This is a response to the wildly transphobic Public Discourse piece, “The Absurdity of Transgenderism: A Stern but Necessary Critique,” by Carlos Flores, president of the UC Santa Barbara Anscombe Society, an organization that takes conservative (read: anti-LGBT, among other things) positions on “family, marriage, and sexual integrity.”
Flores basically argues that there is no such thing as transgender identities. They should not be socially affirmed, they should not receive affirmative therapy and treatment, and they should not receive legal protections. Needless to say, it’s a fairly problematic essay. I responded on Twitter by claiming that its authors and promoters have blood on their hands, which Erick Erickson was all too happy to boast about (but no citation to me, Erick? Come on!).
I confronted Flores on Twitter, and he confirmed to me that he has only met one transgender person ever, whom he misgenders. Despite this severe lack of context, he proclaims himself expert enough on transgender identities to reject them outright.
He challenged me on Twitter to write a point-by-point rebuttal. As I sit in the lobby of Creating Change, surrounded by hundreds of trans people, this seems like a very simple errand. I know trans people exist because I believe them when they tell me they’re trans. And unlike Flores, I’ve met a lot of them. I’ve heard countless stories. I write about them all the time. I consider myself a proud friend and ally to the trans community, and the feedback I get from them is that I’m doing a pretty good job at advocating on their behalf. (I’m not worried about the implications of saying “I have trans friends” here since my support for them hopefully isn’t in question.)
But Flores wants a point-by-point rebuttal, so let’s get to it. I’ll otherwise follow his points in order, but I want to start with this one:
“What is medicine? Here is a plausible answer: medicine is the enterprise of restoring bodily faculties to their proper function.”
That’s a reasonable sounding answer, but it’s a skewed and incomplete one. I find a better model for the answer is the Hippocratic Oath. Its commitment that patients “suffer no hurt or damage,” its promise to not “administer poison,” and its vow to “willingly refrain from doing any injury or wrong from falsehood” present a much better guide for understanding what it means to help someone. The Psychotherapist’s Oath more specifically calls on professionals to promote “healing and well-being,” “respect the integrity” of patients, and “provide a safe and trusting haven for healing.” The well-being of the patient is a much more plausible answer for the purpose of medicine, and one that does not grant the premise Flores uses to reject transgender people and their experiences.
Indeed, I find this rationale to be the core flaw in everything that Flores argues, which is why I mentioned it first. Flores’ obsession with what he sees as “natural” ignores what is actually very natural for transgender people: their gender identity. He pays no heed to what might actually be best for the welfare of trans people, instead imposing his own assumptions at their expense. With this in mind, it’s quite hard to see his piece as anything but a call to erase transgender people and disregard their lives; in fact, he makes no claim to actually wanting to help transgender people. Indeed, he does just the opposite. I’ll say more about it as I address his other points.
“Why think that what one “identifies as” is significant at all, especially to the extent that others should actively recognize or cater to such an identity, and especially when the identity one adopts is contrary to reality?”
Flores rejects the idea that sex and gender are different components of identity. He doesn’t actually substantiate this rejection; he just asserts it. (This will be a recurring theme.) This, more than anything, reinforces how little he actually knows about what it means to be trans. Even the World Health Organization, which unfortunately still treats transgender identities as a mental disorder, nevertheless appreciates the sex/gender distinction. A recent study on the valid way young transgender children experience their gender demonstrates that biological sex does not always determine gender.
This distinction is essential for understanding what trans people experience. The reason that many trans people face mental health challenges associated with gender dysphoria is because of the gap between their sex and how they experience their gender. It is these consequences that must be addressed. Depression, anxiety, and their more extreme consequences are what mental health professionals seek to rectify. It is not being trans that causes them, it is not being able to experience gender as one feels it. That’s why a consensus of medical professionals support affirmation, and why transitioning improves the mental health of transgender people. That’s medicine working.
“No amount of surgical mutilation of body parts, effeminate behaviors, or artificial female appearances can make a man a woman.”
