In defense of secular standards
Believe in gender identity and you will make it add up.
So many questions and concerns gender-critical feminists raise with trans activists fail to get any kind of answer, whether it's "What's transphobic about safeguarding?" or "How does trying to understand what's going on in a kid's life before taking irreversible actions amount to conversion therapy?" Or even "What kind of future do you have in mind? One where every kid uncomfortable with sexist gender roles transitions and becomes a lifelong medical patient? Is the answer to the problem of gender really 'more gender'?"
It often appears the only possible answer to questions like these is faithful submission to doctrine (“transwomen are women,” gender identity—not sex—is what makes someone who they really are) and the suspension of doubt.
In other words: Maybe I'm not supposed to understand. Maybe I'm not capable of understanding. Maybe I just need to believe and trust that those who know better are doing the right thing.
But I think these problems go on existing no matter what we believe about them.
Fundamentally, this is a question of what standard we use to judge what we’re doing, a religious standard or a secular one.
If I believe in life after death—an eternity spent either in heaven or hell—I will look at a range of religious practices that make promises about salvation in a very different way than someone who does not believe. I will see hairshirts not as an old-school form of self-harm or an infection risk but as a form of penance that moves the wearer closer to God. Martyrdom will undergo a transformation in my eyes. What is my suffering in this life—even to the point of death—compared to a promise of an eternity in heaven? It’s a blink of an eye against infinity. But if I don’t believe, these practices may seem futile, harmful, or even barbaric to me. Why mortify the flesh?
With gender “medicine,” too, a believer and non-believer will look at the same risks and potential rewards and weigh them very differently. If I believe in gender ideology, I will say: whatever gender identity someone expresses right now is who they really are. If we don’t affirm that identity through medical and social practices, we deny that person’s true self. Even basic safeguarding slows down a person’s progress to self-realization, exploratory therapy looks like conversion therapy—within that framework, denying or delaying affirmation represent clear moral wrongs.
But if I don’t believe in gender ideology, I will look at the same patient and same slate of medical interventions and see a very different picture. I will see claims about gender identity not as unmediated testimony of someone’s “true self” (whatever that means, I’d probably add, unable to help myself) but as the product of social, psychological, and biographical factors, a self-understanding that may or may not be permanent, that may or may not be healthy to reinforce through affirmative medical practices. I will use secular frameworks to understand what’s going on. I’ll look at the evidence for affirmative approaches and find it lacking. It's a theme in gender dysphoria research—the higher quality and longer term the study, the worse transition outcomes appear. I'll see so-called “affirmative” approaches as one of many approaches to address a person’s distress—perhaps the right option for some but not the right option for everybody. And I'll ask myself questions like: why do some studies show suicide risk goes up after transition? Why are we giving drugs that we use to chemically castrate sex offenders to children? Why are we pretending puberty is a disease to be prevented, rather than a complex process of cognitive, physical, and social development and that we don’t know what happens when we tamper with it? Why would we push a single treatment model when there are clearly patients—many of them children—being harmed by affirmation? (Just listen to detransitioners!)
Within a religious framework, seen through a believer’s eyes, the affirmative approach is the just and compassionate one, no question. If you believe in gender identity, it adds up. Rather, if you believe in gender identity, you will make it add up. But if you look at what we’re doing through a secular lens and you’ll feel horror at the gap between doctrine and practice: a morass of good intentions, sincerely held beliefs, careerism, social pressure from activists inside and outside the medical field, unchecked conflicts of interest, and a contempt for safeguarding and gatekeeping as delaying and denying ‘life-saving’ interventions. What happens when you plug a religious framework into the tools of modern medicine and the language and authority—though not the practice—of science? What happens when a religious framework for understanding identity and silencing dissent becomes the way once-liberal societies manage conflict and set policy?
I reject—totally—the demand that you must subscribe to someone else's belief system in order to care about them or that you must profess religious dogmas to have a voice in this debate. That if you disbelieve you do not care and your motivations are suspect. This is smuggling religious thinking where it does not belong: into liberal institutions charged with seeking the truth, not professing creeds, into modern medicine and the spaces where we deliberate our shared future.