Against Transphobes: In Response to Roger Erdvig

Recently, I was searching the “trans*” tag on WordPress.  Most of the posts there were positive.  One in particular (read it here), by Roger Erdvig, was not.  Entitled “Boys will be boys…or will they?”, this post was blatantly transphobic, ageist, and paranoid.  A lengthy exchange in the comments with an admin ended with him telling me to “explain substantively why [I] disagree with the article, [and] show that [I] am able to critically reflect on the ideas it contains.”  All debate aside over whether the assertions it contained were actually ideas, I decided to take him up on his offer, in the assumption that it would be the most unexpected and annoying response I could make.

The trigger for the post, according to its first paragraph, was apparently Massachusetts’ new transgender-inclusive education guidelines.  These were immediately cast in a negative light by the deliberate misgendering of transgender children as a group, using the phrases “boys…who consider themselves to be girls” and “girls who self-identify as boys.”  Use of such phrases is an unnecessary departure from neutrality and respect, and indicates an authorial disqualification of these children’s genders and portrays such children as delusional.  It is soon clear that this is exactly what the author intends.

Erdvig begins the second paragraph with the sentence, “Apparently, the truth about reality is not important anymore.”  This is a highly problematic statement for several reasons.  The most obvious is his definition of reality:  What Richard Erdvig thinks or perceives to be true.  This is a subjective and biased definition.  If this is the accepted definition of reality, then by default Richard Erdvig wins all arguments, since if he believes it, it cannot be wrong.  If he believes the moon shines when it is the sun, as Petruchio claimed to, then we must all play Katherine and agree it is so.  Belief, in Erdvig’s view, is not subject to fact.  Moreover, when talking about gender identity in particular, an etic view of reality is obviously ludicrous.  Gender, by definition, is a psychological concept.  Who is more capable of determining what is going on in a person’s head than the person themself[1]?  Thus, Erdvig’s definition of reality is completely irrelevant to the subject that he is discussing[2].

He then states that “How a child identifies his or her gender has become the only reliable way to actually determine gender.  God’s design for male and female anatomical and physiological distinctives [sic] are beside the point.”  This is actually correct—or would be if Erdvig had not obviously confused the terms “gender” and “sex.”  Gender and sex are entirely separate concepts.  Gender, as mentioned above, is a psychological identification for the purposes of relating to a societal framework: as Stryker[3] interprets Judith Butler’s model, it is “how we dress, move, speak, touch, look.”  It is often, but not always, congruent with sex, or one’s category of physical dimorphism.  One’s gender is not determined by one’s sex; rather, both are thought to be determined by a combination of genetics and by hormone levels in the fetal environment[4].  For example, XY fetuses exposed to estrogen drugs like DES are significantly more likely to be transgender or intersex (have indeterminate genitalia) than their nonexposed peers[5].  A person’s gender is defined by the person themself, because that person is the best authority on their own mind.  One’s sex is defined by medical and/or genetic evaluation.  Gender cannot be changed; sex cannot be chromosomally changed, as yet anyway, but the physical manifestations can be changed by hormones and surgery.

Erdvig fails to make these crucial distinctions, and thus invalidates his argument yet again.  His assertion that children are too young to know their genders is similarly pointless.  If a child is adamantly protesting their assigned gender or exhibiting symptoms of gender dysphoria by first grade, it is actually most probable that the child has a more accurate understanding of their own gender than their peers do.  Indeed, in this case early interventions such as blocking puberty are not only allowable, but practically mandated.  Allowing the child to go through puberty as their birth sex would exacerbate dysphoria to such a degree as to constitute a deliberate act of inhuman cruelty.

And then, Erdvig introduces God as support for his fallacious argument.  This “ipse dixit” gesture is completely meaningless to anyone who does not believe in a single, omnipotent, creationist God—namely, all atheists, agnostics, polytheists, and pretty much anyone who is not Muslim or Christian.  For those who are, this is not a problem, except that Erdvig purports to know more about “God’s design” than God himself does, but using non-universal premises significantly weakens one’s argument.

