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The Rhubarb Patch: An online dialogue with transgender attorney Joanie Rae Wimmer

Oak Park attorney Joanie Rae Wimmer (pictured here) has been a frequent commenter on trans issues on my Facebook wall, so I invited her to have an email dialogue with me on the subject.  She grew up in Chicago Heights and LaGrange and went to law school at the University of Illinois. She went into solo practice in 1990 and won a landmark Equal Protection Clause case in the United States Supreme Court in 2000. She transitioned in 2008 and is divorced with three children.

From Eric Zorn:

I write here as a cisgender person who supports not just legal rights for those who are transgender and non-binary, but also social respect for them. I’m in the “no skin off my nose” camp that says, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, that it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg to extend full prerogatives and privileges to those of different gender identities and sexual orientations (not to mention different faiths, ethnicities and abilities).

That said, I’m wondering if you feel there are any limits to the idea behind the slogans “Trans women are women, full stop” and “Trans men are men, full stop.” Should there be any limits, definitional or otherwise, to the idea that people who declare themselves to be female when they were born male or male when they were born female should have access to all the opportunities and spaces traditionally reserved for those who identify with their birth gender.

Who should play girls and women’s sports, for instance? Who should be housed in women’s prisons or given accommodations in domestic violence shelters for women?

I will concede that these are not big problems, numerically speaking, at least not yet. Most concerns about public bathroom access seem like an effort to create a problem out of nothing. But there are philosophical and biological questions at their roots, and as more and more people are re-identifying they may more and more often become questions that actually matter.

What’s your take?  — Dec. 21. 2021

From Joanie Rae Wimmer

  I don’t think that there should be any limits “definitional or otherwise” to the gender identities of trans people. And I guess I sort of have issues with the idea that I was born male. Everyone has a gender identity. The gender identity is the deep seated sense in all of us of what gender we are. Gender identity is felt by most people at age 3, 4, or 5. I knew by age 4.

For most people, their gender identity corresponds to their assigned sex at birth. For a small percentage of the population, there is a discrepancy between their sense of who they are and their assigned sex at birth. “Self” is a very important word in understanding what it means to be transgender.

Gender/sex is a fundamental aspect of “self.” One cannot live one’s whole life with a false self. Sooner or later, the denial of one’s true self becomes too difficult to bear, and the person with the discrepancy between their assigned sex at birth and their gender identity either transitions into who they really are, or commits suicide, or dies of stress-related illness. That’s just the way it is.

Who are you? Where does your “self” reside? Does it reside in your body or your mind? If someone is a soldier and loses a limb in battle, like our brave Senator Tammy Duckworth, is the person’s self intact? Is the person the same person that they were before? If someone gets progressive dementia, can the self be eventually erased?

It seems clear to me that the human self resides in the mind. That’s why all efforts to “cure” transgender people through the mind — i.e, therapy — have proven unsuccessful over the years. You can’t change the “self.” You can’t change your sense of who you fundamentally are.

Reparative therapy is more like a “re-education camp.” So, the medical profession has learned that to help some people with this discrepancy, it is necessary to change their bodies to match their sense of self.

Am I a woman, full stop? Yes, because I have a female gender identity. My “self” is female and always was. Does that mean I accept our society’s patriarchal gender expectations? Hell no. But I am female in the same sense that a soldier who loses a limb is still the same person they were before. The sense of self does not reside in the arm, or in the vagina or the penis. It resides in the mind.

Should society treat me for all legal purposes as a woman? Yes, because that is who I am.

You ask , “Who should play girls and women’s sports, for instance?” The answer is women and girls, of course.

But, some will say, don’t transgender women and girls have an unfair genetic advantage over cisgender women and girls? No, they don’t. The advantages, if they exist, are “unfair” only to people who do not consider transgender women and girls to be “real” women and girls in the first place.

Allow me to illustrate. NBA great Wilt Chamberlain, in his playing days, was 7-feet, 1-inches tall. He had a genetic advantage in the sport of basketball over people of average height. Yet no one claims his advantage was “unfair.” Why? Why is it fair for Wilt Chamberlain to play basketball without restriction, yet it is “unfair” to allow a transgender woman or girl to play a sport without restrictions?

Some people’s genetics make them long and lanky. That is a huge advantage in long distance running. Yet no one says that their advantage is “unfair.”

It is “unfair” to allow a transgender woman or girl to play women’s or girls’ sports without restrictions only if one does not consider transgender women and girls to be “real” women and girls. Which, of course, is blatant cis-sexism.

“I am a real woman because I was born with a vagina,” is really not too much different from “I am a real important person because I have white skin” or “I am a real person because I didn’t have one of my limbs shot off in combat.” — Jan, 13, 2022

From Eric Zorn:

To be candid, I want to admit that I don’t know what it means to sense that one is of a different gender than one’s genitals at birth would suggest.

What attributes or inclinations or habits of mind make one female or male? When you came to sense that you were a girl/woman, what were the markers of that feeling? What were the reference points?

I’m genuinely curious, not challenging you in any way, since it’s my sense that some of the locutions about transgenderism are somewhat circular. Though of course the same may be true of cisgenderism: My identity as a male is, aside from birth biology, rooted in stereotypes and expectations that double back upon themselves.

And I concede that my curiosity is – or ought to be – irrelevant. Certainly when it comes to the law and most social customs. A trans woman asks no more of me than a cis woman, which is to granted equality, dignity and respect. I’m sure we’re on the same page there.

Where my curiosity is perhaps more relevant is when it comes to the degree of deference we – society, custom, law, regulations – ought to give when it comes to declarations of gender identity.

In other words, is a woman anyone who says they identify as a woman, no questions asked and no qualifications required?

