Sunday, June 7, 2015

Down The Rabbit Hole: On Caitlyn and Culture

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?' 
'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
'I don't much care where -' said Alice. 
'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat. 
'- so long as I get SOMEWHERE,' Alice added as an explanation. 
'Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, 'if you only walk long enough.” 
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

The Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner story has given us a window into the culture in which this shift in identity has taken place. This post is not about Caitlyn as a person. Caitlyn's difficult internal struggle is very real, and it deserves compassion. Though I'm guessing Caitlyn and I disagree on how resolution and healing can be found, I hope that Caitlyn finds them.

What follows are not observations on Bruce/Caitlyn as much as thoughts on trends in our culture's ability to process complex issues such as this one. Supporting Jenner's new self-identity does not happen in a vacuum. It requires a manner of reasoning and a particular worldview perspective that I believe is leading us haphazardly down a rabbit hole of deeply confusing philosophical and moral dilemmas.


Since the 1950's, an official distinction has been made between sexual identity (connected with biology) and gender identity (related to how people view themselves in light of cultural mores and norms). Within the parameters of those definitions, Jenner has changed gender identityThat's not the same as sexual identity. In order to determine the biological sex of a baby, one can examine the genitals at birth, measure hormone levels of estrogen and testosterone, and establish XX or XY patterns in chromosomes. All these markers indicated that baby Jenner was a male – thus his given name, Bruce. Even though body modification can change the exterior, nothing can change that biological fact.

In addition, Jenner has done things that only males can do. Mr. Jenner won an Olympic gold medal in specifically male events. In each of his marriages, he married a woman - and none of the marriages were same-sex marriages. When he fathered children, he contributed the sperm rather than the egg. In fact, Caitlyn currently retains a distinctly male characteristic. Ms. Jenner still has a penis.

No wonder the media coverage is incredibly confusing. Journalists are gamely trying to navigate the claims to gender fluidity, but confusion abounds. Here are just two examples:

  •  “In April, Bruce Jenner spoke about her transition to being a woman in a television special that drew nearly 17 million viewers. On Monday, that woman revealed her new identity, appearing as Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair…. Ms. Jenner, 65, who won an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon, has had a long public life.”  ( “Caitlyn Jenner, Formerly Bruce, Introduces Herself in Vanity Fair,” New York Times)
  •  ‘In addition to recounting the gender confusion she experienced throughout her life, the Vanity Fair article describes countless mistakes Jenner admitted to making as a parent, particularly involving the children she had with her first two wives. She missed birthdays, graduations and even the birth of a daughter before become ‘an exemplary father’ to the children she had with her third wife, Kris Kardashian, according to Jenner and several children interviewed." (“Bruce Jenner Reveals New Identity As 'Caitlyn' In Stunning Vanity Fair Cover Photo,”

Even though the psychological and medical fields have developed new terms meant to capture the complexity of the situation, the language with which ideas are conveyed struggles to address the issue with clarity. Ms. Jenner won a men's Olympic event.  She became an exemplary father to the children she had with her third wife - yet all of us can watch TV archives where there was no 'she' with Kris. There is bound to be confusion when we are not sure when to use "he" and "she" or "Mr." and "Mrs." I once heard a college English professor note that when we can't get the words right, we can't get the world right. A thought-provoking article in the Spectator summarizes the situation well:
"The insistence that we not only refer to Bruce/Caitlyn as ‘she’ but also project this backwards – recognising, in the words of the Guardian, that she has ‘always been a woman’ – is borderline Orwellian. It’s a rewriting of history, a memory-holing of old inconvenient facts. Strikingly, the Guardian writer says people like Bruce/Caitlyn have ‘always been women… even when they were “fathering” children’. Notice it’s the ‘fathering’ bit that is in scare quotes, suggesting it wasn’t real, while the description of Bruce as a woman is treated as an incontestable truth. War is peace, freedom is slavery, man is woman."
In addition to the confusing rhetoric, we are increasingly relying on sound bites, memes and tweets to talk about an issue like this. Twitter comments are frequently referenced by serious news organizations as if they are serious markers for reasonable discussion. This does not bode well for our ability to think, discuss, and disagree as rational adults. Here’s a sample of some of the more popular tweets about the Jenner transition:

  •  “Be Proud! Live Life Your Way!” 
  •  “My wish is that everyone is able to live a happy life as their authentic self.” 
  •  “She’s all glam and happy!! That’s what matters in life!” 
  •  “Free to be you and me!” 

