The debate over transgenderism derives from different views over what it means to be male and female.
(Note: While the following attempts to fairly present how liberals view transgenderism, readers should be aware it is not the editorial viewpoint of The Christian Post.)
The Liberal View
The most common liberal view today is that sex and gender are not the same. Sex describes ones genitalia — boys have boy parts and girls have girl parts, which are determined by chromosomes (XX for girls and XY for boys). Gender, on the other hand, is socially constructed and determined by the individual.
Someone of the male sex can have the female gender if they believe they are female. This person might be referred to as a "transgender female." Someone with female sex chromosomes who believes they are male is a "transgender male."
"Transgender" describes both those who take hormones and/or use surgery to alter their appearance or genitalia, and those who have done none of those things but may dress as someone of the opposite sex. Sometimes "transsexual" is used to describe a transgender person who has had surgery, but use of these terms is inconsistent.
Those with intersex conditions, or malformed genitalia, are sometimes referred to as transgender by some in the transgender community, but the intersex community generally rejects this notion, arguing that intersex and transgender are separate phenomena.
Some transgender people are sexually attracted to members of the same sex and some are not. A transgender man, for instance, may desire to dress as a women and have sex with men, or they may desire to dress as a woman and still be attracted to women. A recent example of the latter is Caitlyn, formerly Bruce, Jenner. (S)he is taking hormones and has breast implants but still has a penis and wants to have sex with women.
Treating transgender people as if they are the opposite sex from what their chromosomes indicate is not simply seen as an act of respect — i.e. treat others as they prefer to be treated — it is an actual fact. In other words, a transgender man is not only described as female because doing so is believed to be beneficial to them, a transgender man is in fact a woman. Those who describe them as a man are factually incorrect, according to this view.
The liberal view also maintains that a transgender individual who has "transitioned" to the opposite gender was always that gender even before they transitioned. Like liberal views on homosexuality, they were "born that way." So, when you talk about their life before the transition, you would still use the opposite sex pronoun. For instance, when referring to Caitlyn Jenner you might say, "She won the men's decathlon. She was The Associated Press 'Male Athlete of the Year.' She was the father of six children." (Or, maybe mother? Some of this is confusing.)
Those who hold a different view are not only factually incorrect, they are behaving in ways that are hurtful and damaging to transgender people when they express their view, according to this liberal understanding. A person who feels that they should be a different gender than what their chromosomes indicate serve themselves best when they act to become more like their opposite sex. To do otherwise is do deny their true identity.
This understanding of transgenderism is consistent with how liberals view homosexuality. If a person has desires for sexual relations with someone of their same gender, then homosexual behavior is not only good, but best for them. To not act upon those desires is to deny their true identity, they say.
Not all liberals believe this, and some conservatives and libertarians do.
These views sometimes conflict with other liberal views, feminism in particular. Also, there are some disagreements among liberals over how science informs what makes someone transgender.
J. Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, has argued that there are two types of transgender males. One is an extreme form of homosexuality and the other is those who become sexually aroused by dressing as the opposite gender. Bailey considers himself to be the second type. Bailey is also a leading researcher on studies attempting to discover a genetic component to same-sex attraction.
Bailey's work has largely been rejected by the transgender community. He has been accused of making scientific claims without the data to support them, and presenting transgender people as sexual perverts. He has also been investigated for ethics and sexual harassment violations.
One of Bailey's critics is Lynn Conway, a transgender female and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan. Conway argues, in part, that Bailey has confused his categories. A gay man who likes to dress up as a female to make themselves more attractive to men is not transgender, they are simply gay, she says.
In an August 2014 article for The New Yorker, Michelle Goldberg wrote about disputes between the transgender community and "radical feminists."
Much of liberal feminist ideology is based upon the fact that women can get pregnant and men cannot. Since there is currently no method available to give transgender women the ability to get pregnant, there is an inherent conflict between feminism and the belief that a transgender woman is a woman.
In a Sunday article for The New York Times, Elinor Burkett, a journalist, former professor of women's studies and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, complained that Caitlyn Jenner and other transgender activists are trying to change what it means to be a woman. She noted that some of these activists have even complained about abortion clinics that refer to their clients as women instead of "uterus owners." One clinic made the change, explaining that they were "excluding trans people who needed to get an abortion but were not women."
