“…They just have really strong opinions about biological sex, which – as you know better than anyone, of course – isn’t real,” my friend said to me recently. We were talking about the difficulty of defunding the police, in the context of that MLK quote about the arc of the moral universe.
“Oh, I do?” I replied.
“Of course! You wrote an entire book about it. You’re not a biological essentialist,” they reassured me.
Our conversation, until that point, was us fully on the same side: frustrated about the state of the world, the backslides we’re seeing into injustice everywhere, and the looming sense right-wing fascism on the rise. Ya know, Tuesday stuff.
The MLK quote that came up was of course the one you think it was: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
(Turns out it wasn’t MLK’s quote. And he didn’t mean it how a lot people interpret it. That’s fitting.)
We were specifically talking about why it’s true, if it is, that the “moral arc bends toward justice.”
I had said something I’ve said before, which was, “It’s helpful that we’ve always had the facts on our side. We don’t need to convince people of things that aren’t true, which is the hard work of a lot of conservative activism.”
This is a short version of something I’ve written elsewhere, about the problem of progressivism.
Then my friend replied, “True. They don’t have the facts on their side, they just have really strong opinions about biological sex, which –” well, now you’re caught up.
And now you know the corner I was backed into. By myself?
We’ve Painted Ourselves into a Corner
I had heard that phrase a lot, but I never actually thought about what it meant until this week. Or visualized it. And now I see it as the perfect way to sum up what we’ve done, as social justice people and trans rights advocates, with the whole “biological sex isn’t real” thing.
We started with a few huge sweeping brushstrokes, and lots of room to work with.
“Gender and sex aren’t the same thing,” a big brushstroke that covered a lot of ground by the door where we entered.
“And neither one is binary! Just look at intersex people if you don’t believe me,” we would use to get into the corners, cover the edges.
“People focus too much on biological sex assigned at birth, and that focus erases trans people’s lived reality,” we kept painting. And at this point started passing the brush, with lots of people now happy to pick it up.
“And not only that, but biological sex itself is socially constructed!", some rolled on. We’re picking up speed now. This room is halfway painted.
“Yeah, and it’s colonialist too. It’s something that was imposed by the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” we continued, borrowing a brush from bell hooks.
“Exactly! Biological sex isn’t even real,” someone smeared a paint roller from the wall to the floor, backing us up. We’re on the opposite side of the room now, with a sea of wet paint between us and the door.
“Yeah, actually, it doesn’t exist,” someone else grabbed the roller. Paint is spattering everywhere now.
“And anyone who says it does, is arguing for literal violence against transgender and non-binary people.”
And that was it: the final brushstroke, outlining our feet where we stand in the far corner of the room. Nowhere to step but on our fresh paint. Nothing left unpainted but ourselves, and the tiny bit of wiggle room underfoot.
“Of course biological sex is real.”
I didn’t expect myself to be saying, “Of course biological sex is real,” and to have it feel like a contentious statement. Especially not to seen as arguing against myself.
But here I am.
“I’m not a biological essentialist,” I said, “And of course biological sex is real.” I went on to explain what I’ll sum up better, in writing, here.
Saying “biological sex exists” is NOT saying “transgender people don’t.”
First, there are a LOT more boxes available for us to fit ourselves into than being either “biological essentialist” or “biological sex doesn’t exist.”
That is a hilariously oversimplified binary, and the irony that we’re reinforcing that binary in the name of dismantling another isn’t lost on me.
You can argue against biological essentialism (i.e., believe entirely in “nature”, not “nurture”) as the foundation for arguing for the rights, recognition, wellbeing, equity, and justice for trans people. Absolutely. A lot of people do.
You can also argue for a little bit of nature, and mostly nurture. Neither biological essentialism nor indeterminism. Saying something like, “Yes, our biology plays a role, but socialization plays a larger one,” as the basis for arguing for the rights, recognition, wellbeing, equity, and justice for trans people.
And you can be a biological determinist and use that as your basis for supporting transgender rights, recognition, wellbeing, equity, and justice. This is a common position, actually. It’s summed up in the “born this way” ethos.
That’s not my position, but it is a position. All this goes to say that we’re pushing a false dichotomy here by saying either “believe biological sex doesn’t exist” or you’re against trans people. Speaking of which…
Saying “biological sex is socially constructed” (or colonialist, imperialist, etc-ist), is NOT saying “it doesn’t exist.”
Arguing that sex (or gender, or anything) is socially constructed isn’t the same as saying it doesn’t exist. Social constructions are very real – life or death real.
People seem to think “socially constructed” is the same thing as “purely imaginary.” This is yet another cumbersome (and indefensible) binary that isn’t helping us, or an honest take on the situation.
