Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Absurdity of Transgenderism: A Stern But Necessary Critique of The Witherspoon Article

The Witherspoon Institute recently published an article by Carlos D. Flores that bills itself as “a stern but necessary critique” of the “absurdity of transgenderism.” The article attempts to refute the most common defences of trans identities, arguing in particular against the proposed legislation known as “Leelah's Law” that would attempt to prevent parents from forcing trans kids into therapy to try to correct their gender identity.

The arguments that Flores presents are flawed on a number of levels, but there is one example that he discusses at some length that I would particularly like to engage with because it might provide a more helpful way for conservative Christians to think about and understand how we ought to respond to folks with trans conditions.

The argument is based on analogy between a trans person and an elderly person who believes him or herself to be 16. The article is written as though the latter were a bizarre, possibly entirely theoretical condition: almost a thought experiment. This is a little strange, given that this is in fact something that happens quite often. Many people have had relatives go through a period, late in life, where they believe themselves to be young again.

Now, I'm not going to claim that the analogy between a trans person and an Alzheimer's patient is a good one. I think it's profoundly problematic in many respects. But let's, for the sake of argument, assume that Flores has drawn an apt analogy. In that case, his conclusions about how trans people ought to be treated are largely refuted by the very analogy that he's chosen to draw.

1. We don't argue with Alzheimer's patients. Folks who work with patients that actually have the condition that Flores postulates know that there is no point in trying to tell such a person that they are actually 80 years old. It's fruitless, it's confusing for the patient, and it's purposeless.

2. Nobody feels threatened by a 90 year old who believes that she's 15. Let's make this extreme. Let's say that a theologigan were to argue that perhaps in some sense a person with dementia is actually spiritually 15 again. Say they argued that this condition is best understood as a participation in eternity, where time may no longer function in the strictly linear way that it does in this world, and that the patient is being given a special grace that allows her to access and reconcile with her past in a unique way. People wouldn't rail about God's plan for creation being undermined, or the collapse of American civilization, or a Satanic deception. It would be treated as an odd theological curiosity – perhaps wrong, but relatively harmless.

3. Surgery. Okay, so let's imagine (purely hypothetically) that suddenly there were old people demanding hormone treatments, hair removal, and even surgery in order to deny their natural, God-given age so they could look and feel decades younger. Obviously, no sane society could possibly allow such a – Oh. Wait. Nevermind.

4. There's a difference between neurology and psychology. If a person with Alzheimer's believes himself to be young, we don't send him to see psychologists in order to cure him of his condition. We recognize the that are psychological conditions (which are treatable through therapy) and neurological conditions (which are not.) There is, however, a long history of mistakenly treating neurological conditions as though they were psychological disorders, and it's largely a history of cruelty, blame, and stigma. A person with a neurological condition cannot be made “normal” through therapy because they can't change the way that their brain functions. There is serious evidence to suggest that trans conditions are often neurological. Flores is dismissive about this possibility. He asks “Where's the evidence?” and then pre-emptively dismisses any evidence that could be presented. This suggests that he isn't familiar with the relevant research and is also not open to giving it serious consideration. There are also serious reasons for protecting people with neurological conditions from being forced to endure potentially harmful and demonstrably ineffective psychological treatments.

5. Christians conscientiously uphold the rights of the elderly – including those with dementia or Alzheimer's. Imagine a son telling his mother that if she didn't stop manifesting symptoms of dementia, she would go to Hell. Imagine him blaming her for her condition. Imagine him punishing her, depriving her of contact with friends, isolating her, and telling her that she was choosing to deny God by imagining that she was an adolescent. Would we laud this as good Christian behaviour? Standing up for truth?

6. This is a classic example of a case where the desire to “tell the truth” is likely to be self serving. Let's say that my dad had Alzheimer's, and every time I visited him he mistook me for my Grandma Robinson, his mother. I might have a strong vested interest in having him recognize that I am really his daughter. But the fact is that repeatedly hammering an Alzheimer's patient with the truth about their age is probably not in the best interests of the patient – particularly if it leads to confusion, depression, and feelings of rejection.

As I mentioned before, I believe there are very significant differences between a person with dementia or Alzheimer's and someone who is trans. I offer the comparison only in order to demonstrate a fundamental flaw in the way that conservative discourse addresses trans people: charging them with mental illness in order to harness the stigma associated with the mentally ill – but without providing the compassion and understanding that we extend to people who genuinely suffer from serious cognitive conditions. This kind of analysis excises the humanity of the trans person from the equation, and produces an approach that is both inconsistent and inhumane.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful essay.

