Identity and debt

So it’s all been a horrendous distraction from the dissertation I should be writing (actually, I am making progress, but what remains to be done remains somewhat daunting), but folks who have been following me know I’ve been wrestling with the whole question of gender, race, social constructions, and identity. These are hard issues brought to the fore by the cases of Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal.

And neither is an ideal case. Jenner’s case is complicated by her immense privilege, that shields her from the risks that many others undergoing transition face,[1] and the rather overwhelming odor of publicity-seeking in advance of her own reality show and of her ongoing collaboration with the Kardashians.[2] Dolezal’s case is complicated by her deception about her race—she is apparently white, but has been passing for Black[3]—and a hypocrisy of, while white, suing Howard University for discrimination.[4]

Did I say neither was an ideal case? Actually, two worse examples are hard to imagine. (I’m sure someone will take this as a challenge. Have at it.)

Meanwhile, a Facebook friend has responded to the Jenner case by arguing in essence that while Jenner is welcome to her transition, she cannot truly be a woman unless she endures menstruation. My Facebook friend probably has more of a point than she’s making. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets has long entries on menstrual blood and menstrual calendars, which is to say that even without reading the entries, I know that there is immense symbolism involved.[5] Further, while I can’t think of a reference at the moment, I am aware that some cultures celebrate a young woman’s first menstruation as a rite of passage and I can’t think of any experience comparable to menstruation in our culture for men. Further, menstruation, as yet someone else has said, is woman’s reminder that it is she, not a man, who can nurture life into this world. Men’s resentment at their inferiority in this respect may be one factor in misogyny.[6] Menstruation is important.

My Facebook friend was far from alone in noting the disparate responses to Jenner’s assertion of womanhood and Dolezal’s assertion of Blackness. Certainly, the reflexive liberal applause for Jenner’s coming out as a woman makes for an odd juxtaposition with Dolezal’s dubious claim to Blackness.

As I’ve wrestled with this,[7] I’ve gotten some pushback from a transgender woman who seems to believe that her gender construction has greater legitimacy than that of Dolezal’s racial construction. (Update, June 16, 2015: She now denies that she considers gender more legitimate a social construction than race or that she claimed that gender and race are not social constructions. She was indeed silent on the second of these points, but I believe she was unmistakable on the first.)

Okay, bad example, but among other things, she points to the same brain science that some scientists have been using in an effort to explain why some people have the sexual orientations they do (notice that heterosexuality here goes unquestioned). My immediate response is that those scientists have also not reached any conclusions. They’re using brain scans in which activity in certain areas of the brain is associated with certain functionality. The best they can offer here is a correlation without explanation, which is one reason research continues. Whatever is going on with sexual orientation or, for that matter, what is now called gender dysphoria (formerly gender identity disorder), it is sure to involve more than bright spots on a magnetic resonance image.

This transgender woman also points to identical twin studies which allegedly show a genetic connection. This correlation is inadequate as well. While such correlations may be useful with clearly biological and genetic causes, we simply don’t know that gender dysphoria (or sexual orientation) is biological or genetic in origin.

For forty years as the University Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School—twenty-six of which were also spent as Psychiatrist in Chief of Johns Hopkins Hospital—I have been studying people who claim to be transgender. . . . At Johns Hopkins, after pioneering sex-change surgery, we demonstrated that the practice brought no important benefits. As a result, we stopped offering that form of treatment in the 1970s.”[8]

That’s from what I think is a traditionalist conservative magazine and traditionalist conservatives, along with social conservatives, are about as sexually regressive and repressive as one can get. On the other hand, I don’t know traditionalists to be dishonest, it appears that the author, Paul McHugh, certainly has the credentials to know what he’s talking about, and Johns Hopkins is certainly a reputable sort of place. So I think we can reasonably allow him his doubts.

Finally, the transgender woman whom I’ve been jousting with points to hormonal evidence. It seems that if you pump a person with one sex up with opposite sex hormones they start acting more like the opposite sex. This doesn’t cut it either. When we speak of gender, we are, beyond doubt, speaking of a social construction. Cultures don’t even agree on how many genders there are. Gender roles vary considerably from culture to culture. So my opponent is seeking to use biology to explain culture. There actually are cases where that’s appropriate, but this is clearly not one of them.

Social scientists will not be surprised. They’ve been wrestling with questions of nature versus nurture for decades if not longer. As I understand the state of things, they generally assume nurture prima facie, that is, until rebutted. Questions of sexual orientation and, I guess, gender dysphoria have been making some inroads on that assumption, but still, no conclusions have been reached.

Really, we shouldn’t even be concerned with causes here. One of the very important points to remember with the nature versus nurture debate is really how irrelevant it is. If someone’s gay, they’re gay and the reasons for this don’t impact on whether they’re entitled to human rights and dignity. If they’re transgender, they’re transgender and the reasons for this don’t impact on whether they’re entitled to human rights and dignity. I could go on, but I think my point is clear.

The real issue here arises when one’s self-identification conflicts with that of a group s/he is joining. Because, with both Jenner and Dolezal, their identities are socially constructed. Which means that they can’t simply assert an identity. This identity has to be socially accepted.

And what we see with both Jenner and Dolezal is that they come from positions of white (and, with Jenner, male) privilege seeking to adopt an aggrieved subaltern identity. Women have many legitimate complaints against men and Blacks have many legitimate complaints against whites. As another Facebook friend puts in a hashtag, #AppropriationIsAnnihilation. There is a debt to be paid there. I’m not in a position to say how that debt should be paid, but just as one who steals an identity owes something to his or her victim, one who adopts a group identity owes something to the group.

Dolezal has now resigned her presidency at the Spokane chapter of the NAACP.[9] Jenner certainly owes something to women whose image she is exploiting and arguably she owes something to other transgender women whose experiences are not nearly so glamorous.

And I think what’s going on with all the fuss is that after decades of uncritical acceptance of gender dysphoria from sexual progressives, some in wider social circles are now saying those debts need to be paid.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Who is the hero?” Not Housebroken, June 4, 2015,
  2. [2]Rhonda Garelick, “The Price of Caitlyn Jenner’s Heroism,” New York Times, June 3, 2015,
  3. [3]David A. Love, “Can Rachel Dolezal redeem herself as an ally?” Grio, June 14, 2015,
  4. [4]Dell Cameron, “Rachel Dolezal once sued for racial discrimination,” Daily Dot, June 15, 2015,
  5. [5]Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1983).
  6. [6]I am uncertain where I read this. Two possibilities are Jack Holland, Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006) and Linda K. Kerber and Jane Sherron De Hart, eds., Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 6th ed. (New York: Oxford, 2004).
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Jenner, Dolezal, and the reality behind social constructions,” Not Housebroken, June 14, 2015,; David Benfell, “More on transgenderism and transracialism,” June 15, 2015,
  8. [8]Paul McHugh, “Transgenderism: A Pathogenic Meme,” Public Discourse, June 10, 2015,
  9. [9]Richard Pérez Peña, “Rachel Dolezal Quits N.A.A.C.P. in Spokane,” New York Times, June 15, 2015,

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