You might remember a bit of Monty Python nonsense from 1979, The Life of Brian. In one scene, we encounter the People’s Front of Judea, one of many tiny radical groups bent on the overthrow of the oppressor Romans. As the four conspirators struggle to articulate their group beliefs, one fellow named Stan admits that he wants to be a woman, and that it his right as a man to be called Loretta. He wants this because he wants to have babies. When Reg points out that he can’t have babies, Stan cries, “Don’t you oppress me!” Reg protests, “I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb. Where’s the fetus going to gestate? You going to keep it in a box?” The other three agree that it is Stan’s right to have babies, if he could, and that they will fight for this right. Says Francis, “It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression!” Retorts Reg, “Symbolic of his struggle against reality.”
Flash forward to 2010. Earlier this month, I opened the sports page of the Minneapolis paper to a report, based on a New York Times story, that a former girls basketball star from one of our local high schools has been playing Division I college basketball. She has also announced that she is a man. The college has agreed that their player is a man, and further agreed to refer to this player at all times with male pronouns. The NCAA has agreed that “he” will continue to play on the women’s team.
As the NYT story reports, “He noted that he was biologically identical to any other female, but said, ‘I just would prefer for people to call me a he.’” The Associated Press story is even more emphatic:
[The player in question] can’t have the surgery, can’t start taking testosterone—not as long as he wants to keep playing for the George Washington women’s basketball team.
But he can change his name. He can ask people to stop calling him a woman. He can show off his mohawk, face a dozen cameras at the Smith Center after practice and declare: “Yes, I am a male on a female team.”
The central claim—“I am a male”—is as false as any statement could be. One is left wondering on what basis one might say it. Had the player in question stuck with one type of statement (“I just would prefer for people to call me a he”) we might understand the request. If she had said that she did not prefer to follow stereotypical gender roles, we could nod and say, OK, we get that. The claim, however, goes beyond this: “I am a male on a female team.”
Being a human male is a biological category. It means having a particular chromosomal structure: XY. This normally gives rise to certain physical characteristics such as particular hormonal balances and bodily structures such as a penis and testes. In childhood stages, we call this a boy; in adult stages, we call this a man. A human female, on the other hand, has an XX chromosomal structure, leading to a particular hormonal balance and bodily characteristics, such as ovaries, a uterus, and mammary glands. The child is a girl; the adult is a woman. The way to be sure which sex a particular human being is, male or female, is not by asking the opinion of the person in question, nor—as the NCAA has reportedly recommended—by “following the gender classification on a student’s identification documents, like a driver’s license.” It is to do a physical examination. Whether one is a human male or a human female is a matter of fact, and that is no less the case because the genetic factors that determine sex are not always well or fully understood. It is such a matter of fact that undergoing hormone treatment and surgery to create a more masculine appearance is not going to make a woman into a man. It will merely result in a mutilated woman—a situation that may please the person who undergoes such “therapy” but does nothing to change the foundational facts.
Someone might point out, of course, that the basketball player feels as though she ought to be a man, and intends to change her body to match her feelings; at that point, the female will become a male. Yet even were one to accept the claim that such a mutilated woman is a man, that is not the situation now. The claim is that she is a man in a woman’s body right now, truly a male with a female appearance, a he instead of a she.
At the heart of this confusion is a commitment to a certain way of looking at the human person. I would be surprised if the student athlete in question has given it even a moment’s thought, but implicit in this position is the idea that what is most important about a human being is one’s own feelings and desires. According to this view, if one feels something deeply enough, if one wants something strongly enough, then it must reflect what is most significant about oneself. If one’s feelings and desires do not conform to what is going on in the physical world, including one’s own body, then it is time for the world to change to conform to one’s feelings and desires.
In opposition to this viewpoint stands a time-honored but apparently unfashionable alternative. Human beings are primarily creatures of reason; we are fulfilled in seeking and finding the truth. It is a fundamental drive that we see manifested in the child who first learns to use language, and never stops as long as we live. Truth is the conformity of the mind to the reality of the world. Thus, a healthy human being, when confronted with a reality that does not fit his feelings or desires, will figure out how to change those feelings and desires to match reality.
Our words mean things. The meanings cannot simply be made up on the spot. When someone says “cat” it does not indicate a reptile. When someone says “fire” it does not refer to a lump of frozen water. When someone says “he” it means a male, and not a female who wishes to be called a male. When we decide to use a word arbitrarily to mean things other than its common usage, we end up with absurdities such as “he identified as a lesbian in high school.” Meaningful speech becomes impossible.
You may have noticed that I have not mentioned the athlete’s name. This is not by way of keeping it a secret; two mouse clicks will yield her name. It is simply not my intention to pick on one person. My astonishment is not with her. Lots of people think things about themselves that are simply false, or want things for themselves that are not fitting things to want. The most disturbing thing about the story is the participation in a patent falsehood by two institutions whose raison d’être is to seek out and disseminate the truth: the university and the news media.
The university exists to seek the truth. Its faculty attempts to extend our knowledge of reality through theories based on observable facts. Yet in this instance at least, the university in question has acquiesced to the obviously false claim that one of its student athletes is a man, agreeing to call her a man, and to refer to her with male pronouns. The university might claim that it is not giving in to the claim that she is a man, but merely to her request to be referred to in a certain way. But when a student says that she wants to be called a man, even though there is no anatomical reason to do so, a place really searching for the truth would have said, “No, we are not going to do that. The truth is on the line. You are not a man—or a dog, or a tree, or the President, or Joan of Arc—despite what you feel or desire. Perhaps, instead, we could do some research to try to help you find out why you feel this way, and how your desire to be a man has emerged.”
The news media, meanwhile, exist to ferret out the facts that are essential for the making of decisions of import to the common good or in the individual lives of its readers and listeners. Thus, it is perhaps even more shocking that the news outlets writing on this story not only went along with the claim, but trumpeted it as obviously reasonable. She claims to be a man; who are we to say otherwise? The answer is: “We are plain people staring a plain fact in the face. You are not a man.” A reasonable story would have said “This woman claims to be a man,” or perhaps, “Female athlete wants to be male.” But when the empirically observable datum is called precisely its opposite, and applauded, the news media are no longer seeking facts to inform us of the truth, but making up facts to bolster an ideology.
How can we take either of these institutions seriously when they make claims about contested issues that we do not know much about—climate change, the economy—when we clearly see them dismissing the truth in cases that we do know something about? How are we going to have an intelligent conversation about sexuality and marriage when the most basic fact—that is a man, this is a woman—is ignored?
As Greg Forster said in an article for Public Discourse, “When you boil it down, the only battle that ultimately counts is between those who think you can decide the meaning of your own life, and those who think that the meaning of your life is not something you get to make up for yourself.” Most people know in their bones that we cannot simply make it up to match our desires. They have been going along with this game for a long time, and are beginning to say to themselves: This isn’t just disturbing; it’s wrong. And it’s got to stop.
Stephen J. Heaney is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, MN.