I ask this not to trivialize the issue in any way but to interrogate the concept itself. When someone who has presented and identified as female says “now I am male,” is it our obligation to flip the switch in our understanding without skipping a beat?

Certainly when it comes to sports, various governing bodies require hormone suppression over a period of time for male-to-female transitions in order to prevent opportunistic boys from showing up at girls basketball tryouts and taking all or nearly all the spots on the team.

I’m not persuaded, by the way, by the Wilt Chamberlain argument. That point – some people have genetic advantages over others when it comes to sports and we don’t think that’s “unfair” so we should not consider genetic advantages when discussing transwomen in women’s sports — would mean the end of girls’ and women’s sports if taken to its logical conclusion.

You wouldn’t say to a promising female swimmer, “Sorry, the boys all swam faster so you’re not on the team, but it’s fair because certain people are born with genetic advantages.”

Speaking of which…. Lia Thomas is making more and more news. She’s a transgender woman who for the first three years of her collegiate career identified as male and swam for the University of Pennsylvania. Now swimming on the women’s team she “ owns the best marks in the nation among college swimmers in the 200 and 500 freestyle,” according to a New York Times article.

The Washington Post has reported  that, “this season, she posted a 1:41.93 (in the 200 freestyle) a 2.6 percent drop in her best time (when was swimming on the men’s team), but the fastest time by any female college swimmer this year, 0.64 seconds faster than Olympian Torri Huske. Thomas also has posted the nation’s best 500-yard freestyle time this season at 4:34.06, nearly three seconds faster than Olympian Brooke Forde.”\

At invitational meet in Akron in early December she beat her nearest competitor by 38 seconds in the 1650-yard freestyle race, according to a Newsweek account

Thomas’ leap to superstar status accompanied a transition that begin with hormone replacement therapy in 2019. And it seems to belie the NCAA’s 2011 proclamation that “any strength and endurance advantages a transgender woman arguably may have as a result of her prior testosterone levels dissipate after about one year of estrogen or testosterone-suppression therapy.”

And of course this has kicked up a predictable fuss from not only the usual soldiers in the culture war but parents of cis-female athletes who think making them compete against athletes who have had the benefits of going through puberty as male is unfair.

The attendant controversy is likely to grow as we head toward the 2022 NCAA swimming and diving championships March 16-19 in Atlanta.

Similarly there are women who are otherwise fine with trans rights but are not comfortable with trans women in domestic violence shelters or in women’s prisons.

Are the concerns of all such people to be dismissed as rank bigotry, or are there compromises and accommodations that you see as reasonable? — Jan. 20, 2022

From Joanie Rae Wimmer:

You ask “What attributes or inclinations or habits of mind make one female or male? When you came to sense that you were a girl/woman, what were the markers of that feeling? What were the reference points?”

This is a very personal question, and I’m sure that different transgender people would answer it, if at all, differently. And bear in mind, you are asking me about things that occurred beginning in the late 1950s. I was a very open and gentle child.

I remember that, when I was five years old, I used to like playing dolls with my older sister and her friend in the basement of our house. My father did not like that, and my parents told me not to do that. I remember one year, when I was five or six, my parents gave models to my sister and me for Christmas, the models that you paint and glue together. My sister got two beautiful bird models, and I got two warships or planes. And I remember wishing I had gotten the beautiful bird models. I was sort of a pariah in my elementary school class, I’m sure because I was different.

I have a vivid memory in high school of policing the way I walked and talked so that I would appear and sound masculine and tough and not be made fun of. I could probably go on, but that’s a good start.

There is a word that comes from the Greek: “dysphoria.” It is the opposite of “euphoria,” just as utopia is the opposite of dystopia. There is a definition of gender dysphoria in the diagnostic and statistical manual of the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM-V. It is defined as follows:

“A marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender, of at least six months’ duration, as manifested by at least two or more of the following:

1. A marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and primary and/or secondary sex characteristics (or in young adolescents, the anticipated secondary sex characteristics)

2. A strong desire to be rid of one’s primary and/or secondary sex characteristics because of a marked incongruence with one’s experienced/expressed gender (or in young adolescents, a desire to prevent the development of the anticipated secondary sex characteristics)

3. A strong desire for the primary and/or secondary sex characteristics of the other gender

4. A strong desire to be of the other gender (or some alternative gender different from one’s assigned gender)

5. A strong desire to be treated as the other gender (or some alternative gender different from one’s assigned gender)

6. A strong conviction that one has the typical feelings and reactions of the other gender (or some alternative gender different from one’s assigned gender) The condition is associated with clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

I, personally, would have no problem in restricting participation, in or use of single sex sports or facilities to people who experience gender dysphoria if there were free access to mental health care in this country, although I am sure that there are some transgender activists who would disagree with me.

It seems to me that, if one does not experience dysphoria in presenting or living as one’s assigned sex at birth, e.g., if a person’s assigned sex at birth was male and he is comfortable as a male, society does not owe a him spot on the girl’s softball team or a place in the women’s room.

But there is a real life concern under our current healthcare system that poor people who suffer from gender dysphoria may have difficulty in obtaining a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

So where does that leave us? I guess in cases where someone raises a stink about a person’s participation in or use of a single sex activity or facility, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria should trump the concerns of those raising a stink, and, if the trans person cannot access mental health care, the expense of determining whether the person suffers from gender dysphoria should be on the school, the organization, or the person challenging the participation or use.

In my prior answer to you I said you should only consider it “unfair” to allow a transgender woman or girl to play women’s or girls’ sports without restrictions only if you don’t consider transgender women and girls to be “real” women and girls.

You appear to have proved my point in your hypothetical statement to the promising female swimmer: “Sorry, the boys all swam faster so you’re not on the team, but it’s fair because certain people are born with genetic advantages.”

