On the Difference between Trans Rights and Gender-Identity Ideology

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Jesse Singal:

"There is a difference between believing in “trans rights” and believing in “gender-identity ideology.” That’s the subtly important distinction that fuels Helen Joyce’s “Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality,” a book that offers an intelligent, thorough rejoinder to an idea that has swept across much of the liberal world seemingly overnight.

According to Joyce, a longtime staffer at The Economist, most people “understand the call for ‘trans rights’ to mean compassionate concessions that enable a suffering minority to live full lives, in safety and dignity.” Joyce endorses this idea. Her bête noire is what she calls gender-identity ideology, which holds that everyone has a “gender identity,” an internal sense of being male or female (or both or neither), that is, in most tellings, innate and immutable, “something like a sexed soul.” When someone’s gender identity conflicts with their body, and/or with how society views their body, that person is transgender. (Disclosure: Joyce and I have corresponded sporadically over the years, and we got dinner when she was in New York City in 2020.)

A primary goal of those who adhere to gender-identity ideology is to enact “gender self-identification,” or the idea “that people should count as men or women according to how they feel and what they declare, instead of their biology,” into norm and law. According to self-ID, as I’ll call it henceforth, once an individual reveals their gender identity, that trumps anyone else’s understanding of it. If you say you are a man or a woman, or both or neither, that is exactly what you are.

When followed faithfully, gender-identity ideology has important implications. Take the common trans-rights flash point of communal female locker rooms. According to this view, allowing everyone who identifies as a woman to use such facilities, regardless of their degree of physical transition or any other factors, does not entail any trade-offs worth discussing. The “core mantra” of the belief system, as Joyce puts it, is that “trans women are women.” And why would you not let a woman into a women’s locker room? That’s nonsensical.

For most of the modern history of what used to be called “transsexualism,” Joyce writes in some engaging early pages, transgender people weren’t, for the most part, understood to really be the sex they felt they were. Rare in numbers, they were given hormones or surgery by “maverick clinicians” (if they were lucky enough to find any), and treated “as exceptions, to be accommodated in society with varying degrees of competence and compassion” by the bureaucrats who would sometimes swap out an M for an F or vice versa on some government form.

Since the 1990s and especially in the last decade or so, though, there has been a genuine revolution in the liberal intelligentsia’s understanding of sex and gender, Joyce argues. This was the result of a complex and hard-to-summarize tangle of political and cultural forces, but the end result has been the entrenchment of gender-identity ideology and self-ID in many politically liberal institutions. These ideas are also being written into law in many places, including in the United States — following the lead of certain blue states, the Democrats’ Equality Act, which passed the House in February but which is unlikely to ever get through the filibuster-choked Senate, seeks to expand federal law’s definition of “sex” to also include gender identity. Other countries, like Portugal and Joyce’s native Ireland, have enacted self-ID by making it quite easy for citizens to change their legal sex without requiring signoff from medical or psychological authorities."