An Open Letter to the Midwesterner on “Gender”

I grew up in a small town in South Dakota. Yes, people live there. My entire county had 1,500 people in it. My high school graduating class size? 50 something. I’ve lived in small towns most of my life. Not all of it. I got to see the world as an Army brat. But most of it.

If you’re anything like me, you probably first heard the word ‘transgender’ around 2013. And your first encounter with it probably wasn’t very positive. A video of some blue-haired college kid foaming at the mouth, calling someone every name under the sun because they dared to believe that boys are boys and girls are girls. That impression may not have changed much over the years. Especially if the extent of your exposure to transgendered people was just that same character, played by different personalities, blasted on social media for doing the same thing. Reinforcing the image, reinforcing the narrative.

And maybe you were like me and went on to find yourself in a social or religious community that was, to your surprise, loudly supportive of this new view about “gender.” Again, you may have found people being called a bigot, a fascist, a …God knows what, simply because they believed now what everyone believed not even 10 years ago. And maybe experiences like this pressured you into looking into the matter. But what you ran into was a mess of conflicting information, contradictory or circular definitions, and it all just made you think…let them figure their lives out while you get on with yours.

Now, with discussions about gender affirming care for adolescents all over the news, the topic has become even more divisive than ever before.

When I look out at the population right now, what I’m seeing is people digging trenches. I’m seeing division manifesting in tangible ways. More than I ever have. And that worries me. I have a family to take care of. Children to raise. I don’t want to see families torn apart or communities split down the middle. I’m also a curious person. I like to know things. And I want to know, maybe even once and for all, what is the truth about all of this.

Y’all are my people, you’re like me. And I’ve spent enough time with you to know what you think about this, and how you feel about it. I see what you’re going through. I’m going through it too. So, I wanna do this for you.

I’m deep diving into gender studies and searching for the truth. I want the facts to speak for themselves, I want the chips to fall where they may. And when the dust settles, you’ll be the first to see my findings.

But before all that, I wanted to lay some things on the table. How things seem to stand as of now. It’s not exhaustive, but I already know you’re unlikely to read all this. So, I picked some big ones. Maybe it’ll still be there by the end. Maybe it won’t.

In some ways, I want to defend you. And I’m going to call them out for how you’ve been treated. In other ways, I need to call you out too. Don’t act surprised. Not all of this will apply to you, but some of it needs saying anyway.

So, there’s gonna be some hard truths here and some tough love. But that’s the sort of guy I am, and I know you’re like that too. We need to have more real talks.

I’ve got a lot to learn about this area. But the logic isn’t anything new. And that’s what I’m really, really good at. Logic (formal and informal). That’s what I can bring to the table. My mind cuts through the bullshit all the time (especially my own). I just need to start saying these things out loud more often.

We’re in this one together. So, let’s finally get to the bottom of all this.

As of now, here’s where I think you’re right:

  1. I think you were right to not drop everything you’ve ever believed and were taught when you heard a whole new way of looking at gender for the first time. You’d be crazy if you did. It’s entirely reasonable to be skeptical of new concepts that don’t mesh at all with everything else you believe. Everyone knows that, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And while the information on this has exploded over the last few decades, I wouldn’t fault you for looking into it and seeing nothing but a mess. A jumble of conflicting and circular definitions, and rapidly evolving terminology. You might be thinking, just let them figure all this out, and I’ll just get along with my life. I get it.
  2. You are not a bigot or a “fascist” simply because you didn’t jump on a bandwagon. And that’s all it would have been to you at the time. It’s not like the scales fell from your eyes the moment you heard it because it’s just so self-evident and obvious it evaded us until now. Look, it’s gonna take some re-wiring. But that’s an epistemic right of yours, not a moral failure. What happens is you have epistemic standards, which are healthy and good to have, and the idea simply did not meet those when you heard it. Moreover, it never developed a sense of plausibility that would have merited reconsideration or further research into: if something sounds super far-fetched, you don’t have to immerse yourself in trying to figure out whether it’s true, especially just because it’s important or obvious to other people. They don’t act like that for all sorts of things, and it’s not fair to demand it of you. Again, everyone knows that, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But keep in mind that the reason this concept of gender may have struck you as so far-fetched is because of how it’s been consistently presented to you.
  3. I think you’re right that there are only two sexes. By that I mean there are quite literally only two types of gametes for humans: eggs and sperm. Moreover, our bodies develop and organize in those corresponding directions: sperm producers, or egg producers. While there may be only two overarching directions, because we “travel” to get to them in our bodily ‘blueprint’ and construction, this means that we don’t always reach those destinations: sometimes at all, but not ever in exactly the same ways. That means there is tons of biological diversity in our bodily composition, structure, and function. And I’m talking about everything from a bigger sized level of organs to the microscopic level of cells. But outliers accounted for, the norm for our species is males and females.

