Halifax
8 min

Laverne Cox is a woman, and Kevin D Williamson is in error

First, there was Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine, as well as a feature entitled “The Transgender Tipping Point.”  Then Maclean’s did its own feature story about trans lives. 

And now comes the (unfortunately) inevitable backlash in the form of op-eds in national and international news media.

Case in point: Kevin D Williamson’s opinion piece published in the National Review, a conservative news outlet. “Laverne Cox Is Not a Woman,” published on May 30, has brought a lot of attention to its author and the publication that published and syndicated it. It was subsequently picked up by various news outlets, including the Chicago Sun-Times.

I have to admit, just the very title of this story raised my hackles, as I’m sure it was intended to do. And as I read it, I found myself saying things out loud, such as “nope,” “you’re an idiot” and a few expletives. Typical responses for someone like me, who feels that they are an ally for the trans community as much as they can be, while not identifying as being trans.

But I stopped for a moment and realized that I was more incensed by the author’s poor journalistic skills than any personal feelings I had about the op-ed in question. Although I may personally disagree with the article, I do believe that its being published is a good thing insofar as its content may be discussed (emphasis mine) as a poor example of editorial journalism.

And so I invite you to read the editorial, because one should know what one is replying to before we go out and put our own words out there. But let’s take it paragraph by paragraph, detailing the errors in Williamson’s logic. To facilitate the reading, I have italicized portions of Williamson’s editorial.

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The world is abuzz with news that actor Laverne Cox has become the first transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine. If I understand the current state of the ever-shifting ethic and rhetoric of transgenderism, that is not quite true: Bradley Manning, whom we are expected now to call Chelsea, beat Cox to the punch by some time. Manning’s announcement of his intention to begin living his life as a woman and to undergo so-called sex-reassignment surgery came after Time’s story, but, given that we are expected to defer to all subjective experience in the matter of gender identity, it could not possibly be the case that Manning is a transgendered person today but was not at the time of the Time cover simply because Time was unaware of the fact, unless the issuance of a press release is now a critical step in the evolutionary process.

First of all, if you truly understood what you have dubbed the “current state of the ever-shifting ethic and rhetoric of transgenderism,” you wouldn’t be writing this op-ed. But we can leave that aside, because it is important to allow discussion in a free and democratic society, whether that society be located in geographic or intellectual places. 

Also, the word “transgenderism” is, at best, a poor excuse for a word, one that borders on syntactic and grammatical laziness. Ditch it from your lexicon, or check out GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide — Transgender Glossary of Terms. It will save you a lot of time, and your readership will grow, because it will make you appear that you have a modicum of respect for those that you wish to write about.

Second, from a legal and factual standpoint, once Chelsea Manning changed her name (we’ll get to pronouns in a moment), it becomes her name. Do you ever refer to Cher as Cherilyn Sarkisian? It would be factually incorrect, or at the very least, misleading and confusing to refer to Manning as Bradley. Yes, I understand the argument for giving her previous name — that it gives greater understanding to the reader about said individual’s past. No one cares that Bono was named Paul David Hewson at his birth if we’re doing a news story about him. If Chelsea’s previous name is already known — and it is — and lends nothing to the story, why include it? It’s uninteresting, unnecessary and unimportant. Stick to the facts as they are.

Now let’s talk about pronouns. If someone has asked to be referred to by a specific pronoun, once again, is it not disrespectful to the subject of your story, let alone dishonest and incorrect, to misrepresent/misgender them?

As I wrote at the time of the Manning announcement, Bradley Manning is not a woman. Neither is Laverne Cox.

Cox, a fine actor, has become a spokesman — no doubt he would object to the term — for trans people, whose characteristics may include a wide variety of self-conceptions and physical traits. Katie Couric famously asked him about whether he had undergone surgical alteration, and he rejected the question as invasive, though what counts as invasive when you are being interviewed by Katie Couric about features of your sexual identity is open to interpretation. Couric was roundly denounced for the question and for using “transgenders” as a noun, and God help her if she had misdeployed a pronoun, which is now considered practically a hate crime.

If your argument hinges on the concept of what you like to call “self-conceptions,” then your self-conception is one based in that very same thought process steeped in Judeo-Christian Western ideologies. Outside of Western thought, there have been countless societies in which individuals live outside of what Western society deems to be a binary system of gender. There are more ideologies than that out there, and many people live within them. That does not make them any less valid, or yours any more valid. 