In that hypothetical statement, you are calling transgender girls “boys.” And, yes, Eric, if you believe that transgender girls are boys, then no wonder you believe their genetic advantages in girls’ sports are “unfair.” But transgender girls are not boys.

About the Penn swimmer Lia Thomas: The Olympics began allowing trans athletes in 2004. There has still not been a gold medal for a male-to-female transgender athlete. So the idea that allowing transgender women and girls to participate in women’s and girls’ sports will destroy those sports is an overblown right-wing talking point.

My views on domestic violence shelters and prisons is the same as my views on sports. The only reasonable compromise which makes sense to me is to restrict single sex activities and facilities to those trans people who suffer from gender dysphoria, and to require that poor people who cannot access mental health care be provided access to determine if they suffer from gender dysphoria. But not allowing trans people who suffer from gender dysphoria to participate fully in society according to their gender identity is, indeed, “rank bigotry.” — Jan 23, 2022

From Eric Zorn:

Just to be clear, in my hypothetical example, there is only one swim team at the school because the Wilt Chamberlain argument has been taken to its logical extreme – that argument says that certain people have genetic advantages over others for certain sports and that’s just how it is.

So if there is only one team, we will inevitably say to aspiring swimmers who were born female and identify as female, “Too bad for you that biology didn’t douse you with testosterone as you were going through puberty and give you the heart, lung and muscle capacity to swim as fast as those who were born male and identify as male.”

(As an aside, Joanie, you and I are showing our age when we reference Wilt Chamberlain, the legendary basketball star who stood 7’1” and dominated the NBA. He retired 49 years ago and died 23 years ago. There are currently five players taller than 7’1” in the NBA.)

Nearly all of us have agreed that the result of such a blithe attitude about genetics, hormones etc. would be unacceptable.

Girls – those identified as female at birth who continue to identify as female – would be all but shut out of interscholastic sports. Lest I be accused of sexism, consider the Illinois state high school boys track records compared to the world records for women:

100 meter dash:  10.31 /  10.49

400 meter run          46.24    /  47.60

800 meter run   1:49.71  /   1:53.28

high jump      7’-3” ½    /   6’-10”¼

long jump     25’-0”  /   ¼ 24’-8¼”

So we quite sensibly segregate sports by gender, and the question on the table becomes how do we incorporate / accommodate trans girls or trans women into the once rigid gender binary?

I like to think that people of goodwill could come up with compromise accommodations to level the playing field, so to speak, but two things strike me:

One is that not everyone approaches this issue with goodwill in their hearts. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that contempt for trans people fueled by confusion, intolerance and perhaps even fear is all too common.

And the other is that it’s not simple to figure out just where the lines should be drawn.

Ideally, a transitioned Lia Thomas would perform about as well competitively as she did when she identified and swam as a male. That is, after her transition, her times compared to the best female swimmers in the nation would be similar to her times compared to the best male swimmers in the nation when she identified and swam as a male.

That this is not the case is understandably seen by many as problematic and portentous.

Various sporting bodies, including the International Olympic Committee, have standards and rules and tests that have so far minimized public concern about this, but the Lia Thomas story is pushing the issue back into the spotlight: What makes a girl a girl? What makes a boy a boy?

For sports it’s more than just say-so in most cases. For traditionally segregated spaces such as prisons, locker rooms and domestic violence shelters it can be a tough question. But generally, I’m sure we agree that it shouldn’t be an issue of concern.

Your transition, for example, makes no difference to me. And I say that with respect and acceptance. It neither disadvantages nor discommodes me in any way to acknowledge your gender identity – if that’s the proper term; maybe simply “gender” is more correct? – and to refer to and think of you as a woman.

At some level, though, it prompts me to ask questions of myself (and, here, of you) that I’ve not really thought of before. What does it mean to identify as a particular gender anyway?

The vast majority of us who were born with male genitalia, given a name traditionally associated with boys, referred to as a boy, lumped in with boys and participated in traditionally boy/male activities have never given the matter much thought.

Is there a way of defining non-biological gender identity that doesn’t ultimately circle back to stereotypes and social expectations?

For instance, you write “I was a very open and gentle child. I remember that, when I was five years old, I used to like playing dolls with my older sister and her friend,” and then you reference wishing you’d gotten bird models for Christmas one year, like your sister did, instead of military toys.

These feelings violated culturally defined gender stereotypes that, if they weren’t entrenched, might not have caused you to question your own gender identity. Or?  Do you think gender dysphoria is prompted or accelerated by social expectations?

The “marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and primary and/or secondary sex characteristics” and the “strong conviction that one has the typical feelings and reactions of the other gender” cited as markers of gender dysphoria by the diagnostic and statistical manual of the American Psychiatric Association seem based on social preconceptions.

The  “incongruence” is between how are person believes he or she expected to behave, feel, and react to situations and how that person actually behaves, feels and reacts. It would seem to me, then, that part of the source of this “significant distress or impairment” is connected to definitions of gender identity that are too narrow and rigid.

Boys should be comfortable in being open and gentle and in eschewing war toys, as there ought to be nothing discordant between that and being male. Similarly, girls should not feel a conflict between female identity and preferences for activities and habits of mind and dress usually associated with boys.

But I’m projecting here from a position of ignorance that I freely admit to, so I’ll hit “send”   after posing one more question:

You spent much of your life trying to live as someone you were not, which I’m sure was very difficult. But do you think parents and medical professionals have become too willing to begin medical interventions to aid in the transition of children who are experiencing gender dysphoria? — Feb. 11, 2022

From Joanie Rae Wimmer: 

I’d like to respond first to your interesting questions about what it means to identify as a particular gender and whether there is a way of defining non-biological gender identity that doesn’t ultimately circle back to stereotypes and social expectations. Then I’ll respond to your question about medical interventions to aid in the transition of children who are suffering from gender dysphoria. In a subsequent email I will say more about sports, prisons, etc.

