Religious scholars and academic theologians have a responsibility to use their social power and authority lent by their credentials to make their expertise available to the public. Over the past few years justice-minded theologians and religious scholars, particularly in the United States, have been making a greater effort to engage publically with national and transnational narratives around religion and ethics, particularly to challenge facile narratives of exclusion and prejudice on the part of various publics. There’s also a role for academics in de-bunking sensationalized narratives often framed in theological language or protesting media exploitation of peoples’ narratives, images, or situations.
But a part of engaging the media, and the public, as an expert is knowing a good argument from a bad one, doing adequate research on which to form opinions, and presenting one’s opinions as informed judgements. When academics present their opinions as common sense, they damage the very grounds on which expertise is sought and they over-simplify complex problems reinforcing a public naivete about the political structures and social narrative on an issue of common concern.
In a recent article in The Times to which I won’t link (because you needn’t increase its pageviews), Nigel Biggar asserts that he is “not yet capable of being transphobic” because he “struggle[s] to make sense of the claims of the new transgenderism” (emphasis added to show biased terminology). Nevertheless, in his position as Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Christ Church, Oxford and as Director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life, Biggar goes on to argue that transgender advocacy and activism “takes its bearings from stereotypes that have long been discredited.” Because, he notes, he is well versed in “sexual physiology,” gender roles, and sexual orientation, he’s “enough of a feminist” to promote a legal permissiveness around how individuals elect their role, physiology, and sexual partners. But as for changing our language, access to public restrooms, census instruments, and “sleeping arrangements” to respect the identities of non-binary, gender fluid, or transgender people, Biggar thinks that is just the latest snowflake obsession with elusive identity. His advice, in essence, is to engage with real justice issues “from the millions of older people who live alone in Britain to Syrians at the wrong end of Assad’s merciless stick.” Transgender folks aren’t in “real need of our help.”
As a transgender ally I’m frustrated by Biggar’s refusal to understand the role that providing gender neutral bathrooms plays in the “protection from bullying or worse” he claims to support. And I am frustrated by his refusal to recognize the documented harms already caused to transgender people who are housed in sleeping arrangements in shelters, jails, and prisons based on the assignment of their gender at birth. Given that 48% of identified transgender people in the U.K. have attempted suicide, I am frustrated that he thinks universally pathologizing the childhood homes of transgender children, youth, and adults as “disturbed” is the solution, while he simultaneously argues that transgender activists and allies aren’t confronting “real world problems.”
But as a scholar, I am confounded by Biggar’s main rhetorical point that transgender persons‘ sense of who they are shouldn’t “command unthinking allegiance or compliance in others.” The argument constructs a strawman opponent, and purports that all allies are “unthinking.” Transgender activists have not demanded that their identity claims deserve “uncritical respect,” but that their identity claims be judged by the same standards as others. In general, transgender activism puts a huge stress upon public education precisely to combat transphobia, because hatred of someone whose gender presentation you don’t understand is much more common than Biggar seems to grasp. In general, transgender people don’t receive extra-surveillance, workplace discrimination, bullying, and sexual assault from people who are curious or nonchalant about gender. They aren’t dying because people were merely “critical” of their gender identity. Biggar’s “academic” lack of understanding, aids and abets transphobia, making him complicit. Without even giving a plausible reading of the view he opposes, suggests that transgender identities are among those identities which informed, right-thinking people can and should choose to ignore. “Most of all,” he writes, “why should we care?”
Biggar hasn’t done adequate research to present his opinion as informed expertise; instead he chooses to cater to people’s desire to be affirmed in the fact that they already have all the information in hand to make “the right choice” of what and for whom to care. Biggar lives in a fantasy world in which the system which prescribed particular roles to men and women up until the 1960s is “already dismantled” and in which “rejection of traditional stereotypes” is the outside limit of our political responsibility to women and gender minorities. That’s not the kind of public “scholarship” we need.
Biggar’s op-ed is a part of a larger conflict around trans-acceptance and what it means for women’s separatist’s spaces as gender exploration is going more mainstream and as the U.K. considers revisions to the Gender Recognition Act of 2004. At London Pride in July 2018, a small number of anonymous trans-exclusionary radical feminists campaigned for taking the L out of the Alphabet soup, both in order to deny that transwomen are “real” women and to distinguish a separatist women’s agenda excluding any and all men including gay men. There was a huge response by the LGBTQ community which included some calling for the London Pride committee to resign and a huge outpouring of support for the trans community from the global LGBTQ community on social media. Trans-exclusionary feminists don’t represent the majority of feminists or the community of gender and sexual minorities that Pride celebrates, but Biggar’s article reads as a careless defense of similar anti-trans sentiment.
