More on Kevin Williamson and Laverne Cox

Last week I wrote (and tweeted) a reaction to Kevin Williamson’s  National Review article, “Laverne Cox is Not a Woman.” To my surprise, Williamson responded, briefly, when another twitter commenter, Le Fou du Roi (great name, btw!), asked me for a clarification. I said:

Williamson replied:


Then I asked him if, rather than arguing that objective facts matter more than subjective impressions (the article’s argument) he was now saying that it boiled down to some objective facts mattering more than others. Williamson didn’t answer—which is understandable, since he has probably been getting tweeted at by millions of people.

Le Fou du Roi did write a response to my piece, which you can find here.

Basically, Le Fou du Roi took issue with what he saw as an assertion that the two studies I linked—one about brain structures, the other about prenatal hormone levels—refuted Wiliamson’s thesis that Laverne Cox is not a woman.

Let me first say that Le Fou du Roi is right: those two studies don’t refute Williamson’s thesis. Of course, it’s impossible to refute a thesis when its central term is left undefined, and, as we’ll see, that’s what happened in Williamson’s column.

Also, I’ll concede that those two studies don’t a consensus make. They weren’t meant to, though. They were just two studies I had at hand to illustrate the point that the transgender experience is rooted in biology. Jillian Keenan, writing at slate, offers four more studies to the same effect. As she writes, “The science goes on and on.”

But saying those studies don’t refute Williamson’s thesis is not the same thing as saying they’re not relevant. Le Foi du Roi says that he’s not sure how those studies are relevant. I’m happy to explain, since it’s clear from his response that his problem is a mistaken idea of what, exactly, is the fundamental question in this conversation.

Let’s look at Le Fou du Roi’s breakdown of Williamson’s argument. Le Fou du Roi wrote:

  1. Neither Chelsea Manning nor Laverne Cox is a woman.  I take Williamson to be using “woman” in the ordinary sense of an adult female human being, and strictly in that sense.
  2. Sex has a “stubborn concreteness,” at least in comparison to the notion of “gender.”  I read Williamson here as meaning that a person’s biological sex is a material property resistant to change.  Williamson’s article makes clear that when he refers to “sex,” he is referring to a person’s biological sex and that he is distinguishing sex from gender and gender identity.
  3. A person’s sex is a biological reality not subordinate to his or her subjective impressions.
  4. Transgender persons’ belief in actually being, “at some level of reality that transcends the biological facts in question,” a different sex from their sex at birth is a delusion.  I read the reference to a delusion in its ordinary sense of a fixed false belief especially resistant to confrontation with contrary evidence or reason.  From the phrase I’ve placed in quotation marks, I gather that Williamson understands Cox’s belief to be one necessarily concerning a not purely material state of affairs, for he supposes Cox otherwise would not hold it in view of the body of contrary physical evidence that Cox is biologically a male.  As far as I can see, though, the foregoing claim of Williamson’s in no way denies, for example, that Cox’s perceived experience of femaleness could have a biological etiology.
  5. No hormone injection or surgical mutilation is sufficient to change a person’s sex.

We’ll focus on the first two points.

First off, it takes a generous reading of Williamson’s piece to say that he distinguishes between gender and biological sex—after all, he puts “gender” in scare quotes and calls it a “postmodern idea” that was invented to alter reality. He says that insofar as gender differs from what he calls biological sex, it’s delusion. If he distinguishes between them, it’s by saying one is real and the other isn’t.

But even with Le Fou du Roi’s generous reading, Williamson’s argument still rests on two faulty assumptions:

1) That gender identity, or at least trans gender identity, isn’t biological. Le Fou du Roi disagrees that Williamson is saying that but, sorry, he is. It’s inherent in the way he opposes “biological” sex to “subjective” gender delusions. At least that’s the argument he makes in his article. His tweet backed off on that. Again, I’d like to see him reconcile those two positions, but whatever. The bigger problem comes with assumption number 2, which is…

2) That “biological” sex can be easily discerned and categorized in all cases. Le Fou du Roi mistakenly thinks that the mutability of sex is at issue. It isn’t. Laverne Cox no more thinks she can change her sex than Kevin Williamson does. There’s a reason medical professionals have mostly dropped the term “sex-change operation”. It’s not a question of whether or not sex can be changed; it’s a question of how we know an individual’s biological sex.

Stated differently, it’s a question of where we find biological sex. Is it in your genitals? Your gametes?  Your chromosomes? Or is it in your way of relating to the world (i.e. your brain)? And what do you do if those things contradict each other?

