The transgender moment

I’m not an expert, just a journalist. There are many kinds of journalists, from do-anything-to-make-a-headline investigative journalists to sub-editors who turn run-on sentences dripping with adjectives into readable prose.

Part of the job description is not to be an expert. As a famous British journo of the 70s noted, a good journalist should have “a reluctance to understand too much too well because ‘Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner and tout pardoner makes dull copy”. Our job is to ask dumb questions that readers are too afraid or too busy to ask for themselves.

That’s why I’m up here at the rostrum. I’m not an expert. I just want to ask a dumb question about transgender issues.


There are lots of them, but the most obvious is this: why does it seem so plausible?

In 2015 The Danish Girl won two Oscars. it was a fictionalised account of about Lili Elbe (born as Einar Wegener), one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery. That was in 1930. Her story was a sensation in Weimar Germany, but she was regarded as a freak. Fast forward to 2019. I Am Jazz, an American reality television series about a transgender girl named Jazz Jennings, is already in its fifth season.

That’s called normalisation.

The last piece I wrote in MercatorNet on this topic was “Victoria’s politicians playing a transparent game of transphobic heteronormative virtue-signalling”. It involved a minor point, nit-picking really, in the grand scheme of things, but isn’t much of what we read in newspapers just nit-picking under a microscope?

Here’s how The Age (Melbourne) dealt with the news:

Scrapping a "cruel and unfair" law will mean trans and intersex people in Victoria will no longer need gender reassignment surgery before they can change the sex recorded on their birth certificate.

Gender diverse people, including children in some circumstances, will be free to self-nominate their sex as male, female or many other non-binary descriptors of their choice, under a bill the Andrews government will introduce to parliament on Tuesday.

Admittedly the words “cruel and unfair” were between inverted commas, as they were attributed to Attorney-General Jill Hennessy in a government media release, but there can be little doubt that The Age endorsed this framing of the current legislation.

When I actually dug up the bill, I found something odd. Or something that the 99.9 percent of the population that does not work for The Age or the ABC would find odd. It is that Section 30A (1) of the bill allows you to change your gender once every 12 months. This is a bit unfair, really. Why not every week? That’s what the internet is all about, isn’t it? Instant customer support? I would have written the following: “Victoria on a path to weekly regendering, critics say”.

Asking Big Dumb Questions

This illustrates the puzzling failure of journalists to accept the normalisation of the transgender experience. There are so many other stories in the news like this – I’m sure that each of you has a favourite. The media is giving everything with a “trans” prefix the softest of soft rides. Except public transport, which tends to get a hammering. There’s altogether too much “tout pardonner” going on.

Who, what, why, when, where and how – those are the questions that every cadet journalist is taught to ask. The Age didn’t ask them.

So, it seems to me, the first Big Dumb Question is “why aren’t journalists asking big dumb questions about transgender issues?” here are many of them:

  • Why are there so many transgender kids?
  • What sort of background do they come from?
  • Do they have other mental health issues?
  • How can minors – below 16 or even 18 – give informed consent to changing gender?
  • What is the desistance rate?
  • Is the poor health of transgenders due solely to stigma and minority bias?
  • Are young transgenders (and gays) really committing suicide at a higher rate than other kids?
  • Is a lifetime of hormone injections really what is best for our kids?

And so on.

But we won’t get answers from journalists whose curiosity has been anaesthetised in a post-modernist culture.

Here’s my attempt to explain why.

The short answer in 25 words or less is this: the Transgender Moment is the shattered landscape after a perfect storm of new philosophies and technology: Christianity’s decline, philosophical dualism, post-modernism and the Pill.

We have some unpacking to do.

The decline of Christianity

By this I don’t mean: Cardinal Pell is in jail and Christianity is on the nose and nobody’s listening any more to its corrupt, hypocritical, antediluvian moral codes. The link is subtler than that.

What Christianity shares with Judaism and Islam is a belief that God created all things. We are creatures. We owe our being, our existence, to Him. We are stewards of His creation, stewards, even, of our own bodies. Acknowledgement of God’s creative power leads to religious awe, a sense of the sacred, of course.