Okay, on to the Katie Couric thing. It is an invasive question to ask someone about their genitalia. I understand, and have discussed this at length with friends and journalism colleagues, that the argument is “we want people to understand, and they probably will have questions since for some people sex and gender are synonymous.” But we’ve already established that they aren’t.  

And besides, it isn’t polite to ask about one’s medical history, let alone necessary. If a woman were to have a hysterectomy or a man have a vasectomy, they are no longer able to procreate. Does this make them less of a man or a woman? No. And besides, medical history is private. Unless you are invited into that private sphere, it is none of your business. 

Oh, and yes, the use of “transgenders” and misgendering people? See above. 

[edit] The infinite malleability of the postmodern idea of “gender,” as opposed to the stubborn concreteness of sex, is precisely the reason the concept was invented. For all of the high-academic theory attached to the question, it is simply a mystical exercise in rearranging words to rearrange reality. Facebook now has a few score options for describing one’s gender or sex, and no doubt they will soon match the number of names for the Almighty in one of the old mystery cults.

First of all, there are many names for the Almighty, depending on your faith. The Torah has many names for their deity, as do many Christian sects. Are any of those any more or less valid, when we all know to what or whom they refer? Is Jehovah different from G-d or Elohim? The reality is that they all refer to a central figure in a monotheistic faith, with slight variances, and sources (eg, the Elohistic source and traditions versus the Yahwistic ones). They all speak to a divine idea, with variances. In the same manner, gender exists in many variations. 

Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman. Sex is a biological reality, and it is not subordinate to subjective impressions, no matter how intense those impressions are, how sincerely they are held, or how painful they make facing the biological facts of life. No hormone injection or surgical mutilation is sufficient to change that.

You may need a better copy editor to tell you the difference between sex and gender. Sex may be a biological reality, but gender is subordinate to physiological, social, cultural, familial and psychological constructs. Here, you are once again equating gender and sex in an erroneous manner. 

Also, the use of the terms “mutilation” and “amputation” are harsh at its mildest and offensive at its strongest, in this case. I understand that this is an editorial that you’ve written, and you’re trying to prove a point. But you’re insulting and misleading your audience by using mutilation as an adjective to describe the costly and painful surgeries that some trans people undergo. Penises aren’t amputated. Once again, factually incorrect.

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.

Trans people are people who live individual lives, just like any other person within any other socio-cultural group. The life of one trans person is as individual as the life of any other person, no matter how they identify their gender, religion, cultural background, et cetera. Are their “realities” delusional if they do not fit within the prescribed norm? Is a non-practising Jew no longer a Jew if they do not keep kosher, but pray and eat with their families’ seder? Is a straight man no longer straight if he has sex with a man, while professing to love women?  

Does it matter? No.

This seems to me a very different sort of phenomenon from simple homosexuality (though, for the record, I believe that our neat little categories of sexual orientation are yet another substitution of the conceptual for the actual, human sexual behavior being more complex and varied than the rhetoric of sexual orientation can accommodate).

I would like to note that within that parenthetical is the first thing you’ve written that I agree with. Human sexual behaviour is indeed complex. Hence why straight men have been blown by gay men for a very long time.

The question of the status of gay people interacts with politics to the extent that it in some cases challenges existing family law, but homosexual acts as such seem to me a matter that is obviously, and almost by definition, private. The mass delusion that we are inculcating on the question of transgendered people is a different sort of matter, to the extent that it would impose on society at large an obligation — possibly a legal obligation under civil-rights law, one that already is emerging — to treat delusion as fact, or at the very least to agree to make subjective impressions superordinate to biological fact in matters both public and private.

Once again, biological fact (having a penis or vagina or intersex) and one’s gender are two different beasts. We’ve already defeated this argument. Move on if you’re trying to get anyone to listen or agree with you; otherwise, no one will take you seriously if you keep stating factual inaccuracies.

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. 

Well, that’s good to hear.

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. 

Eros was a god of love, not gender or sexuality. Gender and sexuality are two completely different things. People of all sorts of genders (and sexes) have all sorts of sexualities. And express love in a multitude of ways. You’re misappropriating your Greek gods here. 

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.

Sympathy is an indulgence? Well, I suppose I have been sympathetic and indulging your op-ed since the facts you speak of in your editorial — although relatively articulate — were inaccurate, your opinion misinformed, and worst of all, journalistically irresponsible. 

Leaving all personal feelings aside, of course.

Edit: This piece was originally mistitled “Laverne Cox is a person…” rather than “Laverne Cox is a woman".