Imagine someone holds the opinion that people should not face prejudice and discrimination on the grounds of height. That's almost so obvious it's not worth stating, but what if instead of agreeing that it's completely obvious, people started arguing against our heightism activist by loudly declaring that of course height exists, there's no point being politically correct and ignoring the fact that some people are shorter than others!( this example is obviously ludicrous )
In spite of the obviousness of this point, a lot of people seem to be confused on it when the issue is not height, but gender. I have seen a lot of fruitless arguments like this, even among generaly intelligent and sensible people:
Feminist: Don't discriminate based on gender.
Peanut gallery: But gender totally exists!
F: Our culture is often prejudiced against women.
PG: But gender is totally real and biological, not just cultural!
F: Sexism forces women into low-status roles.
PG: But gender totally exists, so men and women are suited to different jobs!
F: Everyone should be able to choose the path that best suits their talents and personality, regardless of gender.
PG: But gender totally exists!
Random Observer: I guess I must not be a feminist, then, because I definitely believe there are differences between men and women.
I think a big part of the problem is that people are unclear about what the word gender
means. In some ways it was an unfortunate choice of term, because it already had a meaning referring to languages which have two arbitrary declensions, even for inanimate objects. But that's the word most commonly used to refer to the complex interaction between a person's identity and how they are perceived in society. Usually, but not always, the person's biological sex
, ie their configuration of genitals, reproductive organs and possibly chromosomes, is going to be a major component of their gender identity. Now we have a big problem, because some people believe that sex and gender are absolutely congruent in all cases, and some people are embarrassed to use the word "sex" in formal situations (or confuse it with the other thing we call "sex", namely the act of having erotic intercourse). And some people have picked up the idea that "gender" is a more polite or more academic or more PC way of saying "sex", so they always say "gender" even if sex is what they mean, which is a bit like people thinking it's posher to say "whom" instead of "who" and overcorrecting.
Look, sex obviously exists. It's a (mostly) objective aspect of biological animals, including humans. No sane person is denying that the majority of humans belong to either the male or the female sex, and you can reasonably easily tell who is in which category. (You can get some problems when people insist that what is true for the majority must be true for everyone, but that's not my major point here.) It's also mostly trivial; there are circumstances for which it matters, such as pregnancy, and susceptibility to certain diseases. There are a few physical traits which are roughly divided along sex lines, such as height, muscle mass, fat distribution and so on. It would be extremely stupid to deny that these differences are real, physical differences, but it would also be extremely stupid to claim that all men are taller, stronger and leaner than all women; we humans just don't have that degree of sexual dimorphism.
But the point is that we live in a culture that has collectively decided that differences in somatic characteristics aren't important outside these narrow, mostly medical contexts. Most people having these debates broadly agree that it's wrong to treat people differently based on differing appearances, especially if the treatment is favourable to one kind of appearance and hurtful to the other kind.
However, gender is a different thing. I don't know why gender identity often goes along with physical sex; could be something that has evolved in the way human brains work, could be a consequence of the human tendency to divide people into categories based on superficial but immediately obvious traits, like sex in fact. It doesn't really matter; gender identity is clearly real as well, and the fact that it is psychological and social rather than physical doesn't make it any less so! It's also obvious that lots of people become very unhappy if the social rules for how they can express their gender identity are too rigid. Although in general in our society, having a masculine gender and a male body are relative advantages, men are just as likely to be miserable if they have to behave in ways they find completely unnatural and uncomfortable in order to get those advantages. That's sexism, in a nutshell (and it possibly should be called "genderism" according to the argument I've just made), and I'm against it because it makes people unhappy, it's an inefficient way to run society (putting effort into making people conform to generalized expectations instead of changing the model when it doesn't match reality), and most importantly because it's unfair.
One of the ways that sexism is unfair is that it severely and unjustly punishes people for having a gender identity at odds with their physical sex. That can be men who are effeminate or women who are butch, or it can be people who have such a strong sense of non-congruent gender identity that they experience dysphoria about their bodies. Now, if you knew nothing at all about gender dysphoria, you might hypothesize that undergoing surgery to bring one's body in line with one's gender identity would be totally useless and probably harmful. However, if you look at the actual empirical evidence, it turns out for some such people, no amount of counselling or brainwashing, and no amount of rejecting sexism and gender essentialism does any good, whereas reassignment surgery is pretty much curative. For others, simply behaving in ways typically associated with the opposite sex is not enough to make them feel right, but getting other people to acknowledge them as the sex that matches their gender, for example with names and pronouns and legal certificates with the appropriate sex category on, is enough. Again, you might not think this would do any good, but for some people, it does.
I have little respect for people who cling to their first assumption when the empirical evidence overwhelmingly contradicts them, and I have even less time for this attitude when it involves expecting other people to live their lives in misery in order to better suit the disproven theory. I suspect that the number of people who can get such major (and unexpected based on pure thought experiments) benefits from reassignment surgery or non-surgical transition is probably quite small, but there is absolutely no call to punish this small group for all the social ills related to sexism (which in fact has little to do with their unusual gender status anyway!)
That was an aside, really, or rather an extreme and topical example of the kind of question it's hard to have a useful, communicative discussion about, because every time someone brings up the issue, it devolves into an argument about whether gender exists. This argument is stupid and unhelpful! Gender exists, duh. Also, sexism is bad, duh. And trying to do something about the latter is in no way contradictory to the former. Just because gender exists, doesn't make it ok to force people into a really narrow set of behaviours based on their physical sex (or even to argue that biological sex doesn't matter, as long as people stick rigidly to one or the other set of gender rules). Just because gender exists, doesn't make it ok to discriminate against people based on their gender, or treat things and people regarded as "feminine" as inferior to things and people regarded as "masculine".