I don’t see any problem discussing the issues of gender roles, transgender people, and their activism, nor do I think we should discriminate against trans or “other-gendered” folk. Like gays, I think they feel a biological compulsion for their behavior and emotions, and we should respect that—and call them what they wish.
But I’m not sure whether National Geographic, which historically dealt with travel and social issues, should be the place to have this discussion. Here are two new covers of the January, 2017 gender issue. The first features Avery Jackson, a 9-year-old transgender girl from Kansas City who began her transition at age 4:
The alternative cover features a non-binary intersex, a bi-gender, two transgender females, a male, a transgender male, and a male:
With their increasing osculation of faith, and now this, National Geographic is increasingly dealing with social issues rather than scientific/geographical ones, and I’m not quite sure why. The magazine was purchased by Murdoch, and perhaps they’re trying to stem decreasing revenues with a bit of sensationalism. Or perhaps they’re becoming National Sociologist.
One explanation for the topic is provided at the magazine’s site by Susan Goldberg, the head editor, “Why we put a transgender girl on the cover of National Geographic“:
The most enduring label, and arguably the most influential, is the first one most of us got: “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” Though Sigmund Freud used the word “anatomy” in his famous axiom, in essence he meant that gender is destiny.
Today that and other beliefs about gender are shifting rapidly and radically. That’s why we’re exploring the subject this month, looking at it through the lens of science, social systems, and civilizations throughout history.
In a story from our issue, Robin Marantz Henig writes that we are surrounded by “evolving notions about what it means to be a woman or a man and the meanings of transgender, cisgender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or any of the more than 50 terms Facebook offers users for their profiles. At the same time, scientists are uncovering new complexities in the biological understanding of sex. Many of us learned in high school biology that sex chromosomes determine a baby’s sex, full stop: XX means it’s a girl; XY means it’s a boy. But on occasion, XX and XY don’t tell the whole story.”
. . . But let’s be clear: In many places girls are uniquely at risk. At risk of being pulled out of school or doused with acid if they dare to attend. At risk of genital mutilation, child marriage, sexual assault. Yes, youngsters worldwide, irrespective of gender, face challenges that have only grown in the digital age. We hope these stories about gender will spark thoughtful conversations about how far we have come on this topic—and how far we have left to go.
I put key sentence here is in bold (my emphasis): “On occasion, XX and XY don’t tell the whole story.” How common are these “occasions”? The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at UCLA has a document by scholar Gary Gates giving these data:
- An estimated 3.5% of adults in the United States identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual and an estimated 0.3% of adults are transgender.
- This implies that there are approximately 9 million LGBT Americans, a figure roughly equivalent to the population of New Jersey.
- Among adults who identify as LGB, bisexuals comprise a slight majority (1.8% compared to 1.7% who identify as lesbian or gay).
Lesbians, gays and bisexuals don’t, I think, count as those who feel they’re of different gender from their birth sex; they simply prefer sexual partners who are male, female, or both, and don’t conform to their own biological sex. True transgenders, who feel they’re of a different sex from their “birth” sex (whether identified by genitalia or chromosome constitution), constitute 0.3% of the population.
If you use the data on transexuals, and plot on a graph the frequency of people who identify as transexual versus those who identify (chromosomally, morphologically, and as sexual proclivity) as male versus female, you’d get two giant peaks (one at “male,” the other at “female”, with a valley in between representing transexuals. If you added lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, you’d still get a total frequency of those in the valley of about 3.8%, meaning that 96.2% of people conform to the genders of male and female (roughly 48.1% at each peak). If that is a gender “spectrum,” then it’s a spectrum on which the vast majority of people fall into two distinct classes, with a lower-frequency tail between these peaks.
This isn’t for a moment to imply that gays and transgender people are “freaks,” “abnormal”, or shouldn’t be treated with respect and dignity. All it means is that it’s false to imply that everyone is sexually fluid, or that the gender “spectrum” is roughly even, with no peaks. That’s simply not the case.
Sadly, even National Geographic’s attempt at empathy wasn’t good enough for some. At Feminist Current, for example, writer Meghan Murphy objects to the first cover on numerous grounds, including that Avery was raised by a conservative family in the South:
Some have questioned the ethics of putting such a young child on the cover of a magazine, especially if this child is truly struggling with a disorder. Also troubling is the regressive presentation of Avery, decked out in a colour and posed in a way that is traditionally considered “feminine.” McNamara claims the cover “drives the point home that being transgender isn’t a choice, but just something you are,” implying that this feminized presentation represents something innate. Rather than saying that kids are drawn to various colours regardless of their sex and that boys should feel just as comfortable in pink as girls, the supposedly “revolutionary” cover conveys the opposite message: that this male child must be a girl because he wears pink.
