Illustration by the author.

Weaponized ‘Objectivity’ in Anti-Trans Rhetoric

Brian Fabry Dorsam
Aug 23 · 6 min read

Ryan T. Anderson is objectively anti-trans. In 2018, Anderson published a book called, ‘When Harry Became Sally: A Response to the Transgender Moment’, in which he fears, ‘If trans activists succeed in their political agenda, our nation’s children will be indoctrinated in a harmful ideology’ which dangerously ‘presupposes that someone who has a man’s body, a man’s brain, a man’s sexual capacities, and a man’s DNA can know what it’s like to be a woman.’ Speaking recently to the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Anderson wondered ‘what the human costs are of getting human nature wrong?’ He answers this question plainly in his book: ‘Lives will be ruined.’

It is my subjective opinion that Ryan T. Anderson is more than a little self-involved. This past July, Anderson shared a list of recommended readings with his Facebook followers. The first five recommendations were books that he authored.

A bit of Facebook self-indulgence is one thing. But self-indulgence paraded as scientific authority is another. On August 22nd, Anderson followed the Drumpf administration’s lead and submitted a formal, 40-page brief to the United States Supreme Court advising them to exclude transgender people from civil rights protections. In it, he included a list of ten authoritative sources that informed the brief. Nine of the ten sources listed were books or articles that he authored.

Anderson’s brief reads like a track list from the Greatest Hits of Anti-Trans Rhetoric, invoking everything from bathroom rights legislation, to the need to protect the religious freedom of anti-trans Christians, to the essentialist refrain that no medical procedure, gender identity, or name change can alter one’s immutable biological identity. Amidst a shooting range’s worth of tempting targets, there is one sentence in particular that drew my aim, because it exposes the foundation upon which anti-trans ideology is built:

For instance, Respondents’ position would require either the elimination of all sex-specific programs and facilities or allow access based on an individual’s subjective identity rather than their objective biology. [Emphasis added.]

The distinction between ‘subjective identity’ and ‘objective biology’ is so appealingly simple that it even occasionally finds its way into pro-trans rhetoric. This framework hinges on the long-outdated concept of mind-body dualism — which posits the mind and body as separate, parallel operants — but extends it (or, at least, attempts to extend it) into the realm of modern gender theory. The idea goes that biological sex describes the rough approximation of a variety of physical traits like genitals, chromosomes, and facial hair, and that gender identity describes a distinct, individualized interpretation of one’s own internal feeling.

This line of thinking operates with an intuitive but flawed assumption that there exists a subjective/objective binary, particularly when it comes to gender identity. Subjectivity, it seems to say, is internal, personal, experiential, whereas objectivity is external, impersonal, and dispassionately observable. Put this way, the two are mutually exclusive and cannot overlap. Subjective truth is no truth at all, unless is can be rigorously cited, peer-reviewed, and verified.

This subjective/objective binary has a troubling history in primitive, gendered pseudoscience. While ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’ have no explicit relationships to any gender, it is clear for which team they have each been made to play. ‘Objectivity’ has long been coopted by those in power to diminish the ‘subjectivity’ of those without. ‘Objective’ medical and psychological science is notorious for its history of misogynistic and racial biases, which are used to this day to justify the misdiagnosis and pathologization of marginalized people. We needn’t replay in detail the 19th century ‘hysteria’ that allowed men to sexually abuse women under the auspices of medical necessity; nor the ‘hypersexuality’ that was reported in black men during Reconstruction for the purposes of justifying imprisonment and torture. We needn’t replay these atrocities, because they’re still happening. Women and people of color are, to this day, routinely underdiagnosed because their ‘subjectivity’ is undervalued.

Objectivity is a powerful weapon when wielded for the cause of bad-faith pseudoscience, and Anderson’s use of ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’ is a clear extension of this oppressive legacy. Anderson manipulates these words to paint a portrait of perfect scientific logic, but the subtext is clear: ‘subjective’ means ‘you’ and ‘objective’ means ‘me’.

