Related: Are sex and gender binary? Spoiler: No, but that fact may not have the implications you think it has.
While most people are reacting to the recent interview with Bruce Jenner in which he claims to be a woman and a Republican by responding in a way that indicates whether they approve or disapprove of those choices (lots of disapproval on both counts judging by the comments on the articles), I would like to set aside issues of approval or disapproval for the time being and ask a question on a matter of fact: Can a man become a woman?
This of course begs the further questions: What is a man? What is a woman? What is the difference between the two? There are quite a few differing definitions of the word “man” as well as the word “woman”. It’s certainly notable that most of the definitions assume that the concept is already clear to the reader and also that the distinction between the two is already clear to the reader. In particular, they are frequently defined in reference to one another, such a that a man is defined as not a woman and a woman is defined as not a man. It all seems quite tautological until at last we get down to the biological after venturing through the social definitions that define men and women in terms of their social roles and relationships.
These definitions, like all definitions applied to complex realities, have their limitations. Does a man forcibly sterilized via castration suddenly become a woman? Does a woman who has her reproductive organs removed via mutilation suddenly become a man? Most people would NOT suggest that in these cases the person subjected to having the primary physiological or biological marker of their sex has suddenly become a member of the opposite sex.
What happens when they are forced to have surgery to convert their original genitalia into a simulacrum of the genitalia of the other sex? Is it possible to put a man under anesthesia without his consent and turn his penis into a makeshift vagina-esque thing, thereby making him a woman? Is it that easy?
Or do they suddenly exist in some state between the clear identifiers of “man” and “woman”? Can we solve the terminological quandary by understanding sex as a spectrum between two poles, as a matter of degree of closeness to the standard physiological man and biological woman? It is extremely difficult to sort through these issues and answer all these questions coherently, and I have neither the time nor the space to do so at the present moment. What I can do is to suggest that there are some answers that probably don’t make sense in the light of reason.
- If you believe that it is the case that a man remains a man even after having his genitalia removed and that a woman remains a woman even after having her genitalia removed (both resulting in significant hormonal changes), then it makes no sense to suggest that surgeries which accomplish the same thing voluntarily suddenly change a man into a woman or a woman into a man.
- If you believe that forcibly having a man’s penis turned into a makeshift vagina-esque thing does not make him a woman, then it makes no sense to suggest that a voluntary sex-reassignment surgery would make him a woman.
- If you believe that a man is simply a human person who identifies as a man and a woman is simply a human person who identifies as a woman, then it makes no sense to suggest that a 60 year old man cannot legally identify as a teenage boy, undergo surgeries and hormone treatments to make himself look and act like a teenage boy, and have consensual sex with 15 year old women.
- If you believe that hormone treatments and sex-reassignment surgeries are an appropriate treatment for gender dysphoria, then on what grounds would we propose that species-reassignment surgeries are not an appropriate treatment for those who experience species dysphoria? After all, it’s only a small percentage of the population and the technology will probably be available relatively soon.
So to go back to the original question, can a man become a woman? I will readily admit that he can have many of his physiological characteristics changed so that his existence and experience is much closer to that of a woman than the average man for the duration of those changes. He can even consciously alter his behaviors and mimic the socially expected behaviors of women in terms of gestures, dress, accessories, and so on. This certainly makes him a fairly convincing simulacrum of a woman at the end of the process, at the very least.
But is an integral part of being a woman the experience of growing to adulthood and living with all the distinct social expectations, hormonal shifts, and biological changes associated with the life of a woman? Is there something about being a woman that is more than the sum of her womanly parts and mannerisms, something that can’t be experienced by a man by the means of having hormone treatments, a vagina-esque thing between his legs, and adopting the mannerisms of women?
If your answer to those questions is affirmative, then it seems that you would need to conclude that a man cannot become a woman (or a woman become a man, for that matter). If your answer to those questions is negative, then you’re welcome to take that up with the radical feminists who strongly disagree with you; the linked article details the debate between certain radical feminists and advocates for treating gender dysphoria by helping those who experience it live as a person of a sex other than the one that matches their biology.
None of this is intended to answer the question of how we should treat people who experience gender dysphoria. I suspect that most of us can agree that we should treat them with love and respect, though we may disagree occasionally over what loving an respectful treatment means. I do, however, hope that it might have served as a useful means of thinking through your position on the issue regardless of your conclusions.