That’s the real problem with Williamson’s article and Le Fou du Roi’s defense: neither ever defines precisely what they mean by “woman.” Le Fou du Roi tries: “an adult female human being.” But that just kicks the question down the road; now we have to define “female.”

Keenan, in the article linked above, asked a variety of experts and concluded of biological sex that it is “a matter of genetics, hormone exposure, brain composition, and any number of unknown variables, and that sex can’t be neatly divided into two categories.”

When I’ve written about this subject before, I mentioned the International Olympic Committee’s struggles to define “woman” for athletic competitions. The IOC has a real stake in drawing a line between male and female, and basically, they’ve decided it’s an impossible task. As Alice Dreger reports:

They acknowledge there’s no one magical gene, chromosome, hormone, or body part that can do for us the hard work of sharp division into male and female leagues. Says the IOC in its latest declaration on the problem: “Human biology […] allows for forms of intermediate levels between the conventional categories of male and female, sometimes referred to as intersex.”

Now, there’s no indication that Laverne Cox is what we typically call “intersex,” but that’s not the point. The point is what intersex individuals tell us about biological sex. Which, basically, is that whatever Kevin Williamson and Le Fou du Roi are using to define “woman” or “female,” it’s probably wrong. And the only reason I qualify that sentence with “probably” is because, again, neither says how he’s defining those words. 

Say, for example, that we use chromosomes as the criterion for determining biological sex. That is, a male has an X and a Y chromosome and a female has two X chromosomes. Straightforward, right? That’s a non-malleable, “stubbornly concrete” criterion, no?

Well, then, we’ve just said that a woman with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS) is a man. In case you’re new to these discussions, CAIS is a syndrome that renders the body unable to respond to male sex hormones. In the case of a person with typically male (XY) chromosomes, that means that she will develop from the womb as a female. In most cases, she won’t have ovaries or a uterus, but she’ll have female genitalia and a womanly body.  She will likely have undescended testes.  She’ll grow up as a girl, be treated as a girl, identify as a girl. Have no idea she’s not genetically female, until she has a genetic test performed on her. She might be on your daughter’s soccer team, running around with a cute little ponytail. She might be your girlfriend’s college roommate. She might be your girlfriend.


[Image from the wikipedia entry for Complete Androgen Insenstivity Syndrome (CAIS)]

Any sane definition of “woman” would include her. But to do so, we have to acknowledge that biological sex isn’t necessarily located in the chromosomes or the gametes.

So where is it? In the external genitalia? Okay, but that causes just as many problems with other intersex conditions.

The thing is, intersex individuals often know themselves to be male or female, woman or man. This is where intersex individuals, and brain scans, and 2nd-to-4th digit ratios become relevant: they show that you can’t define “man” or “woman,” or even “male” and “female” in the simple way that Williamson wants to. And (this is important!) they provide an alternate way of understanding what it means to be a man or a woman. Unfortunately for Williamson, that way involves trusting the self-reporting of someone like Laverne Cox.

But I was trying to show in my last post that this needn’t be so scary—after all, those “subjective impressions” are based on objective biological facts, too. Further, those “subjective impressions” reflect a reality that is far less malleable than Williamson’s concept of biological sex. After all, it’s easier to change one’s wardrobe, or even one’s genitals, than to change one’s way-of-being in the world, one’s brain architecture, or the hormones one received in the womb.


3 thoughts on “More on Kevin Williamson and Laverne Cox

  1. For what it is worth, the CAIS example is the thing that changed my mind on this issue.

    Take this hypo. You’re a Southern Baptist (who just released a statement rejecting any approval or incorporation of a trans identity) and you are the father/mother of a child with CAIS. Only, you don’t know that, because she’s 4 or 6 or 10, and exhibits no indications that she is anything but a girl. Now she turns 16, and you take her to the doctor because you are concerned that she has not had a period, only to discover she has CAIS.

    What do you do at that point? According to the SBC interpretation, your child has been “cross-dressing”, albeit unknowingly, for her entire life. Do you now insist that she dress and behave like a man (for the first time, at 16)? Do you change her name? After all, she is XY, and that biological fact should control, the in SBC view.

    That seems insane. I cannot imagine any parent, regardless of their religious background, agreeing to that course of action. The only reasonable course is to allow her to continue to live as a girl/woman.

    And once you admit that, you are conceding that “identity” is a thing that has a reality to it and must be respected. Every other kind of trans identity is just a spot on the continuum, with CAIS the far end.

  2. Pingback: Kevin D. Williamson: The Photoshop Cops | pundit from another planet

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