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Defining Gender

By David Haldane

March 31, 2022


The moment oozed drama.

“Can you define the word ‘woman’?” a Republican senator asked President Joe Biden’s nominee for the US Supreme Court.

“No, I can’t,” responded Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, a Black mother of two nominated primarily for her race and, yes, gender. “Not in this context. I’m not a biologist.”

It was an exchange heard ‘round the world.

“The nominee…stunned America and members of the legal community everywhere,” Yen Makabenta declared in the Manila Times. “I trust that our own judiciary, which is peopled by so many women and men, is not in any danger of descending to this level of ingenuousness?”

Left unsaid was the question’s context; a shot across the bow of America’s unrelenting cultural civil war that seems to gain ferocity with each passing day. On one side are so-called “progressives” who insist that gender is a social construct established after birth. On the other, conservatives and traditionalists who accept the ageless scientific evidence that it is a biological determination based on chromosomes, hormones, genes and, well, physiology.

“A demand to define ‘woman’ injects gender politics into Jackson’s confirmation hearings,” screamed a headline in the New York Times. In fact, so-called “gender politics” has long taken center stage in America’s endless rounds of self-flagellatory handwringing.

A case in point is the ongoing controversy over champion collegiate swimmer Lia Thomas. Born male, Thomas ranked 462nd in the nation while competing as a man. Then, in 2018, he decided to be she and began swimming as a woman. And, whadaya know, last week he/she became the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s national women’s champion.

“Biologically, Lia holds an unfair advantage,” sixteen fellow members of the University of Pennsylvania’s Women’s Swimming Team wrote earlier this year in a letter protesting Thomas’ participation in competitive meets. “To be sidelined or beaten by someone competing with the strength, height, and lung capacity advantages that can only come with male puberty has been exceedingly difficult.” While Thomas was welcome to train with biologically female teammates, the letter continued, “sport is competitive by definition, and Lia’s wins, records and honors should not come at our expense.”

Thomas’ victory in last week’s women’s 500-yard freestyle competition, in fact, drew such ire that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis—a leading contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination—issued a proclamation declaring Florida native Emma Weyant, who placed second, as the “rightful winner” and national champion.

Recently, the controversy over gender hit close to home when my high school alma mater in Long Beach, California, announced the pending construction of a unisex locker room. The idea, planners said, was to ensure access for all students “regardless of gender identity or expression.” But the school board put those plans on hold after angry parents complained.

My own view is that only biology determines gender. And yet I have no problem referring to friends by their preferred pronouns or watching them dress and act like the opposite sex. My closest trans friend lives in the Philippines where, ironically, people treat the issue more casually.

I thought about that back in 2019 while attending the annual Miss Gay Pilar Universe pageant on Siargao Island, at which the most delicious irony was seeing the town’s lesbian mayor, dressed as a man, judging a bunch of men dressed extravagantly as women. “How does this happen,” I wrote following the event, “in a predominantly Catholic country ostensibly favoring traditional family values?”

I attribute it to basic human tolerance, which I wholeheartedly applaud. Re-jiggering biological laws to accommodate a tiny minority, however, strikes me as beyond the pale. “If Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is confirmed,” former Olympian Eli Bremer—now running for a Senate seat in Colorado—told Fox News Digital, “I have no confidence in her ability to protect women. After all, how can you protect something that you cannot define?

The supreme irony may be that what began as a movement for gender equality is now pushing to make gender die.


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David Haldane’s latest book is a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street.” An award-winning journalist, author and radio broadcaster, Haldane divides his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.

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