10 Feb 2015

The Absurdity of Transsexualism: A Reply to Carlos D. Flores

I very much enjoyed Flores’ thoughtful essay, The Absurdity of Transgenderism: A Stern but Necessary Critique, and am replying by way of three challenges.

When a Contradiction is not a Contradiction

Can a man become a woman? An understanding of Sex and Gender stands or falls on the answer to this question. Flores asks why self-chosen identities should be significant at all, “especially when the identity one adopts is contrary to reality”. Quite, but this does not take into account the gap between reality and language. A natural reality such as the human body has a nature and can also be given a name, but the name is not the nature. Names have no inherent content, whereas the natural realities behind them do.

Suppose we take the names Man and Woman to linguistically represent what most English-speaking people take them to represent - non-interchangeable sexually mature bodies. Accordingly, it is false to say “a man can become a woman”. When we change the content of the name Man to ‘sexually immature female’ (Girl) it becomes true, since a Man/Girl can become a Woman. When we also change the content of Woman to ‘sexually immature male’ (Boy) it is false again, since a Man/Girl cannot become a Woman/Boy.

It is the meaning of the relationships between names that matters, not the meaning of a name in isolation. Recognition of these relationships allows us to operate language as a structure mapped onto reality, rather than as a ‘moving target’ where all words mean anything/nothing. We cannot have half a language. It is false to say “a man can become a woman” only if whatever we mean by Man is contradicted by whatever we mean by Woman. So, what does the State take them to mean?

Flores’ analogies to race (Gunther) and age (Bob) are useful. They point us in the right direction but, as with the oft-used analogy to Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), they do not go far enough. Australia, Denmark and Uruguay allow ‘Gender re-assignment’ without surgery (and in some cases without diagnosis or medical referral). This is ‘sex change’ with neither sex nor change. Flores says Gunther, a Finn, both feels and appears Sub-Saharan, but Gender does not require appearance. The perfect ‘race identity’ analogy is not to a Finn who looks Sub-Saharan, but to one who does not. The perfect BIID analogy is not to a two-armed man who wants one arm removed, but to a two-armed man who says “I (already) have one arm”.

For the State to believe that Sex and Gender are the same thing, it would need to believe both a) that it is possible to change sex and b) that this is possible without changing sex. It would need to be both wrong and ‘wrong about the thing it is wrong about’. Surely it is more sensible to conclude that the State knows ‘sex change’ is not possible and is using Gender to mean something other than Sex? The first challenge to Flores (and others) is to propose a model of Gender that accounts for the emerging ‘change-without-change’ laws.


A strong aspect of Flores’ essay is his explanation of Medicine, showing the unbridgeable distance between Medicine and the notion of ‘sex re-assignment surgery’. Here he enquires into a concept, not a name. Medicine exists in relation to recognition of the body’s ordered nature, against which we can recognise disorder. This order exists independent of our awareness, so the task of Medicine is to support order and to correct/alleviate disorder. As a physical impossibility, ‘sex re-assignment surgery’ attacks the body’s order. As Flores says, this is not Medicine, but we can go further and say it is anti-Medicine. In contrast, Intersex issues are medical. They represent disorders of sexual development (hence the name Intersex, not Inter-gender). Flores rightly dismisses a suggested link between Gender and medicine, noting well that the majority of people who identify as Transgender have an unambiguously sexed body. ‘Change-without-change’ laws show that, rather than moving closer together, Gender and Medicine are drifting farther apart.

Flores is equally dismissive of pro-Gender arguments appealing to brain structures. His pornography analogy is accurate and powerful in that it also makes its own point. Another analogy might be that of the human face. If a man dies aged 80 the substance of his face is almost certainly the same as that which he had at birth - the same eyes, cheekbones, and so on. But because it has been sculpted by life experiences, his face appears different to the one he was born with. It tells a story. Our brain structure tells the story of the emotional experiences that sculpt it. To say the brain at autopsy is the ‘real’ brain is to say the brain never changes, thereby denying neuroplasticity.

