I was recently reading the introduction to the inaugural edition of the Transgender Studies Quarterly (University of Arizona, 2014). The authors of that introduction very helpfully explained that two head-crunching antinomies are embedded in the very fabric of this discourse. For the two basic questions that underpin transgender studies are these:
- Does the term transgender help make or undermine gender identities and expressions?
- Is transgenderism a way of being gendered or a way of doing gender?
It strikes me that these are good questions. However, the TSQ explicitly negates the antimonial significance of the basic logical aporias at the core of the discourse, making it clear that this discourse is committed to a ‘both/and’ stance. Thus, the term ‘transgender’ stands for “whatever version of trans- best suits you.”
Does such a discourse, as part of an academic truth-seeking enterprise in the secular and scientific academy, even make sense?
For me to ask the above question would, no doubt, signal to academics in transgender studies my rather basic ignorance of postmodern cultural theory. For, Lyotard has rejected all totalizing metanarratives as oppressive constructs, including the metanarrative of scientific truth; Foucault has pointed out that all language is political, particularly as it relates to sex and gender; Derrida has indicated that all semantic meaning is – in the final analysis – playful, fluid and creative, entailing inescapable slippage between the semantic intentions of the speaker/writer and the meaning interpretations of the hearer/reader; Žižek has argued that all language is ultimately a solipsistic symbolic poetry such that firm public meanings never really exist; Butler has defaced the distinction between sex and gender and subverted the entire cultural meaning of both categories such that we can simply discard any essential meaning in relation to both sex and gender; Haraway and other transhuman theorists, and futurists like Harari have elevated the ontology of technology and de-essentialized the ontology of human nature to such an extent that traditional categories of identity are simply a hindrance to exciting posthuman developments.
This essay is not the right place to enter into a discussion of where postmodern trajectories in cultural theory have merit and where they collapse into self-defeating incoherence. But suffice it to say that the manner in which transgender theory separates itself from the modern ground-rules of scientific and rational analysis, is a significant feature of transgender discourse. This allows people within the discourse to flexibly define transgenderism however they like, but excludes people from outside this discourse’s distinctive understanding of postmodern linguistic meaning from trying to discern if the categories of this discourse make rational sense or are scientifically valid.
Transgender discourse is, one might say, brilliantly insulated from questions being raised from outside of its own discursive framework. At an activist level, a powerful lexicon of vice-signalling shibboleths – TERF, transphobic etc. – is very effectively used to lock out all non-trans sympathetic voices not only from the discursive framework of transgender studies, but from public discourse in general. Though transgender studies claim to be involved in an interdisciplinary discourse, the uncrossable normative limits of the discourse itself is striking.
Notably, questions about whether such practices as hormonal and surgical sex reassignment for minors, and in general, are morally, psychologically, and even medically bad for anyone who wants them, cannot actually arise within transgender studies. That is, modernists, feminists, and traditionalists, or anyone else who questions the normative validity of transgender phenomena, are excluded from meaningful dialogue with transgender discourse about its core antinomies and its normative aims.
Here, distinctive postmodern anti-metanarrative epistemic commitments, a requirement for the normative affirmation of transgender phenomena, and the firm anti-binary rejection of the law of non-contradiction when it comes to the discourse’s internal antinomies, jointly define the ground-rules of acceptable transgender discourse. This is an exclusionary discourse. Narratives of the meaning of sex and gender are here radically subjectivized such that only a trans person can say what trans means and no-one outside of trans can evaluate the goodness or badness of trans identity constructions, as that is an oppressive external narrative imposition. Those ground-rules also allow transgender activists to use science and logic in a postmodern (cavalier?) manner, claiming the scientific and logical validity for trans outlooks on sex and medical procedures when it is suitable, and ignoring science as an oppressive and pathologizing metanarrative of power when it does not support trans normative agendas. For, to reiterate, within the transgender discourse community, ‘trans’ must mean “whatever version of trans- best suits you.”
