Why culture’s reaction to the “Transgender Memo” demonstrates deep confusion

October 23, 2018

The New York Times recently published an article under the loaded headline “Transgender could be defined out of existence under Trump Administration.” Intentional or not, The New York Times is engaging in deeply contested debate just from the headline alone. The idea of “existence” must first address whether individuals who desire to live at odds with their biological sex can ever truly be a member of the opposite sex—and they cannot, which I’ll explore further below.

The article goes on to explain how a memo is being drafted within the Trump administration that would define one’s gender for the purposes of federal law on biological and immutable realities, such as genitalia and genetics. This may sound controversial, but it is not. The only stable way to determine what defines male and female are primary and secondary sex characteristics.

The New York Times article itself is rife with ambiguities, but even more revealing, the reaction to the memo by transgender activists demonstrates how confused our society is on what it means to be human and how far ingrained the transgender worldview has become in our thinking.

Speaking to the article itself, the journalists demonstrate little awareness of the moral debate surrounding how sex or gender is determined, or for that matter, even defined. It ignores the philosophical element to this debate, leaving aside deep questions on whether the preoccupation with “gender identity” is even internally consistent. The article uses “sex”and “gender” as synonyms—which they are not. “Sex” speaks to biological realities; “gender” to the cultural expression of how sex manifests itself. The sexual binary expresses itself in gendered norms that culture adopts to witness to this binary.

The article also frames the discussion as a wholly new and revolutionary approach to personhood and federal law. The article acknowledges that the Obama administration “loosened the legal concept of gender in federal programs,” but it fails to acknowledge that the Obama administration did this by contravening written law from the 1972 Education Amendments to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They did this by redefining what constitutes “sex discrimination” and allowing one’s “gender identity” to fit within that newly re-interpreted category, thanks to several court opinions (which, contrary to popular opinion, are not settled or binding precedent).

This means, fundamentally, that the administrative coup undertaken by the Obama administration in 2016 is being returned to how it was originally intended. Or, restated: The Trump administration is desiring a classification for male and female on the standard definition that all of human history has, up until recently, acknowledged. This is not revolutionary. To muster outrage at circumstances that simply return us to pre-2016 legal definitions is shortsighted.

As I write about in my book, God and the Transgender Debate, the issue lurking beneath the surface of debates around gender and sexuality is whether we as human beings have the ability to redefine what it means to be human. Are we self-sovereigns capable of razing our bodies to the ground for the sake of self-supremacy? Are we the Creator. Or, are we creations? Are there limits imposed on us by the genetic mapping overseen by a wise God?

Society may try to ignore, downplay, or subvert the male-female binary, but it will never overturn it. That’s because our createdness as male and female is stamped onto human nature (Gen. 1:26-27). We may try, but individuals will never be able to transcend the limits of their embodiment. This is a biblical truth insofar as there is chapter and verse to back up this claim. It’s also a truth of creation itself, born witness in the enduring binary that cultures have embraced and lived in accordance with.

To the deeper worldview and cultural aspects of this news story: In the outrage over “defining people out of existence,” I’ve yet to hear a cogent argument from transgender activists that would convince me that someone’s self-declaration about their gender actually witnesses to something ontologically true. The transgender worldview is irrational. It makes no sense to say that one’s gender identity is fixed, but that gender is also on a spectrum. There is no way to authenticate someone’s “feminine” or “masculine” feelings are truly masculine or feminine apart from their embodiment. Of course, as Christians, we understand this world is broken by sin, and disorder ensues from living in a world that Romans 8 declares is “groaning.” This means we have more compassion, empathy, and hope than what society can offer those struggling with their internal sense of gender. But compassion and empathy do not equate to affirmation of transgender identities.

The Trump administration is not defining people “out of existence.” Rather, it is taking the correct step to define sex based on created reality, not simply self-perception. This matters because law is a teacher. Its pedagogy communicates norms and expectations for how society ought to govern itself, therefore providing stability and order to the community underneath its authority. Society and government should not play fast and loose with its most basic constituency—people. Humanity is not elastic. We are male or female, and no specious “spectrum” argument or endless obsession with “identity” nullifies this truth. Law ought to reflect the truth about human nature and not capitulate to the demands of what ethicist Oliver O’Donovan calls “psychological positivists”—those who would create reality based on psychological perception alone.

No social, hormonal, cosmetic, or surgical augmentation can countermand the male-female binary. As the Psalmist declares in Psalm 100:3, “It is he who made us, and we are his.” This truth means that no activist or surgeon can suppress human nature, that we cannot run from ourselves without, eventually, human nature striking back.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More