Secure in his misuse of terminology, Erdvig moves on to full-blown martyr-complex paranoia.  Paragraph 3 is an attack on New York’s guidelines “that protect transgender individuals from harassment.”  He takes issue with the prohibition of “‘repeated, deliberate use of pronouns and names that are inconsistent with…gender identity.’…Harassment—which is punishable by law—includes using pronouns that fit a person’s physical reality.”  By his own quotation, the threat does not hold up.  The law specifies repeated and deliberate misgendering—an isolated, accidental misgendering event would not be cause for a legal complaint, and even if one was filed, it would not hold up in court.  Only recurrent and intentional misgendering, despite correction, would lead to a penalty.  Also, according to the actual guidelines[6] (which Erdvig conspicuously neglected to link to his post), the prohibition would only affect “school faculty, administrators, and staff,” and impliedly other students to a lesser degree (lesser both because of age and lack of authority), and presumably only while on school property or vehicles or at school-sponsored events.  Then, too, Erdvig’s use of the term “physical reality” is problematic.  First, as discussed above, it relies on an Erdvig-determined definition of reality.  If he saw a tall cisgendered woman and thought she was a biological male and repeatedly used male pronouns on her despite correction, he would be just as culpable as he would be if she were a transgendered woman.  Also, if the “physical reality” was that a mispronouned transgender woman had had a legal sex change, then using pronouns in accordance with birth sex, which is the real intent of Erdvig’s statement, would be against that reality.

Moreover, Erdvig is again confusing gender and sex, and also misdefining grammatical gender.  Pronouns, as well as articles, adjectives, and nouns in languages that retain more than vestigial grammatical gender, refer to gender—not sex.  Many non-English languages (Latin, Greek, and Spanish are the ones I am most familiar with, in that order) contain nouns that are irregularly gendered—they could technically be called transgendered.  In these languages, morphological endings usually indicate the gender of a word, like how sex usually corresponds with gender in human beings.  For example, in Greek, the nominative ending “-os” (genitive “-ou”) usually indicates a masculine noun, taking the definite article “ho.”  However, the word “hodos” (2nd declension), meaning “road,” is feminine in spite of that ending, and takes the feminine article “hae.”  We don’t say, “No, you end in ‘-os,’ therefore you’re ‘ho hodos.’”  We respect the noun’s gender above its “sex,” or morphology, and call it “hae hodos” and go on translating, and the world doesn’t explode and our notebooks don’t spontaneously combust.  Here, the “physical reality” is that “hodos” always has been gendered female and always will be, despite its spelling.  This and other[7] irregular genderings have persisted into the Modern Greek still spoken in the Balkans.

Latin has a similar set of irregularities.  Most first declension nouns, which end in –a in the nominative singular (genitive –ae), are feminine.  A special subclass, mostly denoting professions or roles, uses the same endings but is gendered masculine[8].  The third declension, and the fourth and fifth, which are linguistically subsets of it, contains similar exceptions.  Words that end in –s, -o, or –x (commonly remembered as “SOX”) are supposed to be feminine; however, there are numerous exceptions[9].  Words ending in “-er” or “-or” (“ERROR”) are usually masculine, but again there are exceptions, including the words for “woman,” “sister,” “wife,” and “mother”[10]!  Neuter irregulars with these endings also exist: e.g., “cor” (heart), and “iter” (journey, road).  Likewise, the fourth declension, though considered masculine, contains several feminine words, such as “domus” (house) and “manus” (hand), and the neuter word “cornu” (horn). The fifth declension is feminine overall, but one word, “dies” (day) is both masculine and feminine but not neuter[11].

Spanish, a widely spoken modern romance language, contains many irregularly gendered nouns, usually masculine nouns with feminine morphology.  Most are either occupational nouns, cognates with and descendants of Latin’s first declension masculine nouns (el pirata, el papa, el taxista), or Greekà(Englishà)Spanish technological terms (el idioma, el telegrama, el trauma).  The latter are actually originally derived from Greek third declension neuter nouns ending in “-ma”[12].

In short, the gender of pronoun or article or adjective that a word takes is determined not by the “sexed” morphology of the word, but by the gender it identifies as.  Likewise, the “physical reality” of a person’s pronouns is not determined by physical sex.  If millions of speakers of Spanish and Modern Greek can respect the genders of a few air vibrations or dribbles of ink on paper—which is all that words really are—is it that much to expect them, and Erdvig, to give the same respect to a human being?