    I suspect that Alzheimer's disease isn't part of the fact pattern Mr. Flores meant to posit in the example of "Bob," since it raises some separate issues.

    Say that "Alice" is an Alzheimer's patient of 70 who likewise believes that she is 16. Both Alice's and Bob's beliefs are false, but I'd venture to suggest that they're irrational in somewhat different ways (if we assume Bob is generally dementia-free, even if his false belief has some relation to neurology).

    Alice's cognitive impairments likely mean that she can't access, or is otherwise prevented from processing normally, all the available evidence that her belief is false. For example, she may not be able to retrieve memories of the last half-century or so, and her mind is instead relying on memories (true enough in themselves) of being 16. Hallucinations and sensory deficits may obscure the nature of Alice's environment, in such a way as to hinder her from using it as a touchstone of reality. Other cognitive defects may make it difficult for Alice to reason her way normally out of the false belief.

    I think these considerations inform how we deal with people with Alzheimer's or dementia. In Alice's case, it might be both kind and pragmatic not to challenge her delusion directly, although the same justification doesn't extend to acquiescing to it in every way, much less to internalizing it ourselves or with others.

    But now imagine that you're dealing not with Alice but with Bob, who in all obvious respects other than his belief that he's not merely "young at heart" but an actual teenager, is as lucid as the next person. Unlike Alice, Bob is aware of the evidence that he's 70. He understands why other people have concluded that he's 70. He may never be able to escape whatever feelings or impressions (neurologically induced otherwise) led him to his false belief, but unlike Alice he has the cognitive potential to accept the truth rationally. Do you respond to Bob's belief in the same way as to Alice's?

    Moreover, even in Alice's case, does it help if those around her don't just humour her at visits, but actually behave generally (including out of Alice's presence) as though Alice's belief is true? In my view, it's worth thinking about what ends are served or disserved by generalizing that principle.

    I inferred from your paragraph about surgery that you think Flores's hypothetical about Bob might undermine his critique of gender reassignment surgery. I don't think it does, given that one of the main effects of aging is the progressive degradation of the ordered functioning of our bodily faculties. Certain treatments sought by aged people may strike us as vain, trivial or unnecessary, of course. Yet, by and large, "rejuvenating" therapies (whether they be joint replacements or collagen injections) can at least be said to aim at stabilizing or reversing the effects of such degradation. Most of them thus do fall in the neighbourhood of what Flores characterizes as rightly medical endeavours.

    I agree that there's a difference between neurology and psychology. But you seem to be suggesting that the domains are exclusive, at least where neurological conditions are concerned, as though psychotherapy had no proper role in the treatment of people with neurological conditions. Maybe I'm misreading you there. I hope so, because psychotherapeutic treatments can be important for even patients with distinctly neurological conditions -- such as brain injuries that produce changes in perceptions of self and reality. (I realize that it would be going far beyond the current state of knowledge to venture that the etiology of GID is always, or exclusively, neurological.) Do you think it's prudent to ban -- presumably even in experimental contexts -- any psychotherapeutic approaches to GID/gender dysphoria?

  2. 1-2. This is basically the argument for trans-Napoleonism. However, it's really unimportant once we get to...

    3. To the extent that an individual is expending his own resources to look like he's 17, a woman, or Napoleon, no one cares. When a suitable number of individuals get together and demand that the government mandate that society must provide all trans-Napoleons with their choice of an expensive cap as a basic human right, we can start to balk at the request. If a Seventeen Again Lobby began demanding free plastic surgery for dementia patients as a basic human right, we would balk at the request.

    4. This is the most important bullet point. Unfortunately, as someone who is familiar with the research, it's junk. We have no idea.

    5-6. These are pretty much entirely dependent upon (4). The level of compassion we have for a behavior should be moderated by our understanding of how much control people have over the situation. This doesn't mean that we must throw away norms. We can acknowledge that society values (and had good reason to value) being cis, dementia-free, and non-Napoleon. We can have compassion for individuals (as Christians, we're to have compassion for the worst criminals, too... who are usually considered to be on the 'choosy' end of of the spectrum) while also yearning for a world where everyone can fully partake in the more desired situations, whether that is aided by medication, counseling, or what have you.

