Being transgender isn’t strictly a libertarian issue, but I’ve seen it come up enough lately in various libertarian threads around the internet where it’s just easier to have one link to reply to everything rather than retyping everything.  Because, as with many internet arguments, it gets a little old hearing the same thing over, and over, and over, and having to respond the same way to the same objections.

So…transgender.  People that don’t fit in the convenient male/female box.  And for whom it often takes a lot of time, money, therapy, medication, and surgery to get them into the box they do feel good in, or for them to make their own box.  Religious conservatives, along with socially conservative people in general, are often still REALLY not big on trans folk, for reasons of faith or just being squicked.  Even generally relatively sane Democrat Tulsi Gabbard just introduced a discriminatory bill against transgender athletes.  Libertarians generally do much better (and of course Outright Libertarians includes many trans members), and I haven’t seen any libertarian call for any kind of legal discrimination, but there’s definitely a small but vocal contingent that keeps calling being trans mental illness, claiming that trans people and their supporters deny biology and science, or saying stuff like “I don’t care if a dude wants to cut their dick off and wear a dress.  I’ll call them what they want to be called.  But they’re still a dude”.  That attitude is not a terrible start, and generally reflects libertarians’ live and let live attitude, but it could be so much better.  Libertarians, as individualists, often have as part of their story a long journey to define themselves, and live as authentically as possible.  I would think that someone else trying to do the same would be something that resonates with all of us.  I think a lot of it comes down to ignorance, so…I’m going to try and help everyone be less ignorant.

First off, terms.  Because agreeing on terminology is important, otherwise you just talk past each other (cf Libertarians and Marxists talking about labor bringing in more for an employer than the employee is paid). 

  • biological sex-what your genes make you.  Usually this is traditional XY=male, XX=female in humans (the rest of the animal kingdom can get REALLY complicated), although as I’ll talk about in a minute, even in humans it can get past that quickly.
  • gender-for lack of a better way of putting it, what you feel you are.  This is a complicated interplay between genes, social expectations and mores, and science doesn’t completely understand it yet, but that’s the basic idea.
  • gender expression-what you do to fit in your gender box, or build your own.
  • your gender options-male, female, trans variants of both, and nonbinary/agender/genderqueer/genderfluid, which are varying degrees of not fitting comfortably into either side of the binary or feeling the need to move between the two.
  • cross dressing-dressing as the opposite gender.  Not the same as being trans, though for a lot of trans folks it is a first step.  Depending on who you’re talking to and context, “dressing in drag” is either a direct synonym for cross dressing or the performance art version.
  • sexual orientation-what you’re attracted to, including not being attracted to anything.
  • body dysphoria-the feeling of major uncomfortableness when part of someone’s body isn’t what their brain expects.
  • TERF-trans-exclusionary radical feminist, a contingent of feminist thought that says because men are always the oppressors and heterosexual sex is always rape trans women are just carpetbagger men trying to gain access to feminist stuff.  Related term is SWERF, for sex worker exclusionary radical feminist, which says that sex workers are sellouts and participants in their own exploitation.  And probably gender traitors to boot.

Usually sex, gender, and gender expression occur in relatively regular patterns, but not always.

Next, let’s look at the science of being trans.  As I said above, we don’t completely understand this yet, because humans are complicated.  But…given the documented evidence of trans people in lots of cultures for a long time, it’s a thing that exists.  Even if you wanted to argue just genetics, well, this thread from an expert shows pretty quick that no, it’s not just XX and XY.  And for trans folks, the best understanding we have so far is that it’s not mental illness per se, it’s a lot more like phantom limb syndrome.  The human brain is really good at knowing where it is in the world, in part because it’s really good at knowing where all of its body bits are.  But when a bit is there that shouldn’t be, or when the brain thinks something should be there that isn’t, it doesn’t do very well. 

Which brings us to the brains of trans people.  While biology as destiny is still @#^!ing dumb and everyone is an individual with all the potential therein, there are some biological differences between men and women, broadly speaking, which extends not just to the visible stuff, but to brains as well.  There’s now a lot of scholarly articles out there showing pretty conclusively that the brains of trans people more closely resemble the brains of their “target” gender than their birth gender.  Cf here and here, among many others.  It’s a mismatch between what their brains expect and what’s actually there.  When people say “trust the science”, well…science may not be able to say exactly why or how they exist yet, but science is saying pretty conclusively that trans exists.

And again, granting that the interplay between biology and social and cultural experience is complicated, it turns out that the therapies we have now-hormone replacement therapy, surgery, social transitioning, and a goodly amount of therapy-actually provide much better outcomes for trans people than leaving them untreated.  While the Heritage Foundation disagrees, I find this Cornell metastudy to be much more robust in support of the pro-transition argument.  It’s not quite DS9 era Star Trek, where we can redo someone’s whole plumbing and switch it back in the space of an episode, but it works reasonably well.

So that’s the science, now let’s look at the politics.  You can’t talk about the politics of transgender people without talking about the lived experience of transgender people.  It’s a lot better than it was, but it’s still not great, especially for trans folks at the bottom of the economy.  This article sums it up pretty well, but the short version is that trans people are much more likely to have serious mental health issues, to attempt or commit suicide, or to be disowned by their families (even more than the rest of the rainbow), and also violence and harassment…unless their families and communities accept them for what they are, in which case they tend to turn out no more messed up than the rest of us.

How does this all translate to politics and culture?  In some pretty crappy ways, unfortunately.  Despite the potential advantages of (mtf) transgender athletes being relatively negated over time with hormone replacement therapy (like most things here, it is complicated), and despite lots of local school and private organizations coming up with solutions that work for them and their local communities over the past few years, there’s Gabbard’s bill, which would cut off federal funding for athletics unless the organizations banned trans athletes.  You might say that the federal government has no business subsidizing athletics, or even any business in education, and I would completely agree with you, but it’s like marriage licensing.  The government should have nothing to do with it, but as long as it does it needs to treat everyone equally before the law.  There’s also bathroom bills.  Most worrying to me is that the gay panic defense is still allowed in most of the union, which is entirely too close to a license to murder someone for being LGBT+ than I’m comfortable with.  And even in terms of workplace discrimination yes, I believe in free association, including the right of people to discriminate and be non-violent, non-thieving assholes to each other.  But just because there shouldn’t be a law, do you really want to live in a society that says it’s ok to not hire an otherwise qualified person because of what they are, or some immutable biological fact about them, rather than who they are and what they can do?

What does this mean for us as a libertarian movement?  It’s kind of like us and race.  Yes, the live and let live attitude, and starting with the individual is a great start, and the proper start, but for my more socially conservative or socially isolated brethren in the movement I say that we have to move beyond that.  We need to recognize peoples’ real, lived experiences, and recognize that while the goal is a society of autonomous, freely interacting individuals, in the meantime the groups that we’re part, especially the involuntary ones, impact our lives in real and different ways.  We should seek out people that are different than us and talk to them to understand this-there are plenty of trans libertarians out there who can talk Austrian economics with you, in addition to all the hippies and commies.  And we need to recognize that just because it isn’t the age of Jim Crow anymore that there are real social and legal challenges that need to be addressed as matters of our policy and activism.  It’s how we build a freer and a better society, so we can all go about the business of being individuals.