If that’s how people want to view life, they are welcome to do so. But nobody actually believes this all the time. How do I know? Because when someone criticizes Jenner for his decision, suddenly none of these slogans apply. The critics are not allowed to live life their way. They’re not allowed to be their authentic self if it makes them happy.

The duplicity isn't even subtle. Based on the news coverage and the online conversation, we are apparently only free to be the kind of person that applauds Jenner’s decision. Those who don't agree, no matter their reason, are derided at best and vilified at worst. That allows neither freedom nor authenticity. That's bullying - which I thought we were really against right now. I assume the social media beatings will continue until morale improves.

Meanwhile, there is a much deeper problem than the shallow nature of the discussion. The accolades for Jenner’s decision do not full encompass the reality of gender reassignment surgery. John Hopkins University, which pioneered gender reassignment surgery, has stopped doing the procedure for medical and professional reasons. Here is the conclusion of Paul McHugh, University Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University:

“Quite clearly, then, we psychiatrists should work to discourage those adults who seek surgical sex reassignment. When Hopkins announced that it would stop doing these procedures in adults with sexual dysphoria, many other hospitals followed suit, but some medical centers still carry out this surgery. Thailand has several centers that do the surgery “no questions asked” for anyone with the money to pay for it and the means to travel to Thailand.

I am disappointed but not surprised by this, given that some surgeons and medical centers can be persuaded to carry out almost any kind of surgery when pressed by patients with sexual deviations, especially if those patients find a psychiatrist to vouch for them. The most astonishing example is the surgeon in England who is prepared to amputate the legs of patients who claim to find sexual excitement in gazing at and exhibiting stumps of amputated legs. At any rate, we at Hopkins hold that official psychiatry has good evidence to argue against this kind of treatment and should begin to close down the practice everywhere.” 

I’m not trying to minimize the very real emotional turmoil Jenner has experienced or dismiss Jenner’s attempt to align his conflicting identities. I'm noting that there is a clear medical reason to believe that the path Caitlyn has chosen ought not be so blindly celebrated and relentlessly defended. The phenomenon of sex change regret is very real. This may well be a decision Jenner will regret.

Jenner's very public decision - and the passionate support of the new gender identity -  raises some interesting possibilities. Consider the following personal identity scenarios:
  •  a15-year-old offers a fake ID because she identifies as a 22-year-old.
  •  a 35-year-old male argues that his statutory rape charge should be dismissed because he is a 16-year-old male trapped in a 35-year-old body.
  • a 36-inch-tall child claims she should be able to ride a roller coaster with a 45-inch requirement because she identifies as being 45 inches tall.
  • a potential employee claims a college degree without having one because she feels like she has that degree of education.
  • a Caucasian male insists on filling out a college aid application as an African-American female.
  • a married man insists he is not married in spite of a marriage license being on file at the courthouse.
What do all these have in common? In every case, the people are choosing a personal perspective or identification over objective, physical reality. There are clear, real world markers that don’t go away no matter how the person appears or what they think is true about themselves. The 15-year-old and 35-year-old have a birthdate; the child can be measured; the employee's education history can be checked; the Caucasian male has a birth certificate; the married man has a document in a courthouse.

Here's where we begin to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. In every case they should get their way -  if we respond to them the same way many are responding to Jenner's self-identification. They just want to life an authentic life. Why can't they be free to be them? While these scenarios are speculative, there are plenty of other situations where people identify in ways that are clearly at odds with reality. Some people with perfectly healthy limbs are getting them amputated because they identify as amputees (transabled); some think they are animals (species dysphoria); some  think they are vampires; a few even think they are dead (Cotard's Syndrome). In every case, the people are choosing a personal perspective or identification over objective, physical reality. 

Should we all be asked (or forced) to agree with all of them? It's one thing to allow people space in which wrestle with (or embrace) a personal perspective that is at odds with reality. It's quite another to ask others to accept their view as reality and applaud them for their courage.  I would not respond with accolades in any of the other scenarios mentioned above - and I suspect most of you wouldn't' either. I would offer compassion and sympathy for the emotional and intellectual turmoil, but I would not respond by acting as if the misconceptions were correct.

