Transphobia takes many forms. There is the faith-based assertion in many religions that we are sinful for transitioning into the only identity in which we can be comfortable. There is the unconscious revulsion evident on the face of people when we fail to conform to their rigid binary conception of gender. There is the juvenile gender policing by those who would cast derision on anyone who dares defy accepted norms. There is the exclusionary rhetoric of the group we’ve come to know as TERFs who see MtF transition as an encroachment on endangered women’s space and FtMs as traitors to a beleaguered cause. There is the knee-jerk rejection from profit-conscious hiring managers who see a transgender employee as antithetical their corporate image. Dozens of others come to mind, too numerous to mention.
There is one strain that rears its ugly head with disturbing frequency in recent public discourse. I’m speaking of the flat out fact-averse denial that gender identity can differ from body sex. This viewpoint remains tolerated in western culture and in some settings is even considered laudable or brave.
I suppose there is some courage in espousing a point of view that is unsupported, indeed unsupportable by all scientific, therapeutic, and cultural experiences. The overwhelming evidence in favor of an internal gender identity that may be at odds with genetics or anatomy and that resists change has been abundantly spelled out elsewhere. However, for those who may be new to the study of gender, I will outline some of the highlights here:
- Differences in brain structure between cis- and transgender, where transgender brains have been found more closely to resemble brains corresponding to their identified gender.
- Decades of doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors of all varieties trying and completely failing to change gender identity.
- Experience with people whose bodies were altered in infancy unbeknownst to them but who clung to the gender identity associated with the body sex they were born with.
- Research showing that certain drugs taken during pregnancy appear to increase the chance of the offspring being transgender, even if the offspring is not aware that drug was used.
Given the overwhelming evidence of the existence of transgender individuals and the utter lack of evidence that there is no such thing, these deniers are rarely found stating facts. Their weapons of choice seem to be derision and humor, applying reductio ad absurdum arguments, or lampooning the concept of gender identity. GOP primary runner-up Ted Cruz is fond of this technique. The Advocate quotes him as saying, “you know, the funny thing is, my 5-year-old knows there’s a difference between boys and girls, and yet modern Leftists can’t figure that out,” Another GOP presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee is reported by the Huffington Post to have offered this remark:
Now I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE. I’m pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, ‘Coach, I think I’d rather shower with the girls today.’
But the purest example to date came from Gail Heriot, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. According to SFGate.com, her testimony before the California House Judiciary Committee included the following logic, conflating gender identity with delusional aspirations to royalty:
If I believe that I am a Russian princess, that doesn’t make me a Russian princess, even if my friends and acquaintances are willing to indulge my fantasy.
That Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego, would enter such an ignorant statement into legislative testimony shows how far from being discredited this line of thinking remains. She not alone. As respected a figure as acclaimed author Ian McEwan unabashedly declared that “men in full possession of a penis are now identifying as women and demanding entry to women-only colleges, and the right to change in women’s dressing rooms,” according to The Guardian. And former Johns Hopkins University Psychiatry head Paul McHugh has made a second career out of denying the existence of gender identity.
These sorts of statements have become ubiquitous to the the point they they are crying out for name all their own. I would like to propose the term flat-earth transphobia. Such viewpoints run so far contrary to all modern scientific and therapeutic understanding and experience on gender, that they are akin to denial of a spherical earth.
Flat-earth transphobia is a particularly pernicious assault on our world’s transgender population because it makes debate nearly impossible. Factual claims can be refuted by facts, argument by counterargument. But deprecatory humor and derision defy intelligent response. They do not invite informed discussion. The only way to shut down such talk is to identify it as an ignorant, mean-spirited, attempt to drown out the truth.
Referring to it as flat-earth transphobia does exactly that.