The Minnesota State High School League has caused something of a media storm by adopting a new policy on transgender athletes which would allow a (biological) male or female to play in a team of the opposite (biological) gender. Aside from the predictable and largely justified outrage, the policy and the action offer insights into the fundamental confusions that lie at the heart of transgender politics.
The draft policy contains the following definitions of gender and transgender persons. Given the dramatic nature of the proposed policy and complexity of the issues involved, these are remarkably brief and superficial. They also raise far more questions than they answer.
Transgender Person: a person whose gender identity is different from and which does not match the gender assigned at birth.
Gender Identity: a persons’ [sic] deeply-felt internal sense of being male of [sic] female.
Gender Expression: a person’s external characteristics and behaviors that are socially defined as either masculine of [sic] feminine (i.e. dress, speech, mannerisms, social interactions, etc.)
Then, just to provide a veneer of scientific objectivity, the policy refers to the need for the involvement of medical personnel in the initial assessment. In the draft appeals procedure, a letter from a health professional is also required.
Of course, playing the “health care professional” card that does not really address the problem of what transgenderism is: The radical separation of gender from biology thrusts us into the realm of psychology and of philosophical distinctions. Thus, any health care professional opining on this matter is not actually making a statement about a verifiable medical condition but rather making an unfalsifiable philosophical judgment about the personal and social significance of a subjective psychological state.
Finally, the policy predictably trots out the rhetoric of personal sincerity. Appeal evidence can also include “[a]ny other evidence that the gender identity is sincerely held as part of the person’s core identity.”
Science and sincerity. Who can argue with that powerful combination?
In fact, the policy reveals the incoherence of transgender politics. If gender is a social construct or a psychological state, independent of biological determination, then why is there a need for biological procedures to address the issue? One might push even further: What exactly is the understanding of “gender” being promoted? Presumably the girl at elementary school who prefers (even sincerely prefers) toy trucks to Barbie dolls is not automatically considered transgender and a candidate for hormone therapy and surgery. But, on the basis of this policy’s criteria, why not? The language of social definition scarcely helps here: Who decides what these social expectations are and when and why they need to be combated with hormone therapies and gender reassignment surgery? And is there not a tragic incoherence to that person who denies that his body has any authority with regard to his gender identity and yet who demands that his body be changed because it is so significant to his gender identity?
Yet, despite the incoherence of a biological policy built on the denial of biology and on the prioritizing of psychological subjectivity, and despite the inability of the lobby groups to provide anything approaching a coherent or compelling definition of gender which really does separate it from biology while avoiding pure subjectivity, the social and political power of the transgender lobby is growing in significance. As with the issue of gay marriage, there is a lesson here: Good arguments are no protection against bad arguments or no arguments at all, especially when the latter are allied to the rhetoric of medical professionalism and personal sincerity, touching story lines, and the organized determination of small groups of activists.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous articles can be found here.