An article in The Local describes an effort underway in Sweden to offer alternate identity cards to those considering sex-reassignment surgery. The thinking is that those who self-identify as a gender other than their biological gender will be able to present themselves as the person they want to be.
I find this topic fascinating, because it challenges some of our most basic assumptions about what it means to be male or female. People ought to be able to be whoever they want. However, we must also recognize that the presence of people in society who don’t fit into our neat little categories poses some problems.
People like to be able to make assumptions about others. These assumptions save time and offer the illusory comfort that we live in a stable and predictable world. Sometimes though it becomes clear that certain time-honored assumptions are outdated and must be discarded, even at the expense of eliminating this source of comfort and challenging people to abandon their long-held prejudices. Most people today would agree that it is wrong to make assumptions about a person based on the color of her skin. However, it took a long and difficult struggle to get to this point. Along the way, many people were made to feel very uncomfortable, precisely because their assumptions were challenged.
Any time you challenge people’s basic assumptions, you’re going to make them uncomfortable.
One of the most basic assumptions people like to be able to make is that there are only two genders, and that it’s easy to tell who is a man and who is a woman. The presence of transgender people challenges this assumption.
I’ll give one specific example. Imagine a person who is biologically male, but prefers to identify as a woman. Should this person be allowed to share the same public facilities (toilets, changing rooms, etc) as other women? I dare say some erstwhile open minded women might find their open-mindedness challenged upon encountering this situation in real life. And what would be a solution to the problem that would be fair to everyone? I suppose one might suggest that separate facilities for men and women could be outlawed and that the state could enforce unisex facilities. That would eliminate the need to categorize oneself at all, and would be consistent with the trend toward blurring of the boundaries between the sexes. But although fair, that solution too would upset a great number of people, most notably women who like to feel safe in the assumption that their facilities are free of men.
Which assumptions are sacred, and which must be challenged? That’s not an easy question to answer.