The recent article by Robert Jensen, “Some Basic Propositions about Sex, Gender, and Patriarchy,” espouses concepts that both reflect and perpetuate cissexism and transphobia. Jensen correctly anticipates that readers will recognize much of his article as unabashedly transphobic. He reacts by preemptively dismissing any such observations as mere “tactics.” In the third to last paragraph he writes, “Labeling a radical feminist position on these public policy issues as inherently “transphobic” or describing radical feminist arguments on the issues as “hate speech” are diversionary tactics that undermine productive intellectual and political discussion. A critique of an idea is not a personal attack on any individual who holds the idea.”
An online search for terms like “hate speech” and “diversionary tactic” leads one to any number of authors repining how their opinions will be or have been similarly “misrepresented.” Regardless, it is insufficient to simply assert by force of will that those who recognize one’s opinions as transphobic or one’s statements as hate speech are merely engaged in the use of “tactics.” Rather, such a preemptive dismissal is itself a “tactic.” It is a disrespectful and derisive dismissal of the anticipated experience of individuals directly impacted by those statements and opinions.
Jensen’s precognitive defense is possibly due to his own personal history. In a quick Google search, I found a 2012 post alleging that, “Robert Jensen had personally challenged the identity of a trans woman speaker. This woman, named Joelle Ryan, found herself berated on full account of her trans identity, and observed as Jensen proceeded to lambast every aspect of transgender culture.” This may not be the first or last time Jensen’s opinions will be “mis”characterized as transphobic hate speech.
Unfortunately, anti-transgender prejudice is so deeply rooted and systemic that it is rarely noticed or even considered. Discussions of anti-transgender prejudice, often amongst individuals never directly impacted, are replete with misunderstanding and misused or ill-defined concepts and terminology. For clarification, I’ll attempt to break down some of the relevant terminology in a nutshell:
- Cissexual (or cisgender) refers to possessing a self-identity congruent with one’s birth assigned sex and gender. Broadly, people who are not trans* are cisgender.
- Cissexism and transphobia have been defined in various ways, but generally imply that being transgender is inferior to being cisgender. This is often a consequence of the underlying perception that gender is properly and unambiguously determined by a simple “biological” sex dichotomy (male or female). Gender ambiguity is seen as a violation of a natural binary order. Whether intentional or not, both transphobia and cissexism have severe consequences for the victims of these attitudes.
For anyone interested in learning more, Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman wrote a great article on this titled, “What is Transphobia? And, What is Cissexism?”, where he also elaborates on a growing body of research examining the wide-reaching negative consequences of anti-transgender prejudice.
Jensen interprets transgender via the myopic lens of his personal ideology. He seems to have little or no genuine appreciation of the experience and perceptions of those who are transgender. And I strongly disagree with and felt deeply offended by his article. Below I summarize some of my reasons.
Point of clarification: I would like to disclaim that “transgender” is an umbrella term for many people who defy mainstream expectations and assumptions regarding gender, and can be used to refer to transsexuals as well as people who are gender nonconforming in other ways — for example, feminine men, masculine women, transfeminine, transmasculine, genderqueers (who do not identify exclusively as either women or men), to name a few. There are many different ways to experience and interpret gender as human beings. And there are also several ways to conceptualize gender.
Since Jensen focused exclusively on the mainstream media use of “transgender” in terms of the medical procedures that an individual might undergo (e.g., hormones and surgeries), I will do my best to limit my scope somewhat to this specific sub-group who require surgical intervention to function optimally – particularly in my response to his “Ecology” argument.
Still, it’s extremely important to note that many trans* people find such definitions to be objectifying (as they place focus on body parts rather than the person as a whole) and classist (as not all trans people can afford medical intervention). For these reasons, I personally favor definitions based on self-identity. And while I am an advocate of gender transgression and do not identify within the gender binary, there are many transgender people who do and deserve equal respect, validation, and inclusion.
