A Philosophical Response to “You are Born a Man or a Woman. You Don’t Get to Choose”

Gender

I’ve seen this article floating around, “You are Born a Man or a Woman. You Don’t Get to Choose,” by Matt Walsh, a blogger who writes on current events and social issues from a traditional Christian perspective. The particular article I’m referring to has argued that one’s sex and gender is fixed, and that no amount of surgery can change that. This particular assertion was in response to Fallon Fox, a female MMA fighter who underwent surgery to become a post-op transgender female. He names a few other examples: for one, a pair of parents who changed their sexes. So, the original father became the mother, and the original mother became the father. He cites another case of a pre-operative transgender male who became pregnant. His thesis is that sex and gender are both biologically determined, which means that transgender people are walking contradictions.

I will be upfront and honest about the quality of his article: it is filled with sweeping generalizations, unwarranted assumptions, ad hominems, genetic fallacies, straw men, equivocations, and a general lack of research; and it will only convince people who already agree with him. However, since this article has been floating around, and has annoyed me to no end, I’ll take some time to provide a thoughtful response. I won’t attack his character, and I will do my best to give his article a fair shot. I will not cover the whole article, but I will reply to some of his explicit assumptions in order to reply to his thesis as a whole.

His underlying assumptions:

“[1]…they [liberals] invented the false dichotomy between sex and gender and used the suspect distinctions to turn fundamental laws of science upside down.

[2] They say that the physical differences are irrelevant, but that you can become a woman by getting implants, or a man by getting a fake penis (which makes the physical differences crucial).

[3] They say that gender is a social construct, but that a man can be born a woman, and a woman can be born a man (which makes gender an inherent condition).

[4] They say that not all men conform to gender stereotypes, but if a dude wears a dress he’s a woman, rather than simply a dude in a dress. Gender roles are summarily rejected and rigidly enforced, all at the same time.” (Read more at http://themattwalshblog.com/2014/09/24/man-or-woman/2/#GL3AtTe2mTOZkK1m.99)

I don’t want to spend a lot of time going into detail regarding the logical fallacies contained within these statements. Like I said, I want to give him a fair shot. However, I do need to point one glaring error regarding #1. The sex/gender distinction was not “invented” by modern liberals. Simone De Beauvoir (1908-1986), one of the founders of feminism and an Existentialist philosopher, is credited with establishing the distinction between sex and gender. She asserted that sex is one’s biological role in the reproductive cycle, whereas gender is constituted by the social norms that one must follow in virtue of their reproductive designation.

simone

Historical accuracy aside, the heart of his objection is this: there is no distinction between sex and gender. Now, this assertion is not particularly helpful, since he never defines the terms. However, since his complaints seem to be centered around biology, I’m assuming that he means to say that one’s gender is biologically determined as well. Based on some of his other blog posts, I’d also guess that he believes that one’s biological designation in some sense determines one’s habits or essential nature. Even though Matt Walsh clearly disagrees about gender being a socially constructed norm, I think his writings can fit into these two categories nicely: sex is one’s biological designation, and gender is the habits or proclivities which naturally arise from being a particular sex.

Based on some of his other writing, it seems that he believes men’s biological designation gives them a duty to defend women:

“…among a man’s duties is that ever-important charge to protect and honor women. Men are meant to use their strength to defend women against harm. When a man betrays this responsibility, we act as though he’s turned the world upside down, because he has.” (Read more at http://themattwalshblog.com/2014/09/09/why-is-everyone-so-mad-at-ray-rice-for-punching-his-fiancee/#G5GZy8OQkxpjw1tg.99)

chivalry

Now, in the same article, he mentions that men and women are innately unique creatures. Does he think they’re opposites, or complements? I do not know. However, if the essence of masculinity is ‘strength,’ that must imply that the essence of femininity is ‘weakness,’ or at least one of ‘support.’ Some significant implications of this: first, a woman can never have a completely autonomous identity. Her identity can only be defined in reference to someone else, or in reference to a function relative to someone else. Second — and I don’t like being particularly emotional or expressive in my writing, but it suits my purposes here — sorry single moms, but you don’t have the ability to take care of a family. Nope, you need a man. Third, sorry ladies, but it’s just not appropriate for you to defend yourselves. If there isn’t another man around, and you’re about to be raped, sorry, your biologically determined nature forbids you from doing anything. Sure, the man is abusing his strength, but it would be really inappropriate for you to do something completely outside of your nature.

(As a further note about the article just cited, it does deal with male violence towards women. He asserted that such violence is abhorrent because the male is abusing his strength. Well, why would it be wrong for a woman to hit a man, then? It would have to be because she is stepping out of her natural station: one of submission, or support, or weakness. In other words, it is wrong not because she’s abusing her position, but because she’s taking hold of a masculine nature. I don’t need to say why that proposition is morally repugnant.)

Matt Walsh might reply “no, women can defend themselves too.” However, that would require a more nuanced view of masculinity and femininity. Adding the nuance that women’s nature permits strength means that women and men are not as “unique” as he purports. This means that women could also fill the role of ‘protector,’ not just of themselves, but potentially of men who don’t know how to defend themselves, and of other women.