People have a lot invested relating to the questions you are asking, and the concepts you are discussing. It’s hard to discuss these things without offending or hurting some people, and I imagine I will fail to get through this unscathed, but I’ll do my best.

There is a big difference, from my perspective, between rejection of our society’s gender expectations, on the one hand, and being transgender, on the other. So, for example, a man who is not particularly aggressive, who is more comfortable in consensus building than competition, who is a nurturing caregiver for his children, who likes to cook and sew, is not transgender by virtue of those characteristics. By the same token, a woman who is a combat soldier, who is not interested in having children, who is not interested in hearth and home, is not transgender by virtue of those characteristics.

Being transgender can involve the physical body. In my case, when I transitioned, I had electrolysis done to remove my facial hair; I had hormone therapy (estrogen) which softened my skin, redistributed my fat, and caused me to develop breasts. I also had a vaginoplasty which converted my penis and scrotum into labia, a vagina, and a clitoris. And I am much more comfortable in my body now than I was before. So in my case, the gender dysphoria had a significant physical aspect. And, of course, one of the criteria in the DSM-V definition of gender dysphoria is “[a] strong desire for the primary and/or secondary sex characteristics of the other gender.”

But it is undeniable that there are emotional and social aspects to gender dysphoria as you astutely pointed out in your email. People are social animals. And gender is a fundamental aspect of who our selves (to use that important word again) are and how we relate emotionally, socially, and sexually.

So are there differences between men and women other than the shape of our physical bodies? Or is gender, apart from the physical body, entirely a social construct?

I tend to think that the answer lies, in part, in chemicals and bell shaped curves. There is no doubt that the chemicals our bodies produce have an effect on how we feel and how we behave. In particular, there are significant differences between how testosterone affects the way we feel and behave and relate, and how estrogen affects the way we feel and behave and relate.

I know this because, at different points in my life, I have had quite different levels of those two chemicals.

Both men’s bodies and women’s bodies produce both testosterone and estrogen, but, of course, in teenagers and adults, men’s bodies have much more testosterone than estrogen, and women’s bodies have much more estrogen than testosterone. Testosterone has been shown to affect aggressiveness, and we are still learning how testosterone and estrogen affect us biologically, emotionally, mentally, and socially.

I don’t think it is far fetched to suggest that there are probably differing bell shaped curves with respect to sex/gender and certain characteristics affected by those chemicals.

So, for example, consider nurturing and consensus building. If you plotted bell curves from very comfortable and effective at nurturing and consensus building to very uncomfortable and ineffective, and plotted the population of men and women separately, those bell curves would certainly overlap, but perhaps the highest point in those bell curves would be in different locations as a result of the chemicals our bodies produce?

Do the same thing with aggression and competitiveness. I would think that the bell curves for men and women, although they overlap, might be in different locations as a result of the chemicals that our bodies produce.

Does that mean that no women will be highly comfortable and effective with aggression and competitiveness? No. We are talking about bell curves. There are women on both ends of and all across all of the bell curves and there are men on both ends of and all across all of the bell curves.

Does that mean that no men will be excellent nurturing consensus builders? No. These are bell curves.

Does that mean women or men should be excluded or considered less desirable for filling certain jobs? No. These are bell curves and we are all individuals and should be considered as separate individuals.

What it does mean, to me, anyway, is that gender, apart from our physical bodies, is not entirely a social construct, that, on the average, men and women have somewhat different ways of feeling and relating to others and the world, and that those differences are a part of what makes someone transgender. How could they not be? Human beings are complicated creatures with physical, emotional, social, sexual, and spiritual characteristics which make up the “self.”

So I would think that our gender identity has both physical as well as social and emotional components, and that the social and emotional components involve how we feel and relate to others and the world.

So, in answer to your question, “What does it mean to identify as a particular gender anyway”? I think each of us has a sense of our selves (going back to that important word “self”) as male or female or, as the DSM-V says, “some alternative gender.” And that sense of self involves physical, sexual, emotional, social, and, perhaps other components.

When there is a discrepancy between the self one is and the sex/gender one is assigned at birth and that discrepancy causes clinically significant distress or impairment in important areas of functioning, then there is a problem.

So take a young child, assigned male at birth, who likes playing with dolls and wants to paint models of birds. It’s possible that that child has a male gender identity, and he just likes dolls and birds, and it’s possible that that child has a female gender identity, and she likes dolls and birds.

But whatever the child says that he or she or they (in the case of a non-binary person) is/are, it is not the job of the parents or society to tell the child that they are wrong, that their self is different from what they feel, and that they must live as a different self.

You ask, “Do you think that gender dysphoria is prompted or accelerated by social expectations?”

That’s a very good question, and I don’t feel comfortable even trying to answer it. I would like to think that gender dysphoria is not prompted or accelerated by social expectations, but if one imagines a society which is extremely strict and straitjacketed in terms of sex/gender, it is conceivable to me that it could make it more difficult for people on the edges who might not have clinically significant distress or impairment in a less structured society. I just don’t know. I do know that I think societies are healthier and produce healthier people to the extent that there are fewer and less rigidly enforced gender expectations.

You say, “I’m projecting here from a position of ignorance that I freely admit to.” But I’m not so sure that you need to fall on your sword that way.

We are all somewhat ignorant about the transgender phenomenon, in part because our American society did not tolerate transgender people at all until recently. We were considered mentally disordered until the DSM-V came out in 2013. Our society’s understanding of these issues is quite in its infancy which is why I find your questions so much fun and so interesting.