"For me and many women, feminist and otherwise, one of the difficult parts of witnessing and wanting to rally behind the movement for transgender rights is the language that a growing number of trans individuals insist on, the notions of femininity that they're articulating, and their disregard for the fact that being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one," Burkett wrote.
Goldberg wrote that the conflict arose in the 1970s, but today most feminists have accepted the transgender viewpoints. The few holdouts are more closely aligned with the traditionalist view described below.
The conflict between feminism and transgenderism can also be found in the debate over whether all-women colleges should admit transgender women and/or transgender men, or in which gender-specific sports leagues a transgender person should be allowed to play.
The Traditionalist View
The traditionalist understanding of sex and gender, which can also be described as the conservative or biological view, is quite different. Sex and gender are the same. Gender is determined by one's chromosomes and can never change.
The traditionalists also believe that the scientific research is on their side. Transgenderism is a symptom of larger psychological problems that should be addressed. When those problems are dealt with, the symptoms go away.
Dr. Paul McHugh led the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins Hospital for many years and is currently its Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry. In 2004, he wrote an article for First Things explaining why Johns Hopkins stopped doing sex reassignment surgeries.
After conducting extensive research, his department found that transgender individuals suffer from various mental illnesses, and surgeries that helped them become more like the opposite sex did not cure those illnesses and often made things worse.
"I have witnessed a great deal of damage from sex-reassignment," he wrote. "The children transformed from their male constitution into female roles suffered prolonged distress and misery as they sensed their natural attitudes. Their parents usually lived with guilt over their decisions — second-guessing themselves and somewhat ashamed of the fabrication, both surgical and social, they had imposed on their sons.
"As for the adults who came to us claiming to have discovered their 'true' sexual identity and to have heard about sex-change operations, we psychiatrists have been distracted from studying the causes and natures of their mental misdirections by preparing them for surgery and for a life in the other sex. We have wasted scientific and technical resources and damaged our professional credibility by collaborating with madness rather than trying to study, cure, and ultimately prevent it."
Among the traditionalists, there are some who mock, tease and belittle transgender individuals. Others, however, usually religious conservatives, believe the proper response should be motivated by love.
All people, including transgender people, are created by God, in the image of God, and as such deserve dignity and respect. Loving them also means wanting what is best for them, which does not include enabling their suffering by denying their true gender, but does include wanting to help them with the conditions that cause them to want to be a gender different than the one God gave them. (This view also matches the editorial opinion of The Christian Post and can be found in many op-ed's we have published. See, for instance, here, here and here.)
Why does it matter?
Both sides believe the other side is doing harm to transgender individuals.
In a June 3 op-ed, Damon Linker, a liberal columnist for The Week, argued that the "the gap between" the liberal and traditionalist views "becomes a chasm" when "the [liberal view] judges the very act of making a moral judgment in terms of [the traditionalist view] to be harmful — and therefore an act of cruelty, injustice, and even evil."
While, as acknowledged above, some traditionalists are unkind to transgender people, the liberal view is that all traditionalists are unkind in the simple act of not agreeing with the liberal view. In other words, the liberal view is that the only way for a traditionalist to be kind to a transgender person is to cease being a traditionalist.
Traditionalists believe liberals are doing harm to transgender people because they are misdiagnosing the problem. Transgender people are not getting the help they need for the underlying psychological problems that are causing them to want to be a different sex, and in some cases undergoing surgeries that mutilate their bodies.
What is being done to children in some of these cases is particularly egregious. According to McHugh, 70 to 80 percent of children who like to pretend they are a different gender grow out of that phase by the time they are adults. Yet, some parents are giving their children hormone treatments that can stunt their growth and cause infertility.
There are also a large number of public policy implications, such as:
Which view, or views, will be taught in public schools?
In those schools, what provisions will be made for transgender students? Which bathrooms will they use? For which gender-specific sports team can they play?
In colleges and universities, in which dormitories can transgender students reside?
What about religious colleges that hold the traditionalist view — must they abide by the liberal view to maintain their tax-exempt status, for their students to receive government aid, or to keep their accreditation?
What about traditionalist religious institutions that receive government grants to provide social services — will they be required to align their hiring policies with the liberal view?
While transgender people represent a small portion of the population (0.3 percent, by one estimate), all will be dealing with the implications of the clash of transgenderism worldviews.