By positing as irrefutable fact the false dichotomy of subjective identity and objective biology, ‘subjective’ experience is rendered inherently invalid precisely because it is personal, internal and, therefore, unverifiable. ‘Objective’ anatomy is then inherently valid because it is impersonal, external, and observable by the person in power.

The ‘external’ in Anderson’s brief is literal. The premise from which Anderson begins is that only genitals can tell the objective truth about their owner’s sex. If only Anderson could unzip your fly, he’d know for sure who and what you truly are. The trouble is that the simplicity of binary sex has been thoroughly complicated by decades of anatomical, biological, and neurological science.

Biologist Julia Serano writes:

The primary assumption driving most “biological sex” myths is that there are two discrete mutually exclusive sexes that are immutable (i.e., once born into a sex, you will always be a member of that sex). While there are a number of sexually dimorphic traits — such as chromosomes, gonads, external genitals, other reproductive organs, ratio of sex hormones, and secondary sex characteristics — many times these traits do not all align (i.e., all male, or all female) within the same person, as is the case for intersex and many transgender people.

The difficulty in invoking ‘objective biology’ in a discussion about trans rights, as Anderson does, is that one must consequently define which traits, precisely, determine the ‘objectivity’ of one’s biology. As Serano writes, this can be difficult to do:

People tend to harbor essentialist beliefs about sex — that is, they presume that each sex category has an underlying “essence” that makes them what they are. This is what leads people to assume that trans women remain “biologically male” despite the fact that many of our sex characteristics are now female. However, there is no “essence” underlying sex; it is simply a collection of sexually dimorphic traits. Some people will presume that sex chromosomes must be this “essence,” even though we cannot readily see them, plus there are non-XX or XY variants. Others presume that genitals are this “essence” (probably because they are used to determine our birth-assigned and legal sex), although they can vary too, and may eventually change (e.g., if one undergoes sex reassignment surgery). In day-to-day life, we primarily rely on secondary sex characteristics to determine (or more precisely, presume) what sex a person is — and of course, these traits may change via a simple hormone prescription.

The relationship between genitals and gender is much more complicated than Anderson’s binary makes it out to be. When Anderson relegates gender to a ‘subjective’ experience and elevates sex to an ‘objective’, immutable truth, he neglects the objective validity (not to mention complexity) of individual identity. The real truth is that Anderson’s irrefutable anatomical objectivity is a fiction.

In this way, ‘objectivity’ is used as a weapon to disempower trans people from having authority over their own identity. The purpose is emphatically not scientific. The purpose is the maintenance of cis-patriarchal power. The proof is in the plotting. Anderson concludes his brief by claiming that upholding protections against transgender discrimination under civil rights law

would treat disagreement about human embodiment as male and female as sex discrimination. And it would turn our nation’s cherished civil rights statutes into swords to persecute people with the wrong beliefs about human sexuality. Antidiscrimination laws should be understood as shields to protect citizens from unjust discrimination, not as swords imposing a sexual orthodoxy on the nation. This Court should not treat biology as bigotry.

Anderson is not the only culprit. When simplified summaries of gender and sex are recited by even the most well meaning of allies, we are left with a binary framework which deprivileges the experience of the individual. What are gender and sex, then? It’s complicated. But one thing we do know is that they are both assigned at birth and subject to change.

Trans rights are not the only things at stake in this argument. A bankrupt duality of mind and body, identity and biology, leaves us all poorer. Science has long shown us that our cognitive processes have a physical, biological basis in the brain. Does it not follow that our internal experiences of identity, individuality, and selfhood have this same basis? If we are ever to understand the full, objective complexity of human identity, we must abandon the false binary of ‘subjective identity’ and ‘objective biology’. We must continue to explore the complex cognitive foundations of gender and sex. We must not, however, treat bigotry as biology.

Brian Fabry Dorsam

Written by

Brian is an agender writer, illustrator, podcast producer, Carly Rae Jepsen fan, and cat mom based in Chicago.

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