Oh hey, another assertion without evidence based on a flawed assumption. But the real reason Flores is wrong here is because he is ignoring the actual experience of transgender people. If a transgender person feels more whole, more complete, or more authentic with a body that represents the person they think they should see in the mirror, that benefits the mental health of that person. Not only does Flores not grant that premise, he insists that it’s wrong on mere principle. The use of words like “mutilation” and “artificial” judges what is very real and very crucial to a trans person’s everyday life, to what allows them to function, prosper, and contribute equally to society. Each trans person finds peace of mind in a different way; transition means something different for each of them. However a person transitions, however, it is not about changing their gender, but confirming their gender. Helping them achieve that peace of mind should be the goal not only of medical professionals, but for all of us.
The Analogies: “Suppose that a Caucasian man from Finland—call him Gunther—suddenly decided that he identifies as being of Sub-Saharan African descent.”
I’m always amazed by conservatives who invent hypotheticals that don’t actually exist in reality to criticize something actually does exist. Ethnicity does not function in the same way as gender identity. Flores has already demonstrated that he doesn’t understand gender identity, so there’s not much to dismantle here. There is no such thing as “transethnic” nor a community of people persecuted for that identity. The analogy is simply irrelevant.
The Analogies: “Similarly, suppose that a seventy-year-old man—call him Bob—comes to identify as a sixteen-year-old.”
There’s no such thing as “transage” either. I can’t even quite conceive of what it would mean for Bob to “identify as a sixteen-year-old,” but hey, I applaud him for staying young at heart.
The Analogies: “It is for this reason that we can make sense of mental disorders such as anorexia nervosa as disorders: they involve persons’ having persistent, false beliefs about their identity or how they really are.”
Here again the priority of well-being is important to keep in mind. People with anorexia face negative health consequences for trying to change their bodies to match their perceptions. Transgender people face negative health consequences if they don’t. That’s besides the fact that body image, like ethnicity and age, functions differently from gender. This analogy does not serve Flores’s purposes because anorexia represents the exact opposite kind of problem from what transgender people face.
“Now, put to one side the fact that 70-80 percent of children who report having transgender feelings come to lose such feelings.”
Put to one side that Flores links to Paul McHugh’s article here. We’ll get to McHugh soon enough.
There is actually truth in the fact that not all young people who explore or experiment with gender ultimately conclude that they are transgender. But so what? Nothing is lost in the process of that exploration. Even those young people who take the step of delaying the onset of puberty to allow extra time to make such a decision face no consequences. Affirming young people however they might express their gender spares them the mental health consequences of forcing them to deny it.
“And because love compels us to seek the good for another, it is thus a grave evil to condone such surgical procedures.”
This is, unsurprisingly, another example of pure conjecture, but I have to call it out separately for revealing Flores’s bias against transgender people. “Grave evil” is quite a dark description. I don’t know how he defines “evil,” but I would think it would have to in some way entail a promotion of harm in the world. He describes transition-related surgeries as harm, except they serve the exact opposite purpose of supporting trans people’s mental health. I’d counter that the real grave evil is encouraging the rejection of transgender people, especially if done in the name of love. If evil means promoting harm as he seems to intend it, then he is the one guilty of evil.
“Dr. Paul McHugh’s words here are particularly incisive.”
Opponents of transgender equality cite Paul McHugh all of the time because he is the only doctor that actually supports their position. It doesn’t matter that the consensus of major medical organizations support affirmative therapy for transgender people. It doesn’t matter that McHugh’s interpretation of the research on transgender people has been thoroughly debunked. It doesn’t matter that McHugh’s biases against all LGBT people, rejecting decades of scientific research even on sexual orientation, have been thoroughly documented. He’s a person with a title who says things that they want to hear.
McHugh is not an expert on transgender people; he is an expert on rejecting transgender people. It’s unsurprising that he is the only authority Flores cites in his essay.
“The suggestion, then, that gender identity disorder therapy should be criminalized is as absurd as the suggestion that therapy to eliminate anorexia should be criminalized.”
