Manifesto of Support for Trans Expression
John Milton Bunch
Confusion over the issue of transgenderism and its relationship to left-of-center political endeavors has been a source of consternation as of late. This manifesto is an attempt to define as clearly as possible my thoughts on this issue (i.e., where I stand personally) in the hope that it will serve as a helpful aid for others. Whether anyone agrees with me or not, I’ve tried to construct this manifesto in such a way that disagreements can be well-defined and understood.
Definitions of Sex and Gender That Avoid Semantic Confusion
What the hell is gender, anyway? It’s the million-dollar question here. As its answer varies between individuals, I'm going to provide my own definitions.
Sex is meaningfully understood as a biological binary. Yes, of course there are intersex people and others who don’t fit neatly into the nominal categories of male and female. Like any biological attribute or feature there is variance between individuals, and some probability that not all individuals will fit neatly into the categories. This is a feature of biological attributes. Doesn’t mean the binary isn’t a useful way of describing biological sexuality. We can define the sexes using quantifiable physical observations of genetics, morphology, comparative anatomy, etc., and meaningfully define the nominal categories of male and female.
But biological sex isn’t gender. Gender is something you express to other people through behavior. It reflects feelings and emotions - how you see yourself and want others to see you. Let’s briefly invoke Judith Butler here and say that gender is performative. I’d add that it usually includes a reflection of the person’s biological sex, but there’s nothing other than social convention to say that it should. In fact, the expression someone ultimately chooses has no specific constraints other than the social. The word “choice” here doesn’t imply the lack of a sincere, serious, and unchosen internal emotional driver. Just that gender is the way the individual chooses to respond to that emotional force.
Now that we’ve defined sex and gender, let’s define the terms “male” and “female.” These terms are context-dependent, thus it's meaningless to attempt a context-free definition. If we’re talking biological sex, we can establish clear biological criteria (morphology, genetics, etc.) for a classification as male or female, and for those who don’t neatly fit either category. In this context, for example, a trans woman is not a woman.
When we’re talking about gender, on the other hand, we’re in the realm of social expectations and culture. In this case, definitions of “male” and “female” are much more loosely defined, malleable, and subjective. The only answer we can give in this context to the question “what is a woman?”, for example, is perhaps “a woman is someone who presents and expresses herself in a way consistent with social expectations for the way a woman presents and expresses herself.” Could this person be a biological male? Sure.
At the level of gender, the male / female binary itself becomes simply one possible framework along which a gender could be constructed. There are an infinite number of ways a person could express themselves with regard to dress, mannerisms, speech, etc., thus an infinite number of gender expressions. In this context, a trans woman is a woman.
Statement of Opposition to Legal and Social Restrictions on Transgenderism, the Expression of Gender or Its Subjective Experience
I strongly oppose any governmental or other restriction on the expression of gender, or that creates a barrier to social and economic resources because of the expression of gender.
In simpler terms, I’m happy to use whatever pronouns a person prefers, happy for a trans person to be my kids’ schoolteacher, to work in my office, to move in next door, go to my favorite corner bar, and to come over for dinner. The person should not be discriminated against on the basis of gender expression, or their stated experience thereof.
In addition, I can't tell someone how they’re supposed to feel regarding their own subjective experience of gender. I don’t have the ability to define gender for another person, nor the interest.
Statement of Support for Transgenderism-Related Physical Interventions
If an adult, fully aware of the potential risks and benefits, wishes to implement a physical intervention related to modifying their perceived or expressed gender, they have every right to do so.
When children experience distress over gender issues, it needs to be taken seriously and treated humanely. Any potential gender-related physical intervention intended to improve the life of the child is, ultimately, a parenting decision that must be informed by the most accurate and complete scientific and medical information available. Our society generally gives parents wide latitude with regard to child-rearing values and practices, and it seems to me this is a decision that must be left in the hands of parents in consultation with the appropriate professionals. The parents should have the option of implementing any physical intervention with a demonstrably reasonable chance of improving the life of the child.
Stance On Related Issues
What Does the Science Say?
Science doesn’t give us a clear answer with regard to a mismatch between a person’s biological sex and experience of gender, nor does it demand a specific intervention, if any. What is clear is that the phenomenon is real, it causes people to suffer, and it would be inhumane not to take it seriously. At the same time, it would be no less unethical to base our decisions on a scientific understanding we do not possess.
It seems almost certain that both biology and culture play roles in the trans experience, although we don’t know the relative importance of either. It’s also quite possible that the relative importance of each varies a great deal between trans individuals. The upshot is that a scientific understanding of the phenomenon requires an understanding we don’t yet have of how both biology and culture come to bear on what we observe and experience regarding gender.
We should strive to gain a better understanding of these issues, and this includes discussion of how this understanding comes to bear on political and social endeavors.
What About Biological Sex and Identity?
Biological women have a right to perceive themselves as a distinct identity or group with its own unique experience and social needs. The extent to which trans women seeking access to spaces otherwise created by and reserved for biological women are granted that access is a decision that should be left to the biological women in control of the space. In simpler terms, biological women have the right not to include trans women as members of the group “biological women.”
Same thing for trans men seeking access to biological male spaces. Personally, speaking as a male in both biology and gender and out of a concern for humanity and politeness, I would not deny a trans man access to any male space. I’m not sure what constitutes a “male space,” exactly, but to the extent such things exist I wouldn’t keep a trans man out. However, the dissolving of the social boundary between the biological sexes is not something I'm willing to dictate to everyone, especially biological women.
The participation of trans women in sports otherwise reserved for biological women is currently a controversial topic in popular culture, and comes to bear on the issue of biological sex. The prevention of unfair physical advantage within sports competitions seems a legitimate reason to restrict the participation of biologically male competitors from female-only competitions. As the extent to which biological males have an advantage likely varies greatly between sports, it seems to me such decisions belong in the hands of individual sports organizations.
I probably speak for many people when I say that I include the well-being of trans people in my thoughts about the common good, and I’ve got no axe to grind with anyone over their experience or expression of gender. We should not discriminate against trans people in their quest for social and economic resources.
At the same time, we should be cognizant of the fact that our understanding of transgenderism is poor and this is reflected in public discourse. We need to employ more precise language in our discussions, and openly discuss our increasing understanding or lack thereof, and what this means for the way we approach the issue.
Finally, biological sex influences one’s self-perception and social needs. Biological women, for example, have a right to define themselves as a distinct group with unique experiences and social needs.