Sunday, June 20, 2021

Let's Talk A Bit About "Gender Ideology"

Over at The Economist, we have a somewhat simplistic article blathering away about how there's a backlash happening against "Gender Ideology".

I'm not going to dissect the article in detail, because there's a more important point that needs to be made here.  The concept of "Gender Ideology" is fundamentally a creation of the various anti-transgender groups in an effort to define the discourse.

The problem with the term is that it is fundamentally a straw man in the first place. A variety of people opposed to transgender rights contributed to the "idea" that there is such a thing, be they "TERF"s, hardline religious types, or more recently the so-called "Gender Criticals".

These groups have tied all sorts of meanings to the concept - ranging from transgender people want to "erase" women, to resurrecting old anti-gay tropes like "transing" children (a variation on "Gay people are recruiting your children").  Like the old spectre of "The Gay Agenda", "Gender Ideology" is a hollow term filled with fear mongering ideas. It is designed not to inform (as a meaningful term would), but to mislead (as is often the case with propaganda).  

Analyzing The Many Meanings

Every time the so-called "Gender Critical" lot start talking, they use terms like "Gender Ideology", but they never really define what they mean. Instead, over time, an assortment of accusations against the transgender community as a whole has been lumped in with it. 

Meaning: Gender Ideology Erases Sex Differentiation

This one stems from the often uneasy relationship between transgender women and the lesbian community. This goes back to the earliest days of gender transition and is perhaps understandable in the broader landscape of ignorance that often permeates these discussions. It is challenging to disentangle sexual orientation, sexual identity, gender identity, and physical sex from each other. (We'll come back to this in a bit)  It is sufficient to understand that transgender women in particular have had a fraught relationship with the lesbian community as a whole. Equally challenging within that community is the emergence of transgender men, who were seen by many in the lesbian community as an attempt to erase lesbians.  

More recent iterations of this have turned into a rather bizarre form of essentialism where the idea that somehow the idea of being a "man" or a "woman" is intrinsically linked to one's genitalia - and specifically whatever genitalia one was born with. 

The Issues

Fundamentally, I think this line of reasoning fails on several levels. Most fundamentally, it represents a rigid worldview that is unable to take in new information. While there is an argument to be made that mammals in general are sexually dimorphic with male and female, we know that there are those who sit in between the two bells of the bimodal curve that would be represented statistically.  Such a strong dichotomy requires the proponent to ignore exceptions.

One of the things we look for in science is always the ability of a model to adapt to new evidence.  A rigid dichotomy is broken by the first exception that comes along.

Second, falling into an essentialist argument is similarly problematic. Not only does such a perspective negate the experiences of a lot of natal females who fall outside of of 'the normal curve', but again, it fails to provide room for dealing with new evidence.  

Most transgender people spend a great deal of time untangling their social role, sexual identity, gender identity, and physical sex from each other.  As a result, there is a clear distinction in transgender discourse that treats gender as reflective of the social concepts of 'man / woman' (and those who fall somewhere in between) and distinct from physical sex, and sexual identity.  

Meaning: Gender Ideology Attacks Sex-Based Rights

By "sex-based rights", this usually seems to mean "don't let someone with an icky penis into a women's washroom or change room", although it also plays into the "issues" around trans women participating in sports. 

First of all, those separations arose out of several things - and none of them are truly rights-based. Instead, they actually arose out of long held cultural beliefs that are actually at the root of what feminism has been fighting against for decades, if not centuries. The idea that women have to be kept separate because otherwise men won't be able to "control themselves", combined with a long-standing cultural "fear" of the female body and how it works, led to the creation of these segregations. 

One can see echoes of their origins in what are now seen as "quaint little myths" like "a groom should never see his bride on wedding day".  Or, "a woman never talks about her age", etc.  These are all things that perpetuate the mythology about the female body.  

Additionally, the "boys will be boys" mentality has allowed a particularly toxic form of culture to develop among males. The objectification of women, crude jokes about forcing sexual intercourse on women, etc. have ultimately created an environment where coexistence is only possible within very structured contexts like marriage.  Other interactions are carefully chaperoned.  

The Issues

How does this end up affecting transgender people?  Well, it gets combined with this silly notion that "if you ever had a penis, you're a man" essentialism I talked about earlier. So even a transgender woman who has had genital surgery is not really considered "safe".  The idea of the male as an objective threat has been amplified here to the point of declaring that anyone who ever might have had a penis is a threat. 

Note that this particular concern only really affects transgender women, although it can also affect transgender men - but somehow they don't seem to come up in this discussion.  

Now, there is a legitimate concern about sexual assault to be considered. There are no doubt some transgender people who are inclined to become sexual offenders. What is different here is that the entire population of transgender people are assumed to be sex offenders without any evidence that the rate of sexual predator behaviour is even at the same level as found in the general population. 

