Did you think that the godless urban centers on the two coasts and various academic locations in between were the battlefields of what remains of the famous American culture war? Think again: South Dakota is where the action is.On February 17, 2016, the Christian Science Monitor, that surprisingly good newspaper still published out of the cathedral-sized Mother Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston, carried a story titled “Transgender bill: South Dakota moves to enact first-in-nation law.” [I wonder what Mary Baker Eddy, the impressive founder of what may well be the most implausible religion originating in America, would think of this story.] The South Dakota legislature passed a law requiring students, even those who identify themselves as transgender, to use the bathroom allocated to the gender listed on their birth certificate (in LGBT parlance, their “assigned gender” as against the one they “really” identify with). Dennis Daugaard, the Republican Governor, said that the law seemed to him to be a good idea, but that he wanted to study it before deciding whether to sign it. (Judging by his name, I would guess that his ancestors were sturdy Lutherans from Denmark or Norway. What would they think about the Governor’s dilemma? Like Mary Baker Eddy, they probably would have difficulty understanding what this is all about.) Governor Daugaard is right to be hesitant. The two sides in this latest episode in the culture war are already forming their battalions—lobbyists, political consultants, and, most important, lawyers). The LGBT lobby of course regards the proposed law as an unconstitutional assault on the civil rights of transgender persons (the Obama administration has taken the same position, of course—in an amicus brief filed in a similar case in Virginia). On the other side the usual Evangelical and Catholic suspects made favorable noises about the law. Some observers from that side supported the fear of parents that lecherous boys, having declared themselves to be “really” female while their sexual equipment is still unmistakably male, would use their alleged new gender to gain entrance to the girls’ shower room. To forestall this objection, the law has a provision to require schools to find “reasonable accommodation” (such as a single-occupant bathroom) for students claiming to be transgender). Obviously there are practical possibilities of compromise here. Don’t hold your breath: Expect a wave of litigation.The gay movement, after its great victory of the Supreme Court blessing same-sex marriage, must be looking for new peak experiences. What will happen to all the enraged activists if the war is definitively over? To what delinquencies will their boredom drive them? It seems the movement, which has for a while sailed under the banner of LGBT—lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (It used to be GLBT. Why now “L” first? Old-fashioned gentlemanly courtesy: “ladies first”?)—has now shifted its focus to the transgender issue. (Sometimes now a “Q” is added to the acronym. It stands for “queer.” I understand this refers to individuals who either can’t make up their minds or who refuse to be put in any specific gender box. Some of the latter may like the term “polyamory,” which may include “trans-species”, and which was seriously discussed but not endorsed by the Unitarian-Universalists—apparently a bridge too far. Their national headquarters, by the way, is on Beacon Hill, almost within shouting distance of the Mother Church.) There is also “genderfluid”, favored in Britain.This leads to the obvious question: Just how many transgender persons are there, to cause all this excitement all the way to South Dakota? Already the first three letters of the acronym refer to quite small numbers in the American population. Estimating the size of the fourth, the transgender category is especially difficult. That is partly a matter of definition, which is far from generally agreed upon. Sometimes the category differentiates “transsexual” (physically visible differences) from “transgender” (like “we’ll go along with your self-identification”), sometimes both groups are put together as “transgender.” Transvestites, I believe, are not yet officially admitted into the movement (no, Jack, it is not enough to dress up like Aunt Bessie, you must want to be her). A major problem is that, given the small numbers, the “T’s” are often included in the overall lesbian/gay/bisexual figures. But the movement is intent on including individuals who, without any physical indicators, simply say that they are transgender. How is one to assess the self-descriptions? A further problem: It seems that the surveys are mostly conducted on the telephone: There you are, perhaps relaxing at home watching television, when someone calls and asks you which of these four or five categories best describes you? (I hope that the call center, probably located in India or the Philippines, has recorded the expletives with which you responded to the call.) Even so, for whatever these are worth: Here are two recent estimates for the number of transgender people in the United States: In 2011 a study by the UCLA law school came up with 0.3 percent of the population, a study in 2014 by something called the Public Religion Institute with 1 percent. The U.S. Census now tries to arrive at a less subjective estimate by looking at the number of people who report gender-relevant name changes to the Social Security Administration. In any case, the intense discussion of the transgender issue would suggest a much larger population than the available figures indicate.In all the sexual liberation movements since the 1960s there has been an interesting ideological shift. The early feminist movement attacked the famous statement by Sigmund Freud that “biology is destiny” as a sexist attempt to prevent women from defining themselves: No, the movement declared around 1968, biology is not destiny; the difference between men and women is not a biological fact but a “social construct.” Hence the shift from “sex” to “gender”: The first term has always meant the difference between the two types