“What if someone thinks they’re a cat?” “Suppose some guy wants to be a tree.” “What about people who think they’re actually dolphins?” “How is this any different from someone who believes they’re Napoleon?”
Does any of this sound familiar? If so, you probably know what’s going on here. These are just some of the hypotheticals that people have compared with being transgender, in order to portray trans people as similarly absurd or delusional. This argument shows up all over the place, arising independently among people who apparently come up with it on the spot. For some reason, this is one of the biggest go-to tactics of people who think being trans isn’t a real thing.
Not only is this the territory of random uninformed internet commenters and people who write in to the Straight Dope column, but even bioethics experts like Alice Dreger have joined the party. In an article for The Stranger, Dreger criticizes people who supposedly rush gender-nonconforming children into a path of medical transition that may not be right for them. She points out that most of these kids will grow out of identifying as another sex, and compares this to children who like to pretend they’re train engines.
Now, however easy it may be to dismiss kids and their wild imaginations, most of the adult world is not quite so casual about gender. Indeed, it’s common for people to regard gender identity with the utmost seriousness. In their words and in their actions, most people will agree: it does matter what gender someone is.
We see this in the insistence of religious conservatives that a proper marital and sexual relationship can only consist of “one man and one woman”, coming together to create a “one-flesh union”. It’s easy to see that these hardliners probably wouldn’t be so receptive to the notion that gender is such a trivial thing and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Would they really be swayed from their fixation on gender by the argument of “Well, what about that guy who wants to be a cat?”
Of course, religious conservatives are hardly representative of society in general, but their focus on gender certainly is. For most people, gender is a criterion for their intimate relationships, and it’s usually a pretty strict one. It’s unlikely that a heterosexual man would be convinced to date outside of his preferred sex on the grounds that, hey, gender isn’t that important. After all, some people think they’re Napoleon!
In contrast to the dismissive arguments that are wielded against trans people, most of the world does recognize that gender is pretty significant. It’s a central feature of people’s identities: To men, it’s important that they’re men, and to women, it’s important that they’re women. However inconvenient and uncomfortable the different social norms applied to each gender may be, this still doesn’t drive people to identify as another sex. Their gender identity is simply a part of who they are, for better or worse.
So just how convincing does it sound when we try to use these arguments on men and women who value their identities as men and women? Does it seem at all appropriate to treat their genders as no more meaningful than people who want to be dolphins? Should we see their genders as nothing but a phase that they’ll probably grow out of? Is it possible that wanting to be a man or a woman is really just some kind of sexual fetish or mental illness they’re suffering from? Deciding to live as a man or a woman is a pretty serious choice to make, you know. Are they really sure about this? Some people have regretted it, after all.
And yet most people are content to continue identifying as the gender they’re most comfortable with. They know who they are, they know who they want to fall in love with, and they know that this isn’t anything like wanting to be a cat. Even Alice Dreger acknowledges that children whose cross-gender identification dissipates usually grow up to be gay. Acting like this is just as irrelevant to the development of their identities as wanting to be a train is ridiculous.
Gender matters to children. Gender matters to adults. And when it’s that important to people’s lives, what sense does it make to declare that a certain class of people shouldn’t have their genders taken seriously at all? I simply don’t believe it. If gender was really so insignificant, we wouldn’t see people insisting that trans women are really men, or freaking out over the possibility that one of their partners might have been trans and didn’t tell them. Why would they care? We wouldn’t see straight people or gay people. We wouldn’t even see men or women at all, since gender is just some nonsense like people who want to be trees. If gender really doesn’t matter, I expect people to start acting like it. I’m waiting.