The suicide of the transgender teen, Leelah Alcorn (I use the child’s name preference), has proved a source of much internet anger and outrage over the last week. Alcorn had apparently identified as a girl from age fourteen. The parents were Christians and both refused to recognize their child as a girl and sent him to some form of therapy. The result was heartbreak all round: In despair, the child killed himself and the parents are now bereaved.
The story is very sad. But the private grief of the family has taken on public significance as the case has become a rallying point for supporters of transgender issues. There has even been a call for the parents to be prosecuted, and a blogger at the Religion News Service has expressed the opinion that parents who do not affirm their transgender children should not be parents.
The latter article provides a fascinating study in the rhetoric and rhetorical logic of the transgender case because it is typical of the kind of statements being made about the issue. For example, the writer deploys the language of reason and objectivity. The phrase “objective scientific truth” always sounds impressive but in this article the author applies it to statistics (in this case about crime rates and suicides) while at the same time denying it to the chromosomal and physical constitution of our bodies. The author thus gives the phrase a meaning which is only objective and scientific in a very qualified sense. Indeed, when we are talking about surveys and statistics regarding something which is socially or psychologically constructed, and actions as complicated and multi-faceted as law-breaking and suicide, then the philosophical problems involved with applying the rhetoric of science and objectivity become exponentially difficult, if not arguably meaningless.
Yet even if these statistics were to qualify as straightforward “objective scientific fact,” it would then be clear that the writer is simply allowing himself to make a form of moral argument which he denies to the parents: The derivation of an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ The parents cannot point to their child’s body as part of their argument yet this writer can use statistics to establish his case.
The same inconsistency is evident even more significantly elsewhere when the writer alludes to scientific evidence about sex not being binary. He does not link to that evidence but it appears that he is at least by implication connecting sex (a physical category) to gender (a non-physical category). If so, the point is strange because it is irrelevant, a category mistake. The basis of the transgender case is not physiological or biological but social and psychological. In fact, to elide sex and gender is to concede the very point that is used in the case against transgenderism. Nevertheless, this reference undoubtedly adds specious rhetorical strength to the case for any reader who misses the switch.
Of course, the reason why the writer is able to deny to the parents what he assumes for himselfthe move from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’is because he is operating within the plausibility structure of the dominant narrative of the sexual identity revolution. It is this narrative which allows him to monopolize the positive rhetoric. ‘Support’ and ‘love’ can only mean affirming the person in their claims and then facilitating the appropriate medical procedure. Nothing else will count as kindness, it seems, because the legitimacy of transgender identity is already assumed.
Yet that dominant narrative is arbitrarily selective and highly unstable. Indeed, its own logic gives no reason why we should single out gender identity as special. There are many people convinced that they are somebody or something which their bodies are not. There was the extreme case of Cat Man. For him, his humanity was something to be overcome by surgery. That society found him weird and egregious no doubt contributed to his sense of alienation, despair, and eventual suicide. Then there are people who have xenomelia and want perfectly healthy limbs amputated. Are parents who impose on their offspring the normativity of the species assigned to them at birth to be dismissed as unsupportive, unloving, and cruel? Are those who deny a child with xenomelia the right to have his arm amputated unfit to be parents? If my neighbor sincerely believes he is Napoleon trapped in the wrong body, does kindness and love mean that I have to affirm him in this belief? And if not, why not? And if bodies are out of bounds as evidence, what else can I use to make my case? I think these are legitimate questions to ask of the advocates pressing the transgender issue.
One of the great traits of many Americans is that they want to be kind and they want to be affirming. They even have a constitutional right to pursue happiness. But kindness, affirmation, and happiness only have specific meaning within a larger context, and that larger context is slowly descending into chaos. Tumblr-ready, politically potent identities are the order of the day in a world where the 140 characters of a tweet are now considered perfectly adequate for analyzing and defending ethical positions.
Yet, for all of its present practical power, the transgender lobby is built upon an arbitrary, eclectic, and ultimately incoherent approach to identity. Sadly, that is one of its strengths, for when it comes to identity politics, this is an arbitrary, eclectic, and increasingly incoherent age, ruled by sit-com story-lines, soundbites, and the media-savvy. Thus, this lobby is already establishing cultural norms and, perhaps more importantly, it now desires to set legal precedents which will have much wider significance for society as a whole. Indeed, that is why it already appears bigoted, hateful, and laughably insane to regard physical bodies as having any real significance for our gender identity. It is also why it appears to be rational to call for the prosecution of, or even the denial of parenthood to, those parents who happen to disagree.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.