How do you know your gender? At the conservative Weekly Standard last week, Jonathan Last took Smith College to task for leftist anti-science when it came to gender identification. Are Last’s accusations fair?
First, some background. Smith College, an historic women-only school in western Massachusetts, has finalized its position on transgender students. In short, the leaders at Smith decided on what we might call a “past-the-gate” rule. If a student identifies as a woman when she applies, she may be admitted. This is true no matter what gender she was assigned at birth. If, however, someone identifies as a woman as a freshman, but transitions to a man during his time at Smith, he will be permitted to remain, even though Smith maintains its women-only rule.
Make sense? In other words, the leaders at Smith want to recognize students’ right to identify their own genders. It is not biological hardware that determines gender, Smith agrees, but rather a person’s identification.
Is this anti-science? Last thinks so. As he puts it, this decision
has shown that the left’s allegiance to capital-“S” Science is only a sometimes thing. Progressives believe that science contains the definitive answers to all questions—except when it doesn’t, and we must accept the idea of deep, human truths, which might contradict science.
Of course, anyone who spends time with culture-war issues knows that the Left embraces plenty of anti-science. There are lots of progressives who oppose vaccines and genetically modified food. But this transgender case seems trickier.
Last accuses Smith of ignoring the claims of science. He implies that the scientifically verifiable claims of biology should be given more weight than people’s subjective ideas about their true gender identification.
Now, maybe I’m blinded by my progressive prejudices here, but isn’t there a scientific reason to believe that gender is something beyond simple biology? In other words, we may be born with primary and secondary sexual characteristics, but there is a divide between having certain biological characteristics and identifying as a particular gender.
So Last’s accusation raises an interesting question. If we view gender identification as merely a belief, a feeling, or a choice, then Smith College’s decision seems to place those non-scientific things above scientific proofs. But if we trust mainstream scientists such as those at the American Psychological Association, gender identity is something more.
So who are the real anti-scientists here? Conservative intellectuals who deny the internal aspects of gender identity? Or progressive college leaders who ignore biological verities to respect students’ preferences?