“Those who deny the biological differences between a man and a woman are not only erasing women as a category of people, they’re denying the existence of objective reality, and the “truth” becomes whatever those in power want it to be.”
- Tulsi Gabbard, accepting Independent Women’s Forum award speech posted on Twitter 10/13/2022
I’m a cis-gendered, heterosexual man who cannot find any logic, justice, or humanity in Tulsi Gabbard’s claim.
I have identified as male all seventy-one years of my life and continue to think of myself as a man, and the same applies to my father, uncles, brother, and all my numerous guy friends. My mother, sister, wife, daughter, a vast number of friends present and past—all are women to me and to themselves. I also have the height, the genitalia, and the male-pattern baldness that points pretty clearly to maleness, even though I’m not what you’d really call macho. I’m somewhat sensitive to others and to my own feelings. I even understand that there is such a thing as “toxic masculinity,” which involves a terrible need to appear not merely assertive but demanding, not merely confident but strutting, for the toxicity comes from the need to appear rather than simply to be. And all the women I know well do identify as women and do acknowledge that I am a man. Some of my friends are gay men, some are lesbians, and some of them were once in heterosexual relationships, so perhaps they are to some extent bisexual, though that’s not their identity now. I don’t have any trans friends, but I have taught a few trans high school students, and they were all fine by me.
So, I for one do not “erase women as a category of people”, as Tulsi Gabbard fears some might. And I don’t have any reason to believe that a significant number of people would erase that category altogether. So what is she afraid of? First, it seems, is her insistence that we must hold on to “objective reality”, which she finds, at least in the case of gender identification, to be perfectly clear.
We have been wrestling with what constitutes “objectivity” at least since Einstein, Heisenberg, and Thomas Kuhn started messing with our trust in established truths. Despite the onslaught of modernism and its discontents, some of us have become comfortable with the idea that subjectivity is actually central to one’s understanding of the world, and we might be less afraid than Gabbard of conventional wisdom’s demise. Still, given the subject at hand, we now must plunge into the question of how objectively to determine gender identity, for that is what matters so much to Tulsi, who finds objective truth to be so clear.
Here are some key questions to which she apparently finds the answers obvious.
- Can a person with male genitalia feel/believe in that person’s mind and “soul” that they are more a woman than a man?
- Can a person with female genitalia feel/believe in that person’s mind and “soul” that they are more a man than a woman?
- Are such beliefs, rooted as they are in a person’s brain or consciousness, less biological than that person’s genitalia?
To Tulsi Gabbard, the objective judge sees a penis and testes or a vagina and assigns gender accordingly to the newborn child, and that identity shall not be altered no matter whatever other questions or disruptions might arise as the child grows.
But there are correspond gibe with their sense of themselves or of their place in the world. I don’t know this because I have experienced it but because people are testifying to its truth. I cannot imagine a reason they would all be conspiring in a lie that sets them apart from what is easily and socially acceptable. Why would they set themselves up for hatred and ostracization? I think they wouldn’t, and so I must accept the fact that these people’s experiences are an addition to all the evidence that we have traditionally, in terms of mere genitalia, objectively considered. Those, like Tulsi Gabbard, must explain why those people’s testimonies about their own experiences and feelings are not meaningful. Why is the evidence of those people, no matter how small their numbers, of no interest to the Tulsi Gabbards of the world, who certainly should claim, given their trust in “objectivity,” that they want to gather all the evidence?
Let me be clear. I am not, at least at this point, taking a precise stand on all the complexities that arise in the gender debates right now. I’m not, for instance, claiming to know precisely who should be allowed to compete on women’s sports teams (though I think there are so few cases of this being a meaningful controversy that I don’t see what all the fuss is about). I think great social and cultural transitions are complicated and difficult, and I’m not at all surprised that many people are confused by and uncomfortable with all the attention being paid to gender identity. I am not all-knowing or even particularly wise about how we should proceed to mend or guide the world. I’m certainly not one who, should I gain political power, would insist my point of view is the only proper one.
Which brings us back to Ms. Gabbard’s quote and the threat of tyranny that it suggests when she worries that the truth will become “whatever those in power want it to be.” I understand that this is a functional definition of tyranny, and we have all seen leaders who tell blatant lies as if they were facts. We should yell foul whenever those in power try to get away with such lies. But it is clear that Tulsi Gabbard is the one who, if in power, would insist that her truth is the truth.
She is the one who would say, “Look, a penis! See, a vagina!” and insist the whole question of gender identity was settled. She is the one who ignores other evidence. She doesn’t deal with the fact that transgender people have existed throughout history (so it’s not, as others have claimed, a recent fad). She doesn’t acknowledge the painful trauma, depression, and suicidal ideation that can accompany gender dysphoria. She is blind to the insights of medical experts who understand, diagnose, and treat gender dysphoria. It is the Tulsi Gabbards of the world who are ignoring evidence, thus denying the complexities of the issue, and thereby taking a tyrannical stance against objective reality.
It would be nice if life were simple, if it were easy to answer the question “Who am I?”. When unforeseen complexities arise, it makes sense that people duck their heads in denial. “Make it go away. Make it simple again.” But let’s not put our heads in the sand. Let’s not, like children, hide our eyes from what’s suddenly new but in the long run really not at all scary. Let’s instead, in this important case, let people be who they want and need to be.