I was asked recently what I thought of transgenderism, and I replied, "It's just another way to be unhappy." But to explain that remark, I first have to attempt to define exactly what transgenderism is, and how we should address it.
So let's start with what transgenderism is not. It is not the same as sexual orientation. Orientation has to do with object choice, with what one is attracted to sexually. Transgenderism is about personal identity. The fact that a transgender person may desire a partner of the same biological sex does not mean that the transgender person feels exactly the same way about one's desires as a lesbian or gay person does. The outcome may be the same, but we mustn't ascribe to people attitudes which they don't have; at least, not if we really want to understand them.
Nor is transgenderism the same as transvestism. Transvestites get a thrill from wearing the clothing of the opposite sex. That may or may not mean they identify as the sex they are dressing as. And transgenders may not get much of a thrill from what they wear; they may just see it as appropriate for who they say they are.
And by the way, playing dress-up is neither transvestism nor transgenderism. Lots of people -- especially young children -- enjoy playing dress-up, and most children try on the clothes of the opposite sex at some point, especially if they have siblings of that sex. It's part of figuring out the world you are in, and your place in it. Parents should not freak out about it, and especially, should not presume that a little boy trying on a dress means that he is "questioning his gender identity" and therefore needs to start "transitioning" to something. The kid is just as likely to grow up to be an actor.
Transgenderism is something other than style, too. Fashion is constantly changing, and what started out as masculine or feminine in clothing, hairstyle, scent-grooming-makeup is frequently adopted -- and adapted -- by the other sex. High heels started out as men's fashion in the early 1600s. Adapting one's appearance to the dominant style has little to do with how one feels about one's masculinity or femininity.
So, if all these things are not transgenderism (though they may, any of them, be part of an individual's persona along with transgenderism), then what is transgenderism? And how should we address what the transgender person is telling us? Well, that depends upon how one views the nature of the transgender identity. There are two main possibilities.
The first is, simply, that transgenderism is a mental disorder. In this view, gender dysphoria exists on a continuum with other forms of body dysphoria including anorexia and amputation-fetish. An anorexic rejects one's body because it is, in her mind, too fat. The ideal image she pursues causes her to reject food, or binge and purge, in order to lose weight. Even when reduced to a near-skeletal form more like that of a concentration camp victim, she continues to diet, believing herself in danger of becoming "too fat." Someone who believes that he or she was meant to be an amputee, will be disgusted with one's own body, and fetishize the absence of limbs. The difference is, the amputation-fetishist will have a harder time finding a surgeon willing to lop off the undesired limb than the person transitioning to another sex will have finding a surgeon willing to "reassign" his or her sex and begin surgical modification of his or her body. And whereas most doctors will refuse to prescribe diet drugs for anorexics, many doctors will prescribe hormone supplements for transgenders.
How should we respond? If we believe that a transgender person is mentally disordered, then we should first of all offer our empathy. How terribly unhappy this person must be, in order to reject what is, after all, one of the most fundamental facts about oneself! We should acknowledge what must be the tremendous pain of feeling trapped in a body one doesn't identify with, of being unable to have certain greatly-desired experiences, of having one's relationships constantly stumble over this issue. Receiving and including people who struggle with all these kinds of issues -- rather than condemning them or badgering them or dismissing their struggles -- is a basic requirement, not only for us as decent people, but for us to have any hope of helping them deal with their disorder.
At the same time, enabling dysfunction is not helping the person who struggles with it. We may not, in the end, succeed at helping the person with a dysmorphia, but not speaking the truth in love is sure to fail at helping.
At the same time that I say this, however, I have to point out that there are lots of transgender folk who would be offended at the idea that they are mentally ill. And certainly, they display no other systems of any kind of disorder. So, is there another way to look at the phenomenon of transgenderism? Well, yes there is. There is the realm of metaphysical claims.
Many transgender people say that they are not merely posing as the opposite sex, they are the opposite sex. They "really are." They "always have been." Even as they point out that society "assigns gender" at birth -- which would seem to mean that they are asserting that sex is not fixed, and they are now choosing a different one that that which they were assigned -- they claim to be now asserting their "true" sex. Society was wrong, in their case. Now, this may not be terribly consistent in its views of the mutability or immutability of gender identity, but it allows them to assert that they are not merely making this up.
And yet, we are not talking about intersex individuals -- those who were born with ambiguous sex organs or with those of both sexes. We are talking about people who are obviously, biologically, provably Sex A who insist that they are Sex B -- and intend to live as Sex B and demand that others receive them and include them as Sex B. Since their claims defy the facts of science, therefore, we should treat their assertion as a metaphysical claim.
An analogous metaphysical claim would be a belief in reincarnation. If I were to say that I was a Gallic princess sold into slavery under Julius Caesar in a previous life, what would be your response? Most people would not see this as a mental disorder, but neither would most people believe in the assertion. Some would, of course: these are the fellow believers. But others are skeptics.
Now, some people who tell you tales like this from their personal history are frauds. If they try to get money out of you by telling you tales, then that's probably the case. But others -- perhaps most of the reincarnation crowd, anyway, actually believe their stories. They have no financial motivation to speak of. And to be fair, reincarnation is not different in form -- as a metaphysical claim -- from, say, being "born again" or "called by God." Those statuses aren't provable by scientific means, either. So those who believe as the speaker does, give credit to their fellow believer, while those who are skeptics as regards that particular sect do not.
Being abducted by aliens, seeing a ghost, having "second sight," mystical experiences as reported by various religions (which often describe the same kinds of experiences, though disagreeing over dogma), belief in reincarnation, and transgenderism can all be seen as the assertion of a truth claim that is unsupported -- or at least, untestable -- by science or logic.
What should we do with our friends who believe things we find incredible? And who intend to live out the consequences of their beliefs? Well, we live in a society which believes that we should all try to get along. That we shouldn't mock others who believe things we don't, even if we think their beliefs are nonsense. That we should allow people to live as they choose, so long as it doesn't interfere with what society at large needs. Live and let live. As Mrs. Campbell put it, "Does it really matter what these affectionate people do — so long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses!"
Once again, tolerance is our first duty. But if someone is attempting to get the organs of society to enforce their beliefs, that's a little different. To make all of us acknowledge their beliefs, and adjust our institutions and teach our children that they are asserting scientific facts rather than metaphysical claims would be -- theocracy? tyranny? just plain nuts? Yes.
It gets hairier when you have a parent making choices regarding gender identity for a child. How far any parent has a right to make choices for one's child that the rest of society views as deleterious is a question with no one right answer. Likewise, how far a parent may go to make choices for a child who is obviously resisting those choices.
But, so far as metaphysical claims of all sorts go, you may live as you please, and I will accept you as a neighbor and respect your decisions. But I am under no obligation to believe as you believe, nor to enable you -- especially not by my tax dollars -- to pursue your beliefs. And I am not a bigot if I teach my children that you're wrong, and tell them they shouldn't join you in your beliefs.
So, whether you believe a transgender person is suffering from a mental disorder or is asserting a belief in something which transcends the bounds of science, our first duty is to accept the person as he or she is, as a fellow child of God. How far one goes in accommodating the transgender person's identity and when one offers help or resistance to what that person asks of you is up to your view of the person and the kind of relationship you have with him or her.