This gives a glimpse of the State’s current understanding of the body/mind relationship, with the mind deemed legally superior: declaring the mind’s fixity necessarily entails declaring the body’s plasticity; the State tolerates therapies seeking to harmonise body to mind, but not those seeking to harmonise mind to body. So the second challenge is to propose a model of Gender that accounts for the legal reversal of the body/mind relationship.

Gender Identity Disorder?

Like the body’s order, the truth of our sex exists independent of our mind. Our awareness of our sex is either correct (because of our sex and mind) or incorrect (despite our sex and because of our mind). It is the difference between the objective/physical and subjective/mental that gives rise to the potential for misperception. The Transsexual mind experiences a sexual identity disorder. Who, then, experiences a ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ (G.I.D.)?

Gender says we are who we think we are. Since ‘the person I think I am’ is always the same person as ‘the person I think I am’, there is no potential for disorder. Hence the downgrading of G.I.D. to Gender Dysphoria (anxiety comparable to that which might be experienced by, say, a person with a large facial scar: the scar is not a disorder). The third and final challenge is this: propose a model of Gender that accounts for the State downgrading a disorder to a dysphoria.

Note that, to avoid contradictions, all three challenges need to be met by a single model. What is required is a holistic answer to the legal mystery named Gender.

How will Transgenderism Affect me?

There are good utilitarian reasons to be against Transsexualism: men using women’s restrooms; girls playing on boys sports teams, and so on. Flores forwards these reasons but wisely does not rely on them, preferring instead to appeal to a principle - that we should “make public policy and encourage social norms that reflect the truth about the human person and sexuality.” Language is a big obstacle to understanding Gender, particularly the conflation of the names Sex and Gender. In effect, Flores has refuted Transsexualism well whilst saying little about Transgenderism. We know Transsexualism contradicts truths about sexuality but - given that it is not Sex - Gender contradicts truth in a different way and requires a different principled objection; one that addresses the nature of Gender, not Sex.

Meeting the Challenges

If John (male-sexed) is legally female, it seems as though he is ‘legally female despite physically male’ and that Joan (female-sexed) is ‘legally female because physically female’. But how can this be true, given there is only one legal definition of Female? If they are each legally female, they must be so in the same way as each other. Since John cannot be physically female (and since the State knows Sex and Gender are different), John’s and Joan’s legal statuses can be equalized in only one way: downgrade Joan from ‘legally female/Sex because physically female/Sex’ to ‘legally female/Gender despite physically female/Sex’. That’s a strange sentence to type, but Gender is a strange beast: ‘Female despite being Female’; two meanings, one name, no contradiction. Joan can legally access the name Female, but not its previous content.

Flores says John “believes that he is a sex that he is not”; that John identifies as “something he is not - someone of the opposite sex”. Again, this is Transsexualism. We need Transgenderism. John might well believe he believes he is a sex that he is not, but the State says he is mistaken. According to the State, when John says “I am female” he says “I am a state of mind”. And since John knows his mind, he cannot be wrong. When the State says “Man” it means mind/Gender, but we hear body/Sex: names such as Man and Girl shine so brightly in our mind that it can be hard to imagine them not having their ‘normal’ content. But the mistake is ours, born of supposing the names to be the natures. When the State says Man can be Woman, it is not lying.

Here, then, is a model of Gender: the linguistic structure of Sex has been retained but legally emptied of its content (body) and filled with mind/Gender. It is false to say “a man/Sex can become a woman/Sex” but, less obviously, so is it to say “a man/Gender can become a woman/Gender”: with Man and Woman legally understood to represent mere states of mind (Gender Identities), men and women can indeed be men or women; this makes Man and Woman identical, meaning John can be a woman but cannot become a woman (because he already is). John unknowingly expresses this paradox when he says something like, “surgery will make me the person I (already) am”.

This model holistically explains change-without-change, legal superiority of the mind, and the conceptual impossibility of G.I.D. It also explains how Gender affects everybody. The problem of Transgenderism is not so much the presence in law of something named Gender, but the absence from law of all recognition of the natural realities behind the name Sex.