On Gender Occasionalism

A story from Canada has started making the rounds on Twitter, featuring a family from Canada and their new child, but this particular story features a legal twist: the child has been granted a genderless government health card at the behest of the parents.

The parents’ clearly-stated goal is relatively simple: avoid any and all gender assignment until the child decides if he or she is a he or she, or something else.  That the government granted their wish to avoid such assignment is a bit newsworthy.  Legal descriptions have often been a point of contention for trans individuals and trans activists, so this really is something of a victory to the transgender community.

But the story raises some questions, and in my estimation, the whole endeavor rests upon some metaphysics that may not look so brave or trendy if given closer attention.

The first question: What’s so bad about assigning sex or gender at birth?  Is there something wrong with learning (accurately, in almost all cases) the sex of a child and raising that child in that gender role?   If the child is a boy, is it wrong to raise the child as a boy?  Is there something intrinsically wrong with raising the child as a boy to like masculine things?  The parents have all but taken a belt sander to any indication of the child’s biological sex, short of taking a belt sander to the kid.  Is being identified as a boy or girl really so bad?  If so, why?  As barbara findlay (a lawyer working with the family) says in the article,

“The assignment of sex in this culture is done when a medical person lifts up the legs and looks at the baby’s genitals. But we know that the baby’s own gender identity will not develop for some years until after they’re born.”

Am I to believe that a doctor or nurse–who goes to a great deal of time, trouble, and expense to learn medicine and biology–cannot identify a boy or girl upon sight at birth enough of the time to suggest that common sense is right?

Sure, the parents could be wrong about their child’s gender identity, as could any parents.  But it’s not out of malice to raise a child according to a gender role, and surely it’s not impossible to convey (for the same of the argument) that the parents did what they thought was in the best interest of the child, that the child would be amiss to hold that against them?  Right?

Question two: Why enforce a sort of gender agnosticism on everyone else? Why not apply a “true for you but not for me” rule and get on with life, if it works just fine for the rest of a person’s worldview?  Granting for 1) the sake of the argument, and 2) decency, that persons come to the conclusion that their bodies and minds are in a state of fundamental disagreement, does it necessarily follow that because this happens to a fraction of people that this uncertainty should be applied to everyone?  The child is unlikely to break the gender stereotype he or she was born with.  Possible, perhaps, and with the culture at large changing its views on gender roles, a decent bit more likely; but not necessarily because of an internal sense. If it is acceptable to redraw the lines, then they will get redrawn more often.  The idea that “no one should tell this child what he or she is” is an implicit, if unintentional, challenge to the idea that other people can have an objective, outside perspective, and that perspective might be right, even if you disagree with it.  It seems like a good way to turn an otherwise good kid into an insufferable snot who balks at all criticism or instruction, simply because he or she has been told too many times that whatever he or she chooses is right, everyone else be damned.  Why not allow for the natural consistency of reason to affect the child’s identity too?

Question three: The parents chose to give birth to their child outside of the Canadian health care system.  Was this done to avoid assigning gender?  If so, this could have turned out badly.  What if something had gone wrong during the delivery?  Surely the parents were not willing to risk life and limb simply to avoid someone saying “Oh, hey, congratulations on your son or daughter?” And it’s not like they had to pay a whole lot extra for a hospital delivery in Canada.

The parents raise some metaphysical (and physical) questions with their response to others:

Doty said the goal is for the child to discover their own gender identity — and so far the decision hasn’t been a problem, even when people ask if the baby is a boy or a girl.

“Often I’ll just say I don’t know yet, or I’m not rushing to apply those types of labels on this kid. Right now they’re just a baby.”

What do you mean, “I don’t know yet?”  Is there nothing more to being a boy or girl than a particular state of mind, that may or may not be consistent from one moment to the next?  Does biology play a purely secondary or even tertiary role in gender?  And if the doctors in all their patriarchical malice get the assigning gender part wrong, who’s to say they don’t get other things wrong too?  Like, say, the ‘baby’ part?  If observation isn’t good enough to establish an empirical source for the child’s biological sex, what other biological traits are we similarly confusing?  If not, why not?

The worldview expressed by the parents and their legal advocates can perhaps be described best as “sexual occasionalism,” and in this case, gender occasionalism.  Occasionalism, the old theological view that there is not a causal link between what we perceive as a cause and an effect (which was adapted to skepticism by Hume to deny miracles), has here been applied to human sexuality, the result being not just the disconnect between the body and the mind (or soul), but the obliteration of any link between the child’s biological being and his or her heretofore undeveloped sense of gender, to the point of an ambiguous (but somewhat masculine) name and ambiguous clothing and a simple, flat-out denial of the knowledge of the physical being of the child, not just a mental state or conclusion.  Gender is treated as a sort of momentary phenomenon, with no necessary link between a person’s gender identity at any given time and either a past or future gender identity, or even that individual’s own biological sex.  This is different from claims of a causal link between biology and sexual identity (e.g., “born that way”), but it is in fact the logical conclusion of transgender philosophy, and the enshrining of ‘uncertainty’ and the abolition of common sense.

To borrow an argument from Etienne Gilson, it is entirely possible that a child could be born with indeterminate sex, and we might not know at first glance if a child is in fact transgender. It does not follow that it is impossible to know the sex of any child simply because some children grow up and change their minds about their gender identity.  That is sophistry, and basing a person’s identity wholly upon a mental state is the wrong place to start to answer the question of sex and gender, but this particular sophistry is the foundation of transgender metaphysics.  Humans are a composite of body and soul, or body and mind; material and immaterial; but if we start in the mind, we will not get out of the mind, and I am not sure that this child or his parents will be able to get out of this child’s mind now that they’ve gotten there and are actively obscuring the ways out.