Not content with the anti-humanist and indeed anti-Christian sentiments of paragraph 3, Erdvig defaults to clichés and empty moralism.  He begins paragraph 4 with the sentence, “What’s happened, and how did we get here so fast?”  The history of transgender activism is too complex a subject to be covered here in this already overlong post.  A good book on the subject is Susan Stryker’s Transgender History, which covers the movement through the mid-2000s.   A short answer is that the seemingly sudden upsurge in trans* accomplishments is largely due to 4 major factors:

1) The accumulation of smaller, more general victories that benefitted other minority groups, such as court decisions and the passage of laws that provided no immediate benefits for trans* individuals but provided a pattern for favorable decisions, and repeals of laws against “sending obscenity through the mails” (obscenity was often very loosely defined) and “dressing as the opposite sex with intent to deceive”;

2)  The emergence of third-wave feminism, prompted by more issues than just the second-wave’s treatment of transgendered individuals, but certainly accepting of them;

3)  Growing acceptance and visibility of L, G, and B individuals (more of them come out, and they have families, who do not want to hurt people they know and love);

and most importantly (according to Stryker[13], and, I believe, rightly so)

4)  The emergence and popular availability of the internet and online social networking, which allowed for the cohesion and cooperation of a widely scattered minority.

“Postmodernism,” contrary to Erdvig’s assertion, has nothing to do with it.  In fact, quite the opposite: the larger societal movement towards transgender and queer acceptance is entirely based on the notion of an absolute truth: that all humans are equally human, and should therefore be treated with as much equality as possible.  To put this philosophy into the Biblical terms that Erdvig and his target audience demand, this is Matthew 7:12: “Do to others as you would have them do, and this sums up the law and the prophets.”  Ideas do indeed have consequences.  This one, demanded by the Jesus whom Erdvig claims to follow, has some pretty far-reaching ones in terms of LGBT equality: an obligation to use the names and pronouns someone requests out of respect both for them and for yourself, and to allow people to marry whatever consenting adult they wish with the same legal benefits no matter what that person’s sex, out of respect both for them and for yourself.  If one of your actions can be used to harm another person, you are saying that you approve for that action to be done to you if someone desires to do so.

This is not choosing one’s own truth, or if it is, it is a choice that any sane individual can decide in only one way.  The path of denying respect is not only an injustice to others, but also a direct invitation of harm upon one’s self.  The path of upholding respect may initially be harder, because it involves respecting individuals’ decisions that one may not agree with, but it ensures that one’s own decisions will be respected.

Why on earth am I writing this post, then?  But I am not forcing Roger Erdvig to change his mind.  I am not getting Anonymous to take down his blog.  He is perfectly allowed to go on living in a “reality” constructed on numerous false premises, devoid of truth—for it is certain that few, if any, of his beliefs, at least on this issue, are at all informed by actual, objective reality—to be the very Postmodernist that he derides, as long as he does not use that false reality to harm others.

And there is the crucial difference between Erdvig and the message he claims to support.  Erdvig’s self-implied view of a proper world is inherently prohibitive: Banning “books like ‘Heather Has Two Mommies,’” banning gay marriage, banning transgender people from having humanity or human rights; banning individual choice in any way, banning the right to have any opinion other than his, even if he himself cannot prove its truth.  It is Erdvig, not transgender activists, who want to “remove the capital ‘T’ from the word Truth,” and, as he says in one of the very few places where I agree with him: once you do that, “nothing makes sense anymore.”

And indeed, after that sentence, there is practically nothing in the rest of Erdvig’s article that makes sense.  Item one: “gender is a choice.”  Gender is not a choice.  It is determined prior to birth, and informed by portrayals of gender thereafter, but a fetus or a young child has no choice in this matter.  Ask any transgender person who has tried to overcome crippling sex-gender incongruence by trying to conform the latter to the former (and at some point, we all have):  It does not work.  Who would voluntarily undergo major surgery and weekly hormone injections necessary to change one’s sex to fit one’s gender, as well as endure the still-prevalent societal hostility, if one’s gender could be changed to fit one’s sex?  Asserting that gender is a choice is simply ludicrous.

Item two: students are “confronted” with inclusive books at libraries and schools.  Nobody is forcing anybody to read those books.  To put it quite frankly, the activists are not stupid enough to invite such backlash.  Even with increasing societal acceptance, it is still a landmine to mention queerness in the same sentence as one mentions children[14].

Item three: forced bathroom sharing with people of the opposite sex.  This already happens, trans* rights or no.  Parents frequently bring opposite-sex children up to seven or eight years old into bathrooms with them.  As for adult same-gender but opposite-sex persons, assuming that they are all rapists is irrational, paranoid, and highly inaccurate—trans* people are actually much more likely than the general population to be the victims of rapists.  Nearly all transgender individuals consciously police themselves, not only to not do anything that might warrant societal punishment, but also to avoid the slightest insinuation of their doing so.  Put bluntly, they do not want to end up like Emmett Till—a young black man in the 1950s who was brutally beaten to death for allegedly whistling at a white woman, from a distance.  Similar hate crimes still disproportionally affect transgendered individuals today, with similarly infinitesimal “provocations.”  Frankly, you or your child is at much more risk from a cisgendered individual in his or her “proper” bathroom than from a transgender individual in the bathroom of their identified gender.  Finally, most people, when they are in bathrooms, just want to pee and get out.

