Whether or not Laverne Cox is a woman is not a question of biology; it’s a question of language

Laverne Cox, at the premiere of Orange is the New Black
Laverne Cox, at the premiere of Orange is the New Black. (Photo: Getty)

[Correction added 3/5/2016: in fact some people DO dispute that sex is a biological reality, contra what I say in this piece.]

There’s a piece in the National Review by a guy called Kevin D Williamson. It is one of those pieces that is written solely to provoke outrage from milquetoast liberals like me, and by linking to it I am playing the author’s game, and losing at it, but here it is, if you want: “Laverne Cox is not a woman.”

Laverne Cox, for those of you who are unaware, is one of the stars of the US TV series Orange is the New Black, and is a transgender woman – the first openly trans person to appear on the front cover of Time magazine.

For Williamson, the term “trans woman” is, of course, meaningless. He refers to Cox as “he” throughout his piece (despite a Clarksonesque but-you-can’t-say-that-these-days line about how “misdeploying” pronouns “is now considered practically a hate crime”) and says that our modern sensibilities of referring to trans people as their preferred gender is “sympathetic magic”, “treating delusion as fact”, “policing language on the theory that language mystically shapes reality”, like a “voodoo doll”. “Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman,” he says.

This, Williamson would no doubt claim, is the-emperor-has-no-clothes telling-it-like-it-is. “Sex is a biological reality,” he points out, unarguably. Indeed it is. No amount of surgery or hormone therapy will allow Cox to become pregnant, no terms of address will turn that stubborn Y chromosome into a second X. That is, indeed, a simple fact of human biology.

But who disagrees with that? No one. Williamson’s fearless truthsaying is, in fact, a fatuous statement of the obvious, dressed up as iconoclasm. Nobody in the world believes that calling Cox and other trans women “women”, using the pronouns “she” and “her”, will change anything biological; they know that she will not be able to have children, no matter what words we use. They do it out of respect, and sensitivity – what we used, in fact, to call politeness. If someone wishes to be addressed as X, then it is polite, usually, to do so. There may be times when other considerations apply: if someone insists on being referred to as “Doctor” and using that to give them unearned authority, say. But if someone wants to change their name, then we are happy to let them do so, and to address them by their chosen name, because it’s their business. I see no reason why changing one’s chosen pronouns should be any different.

Yes, yes, sex is a “biologically reality”. But pronouns aren’t biology, they’re language. Language is a set of conventions, not an agglomeration of eternal truths. If we choose to use “woman” and “she” and “her” to refer to both the biologically female and people who identify as female, then that is what those words mean.

By insisting on tying pronouns to chromosomes, Williamson isn’t protecting our shared reality, or blowing apart our comforting illusions. He’s just being an unpleasant man, rude for the sake of it, glorying in causing needless offence like a child drawing naughty pictures in his exercise book. A person’s identity matters to them, and their gender is a huge, towering, vital part of that identity. The polite, decent, human thing to do would be to say, well, if the pronouns with which I refer to you matter to you, then I will use the ones you prefer. It does me no harm, and it will make you happier, so why would I not?

Or you could shout, and scream, and say “the facts are not subject to our feelings”. Well, some of them – chromosomes, for instance – aren’t. But the facts of language are. Williamson’s refusal to treat trans people with respect is not iconoclastic, it’s not clear-sighted or fearlessly honest. It’s just rude, mean-spirited, and adds nothing but vitriol and self-importance to the public debate. So well done for that, Kevin.

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