A further note about his gender essentialism: the article “Hormones, Sex, and Gender” notes that “neuroanatomical differences…when present, are not reliably associated with cognitive or behavioral differences, and conversely, that large behavioral differences [between genders] can occur independent of differences in brain structure or chemistry” (607). In the same article, the writer also notes: “If human development and function proceed through a context constituted by both culture and nature, then sex will also be affected by culture. Effects of culture on human biology have been intensively documented in human ecology and biology” (608). So, not only is one’s gendered behavior culturally determined, but one’s sex (biological designation) can be culturally affected. In other words, science doesn’t support the thesis that gender differences are essential, or even that sex is a fixed property.

So much for his first objection. What of the second one that I mentioned? Well, he claims that ‘liberals’ assert that the physical differences between women and men are insignificant, but they contradict themselves when they admit that transgender people feel the need to reconstruct their bodies. This does not seem like a contradiction, not on ‘liberal’ terms: our gender norms include the idea that there is a correlation between one’s gender identification and their body parts. That is, our culture tells us that in order to fulfill their designated gender role, they must have certain body parts. Thus, some transgender people feel like they cannot properly call themselves a woman or a man until they’ve gone through surgery. However, this does not admit of a natural gender difference; if anything, this speaks to the cultural impact that gender norms have upon individuals. In other words: under current gender norms, physical differences do matter, but they do not matter naturally — i.e. there is no reason for one set of behaviors to be associated with one body part rather than another.

(P.S. A transgender man does not have a fake penis. The material constituting the penis is made of the female organs that are already present, and the transgender male still has sensations down there — i.e. he can be aroused. The only artificial aspects are the testicles and the erectile prosthesis — in other words, the stuff that allows him to have sex. In other words, the guy has a functional penis — i.e. not fake. Get over it. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3312187/)

Does Matt Walsh accept this? No, and he likely won’t. However, the point is that under liberal thought, there is no contradiction involved. They are being perfectly consistent with themselves.

His third objection: it is odd to claim that people can be born male/female, yet have a proclivity towards the girl/boy gender. This makes it seem as if gender is an innate trait. I will be the first to admit that this is probably the biggest problem for the sex/gender distinction. So, I will be upfront and admit that the response I provide here is, at best, a probable story. What’s probably going on is that the cis-male feels as if he should have been born a cis-female. Since cultural depictions of cis-females identify them with the girl gender, the cis-male feels like he needs to conform to the girl gender in order to fulfill what he feels to be his true identity: that of a cis-female. Once again, this does not admit of natural gender differences, although it does speak to the powerful influence that culture has on individuals.

As a further reply to his third objection: let’s say we accept his biological gender essentialism. Well, cases of gender dimorphism indicate that males need not be born with a masculine essence: they could have a feminine gender essence instead. This clearly goes against Walsh’s position regarding masculine and feminine nature. Being a Christian, he could always say that it’s because of sin, whether it be personal or ancestral. However, such a response either begs the question or is completely ad hoc, or it is both. Either way, it’s not a sufficient reply.

What of his fourth objection? It’s a complex assertion, not because of its sophistication, but because it is linguistically tangled up. I’ll do my best to untangle the language, and hopefully get at what he’s saying before giving a response. However, I realize that my efforts here may misrepresent him, and if I do so, I am open to correction.

    1. “They say not all men conform to gender stereotypes, but if a dude wears a dress he’s a woman, rather than simply a dude in a dress.” What I think he’s saying here is that it doesn’t make sense to say that a cis-male can put on a dress, be called a woman (gender), and in the same breath assert that he isn’t being defined by gender stereotypes. Furthermore, if I understand his mindset correctly, it would make more sense to say that he is a man (gender) in a dress.

I agree: it doesn’t make sense to say that the cis-male isn’t conforming to gender roles in this case. Depending on the context, it may be best just to call him a cis-male in a dress. However, in the case of a transgender woman, this would be completely inappropriate: Since gender norms are not fixed, and are certainly not biologically determined, it is perfectly acceptable to say that this cis-male is a transgender woman, or even just a woman (gender). This is especially true if they adopt all the behaviors of that particular gender role. (If you think I’m unwarranted in asserting this, see my counter-argument to his very first objection; I am being perfectly consistent: these statements logically follow from my critique.)

Where does all this leave transgender people, and the distinction between sex (biology) and gender (culture)? Well, if the fixity of gender is the case, transgender people are indeed contradictions. However, it doesn’t seem like that’s the case: it seems like gender is actually culturally constituted and influences how people understand their body parts. The fact that transgender people feel as if they should have been one sex over another is not a violation of a natural order. It is simply another region of human life that they have access to, whereas most of us don’t. They have not violated some natural order: they have only violated your cultural mandate that asks the world fit into a little box, keep everything nice and neat, and conveniently oust contrary phenomena as abominable and evil. The world is bigger and more complicated than you think. Get over it.