Erdvig bases his purported arguments solely on misdefinition, paranoia, and an alarming preoccupation with small children’s genitals.  As such, he is invalidated three times over, and in fact ends up condemning himself with his own arguments.  Unfortunately, for someone who does not know the difference between gender and sex, or the actual definition of postmodernism, and/or who has a martyr complex, his arguments would seem entirely plausible.  And, although this post does not actually exhort violence against transgender individuals, its tone is such that it would not arouse guilt in anyone for committing it.  Insidious, pseudo-innocent homophobia and transphobia like Erdvig’s post is the reason why truly dangerous organizations like the AFA, NOM, and the WBC are supported or at least tolerated to exist.  Thus, it must be targeted and discredited just as much as its more extreme counterparts.  It is almost shocking how easily I, a first-year undergrad, armed mainly with some basic definitions, can refute such standard, first-line anti-equality rhetoric as this, and turn it into a case for its opposition.  I do not expect that I will actually convert anyone to my point of view with this piece; I have too much experience with internet trolls to expect that.  However, I have shown Cscottfowler and Roger Erdvig that I will not be cowed into silence by a taunt of not addressing real issues, and perhaps I have shown a few hard-pressed equality advocates a way of stumping their enemies into silence.

[1] I will use the pronoun “they” with a singular sense to refer to abstract persons whose gender is not specified.  Such use, while frowned upon by Strunk & White, has been common for centuries.

[2] Or rather, attempting to discuss.

[3] P. 131.

[4] Brooks.

[5] Kerlin.

[6] “Fact Sheet.”

[7] “Hodos” is not the only example of this phenomenon.  A few dozen other 2nd declension Greek nouns share this characteristic of irregular gender, including “naesos” (island), “Theotokos” (“God-bearer,” meaning Mary the mother of Jesus), “abyssos” (abyss), “biblos” (book), and “ammos” (sand).  The third declension contains many others.  It incidentally includes a subset of neuter nouns whose nominatives end in “-os”; however, they form the genitive differently, and therefore do not count as irregularly gendered nouns.

[8] Such words include “nauta” (sailor), “poeta” (poet), “agricola” (farmer), “homicida” (murderer), “incola” (native inhabitant), and “athleta” (athlete), to name a few.

[9] “Lex” (law), “leo” (lion), “miles” (soldier), “canis” (dog), and “rex” (king), all masculine; “genus” (gender, type), “opus” (work), and “collis” (hill), all neuter.  Both Greek and Latin have three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter (ungendered).  By contrast, English has extra pronouns used by genderqueer people, implying not a lack of grammatical gender, but an indeterminate one.

[10] “Mulier,” “soror,” “uxor,” and “mater.”

[11] It is perhaps the only example of a “genderqueer” noun, but nearly all Latin third declension adjectives and all Greek alpha-privative negative adjectives display a similar characteristic, with one form used to modify both masculine and feminine nouns and another to modify neuter nouns.

[12] Spanish has no neuter grammatical gender; however, in languages that do, the grammatical neuter tends to be closer to the masculine than the feminine in terms of usual morphology—a possible explanation for the gendering of these nouns, if “el” would be more of a cultural default than “la.”

[13] Ch. 5 “The Current Wave,” pp. 121-153.

[14] I think I have managed to navigate said landmine here without getting metaphorically blown up.

Works Cited

Brooks, Rob.  “New Ideas About the Evolution of Same-Sex Attraction.”  Huffington Post, 14 Dec. 2012.  Web.  25 March 2013.

Erdvig, Roger.  “Boys will be boys…or will they?” (hosted by WordPress), 22 March 2013.  Web.  24 March 2013.

“Fact Sheet:  Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Youth in School.”  Sylvia Rivera Law Project, 2013.  Web.  25 March 2013.

Kerlin, Scott P.  “The Presence of Gender Dysphoria, Transsexualism, and Disorders of Sexual Differentiation in Males Prenatally Exposed to Diethylstilbestrol.”, 9 July 2005.  Web.  25 March 2013.

Stryker, Susan.  Transgender History.  Berkley, CA:  Seal Press, 2008.  Print.

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Posted in Classics, Delmore-Erdvig-Fowler Dialogue, Nerd Stuff, Politics, Queer Life, Queer Stuff
37 comments on “Against Transphobes: In Response to Roger Erdvig
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