When combined with the first proposition which denies the validity of someone's gender identity, we get a mentality which assumes not only that a trans woman is not in fact a valid woman, but also lumps them into the same category as rapists and perverts.

Meaning:  "They're Transing Our Children"

This one is a particularly pernicious claim, because it attacks not only transgender people as a whole, but also levels an attack at the community of medical and mental health professionals who provide treatment to transgender people. 

The claim made implies that the minute a child shows any kind of clinical level of distress about their gender or their body that they are whisked off to doctors, given hormones and surgery. They love to imply that:

1)  Transgender people are constantly looking for children to "recruit"

2)  That the medical practitioners are acting unethically

The Issues

First, let's recognize the roots of this particular allegation.  Fundamentally, it is a revisitation of the "the gays are coming for your children" attack used from the 70s-80s to attack gay rights. Part of the oh-so-secret "Gay Agenda" that opponents to gay rights claimed was some kind of insidious plot to "take over" society and destroy it. The implication is that transgender people are 'recruiting' children to be transgender in much the same way that gays were imagined to be 'grooming' children to lure them into homosexuality. To be kind, such claims of "recruiting" have always been utter nonsense, but it's been politically useful to create a false linkage with pedophilia simply because of the strong sense of disgust that particular word provokes in most people. 

The second dimension of it is much more insidious because it implies a large scale conspiracy involving therapists, doctors, and others to "force" children to transition, or to encourage them to do so when not appropriate. The arguments around this often involve making some very elementary mistakes in interpreting formal studies, and the associated data.  But it is also incorrect to imply that there is some conspiracy to force children to transition.  

It is perhaps particularly important to recognize that so-called "puberty blocker" medications are not intended to transition anyone, but instead put the brakes on a natural, biological process to enable the person, in conjunction with therapists to make appropriate decisions without having the additional consequences of potentially experiencing "the wrong puberty" at the same time.  

Meaning:  Anyone Who Ever Had Testosterone Has An Advantage In Sports

This is perhaps the murkiest of them all.  The argument largely boils down to "if you ever had testicles, you have an intrinsic advantage in athletics".  Of course they never really describe what is meant by "an advantage".  They point to typically male secondary sex characteristics like a greater muscle mass, or a slightly heavier skeleton. 

The Issues

First of all, it's not at all clear what is meant by "an advantage" here.  The Olympics has been allowing trans women to compete since somewhere around 2005 or 2006.  In that time, only a few have ever even qualified in their sports, and none have ever made the podium in the Olympics themselves. If there is a massive advantage as is being proposed, one would expect to see many transgender women stepping onto the podiums - but that just hasn't been happening. 

Second, when we talk about advantages, especially in areas like musculature, we have to recognize that anyone who has been on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) that involves suppressing testosterone and replacing it with exogenous estrogen tends to have a body that only supports female normative muscle density and power.

The age at which a transgender person starts taking HRT will also influence to what degree they develop masculine sex characteristics that might affect athletics. Generally speaking, transition at a younger age will result in the body developing much more along normative lines for the chosen gender, so someone who starts to transition medically and is lucky enough to be able to take blockers before puberty goes into high gear will often have a skeletal structure that is perfectly normal for female. 

What evidence I have seen presented on this matter tends to be "look at the differences between male and female athletes" (as in cisgender), and then that is used to argue that in particular transgender women should not be allowed to compete as women. This is ignoring both the medical realities of transition as well as the rules that various sporting bodies have developed - which to my knowledge don't allow someone to compete "just because they say they are transgender".  In the absence of compelling studies done with transgender athletes that demonstrate a clear and significant "advantage" across a range of sports, we should consider this particular claim to be utterly unproven. 

Regarding school athletics, prior to the onset of puberty there are no appreciable differences in athletic performance for obvious reasons. There is, perhaps, a need for some greater clarity about handling student athletes once puberty has begun, but even there we need to approach this in a far more compassionate way than simply banning transgender students from participating.  


Much like the so-called "Gay Agenda", "Gender Ideology" is basically a straw man that opponents of transgender rights use to provide an appearance of legitimacy to their often unfounded claims. 

No transgender person had any say in what this term is used for.  In other words, it's a red herring - it's intended to deceive and mislead you.  Any time you see this term used, you should look at it skeptically, and equally be very skeptical of anyone using it to convince you that somehow transgender people are part of some vast conspiracy to overturn society.  


Anonymous said...