People have the freedom to make choices about gender identity and the body modification that accompanies the change. People are free to choose an identity at odds with biology. People are free to live as an 'authentic self.' All who praise them are free to applaud what they perceive as courage, beauty, happiness, and freedom (to quote just a few of the accolades). This is not about denying people the personal freedom to embrace and applaud a particular perspective on this issue. It will constantly be reduced to that simplistic template, of course. Anyone who questions the occasional fundamentalists of pop culture will be derided instead of engaged. It's a good way to keep opposing voices out of the Twitter feed.

Why not offer the same chance at authenticity and freedom to voices on both sides of this issue? Why not affirm the courage of those who don't wish to applaud? Maybe those who disagree with Jenner's choice aren't haters. Maybe they even genuinely care about those who wrestle with questions of identity. Maybe they believe that compassion can and should be shown even in the midst of disagreement.

Maybe they even have principled reasons to believe that when our culture's perception of reality becomes this fluid, we have entered a rabbit's hole that will go far deeper than we imagine.


  1. Anthony, you may be trying to draw a contrast between the inanity of "soundbite culture" and a higher, more productive form of dialogue, but several of the longer pieces you linked to demonstrate that length is no guarantor of perspicuity. I'm amazed that you have anything positive to say about O'Neill's rant in the Spectator; it's almost entirely fact free and is exactly the opposite of the generous, thoughtful kind of engagement I've come to expect from you.

    The Paul McHugh essay is more interesting; I've rarely seen someone so kindly provide the tools to demolish their own argument in the process of making it. Consider this:

    1. McHugh describes how some (genetically male) children are born with ambiguous genitalia;
    2. McHugh describes how some of these (genetically male) children are surgically assigned female genitalia and raised as women;
    3. McHugh claims that the majority of (genetically male) children assigned female genitalia and raised as women grow up to identify as men;
    4. McHugh concludes that there is something about masculinity which is intrinsic to a person's nature and based in their genetics and fetal environment.

    Here's the interesting part:
    5. McHugh understands that the physical manifestations of a person's sex can be at odds with what would be expected based on their genetic sex;
    6. McHugh completely fails to understand that the mental manifestations of a person's sex can be at odds with what would be expected based on their genetic sex.

    I'm a little puzzled as to why someone well aware of the variability possible in human development would assume that mental gender identity - alone out of all the aspects of a human being - always perfectly matches a person's genes. Some men are smaller than some women, some are larger; some men are hairier than some women, some are smoother; some men are born with penises and testicles, some are not; but in McHugh's mind, every single man is born feeling like a man - no exceptions. Any man who doesn't feel like a man, McHugh says, is suffering from madness.

    (I really don't know what to make of the fact that McHugh completely ignores the phenomenon of women who feel they should be men. Based on the argumentation, the article should be subtitled "Why we stopped doing male-to-female sex change operations".)

  2. Steve! I was expecting you. I have tried to post a reply twice already, and lost both of them. Now I am annoyed. I hope this response is not annoying.

    First, your comment of the tone of the Guardian article is duly noted. I don’t usually link to posts that are that abrasive. I did on this one because I found it thought-provoking. Perhaps that was poor judgment. Nonetheless, I am interested in hearing from you what specifically you thought was wrong in it.

    Second, since McHugh fails to understand the “mental manifestations of a person's sex can be at odds with what would be expected based on their genetic sex,” how do you understand it? What is happening in this situation?

    Finally, let’s say (for the sake of discussion) that McHugh is not credible. Do you think that applies to all the others he quoted in the article? Do you also think the hospitals that stopped doing the surgeries are also wrong? Even if McHugh can be dismisses (and I’m not sure that he should be), there are plenty of others who agree with him. Are you prepared to say that all of them are wrong?

    1. Besides the tone, the disappointing thing about the Spectator article was that clicking through the links revealed just about every claim to be blown out of proportion. GLAAD's Orwellian thought policing, for example, turned out to be a list of tips to help reporters write articles "which are respectful and avoid common cliches". Hardly the Gestapo. It's as if the author didn't care that it was easy for deep readers to find out he was exaggerating; his purpose was served if shallow readers got as mad as he was.
      Second, I'm not an expert on science around gender identity, but if we agree with McHugh's assessment that there is a biological component to our feeling of gender identity and our sense of how our bodies should be put together, then it seems perfectly plausible that this biological component could have variable expression. As a pure hypothetical, a simple way this could happen is if some parts of some people's brains respond to testosterone as if it were estrogen, and vice versa. This would lead to a genetically male brain having a traits which would typically only be present in the brain of a genetically female person, which could include the modules for body image. Again, this is just hypothetical, but I think it's quite plausible that something like that could happen, in the absence of evidence to the contrary (which McHugh does not provide).

