Why are religious conservatives embracing transgender rights?

Iran has the second highest number of sexual reassignment surgeries in the world. What’s going on?

T. M. Murray
13 August 2017


A transgender flag in San Francisco. Credit: Flickr/Torbackhopper. Some rights reserved.

Transgender rights activists emphasize that they belong to a minority that’s defined by a gender identity that is different from that typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. This transgender identity presupposes that ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are innate psychological states that are intrinsic in the human subject, conceptualized as things akin to hair color or skin pigmentation. However, attempts to link gender to a supposedly ‘male’ or ‘female’ brain have been fraught with confusion, since the science involved has often been biased by social presuppositions.

It may be true that an adult person’s sexual biochemistry determines arousal and sexual preference (i.e. the endocrine system, which is responsible for the regulation of androgens such as Estrogen and Testosterone), but there is no evidence that it determines the range of stereotypical ‘personality attributes’ that we associate with ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity.’ What we ‘make’ of our sex is up to each one of us. It’s clear that only women can bear children, for example, but the implications are undetermined—the current social division of labour around childcare is only one of many possible arrangements.    

Hence, the idea that all men share a set of intrinsic heterosexual personality attributes that are different to all women is a socially and politically-conservative fiction, designed to maintain certain dominant institutional arrangements. After all, if gendered behaviours, mannerisms and styles of dress were ‘natural’ then the need for ‘role models’ to teach children how to be ‘men’ and ‘women’ would evaporate. 

Nevertheless, stereotypes about gender and sex continue to be widely circulated by parents, teachers, television, cinema, sport, literature, children’s toys, clothing, hairstyles, the beauty industry, and religion. Exaggerating differences between men and women far beyond reproductive biology, along with mystifying the opposite sex and making unregulated sexual activity between men and women taboo, only strengthens these stereotypes. As a result, we are unable or unwilling to see the opposite sex primarily as a person like ourselves, with similar needs and desires.

But here’s the thing: in arguing that a small number of people are born with a sense of gender that does not ‘match’ their genital sex, there’s a danger that the Trans movement might strengthen the assumption that all of us possess an innate identity that’s inherently ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ prior to socialisation. This might explain why many ultra-conservative religious bodies from the Iranian Parliament and Pakistan’s Ministry of the Interior to the Church of England are throwing their weight behind transgender rights while remaining steadfastly homophobic. 

Conservative religious views of ‘creation’ cling to the view that all healthy humans possess an innate heterosexuality, a belief that’s based on the compatibility of male and female genitals for reproduction. Accordingly, homosexuals are simply defective or disordered heterosexuals. However, if homosexuality is naturally-occurring then this reasoning collapses.  And since we know that many individuals do not conform to traditional gender norms it’s clear that these norms cannot be innate. 

According to conservatives, if anyone born with a penis were to have an innate desire to ‘act like women’ then he would be diagnosed as sick or “dysphoric.” The same goes for biological females who feel a stronger affinity to normatively ‘masculine’ social roles and sexual attractions. In this context, it would be surprising if homosexuals did not feel confused.

Some clinicians do identify gender ‘dysphoria’ (or ‘unhappiness’) as an abnormal psycho-sexual condition that exists within the ‘patient,’ but is this true? Is it the person, or their relationship to society’s strict gender expectations, that makes them feel unhappy in their body? This question has real political consequences, because any criticism of social institutions that need reforming can easily be redirected towards the ‘aberrant’ individual: they must be altered to fit the norms of health and social acceptability.

To get some purchase on how this works in practice, consider the situation of queers in Iran. Iran is a sexist, intolerant, homophobic theocracy in which fundamentalist religious laws are strictly enforced to support the hetero-normative status quo. The official state solution to homosexuality is either to punish or execute those who practice it openly, or to ‘encourage’ homosexuals to transition surgically to the ‘correct’ sex so that they can ‘fit back into’ society.

Consequently, Iran has the second highest number of sexual reassignment surgeries in the world, second only to Thailand. The government even provides financial assistance for them. This seems analogous to chemically lightening a black person’s skin to make them more comfortable in a racist society rather than tackling that society’s racism.

In the same way, the seemingly compassionate ‘recognition’ of transgender ‘patients’ by many progressive clinicians and others in the Transgender rights movement may actually be reinforcing the hetero-normative binary that has long caused suffering and alienation for both homosexuals and gender non-conforming heterosexuals. 

As a child I wanted my body to be male so that I could do things that only men in my culture were permitted to do, like playing football or marrying a woman. It may be that I ‘identified’ as a boy when I was a little girl, but this could well be because I simply preferred to do what my culture had taught me were exclusively ‘boyish’ activities.  There’s no way to test whether being unhappy with one’s biological body is a by-product of dogmatic gender enculturation or an innate condition as conservatives would have it, since all cultures indoctrinate their children with gender norms, albeit in slightly different ways. There is no ‘control group’ against which we could compare gender-indoctrinated individuals.

In this confusing context, it becomes very difficult to distinguish homosexuals from ‘transgendered people.’ Given the heterosexist expectations that are built into social gender norms, homosexuality represents one very good reason why a subset of people simply cannot feel ‘at home’ in their bodies. The stereotypical expectation that all men are the same (and all women too) furnishes us with another excellent reason. Such individuals are not suffering from a disease; their societies are suffering from an inability to accept diversity. 

That said, some individuals might still be happier to transition than to cross-dress or to live as a gender non-conformist. In a liberal society, the option to surgically transition to the opposite sex should never be off the table for consenting adults. However, it should not enjoy automatic precedence over fighting for social reforms that are aimed at achieving more tolerance for gender non-conformists. Gender reassignment should be a decision taken by people who are fully aware of the part that learned social norms have played in their understanding of themselves and their sexuality.

We need not object to informed and consenting adults surgically transitioning to live in a body in which they feel more comfortable. But we should all—including progressives in and outside the transgender rights movement—eschew the popular rush to embrace this option uncritically, or as the primary solution for youngsters who suffer unhappiness because of their bodies.   

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