnerability or two, especially given that using ““gender” to refer to the subjective, internal experience of being a male or female.” (as the essay does) might give the impression of begging the question, which the suggestion above doesn’t: it doesn’t define “gender”, but claims that the words “man” and “woman” (and words with the same meaning in other languages) refer to people with male minds and female minds respectively, and that’s determined (in humans, anyway) by some parts of the brain.
    As an alternative, the parts of the reply referring to the brain could be removed, talking only about female and male minds, to cover also some potential suggestion (which I wouldn’t make) that what makes the difference in behavior might be a spirit, soul, etc., which might be male or female.

  4. Angra,

    Perhaps this supports your suggestion?

    “One study looked at twenty-five boys who were born without a penis (a birth defect known as cloacal exstrophy) and who were then castrated and raised as girls. All of them showed male patterns of rough-and-tumble play and had typically male attitudes and interests. More than half of them spontaneously declared they were boys, one when he was just five years old.”

    – from Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”

    One wonder how they knew they were boys.

    • ML,

      Thanks for bringing up that quotation. I think that that provides empirical support for the view that people usually can tell whether their own minds are female or male (or at least, that people with male minds can do so), and as a result, some empirical support for the suggestion I made (which isn’t originally mine; I’m just trying to get the best arguments from both sides).
      Still, I think that is not enough to settle the question of whether transgender people have a mind of the gender they identify with, for a number of reasons.
      One of them is the fact that the individuals in the study were exposed to male level of hormones before castration. Moreover, fetal development happened in an environment very high in testosterone. That is a plausible candidate as a cause of their development of a male brain (e.g., ). But many (nearly all? all? I don’t know enough about that) transgender people born with male sexual organs very probably were also exposed to them, yet they later identify as women. There alternative potential explanations for their gender assessment, such as:

      1. Something didn’t work normally during fetal development (or later development), resulting in the development of a female brain (I mean the part relevant to sexually different behavior), and as such, a female mind, in spite of the male levels of hormones. Their minds are female.
      2. Something didn’t work normally during fetal development (or later development), resulting in a failure in the mechanism that detects which gender they are. Their minds are male, but they mistakenly believe otherwise.
      3. Something didn’t work normally during fetal development (or later development), resulting in the development of a brain that has some male traits and some female traits, and as a result, a mind that has some female and some male traits. So, neither the category “man” or “woman” is a good fit for them, and they pick one just marginally.
      4. All 1.2., and 3. are true for some transgender people born with male sexual organs (and maybe some other explanation applies to others). There is no single explanation that covers all cases, and we’re actually seeing some significantly different phenomena, even if they’re both classified as “transgender”.

      I’m not in a position to tell which one is correct (if any of them is; the list is not exhaustive), so I remain undecided on this issue.

  5. These are excellent points but I worry that the argument concedes too much to the ‘gender’ activists. They want us to think that ‘gender’ is fixed by how individuals ‘identify’ themselves, or how their societies think of them, and they also want to use terms like ‘man’ and ‘woman’ to refer to what they call ‘genders’. But the very idea of ‘gender’ is just insanity. (Mass insanity, yes. It’s hard to think of any society in history that has believed things so obviously false and incoherent.)

    Either (a) ‘gender’ refers to cultural-social-psychological-political properties of people independent of biology, or (b) ‘gender’ refers to properties like manhood and womanhood, boyhood and girlhood. Under (a) ‘gender’ has nothing to do with being a man, a woman, etc. Under (b) ‘gender’ has nothing to do with what you think you are, would like to be, etc. It can’t be both ways. But that’s what these ‘gender’ people apparently believe.

    It’s hard to argue for something utterly obvious. Consider the role played by the concepts of male and female in biology. Males are those within a species who have certain reproductive roles, or who have inherited capacities disposing them to play those roles because of natural selection, etc. You can’t make sense of these theories, or even the basic biological phenomena they’re meant to explain, if you define ‘female’ so that people’s beliefs or feelings or social conventions about femaleness are taken to be either necessary or sufficient for creatures to be female. Obviously, a male antelope or frog is not male because of those kinds of facts. But ‘man’ means, at least, ‘male human being’ and ‘woman’ means, at least, ‘female human being’.

    Unless you deny that manhood is maleness (in humans) and womanhood is femaleness, or you deny the basics of scientific and common sense mammalian biology, you have to allow that being a man or a woman is a biological given. But a biological given can’t also be something that people or societies wish or stipulate into reality. And yet that’s how the ‘gender’ people want the concept to work; they want the fact that I’m a man, or male, to be a fact about my ‘gender’, when manhood is self-evidently a biological given, while at the same time this fact is also supposed to be in my power to control. No. Right wingers should never use terms like ‘gender’ unless we specify that it really just means ‘biological sex’ or something else coherent, and not what the ‘gender’ people want it to mean. We should never ever accept this sick and incoherent way of thinking. We’ve done that way too often in the past, and we can’t afford any more of their sickness and incoherence.

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