The Transgender Culture Wars

Serious discussion of gender-identity disorder is becoming increasingly politically incorrect. Soon it will disappear altogether.

A few weeks ago, readers of the New York Post were confronted with a story whose sensational title was characteristic of the tabloid: “I’m a Guy Again! ABC newsman who switched genders wants to switch back.” Replete with pictures of Don Ennis both as a woman and a man, the article informed readers that the ABC news editor “strolled into the newsroom last May wearing a little black dress and an auburn wig and announced he was transgender and splitting from his wife. He wanted to be called Dawn.”

By August, Ennis said that he had suffered a bout of amnesia, which led to the realization that he wants to live his life again as Don. The newsman is now asking his co-workers and “all who accepted me as a transgender to now understand that I was misdiagnosed…I am already using the men’s room and dressing accordingly.” He also has reassured the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community that “even though I will not wear the wig or the makeup or the skirts again, I promise to remain a strong straight ally, a supporter of diversity and an advocate for equality and other LGBT issues including same-sex marriage.”

It is no surprise that Ennis would feel compelled to continue his support of the LGBT community—even though he is no longer participating in the transgender lifestyle. It is likely that if he were viewed as unsupportive of those who experience gender-identity disorder, he would be quickly ostracized in his newsroom community—and beyond.

Transgender issues have been prominent in the news all summer. Most recently, on August 22 Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, sentenced to 35 years in military prison for leaking classified documents, announced that he intends to begin hormone treatments so he can live the rest of his life as a woman named Chelsea. Claiming that the Army’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy contributed to psychological problems and to his gender-identity disorder, Manning has stated that he wants to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. The Army has said that it does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery, but Manning’s lawyers have said they hope the military “does the right thing” and pays for the treatment, so that the soldier does not have to sue in military or civilian court.

Catholic teachings on transgender issues

Catholics are called to treat all—including all within the LGBT community—with compassion. Yet the Church maintains that people may not change what Pope Benedict XVI has called “their very essence.” In a speech at the Vatican last December, Pope Benedict directly addressed transgender issues by cautioning Catholics about “destroying the very essence of the human creature through manipulating their God-given gender to suit their sexual choices.” Pope Benedict warned that “when freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God.” 

Certainly, Church teaching allows for the acknowledgment that there can be a biological reason for gender-identity disorder. But it also allows for the possibility of other dimensions to this disorder—a sociological dimension and a psychological dimension—that can never be addressed through cross-dressing or surgical intervention. 

But, in the secular world, it has become heretical even to suggest such a thing. In fact, it has become heretical even to suggest that we should not be celebrating the transgender movement. Most recently, a faithful Catholic friend of mine posted a casual observation on Facebook, suggesting that a television cooking show called “Chopped” might not be the appropriate venue for a discussion of transgender issues. The host of the show lauded one of the participants on the program for being transgender. My friend casually—and respectfully—mentioned the television program in a Facebook post. He was immediately suspended from Facebook.

It is clear that Facebook is not a place that allows debate on what has now been defined as the biological origins of gender-identity disorder. Facebook shut down that debate at once. But, fortunately, there are still safe places—like Catholic World Report—where we can ask a question such as: What about people—many of them psychiatrists, psychiatrists, and sociologists—who think that gender-identity disorder may have a psychological or a sociological basis, rather than an entirely biological basis? In the past it was possible to ask this kind of question.

Contagion theory

In 2000, an article titled “A New Way to be Mad,” written by physician and philosopher Carl Elliott and published in The Atlantic, asked this kind of question. In his article, Elliott suggested “that our cultural and historical conditions have not just revealed transsexuals but have created them. That is, once ‘transsexual’ and ‘gender-identity disorder’ and ‘sex-reassignment surgery’ became a common linguistic occurrence, more people began conceptualizing and interpreting their experience in these terms. They began to make sense of their lives in a way that hadn’t been available to them before, and to some degree they actually became the kinds of people described by these terms.”

