In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, civil rights activist, instructor in Africana studies, and president of her local NAACP chapter was outed as white. Her critics charged that she was guilty of “cultural appropriation” and fraud. Dolezal, for her part, insisted that representing herself as African-American was not fraudulent: though born white she was, she claimed, transracial.
Pundits and bloggers immediately leapt into action to make the case that while Dolezal had fraudulently “passed” as black, transgender men and women really were the men and women they claimed to be. Gender identity, according to transgender advocates, was an intrinsic, inborn, indelible character that did not always correspond to biological sex. Nevertheless, like Dolezal, who proposed a revisionary criterion for race, transgender advocates proposed a revisionary criterion for gender. And it was by no means clear why one revisionary criterion should be adopted while the other should not.
Racial and gender identity, as ordinarily understood, each involve three components: criterial characteristics, visible markers, and an ascribed social role with attendant obligations, expectations, and opportunities. The criterion for race is ancestry, typically marked by skin colour, hair texture, and facial features. Rachel Dolezal challenged that account: she held that she was black because she experienced herself as black. The criterion for gender is biological sex. Transgender advocates however hold that gender should not be understood as sex – as a matter of genitals or chromosomes. It should not, of course, be confused with sexual orientation either. And, transgender advocates claimed, it should not be understood as a mere preference for the social roles, occupations, or opportunities conventionally assigned on the basis of sex. Above all, they insisted that it was not, and could not be, a choice.
What was it? Some transgender advocates looked to brain-architecture to make the case that transgendered individuals were the men and women they claimed to be. The quest for brain-sex was an old one, pursued by conservative proponents of sex-roles, who asserted that being male or female wasn’t “merely a matter of plumbing”. The brain was the deep self and gender, they held, a function of brain-sex, was biologically-based, scientifically-certified, and deep. But whereas socially conservative sex-role promoters assumed that brain-sex always lined up with plumbing, transgender advocates held that some male and female brains occupied oppositely sexed bodies – bodies that could be corrected or ignored.
The quest for brain-sex failed. According to recent studies, “brains do not fall into two classes, one typical of males and the other typical of females, nor are they aligned along a ‘male brain-female brain’ continuum”. This was a hard saying for transgender advocates. If gender was not a matter either of plumbing or of brain-architecture, of personality, preferences, or social role, it seemed headed for death by 1000 qualifications.
Transgender people insisted that gender was a matter of “what it is like” to experience oneself as male or female. Nevertheless, without some external criterion it is impossible to understand what such experience could be. According to the old, intuitive theory of mind, experience is necessarily private and there is no way in principle to compare the intrinsic, qualitative character of one’s experiences to that of others. Even if there were a way of experiencing oneself that is characteristic of most individuals identified by sex as male or female, there is no way that anyone could determine whether their experience was more similar to characteristically male or characteristically female experience. And if male or female gendered experience is not understood as the experience characteristic of sexually defined men and women respectively, then it is impossible to understand what experiencing oneself as male or female can come to.
It is, on the other hand, easy to understand what it is like to find the social role assigned to one on the basis of biological sex uncongenial. Some traditional societies recognise three or more genders to accommodate men and women who are a poor fit for the social roles to which they would otherwise be assigned. Most transgender people have not undergone any form of gender-confirming surgery and many are not interested in ever having genital surgery. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that for many it is not their bodies but rather their socially ascribed gender roles that do not fit.
But transgender advocates, do not, by and large, challenge the assignment of social roles by gender. Rather they propose a revisionary criterion for gender, decoupled from biological sex. They argue that some individuals who are male by sex are entitled to play female roles because they are women by gender and likewise that some biologically female individuals are entitled to play male roles because they are male-gendered. Playing a gendered role, however, and getting the goods that go along with it, takes the recognition and acceptance of one’s self-ascribed gender-identity by others. And achieving that can be as difficult, and risky, as getting others to recognise and accept a self-ascribed racial identity.
For most sexually defined men and women, including many like myself who would prefer to play what are currently understood as opposite-gendered roles, being recognised and accepted as opposite-gendered is not feasible. And it is highly unlikely that the acceptance of transgenderism will, as some advocates suggest, initiate a program of gender-bending that will liberate us all from oppressive sex roles and gendered hierarchies. The ideology of transgenderism is fundamentally conservative: it provides an escape route for the few, often at significant cost, while locking in gender roles for the many.
The transgender narrative has wide appeal because it confirms traditional assumptions about gender difference. It provides proponents of la difference who are convinced that no man or woman would deviate significantly from their idea of what men and women are like with a rationale for dismissing counterexamples. They can happily affirm that individuals who are male or female according to biological sex but do not conform to their expectations are not real men or women.
Gender reassignment is an accommodationist strategy. It makes the sex role system more palatable by enabling a few men and women to opt out. It does nothing for the rest of us and does not undermine the oppressive institution of gender-defined expectations, obligations, and opportunities that restrict our options.
People should not have to make the case that they are “really” opposite-gendered in order to live the lives they want to live, get the jobs they want to do, dress as they please, use the public restrooms they prefer, affiliate with partners of their choice regardless of biological sex, and avoid the obligations and expectations currently ascribed to men and women in virtue of sex. A good society, arguably, is one where insofar as possible the lives we live are determined by our choices: where the role that race, sex, family of origin, ethnicity, nationality, and other ascribed identities and unchosen circumstances play in our lives is minimised in the interests of individual preference-satisfaction. It is one in which sex difference is trivialised and race is recognised as no more than skin deep.