I think it is correct to characterize trans discourse as pursuing a considerably more expansive set of aims than academic research as such; this discourse is a moral and political formation practice. Transgender discourse is committed to the normative goodness of any trans-identifying person deciding to action whatever medically assisted sex-presentation transition they wish to pursue. Trans activism has successfully achieved legislative rights protecting subjective relativism in the public definitions of sex and gender. Riding sexual discrimination legislation and progressive inclusivity morality, trans advocates have also conducted highly effective campaigns to cancel, de-platform and even dismiss academics, speakers and teachers who question transgender reform agendas in our academic and educational institutions. Notable examples of such exclusion from public discourse are the out-grouping of what are now called radical feminist critiques of the transgender movement, such as those put forward by Janice Raymond, sexology critiques, for example by Debra Soh, and even Über Sexually Progressive doyens of contemporary postmodern discourse, such as Slavoj Žižek, have come under fire as being transphobic when discussing the implications of transgenderism and public toilets.
Of course, conservative and religious critiques premised on sacramental and metaphysically linked essentialist or natural law understandings of sex and gender are so regressive and immoral as to not even warrant acknowledgement. Fortunately, as far as trans advocates are concerned, vigorous anti-conversion legislation and the argument that suicide must be urgently avoided for gender dysphoric adolescents such that transition is given very quickly and easily, are sweeping across the liberal West, effectively outlawing religious opposition to transgender reformation.
Let us look more closely at how this discourse reasons. Sandy Stone’s essay “The “Empire” Strikes back. A Posttranssexual Manifesto” from the early 1990s is a key document in the new field of transgender studies. Stone comments:
A transsexual person is a person who identifies his or her gender identity with that of the “opposite” gender. Sex and gender are quite separate issues, but transsexuals commonly blur the distinction by confusing the performative character of gender with the physical “fact” of sex, referring to their perceptions of their situation as being in the “wrong body”.
Stone is critiquing the transsexual as psychologically defined by oppressive gender stereotypes that are inscribed on their sexed bodies by a coercive gender-incongruence-eliminating and sex-policing culture. She advocates a posttranssexual solution to what she sees as the mutually dysfunctional relationship between the sex-change clinic and the transsexual community, such that “being in the wrong body” is no longer ‘cured’ by surgery and hormone treatment, but rather, binary narratives of heterosexual desire are dispensed with to allow a real plurality of gender constructions and sexual relationship signatures.
Stone notes that posttranssexuality provides
“the potential to map the refigured body onto conventional gender discourse and thereby disrupt it, to take advantage of the dissonance created by such juxtaposition to fragment and reconstitute the elements of gender in new and unexpected geometries.”
But this raises a complex problem. Many adolescents presenting for sex-reassignment interventions today frame their desire in the classically transsexual terms of “wrong body” gender dysphoria, but this seems to be regressing away from the vision of embracing sexual diversity as a means of entirely recalibrating gender and sexuality as cultural and biological ‘givens’. Hence, the need for ‘trans’ to mean whatever any person seeking relief from gender dysphoria wants it to mean for them. ‘Trans’ must now mean both ‘traditional’ binary transsexual transformations and contemporary fluid transgender transformations of body and identity performance. Pursuing this broader inclusiveness is the reason why the authors of TSQ’s inaugural introduction want us to now embrace a “postposttranssexual” situation of both “wrong body” transsexualism, which relies on performing hyper-gender-typical stereotypes, and deliberate gender dissonance and disruption through individually tailored sex-reassignment treatments.
Totalizing coherence is obviously not the point of contemporary transgender studies, but what is an intellectual field of study without at least some identifiable framework of logical and – if it has a political agenda – teleological coherence? If the discourse also powerfully excludes all outsiders and critics as being ‘transphobic’ or having nothing to contribute simply because they do not identify as trans, this adds to its difficulties as an intellectual discourse funded by governments and private donors to promote the common good.
The narrative genealogy of transgender studies is premised on the conviction that there is a modern biopolitical project at play that must be subverted. Modern biopolitics has oppressively manufactured a pervasive gender congruence tied to unambiguous dimorphic sex categories (male-man and female-woman). The specific aim of transgender identity politics is the elimination of all categories of sex and gender incongruity, and the firm rejection that any form of sex and gender non-conformism is deviant, an illness, or unnatural. But things have undergone radical progressive change in recent decades. Post-1990s transgender discourse embraces our new freedoms from sex and gender policing, while fighting the carryovers from that earlier era via close study of “the very practices of power/knowledge over gender-variant bodies that construct transgender people as deviant.” Which is to say, the field of transgender studies has a very clear normative and political goal – to de-deviantize gender non-conformity and sexual presentation in any expression, and, hence, to problematize any conventional gender and sex-presentation norms as good and natural.
