I’ve had my disagreements with Martin Cothran over the years. He’s a bigoted man, proud of teaching logic at a private school, yet utterly dependent on logical fallacies in his actual argumentation. He wants creationism taught in public schools. He dislikes gay people and anyone else who challenges his notions of how sex and gender should work. He enjoys quoting Holocaust-denying racists like Pat Buchanan and cross-burning racists like Charles Murray. He celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday by listing the blog posts from 2009 he’s most proud of. Sometimes he’s basically harmless, as when he berates local universities for allowing students to undertake a sex education week, and claiming that fuzzy pink handcuffs are evidence of sexual abuse.
Other times, his bigotry is less adorable. Consider his recent post mocking the notion of transgender, and mocking the transgendered. He also seems to think he’s the first to coin the notion of transhumanism.
Cothran has presumably been living under a rock for a while, having missed cultural phenomena like Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2003 novel Middlesex, a meditation on the fuzzy cultural and physical boundaries around sex and gender. He’s also apparently missed the debate surrounding Caster Semenya, the South African runner who has always thought of herself as a woman, and who has normal external female genitalia, but who turns out to have internal testes, and no ovaries or uterus.
Semenya and the 5-alpha-reductase deficient protagonist of Middlesex are not alone in complicating our understanding of gender as a necessary correlate of a specific genetic, biochemical, or anatomical status. Transgender individuals have the anatomy of one sex but identify with another. This identification starts early in life, and seems to be rooted in brain structure, among other things. The lives of transgendered children are incredibly difficult, and get no easier in college or later. The issue of transgender and intersex individuals in sports is especially fraught, as sporting is typically gender-segregated in ways that the rest of society is not.
These are genuine problems, requiring an understanding of biological, emotional, and sociological aspects of the situation. But rather than taking a serious and complex situation seriously, Cothran replies with the same snide dismissal that leads to bullying and that trivializes genuine discussion about complex issues. “So who is it that is mistakenly ‘assigning’ their gender at birth?,” Cothran asks, as if every baby is in a position to explain its own self-identity (“I’m a boy!”), rather than having a gender identity assigned by a doctor (“It’s a girl!”).
Cothran asks “There’s nothing to stop people from denying reality, but are the rest of us really obligated to play along?” If Cothran has his way, the answer would be “no.” The reality of transgender individuals is that their gender and their sex are not the same. This may make him uncomfortable, but it is reality, and the transgendered are under no obligation to play along with his denial of reality.