Why do we care so much about other people’s genitals?
Australia is in the grip of an utterly absurd debate that depends on the general public being able to engage with an extremely complex — and mostly academic — argument about gender. Should the trans community be permitted to use this or that toilet? Should the trans community be permitted to change their birth certificates? Should the trans community be permitted to marry? When referring to trans people, should we use this or that pronoun?
Regardless of your answer to the above questions, it’s worth asking why we’re discussing them in the first place. There is a very loud group of terrible people who think trans people are icky. Instead of saying ‘I think trans people are icky and they make me feel uncomfortable’, they hide their prejudices behind first year philosophy posturing. There is no answer to their questions that would actually satisfy them, and they are not really interested in discussing the ontology of gender. They are interested in dog-whistling to other people who also find trans people to be icky.
So why are we letting these people set the terms of the debate?
The media desperately needs controversies. This problem has already been well-diagnosed, but there are no incentives to improve the quality of the debate. The Australian Christian Lobby is mostly a creation of the media. Its relevance is measured entirely in how much outrage it can generate in the press. So the ACL has every incentive to pose nonsense controversies in order to appear like they’re presenting a reasonable point of view in a complex social debate. It’s disingenuous, it’s sinister, and it turns the lives of ordinary Australians into public entertainment.
And yet advocates, for whatever reason, keep engaging with the debate as if it’s serious. Instead of starving those lunatics of oxygen, they keep trying to argue the opposite of whatever the ACL asserts.
The result has been a thoroughly toxic discourse. Germaine Greer appeared on Q&A and discussed her views on gender. Because those views do not align with the dominant rhetoric of Tumblr, she was subjected to vast amounts of (frankly misogynistic and ageist) abuse. Mostly from men. Even the male host of Q&A asked if she was just digging herself into a hole.
When privileged white guys are given an open platform to mock Germaine Greer for her views on gender, you know that something is seriously demented with the public debate.
The weirdest part of the debate is that you don’t need to agree with any of the advocates’ assertions in order to reach the right social outcomes. I don’t need to believe that there is a real or authentic gender in order to believe that people should be allowed to do whatever they like with their genitals, to marry whomever they want, and to be acknowledged by the legal system in whichever way makes them feel the most comfortable. Why do we have separate toilets for men and women? Just design your toilets so they’re single use rather than communal and then it doesn’t matter what’s between your legs. I don’t need a complex theory of gender in order to design a room for shitting in.
I’ve been told that, in order to avoid being called transphobic by sweary people on the social mediums, I need to believe that people have an inner sense of their own gender, that a person’s gender is a private fact only knowable to themselves. This was the point that Greer tried to make on Q&A before being shutdown by Tony Jones. How does a person know that, privately, they are actually something else? The claim is that people innately know that they are a gender that differs or concurs with their genitals. But as people do not have genitals that they do not have, how do they know that this inner sense of gender is inconsistent with their genitals?
I know I’m male not because I have a particular set of genitals, but because I enjoy so many privileges. There’s nothing mystical about the contents of my pants that means I get paid more, that means I get more opportunities, that means I get treated in particular ways. I’m socialised into maleness.
This is the problem that Greer raised. How can a person who has been socialised into maleness, who has enjoyed all of the many privileges of being male, have an inner knowledge that they are actually female? The world has not socialised them in this way.
And then there’s a further level of critique: what does it mean to say that we should facilitate the ‘alignment’ of genitals with this understanding of gender? Jenner was able to express her gender identity through reassignment surgery, signalling that gender was authenticated by breasts and genitals. But aren’t we simultaneously trying to tell women that they are more than their breasts? Hasn’t this been the last thirty years of trying to console women who lose their breasts to cancer? That they don’t need reconstructive surgery in order to feel like they’re complete as women?
Even if you disagree with all of this and think that gender is really authentic, who cares? Absolutely none of the above entails that trans people should not enjoy a full range of rights and an environment in which to exercise those rights. It’s why the debate is thoroughly inauthentic. Regardless of your answers to the questions being debated, it doesn’t answer the pragmatic question about engagement with society.
There is an extremely worrying rhetoric framework being established. There is a reduced focus on people critically engaging on questions of what sort of person we ought to be, and an increased focus on finding ‘objectively’ correct answers to questions of values. So the answer to the question ‘Should homosexuals be stoned to death?’ isn’t answered ‘No, because fancying somebody of the same sex is absolutely fine’, but ‘No, because homosexuals are genetically gay and you need to tolerate brute facts about the world.’ It is a total nonsense.
I am an atheist. I think religious people are factually incorrect. Does that mean I should be dismissive of people’s religious beliefs (as many atheists are)? No. I’d still call the Pope and the Dalai Llama ‘your holiness’. The factual correctness of the claims should not influence how I respect other people.
I have a friend who has a pretty weird view about the nature of people’s souls. She believes that stories about mythical animals reflect a primitive apprehension of a spiritual reality, and that people’s spirits are actually these mythical creatures. She thinks that she is spiritually an elf. I think she is factually wrong (see above about being an atheist), but who cares? I don’t think she should be prevented from marrying whomever she wants, or using whatever toilets she wants just because she thinks she’s an elf. The factual accuracy of her beliefs has utterly no relevance to how she should be treated.
As a society, we are too hung up on arguing that our opinions are factually correct. We find it easier to argue that behaviour is biologically determined than to argue that people should be respected. This is bizarre and we should be better.