But in the context of this discussion, it means that each thing has a nature, a manufacturer’s instruction manual. Masculinity and femininity are aspects of that for human beings. When belief in God becomes irrelevant, our bodies become the unformed marble out of which self-identified Michelangelos can sculpt their dreams. We can throw away the instruction manual.

But with fewer people living within a Christian framework, it is to be expected that fewer of them also self-identify as a creature who has responsibilities to God and to society.

Philosophical dualism  

Human beings are complicated, a tangled skein of loose ends, twisted threads, and unpickable knots. To understand ourselves, we need to start at the beginning. What kind of being are we? The traditional answer–originating with the Greeks, continuing in the Middle Ages, and persisting into our own time – and the answer given by common sense intuition -- is this. We are a union of both material and immaterial, both body and soul, two realities inseparably united and mysteriously intertwined, interconnected, and interrelated.

This may have a religious ring in some ears because I’ve mentioned “immaterial being”, but it’s not. It’s philosophical. I won’t stop to defend it, except to say that philosophers have to account for what we all observe: that we have memories and they are not material, that we have consciousness and that is not material.

Anyhow, the link between material and immaterial came unstuck in the 17th Century with the work of the French philosopher René Descartes, the guy who famously wrote, “Cogito, ergo sum, I drink therefore I am.” Sorry, that was Monty Python’s translation; it should have been “I think therefore I am”.

Descartes problematized this mysterious but evident union. His successors found more and more problems and by the 19th Century, man had shrivelled away to a “ghost in a machine”. The real person is the ghost, that is, our will or our consciousness. Our bodies are just machines, clunky instruments to be used and modified at the owner’s discretion.

One exotic flowering of dualism is transhumanism, which, not surprisingly, is closely related to transgender thinking. One of the transhumanist dreams is to upload consciousness to the internet, thereby achieving immortality. There it could be copied, edited, improved. Eventually we could download it into new bodies. Do you see the link with philosophical dualism? Only the mind matters; the body is just a husk, like a butterfly’s chrysalis, to be discarded.

As a footnote, I’ll mention Martine Rothblatt, who was the highest paid female CEO in the United States in 2013. She is a male-to-female transgender and a fervent transhumanist. “Transhumanism builds on transgenderism, broadening the driving mindset from a gender ideal to a human development ideal,” she said in one interview. She has even written a book on the topic: From Transgender to Transhuman: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Form.

Dualism is the default position for undergraduate philosophy students at the moment. Most journalists – and politicians – think that there is no other rational way of thinking about the universe. It’s no wonder that transgender thinking seems natural, completely normal, to them.


Modernism was born with René Descartes. Travelling along various byways and highways, it reached Friedrich Nietzsche and burned down the highway of history as “post-modernism”. Modernism (which accompanied the birth of science) tried to account for realities we experience – what we can see, touch, think and feel. But modernist philosophy, Nietzsche perceived, was unable to account for itself. What actually justified the Enlightenment’s exaltation of reason and its categorical statements of what was right and wrong, true and false, real and unreal?

Nietzsche claimed that reason was just a cloak for a “will to power”. In other words, there is no such thing as truth, just politically enforced versions of the truth – my truth, your truth, his truth, her truth ... To assert that my words are true and yours are false is not merely arrogant; it is an act of aggression. Or micro-aggression, if you’re lucky.

Name-dropping again, we come to Michel Foucault. He was a French philosopher, a homosexual who died of AIDS in 1984. His writing, like most post-modernist texts, is the inscrutable in hot pursuit of the incomprehensible. But he (and others) made an influential contribution to the philosophy of medicine. He questioned the distinction between health and disease, rationality and madness. We are unaware of to what extent our values define what is regarded as a disease. There is no such thing as “normal”, especially in sexuality. Normality is defined and imposed by a hegemony – or redefined. Homosexuality used to be listed in the psychiatrists’ Bible, the DSM Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as a paraphilia, then as a sexual orientation disturbance, then as ego-dystonic homosexuality, and in 1987 it was dropped completely.

