January 13, 2012

The more genders, the merrier

Le Louvre - Hermaphrodite statueSweden looked set to abandon the law making sterilization mandatory for transgendered people, until a last minute effort of the Christian Democrats managed to derail the change.

In today's Svenska Dagbladet one of their ideologists, Lennart Sacrédeus, argues their position: "allowing half a gender reassignment opens for a third gender" - his argument is that people desiring to change their gender to the other one is OK, but transexual males that can be pregnant are a third gender.

The whole argument is of course based on the assumption that there only can exist two *true* genders. A female wanting to become a male that can be pregnant is not truly desiring to be a real male, and hence the desire is for something inconsistent or wrong (and societal support for the transition should presumably not be given).

There are several problems here.

Even a cursory look at the psychological and anthropological literature shows that genders are much more complex out there in reality than simple gender binaries. From a religious perspective it might make sense to argue for a strict binary - it is an essential part of many religious interpretations after all. While the inside perspective from these interpretations is that deviations are wrong (morally or logically), the outside perspective is of course that the empirical evidence undermines the claims of the interpretations to represent reality (and hence undermine any moral force they have beyond encoding the local mores of different cultures at different times).

In a pluralistic society that doesn't buy a particular religious narrative about gender as anything more than (possibly) respectable point of view among others, decisions about shared rules cannot be based on just that narrative. Either it has to claim that the decisions affects people believing in it to a high degree and we should respect their rights (e.g. debates about circumcision and halal slaughter), or it has to propose general ethical or pragmatic principles that others can also largely agree with. In this case it seems unlikely that pregnant males will cause more distress among conservatively minded people than vanilla transexuals, and as far as I know nobody has mustered any convincing prudential or ethical argument why it would be a bad thing if there were more of them - in fact, there is a pretty broad consensus in Swedish society (at least the people who talk about it, and the political associations) that it is acceptable.

The growing awareness and acceptance of intersexuals show that a third gender might appear regardless of what transsexuals are allowed to do or not.

The assumption that transsexuals can only legitimately desire to become the opposite sex is problematic. What about somebody desiring to become intersexual or asexual? Leaving aside the inertia of the legal and medical system (where it will no doubt take a long time until the idea takes root), there doesn't seem to be any moral reason not to accept that desire if we accept the desires of some people to have another gender. The moral motivation for gender reassignment (besides autonomy and morphological freedom) is that it likely will increase well-being by providing a congruent body to the mental gender. If the same is true for desiring to becoming intersexual or a male with utreus, why not? This might be a very rare state of desire, but that doesn't automatically invalidate it.

By turning the question into a political question the Christian Democrats also inadvertently make gender even more of a socio-political matter and less of a metaphysical matter. If an argument against a change in the law is that third genders must be prevented, then that implies that the number of genders is a political question, open for whatever majorities and alliances that exist to decide upon.

Public opinion seems to be moving towards accepting more gender diversity and less paternalist control over reproduction: in the future we are likely to see far more blurring of gender binaries. I think that is fine: let people choose the bodies they want. And let us tolerate those choices, just like we tolerate religious choices (and for the same reasons). Toleration doesn't imply lack of critique: we should do our best to figure out how to make choices that actually improve well-being and comment on what we find - but that requires freedom to choose so we have experience to learn from. Armchair moralism is always trumped by real world experience.

Posted by Anders3 at January 13, 2012 10:33 PM