We do know that there is a small percentage of people who have “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” as a result of their assigned sex at birth. And while we used to force those people to live with that distress, or else give people like that electro-convulsive therapy, put them in mental institutions, marginalize and mock them, render them homeless, etc., a growing majority of our society doesn’t wish to do those things any more, although there is certainly a sizable population which would like to go back to the “good old days.”

So you are not in a position of ignorance much different from the rest of us.

You ask, “[D]o you think parents and medical professionals have become too willing to begin medical interventions to aid in the transition of children who are experiencing gender dysphoria?”

I don’t, but my knowledge in this area is limited. The only medical interventions I am aware of involving children are drugs which postpone puberty until the children are old enough to decide for themselves whether medical transition is something they need. I am unaware of any studies suggesting long term ill medical consequences of the use of puberty blockers in the case of children who end up not transitioning. I can say that I have male pattern baldness because I went into adulthood as a male. I wish I didn’t have male pattern baldness. If transgender kids go through puberty, and they develop secondary sex characteristics associated with their assigned sex at birth, it makes their physical transition to the other sex/gender more difficult and less satisfactory. I guess the answer to this question really depends on whether there is any peer reviewed evidence that postponing puberty pharmacologically causes problems, and I am unaware of such evidence.  — Feb. 14, 2022

From Eric Zorn:

I apologize for the gap in our correspondence, something I was reminded of by your recent zesty back and forth in the comments area of my Facebook page   where you raise some points I’d like to touch on.

But first, in reference to your letter above, I very much appreciate your candor and your efforts to explain the feelings of gender dysphoria. At some level such explanations to cisgendered people may be like trying to explain color to a person who has been totally blind since birth or describe music to a person who has been totally deaf since birth – at some point words simply can’t convey what the speaker (in this case you) understands viscerally.

I do have a question for you that, if it’s too personal, I will apologize for and withdraw:   As you were experiencing gender dysphoria as an adult and anticipating the myriad of difficulties and changes that transition might occasion, did you consider or engage in hormonal or other sorts of therapies that might realign your gender identity more closely to the identity you were assigned at birth?  I ask in part because you mentioned having experienced vastly different levels of testosterone and estrogen in your life.

As an adult, of course, you had the life experience and maturity to weigh all the feelings, options and consequences properly and in perspective.  But I do have some questions/concerns about the capacity of tweens and adolescents to make permanently altering decisions while they’re still too young to drive or vote.  Gender reassignment surgery for minors therefore strikes me as unwise, though it’s certainly a decision I’d leave up to parents and their children, not busybody Republican lawmakers who seem to think society can shame and marginalize trans people out of existence.

It’s hard to tease out what’s good science and what’s agenda driven research propaganda when it comes to puberty blockers.

From a New York Times article in May, 2021:

Among the significant benefits of puberty blockers are a reduction in suicidal tendencies, which are often high in transgender adolescents, and a reduced need for expensive gender-affirming operations as adults. But while puberty blockers are commonly referred to as “fully reversible,” more research is needed to fully understand the impact they may have on certain patients’ fertility. There is also little known about the drugs’ lasting effects on brain development and bone mineral density.

The Mayo clinic site on puberty blockers is generally positive but warns of..

Long-term effects on growth spurts, bone growth and density (and)
future fertility.  …  If children with male genitalia begin using GnRH analogues early in puberty, they might not develop enough penile and scrotal skin for certain gender affirming genital surgical procedures, such as penile inversion vaginoplasty.  

Again, the use of such therapieson minors seems to me like it ought to be up to well-informed parents and their children.

Anyway, on to Facebook and the comment thread that turned into a discussion of trans woman collegiate swimming star Lia Thomas, who recently did well in the NCAA championship meet but did not set world records or win every race. Her rise to prominence has occurred at roughly the same time that many red states have passed highly restrictive bans on trans girls – people assigned male at birth —  participating in girls’ and women’s sports.

You attribute such legislative moves and expressions of concern about fairness as simple transphobia,  but that strikes me as facile.  We separate the sexes for sporting competitions because of the long-standing and fairly obvious observation that male body chemistry, particularly as it relates to developments in puberty, confer physical advantages that no amount of training or effort can overcome at the highest levels.

I noted above that the Illinois boys’ high school track and field records are consistently better than the international adult women’s track and field records.

So I can understand why athletes assigned female at birth and their parents would have genuine, non-phobic concerns about competing against trans women, particularly those who have gone through puberty as male.

You wrote  on Facebook, “I’m a fan of Brittney Griner, the Women’s National Basketball Association player being held in Russia. Griner 6 ft 9 in tall; she wears a men’s US size 17 shoe and has an arm span of 87.5 inches. Yet no one would suggest that her athletic advantages are ‘unfair.’ Why is that?”

The answer is fairly simple: Griner came by her physical advantages naturally, without chemical interventions.   If it were discovered that she took testosterone or had other medical treatments through childhood in order to develop the size advantage she now has, many people would be not just suggesting but yelling that her participation in the WNBA is unfair, the result of performance enhancement technology.

You wrote that “Fifty years from now, people will look back on (Lia Thomas) the way we look back on Jackie Robinson. And (on skeptics as)  the modern day Ben Chapmans.” (Chapman was the Phillies manager in 1947  who taunted Robinson with racist epithets and insults.)

I doubt that. My guess is that we’ll come to see this as an era of misunderstanding and experimentation where we stumbled in good-faith efforts to balance the rights and opportunities for trans women and girls with  the rights and opportunities for those assigned female at birth.

