How do these worldviews collide over modern conceptions of gender and gender transition?
Brubaker: There is a distinctly American strand of individualism—the notion of the self-made man, or the self-made person. It’s the idea that we are chronically and continuously remaking who we are and that we must, in fact, do so in order to keep up with the times. This is not just true in the domain of sexuality and gender; more generally, it’s essential to neoliberal understandings of how people need to be entrepreneurial about themselves by retraining, remaking, and reshaping their bodies, their minds, and their capacities. That’s part of what it means to be a good citizen.
Although certain forms of Christianity embrace that language of individualism, other forms offer a very powerful critique of that way of thinking about what the self ultimately is.
Green: You write that the brain could have a role in shaping our perceived gender identity. This stuck me as a bit of a black-box claim. What do we actually know about how brains relate to gender identity? Why is the brain important in sorting through these concepts?
Brubaker: It’s interesting that people invest so much hope in the idea that brain might determine gender. On the one hand, you have this notion of the ultimate subjectivity of gender identity: Only you can say who you really are. And yet, at the same time, you have the sense that who I really am is, after all, not arbitrary. Only I can know who I am, and yet who I am, in this way of thinking, is grounded in some aspect of my brain, my body, my organic being.
Of course, not everyone feels that way. Some transgender people reject that ‘born that way’ argument and the idea that their gender identity is something grounded in their brains or other aspect about their bodies.
Green: Let’s bring race back into the conversation for a moment. Throughout American history, “science” has been used to establish “truths” about identity—for example, to argue that African Americans are inferior to whites.
Given the hazards of using science to establish “truth” about categories as elusive as race or gender identity, why do you think people gravitate toward medicalized or scientific language to understand gender identity, race, and sexuality?
Brubaker: I there are two reasons. One is more strategic. If you have the scientific justification for something, that gives it greater authority. For example, if you can enlist scientific authority to ground your claim of having a gender identity at odds with your body, you can also persuade medical authorities to allow you access to treatment.
There’s also a deep cultural authority and prestige in biomedical science, and increasingly in genetics. I don’t think you can understand the yearning for this discovery for the natural grounding of identity without taking into account the broader cultural authority of biomedicine.