Thursday, June 05, 2014

How The National Review's Williamson Gets It Wrong On Laverne Cox

Kevin D. Williamson is suddenly an expert on the topic of transgender and transsexual people it seems.  Or at least, he has appointed himself as an expert.

Titled "Laverne Cox is not a Woman", Williamson's column is a pretty basic attack on transsexual people and the issue of being cross-gender identified.  In its most fundamental sense, he is trying to erase the very narrative of transsexuals (and other transgender identified people):
The infinite malleability of the postmodern idea of “gender,” as opposed to the stubborn concreteness of sex, is precisely the reason the concept was invented. For all of the high-academic theory attached to the question, it is simply a mystical exercise in rearranging words to rearrange reality. Facebook now has a few score options for describing one’s gender or sex, and no doubt they will soon match the number of names for the Almighty in one of the old mystery cults.
Apparently the evolving language of an emerging field of study is just a bunch of academics trying to evade reality ... at least for Williamson.  Unfortunately for Williamson, it is not mere "rearranging words to rearrange reality" so much as seeking language that accurately depicts reality.  Had Mr. Williamson looked beyond his assumptions, he would have discovered that much of the modern language around cross-gender identity started with the "Benjamin Scale".  At this point in time, it became necessary to describe more than cross-dressing, and Benjamin made what seemed a reasonable approach at the time.  Since then, the understanding and language related to the broad notion of cross-gender identity has grown enormously, to the point of being daunting to those who do not spend significant time working with it.

It is not difficult to see why Williamson and his allies try to claim that this is just linguistic voodoo.  The semantics are complicated, and understanding the subtle distinctions that need to be grasped to fully appreciate the language involved is no small task.  Far easier to dismiss it as "irrelevant" or "magic" than to examine it critically.

Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman. Sex is a biological reality, and it is not subordinate to subjective impressions, no matter how intense those impressions are, how sincerely they are held, or how painful they make facing the biological facts of life. No hormone injection or surgical mutilation is sufficient to change that. 
Ah yes ... born with a penis = man, born with a vagina = woman ... and old and somewhat brain damaged way to look at these matters.  Unfortunately for Williamson, there is a distance to be covered between the social notions of "man" and "woman" - concepts which are mostly social, and the physiological sex notions of "male" and "female".  Physiological sex is fundamentally about the shape of the body, "man" and "woman" are primarily social constructs with roots in physiological sex.

DF Swaab 2007 states quite clearly the following:
 As sexual differentiation of the genitals takes places in the first 2 months of pregnancy, and sexual differentiation of the brain starts during the second half of pregnancy, these two processes may be influenced independently of each other, resulting in transsexuality. This also means that in the case of an ambiguous gender at birth, the degree of masculinization of the genitals may not reflect the same degree of masculinization of the brain. Differences in brain structures and brain functions have been found that are related to sexual orientation and gender. 
Research findings like this poke significant holes in the "has a penis = man" logic of people like Williamson. As many transsexuals can attest to, you can be born with a penis and never feel the least bit like a man.

Returning to Williamson's rather naive attack on transsexuals, we find a few more gems of logic:
Genital amputation and mutilation is the extreme expression of the phenomenon, but it is hardly outside the mainstream of contemporary medical practice. The trans self-conception, if the autobiographical literature is any guide, is partly a feeling that one should be living one’s life as a member of the opposite sex and partly a delusion that one is in fact a member of the opposite sex at some level of reality that transcends the biological facts in question. There are many possible therapeutic responses to that condition, but the offer to amputate healthy organs in the service of a delusional tendency is the moral equivalent of meeting a man who believes he is Jesus and inquiring as to whether his insurance plan covers crucifixion.
Oh yes, let's talk for a moment or two about the language of "delusion", shall we?  The DSM IV (and the drafts of the DSM V text I have reviewed) all contain a very clear statement regarding the issue of psychological delusion in transsexuals.  Quite specifically, there is a clause in there that recognizes that a transsexual is usually perfectly aware of the distance between their physical and psychological realities.  This isn't a delusion.

Gender Reassingment Surgery (GRS) is an imperfect solution, but at least for MtF transsexuals it enables a degree of physical congruence between self-image and body that otherwise is impossible to achieve.  Like many people, Mr. Williamson seems to view this is "mutilation".   Most transsexuals would disagree with good reason.

The question of the status of gay people interacts with politics to the extent that it in some cases challenges existing family law, but homosexual acts as such seem to me a matter that is obviously, and almost by definition, private. The mass delusion that we are inculcating on the question of transgendered people is a different sort of matter, to the extent that it would impose on society at large an obligation — possibly a legal obligation under civil-rights law, one that already is emerging — to treat delusion as fact, or at the very least to agree to make subjective impressions superordinate to biological fact in matters both public and private. 
As a matter of government, I have little or no desire to police how Cox or any other man or woman conducts his or her personal life. 
What Williamson is overlooking is the fact that the history of both sexual and gender minority communities is that they are traditionally oppressed by the state in a very explicitly.  It's all very well that Williamson doesn't wish to regulate how Laverne Cox lives her life.  What he is quietly ignoring is that the coercive power of the state has been used to suppress LGBT people, and gave rise to the hostility and discrimination that they experience.  This simple fact means that by definition, the matter of rights and non-discrimination requires active engagement on the part of the state to rectify past and present wrongs.
But having a culture organized around the elevation of unreality over reality in the service of Eros, who is a sometimes savage god, is not only irrational but antirational.
Here we have the last trope possible - namely that it's all about sex.  Williamson couldn't be more wrong if he tried.  Sure, most people want an active and satisfying sex life.  Some people achieve that, some do not.  While GRS certainly can play a significant role in helping achieve that goal, it is seldom the primary reason for it.  What Williamson appears to completely misunderstand is that bodily congruence is at the top of the list for most transsexuals.

I don't know what Williamson's criteria for "womanhood" are.  He doesn't really tell us, but I would suspect that a great many natal females would not meet his standards, whatever they might be.

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