Michael Knowles seeks to “eradicate transgenderism from public life,” by which, it seems clear, he means to deny people the right to wear clothing in public, receive medical treatment or be regarded by the law in ways deemed inappropriate for their sex. His argument in support of this is that there is no ontological category of being transgender, and that to tolerate public affirmation of what is unreal is destructive to society.
In order to address these positions, it is necessary to distinguish having gender dysphoria from “being transgender.” Gender dysphoria is a fact: a recognized affliction with defined characteristics and effects. “Being transgender” is a belief: a way that people afflicted with gender dysphoria try to explain the nature of their affliction to themselves, in an effort to find meaning in it. Gender dysphoria can be proven; “being transgender” cannot be. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real; it only means it cannot be proven to be real.
So, when Knowles says that there is no ontological category of being transgender, he is making a classic logical error: he is equating absence of proof with proof of absence. He is saying that, because “being transgender” cannot be proven to exist, it doesn’t exist. That is what he thinks gives society the moral authority to eradicate transgenderism from public life; and, because his argument is flawed in the way that it is, society has no such moral authority. People afflicted with gender dysphoria cannot prove they “are transgender,” but Knowles cannot prove they aren’t. “Being transgender” is a belief; and, in a society that respects individual rights, people are left alone to believe what they want and to live their lives accordingly, so long as they respect the rights of others to do the same.
Elements of the American political Right are currently on fire to realize Knowles’ vision, in varying degrees. Things seem to have fallen apart to such a degree that dialogue is no longer even desired; so, if people afflicted with gender dysphoria want to preserve their rights, they will have to do it through legal action; and here is where a distinction must be recognized, between those rights that can be proven to exist and those rights that cannot be. Society can be forced to recognize rights that are based on being afflicted with gender dysphoria, but it cannot be forced to recognize rights that are based on “being transgender.” The reason for this should be clear: as mentioned above, gender dysphoria can be proven to exist, while “being transgender” cannot be. “Being transgender” is a belief, and a free society does not base law, public policy or civil rights on mere belief. To do so would be like basing these things on a tenet of Islam or Roman Catholicism.
So, what do we know about gender dysphoria? We know: (a) that it exists, (b) that it is characterized by suffering and a dramatic increase in suicidality, (c) that, aside from a handful of outliers, it has no cure, and (d) that there is only one therapeutic approach with any degree of consistency in relieving its negative effects: transitioning. “Transitioning” does not refer to changing sex; it refers to changing presentation, which often, but not always, involves changes resulting from medical intervention.
It is this therapy that Knowles wants to deny victims of gender dysphoria by law, although he has no reasonable alternative therapy to offer them. In other words, he wants to force them to endure their suffering and suicidality because he believes “being transgender” isn’t real. But transitioning isn’t based on the assumption that “being transgender” is real. Transitioning is based on its capacity to relieve suffering and suicidality. Transitioning isn’t a metaphysical statement that men can be women or women can be men; it’s simply therapy, to decrease the negative effects of gender dysphoria and increase quality of life.
Now, many victims of gender dysphoria do see transitioning as such a statement. In their minds, it is an affirmation of their belief that they “are transgender.” Knowles takes this conflation of fact and belief for his own, and then turns it back on victims of gender dysphoria, attacking their therapy because it is, for them, a confirmation of their belief, which he finds objectionable. And, because he makes the further mistake of thinking that absence of proof is proof of absence, he feels morally justified, if not compelled, to take this therapy away.
To the average individual, it must be clear at this point that, whatever Knowles’ intentions, what he seeks to accomplish is barbaric. He seeks to take away the only thing that victims of gender dysphoria have that can make their lives better and leave nothing in its place. This is worse than simply walking by someone cold and hungry and saying, “Be ye warmed and filled.” This is actively taking bread out of the mouth of a starving man.
To someone with understanding of the US Constitution, it must be clear that the legislation of Knowles’ program of eradication violates that document in basic ways. To deny outright effective treatment to someone who is suffering without offering them a realistic alternative is a violation of substantive due process, while to create an environment of conditions at law that are so onerous as to make receiving treatment effectively impossible is a violation of procedural due process. And to deny treatment to people of one affliction while permitting it for others is a denial of equal protection.
This is how Michael Knowles can be defeated, and why.
Not long ago, Knowles related an anecdote on his radio show of an event which had recently taken place where this analysis could have been applied to great positive effect. He was on a college campus and confronted a trans woman with the question, “Is it possible that you are wrong in believing you are a woman?” or words to that effect. The person he was talking to did not know how to respond. This is how the conversation should have gone:
MK: Is it possible that you are wrong in believing you are a woman?
TW: Of course. Anyone can be wrong, about anything. Is it possible that you are wrong in believing that I’m not?
There is no way Knowles can answer this question publicly without crippling his program. If he answers, “No,” then he claims to be infallible and destroys his credibility. If he answers, “Yes,” then his program loses its moral authority — because, if he can be wrong, then it is possible a trans woman can be a woman, and Knowles is morally wrong to take away her treatment on the basis of what is merely his personal belief.