When I was a child, and the neighborhood pack of kids I ran with started squabbling about what to play or how to play it, sooner or later someone would end up yelling, “You can’t tell me what to do! It’s a free country!”
Both the assertion and its justification are debatable, but I think of this sometimes when arguments arise over colliding desires, and the debate follows the often frustratingly inconclusive path of “rights talk.” In the public world of the culture wars, the right to life is pitted against the right to choose; the rights of children to grow up in a stable home with a mother and father are pitted against the marital couple’s right to (separately) find happiness; the right to life of born human beings who are disabled, chronically ill, mentally or psychologically afflicted, or senile is pitted against the same population’s right to assisted suicide to end pain or abbreviate what appears to be a meaningless or low-quality existence; and the right of adults to produce or participate in pornography (either as actors or spectators) is pitted against the right of women not to be objectified and reduced to sex objects. In a sense, “It’s a free country, isn’t it?” has migrated from schoolyard assertion to the implicit clincher in all of our major cultural contests.
The more recent emergence of transgender activism may seem like just one more in the long series of rights-related cultural battles. But transgenderism does not fall as neatly into the competing rights paradigm as it may at first appear; in fact, this issue reveals the limitation of the tiresome, round-and-round bickering of rights rivals. Initially, we may think the transgender conflict belongs in the same category as gay rights and same-sex marriage—isn’t it, after all, just another assertion of a sexual minority’s right to sexual choice and the pursuit of happiness, the “right to be happy”?
But look closer. What do transgender proponents demand? The right for everyone to determine for themselves, on the “evidence” of their feelings, what gender they belong to, and to receive the buy-in of society—medical, legal, political, educational, and even verbal—for that choice. And on the other side? If you set out to debate these demands, you begin to intuit that the domain of transgenderism is not comfortably accommodated within the realm of rights talk. Oh, each side can find competing rights to coalesce around, but if that is all we do we leave a very large object overlooked.
In fact, the anti-transgender argument, though it sends out tendrils related to rights, such as the right of minors to be protected from making momentous and largely irreversible decisions about, for instance, amputating breasts or surgically fabricating something resembling a penis or being injected with potent chemicals to arrest puberty, is not at bottom rooted in theories about rights. It is rooted in reality rather than in rights. Transgenderism partisans are staking a claim to the right to define and live out—to create, if you will—their own version of reality. “I am a girl in a boy’s body [or vice versa] because I say I am.” But this is a claim that each and every madman could transfer to his own private mania. Why can’t the man (or woman) who thinks he or she is Napoleon insist on the social, legal, political right to be treated as such? And then there are the sad cases of people with a disconnect between the mental image of their body and its reality; they yearn for a leg to be amputated or to be blinded to make reality match that image. Can such diseases of the mind claim rights to be acknowledged and accommodated similar to those of the transgender population? Are they perhaps essentially the same population?
In short, rights talk does not by itself address the most fundamental problem with the claim that people can actually transition to a different gender than they were born “with.” In fact, defending proper treatment of and respect for the human person in the context of “rights” alone can be thought of as a default or kind of proxy deemed necessary for pluralistic democratic societies. After all, saying that human beings have the right to this or that begs the questions, “How did we get this right? On what is it based? What qualifying actions or characteristics entitle us to it?”
Such questions have been addressed, of course, from different ends of the spectrum and with varying results. Peter Singer, for instance (the Princeton professor who maintains that the unborn do not qualify as human persons and therefore do not have a right to life), singles out qualifiers such as intelligence and self-awareness. Using standards such as these, he rates the higher animals above even newborn humans, in principle opening the door to infanticide.
Many secular environmentalists, on the other hand, would not even think of “privileging” intelligence and self-awareness as the basis for rights, regarding these as the chauvinistic standards of human exceptionalism. In fact, in their eyes our awareness of what we are doing—our plans and schemes and ever-encroaching designs on Nature—are if anything disqualifiers of human rights over those of the rest of the planets’ life forms.
Transgenderism’s flight from reality is also necessarily a flight from the foundation on which rights are implicitly based. Gender is based on biology. The mating of male and female makes possible the reproduction of that species through the deployment of the innate differences of male and female.
But what if we—the self-conscious and rebellious pinnacle of Earth’s life forms—no longer care about any of that? What if it leaves us cold? What if we feel no responsibility to take our place in the relay of life and hand over the baton to the next leg of the human journey? We would hardly be alone in feeling this way: Even among those quite comfortable with their birth gender, greater numbers than perhaps ever in human history are choosing not to have children, and even greater numbers either choose not to marry or choose to divorce. So it is not merely the transgendered or those in same-sex marriages who decline the role allotted them by biology and by many millennia of human interaction.
It seems that, in the post-Enlightenment effort to construct a pluralistic consensus on what is due human beings, how they should therefore treat one another, and how they should live in society, the fashioners of our modern democratic and secularist polities have confined themselves almost entirely to the language of human rights. Underlying these and implicitly justifying them are, as the Declaration of Independence alludes to, “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” These laws of Nature—both the physical ones like gravity and inertia, and the ones related to our nature and behaviors, have unfortunate repercussions for us (and those around us) when they are violated. But they also direct us to larger questions: What is it we are here for, what is it we were made for? What is the purpose of all life in general and of our own lives in particular? Why does it matter if I do or don’t have a fixed gender, respect human life, have loving relationships with others, keep promises, speak the truth, care for my children?
Underlying the right to life and the cry of the frustrated child or desperately unhappy adult that, “I didn’t ask to be born!” we find a question that can be formulated in a variety of ways. One of these is “Why did God make me?” To which one catechism responds, “God made me to know, love, and serve Him in this life and be happy with Him forever in the next.”
Our preoccupation today lies with securing happiness (as we choose to define it) in this life, while assuming that the hereafter, if it exists, will take care of itself. Therefore the catechism answer appears to be a straitjacket inhibiting freedom, a constriction of choices, a restriction on pleasure. However, if we are in fact made for a particular purpose, surely the knowledge of that purpose helps us know how to use what we have been given, for our own and others’ benefit. If we are presented with a piece of machinery without being told what it is for, we will likely be at a loss to put it to good use. Only when we know what the machinery is supposed to do can we begin figuring out how it works and put it to use.
Given our legal and political system, rights talk is not going away (nor, in fact, should it). However, if it is not deployed with an understanding of where these rights come from, how they work themselves out in reality, and what we are made to accomplish in our lives on this earth, we will be largely spinning our wheels. We will be restricted to frustrating clashes of dueling rights without an appeal to the nature of reality and to the implicit or revealed intentions of the Creator of reality. Minus such an appeal, society cannot properly adjudicate which contestants should rightly win our contests of rights.