Columnist Mona Charen,  with whom I rarely agree on anything, ended a column the other day with what I thought was a crisp and accurate summation:  “Progressives have stampeded to treat transsexuality as a civil rights issue before medical science has had a chance to measure what’s really going on and how best to respond,” she wrote. “Conservatives are responding with cruelty. We need to slow down and learn more.”

My hope is that as we learn more, this inflammatory sports issue will fade to a non-issue and we can get on with assuring that trans individuals have the same rights and are afforded the same respect and dignity as everyone else. — March 28, 2022

From Joanie Rae Wimmer:

No apologies necessary for the gap in our correspondence. As in all friendships, acquaintanceships, and relationships, we will come together when we choose to do so. Your most recent missive was rather long. Let me see how far I can get tonight.

Thank you for your question: “As you were experiencing gender dysphoria as an adult and anticipating the myriad of difficulties and changes that transition might occasion, did you consider or engage in hormonal or other sorts of therapies that might realign your gender identity more closely to the identity you were assigned at birth?”

I did not. And your question makes me feel that I have not explained very well in our prior correspondences what it means to be transgender.

Let me try again. Everybody has a self, an identity, a sense of who they are. When a transgender person is not accepted as who they are, they often have to create a faux self to be accepted in their family or in society. In the book True Selves–Understanding Transsexualism, by Brown and Rounsley, which is somewhat dated, having been published in 1996, the authors have a section about transgender youth called “Young Actors, Chameleons, and Impostors.” What follows is part of that section.

“Children who are gender dysphoric have a formidable secret. They learn at a very early age that what they really feel about their gender must be kept locked inside if they want to fit in and to belong. They often put all of their energy into trying to become what their parents and society want them to be. They become skilled little actors and chameleons, readily able to change at will to suit the circumstances. They do this by trying to determine what other people want and expect from them and then acting accordingly. They often become adept at their roles and at pleasing others. They want to convince the world that they are ‘normal.’ They typically seek to play their parts to perfection as the “good son” or the “perfect daughter.” It doesn’t take them long to figure out that as long as they pretend to be what they are expected to be, they may be able to fool the world and not get hassled. Now and then they may even be able to fool themselves.” For a while, I should add.

The foregoing sort of describes my growing up period and early adulthood. But being a chameleon exacts a horrible price. I almost thoroughly repressed my true self until my late forties. When I ultimately realized what was happening, I was literally horrified at how I had, for so long, so thoroughly and completely hated and disrespected my true self. I realized that if I transitioned, no one, not the Westboro Baptist Church, not the most virulent homophobe/transphobe, could ever hurt me or disrespect me more than I had already hurt and disrespected my self.

And freeing my true self from the prison I had created for her took a long time and a lot of therapy. The last thing I would have ever done was try to become more male. Or to take testosterone, which I had come to understand was a poison for me, at least in the dosages which my body had created. I had been trying to be male for over forty years. I was done with that. You cannot align your self with a gender that isn’t you. Your self exists stubbornly, even if you repress it for forty years at tremendous cost to yourself.

Eric, assuming that you are cis-gender, it would be like you trying to become female on a permanent basis. Try to imagine that for a while. Conversion therapy doesn’t work. It’s been tried over and over and over again. All it does is to hurt the patient more and more. At the end of the day, you have to be who you are.

As to gender reassignment surgery, in the WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health) Standards of Care (7th Version) (the current version), one of the criteria required for genital surgery is that the patient be of the age of majority. The WPATH Standards of Care are the gold standard for health care for transgender or gender non-conforming people.

I understand the cautions relating to puberty blockers, especially the concern about not having enough tissue for later gender confirming surgery. I can share a joke with you that my surgeon told me when I met her at my pre-surgery appointment. My doctor stretched my penis out and remarked, “Oh, this is fine–there is enough here for a small handbag!” Which is important because, unlike what our detractors say, in the case of AMABs (assigned male at birth), the penis and scrotum are not cut off and discarded but refashioned into a vagina, clitoris and vulva.

As to the sports issue, Eric, I just disagree with you, and I don’t think you have really answered effectively my position.

Brittney Griner, who is 6’9″ tall, wears a men’s US size 17 shoe, and has an arm span of 87.5 inches has an incredible genetic advantage over other women in the sport of basketball. There are lots of factors, lots of genetics and body chemistry that contributed to those advantages. Why are they “fair,” and the genetic advantages that trans women have “unfair”? No one, including you, has given me a sensible, defensible answer to that question. You say Griner came about her advantages naturally, without chemical interventions. Well, yes and no. Lia Thomas is indistinguishable in that regard. They are both women whose bodies, when they were growing up, responded to a myriad of genetic, chemical, and hormonal inputs which gave them athletic advantages over other women. Griner didn’t get to be 6’9″ tall without a lot of human growth hormone–that’s a chemical just like the hormone testosterone. Neither person took performance enhancing drugs.

But make no mistake–there were chemicals involved in Brittney Griner’s growth and development, the same as there were for Lia Thomas. The only difference I can see is that Thomas is transgender and Griner is cis-gender, so some people suggest that Thomas’ advantages are “unfair,” and Griner’s are “fair.”

As to the following comment by columnist Mona Charen: “Progressives have stampeded to treat transsexuality as a civil rights issue before medical science has had a chance to measure what’s really going on and how best to respond.”

That, with all due respect, is complete nonsense. We are on the Seventh Version of the WPATH Standards of Care. Professionals in the field have been treating transgender patients for years. Dr. Henry Biber in Trinidad, Colorado, who was my surgeon’s mentor, began performing genital surgeries over 50 years ago. And to tell transgender people to wait, to continue literally to suffer, until columnists like Mona Charen feel comfortable about things, is like white people telling black people they have to wait for complete equality.