      Third, I think McHugh may be an outlier in his opinion, and his opinion may be a little out of date. For example, the study at seems to contradict McHugh's much older citation about post-operative happiness. There seems to be quite a bit of disagreement with McHugh's position that autogynophilia is causes gender dysphoria - the DSM treats it as auxiliary to other disorders, not a thing in its own right. The consensus among psych professionals seems to be that the standard of care for people with gender identity issues should include surgical intervention as an option if the person wants it. I think McHugh's position is based more on his own prejudices than on his professional expertise and the available science.

  3. That comment was getting long and I wanted to change the topic a little, so here's a different comment.

    I had a hard time grasping the point you were making with your list of possibilities you present as being similar to gender dysphoria. I feel like you are conflating two kinds of things which to me are quite conceptually different - sexual identity and gender identity. It's especially puzzling because you offered a clear distinction between the two at the start of the post, but in the second half you seem to have abandoned that distinction.

    Your list of possibilities was puzzling to me because taking on a gender identity and asking people to respect it isn't denying reality - to the extent there is a "reality" to gender identity, it comprises exactly that: presenting that gender identity and having other people respect it. If Caitlyn Jenner (or anyone in a similar situation) were going around saying, "I have two X chromosomes," you might have a point, but saying, "I am a woman," isn't the same thing at all. In normal life people take strangers' presented gender for granted, without asking for Proof of Correct Genitalia and DNA Analysis before treating the person as the gender of person they look like. Honestly, unless you want to have sex with a person, why would it matter to you whether they are concave or convex? (It should go without saying that if you go around wanting to have sex with everyone any problems you experience from that are your problems, not everyone else's.)

    As an alternative to your list, here's a very short list of personal identity scenarios I'd like you to consider:

    - A 45 year old man famous for his atheism declares that he is a Christian

    Would you respond to such a person by pointing out that they've never been to church? That they are on the record claiming that they do not believe in God? That they have, in the past, done many un-Christian things? Would you be concerned that acceptance of this conversion might lead to the acceptance of people who think they are gerbils? Or would you accept and encourage their change of identity, praising them for their bravery in the face of shunning from their former community, and be happy for them?

    And how would you respond to people who refused to acknowledge scenario-man's conversion to Christianity? How long would you remain calm and composed if people insisted on referring to him as an atheist, or saying he was an idiot or madman for converting, or mocking his new beliefs, or claiming that accepting such a conversion was tantamount to accepting people who believe they are vampires? Even if you were able to respond to such things generously, would you be terribly surprised if there were many Christians who reacted to such things negatively? You might be disappointed, but would you write a post about how we all need to calm down and listen to the careful arguments and insights from those who reject scenario-man's new Christian identity (and think that converting to Christianity is as reasonable as cutting your own legs off)?

  4. Steve, you and I are in agreement on this point: people are free to declare that they identify a gender at odds with their biology. That’s their call. But as I pointed out in the post, in Caitlyn’s case, there are clear biological markers to establish the fact that Caitlyn is male. Caitlyn is free to change appearance and choose language in a way that reflects this sense of identity, and I would like to think that if Caitlyn was my neighbor we would be friends. But I don’t see why I must agree with Caitlyn’s perception.

    This isn’t just a shift in mental allegiance as in your atheist/Christian example. In your example, this person basically said, ’”I’ve changed my mind about an issue with which I identify.” Saying, “I once identified as an atheist, but now I identify as a Christian” does not challenge a clear biological marker as it does in Caitlyn’s case. Even your examples of what this person might or might not do have to do with chosen actions, not inherent characteristics.

    And I think this situation has a much broader impact than simply what one person wants to do. There have already been numerous legal challenges in situations where people of a particular sex want to have access to facilities used by the opposite sex because they claim their gender identity is more important than their sexual identity. Thus, males in female locker rooms and restrooms. ( There was another interesting case where a male identifying as a woman became the first male at an all-female college because he identified as a woman, and the college wanted to respect the self-identification. ( You and I may disagree on whether or not that was a good idea (or we might not), but there are implications for society at large in these situation.

    I offered the other scenarios because if the rest of must adjust our lives (our actions and responses in particular) to accommodate the gender identity of someone who is transgendered rather than their sexual identity, in what other situations will we eventually be asked to set aside confirmable methods of identification in favor of chosen ones?