of genitalia and the ensuing implications for behavior. But the term “gender” is a social “construct,” quite independent of the physical facts; it is a grammatical term, not a biological one. Thus it is arbitrary, as gender is in different languages: Thus the sun in French is masculine (le soleil), the moon is feminine (la lune); in German it is the inverse—the sun is feminine (die Sonne), the moon masculine (der Mond). (As far as I know, no feminist theorist has taken this as proving semiotically that French men are pushed to be male chauvinist pigs by their language.) Thus the feminist movement rejected biological determinism, insisted on the freedom of women to define themselves. But now, perhaps, old Sigmund may turn out to be, despite himself, a devotee of the Great Mother Goddess. The gay movement also went through the same change, from same-sex attraction seen as a social construct to its being, precisely, a biologically determined destiny, which society should accept and legitimize. Why the change? I think I can explain it: Both movements want to wrap themselves in the banner of the African-American civil rights movement. If so, male and female, as well as any other sexual identity, must be understood like skin color, congenitally given and not constructed, and to be recognized as such by society. The gay/LGBT movement went through the same mutation, thus gender (now really a misnomer) could not be a “lifestyle choice,” but the genuine self discovered as an objective fact by the individual, who demands that society respect and recognize it. Is this logical? No, but ideologies are not exercises in logic; they are to be adopted because of their political usefulness, not because of their philosophical consistency.Since my blog is on religion, there is a curious affinity between the recent LGBT movement and conservative religious views about the sexual dimension of human life. Both now agree that sexual identity is congenitally given, be it rooted in the essential nature of the individual (whether heterosexual or homosexual), or in the nature of being human, as rooted in God’s order of creation. Of course there are sharp differences between the two notions of essence and order, but neither would resonate with the old liberationist idea that an individual is free to decide who or what he or she really is. Jean-Paul Sartre used to be approvingly quoted when he wrote the fundamental mantra of existential liberation: “Man (not the male but the unisex l’homme) is condemned to be free.” Now it is: “Man is condemned to be what he is.”This year there will be an international conference at the University of Vienna to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Social Construction of Reality, which I co-authored with Thomas Luckmann (a fellow-Austrian, which may or may not be relevant). This book, which has been translated into 19 languages by my count (including Catalan and Korean), has been called by someone in a delightful mix of compliment and putdown—“almost a classic.” It supposedly led to a school of sociological theory named “social constructivism”; neither Luckmann nor I much like this name. However, I must plead guilty to the proposition that human institutions are socially constructed—that is, not directly based on biological instincts, nor dictated by divine commandment. Leaving aside the question of divine intentions, which I cannot deal with here: Of course our institutional constructs occur within biologically determined limits. We could defy biology by insisting that in public all citizens, in the name of equality, must walk on all fours. But there would be a price to be paid for the defiance—the society we invented would be conquered by a tribe of two-legged specimens of homo sapiens erectus. I am fond of the British periodical The Spectator, which claims to have been founded in 1828. It is moderately conservative, both culturally and politically, and it publishes people who love the English language. [My one regret is that they gave up publishing advertisements by people looking for romantic partners—people who could be cited as proof that English eccentricity is alive and well. A favorite of mine, a few years ago, was by a woman who was looking for a man, who was only described as follows: “must be staunchly conservative, preferably with own teeth.”) In its issue on January 30, 2016, the Spectator published an article by Melanie Phillips, “In defence of gender: Children are not all ‘gender fluid’. It’s dangerous and wrong to try to persuade them that they are.” Phillips is going against the stream. In 2004 Parliament passed the Gender Recognition Act, augmented in 2010 by the Equality Act allowing individuals to request gender reassignment without any evidence of physical sex-change. I think it was William Blackstone (1723–80), the British jurist who authored Commentaries of the Laws of England, a work still taught in law schools today. Blackstone (perhaps erroneously) is often credited with the statement that “Parliament can do anything or everything it wants, but make a man a woman or vice versa.” It seems that this limit no longer pertains. The UK Department of Education now has a curriculum of “gender education.” It flew the transgender flag to mark the Transgender Day of Rememberance, presumably in memory of the time when men were men and women were women. (Yes, there is a transgender flag, at least in the UK, a sort of tricolor—horizontal bars colored blue (boys!) and pink (girls!), with a white bar between them – get it?). Phillips has an eminently sensible position on the issue discussed in this post: “Gender is not fluid. What is fluid, however, is the language.” Her conclusion: “Gender cannot be at real risk because it is anchored in an immutable reality. What is on the cards is oppression, socially engineered dysfunction and the loss of individual freedom.”
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Published on: March 2, 2016
Social ConstructionSouth Dakota, LGBT, and the Culture War
There is a curious affinity between the recent LGBT movement and conservative religious views about the sexual dimension of human life.