How then is this theory and agenda received by adolescents? As Stryker and Currah point out, critical theory, poststructuralist and postmodern epistemologies, and a host of new Progressive knowledge and norm discourses that have flourished in our universities since the 1960s, are of a piece with transgender studies. Do young people – and parents who are not familiar with the academic domains in which this discourse is embedded – really have the informed capacity to evaluate and consent to this movement? Can they see where it is taking them? The movement strongly approves of the non-pathologizing sea-change towards transgender people and continues to advocate for the complete de-pathologizing of any non-normal sex and gender ideation and expression. Logically enough in this same trajectory of de-deviantizing sex and gender, we are now seeing academic interest in how loving sexual relationships might be configured between people and machines (sexbots). So, why not pets? If there are to be no normative boundaries to sexual/gender identity/orientation and consenting practice, can old-fashioned reproductive family structures actually function? Transgender discourse is, thus, part of a broader anti-taboo ideological movement, unified by a distinctive cultural reform agenda: the death of sexual and gender deviance. Is this really something that it is OK for our children to sign up to?
And when it comes to young people, there are other problems. Today, gender dysphoria is considered a serious psychological anguish suffered by an avalanche of adolescents presenting with the problem. For instance, at the Tavistock Centre in London, the main gender clinic in the UK, treated 51 children and teenagers (34 males, 17 females) in 2009 who had gender dysphoria. In 2016, the same clinic treated 1,766 children and teenagers, (557 males, 1,209 females) and in 2019 it treated 2,364 children and teenagers (624 males, 1,740 females). That is, there is more than a 100-fold increase in young females receiving treatment for gender dysphoria over ten years in the UK. In the same time period, there has been a dramatic proportional change between the sexes, shifting from three times more males compared to females in 2009, to almost three times more females compared to males in 2019. This explosion of interest is now evident in girls and young women, particularly if they are on the autism spectrum and particularly if they had prior underlying mental health issues. Further, gender dysphoria is seen as so serious a problem that there is an unconscionable risk of youth suicide if it is not treated rapidly. But then it must be treated in only one way: changing one’s body. This single direction of treatment follows from transgender discourse’s refusal to “pathologize” gender dysphoria as a psychological illness.
Bizarrely, suicidal ideation is understood as symptomatic of severe psychological anguish, and in transgender theory this is seen as being caused by gender dysphoria. Yet, gender dysphoria itself is not seen as a dangerous self-harming psychological body-image problem. If gender dysphoria were a psychological illness, then the suffering of this illness would be best responded to by counselling and therapy. The Hippocratic principle of “do no harm” is important here as many sex-reassignment medical interventions cause irreversible physical damage to a person’s natural reproductive abilities and future family possibilities, and the long-term health risks of taking hormones that your body does not make has risk factors that are significant. Regret and “de-transitioning” are now serious issues for young adult women in this domain. Were gender dysphoria to be treated like other self-harming psychological illnesses, help could be offered via a wise and pastoral exploration of the meaning of a person’s gender in relation to the body they actually have, in order to help the patient become gender-identity reconciled to their naturally sexed body. But this cannot be pursued because gender studies voices an unequivocal refusal to define someone who wants to hormonally and medically reconfigure the sexual presentation of their bodies as in any way deviant.
According to this dogma, there can be nothing psychologically wrong with an adolescent girl or young woman who wants to have her healthy breasts cut off her body, or who wants – before she has had any children, and perhaps before she is capable of realizing what the reproductive implications of such a choice are – to have her tubes tied and her clitoris and vagina surgically remodelled so that it looks like a penis. This ‘penis’ cannot father a child, but complications if its owner ever want to mother a child are considerable. There can be nothing psychologically wrong with an adolescent boy or young man who wants to have his healthy penis and testes cut off his body, or surgically remodelled to look like a clitoris in a vulva. But this persona has no real womb or birth canal, and complications should this person ever want to father a child are considerable. There can be nothing psychologically wrong with any adolescent or young person who wants to change their socially perceived sexual morphology via taking puberty blockers or opposite-sex hormones in quantities that their own body does not naturally produce, whatever the long-term health risks of such foreign hormones are to that young person.
