Helen Pluckrose, whose essays I’ve highlighted several times, has turned out a number of superb articles on how genuine progressives should deal with the political madness around us. (Areo describes her as “a researcher in the humanities who focuses on late medieval/early modern religious writing for and about women. She is critical of postmodernism and cultural constructivism which she sees as currently dominating the humanities”). Now she’s teamed up with James A. Lindsay to turn out a remarkably clear-thinking and empathic essay on how progressives like us (you are one, right?) should deal with the rise of the transgender rights movement. The essay, “An argument for a liberal and rational approach to transgender rights and inclusion,” is also in Areo, and impressed me with how right it was. They set up the issue this way:
The rights and social inclusion of trans people is a heated topic right now and, as usual in our present atmosphere, the most extreme views take center stage and completely polarize the issue. On the one hand, we have extreme social conservatives and gender critical radical feminists who claim that trans identity is a delusion and that the good of society depends on opposing it at every turn. On the other, we have extreme trans activists who claim not only that trans people straightforwardly are the gender they experience themselves to be but that everyone else must be compelled to accept this, use corresponding language, and be fully inclusive of trans people in their choice of sexual partners.
The problem is that most of us are not extremely socially conservative, radically feminist, or intersectional trans activists, and our ethics do not align with any of these rationales or approaches. Nevertheless, people are pressured to take a “yes or no” position in relation to both trans rights and the scientific reality of trans identity. This essay is aimed at everyone, transgender and trans-skeptical, who consider themselves to be liberal (in the broadest sense). Such people value gender equality, racial equality, and LGBT equality alongside freedom of speech and belief and a rational, evidence-based approach to the world.
Their general conclusion is that we should respect transgender people’s rights and identities and, as they say, “let them do what they want.” The only areas where, they argue, we needn’t accept transgender claims at full face value are these (my characterization, not quotes):
- The claims that sex and gender are pure social constructs lacking a biological basis should not be accepted prima facie. They cite evidence showing that transgender people may have biological features that confer gender dysphoria. This, of course, shouldn’t affect how we treat trans people at all; but it affects whether or not we must accept what they assert. In fact, that’s the only argument Pluckrose and Lindsay have with the transgender movement: the claim that we must to believe all its assertions. They are in full agreement with the need to treat trans people as equals, accommodate their special needs, and be sympathetic to their feeling that they may be outliers.
- The authors are strongly opposed to allowing children before puberty to choose a gender and then undergo medical treatment to facilitate changing their gender.
- The “bathroom” issue. Pluckrose and Lindsay say that the concern about women being exposed to trans women with penises (and the fear of assault) should be taken seriously, but they then say it’s way overblown, as there’s no evidence this is a real issue, and we can always arrange bathrooms so it becomes a total non-problem. We have some mixed-sex bathrooms in my building, and nobody finds them problematic.
- The claim by some trans people that straight men who won’t have sex with trans women are being “transphobic”. As the authors say, if you’re a man and don’t want to sleep with someone who looks female but also has a penis, that’s your choice and you shouldn’t be demonized for it. The same goes for women who don’t want to have sex with a trans man. As they say, such attitudes constitute “. . . dangerous, illiberal nonsense reminiscent of the most intrusive forms of conversion therapy. People do not have to justify not being attracted to any set of genitalia or not being attracted to trans people. No-one has to justify their attractions at all.”
- Excessive language policing by trans people about the proper use of pronouns, particularly those people who claim there are up to 114 genders, and the “genderfluid” people whose identities—and pronouns—change over hours or days. They have no objection to calling someone what they want to be called, but do object to a form of gender activism that “appears to many like an unappealing combination of ideologizing and attention seeking.”
- The issue of sports, especially when it comes to trans women competing against biologically-born women. Trans women may have a natural advantage based on developement before any medical intervention, and defining people by hormone titer may not solve that. The solution, say Pluckrose and Lindsay, may rest in having to develop “trans” categories in addition to men’s and women’s sports.
I’m emphasizing here where Lindsay and Pluckrose are at odds with the most radical forms of the transgender movement, but their attitude is generally one of empathy and sympathy. They end like this:
The solution to this is relatively simple from a liberal perspective: Let adults do what they want (also deal with practical issues as well as possible as they arise and let emerging science inform decisions we make as we come to know more).
For trans activists, this requires accepting that they cannot dictate the language that other people use, the beliefs they have about gender, or who they have sex with. These attitudes can be painful for trans people, but other marginalized identities slowly gained acceptance, and the world seems ready to do that with trans people, though less fast and to a lesser degree than trans activists would want. It is true, whether trans is innate or otherwise (and more so if it’s innate), that trans people face a harder-than-average lot with things. They are statistically rare, and they challenge largely bedrock notions of sex and gender for most people. Their dating options will be more limited than average. Some people will remain uncomfortable with them, almost certainly, merely because of who they are. It sucks, and we can care and help—and we can encourage people to grow up around them and offer counselling to manage remaining pettiness—but ultimately, being trans is harder than not being trans, and it is not going to be made easier by “progressive” attempts to bully people.
For anti-trans people, this requires accepting that trans identity is none of their business. If the problem is authoritarianism or pretentious ideologizing rather than gender identity, authoritarianism and pretentious ideologizing are the grounds for avoiding or criticizing an individual rather than their gender identity. The problem with authoritarians and gender ideologues expands way beyond the gender identity issue and is rife within both the SocJus left and far right generally. Reasonable people manage to be critical of intersectional feminism, however, without being hostile to women and of critical race theory without antagonism towards non-white people. It may seem as though the Venn diagram which would show trans people and trans activists is almost a single circle but this is largely wrong because most trans people aren’t activists. They simply want to identify as their gender and not draw attention to the fact that it is also trans.
A liberal attitude on the part of trans people requires accepting that other people may or may not support your gender identity. If you are discriminated against or intimidated, you should be able to expect protection from a liberal society. Of course, reasonable activism to ensure this protection can be engaged in and supported by liberals generally. A liberal attitude towards trans people is the same as a liberal attitude towards everyone else: treat them as individuals. If they turn out to be pretentious, authoritarian ideologues, they can be responded to as such perfectly reasonably and ethically. If they turn out not to be any of that, there is no justification for negative generalizations and collective blame.
I’d call that remarkably thoughtful—and liberal. This article is a Professor Ceiling Cat Must-Read Selection™.