Social constructions exist in the real world. It’s not a matter of closing our eyes and imagining something. It’s a collective story of something we’re all noticing. Out there.
When someone says, “Well, what about that vulva over there? You’re telling me that doesn’t exist?", we don’t reply, “Yes, it is merely an artifact of your imagination. And penises are a collective hallucination.”
We say, “Of course it exists. It’s just that someone having a vulva, or someone having a penis, or a uterus or testes or a deep voice or facial hair or wide hips or any of these very real biological characteristics doesn’t mean what you think it means. And the ways we make sense of those biological traits is shaped by our society.”
Or we could say that, but for a lot of reasons we don’t.
We all know this, right?
Writing this article is a bit deranging, if I’m going to be honest. None of the above feels like it is – or at least should be – controversial amongst my people, colleagues, and comrades. The people arguing for social justice, for equity, against injustice, against erasure.
But it is? It’s got to be, or why else does it feel so risky to write this? And why am I sure opening my inbox is require climbing a mountain of pain after publishing this?
I suspect three things.
1. We know the world is unjust. And we want to correct that.
We’re not okay with the status quo. We want things to be better, for everyone, especially those who are currently pushed to the margins, ignored, victimized, oppressed.
We don’t know exactly what it’ll take to get there, what will work, or what won’t. We just know that we can’t keep doing things how we’re doing them now.
So when we’re told, “If we change this, it’ll make things better”, we jump on it.
At least it’s change. At least it’s not what we’re currently doing, even if we don’t know for sure it’ll help.
2. We are all correctly recognizing how little we really, truly, absolutely “know” – about this, and everything.
A big learning outcome in any social justice workshop is being confronted with an uppercase “t” Truth, something you’ve taken for granted your entire life, and recognizing it might not be so simple.
This is unequivocally a good thing. It’s growth. It’s necessary to orient our compass toward equity, when we’d otherwise drift toward injustice.
We need to be careful, however, that we’re not “unlearning” something that is true. Or a matter of fact. Especially if that’s because…
3. We’re terrified to do or say or think or believe the wrong thing.
We care about other people. Don’t need to be convinced of that. And we don’t want to hurt them. Indeed, we are terrified of doing so, especially publicly.
This is where a lot of social justice dogma gains footing. We’re looking for the “correct” belief, action, stance, perspective, position. We are doing everything we can to root out the “bad” ones.
Instead of being encouraged to look at outcomes – Or for evidence that something does what we say or hope or believe it will. That it effects the change we want, doesn’t hurt, leads to healing – we look for the encouraged path. We tread lightly. We stay in our lane. We follow the signs.
When someone we trust, or view as an authority within the social justice movement, says, “You’re bad if you…” you don’t.
When they say, “You’re good if you…", we do.
4. It’s become clear that we’re bad if we say biological sex exists.
“Even if we understand all the nuance, other people won’t. They’ll interpret any wiggle room as permission for transphobia. For erasure. We need to make this clear and simple. For them.”
This might not be verbatim what’s going through your mind, but it’s a version of the above heading. Of why it feels like crossing a picket line to say something that would otherwise feel so obvious.
Or, more severely, “Any support of the reality of biological sex is a dog whistle declaring my own personal rejection of trans people, invalidation of non-binary gender identities, or hatred and wish for violence against anyone who isn’t cisgender.”
Why else would we need to say the obvious? If not to signal something less obvious, something between the lines?
The Truth is On Our Side
We don’t need to distort anything to make the case for social justice. The arc of the moral universe doesn’t bend toward justice because we trick people, or make them afraid to speak the truth – it’s because truth and justice are inexorably linked.
I suspect that a lot of us are suffering from a crisis of faith – we’re not sure that we’re arguing the right things, or that the facts are on our side, or we’ll accomplish the goals of social justice. And from a place of bad faith, we lash out recklessly, argue unfairly, ignore obvious truths when they feel inconvenient, punish anyone who doesn’t toe the line.
But none of that is necessary. Or helpful. And it’s got us arguing for things, and against things, that are creating as much work for us to repair as the injustices we’re uniting against.
To use a term that I fear has been diluted to the point of irrelevance, but I can’t think of a better one to use: we don’t need to gaslight people to believe things, or reject things they know to be true, for the sake of social justice.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t (we shouldn’t). Or that we can’t do that because we’d be justifying something unjustifiable on the path to social justice (we are).
But because it won’t work. It can’t work. Not in the long run.
How am I so sure? That’s been the playbook of every anti-justice movement that we’ve dismantled in the name of social progress. Check the scoreboard. History sides with justice.
There’s this Bayard Rustin quote I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’ll leave you with it now:
“If a bigot says to me, ‘The sun is shining.’ If the sun is shining, I say, ‘Yes the sun is shining,’ because I want to tell the truth.”