Given there is ample evidence that rejecting trans identities is harmful, considerable evidence that transgender identities have biological components, and absolutely no evidence that a a person can be cured of being transgender, Flores’s ardent defense of ex-trans therapy is incredibly problematic. Moreover, it reveals how uninformed he is about transgender people. The American Psychiatric Association no longer defines being transgender as a disorder, so his continued reference to a “disordered transgender identity” reflects either his bias, the fact he’s using information that’s now at least two years old, or quite likely both.
“If habitually watching pornography can change a man’s brain so significantly, then it should hardly be surprising that through intentionally and habitually behaving like a woman a man’s brain would too change to some extent. But again, this does not thereby show that such a man is a woman after all; all it shows is that through habituated action of some sort, the man’s brain behavior has changed.”
The tangent about brains largely doesn’t make much sense. What’s worth pointing out here is that people don’t habitually act like a gender and then claim to be trans. It’s actually the other way around. The two-year-old who knows her gender didn’t condition her brain to be like a girl’s brain. She knows because it may already be that way. Of course, brains only offer one clue into the biological components that underlie a trans identity and hardly tell the whole story. Thus, little is gained from further humoring Flores’ sideline on this matter.
“Cases in which an individual is intersex, however, are exceedingly rare. Indeed, even granting the point, it would not be unfair to say that in 99.99 percent of cases (and even this might be too low a percentage), a person is either male or female.”
It’s worth flagging Flores here. Intersex people are real regardless of how few he thinks there are. If your assertion that genitalia is a deciding factor, then you can’t just rule out people whose genitalia defies the binary you rely on. The mere variety of intersex identities and the complex way these individuals arrive at their gender identities — especially when they were surgically “fixed” as infants without their consent — paints an incredibly vibrant picture of gender that Flores can not so easily disregard. According to the Intersex Society of North America, intersex conditions occur in about 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 births. That number jibes with his percentage, but I think it makes it sound quite a lot more people than his percentage suggests.
“But, alas, LGBT activists are actively working to make it the case that the state and private businesses cover “gender-reassignment” surgeries, that men who identify as women be able to use women’s restrooms, that girls who identify as boys be able to play on male sports teams, that we consider it immoral to refer to infants as male or female lest we insidiously impose upon them a “gender” they might not identify with, that we ban therapy to treat gender dysphoria, and that we generally co-opt language and social norms to reflect pernicious falsehoods about the human body.”
Here is where Flores lays out all of the trans protections he opposes. He doesn’t want businesses to have to cover procedures that could be essential to the health of transgender people. He reinforces the myth that trans women are somehow predatory by default; you never hear about letting “women who identify as men use the men’s restroom,” and I don’t think they want my trans brothers who are bald and have beards walking into the women’s restroom. Girls can already play on some male sports teams like wrestling and football, so I don’t know what’s so profound about his objection to trans boys doing the same. I don’t know of any legislation trying to ban gendering children, but I do think it’s harmful to reject a gender identity a child asserts. As for that last complaint, it sounds like Flores will just be pissed people will disagree with him. I’m personally not worried about offending his sensibilities when there are lives on the line.
“What is relevant is whether we will make public policy and encourage social norms that reflect the truth about the human person and sexuality, or whether we will obfuscate the truth about such matters and sow the seeds of sexual confusion in future generations for years to come.”
You know how kids get confused? When you try to force them to be something that they’re not. As referenced above, the kids who know they’re trans are not confused at all. It’s only a society that rejects what they know about themselves that creates that problem. And it’s essays like this one that unabashedly promote that rejection.
So there you go, Carlos. You told me that I made too many bare assertions on Twitter and that you wouldn’t take my perspective seriously unless I charitably responded point-by-point. I do consider it charity, because this weekend I’m surrounded by a gorgeous mix of genderqueer, transgender, gender non-conforming people at the Creating Change conference, people you only wish you were lucky enough to ever meet. But I decided that your words, now shared over 17,000 times, were so dangerous to their well-being that I’d take the time to explain why you were just so, so wrong.
And, chances are, you might not care, and your mind might not be changed in the least. But, if you even bothered to read my response, you at least can’t unread it. And whether it has any effect on you or not, hopefully others will see how baseless and bigoted your assertions were and choose to ignore them.