Biological and Cultural
Jensen sets up the foundation of his argument by drawing the reader’s attention to the classification of humans as a “sexually dimorphic species”. Ignoring, for the moment, distinctions between biological sex and gender, even human biological sex is not as simple as Jensen’s ideology demands. The construct of sexual dimorphism can be a handy tool for classification, but it is a vast oversimplification that denies the reality of millions of humans. And while many humans can be categorized as either male or female based upon simple biological characteristics, there are many people who do not fit neatly into these categories. The lives and personal experience of these millions of individuals are just as valid and important as those of the majority. One can not simply dismiss value of their existence because they cannot be pressed neatly into an overly simplistic and rigidly binary worldview biologically and/or socially.
- Nature presents us with a variety of sex spectrums. For those unfamiliar with such variations, here is a snippet:
- Sex chromosomes — XY chromosomes = man and XX = woman, right? Wrong. On the Y chromosome, a gene called SRY generally causes a fetus to develop male. But the SRY can show up on an X, turning an XX fetus essentially male. If the SRY gene does not work on the Y, the fetus develops essentially female. An XY fetus with a functioning SRY can essentially develop female. In the case of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, cells in the body are not entirely receptive to androgens (masculinizing hormones). Subsequently, the body ends up appearing female-typical but the individual lacks body hair (which is dependent on androgen-sensitivity). Women with complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome are less “masculinized” in their muscles and brains than many other cisgender women, because cisgender women in general are more receptive to androgens.
Genitals — The genitals of every sex and gender come from the same stuff, and many individuals (who are not intersex) have ambiguous genitalia and are still referred to as men or women. Moreover, a person can appear to be male-typical but is biologically female-typical, or vice versa. For instance, cisgender men with extreme Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia may be entirely male-typical but discover later in life that they have ovaries and a uterus. Even though these individuals have XX chromosomes and ovaries, their adrenal glands make so many androgens that their bodies develop male-typical (including their muscle development and gender identity).
Hormones — All genders and sexes make the same hormones, just in different quantities, on average. The average man has more androgens than the average woman. But what about athletic women, who are more likely to have naturally high levels of androgens? There’s a lot of variation here, also – such as the 1 out of every 10-20 women who have polycystic ovarian syndrome.
In other words, while we may be classified as a sexually dimorphic species, the reality of sex and gender are biologically diverse. Attempting to clearly delineate the wonderful and vast spectrum of human experience into two simple cissexual categories will take a lot of endocrinologists, gynecologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, and so forth. None of whom are going to be able to simply run a test that can do so. While science could inform their decisions, they’d have to decide which of the dozens of characteristics of biological sex matter.
But apparently, a professor of journalism can make this decision with the following delineating criteria: “… only females can bear and breastfeed children, which no male can do.” and, “Other observable or measureable physical differences (average height, muscle mass, etc.) between males and females may be socially relevant depending on circumstances. Sex-role differentiation based on those differences may be appropriate if it can be shown to be necessary in the interests of everyone in a society.”
While Jensen pays lip service to the existence of individuals who are intersex, he immediately invalidates their lives with these statements — both of which are riddled with flaws and have very concerning implications. Should an intersex person who can breastfeed and bear children be forced to identify as female? Is an intersex person who can’t, inherently male? Is a woman who has entered menopause or had a mastectomy in some way less female? Is that really all there is to being female – the ability to bear and breastfeed children? Are cisgender men who can lactate female? What about transgender men who have the ability to bear and breastfeed children (e.g. Matt Rice and Thomas Beatie)? Such examples illustrate the absurdity of attempting to fit everyone – intersex and/or (cis/trans)sexual – into false sex and socially constructed gender dichotomies.
Based on this flawed delineating criteria, Jensen concludes, “Therefore, human communities have always, and will always, recognize two distinct sex categories, male and female. There has always been, and always will be, some sex-role differentiation in human communities.”
To claim that human communities have always recognized two distinct sex (or gender) categories is culturally ignorant and untrue. For instance, most, though not entirely all, American Indian tribes recognized social gender categories beyond “male” or “female” collectively known as Two-Spirit. In 1700 AD in England, there were writers who described themselves as members of a third sex (e.g. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Magnus Hirschfeld, Edward Carpenter, etc.). These are just two of many historical examples I could provide.
