Last week, Roy Richard Grinker made an impassioned plea in the New York Times for the American Psychiatric Association to remove “being trans” from its list of mental disorders. His article is worrying, though perhaps not so much for the content as for what it reveals about this present age, as Grinker's argument is a fine example of the kind of thinking which seems set to carry the day. Its plausibility, however, does not depend upon cogent logic but upon rhetoric that hides its fallaciousness from view. If a case is to be made that transgenderism is not a mental disorder, it will need to be made on far better grounds than those Grinker chose to offer in the New York Times.
The rhetorical power of Grinker’s case rests primarily upon a close analogy between homosexuality and the condition the APA now calls gender dysphoria. As the APA once regarded homosexuals as suffering from psychiatric disorder but changed its mind, Grinker argues, so it should now do the same with those who believe their gender does not match the sex of their body.
At first glance, the argument seems plausible. We are all familiar with talk about the “LGBTQ” community and we all know the “T” stands for “Transgender.” But the addition of the “T” to the “LGB” is not driven by a natural, positive affinity between these categories. Rather, it is a strategic marriage born of political convenience. Opposition to heteronormativity, rather than a shared philosophy of gender or sexuality, is what holds the movement together. Indeed, even the link between the “L” and the “G” is rooted less in a shared positive identity than in the notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend: It was only with the advent of the 1980s AIDS crisis, when middle-class gay men became victims, that the alliance emerged. And transgenderism is even more complicated. The current TERF wars show that women who want to become transgender men are often seen as betraying the cause by trying to gain male privilege, and men who want to become transgender women are regarded as trying to deny that privilege and illegitimately gain the label of victims.
Given this history, a shared lobby group forged in response to a set of common enemies seems a mighty thin foundation for using the ruling on homosexuality as any kind of basis for a change on transgenderism. Would someone convinced he is Napoleon Bonaparte or an African-American trapped in a Caucasian body receive the same treatment if he too could find his condition inserted as an initial somewhere in the LGBTQ acronym? If you truly believe identity is a purely social construction, why give privileges to gender that are denied to other, arguably less “biological,” identities, such as race? Believing the APA was right to change the status of homosexuality does not imply it would be right to do so on a completely different issue, like transgenderism.
On this latter point, to move from the fact that gender roles exhibit elements of social construction to regarding the body as of no real significance to gender identity is huge leap, and one that must be challenged. It is predicated upon highly dubious, if mysteriously popular, philosophical assumptions that effectively dissolve nature into culture as if these two categories cannot coexist. Nor is the repudiation of such anti-essentialism the exclusive position of those standard bogeymen “conservatives”—use of the dreaded ‘c’ word, albeit as an adjective, is another touch of rhetoric Grinker uses to consolidate his plausibility. Grinker’s position ignores vast swathes of very unconservative feminist theory and indeed a fair amount of biological research, the latter of which has only come to be marginalized in the (if I can use a bit of rhetoric of my own) neo-Lysenkoist world of contemporary science.
Yet there is more. The introduction of intersex people (those born with sex characteristics that are not easily classified as either male or female) into the argument, now a standard trope in such pieces, is actually problematic for Grinker’s case—even as he presents it as a kind of coup de grace. The matter of intersex people has an ineradicable biological dimension even as it is itself the subject of definitional debate. It is not simply psychological or “socially constructed.” Arguing for the legitimation of transgenderism on the grounds that intersex people exist is as incoherent as arguing for the legitimation of body dysmorphia because some people are born without arms and legs. Far from helping the transgender case, the intersex issue highlights the importance of biology: It surely requires a major exercise in doublethink to argue that biology is ultimately irrelevant to identity by drawing an analogy with something for which biology is central.
There are other aspects of Grinker’s piece that could be critiqued, not least his apparently therapeutic motivation in suggesting this action to the APA. Indeed, the entire article is of the quintessence of the age, instructive not so much for its positive contribution to the transgender case but for the insights it gives to our cultural moment. For such tendentious and flawed argumentation to be considered compelling, it needs to support a cause where the conclusions already enjoy such cachet that no significant exertion of intellectual effort is really needed to justify them in the public square. To quote Cicero, O tempora, O mores! It is clearly not transgenderism we have to fear so much as the death of clear thinking.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor in the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.