Any trans woman you care to ask can likely recite a half dozen variations they've heard on the following statement:
If it has a penis it's a boy. This political correctness is going too far. We're allowing people to act like this because peace and love and shit.
I could easily have chosen a similar expression of this view by a public figure like Ted "Miserable SOB" Cruz or former baseball great and shock jock wannabe Curt Schilling. But this anonymous comment, the first of 1,001 posted to the webpage it appears on as of the day I visited, attracted my attention for a couple of reasons. One was personal: it was left in response to a photo of Nicole Maines, a trans teen from my home state (Maine) who made national headlines in late 2014 by winning a judgment in the state's supreme court against her high school over her right to use girls' restrooms. But I was also drawn to this comment for its representative triteness: its lazy hostility to Sixties idealism and that catch-all bogeyman of right-wing bigotry, "political correctness," and the "common sense" brute simplemindedness of its assertion that the wondrous complexities of human gender identity are reducible to the topographies of our crotches at birth.
In a prior post, I referred to the latter belief as genital fundamentalism. I'd now like to take a more in-depth look into where it comes from. On the face of it, such an inquiry might seem superfluous, since the belief's sources probably appear evident enough. Why not, some will say, simply place it in the context of the fear-mongering "nativism" that's become such a prominent feature of geopolitical and social discourse in recent years? Aren't the people raising a stink about us the same people who feel they're losing their foothold in a complex, rapidly changing world -- the people drawn to promises that the dense enormity of the phenomena confronting them can be freeze-dried and served up to them in bite-size bits? Surely the refusal to engage with the challenges to received wisdom posed by the trans condition represents just another instance of this blanket dummying-down or Will to Stoopid?
Most will doubtless assert, however, that the primary sources for such thinking are religious. It is true that for at least many people on the right, the conversation about gender seems to begin and end with a literalist reading of two verses in the first chapter of the Old Testament book of Genesis: "And God said, Let us make man in our own image, after our own likeness...So God created man in his own image;...male and female created he them" (1:26-7). Since the passage doesn't distinguish between biological sex and gender identity, the distinction doesn't exist. Q.E.D. A closer look at the genital fundamentalist position, though, reveals that religion plays a less important role than one might suppose. Indeed, when we submit it to a detailed examination, we can see that its view of gender is only nominally based in Scripture, and that its primary roots are in profoundly un-Christian, pseudo-scientific materialist ways of thinking.
We can begin to flesh this out by taking a closer look at the verses from Genesis. The scriptural justification for a narrowly anatomical interpretation of "male and female" hinges on the Hebrew words ṣelem and demut, rendered as "image" and "likeness" by the translators of the King James Version. What exactly does it mean to say that we're created in God's image -- and how do sex and gender factor into that? As with all rich hermeneutical or interpretive questions, a lot of ink has been spilled over this one in the past couple of millennia. I don't pretend to be a Biblical scholar; the authorities I've consulted, though, seem pretty much to agree that the emphasis in this passage is on those spiritual elements of our being that bear the imprint of our Creator. One reference work I checked acknowledges that "some form of physical as well as spiritual 'likeness' may be implied," but goes on to note that in the New Testament, "the divine image is understood spiritually" (see H. David Brumble, "Imago Dei," A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1992, p. 372).
Presuming that to be the case, one could argue that where our being created male and female is concerned, the passage in Genesis allows, and even implicitly calls for a distinction to be made between our outer appearance and our inner essence, between the part of us that's of this earth (the body) and the part that's from God or bears God's mark (the spirit). Translated into secular psychological terms, the passage could be said to support drawing a distinction between biological sex and gender identity. Or to put the point more plainly, "male" and "female" where the imago Dei is concerned aren't about having either God's penis or God's vagina, but rather about having a spirit imprinted by one or the other gender, both of which are comprehended within the infinite Creator. Thus as someone who identifies as female, I could say that God created me -- the "me" that partakes of God's essence -- that way. This line of argument is not unproblematic, since it notably fails to take account of non-binary views of gender, but it is, it seems to me, at least more in the spirit of the Genesis verses than the genital fundamentalist reading.
If the conviction that our gender is coequal with our newborn plumbing has an at best tenuous basis in Scripture, then it needs to be asked: what other purportedly authoritative ways of thinking about gender and its relationship to the body might be informing this conviction? One thing that comes to mind are the millennia-old popular beliefs about the differences between men and women, for example, the view that men's arguably superior physical strength corresponds with a "natural" intellectual, or more broadly psychological, superiority. Traditional sexism, though -- to call it by its common name -- typically takes the equation between gender and plumbing for granted: assertions like "if it has a penis it's a boy," that is, are simply assumed. The popular discourse that does explicitly address the relationship between psychology and physiognomy is racism, in particular the Western "scientific" thinking about race of the previous three centuries. I'll call this latter brand of thought -- one that is, of course, still very much with us -- racialism.
