A true change of sex is not possible, I argued yesterday here at Public Discourse. But perhaps something more modest is possible. Perhaps one can change one’s gender.
To answer that question, we must ask: What is gender? Yesterday I mentioned Witt’s account: “Gender” is one’s reproductive role as governed by the social norms applied to agents in that role. I think there is something right about Witt’s approach.
Why do we have or need gender? Because the role in question is one that is essential to the existence of society. Witt sees the existence of gender as something that would or could disappear if the functional role it mediates were to be taken up by, for example, robots. This gives us a clue, which I will attempt to articulate by means of the concept of a “persona,” discussed by John Finnis in his paper “Personal Identity in Aquinas and Shakespeare.”
A persona is, on Finnis’s account, “an artifact, intelligible and assessable as a means of communication, and by all the criteria applicable to the arts.” In the adopting and shaping of one’s persona, one adopts and shapes something “whereby one communicates to others some truth or falsehood about oneself.” No doubt the materials available for one to make use of in adopting and shaping one’s persona are to a great extent cultural, and we could follow Witt in recognizing that adoption of a persona typically brings with it a set of social norms and expectations that partially define what it means to have that persona, and to which the persons adopting that persona are subject, and answerable.
I suggest that we understand gender along these lines. One’s gender is one’s persona insofar as it is adopted and shaped with a view to communicating some truth or falsehood about oneself. Well, (i) which truth(s) or falsehood(s)? And (ii) why must they be communicated in this way?
We could say (i): The truths or falsehoods are those about one’s sex, and one’s embrace or rejection of the orientation towards the one form of the marital good (husband or wife), and one form of parenting (father or mother), that one’s sex makes possible.
And we could likewise say (ii): These truths must be communicated precisely because of the massive significance of the good of marriage and family for personal and social well-being. Indeed, (ii) makes clear why, as a matter of culture, considerable resources of a particular form are made available to individuals to make use of, or even simply to fall in line with, their gender personae.
And it makes clear too why those resources are not typically presented as optional (even though many of them are determinationes, for surely gender personae can reasonably vary) but rather as normative. Culturally, socially, and personally, this is too significant a domain of human existence, too pervasive and foundational a form of human well-being, for reasonable persons and societies to want systematically to encourage ambiguous, misleading, corruptive, pernicious, or otherwise problematic gender self-portrayals.
Changing One’s Gender
In an upright culture, one probably does not need to think much about one’s “gender”; the social forms and resources necessary for one to communicate the relevant truths are ready to hand and there is little to tempt one to the adoption of some other gender persona than the one recognized culturally as accompanying one’s sex. But the possibility of such temptation raises the following natural question.
Can one change one’s gender? It may surprise some that I think the answer is yes. One may, for example, take as a mask some new gender persona, adopting and shaping cultural materials to signify some truth or falsehood about one’s sex. That falsehood might be willing, as with so many characters in Shakespeare who adopt the persona of a member of the opposite sex for comic and dramatic purposes.
More dangerously, the falsehood might be willingly communicated, and the persona willingly adopted precisely in order to reject the goods and norms that sex and its truthful communication makes possible. A change in gender would thereby be a form of rebellion.
Or, finally, it might be an unwilling falsehood. Plato tells us that the greatest falsehoods are of this sort, unwilling because they are not recognized by their tellers as falsehoods.
Surely there is a great deal of “gender confusion” out there, much of it made possible by the cultural rejection of the goods and norms just mentioned, and the encouragement of young persons, from increasingly early ages, to adopt gender personae that likewise reject those goods and norms. Some of it (as with the related desire to change one’s sex) is surely, as Paul McHugh has argued at Public Discourse, a matter of mental illness or some other pathology. To the extent that this is so, it is a mark of a heartless culture that it encourages such confusion even to the point of encouraging bodily mutilation as a solution to gender dysphoria and prohibiting therapy that might be psychologically and spiritually beneficial. By such means, unwilling falsehoods are embraced and transmitted, as McHugh noted.
All this leaves many questions. For example, there is the question of how broadly or narrowly the parameters of gender personae for truthful and reasonable communication of one’s sex and embrace of orientation towards the marital good should be set. It is tempting to some, but I think implausible, to suppose that the appropriate personae with which to communicate in these ways are narrowly framed, such that some particular and closely drawn stereotype of masculinity or femininity has a strong normative claim. There are many ways of being masculine and feminine, and there are traits more characteristic perhaps of one sex that should be better integrated into the gender personae of the other. Is a man who is a good listener “more feminine”? Perhaps, but that seems to be a good thing.
On the other hand, it does seem clear that in general the male and female sexes are associated with somewhat different ranges of capacities and dispositions, which are important for a person’s orientation to the entire range of human good, not just that of marriage and parenting. The attempt to efface all gender differences as they emerge from sexual differences (and are seen, for example, in the ways that male and female children characteristically play) is a mistake, and one that could only be furthered only by a kind of parental or, on a large scale, cultural tyranny.
Finally, it seems equally clear that the range of misshaped gender personae extends not just away from its appropriate communication of sex (the direction of the transgendered) but, so to speak, upwards from it, in an exaggeration of what is to be communicated (the hyper-masculine or -feminine). So all things considered, there is something to “get right” in one’s gender persona, even if the appropriate shape of that persona is underdetermined. That “getting right” is probably best understood as a part of what one must do in order to discern and embrace one’s overall personal vocation.
There are many other questions, and perhaps the framework I’ve tried to articulate here will not be successful for answering some (or all) of them. But the consequences of failure to give these questions adequate reflection are clearly grave, both for persons beset with gender confusion, and for a culture struggling to find its footing on matters of sex and marriage.
Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. He is the author of Lying and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, 2014).