Where does socialization and societal expectations factor into this “revolution?” Will it address the fact that boys are told they cannot wear dresses (lest they be called “girls?”)
While indeed Avery may be suffering from what the DSM calls “gender dysphoria,” having declared himself to be a girl numerous times, both Jackson’s and National Geographic’s choice to focus so heavily on a feminized appearance is telling. Conservative America wouldn’t accept a boy in “girly” clothing, but shouldn’t liberal America see things differently? And if a child truly does suffer from body dysmorphia or gender dysphoria, why are sparkles, pink, and “princess dresses” the primary focus of discourse surrounding these conditions? Surely we can support kids to be whoever they want to be and dress however they like without further reinforcing sexist stereotypes…
. . . Is this really what a “gender revolution” looks like? A boy whose “femaleness” is proven by stereotypically “girly” clothing and colours and an apparent rainbow of “genders” that excludes women entirely?
Gender, under patriarchy, is not the “spectrum” so many well-meaning liberals claim, but is, as feminist activist Lierre Keith says, “a hierarchy.” Gender functions in our society to devalue those born female and systemically empower those born male. A true “gender revolution” would fight stereotypes that say girls are inherently drawn to wear pink dresses and grow their hair long, while boys have short hair and are “rough-and-tumble.” It would, in fact, challenge society’s idea of gender itself, acknowledging that some humans are born female and others are born male, but that this doesn’t mean one is passive and submissive while the other is aggressive and dominant.
Others have objected that Jackson’s post is sexualized and provocative. I didn’t even see that; you have to be sniffing out improprieties to object to stuff like that. Every image must absolutely conform to the political agenda of those advocating trans rights.
I agree that there are ethical problems with presenting children so young on the cover, as there are issues about the proper age of consent. But presumably Avery dresses as she wishes, and perhaps she wishes to present as many young girls do: wearing pink and sparkles. Is that a problem? After all, the magazine has photos of eighty nine-year-old transgender people, and ten to one not all of the transgender girls are wearing pink. Is it the fact that Avery is the cover image that’s a problem?
Here are some photos from one essay that I think is in the paper issue (the entire issue is not free online). I don’t see a preponderance of pinkness or sparkliness in the women, and the boys dress diversely; the only consistency is that members of each gender try to dress as non-trans people of the sex they feel they are:
As for what a true “gender revolution” is, Murphy really means a shift to equal treatment and valuing of men, women, and transgenders. She’s mostly talking about feminism and stereotypes, though I feel that the higher aggressiveness of men, at least, has some biological basis. (Again, that’s not to say that I think it should be accepted as the norm, just that it’s partly genetic and, on average, differentiates males and females.)
Murphy objects to the second cover, too:
While the cover features a male, two “transgender females,” an “intersex non-binary” person, a “transgender male,” an “androgynous” person, and an individual who identifies as “bi-gender,” notably absent is… A woman!
Her article shows tweets with similar sentiments, including this one:
What I don’t get here is the claim that a woman is absent from the cover. In fact, there are two transgender women, and these are usually said to be, simply, “women.” That is, if you feel like a woman, you are one. I don’t have particular objections to this, but if that’s the sentiment held by most activist Leftists, then there are indeed women on the cover. If they don’t agree with that, then they’re saying that there’s something different about being a transgender woman and a “regular” woman, and I suspect it’s that the latter have two X chromosomes and a vagina. But that’s not the line taken by much of the Regressive Left.
The lesson is that you can’t have your cake and eat it too; if the Left sees transgender women as the same as non-transgender women, they can’t object to the absence of “real” women.
This all exemplifies the divisions that are fracturing the Left, and I can’t see us going back to even a remotely unified movement. What with the growing prevalence of identity politics, with each group having their own personal agenda; the use of “purity tests”, so that if you don’t conform to a specified agenda you’re a racist, a sexist, a transphobe, and so on; and the profound differences among progressives in those agendas—all this means we’re in for trouble, especially when, in an Age of Trump, we need more cohesion.