In the present day Australians have been able to use “X,” an additional gender marker since 2003. Germany identifies “Indeterminate” sex on birth certificates. The Hiijra of India are a well-known and populous third sex type in the modern world, and in 2009 India started listing eunuchs and transgender people as “others”, distinct from males and females of cisgender experience. There are also “Gaddhi” in the foothills of the Himalayas, another third sex/gender. There are three gender options legally in Nepal, New Zealand (indeterminate), Pakistan (khawaja sara), and Thailand (kathoeys). And the list of human community complexity and acknowledgement of diversity goes on and on. If you’re interested in learning more, PBS has an interactive map of gender-diverse cultures.
To impose the false sex and gender dichotomies prevalent in the United States on to the rest of the world, and throughout the history of human communities, is incredibly ethnocentric.
Jensen writes, “… we should assume that all or part of any differences in observed behavior between males and females in these matters are a product of cultural training, while remaining open to alternative explanations.”
The “nature vs. nurture” debate is old news. The two aren’t diametrically opposed, and humans are influenced by nature and nurture (e.g. just take a peek into the fields of behavioral endocrinology, epigenetics, and neuropsychology). In regards to sex/gender differences, there is also a growing body of literature supporting the hypothesis that one’s internal sense of gender and sexual anatomical attributes are hard-wired in the brain<>1, which are subsequently influenced by (but not determined by) social environments. These results are further evidenced by the failure of behavioral interventions, such as the case of John Money and David Reimer. This is a notorious case that still influences thinking regarding gender — particularly among radical feminists. To this day, because of this misguided thinking, some intersex children are still subjected to mutilating medical procedures and are forced to conform to one of two sex categories (male or female) that are not biologically in concordance with the true diversity that exists in the world.
Sexism is not an overly simplistic, unilateral form of oppression, where men are the oppressors and women are the oppressed, end of story. As Julie Serano puts it:
… there are numerous forms of sexism—that is, numerous double standards based on a person’s sex, gender, or sexuality. In addition to traditional sexism (where men are viewed as more legitimate than women), there is heterosexism (where heterosexuals are viewed as more legitimate than homosexuals), monosexism (where people who are exclusively attracted to members of a single sex are viewed as more legitimate than bisexuals/pansexuals), masculine-centrism (where masculine gender expression is viewed as more legitimate than feminine gender expression) and so on.
While sexism has been historically framed in terms of patriarchy, the existence of transgender persons and gender identities beyond the false gender dichotomy threaten this ideology. The very gender binary that Jensen is perpetuating — that those assigned male at birth grow up to be men and those who are assigned female at birth grow up to be women — results in marginalizing individuals who do not naturally conform to the binary, such as intersex persons, gender non-conforming / gender fluid / pangender individuals, transgender persons, etc.
Jensen writes, “Many people… are critical of high-tech medicine’s manipulation of the body through the reckless use of hormones and chemicals … or the destruction of healthy tissue to conform to arbitrary beauty standards” and, “People are not machines, and treating the human body like a machine is inconsistent with an ecological understanding of ourselves as living beings who are part of a larger living world.”
Here Jensen perpetuates the fallacy that being transgender is a cosmetic issue and motivated by a simple “want” to be female or male, by someone who was not assigned such at birth. However, extensive medical research into transsexuality dating as far back as the 1920s and into present day have demonstrated otherwise, and consequently, medical standards of care have included Gender Reassignment Surgery (GRS) as a necessary procedure for decades. “Gender Dysphoria” is the present name for this condition in the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and treatment follows the standards of care established by the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH, formerly HBIGDA), which includes GRS. The American Medical Association has also stepped forward advocating the necessity of surgery and its coverage. In fact, like the AMA, the American Psychiatric Association also support GRS as a medically necessary part of treatment.