Here’s where I think you need a little talking to:

  1. Gender identity is real. It may very well be that a man is an adult human male, and a woman is an adult human female. But you know damn well there is more to being, say, a ‘man’ than there is to being an adult human male. You raise your boys to be men, don’t you? What do you teach them? How to be masculine? So, look, societies do associate rules with perceived sex. What was permissible for men to do in 15th century China may not be the same as what is permissible for men to do in 21st century America. Societies have a vision, made up of associations, of what men and women are supposed to be like. We each take ourselves to either conform or not conform to this vision. Guys, if you’d be uncomfortable wearing a mini skirt and high heels in public, it might be because you don’t identify with the sex that those behaviors are normal or socially permissible for. That means you have a gender identity. It’s not a choice for you, it’s what you look like to yourself; what it feels like in your own skin.
  2. While you’re worried about something called ‘transgenderism’ and getting triggered by random, crazy personalities on social media, there are actual trans people out there just trying to find happiness and to make a living in this life, just like you. They didn’t choose to have their gender identity any more than you did. And they have to face realities that I hope you never have to know; like social exclusion, depression, bullying and even disgust. Some of these people are children, kids who may not have the words yet for what they see when they look in a mirror, but nevertheless have a correspondingly developed gender identity for their age, as do we all. Think about that. We’re talking about their whole way of seeing themselves; the only ways in which they feel comfortable to live. You’re talking about turning their whole world upside down. You have no right to take that lightly, or to even do so at all without overwhelming, significant reason–as we in fact do with other forms of self-identities that we agree are mistaken. Transgendered people have been dehumanized by a political narrative, and the damage this has wrought is…hard to even comprehend, but heartbreaking. We are talking about people, human beings. They deserve every ounce of dignity, respect, compassion, empathy and protection. They are not an idea awaiting your verdict. If it turns out our original understanding of trans self-identification was correct, you should think of them no differently or less. And it’s hard to believe that needs saying, but just in case.
  3. Finally, and maybe even most importantly, search your soul for why you react to the “new” idea of gender the way you do. Because I know you do. Why is it so upsetting? Almost, personally offensive? Why does your mind go straight to dismissing their claims about science as politically charged or manipulated? Why jump straight for conspiracy? You know what all these symptoms are. You’d call it a spade if it were in anyone else. So, why is it happening to you? Be honest, it’s okay.

Like I said, there’s more. But I hope this is enough to get the cogs turning. If you take nothing else away from this, let it be that each of us is afflicted with knee-jerk reactions and judgements that breed division and conflict for no good reason. See them for what they are. They do you no favors, and you’ll be lighter without them.

In my studies so far, I have realized the science and philosophy of gender studies is riddled with cross purposes, confusing jargon, and conflicting claims. To my mind, this is a sign of decentralization, competing usages, and so, in a way, of life. It means things are happening, people are forging their way.

In any highly contested area, your first course of action should be to abstract the realities away from the labels to see what is truly being disagreed about. A problem well stated is a problem half solved. So, I recommend first dropping the labels, especially ‘gender’, and instead talking about the phenomena themselves. The question should be what is real, not, e.g., what thing do we call ‘sex’? I think you’ll find that a depressing amount of fighting and disagreement is purely semantic, and that we all agree on much, much more than anyone is comfortable admitting.

I am not even far into my studies yet, and I can already feel it changing me. I want to humanize what has been made to be about ideology. I want to empathize in places I once only analyzed. I hope you similarly experience some transformation. The actual treatment of transgendered people is more important than forming a view on ‘gender’.

I hope good comes of this. Until next time.


One thought on “An Open Letter to the Midwesterner on “Gender”

  1. “I want to humanize what has been made to be about ideology. I want to empathize in places I once only analyzed.“
    “ The actual treatment of transgendered people is more important than forming a view on ‘gender’.”
    ALL OF THIS. I’m so tired. I’m so tired of feeling like I need to be right and other people need to know it. I’m tired of feeling like it’s my job to convince others of my political views and religious beliefs. I’m tired of the small talk at the table on Christmas Day bashing this family member and that because they don’t believe the right thing. I’m tired. These are people. Not numbers. Not your enemy. It’s time we started humanizing every person, every body. I used to hate relativism, because the Church taught that there is ONE truth. Now I see it for what it is. It’s humility. It’s humble for me to admit “I don’t have all the answers. And neither do you. And your experience is just as valid as mine.” Ugh. Just, ugh.


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