Transsexuality certainly is a civil rights issue. Back in 2011, I was fortunate enough to represent my friend, Venessa Fitzsimmons, in a case against a taxi company. According to the evidence in the case, her boss used to call her an “abomination,” a “queer”, and a “freak.” According to the evidence in the case, her boss would not let her come into the office because he claimed she would scare customers away. According to the evidence, her boss refused to repair her taxi although the company repaired the taxis of other drivers.  (See Illinois transgender woman awarded in employment suit – Windy City Times News)

Please, Eric, don’t tell me that being transgender is not a civil rights issue. We are not going to wait any longer. I remember my father, may he rest in peace, used to tell me, referring to social changes required for trans equality, “These things take time.” But he didn’t have to go to work and be called an “abomination,” a “queer,” and a “freak.” It’s easy to tell other people who are suffering, “These things take time.”

Now one of your readers once suggested that I did not appreciate you as an ally, but that I was quite confrontational in my letters to you. Let me say clearly that I do appreciate you as an ally. You ask questions. You have published what I had to say about this. You have an open and inquisitive mind. And, you bring an important perspective which I realize I may not have.

I am in the trenches, fighting the battle for my own personal trans equality every day. Sometimes, it’s good that the perspective of a general or a political leader be different from that of the soldier. How do you get elderly folks in the bungalow belt to be totally down with queerness? 🙂 How do you get the Cardinal of the Archdiocese to be totally cool with the Dyke March? I’m not sure. The official position of the Roman Catholic Church is that I cannot be a godparent because I “publicly show an attitude contrary to the moral requirement to resolve one’s sexual identity problem according to the truth of one’s sex.”

You are absolutely an ally because you are exploring and listening and sharing thoughts and perspectives.  — March 31, 2022

From Eric Zorn

During the confirmation hearings for now Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, asked the nominee, “Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?”

This was widely seen as a gotcha question, a match thrown on the gasoline-soaked culture wars, and Jackson dodged the question by saying it was outside of her role on the bench, saying, “I’m not a biologist.”

Blackburn pressed on: “The fact that you can’t give me a straight answer about something as fundamental as what a woman is underscores the dangers of the kind of progressive education that we are hearing about. Just last week, an entire generation of young girls watched as our taxpayer-funded institutions permitted a biological man to compete and be a biological woman in the NCAA. swimming championships. What message do you think this sends to girls who aspire to compete and win in sports at the highest levels?”

Jackson replied with a version of the traditional demurral: “Senator, I’m not sure what message that sends,” she said. “If you’re asking me about the legal issues related to it — those are topics that are being hotly discussed, as you say, and could come to the court. … If there’s a dispute about a definition, people make arguments and I look at the law and I decide.”

Of course,as our correspondence so far has underscored, gender issues – identity issues – are complex and definitions aren’t easy.

North Carolina Republican Congressman Madison Cawthorn’s definition of “woman” — “XX chromosomes, no tallywhacker. It’s so simple” – denied trans and non-binary identities in one nasty swipe, but what is a workable definition that recognizes and respects those identities but isn’t as sweeping as “a woman is anyone who says she’s a woman”?

My view is that many people of good faith and good will are at least somewhat puzzled by the question of what comprises a gender identity – a question I’ve posed before in our correspondence: Biological markers aside, what does it mean to be a man or to be a woman? What habits of mind, inclinations, feelings does it encompass?

Trans identity clearly has outward looking dimensions – the choice of new name and adoption of new clothing styles, surgical modifications and so on to conform to social expectations guided by convention – but also profound inner dimensions. Most people who transitioned as adults – such as yourself – knew what your true self was long before you manifested that to the world.

I really appreciate your explanations and answers to questions that may to some seem impertinent, and I will close by extending my thanks to you for your responsiveness and your patience, and by posing a few questions for you to field if you’re so inclined.

Can you provide a definition for the word “woman”?

Do you have any concerns that some of the youths who are transitioning today are errantly interpreting gay or lesbian feelings as indications that they’re trans?

What is the best response to those who express concern about trans women in spaces and activities traditionally reserved for women — including but not limited to domestic violence shelters, women’s prisons, women’s locker rooms and of course women’s sports? I’m thinking practically here; answers that don’t glibly dismiss their concerns as transphobic or the product of overheated imaginations.

What changes in the law do you see as vital to preserve the rights and dignity of trans individuals? — April 18, 2022

From Joanie Rae Wimmer:

I am kind of sad to see our correspondence come to an end. I’ve enjoyed this and enjoyed getting to know you a little better, at least through the questions you have posed and the things you have written. Please feel free to keep in touch with me.

Before I respond to your questions, I did want to make an observation about one of your comments. You spoke of “surgical modifications and so on to conform to social expectations guided by convention.” I know in my case, and in the cases of other people I know, the modifications to my body through hormone therapy and surgery were not done to conform to others expectations so much as to conform to my own expectations and needs. I am much more comfortable having breasts which developed as a result of hormone therapy. I am much more comfortable having a clitoris, labia, and vagina which were the result of surgery. And I think, in my case, I can say confidently that I wanted those things for my self.

As I’ve stated in other replies, I have male pattern baldness. If conforming to social expectations were the principal motivation for the changes I had made to my body, I am sure I would have had hair transplants and/or facial feminization surgery (FFS). I had neither. I like my face, and the whole bald woman thing is kind of edgy in a way that I like. So a lot of the physical changes are done, not for others, but for ourselves.

You asked, “Can you provide a definition for the word “woman”?