Treatment of Gender Dysphoria incorporates surgical and endocrine intervention, because analytical and aversion therapies have historically proven damaging. The futility and harmfulness of electroshock therapy, anti-psychotic drugs or conversion (“ex-gay”) therapy is well-documented: modern medicine has realized that this approach simply does not work, and usually results in suppression, suicide or extreme antisocial behavior. Aligning body to mind for this sub-population of the trans* spectrum, however, can work.
Gender Dysphoria is currently (and controversially) listed as a mental health issue, but as I mentioned earlier, ongoing study of both genetic ”brain sex” and Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) show the possibility of some biological causal factors. For instance, a researcher famous for his groundbreaking work in phantom limb syndrome has provided a great deal of evidence that the brain has innate, hard-wired templates for human anatomy. He reasoned that this hard-wired template may also be responsible for a person’s internal sense of gender and how this relates to one’s sexual anatomy, “both of which develop through different biological mechanisms, probably in utero”. Ultimately, he found support for this hypothesis that one’s internal sense of gender and sexual anatomical attributes may also be hard-wired in the brain.
Studies of EDCs show another, possibly concurrent potential that exposure to chemicals that simulate hormone characteristics can affect the signals sent out to determine psychological gender and biological sex, which appear to develop at different times during gestation. In all fairness, nothing is conclusively proven at this point (for the etiology of transexuality OR cissexuality), but a growing body of empirical data from EDC and brain studies tends to support an innate origin or component of intersexuality, transsexuality and
There is more. Without GRS, many transsexuals experience severe logistic limitations — for example, with employment, where we can go (i.e. the gym, public restrooms, swimming pools), difficulties in establishing relationships, in hospitals, or in prisons that house by physical sex rather than gender identity creating potentially risky or extremely isolating situations. There is also an extremely high risk of violence faced upon the accidental discovery that one’s anatomy does not “match” perceived gender. I could go on and on. But in sum, no other supposedly “cosmetic” issue so completely affects a person’s rights and safety.
In response to an aversion toward “treating the human body like a machine”, would the author similarly argue that we must abolish hormone therapy for women who are unable to conceive babies? Or deny young men with severe gynocomastia (a common condition characterized by the benign enlargement of breast tissue in males) surgical intervention? How is it that cissexual individuals have a right to medically necessary care, but for transsexual individuals it’s “cosmetic”?
The author writes: “Forcing female-only spaces to accommodate people who identify as transgender reinforces patriarchy as a system and harms individual females.”
This statement is entirely cissexist and based on the belief that women of transgender experience are not as legitimate as women of cisgender experience. They are.
Overall, I found Jensen’s “public policy” section to be misguided and extremely concerning. The people harmed here are transwomen who are denied access to the space consistent with their gender identity. And regarding his “serious moral questions about our collective obligation for children’s welfare,” what about the extreme distress experienced by a child whose gender identity is not affirmed? His framing of GRS as a “freedom to choose” issue is simplistic and uninformed.
While I understand that Jensen may be experiencing some kind of cognitive dissonance between his belief in the gender binary and the existence of transgender persons, it’s unethical to resolve the dissonance through scapegoating the transgender community — a community that face incredible health disparities.
According to a report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey titled ‘Injustice at Every Turn’, a series of bias-related events lead to “insurmountable challenges and devastating outcomes for study participants”. This isn’t an imaginary demographic. These are 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming study participants who are very, very real. And the devastating health disparities impacting this demographic are not a product of a patriarchal gender ideology, but rather the very anti-transgender prejudice that individuals like Robert Jensen perpetuate.
I really hope that Jensen and others in the academic community who may share his perceptions will take a new approach, and instead actually try to make a genuine effort to understand the experience and perceptions of persons who are transgender.
As Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman so aptly put it: “The strict social norms regarding gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality also constrain the freedoms of cisgender people, as well. We all risk facing ridicule, being shunned, or even experiencing discrimination and violence, if we step outside of the narrow range of acceptable gender identities and expressions. As others have said, transphobia hurts us all.”