No, it's not the women of the right that are rebelling hard against losing the safety of women's only spaces, the housing of males in female prisons, having to have their young daughters having to share change rooms with adult males, being removed from that language of motherhood (pregnant people? Menstruators? That's what women are these days? Not the right at all. Lots of hard left women are horrified that there is only one political party in Canada that is not ready to let the whims of a bunch of males eliminate years of hard-won battles, to not hurt their feelings. Since when are women NOT losing their rights by being forced to allow males into Women's Rape Crisis Centres? Use you head. Look into some practicalities and see how much koolaid the Woke Left has guzzled. Maybe you want to take a look at Dead Wild Roses, a blog also on progressive bloggers. She has a lot of information that you really use.

MgS said...

Anonymous @ 8:19:

Give me a moment to respond to your allegations, because whether you realize it or not, you've basically argued "Gender Ideology!!!", and allow me to demonstrate the problems:

"losing the safety of women's only spaces"

The claim here starts with the presupposition that a transgender woman is not really a woman, and ends with the supposition that anyone who ever had a penis is automatically a threat. This is objectively false, possession of a penis (or prior possession thereof) does not make one a predator to begin with. As for whether _you_ view a transgender woman as a "real woman", that's on you. To argue that a transgender woman should not access a "female only" space such as a washroom, you create two problems:

a) Where is that person supposed to go? (Clearly not an issue you've thought about)
b) How do you propose to prevent transgender women from accessing those spaces? (It's a lot harder than you might think)

Lastly, you make these claims without providing so much as a shred of evidence that transgender women are in fact the threat you clearly allege they are.

being removed from that language of motherhood (pregnant people? Menstruators?

Oh, grow up. If you paid some attention, nobody is saying the language of "woman", or "mother" should be removed, but rather that we need to understand that not all who have periods see themselves as 'women' in the social sense of the word. Inclusivity is not "erasing" womanhood from the language, so much as it is finding language that works for those who do not fall into the very narrow social role of "woman".

Lots of hard left women are horrified that there is only one political party in Canada that is not ready to let the whims of a bunch of males eliminate years of hard-won battles, to not hurt their feelings.

What "battles" are these? I think if you looked at it objectively, you would find that transgender women in particular have long been proponents of feminism and the very battles you are talking about.

As an aside, being transgender is not a "whim", and trivializing it as such demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of that experience and the social and emotional struggles that so many in that community actually face. There is a considerable body of science that suggests strongly that there are biological and developmental aspects in play which are wholly out of the control of the person.

Since when are women NOT losing their rights by being forced to allow males into Women's Rape Crisis Centres

Ah yes, the infamous VRR case from a few years ago. First, as I recall, that case went quite the opposite direction.

However, even there, you misconstrue things because transgender women experience rape as well, and live with the trauma from it just as other women do.

Lastly, you are making a series of allegations about transgender women and their character which you have presented zero evidence to support. Returning to the fundamental critique of my post, wrapping those allegations in a semantically empty term of 'gender ideology' does not make them true.

Anonymous said...

Here is another viewpoint that you should consider:

MgS said...

Anonymous @ 10:55:

There is an enormous difference between saying “there is a difference” and saying “there’s an advantage”.

That column (and it’s really just an opinion piece) tries to wipe away the results of transgender athletes (who have mysteriously _NOT_ been walking away with the podium medals) by trivially saying “oh, well, they just weren’t all that good”, while expounding on the huge differences between male and female athletic performance levels by comparing cisgender male and cisgender female world record performances.

If you are going to claim there is an “advantage” for transgender women in athletics, it becomes essential that you do so with actual performance data involving transgender athletes’ performance as being disproportionate. In the absence of such data, all we have is an _assertion_ that there is an advantage.

Athletic performance is the culmination of a vast number of factors both endogenous and exogenous, and it seems to me to be more than a little unreasonable to sit there and say “well, because you might have had a drop of extra testosterone in your body at some point, you cannot compete” without having some really solid science showing not only that there are differences, but that those differences _IN_FACT_ represent a measurable advantage in the domain of competition. In other words, let’s actually look beyond single factors and examine the whole picture. For example, an advantage in terms of greater “lean muscle” might be completely offset by the penalty exacted resulting from a heavier skeleton in a domain like swimming, or the slightly heavier skeleton could present a hydrodynamic disadvantage when paired with the body supporting a reduced level of muscle power.

There are many permutations, these are but a couple of “off the top” examples that I can think of based on personal knowledge and experience.

A quick glance through the literature on athletic performance factors on Google Scholar presents very slim pickings indeed in terms of not only identifying differences, but whether any of those differences in fact result in an athletic performance gain.

One last point, tying this back to the OP, once again, the issues raised result in a form of biology is destiny essentialism. Imagine a world where you were defined by the chemicals in your body, and one day your testosterone happened to spike into the male range - does that change your status of being a woman? Should it change your status as a woman? The whole ‘biology is destiny’ thing is exactly how women ended up in ‘second class citizen’ status in the first place.

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