I think if I had to try, I would go back to what I said near the beginning of our correspondence. Where is the “self”; what makes up the “self”? I think that it’s pretty clear that the self resides in the mind or the brain of the individual. (Senator Duckworth is the same self, the same person she was before she lost her legs fighting for our country.) The self is not in the body, but the mind. Sex/gender is a very essential element of our “selves”. So I think that anyone who has a female gender identity and is an adult is a woman. And I use the term “gender identity” in the way it is defined in the book True Selves by Brown and Rounsley, which I cited before. They write that gender identity “is our own deeply held conviction and deeply felt inner awareness that we belong to one gender or the other. This awareness is firmly in place by the time we are five years old.” The brains of males and females are different. Male brains use androgen receptors more; female brains use estrogen receptors more.

Biology is just beginning to understand how fetuses develop in the womb, and how epigenetics might lead to child who has a physical body of one sex and a mind or brain more appropriate to the other.   At this point, biological understanding of the causes for people being transgender is still in its infancy. You spoke about a definition that isn’t as sweeping as “a woman is anyone who says she is a woman.”

There are a myriad of qualified therapists who diagnose “gender dysphoria”. I suppose society could condition recognition of a person as a sex different from that person’s sex at birth on a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, although I would be against that as unnecessarily intrusive. I don’t really think it is necessary.

If someone is living full time as a member of the sex different from the person’s assigned sex at birth, that’s a pretty good indication that they had gender dysphoria. If a person is living comfortably as the sex they were assigned at birth, that’s a pretty good indication that society would not need to accommodate their request for cross-gender recognition. At some point, perhaps, science might develop some biological test to determine if someone is transgender. But that’s a long way into the future. As of now, you really have to let people tell you who they are.

You ask, “Do you have any concerns that some of the youths who are transitioning today are errantly interpreting gay or lesbian feelings as indications that they’re trans?”

I don’t. Cisgender gay and lesbian people are much more readily accepted by society than trans people. It’s harder to come out as trans than to come out as gay or lesbian. And, sexual orientation is unrelated to gender identity. I am sexually attracted to women and not sexually attracted to men. I transitioned because I have a female gender identity, not because I wanted to have sex with men. I went from being heterosexual to being a lesbian. I do think that there may be some misunderstanding on the part of some young people today who equate rejection of our society’s unhealthful patriarchal gender expectations with being transgender.

Those are not the same thing. You can be a man who is a nurturing caregiver. That doesn’t make you transgender. You can be a woman who is a soldier or a boxer. That doesn’t make you transgender. What makes you transgender, among other things, is a deeply held sense that you are not the gender you were assigned at birth.

You ask “What is the best response to those who express concern about trans women in spaces and activities traditionally reserved for women–including but not limited to domestic violence shelters, women’s prisons, women’s locker rooms, and of course women’s sports?”

I find it interesting that your question, and all of the attention on the right wing politically (I’m not suggesting that you are right wing; I am confident that you are not) concerns trans women. I think there is a reason for that–our culture’s overarching sexism and misogyny. No one talks about trans men in men’s locker rooms.

And the reason for that, I think, is that our culture is creeped out by the idea that any individual would rather be a woman than a man. It upsets our culture’s embrace of male supremacy. (We still haven’t elected a woman President.) It upsets a lot of people. No one in our culture gets upset about trans men because our culture says, “Who wouldn’t prefer to be a man?” More than anything else that is why the right wing authoritarians hate us. Russian President Vladimir Putin is on the same page as Senator Blackburn. Putin even cited “gender freedoms” as a reason for invading Ukraine!

So if people aren’t concerned about trans men in men’s locker rooms, why should they be concerned about trans women in women’s locker rooms? And, what are the “concerns.” If the “concerns” are that trans women, as a group, are more likely to be sexual predators, those concerns are not supported by any data.

Such “concerns” are, in fact, nothing more than bigotry and overheated imaginations. You don’t need a penis to rape someone, as the Abner Louima case made clear. There are laws prohibiting and punishing anyone who assaults another person. If someone breaks the law, they will be punished. There is just no reason to have concerns that a trans woman is more likely to assault someone than anyone else. If the concern is that someone might see the other gender’s private parts, look away if you don’t want to see it.

I will tell you about an experience I had at the Downers Grove YMCA. I went there to swim. I was minding my own business, changing clothes in the women’s locker room after my swim, when another woman brought the YMCA staff into the women’s locker room. The other woman was screaming at me that I was a man in the women’s locker room. (As I have stated, I have male pattern baldness.)

I was naked at the time and the staff and the complainant could see that I have a woman’s body. That didn’t calm the complainant down; she continued to carry on about how I shouldn’t be allowed in the women’s locker room. The staff told her that I had every right to be there. The “concerns” about trans women in women only places are really just not legitimate. They are the result of people being “creeped out” by us.

As to sports, I think we have sort of analyzed that issue rather comprehensively before today.

You ask, “What changes in the law do you see as vital to preserve the rights and dignity of trans individuals?”

Passage of the Equality Act. That law would explicitly state that it’s anti-discrimination provisions would take precedence over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, so that people who claim to be Christians would not have carte blanche to discriminate against us notwithstanding the anti-discrimination provisions of the law.

It’s been a blast doing this with you. I think that probably the best way to understand what it means to be transgender is to get to know one of us. You’ll find out we are just like anyone else but for the unfortunate dichotomy between our bodies and our gender identity. We are not more likely to commit crimes, or act out in locker rooms, prisons, or domestic violence shelters. We just were born with a discrepancy between our bodies and our sense of who we are. I had my gender confirmation surgery in 2009. I’m a lawyer so I run into a lot of people at the courthouses. I sing in the Tower Chorale, a choral group based in Western Springs. (I am one of three women who sing tenor, but I am the only trans woman.) I love art and visit the Art Institute with my autistic daughter frequently. We’re just people. — April 22, 2022