by Mytheos Holt
It is fashionable among some conservative circles these days to scoff at the transition of former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner into being a woman named Caitlyn Jenner. And more than scoff. Witness Federalist writer Nicole Russell’s more-than-a-little upset piece decrying Jenner as lying “outside the law” because he “willingly and purposely def[ies] natural laws that define him.”
I’m not the biggest fan of Russell’s reasoning or her tone, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand where she’s coming from. Particularly this bit:
If a man doesn’t want to be a man, why shouldn’t he pretend to be a woman? Or if a parent doesn’t think her boy wants to be a boy, why shouldn’t that parent allow—even demand—the boy “become” a girl or, heck, a donkey? The variables and possibilities are endless.
I’m more than familiar with this argument. It was one that I made and believed in strongly throughout my collegiate experience at Wesleyan University. To be fair, this was at least partially a response to the fact that I was at Wesleyan, a school which plays host to any number of people whose existence most people would assume is impossible except in the realm of socially conservative reductio ad absurdii. And knowing that those people exist, let me just say — if she’s worried about transdonkeys, then no one tell Russell about the existence of Otherkin. I’m not sure she’d survive.
As you’ve probably guessed by the headline of this article, however, I changed my mind. It was a slow, painful process, and one that involved me reconsidering my reflexive aversion to what seemed at first to be an anti-scientific, unnatural, physically impossible position to take. And that’s not even touching on my subconscious horror at the operations that transgendered people go through, which seemed to foist bootleg genitals on them moreso than the real thing.
But I came around. And because I came around, I feel compelled to defend Caitlyn Jenner from the sneers of her detractors, Russell included. However, my purpose here is not merely to rebut the claims of Jenner’s opponents. It is also to give a few reasons why I believe conservatives in particular should welcome Jenner’s transition as a positive development in our culture.
There are the trivial reasons we should welcome Jenner. Reagan’s 11th commandment looms large, for instance, given that she claims to be a Republican. So, too, does the need for Republicans to avoid being cast as retrograde bigots in the forthcoming political clash that is 2016. However, I want to focus on the purely philosophical reasons why the transgendered community are natural allies for conservatives.
Let me start by conceding at the outset that Caitlyn Jenner is perhaps not an ideal specimen of the transgendered community, in view of her refusal to undergo genital surgery. I agree with my fellow contributor that this throws her status into substantial ambiguity, though I also take Jenner at her word that the surgery she has undergone already has been harrowing and frightening. Moreover, this only gnaws around the edges of her decision’s authenticity — it doesn’t refute it in principle.
Having said that, let me proceed with a fact that might seem counterintuitive to those presently mocking Ms. Jenner, by pointing out that the attack on transgendered people hasn’t historically gotten most of its firepower from the Right, but from the Left. Specifically, it’s been most openly supported by radical feminists. And why? I’ll turn it over to Scott Alexander at Slatestarcodex:
The Transsexual Empire is a very famous book from the late 1970s subtitled “The Making Of The She-Male” in which feminist activist Janice Raymond argues that transsexuals, despite claiming to be persecuted, form an evil empire dedicated to the reinforcing of patriarchy. It contains delightful passages such as “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves”. The Transgender Studies Reader says that the book “did not invent anti-transsexual prejudice, but it did more to justify and perpetuate it than perhaps any other book ever written.” The response, written by a prominent transgender activist, was titled The Empire Strikes Back – an obvious reference to the Star Wars film published around that time.
The New Yorker explains further on radical feminist anti-transgender thought:
Such views are shared by few feminists now, but they still have a foothold among some self-described radical feminists, who have found themselves in an acrimonious battle with trans people and their allies. Trans women say that they are women because they feel female—that, as some put it, they have women’s brains in men’s bodies. Radical feminists reject the notion of a “female brain.” They believe that if women think and act differently from men it’s because society forces them to, requiring them to be sexually attractive, nurturing, and deferential. In the words of Lierre Keith, a speaker at Radfems Respond, femininity is “ritualized submission.
In this view, gender is less an identity than a caste position. Anyone born a man retains male privilege in society; even if he chooses to live as a woman—and accept a correspondingly subordinate social position—the fact that he has a choice means that he can never understand what being a woman is really like. By extension, when trans women demand to be accepted as women they are simply exercising another form of male entitlement.
It would seem Russell et al have some unlikely sympathizers. However, this alone tells us very little. Few people would be left standing if we adopted a reductio ad Left Wingum as a valid philosophical argument.
No, I bring this up because the feminist backlash against transgendered people is actually quite revealing about something. To illustrate what that is, let me quote what I actually regard as the most misguided passage of Russell’s piece (besides her rather confused attack on the is-ought distinction) in particular:
If a person can change who he is with the help of science (and a little extra dough), it won’t be long before other people can change who you are with the help of other people and science. When a person starts to willingly and purposely defy natural laws that define him, he lies outside the law, and so do his actions. Where does it end? Who and what define a person as male, female, person, or non-person?
What’s completely wrong about this is that Jenner isn’t “purposely (sic) defying natural laws.” Rather, she is asserting the existence of natural laws regarding what constitutes not just a female body, but a female psychology. Think about this for a little bit, and you realize why it terrifies feminists, who have spent decades trying to deny the existence of physical or intellectual differences between the sexes. Jenner’s heartfelt admissions that even while embodying masculine physical perfection as a male athlete, she secretly hated her own body and felt unnatural in it, is a slap in the face to this worldview. The transgendered are living, breathing arguments that men and women are different. Moreover, given that Jenner’s first move upon transitioning was to put on the most feminine outfits and poses she could, she all but explicitly concedes that gender roles are rooted in nature — yes, nature, not patriarchal conspiracy.
The transgendered argument isn’t so much an attempt to cast nature aside, then, as an attempt to shift the balance of power in nature by supplanting biology with neuroscience. This is far from unreasonable, given that mental diseases have proven far more intractable in the face of our curative powers than physical ones. And speaking of curative powers, that’s yet another reason why I find Russell’s reliance on “natural laws” unconvincing. How is this not an attack on medicating any disorder? Are not antidepressants nothing but artificial happiness that lie “outside the law” in this framework? What about stapling one’s stomach to slim down? What about surgery to remove inborn harelips, or to correct physical deformities that might otherwise kill children? Are those to be regarded as anti-natural tinkering by amoral doctors because they alter our bodies beyond what they were born to be?
This argument from nature seems to be merely an excuse to attack medicine in general, because make no mistake, what Caitlyn Jenner suffered from prior to this was a disorder as surely as being born with too many limbs would be one. Caitlyn Jenner’s mind was formed to be female, yet her body was formed to be male. To cure this, one must be brought into conformity with the other. No, we cannot do this perfectly yet, but the absence of a perfect cure is not an argument for giving up on it. And as for transitioning into being born a donkey, let’s not kid ourselves. No human can know what being a donkey is like, or how it ought to be. But we do know what being a woman is like, and moreover, how we believe a woman ought to be. To think that you were born to be that way rather than the way a man ought to be is not at all unreasonable, provided the means exist to bring your mind into harmony with the physical world, which they do.
In short, what Caitlyn Jenner did is something that conservatives with an interest in vindicating nature ought to cheer. That is, she subjected her body to physically harrowing surgery, risked and endured widespread public ridicule, and gave up a career as a shining example of masculine achievement in order to live as merely the closest approximation to being a woman she could manage, and she did this all because she believes in a deeply conservative principle: that gender roles still mean something, that women should behave a certain way according to nature, and that those facts are something even an inborn human body cannot deny.
And if Caitlyn Jenner cannot deny her sex, what chance have feminists?