The argument I’m going to make here isn’t a new one, but it’s important enough to be restated and recirculated.
I’m not all that old, but I’m still old enough to remember when the acronym was just LGB. From a Christian perspective, the LGB movement was misguided, but at least it was conceptually coherent. Even if you disagreed with LGB advocates, at least you understood what you were disagreeing with. I don’t know when the T became a permanent addition (this Google Ngram suggests the mid-90s), but whenever it was, that was the point the acronym became an unstable compound.
Here’s why. L, G, and B were originally understood in terms of the natural (and normative) sexual categories of male and female. L refers to women who are sexually attracted to women. G refers to men who are sexually attracted to men. B refers to people who are sexually attracted to both men and women. (Remember that ‘bi’ means two; ‘bisexual’ presupposes a binary sexual categorization.) Those definitions are intelligible even to those who hold to traditional sexual norms.
But T subverts all that by demanding that we detach those sexual categories from physical (anatomical) realities. According to transgender ideology, the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are to be understood in terms of gender identity (which is non-physical) rather than biological sex (which is physical). Yet the moment we do that, the L, G, and B become meaningless.
By way of illustration, consider the widely-discussed Gender Unicorn developed by an organization known as Trans Student Educational Resources. (The following critique can be just as well applied to the Genderbread Person; I leave that as an exercise for the reader.) The Gender Unicorn is a visual aid that is supposed to help us understand and navigate the complex and pitfall-laden terrain of modern sexuality and gender identity. According to the Unicorn, we need to distinguish five dimensions: (1) gender identity, (2) gender expression, (3) sex assigned at birth, (4) physical attraction, and (5) emotional attraction. Now consider the first and fourth of these. One’s gender identity can be ‘man’ or ‘woman’ (alongside other options) but these have nothing to do with one’s anatomy (note how the rainbow icon appears in a thought bubble; it’s a matter of internal self-perception). At the same time, one’s physical attraction, the Unicorn tells us, can be toward ‘men’ or ‘women’ (again, alongside other options). Yet one can only have a physical attraction toward that which is physical. So the meanings of ‘men’ and ‘women’ on the axis of physical attraction must be defined with reference to anatomy.
Hence the incoherence: T (which is concerned with gender identity) requires us to define ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in non-physical terms, but L, G, and B (which are concerned at least partly with physical attraction) require us to define ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in physical terms.
Now, one might argue that the incoherence can be easily resolved by drawing a distinction between two kinds of maleness and femaleness: between ‘gender’ (non-physical maleness/femaleness) and ‘sex’ (physical maleness/femaleness). But this move won’t save the Unicorn. In the first place, there’s no indication in the diagram itself that the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are being used equivocally. Indeed, the very opposite is the case: we’re informed that a person could be physically attracted to ‘women’, ‘men’, or ‘other gender(s)’ — implying that ‘women’ and ‘men’ are to be understood as genders (i.e., as they’re used when speaking of gender identity).
Furthermore, trans advocates have been very insistent that there can be no equivocation or discrimination: “trans women are women, full stop.” (Google the phrases “trans men are men” and “trans women are women” for countless further examples.) This point is not up for debate, we’re told.
Consider this thought experiment to bring out the absurdity of it all. Dan is biologically male and he thinks he’s straight. He’s introduced to someone called Jessie whom he believes to be a woman, based on her anatomy. Dan is physically attracted to Jessie. He soon learns, however, that Jessie actually identifies as a man. So as Jessie sees things — which is how Dan is supposed to see things, given that Jessie is the sole authority on Jessie’s gender identity — Jessie is really a man and therefore Dan is physically attracted to a man. It turns out that Dan, contrary to what he thought, is actually gay or bisexual. Surprise!
But things get only worse from here. Suppose that Jessie decides s/he is gender-fluid. His/her gender identity isn’t fixed but varies over time. Some days Jessie is a man; other days Jessie is a woman. It follows that Dan’s sexual orientation must be fluid too, because of his physical attraction to Jessie. Some days Dan is gay or bisexual; other days Dan is straight. So much for “born this way”!
The problem for LGBT ideology can be formulated as a dilemma. Either (1) ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are tied to physical form, in which case the concept of sexual orientation (LGB) is intelligible but the ideology of transgenderism (T) is indefensible, or (2) ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are not tied to physical form, in which case the concept of sexual orientation (LGB) is no longer intelligible. (I don’t think the T is intelligible in either case, since the ‘trans’ part is only meaningful with reference to anatomical sex, but leave that aside.)
So it seems to me that those who embrace the term LGBT face a formidable challenge: provide definitions of L, G, B, and T that both (1) satisfy the demands of transgender ideology and (2) comport with the conventional meanings of L, G, and B.
Side note #1: I happened to notice this week that a well-known evangelical scholar who previously identified as a “celibate gay Christian” has now embraced the LGBT (actually, LGBTQ) label. I wonder how deeply he has reflected on what the T means for his G.
Side note #2: None of the above implies that gender dysphoria isn’t a real condition that afflicts some people. It seems to me that gender dysphoria (what used to be called “gender identity disorder”) can be defined, diagnosed, and treated without buying into the transgenderist agenda. Indeed, gender dysphoria was a recognized medical condition long before the T became appended to LGB.