    1. Anthony, why do you think that Caitlyn Jenner choosing to present herself as a woman challenges the biological markers of maleness? As you point out at the beginning of this post, biological sex and social gender are different things. There's no law of nature stating that a person with a Y chromosome must never wear a dress; every gender expectation is just that - an expectation. We may expect that people's chromosomes and behavior will match, because they most often do, but sometimes they don't.

      I think my scenario remains a good analogy. You keep talking about "inherent characteristics" but the vast majority of the things which characterize masculinity and femininity are chosen - hair length, speech patterns, make up, clothing. Those which are not chosen can be modified using the same techniques which no one seems too concerned about when people use them to enhance (rather than change) their gendered appearance. The fact that you may not have previously thought of such things as available choices doesn't change the fact that they are.

      The implications for society of transgender people becoming more visible are actually pretty trivial. The most significant one, I think, is probably the impact on gendered sporting leagues, but I don't particularly care about that. The furor about transgender bathroom or shower usage is obviously unreasonable, if you think about the implications of the existence of homosexuals for a few moments. Sure, some people might be disconcerted by the sight of a penis or vulva when they weren't expecting it, but there are a lot of disconcerting things to be seen in a public shower if you look around too much. And what's the alternative? In order to avoid a penis being seen in the women's locker room, a woman should be sent to change in the men's locker room? That doesn't seem to solve anything.

      I don't understand this fixation on what you call "confirmable methods of identification". I'm not trying to be rude, but when you meet a woman do you ask to peek under her skirt to check for a penis? Do you need to squeeze a man's testicles before you'll call him mister? The idea that there's a reasonable expectation of being able to confirm someone's gender against their biological sex at all times is ridiculous. There are a few circumstances where it makes sense to care about what someone's biological sex is: for medical purposes, for sports in leagues where the rules care about it, or if you're interested in having sex with someone and want to know if they have the kind of bits you like. Maybe some others I'm missing. (Oh, it's important to check for testicles if you're electing a pope.) But in the vast majority of cases it just doesn't matter.

      Why do you think it should?

  5. 1) Steve, Jenner is not merely identifying ‘with’ women in terms of clothes, hair, etc. He is identifying ‘as’ a woman. I understand the first part. My wife and I often note that when we see lists of what typically characterize men vs. women (say, emotionally and verbally), we in many ways fit more comfortably into the other category – thus the common use of the terms “feminine side” and “masculine side.” But identifying ‘with’ and identifying ‘as’ strike me as two very different things.
    Jenner is not merely saying, “I identify ‘with’ how women live. I can wear a dress and have doctors give me different cheekbones and breasts even though I am male. Take that, cultural expectations!” Jenner is saying, “I actually ‘am’ a woman rather than a man. I am expressing this new identity not just by wearing gender-associated clothing and hairstyles, but by hormonally and surgically altering my body into a shape that will help me look like the female I believe I am. And people must now treat me, a male identifying as a woman, the same as women who are female by birth.“ Jenner’s welcome to think that all he has done makes it so and to live as if it so. I have given my reasons why I think it does not make it so, and why I should be able to respond as if it did not.

    2) The religion comparison: Jenner was born sexed (male); Jenner was not born atheist or Christian. The former is not something which Jenner’s opinion can change; the latter is. They are not the same. That was my point.

    3) Your scenarios in which I feel up strangers is absurd (and if my link to the Guardian article is out of line, so is your sarcastic remark about the pope). Needing to know everyone’s sex was clearly not the point of my initial post. In fact, I tried to go out of my to note I was addressing the worldview in which this shift has taken place. I focused on three main things: my frustration with what I perceive as a double standard for authenticity; the implications for society if everyone is forced to agree with a person’s chosen identity; and the reality that many transgendered people are not helped by their decision to transition.

    5) Why does it matter? You noted it clearly matters in the medical field, the sports arena, and the dating scene. Those are hardly trivial. I would add it matters in colleges (determining who qualifies for loans, who can be in fraternities, who dorms where, etc), organizations like Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the Scouts (which pair up adults and children of the same sex), the prison system, etc. Those are hardly trivial either. You are also apparently fine with requiring mothers and daughters in a gym to sit in a sauna, shower and change next to a man who identifies as a woman. So my wife could take my young nieces swimming at the Y, and while they are changing all of them would have to accept that the person next to them could very well have a penis that will be on display for them all to see - and if they complain, they could get kicked out of the facility (google Planet Fitness transgender). If you don’t see why that matters, I don’t know what else to say.