So, it is now considered a socially normative good to cut out one’s perfectly healthy sex organs if that is what you want to do. To this theoretical stance, the suffering of gender dysphoria is seen as entirely culturally inflicted (for it cannot be a psychological illness), and the pursuit of fragmenting and reconstituting “the elements of gender in new and unexpected geometries” that gender-reassignment achieve is seen as unquestionably morally progressive for society. The confused adolescent, who struggles with not liking their newly sexually mature body, is given on-line activist coaching and is then administered hormones and ushered onto the operating table in the name of gender liberation and moral progress.
Have we taken de-deviation too far? Have we taken gender dysphoria as a psychological illness off the table too quickly? Have we become crusaders for the normalization of de-normalizing all culturally accepted sex and gender categories too hastily?
Further, are adolescents and young people able to understand the complex postmodern and poststructural epistemologies that undergird gender studies theory, so that they can really think through whether they accept its hermeneutic stance and normative aims, or not? Do adolescents and young adults appreciate the differences between modern scientific epistemology, traditional sacramental and natural law understandings of sex and gender, and postmodern transgender theory? Is informed consent really going on here? Should our online-educated young people just assume that the transgender approach is obviously correct and the other approaches are – as the YouTube universe of trans promotion to young people simply asserts – obviously wrong?
Can only a self-identified trans person know if transgender theory makes sense or not? Should universities, schools and governments just accept transgender studies’ understandings of the ‘meaning’ of gender and the assumed desirability of pursuing often-irreversible reproductive-disabling medical re-configurations of sexual presentation? Should we be unconcerned about the long-term health effects of taking opposite sex hormones?
And what about parents? Is it really the only loving and supportive response to a child presenting with gender dysphoria, to hurry them along the pathway of sex-reassignment? Does a parental expression of concern and a desire to at least slow up their child’s rush towards transition, signal that the parents are regressive and oppressors of gays, lesbians, feminists, and any other person of a gender/sex non-conformist disposition? Or, can they just be concerned and worried parents who do not want their children to make life-altering choices that they may well regret in a few years’ time?
What if, as a parent, you simply don’t want your daughter to mutilate herself and make herself infertile? Is there not something horribly misogynist about a young woman wanting to have her breasts removed and wanting to have her vulva and clitoris carved up and ‘re-built’ so that it looks like a penis? What if you just want your daughter to learn to love her own body and to embrace who she physically actually is, whatever anyone’s gender expectations of her may or may not be? Why does she have to take hormones and have permanently body-damaging operations to be free from the anguish of gender dysphoria?
 Susan Stryker & Paisley Currah, Transgender Studies Quarterly, “Introduction”, Vol 1, No. 1-2, May 2014, 1.
 Sandy Stone, “The “Empire” Strikes Back: a Posttranssexual Manifesto.” 1993, 2. https://uberty.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/trans-manifesto.pdf,
 Sandy Stone, “The “Empire” Strikes Back: a Posttranssexual Manifesto.” 1993, 12. https://uberty.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/trans-manifesto.pdf,
 Susan Stryker & Paisley Currah, Transgender Studies Quarterly, “Introduction”, Vol 1, No. 1-2, May 2014, 4.
 Preston Sprinkle, Embodied, Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2021, 162.
 Sprinkle, Embodied, Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2021, 162–4. Debra Soh, The End of Gender, New York: Simon & Shuster, 2021. “For those on the autism spectrum, wanting to transition may be motivated by rigid ideas about gender roles… Transitioning could also be a form of highly focused and intense interest, which is characteristic of being on the spectrum.” (pp168-9.) “In Newcastle, England, a city that has a population of 300,000 people, hundreds of young women have come forward, saying they regret transitioning. Fitting the profile of girls with Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, most report being lesbian and on the autism spectrum.” (p179.)
 See Janice Raymond, Doublethink. A Feminist Challenge to Transgenderism, Melbourne: Spinifex, 2021. See Abigail Shrier, Irreversible Damage. Teenage Girls and the Transgender Craze, London: Swift, 2021.
 Sandy Stone, “The “Empire” Strikes Back: a Posttranssexual Manifesto.” 1993, 12. https://uberty.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/trans-manifesto.pdf