Elliott writes that gender identity disorder is

far more complicated than the ‘trapped in the wrong body’ summary would suggest. For some patients seeking sex-reassignment surgery, the wish to live as a member of the opposite sex is itself a sexual desire. Ray Blanchard, a psychologist at the University of Toronto’s Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, studied more than 200 men who were evaluated for sex-reassignment surgery.

According to Elliot, Blanchard found

an intriguing difference between two groups: men who were homosexual and men who were heterosexual, bisexual, or asexual. The women trapped in a man’s body tag fit the homosexual group relatively well. As a rule, these men had no sexual fantasies about being a woman; only 15 percent said they were sexually excited by cross-dressing, for example. Their main sexual attraction was to other men.

Not so for the men in the other group—almost all were excited by fantasies of being a woman… But here sexual desire is all about sexual identity—the sexual fantasy is not about someone or something else but about yourself.  Anne Lawrence, a transsexual physician and champion of Blanchard’s work, calls this group “men trapped in men’s bodies.”

Dr. Paul McHugh, psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, was so concerned about the psychological origins of gender-identity disorder that he halted the practice of sex-reassignment surgery at his institution. He wrote about this decision in the November 2004 issue of First Things and concluded that the research demonstrated that Johns Hopkins should no longer participate in what he called “unusual and radical treatment” for “mental disorders.” McHugh, like Blanchard, identified two different groups seeking sex-reassignment:

One group consisted of guilt-ridden homosexual men who saw a sex change as a way to resolve their conflicts over homosexuality by allowing them to behave sexually as females with men. The other group, mostly older men, consisted of heterosexual and some bisexual males who found intense sexual arousal in cross-dressing as females.

McHugh began to realize that continuing sex-reassignment surgery at Johns Hopkins was “fundamentally cooperating with a mental illness,” concluding that “as psychiatrists, I thought, we would do better to concentrate on trying to fix their minds and not their genitalia.” 

An increase in gender-identity disorder in children

Two weeks ago, California’s Governor Jerry Brown signed a controversial bill into law allowing transgender public school students to use bathrooms and play on sports teams that fit their preferred gender identities. The law will cover the state’s 6.2 million public elementary and high school students. 

As advocates for the gay and lesbian social movement have done for decades, advocates of the California law claim that it will reduce bullying against transgender students. Masen Davis, the executive director of the Transgender Law Center, said, “Now every transgender student in California will be able to get up in the morning knowing that when they go to school as their authentic self they will have the same fair chance at success as their classmates.” 

Carl Elliott’s prescient observation that cultural and historical conditions have not just revealed transsexuals but may actually be creating them has shown itself to be correct in the years since his Atlantic article appeared. “Transsexual” and “gender-identity disorder” have become common terms, and more people have interpreted their own experience according to these terms—some have even done so for their children. In the past, parents who “cross-dressed” their young children or raised them as the opposite of their biological gender were viewed negatively. They are now empowered to do so.

In June, World Magazine reported on a case in which a Colorado school district was accused of discriminating against a six-year-old boy because it would not allow him to use the girls’ bathroom. According to a report by the state’s Civil Rights Division released by the family’s attorney, the child has “identified as a female since an early age,” and has attended school as a girl since kindergarten. He used the girls’ restroom in kindergarten until late 2012, when the principal informed the parents that little Coy would have to use the boys’ restroom or a gender-neutral staff lavatory. Coy’s parents withdrew him from school and filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division. 

These kinds of cases will continue to emerge. California is only the first state to pass a law like this. School officials in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Washington, and Colorado have adopted similar regulations and guidelines. And, once again, Catholic teachings on transgender issues will be contested. Pope Benedict was courageous in speaking out on this, but a papal pronouncement may be of little help to those of us on the front-lines in the coming transgender culture wars.

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About Anne Hendershott 101 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Sophia Books, 2020)