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.