Saturday, May 31, 2014

Laverne Cox Is Too A Woman

Charles Cooke wants to know if someone can disagree with Kevin Williamson's article at the National Review Online:  Laverne Cox Is Not A Woman without using the words "hate" or "phobe."

Charles, The Omnivore has got you covered.

Wait, What!?

You can click over and read the NRO article for the argument but here are the salient points about Cox herself.
  • Laverne Cox is an actress (who is transgender) who is one of the ensemble cast in Netflix's Orange Is The New Black.
  • She was recently featured on Time Magazine's cover (the 'first' transgender woman--although Williamson snarkliy notes that Chesla Manning beat her by some time).
  • Cox has been doing a lot of pretty savvy transgender outreach and has made inroads into popular culture and the mainstream media that are objectively groundbreaking.

So What Did Williamson Say That The Omnivore Disagrees With?

Well, this: His entire thesis. That's right, Williamson writes 967 words to make a specific point and it's this:
As a matter of government, I have little or no desire to police how Cox or any other man or woman conducts his or her personal life. But having a culture organized around the elevation of unreality over reality in the service of Eros, who is a sometimes savage god, is not only irrational but antirational. Cox’s situation gave him an intensely unhappy childhood and led to an eventual suicide attempt, and his story demands our sympathy; times being what they are, we might even offer our indulgence. But neither of those should be allowed to overwhelm the facts, which are not subject to our feelings, however sincere or well intended.
His Point: Cultural acceptance of transgender people as being the gender they present as is 'antirational' which, although kind of a made-up word, will presumably (and without any clear argument to this effect) lead to bad things.

One would guess that Williamson would agree that this leads to bad things the same way that religious dogma, felt internally to be true--and believed on faith alone--also inevitably lead to societal decay and bad things.

Oh wait? He doesn't ... uh ... okay, then. This is a different kind of 'delusion'--specifically one that adheres to a different god than [ most conservatives ]--the god Eros (no idea what Williamson believes--but if he isn't an atheist he ought to be in order to advance that argument).

Is there proof that letting Laverne Cox be accepted as a woman--treated as a woman, referred to by female-gender pronouns, and so on will serve the Savage God Eros and aid in the degradation of society? He doesn't say: that's the end of his essay.

This is what is known in logic as "The Slippery Fallacy"--it is the Slippery Slope Fallacy wherein the speaker does not even bother to provide 'the slope.'

What? Oh--The Omnivore gets it: He was only supposed to disagree with the headline.

Let's start there: Williamson employs a kind of sleight of hand set up a straw-man that holds that Cox is literally delusionally believing herself to be a physical biological female. That's his unstated strawman He notes that she has 'chosen to live her life as a woman' and finds no issue with that--no, it's the question as to whether she is entitled to the female pronoun.

The Omnivore will bet you: No one involved--not the editors at Time nor Laverne Cox herself, is under the delusion that she was born, in gross, macroscopic biological terms a female (which is how Williamson means it--he is avoiding the biological issues of brain chemistry, which could be disputed but are still biology). Williamson is going straight to the vagina.

So okay, if no one thinks Laverne Cox was born with a vagina, then what  is his argument?
Genital amputation and mutilation is the extreme expression of the phenomenon, but it is hardly outside the mainstream of contemporary medical practice. The trans self-conception, if the autobiographical literature is any guide, is partly a feeling that one should be living one’s life as a member of the opposite sex and partly a delusion that one is in fact a member of the opposite sex at some level of reality that transcends the biological facts in question. There are many possible therapeutic responses to that condition, but the offer to amputate healthy organs in the service of a delusional tendency is the moral equivalent of meeting a man who believes he is Jesus and inquiring as to whether his insurance plan covers crucifixion.
The underlined section is where Williamson builds his case that Laverne (and other transgender people) are suffering from a delusion.

The Omnivore isn't a psychiatrist any more than he can thread the needle on figuring out the brain-scan stuff--so let's ask people who are: The American Psychological Association.
In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association added gender identity disorder to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). While controversial, this was seen as a way to ensure that transgender people had access to care. In a nod to progress, the next DSM will replace "gender identity disorder" with "gender dysphoria" as a diagnosis.

The shift underscores that being transgender is not a disorder in itself: Treatment only is considered for transgender people who experience gender dysphoria — a feeling of intense distress that one's body is not consistent with the gender he or she feels they are, explains Walter Bockting, PhD, a clinical psychologist and co-director of the LGBT Health Initiative at Columbia University Medical Center.
So maybe Williamson with his Ph.D. in psychiatry or psychology can explain the fine points here but--what's that? He's not? Uh ... so probably Williamson with his degree in journalism (?) will give us his opinion about the delusional state of transgender people and we're all gonna agree.