  3. Thank you Melinda for making me, at least, examine this issue from a fresh perspective.

    I have to disagree with part of your assessment however, in that with dementia, we are all entertaining the delusions of the elderly patient in an effort to be compassionate and kind to an impaired person, but we are all "in on the ruse" so to speak, and (as mentioned by Anonymous above) none of us in the general pop. actually mistakes the person for 16. In this manner, we are infantalizing the individual and taking away some of their rights to freedom etc. for their own good.

    Conversely, trans people are (as far as I can tell) fully capable of maneuvering in the world and serving as adults and wish to be seen as mental equals to those around them. Humoring them by accepting their claims to be a different sex than they are seems like a cruel form of patronizing to me.

    I work at a high school where we have several trans kids, and I feel awkward in the extreme carrying on as though they were not the sex they were born as. However, I wish them no ill and follow the school's lead in trying to accommodate their wishes. Actually, I feel an urge to pray for them and worry about their mental health.

    Years ago I suffered terribly from an extreme eating disorder and thought myself to be terribly ugly and imagined fat it places where there existed only bones and skin. This was a curse that plagued me constantly. Today, when I look at pictures of myself from that era, I see the vision of a nearly skeletal girl with sunken eyes, but back then, my mind literally could not see this. I am glad no counselor gave in to my body dysmorphia and agreed that I was obese. It was a terrible and long road, but today I am mostly free of the horrible vices of anorexia and bulimia. It just seems so similar to me to the body confusion that trans people are experiencing. I understand how a person could be utterly but mistakenly convinced their body was defective or "wrong" as compared to the image in their mind of what their body should be.

  4. Are we not making too much of the neurology/psychology distinction? You imply two things: a) a neurological condition is not treatable (which is not necessarily true) and b) a psychological condition (neurosis) is treatable and should be treated (also not necessarily true).

    The obvious parallel here is the old debate surrounding homosexuality? Is it a genetic/biological phenomenon or is it a psychological condition arising from childhood experience? You and many others have argued that the answer to this question is not important, because homosexuality is not an illness to be treated. Whether the most effective "treatment" would be counselling or some kind of drug is moot, because it is not a mental illness.

    It seems to me that transgenderism is in the same category. Whether it has anything to do with neurology or not, the important discussion to have is a moral and ethical one. What are the ethics (i.e. behavioural imperatives) of gender? How do we separate cultural expectations from the Gospel? These are the same questions the early Christians faced when trying to separate the eternal Law of God (which had not changed) from the human precepts that had been swept away by Christ.

    Let us not get sidetracked: this is a primarily a moral question, not a medical one. To me the important thing is that people have a space to work out their own identity in a place where they are accepted, loved and not judged. The medical diagnosis is an interesting question, but should be set aside as nonessential for the way in which the Church welcomes and responds to trans people.

  5. I was raised Roman Catholic and still practice today. I am also transgender. It doesn't seem that you have considered the scientific research when discussing the transgender issue because you have equated it to a belief or a choice. It's not a choice. XXY chromosomes are not a choice. The SRY gene is not a choice. Many transgender people consider themselves to be Christian and on the right side of God. Believe me when I say that I know when God is not happy with me. When I go against God's will and yes, sometimes he speaks to me, terrible things happen to me. Yet, nothing has been terrible about transitioning. In fact, I have found much more love after having transitioned to a woman. Surprisingly, all of my catholic friends were equally as accepting. Many expressed that they always knew there was something different about me, but for my entire life, i could not communicate it to them for fear of what they might say, think, or do.

    1. Hi Jenna,

      I'm sorry to have upset you. I agree completely with what you're saying -- my next post (Neither Man nor Woman) is about how and why Christians should be open to the kind of research that you're referring to.

      God bless.


Please observe these guidelines when commenting:

We want to host a constructive but civil discussion. With that in mind we ask you to observe these basics of civilized discourse:

1. No name calling or personal attacks; stick to the argument, not the individual.

2. Assume the goodwill of the other person, especially when you disagree.

3. Don't make judgments about the other person's sinfulness or salvation.

4. Within reason, stick to the topic of the thread.

5. If you don't agree to the rules, don't post.

We reserve the right to block any posts that violate our usage rules. And we will freely ban any commenters unwilling to abide by them.

Our comments are moderated so there may be a delay between the time when you submit your comment and the time when it appears.