Caitlyn Jenner Unites Old Time Religionists and Gender Feminists in Wroth

06/16/2015 12:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

For those who cling to rigid categories, transgender is a nightmare. Just look at how Caitlyn Jenner's splash on the cover of Vanity Fair has freaked out such strange bedfellows. Evidently, the category of people who need rigid categories is itself quite flexible. It includes, among others, the pope, evangelical preachers, and certain starchy feminists.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis sputtered in fury about the idea that gender is fluid, changeable, and an issue of self-determination. "With this attitude, man commits a new sin, that against God the Creator," the pope declared. "God has placed man and woman at the summit of creation." Last week, the pope urged Bishops "to promote the family as a gift of God for the creation of man and woman created in his image." To his credit, Pope Francis has at least met with some transgender individuals. The pontiff is positively laid back compared with prominent evangelical leaders.

After Jenner's photoshoot appeared, furious fundies threw open the hatches and let their cannons roar. (The Atlantic conveniently catalogs some of them here.) Christian blogger Matt Walsh proclaimed, "Bruce Jenner Is Not a Woman. He Is a Sick and Delusional Man," going on to reproach to the rest of us: "In response, our depraved and insane country has hailed him as something approaching a god."

Really? A god? I lack experience with worship, but I'd have thought Jenner came closest to deification as an Olympian decathelete.

Anyway, a most interesting aspect of this is the crossover (you should pardon the term!) with feminism. Now, let me be clear: just as there are diverse reactions to Jenner in the religious sphere, so there are in feminism. But for those who find clear lines important, Jenner is an affront.

Most prominent among these is Elinor Burkett, whose New York Times piece "What Makes a Woman?" raises some of the same questions about biological destiny that the Pope and fundies do. Her answers may differ, but they share these underlying traits: fear, anger and rigidity. Oddly, she denies the very stance she takes: "I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women -- our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods -- into tidy boxes."

She proceeds to do exactly that. Referring to foot-in-mouth Harvard President Larry Summers, Burkett writes, "People who haven't lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner or Mr. Summers shouldn't get to define us." She goes on to argue that womanhood is entirely defined by experience. Citing neuroscientist and reverse phrenologist Gina Rippon, she endorses the claim that "The differences between male and female brains are caused by the 'drip, drip, drip' of the gendered environment."

Think, for a moment, what that would mean if true. The "gendered environment" would be solely responsible for someone growing up gay. In other words, rightwing religion would have it right: let your daughter be a tomboy or your son play with dolls, and next thing you know you you'll have lesbian or gay child. This is demonstrably false, but the social construction of gender as much an article of faith for some feminists as the seven-day creation story is for fundamentalists.

Now, I am a science writer, not an expert, but all the same, I'd like to try to salvage some clarity from this mess by identifying a few myths that are contradicted by mainstream science.

1) Everyone is born either male or female. This is simply false. Most of us are, but some, to a greater or lesser degree, are intersex. If you want to believe that God makes these decisions, go ahead, but you cannot truthfully claim that God makes every baby one sex or the other.

2) Gender is solely a social construction. This can only be true by tautology. Some argue that sex and gender are completely different things, and that gender is defined as a social construction. Language games aside, the reality of human sexuality and its social expression is a rich, complex and dynamic interaction of genes, gestational development, birth order and wider societal influences. If we take gender to mean the social expression of underlying sexuality, then it is impossible to make blanket statements that are true for any given individual. The most we can do is identity valid statistical generalities.

3) Sexual orientation is fully determined by our genes. See above. Genes may determine sexual orientation in some persons, but in most of us it is likely that genes influence sexual orientation to a greater or lesser degree. What else has a say in sexual orientation? Hormonal fluctuations in the womb, for one. Life experience for another. Some people have strong, fixed sexual orientations. Others have malleable orientations. If we didn't spend so much time moralizing and handwringing over these issues, the spectrum of human sexuality would be obvious. Instead, stupidly, we try to shoehorn human sexual orientation into either genetic determinism or free choice.

4) Male and female brains are identical, until the gendered environment, or dominant culture, if you prefer, prises them apart. Untrue. On average, male and female brains differ functionally. On average. That means you cannot make any true statement about the next man or woman you meet unless you get to know them. But if you put lots of women and men through fMRIs, you can see that their brains, on average, function differently in response to the same tasks.

That alone doesn't prove that the source of difference is genetic. But if you study the behavior of men and women across large populations, you find that there are transcultural differences. The most significant does not reflect well on men. It is this: in every society, at every time in history, and judging from archaeological and anthropological evidence, going all the way back the dawn of human existence, men have been more violent than women. Cultural explanations would require a miracle to explain coincidence on that scale.

All four of these claims are well supported by evidence, but none of them gives license to anyone to claim that one sex is superior to the other. Given the interdependence of the sexes, such a claim would be biologically absurd and ethically repugnant. But even more important: the statistical differences between men and women, whatever their source, mean nothing about any given person.

Unless you are prepared to be a bigot, you cannot say what gender Caitlyn Jenner should or should not be. You cannot invoke God or the history of women's oppression to render judgment on how she should choose to express her identity as a transgender woman. Whatever genetic or social influences brought her to this moment, the choice of how to be Caitlyn Jenner is hers to make. No freedom could be more fundamental.