Despite Biggar’s unfamiliarity, the “T” in the Alphabet soup isn’t new. Transgender activists were part of the queer liberation movement in the late 1960s, but they have been slower to come to public attention because, while their needs for public accommodation are sometimes intersectional, they mostly differ from those of same-sex couples or intersex persons. Transgender people are receiving the same attacks of “excessive individualism” and “lifestyle choice” which were used to vilify the gay community as unethical and unnatural hedonists in the 1970s and 1980s, but which most people in the U.K. would find risible now. Biggar’s claim that transgender activism around identity-motivated public accommodation is mere “navel gazing” is merely a variation on the same prejudice in an academic tone.
The theory on which transgender persons ask for acceptance, inclusion, and public accommodation is part of a wide-ranging expansion of how we think about gender brought to public consciousness by queer and feminist writers and culture creators. Here’s one attempt to synthesize it simply: Sex is a social determination based on one’s reproductive capabilities (e.g. production of eggs, sperm, uterus), the genetic markers of such capabilities (X and Y chromosomes), and various secondary morphological markers (vocal pitch, facial hair, fat distribution, pelvic width, etc.). Gender is a culturally-constructed social category which one inhabits that informs how one dresses, expresses oneself, engages in familial and workplace relationships, etc. Historically, gender has been socially prescribed for most people based on their sex. Although continuing to expand our notions of “men” and “women” continues to be life-giving to many, gender remains an “active system” of social control and interpretation. Due to gender dysphoria and internalized gender formation, merely expanding or bending gender categories ultimately fails to create life-affirming possibilities for a small, but significant minority of people. “Transgender” is a broad category which includes both those that migrate across social boundaries from the gender they were assigned at birth to a gender in which they feel they belong, and those who find the necessity of being put in a gender category at all to be effacing. What these diverse situations share in common is a rejection of the idea that the existing sex-deterministic gender binary adequately captures their embodied social experience. There are more than two types of bodies, and more than two types of attraction, and more than two types of people. The rejection of an easy dichotomy between men and women as reproductive complements affirms the intersex, those with a variety of non-reproductive attractions, and transgender people.
I don’t expect Biggar to agree with this theory, and not all members of the transgender community have exactly the same view on the breakdown of biological, cultural, and volitional bases of sex, gender, and sexuality. But Biggar undermines the credibility of academic participation in the public sphere when he uses his position to engage the issue without research or nuance. He doesn’t justify his exclusion of transgender people on the basis of a norm of identities worthy of attention and public recognition. He doesn’t engage any particular identity or its political claim directly; instead, he uses his ignorance as a “justified” excuse for dismissing a whole coalition of gender minorities that “transgender” represents and attacks discursive politics by framing it in false opposition to other political and social activism.
A more moderate reading of Biggar’s claim might be that while public accommodation of transgender persons is, in fact, a justice issue, it’s a relatively minor issue and should be low on the public agenda. But a commitment to justice for transgender people is born out of the same principles as many “high stakes” justice issues, namely, a commitment to respecting the bodily integrity and self-determination of other human beings. Furthermore, transgender justice issues intersect with other issues of justice such as immigration, discriminatory policing, access to health care for low income people, and dependant abandonment—as not all transgender people are white, affluent young adults. While Biggar may want to say something about our societal priorities, his denial of the harm caused by trans-exclusionary policies belies both an uncharacteristic utilitarianism (i.e. gender minority justice affects so few people it is not important) and inattention to the right of bodily integrity.
Biggar’s argument appears to be rather that we aren’t really at work on justice when working on trans justice issues. This is because he makes out gender identity as either fixed or elective-but-frivolous and therefore implies that the harms done to transgender people by the state or because of the state’s refusal to provide equal public accommodations are something that transgender persons suffer in consequence of this choice to stand out. Unfortunate perhaps, but avoidable. On the contrary, public accomodation of transgender identity is a necessary condition for a minimally decent life for a small but substantial minority of people. Biggar just doesn’t have grounds for refusing this basic justice claim. Not only does he fail to rally scientific research on transgender identity, mental health, and life outcomes (it weighs against him); he doesn’t even adduce dubious theological grounds on which to base his claim (perhaps he’s too much of a liberal for that). Instead, he draws a tenuous connection between gender identity and national identity that he expects will play well with his readership. The pastoral advice to return to those who are in “real need of our help” isn’t relying on a utilitarian calculus of which justice problems affect the most people the most drastically, it is an appeal to reject claims at the heart of liberation models of Christian ethics: that the suffering have special epistemic access to the way of God and can show us how to participate in healing the world and receiving healing through grace. Biggar cannot admit that transgender people are suffering, because it doesn’t fit with his pre-existing conception of gender theory.
As academics invested in connecting the University and the public narrative, we must be vigilant to address sophistry masquerading as informed expertise. Biggar is not alone. As theologians, we should question why anyone would dismiss a cry for justice without first considering whether or not the speakers have something to teach us about the reign of God.