Transgender issues are often hard to think and talk about, not just for those with no personal experience but also, in a different way, for those personally affected. This short essay is offered as a “lightening tour” which I hope will be of interest both to the general reader and to those identifying as transgender themselves, their friends, and their families.
Briefly, I will look at moral dilemmas for adult individuals and parents of young and older children. Before that, however, I will flag some misunderstandings concerning how trans-identified people view themselves. These, however innocent, can contribute to an over-heated climate where too often the needs—not least the spiritual needs—of individuals and families go unmet. In public as in private, any comments of a more critical nature must be accurate as well as respectful, avoiding unwarranted assumptions.
To begin with, it should not be assumed that all who identify with the opposite gender necessarily deny their biological sex. Indeed, transmedicalists, a subgroup of trans-identified people, say frankly that they have an illness causing their unhappiness with their sex and identification with the opposite social gender. Cross-dressing, surgery, and/or hormones palliate their symptoms, they may say, and help them function better day to day, but their biological sex remains what it is.
Staying with personal as opposed to public policy issues, how should we think about these morally? This is an area where every aspect needs a separate focus. Even the physically less invasive steps of social transition via cross-dressing and changing names and pronouns raise challenging questions concerning the ethics of trying to “pass” as a member of the opposite sex and social gender. Is there a moral absolute this violates, or a moral onus (how strong?) against it? Such questions can arise both for individuals themselves and for those to whom they may confide feelings of dysphoria–unease at the mismatch between biological sex and “felt” gender–of a more or less intense and painful kind.
Does biological sex in every case require a corresponding male or female presentation? In thinking through this question, it is helpful to remember the case of intersex conditions, where reproductive biology is ambiguous. An intersex person raised in the opposite gender may find it very difficult to live instead in the gender associated with their true, fertility-oriented sex–something only their recent puberty may perhaps have made apparent. While intersex people, too, may have genuine moral dilemmas concerning, for example, presentation to potential romantic partners, to say that they are obliged to transition the moment they realise their true sex would be a claim too far. Presenting socially as the sex one is–which one should accept as an unchangeable fact, however privately–is not a moral absolute itself for all conceivable situations.
That said, there is a great value in presenting socially, even if only subtly, as the sex one is, for a range of reasons including transparency in social relations, and acting as a male or female role model, including for one’s own children. With transition to a gender discordant from one’s biological sex, vulnerable young people who see one as a role model may be adversely affected or even influenced to identify as transgender themselves. These and other factors should not be dismissed by those drawn to transition, perhaps of a radically invasive kind, which may be seen rightly or wrongly as the only way in which their dysphoria can be resolved.
In regard to dating and marriage, appreciation of biological sex and its implications is fundamental. Those who accept traditional sexual ethics will understand the need to avoid attracting partners not available from that perspective, and to avoid absolutely cross-dressing with any self-directed sexual/romantic motivation. The latter applies in particular to heterosexual males, and older, married men cross-dressing or considering transition will have wives and children to consider: something which will, or should, weigh very heavily in the choices they make.
Increasingly, we are hearing from young and older people who have “detransitioned,” as well as those who have “desisted” from pursuing transition and found other ways of dealing with any dysphoria that may remain. Reconciliation with one’s birth sex is particularly likely for young people following puberty (for those who did not take puberty-blockers), with some then experiencing homosexual or bisexual attractions and others heterosexual attractions. Despite the likelihood of such reconciliation, health professionals are increasingly, albeit controversially, inviting children to live “as” members of the opposite sex, followed by puberty blockers, followed by hormones and perhaps some form of surgery.
For parents anxious to avoid a lifetime of medical dependency for their child, one highly fraught question concerns the use of opposite-sex pronouns, to avoid the immediate risk of painful triggering and alienation from those who do not comply with this request. To be weighed against these risks is the real and serious risk that using opposite-sex pronouns will give the impression that the young person is seen as male or female from that time forward–not just in presentation, but in all important respects. Even if it is not wrong in literally every situation (as the case of intersex people shows) to use pronouns that do not belong to the biological sex of the one referred to, this will indeed be a mistake in very many situations involving a young person wanting to transition. Where necessary, avoiding—not replacing—birth-sex pronouns will normally be a better response.
The challenge for parents is to listen to their child’s views and feelings, but to be honest about their own position regarding transition and those things (biological sex and its sexual ethics implications) that transition cannot change. Many children will eventually desist, and parents should not focus on transgender issues to a counterproductive extent: gender-critical parent networks recommend spending “normal” time with one’s child, of a kind that has nothing to do with gender.
Detransitioned or desisted young adults repeat such advice, and remind those currently facing these intensely demanding family situations that there is no quick fix and that parents are shepherds, not engineers. The same applies, in different ways, to other guides, responding perhaps to an adult’s call for help. Picking their way with their intelligent charges through patches of greater as well as lesser moral certainty, good shepherds can only try to guide them in this formidable terrain with all the skill and empathy they can.
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