Unless we don't. Because it sure looks to The Omnivore like the people who actually study this stuff think transgender isn't a delusion.

So What IS Going On?

Okay--so: Kevin Williamson writes an article telling us Laverne Cox is not (from birth) in gross, macroscopic biological terms (i.e. the vagina), not a woman. He presents this as though (a) it is news and (b) with a good deal of emotional heft. He discusses transgender surgery as 'mutilation' and 'amputation'--emotionally loaded words that neither the physicians involved nor the persons who seek it would ever use. He refuses to call Cox by her preferred pronoun because he's that kind of hard-core Speak-Truth-To-Power grammarian--he'd never make up a word like antirational when a perfectly good construct like "antithetical to rationality" would suffice.

He expects you to swallow it because you read his article and you go: "Right Arm, mang! Cox wasn't born with a vagina! My EYES ARE OPENED."

And you did.

If you were Charlie Cooke.

But what if you weren't? Why did Williamson write this in the first place? Why now? Orange Is The New Black is a year old. Here's why:

Time Magazine, whatever decline it's in, is still representative of the Overton Window of mainstream culture. For Cox to appear on the cover is a major step in the culture wars that (conservatively) see transsexualism as a kind of sexual deviancy. It's also a particularly touchy time for conservatives who are setting out to do battle in the mainstream marketplace of ideas: there are a number of new 3rd rails around social changes that people like Rick Santorum keep frustratingly running into. Medicare will now support transgender surgery. The Red Team is losing.

Things that were relatively uncontroversial a decade ago (bans on gay marriage, gay service in the military) are shifting suddenly to become deadly points of contention. When transgender-ism shows up on the cover of Time with the face of Laverne Cox it is a major salvo in the wars of words. That's the real battle-space here: Williamson wants you to believe it's about the original biological (leaving out brain-chemistry) facts of Cox's birth. It isn't. It's about her entitlement to the female gendered pronoun.

You can see it relentlessly in his writing: he refuses to use her preferred pronoun. He claims it's because of Truth(TM). It isn't: it's because of power. If she is entitled to the feminine article it's another loss in the cultural battle that isn't going in the conservative direction in most cases right now . Those battles are a war of words--and those words--what 'woman' can mean ... what 'soldier' or (five decades ago) 'surgeon' ... or (even earlier) 'voter' can refer to--those words are important.

Kevin argues that proponents of the use of female gender-words for Cox see them as sympathetic magic that will somehow 'change reality.' But he knows better. He can ask ... oh, Frank Luntz (the word-master wizard behind a lot of conservative talking points) whether words matter. Williamson knows the answer and he understands it: he's just hoping you don't.

If Laverne Cox has decided to live her life as a woman? If she fits the idea-space that 'woman' occupies? Polite society has no reason not to use the pronouns applicable to her (look at the Time Magazine cover). Laverne Cox is too a woman.

Edited to add clarity that the issue is about the use of pronouns. Also modified use of 'transgender' in describing Laverne Cox as per comment.


  1. (Veronica here.)

    Thanks for writing this. First, the “delusion” argument is not new, and your response to it is exactly correct. Which makes a point: the Omnivore, a person with no specific reason to be super familiar with trans stuff, nevertheless immediately sees how that argument is broken.

    It is a *bad faith* argument, and obviously so.

    So, yes, the trans political position is pushing at the boundaries of “woman” and “man” (and indeed “female” and “male”), but we trans folks *well know* what we are and how we fit in. There is no delusion here. Never was.

    (Minor nitpic: “transgender” is properly an adjective, not a noun, so it seems wrong to say “a transgender.” It’s a minor point, but for some reason it makes a difference.)

    1. The Omnivore has modified the language use.

  2. Yeah, "transgenders" is a super annoying non-word I see get thrown around. One blemish in a pretty gosh darn good article.

    1. The Omnivore has changed the term to "transgender people" as per:

      --The Omnivore

    2. Given the major direction of the article and the overall support it gives to transgender people, I think we ought to give the Omnivore (and other supporters) a break when it comes to an occassional misuse of verbs, nouns, etc. It is stressful enough to ensure correct pronouns are used and the fact that there can be a plethora of categories when most people grow up with just two. I think it would be alot easier to get support if we ease up just a bit here so long as we're consistently referred to how we identify.

      That said, I appreciate the Omnivore's attention to detail!

      Peace and Love,

  3. Excellent, excellent! Thank you, Omnivore.