Chelsea Manning’s declaration yesterday that she didn’t want to be referred to as “Bradley” anymore and would like to live as a woman from now on instantly made her the most famous transgender person in the world. It also forced people to deal with the idea that some people feel like they are a man in a woman’s body, a woman in a man’s body, or a version of gender that doesn’t fit into the traditional male-female binary. This is not a new phenomenon—those who are neither precisely men nor women have existed across cultures and eras and have been both venerated and persecuted over the centuries. The simplest and most humane way to treat trans people is to just treat them as people, refer to them as the gender they want to be referred to as, and accept that unless you’re having sex with someone, it doesn’t matter what his or her genitals look like.
For people who haven’t had much exposure to trans people, however, Manning’s announcement was “controversial” or “confusing.” (Even though it was already known that Manning was transgender.) The ultra-cis folks at Fox & Friends were all like, “Whaaaat? A man wants to be a woman? That is bizarre and I don’t think anyone understands what’s going on!” Other media outlets were reportedly struggling with which pronoun to use when referring to Manning. (It’s not that hard, guys. The VICE style guide says, “If someone is transgender or a transvestite, use the pronoun of his or her preferred gender.”)
Fox and Friends’ bewilderment is certainly insensitive but using the wrong pronoun or admitting that you don’t understand transgender issues isn’t all that vicious or transphobic, necessarily. Enter the National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson, who just wrote a post titled “Bradley Manning Is Not a Woman” and subtitled “Pronouns and delusions do not trump biology.”
As you’d expect from the National Review, Williamson slathers his poisonous antitrans BS with a heavy coat of intellectualism: he references famous cross-dressers in French and Roman history (naturally omitting any mention of socially accepted “third genders” in non-Western cultures), splits a bunch of hairs looking at the linguistic roots of the word gender, and extensively quotes Paul McHugh, who is probably the most prominent antitrans academic in America. (McHugh is despised by the trans community and has been criticized for not knowing what he’s talking about when it comes to sexuality and gender.)
Williamson’s basic point, however, is simple: transgender people are “mentally ill and in need of treatment” and “biological sexual fact” should trump everything:
“We have created a rhetoric of ‘gender identity’ that is disconnected from biological sexual fact, and we have done so largely in the service of enabling the sexual mutilation of physically healthy men and women (significantly more men) by medical authorities who should be barred by professional convention if not by conscience from the removal of healthy organs… A man who believes he is a woman trapped in a man’s body, no matter the intensity of his feeling, is no such thing.”
Hear that, trans people? Your feelings don’t matter, you’re sick and disturbed, and you should have no say in decisions about your body. You may have thought that “gender” is mostly about how you dress and act and how society perceives you—an idea supported by the large number of MTF trans people who can “pass” as women and vice versa—the guy from the National Review says sex is equivalent to gender so it must be so. (I’m not sure what Williamson thinks about hermaphrodites or, say, those with XXY chromosomes. Are their feelings of confusion when it comes to gender identity valid? I can’t wait for him to pass judgment on them!)
Williamson’s views are shared by other right wingers like Erick Erickson of RedState, who likewise dismisses gender theory without knowing anything about it. Frank Schubert of the National Organization for Marriage likewise claims, “Nature and chromosomes determine gender.” But they never say why trans people pose such a threat or a problem, or what interest society at large should have in the genitals and gender performance of individuals. Like many conservatives, Erickson and Williamson advocate personal freedom until they run into people who are doing something they think is weird. This mirrors the way homosexuals were treated back when being gay was regarded as a mental illness; in fact, it was only recently that the American Psychiatric Association stopped referring to trans people as having "gender-identity disorder."
It’s not clear exactly how “sick” trans people should be treated, in Williamson’s view—given his politics, all we can assume is that he won’t want the government to pay for such treatment—but it’s clear that the wrong thing to do would be to treat trans people as their preferred gender. He heaps a whole lot of scorn on California’s new policy of allowing transgender youth to “to participate in sex-segregated programs, activities and facilities” based on their gender identity. It’s not clear exactly what harm he thinks this will do, but it’s obviously a bad thing—if we tolerate transgender people, what’s next? According to him, what’s next is that people will want to turn themselves into animals and chop off their limbs. Seriously, he brings up something called Body Identity Integrity Disorder, a condition where people want to amputate their own limbs, and the case of David Avner, who tried to turn himself into a tiger through extensive body modification.
Equating these uncommon mental issues—there have only been 300 documented instances of BIID; Avner clearly had an extremely rare condition—to the 700,000 transgender people in the US is obviously absurd. Williamson also doesn’t bother to explain why we should discriminate, legally or otherwise, against people who want to modify their bodies. I imagine he opposes less radical body mods like corset piercings as well—or maybe he doesn’t, since he finds them less icky, which seems to be his criteria for who deserves to be labeled “sick” or “normal.”
The most abhorrent thing about Williamson’s piece though, is that while attempting to prove that gender reassignment surgeries don’t make trans people any happier, he writes this:
“Dr. James Bellringer, a British physician who has performed hundreds of sex-reassignment surgeries at the Charing Cross Hospital gender-identity clinic, points out in defense of the practice that about one-fifth of those who are denied the procedure attempt suicide; but a study conducted by the British National Health Service found practically identical—18 percent —suicide-attempt rates for those who had undergone the procedure.”
Why do so many trans people try to commit suicide? Could it have something to do with the widespread prejudice they face—i.e., people like Williamson calling them mentally ill? Could the hate crimes that target trans people, like the transgender woman who was just beaten to death in New York City, have anything to do with the intolerance that is casually spit out by conservative writers? Probably, but the National Review is more concerned with pseudo-intellectual points about how gender is nothing more than sex, or smarmily asserting that Manning needs to be “officially declared” a female by the state before she can be considered a woman. To conservatives, trans people don’t have problems, they are problems.