The post-modernist rejection of truth is the philosophy of the age – and therefore of most journalists. And not just morality is relative, but reality. The typical post-modernist project is not to learn from reality, but to create a new reality, a new vision of things. This accounts, I think, for the dizzying subtlety of transgender philosophy and science. The more detached from reality it is, the more complex it becomes. Reading the Transgender Studies Quarterly is a bit like Gulliver’s visit to the island of Laputa where scholars toil away at fantastic schemes like extracting sunbeams from cucumbers. Transgender discourse isn’t so different.

Here’s Leah Juliett, an American non-binary, queer, anti-revenge-porn activist, on the lived experience of her gender fluidity: “I see gender as a solar system; it’s so vast and wide with so many options that you can’t really contain it to a small binary scale. Some days, I may feel more male; some days, more female; and some days, I may feel completely neutral and existing in that grey area."

Post-modernism at work!

The Pill

That the Pill enabled the separation of sex from reproduction used to be a weekly storm alert only in weather reports issued by the Vatican. But nowadays it is a commonplace. Here’s a few lines from Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine:

The impact of The Pill was even more radical. It meant sex need not lead to pregnancy. But it wasn't just another form of contraception, it was an equalizer, a liberator, and easy to take. For the first time in human history, a woman could control her sexuality and determine her readiness for reproduction by swallowing a pill smaller than an aspirin. ...  The Pill bore revolutionary results. It allowed women to become autonomous decision-makers rather than captives of our biology...

“Captives of our biology”. I am sure that Ms Pogrebin wasn’t thinking of the link to transgender issues. But that certainly is the message conveyed by The Pill. If sex is not centrally about reproduction, what is it about? Pleasure, perhaps. As an American bumper sticker says, “Your body may be a temple, mine is an amusement park.” Is it about self-definition? Who knows?

Along with mobile phones and ATMs, The Pill is a quintessentially post-modern technology. It’s useful, but using it confirms people in the belief that sex has no essential purpose, no nature. Not just a few people, but the last three generations of them.

This is a hard thing to live with: not knowing what the most passionate impulse of our being is for. Imagine waking up one morning and not knowing what hunger is all about. Do those cravings mean that I’m sick? That I’m tired? That I need to read a book? That I haven’t spent enough time on Facebook? Or that should I go to the fridge? Ignorance of the purpose of one’s sexuality must be a terrible burden, especially for an adolescent.

But, let’s return to our journalist. Scepticism of the benefits of the Pill is just weird. He or she cannot conceive of a world which does not include The Pill, a world in which sex has a clear purpose. From his (or her) point of view, feeling transgender is one point on the spectrum of post-modern human sexuality; it’s not an outlier. In fact, traditional marriage, with its life-long commitment and a definitive role for sex, the antithesis of post-modernity, might seem more difficult to justify intellectually.

The new landscape

Back to my 25-words-or-less precis: the Transgender Moment is the shattered landscape after a perfect storm of new philosophies and technology: Christianity’s decline, philosophical dualism, post-modernism and the Pill.

In this landscape, transgenderism may be exceptional, but it’s normal and natural. Why shouldn’t people – of any age – solve their psychological problems with mastectomies and castration? Or use their bodies as playgrounds or art works? I can think of a few reasons. But the burden of proof nowadays lies with opponents of the transgender agenda. 

There are lots of other reasons why transgenderism is being normalised, of course. Each of them deserves an article of its own. The rise of identity politics. The impact of social media like YouTube and Facebook. Radical feminism. Infiltration of the education bureaucracy. Experience gained from gay activism. Changing family structures. Reproductive rights. Corporate bullying.

But even more fundamental are a handful of ideas which have become deeply embedded in our culture. These help to explain why transgenderism is both plausible and righteous in today’s world.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. This article was originally given at a forum on transgender issues at New South Wales Parliament House earlier this month.


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