To move from the fact that gender roles exhibit elements of social construction to regarding the body as of no real significance to gender identity is huge leap, and one that must be challenged. It is predicated upon highly dubious, if mysteriously popular, philosophical assumptions that effectively dissolve nature into culture as if these two categories cannot coexist.
Last week, Roy Richard Grinker made an impassioned plea in the New York Times for the American Psychiatric Association to remove “being trans” from its list of mental disorders. His article is worrying, though perhaps not so much for the content as for what it reveals about this present age, as Grinker’s argument is a fine example of the kind of thinking which seems set to carry the day. Its plausibility, however, does not depend upon cogent logic but upon rhetoric that hides its fallaciousness from view. If a case is to be made that transgenderism is not a mental disorder, it will need to be made on far better grounds than those Grinker chose to offer in the New York Times.
The rhetorical power of Grinker’s case rests primarily upon a close analogy between homosexuality and the condition the APA now calls gender dysphoria. As the APA once regarded homosexuals as suffering from psychiatric disorder but changed its mind, Grinker argues, so it should now do the same with those who believe their gender does not match the sex of their body.
At first glance, the argument seems plausible. We are all familiar with talk about the “LGBTQ” community and we all know the “T” stands for “Transgender.” But the addition of the “T” to the “LGB” is not driven by a natural, positive affinity between these categories. Rather, it is a strategic marriage born of political convenience. Opposition to heteronormativity, rather than a shared philosophy of gender or sexuality, is what holds the movement together. Indeed, even the link between the “L” and the “G” is rooted less in a shared positive identity than in the notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend: It was only with the advent of the 1980s AIDS crisis, when middle-class gay men became victims, that the alliance emerged. And transgenderism is even more complicated. The current TERF wars show that women who want to become transgender men are often seen as betraying the cause by trying to gain male privilege, and men who want to become transgender women are regarded as trying to deny that privilege and illegitimately gain the label of victims.