The announcement that a well-known Olympic athlete is transitioning from male to female has exposed fault lines between followers of certain feminist teachings and the transgender community and its allies. A number of prominent feminists have raised objections to what has become the accepted conversation about gender transitions, the most visible being an opinion by Elinor Burkett published in the New York Times. A lively dialog followed involving opinions by Brynn Tannehill in the Huffington Post, by Lesli-Ann-Lewis in Ebony, and by Sarah Miller in Jezebel.
Burkett labels the idea that gender identity is encoded in the brain, “nonsense”, and the practice of calling someone a woman who has transitioned male-to-female, “offensive”. To the casual observer, this must seem baffling. After all, feminists traditionally fight for women’s rights and transgender women are among the women whose rights are most fragile.
Having grown up in the 60s and 70s helps me understand their worldview. At that time, prominent voices still claimed that women were biologically suited for certain life directions and not others. The women’s movement, as it was called back then, was clawing for recognition against cultural assumptions with roots going back centuries. Women needed to be prepared to do anything necessary to draw attention to inequalities between the genders.
However, we were naive about gender. David Reimer’s tragic suicide from unwilling sex reassignment as an infant was still decades in the future. Johns Hopkins had declared sex changes not to be beneficial, implying that transgender people could somehow get over their gender issues. The study of male/female brain differences was still in its infancy. Cocktail conversation of the time involved speculation on how to raise babies so they would be androgynous. Gender was widely believed to be a social construct, a product of learning and not wired into us from birth.
Feminism seized upon this perception of the origin of gender as their central argument: Absent cultural learning, male and female brains were basically the same, therefore discrimination against women is indefensible.
Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st century. It’s thirty five years later, but equal treatment proves stubbornly elusive. A glaring pay gap between men and women seems to defy fixing. Sexual harassment, domestic violence, and rape remain serious problems. Bodies are shamed and gender is policed worse even than back then. And there are countries where treatment of women is just one step above slavery (if that). Meanwhile, the world seems ready to declare equal rights achieved and move on to other struggles. Feminism still needs every persuasive weapon in its arsenal to stay in the fight.
The “absent cultural learning, male and female brains are the same” argument is challenged by our very existence. If you concede that people walk the earth with male bodies whose brains are wired to be female, that’s a direct refutation of that claim. It means that something in our brains dictates gender identity, something that can’t be overcome with any amount of retraining. It’s easy to see how this would be threatening. They are now wide open to claims that, since men and women are unchangeably wired to be different, discrimination can be justified.
With that history in mind, feminists such as Burkett resist accepting our stories that we were “born” to be female, and feel the need to insist transition is a whim or fancy we’ve picked up along the way.
However, we are not the problem.
The problem is the fallacious premise that if men and women think differently (whether by biology or experience) then discrimination is justifiable.
We don’t apply that to any other sort of discrimination. In most places, vast differences separate the experience of various races, cultures, or religions. No one would say that black people and white people come with the same points of view or cultural understandings. No one would say that someone who was raised in Mexico would encounter exactly the same developmental factors as someone raised in England. No one would argue that someone whose spiritual tradition was rooted in Jewish values would solve problems the same way as someone whose spiritual tradition was rooted in Muslim values. Yet discrimination based on these factors are illegal and considered unethical nearly everywhere.
Different need not imply inferior. And people are not defined by their affiliations. Simply knowing someone is male or female does not define or describe them, any more than knowing someone is Catholic, or German, or Caucasian indicates presence or absence of any particular attribute, ability, or skill.
My hope is that sometime in the upcoming years, 60s- and 70s-style feminism can incorporate this shift in thinking about diversity and can accept that there may be fundamental differences, neurological, hormonal, and biological, between men and women without weakening arguments about the immorality and destructiveness of discrimination.
Because gender discrimination is destructive. It keeps people from reaching their potential. It deprives humanity of contributions. It is oppressive, It furthers poverty and poor living conditions. It diminishes everyone involved, those doing the targeting and those being targeted. In short it makes the world a sadder place.
No other reasons need to be given.