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Gender/sex trouble


This is an extremely interesting article, on a subject I know little about, so I’m not going to make any substantive comment, other than to say I found it very thought-provoking. It argues, if I’m understanding Andrea Long Chu’s argument correctly, for re-conceptualizing much — or all? — of what is currently called “gender affirming care” as sex (in the sense of biological sex) affirming care. Here is the central claim:

I am speaking here of a universal birthright: the freedom of sex. This freedom consists of two principal rights: the right to change one’s biological sex without appealing to gender and the right to assume a gender that is not determined by one’s sexual biology. One might exercise both of these rights toward a common goal — transition, for instance — but neither can be collapsed into the other. I am put in mind of a bicameral system. Each chamber has its own prerogatives, but neither the exclusive upper chamber (sex) nor the boisterous lower one (gender) has the ultimate power to overrule the other. (Not all trans people wish to change their sex; some trans people are also gender-nonconforming.) By asserting the freedom of sex, we may stop relying on the increasingly metaphysical concept of gender identity to justify sex-changing care, as if such care were only permissible when one’s biological sex does not match the serial number engraved on one’s soul. The same goes for “sex assigned at birth,” which unhelpfully obscures the very biological processes that many people have a right to change. In general, we must rid ourselves of the idea that any necessary relationship exists between sex and gender; this prepares us to claim that the freedom to bring sex and gender into whatever relation one chooses is a basic human right.

What does this freedom look like in practice? Let anyone change their sex. Let anyone change their gender. Let anyone change their sex again. Let trans girls play sports, regardless of their sex status. If they excel, this means only that some girls are better at sports than others. Let people use the gender-segregated facilities of their choice; desegregate whenever possible. Do not out children to their parents. Do not force anyone to change their sex or their gender. Give everyone health care. The anti-trans movement has collected the public’s rising awareness of the staggering injustice of the American health-care system and directed it, like a syringe full of air, at a small population of children. The effect is to make it appear as if trans people do not want good health care or trustworthy providers, when the truth is that trans people face health disparities across the board, including higher reported rates of disability, asthma, and heart disease. No single federal program would benefit trans people more than Medicare for All. As for transition-related care itself, the right to change sex includes the right to receive counseling, to understand the risks, or to be treated for comorbidities; in fact, society has a duty to make these resources freely and widely accessible to trans kids. But these are practical options, not obligations. To make “thoughtfulness” a requirement of any universal right is to taper that right into an exclusive privilege. That trans kids’ access to care will in most cases be mediated by parents or legal guardians is an inescapable fact of the way our society regards children, rightly or not. For now, parents must learn to treat their kids as what they are: human beings capable of freedom.

The freedom of sex does not promise happiness. Nor should it. It is good and right for advocates to fight back against the liberal fixation on the health risks of sex-changing care or the looming possibility of detransition. But it is also true that where there is freedom, there will always be regret. In fact, there cannot be regret without freedom. Regret is freedom projected into the past. So it is one thing to regret the outcome of a decision, but it is a very different thing to regret the freedom to decide, which most people would not trade for the world. If we are to recognize the rights of trans kids, we will also have to accept that, like us, they have a right to the hazards of their own free will. This does not mean shooting testosterone into every toddler who looks at a football. But if children are too young to consent to puberty blockers, then they are definitely too young to consent to puberty, which is a drastic biological upheaval in its own right. Yet we let this happen every day — and not without casualties. I am not speaking of suicide; I am speaking of the many opponents of trans rights who observe with horror that they too might have transitioned given the chance, so intensely did they hate being teenage girls. I do not know if they regret their biology today. I do suspect they regret that they never got to choose it.

A choice! The thought is impossible. Yet we have no difficulty believing that 300,000 trans kids can choose to stop being trans. Freedom is easy to imagine when it is the freedom to do as you’re told. What we cannot conceive is why they are making all this gender trouble in the first place. They do not owe us an explanation. They are busy taking charge of their own creation. They may not change the world, but they will certainly change themselves.

“Freedom is easy to imagine when it is the freedom to do as you’re told” is a good critical summation of the authoritarian mindset.

I look forward to reading your thoughts.

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