Like genital fundamentalism, racialism is based on the belief that the essence of a person's inner identity is inscribed or written on their body, and can be "read" by someone who recognizes the signs. Some older, mostly exploded disciplines affiliated with racialism like phrenology, a system for determining a person's character by examining the contours of their skull, developed complex systems of interpretation (which practitioners never fully agreed on). In its more popular forms, though, racialism was much cruder, amounting to little more than the attribution of loosely agreed on sets of essential or "natural" character traits to different races, members of which were identifiable by their physical characteristics (skin color, facial features, hair texture, etc.). Thus for example people who met the eye test for a race from sub-Saharan Africa were widely held (by whites) to be as much animal as human: physically stronger and heartier as a group than people of European stock, but also lacking "higher" (Western) mental faculties like the ability to reason abstractly, and given to "bestial" behaviors like excessive emotionalism, sloth, and sexual promiscuity. To those who allow that being trans is a real thing, I trust the similarity of the math here to the peepee=male/vajayjay=female calculus of today's gender literalists is readily apparent.
Those who acknowledge the reality of the trans condition will also accept the obvious point that these simplistic generalizations don't square with observed experience. People of all ethnicities are demonstrably capable of wonderful things, just as (modern medical research is increasingly agreeing) some of us who identify as female are born with penises, and some who identify as male aren't. This basic disconnect highlights another important similarity between genital fundamentalism and racialism: the central role played in each by desire. I don't mean sexual desire, though both minorities and trans folks, in particular trans women, have often been (and continue to be) sexualized. More significant is the common desire to believe that something is true despite evidence to the contrary, and to do whatever it takes to persist in that belief, whether ignoring the recalcitrant evidence (as for a time did those who argued that miscegenetic offspring would like mules be infertile) or making it fit one's views through sheer force of will. If it has a penis it's a boy -- because it is (damn it). (See chapter 14, "Trans-Sexualization," of Julia Serano's Whipping Girl for a detailed discussion of the sexualization of trans women.)
This shared desire or will to believe, in turn, points to arguably the most important connection between genital fundamentalism and racialism, one that ironically involves religion. Before the so-called Enlightenment of the late 17th and 18th centuries, scholar Ivan Hannaford documents in an influential study, the orthodox explanation of racial diversity was derived in the main from two stories from Genesis. One was the parable of the Tower of Babel (chap. 11); the other was the account of the post-flood fortunes of Noah's sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth (chaps. 9-10), each of whose descendents were thought to have peopled one of the three regions the known world was traditionally divided into. This Biblical model, Hannaford notes, held sway in Europe for well over a millennium; and even after the biologically based "scientific" systems of the Enlightenment began to replace it, he points out, the model continued to wield authority well into the 19th century. A notable holdover was the cursed figure of Ham, who was identified with Africa (his name in Hebrew means "dark" or "swarthy") (see Ivan Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 90-1, 272).
The Biblical roots of Western thinking about race highlight what is perhaps the main attraction of racialism for today's gender literalists. Drawing on a sacred authority is of course a way of claiming that one's beliefs are true -- nay, True -- because their source is unimpeachable. If it has a penis it's a boy -- because God says so. The authority wielded by the Bible, though, isn't as ubiquitous as it once was. Though science was in the ascendant among the educated classes in the 19th century, religion still exerted enough influence that even academic racialism [sic] needed to reconcile its theories with the Good Book in order for them to gain acceptance. Since that time, religion and science have more or less fully diverged into two distinct, incompatible ways of explaining the world. Today's genital fundamentalism thus finds itself confronting an openly hostile scientific community whose research is decisively undermining its arguments, and a populace that is on the whole disinclined to accept appeals to Scripture at face value.
Given the decline in religion's influence, it makes sense that gender literalists would advance a "common sense" appeal (penis=boy) that at least looks vaguely scientific. But it makes even greater sense that the "science" they would choose to ape is one that had its heyday in a bygone but not so distant period when its religious roots were still broadly respected, and its conclusions still answerable to religious orthodoxy. And what a coup to find such a "science" that continues to exert some measure of influence today -- that indeed is (to our shame) enjoying something of a renaissance!
Nor can the potency of the home brew cooked up by this unholy alliance of Bible bigots and alt-right racists be denied. The secret is in their recipe, which evokes the sweet aromas of grandma's cookin', and in the dummydown spirit of the times K.I.S.S.:
- Stir up fears of the Other by pointing out how visible, physical differences are a sure sign of the dangerous nature it harbors (a mix of assertion and insinuation works best).
- Sprinkle in some Bible verses -- the more relevant, the greater the piquancy.
- Serve it up in Jim Crow-style measures for quarantining, and (with persistence and a little luck) perhaps eradicating, the threat: #EqualityForward; #BlackLivesMatter; #wejustneedtopee. People like me.
Revised August 29, 2016: "or written" added as a gloss on the word "inscribed"
Revised September 2, 2016: "spilled over these" changed to "spilled over this one;" "which ironically involves religion" changed to "one that ironically involves religion"
Revised December 1, 2016: Parenthetical reference to (See chapter 14 Julia Serano's Whipping Girl added.