The article below appears in the liberal magazine American Purpose, and is written by a liberal author (Jonathan Rauch, who is also gay). It deals with a question that many of us have: how can we support transsexuals without having to buy into some of the claims we consider excessive (those involving sports, the claim that “transexual men (or women) are men (or women)”, the widespread urging to adopt phrases like “pregnant people”, and so on?
I think everyone here supports the notion that transsexual people deserve consideration, civility, and equal moral and civil rights, with a very few exceptions involving stuff like sports and rape counseling. But if you adhere to any exceptions, you’re called “transphobic”. You must believe that transsexual men are to be regarded exactly the same as biological men, and the same with transsexual women. If you don’t, you get vilified as a transphobe.
When I write about transsexuality, I get more pushback (mostly private emails) than I do when writing about any other topic. And that despite my argument for equality of transexuals in nearly every realm of activity, my vow to use proper pronouns, and so on. The issue is that I don’t go along with every single demand of transsexual activists, like bridling at using the term “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women”.
Well, vilifying is free speech of course, and I’ll take the consequences of what I say. But what I’m concerned with is reconciling what I think of as a liberal viewpoint with a rejection of the more extreme claims of transsexual activism. If you want to support the transsexual community, I’m asked why would you want to use a person’s preferred pronoun—even if it conflicts with the person’s biological sex—and yet quail at the use of “pregnant people” in a Washington Post headline. Isn’t that hypocrisy?
Rauch has written a good piece on the issue, one informed by his experience in the gay community. Click to read:
Rauch sees parallels between the gay liberation movement and the trans liberation movement in two respects. First, there should be equality between cis people and trans or gay people in nearly every respect:
I should put my own cards on the table. I’m a sixty-one year-old homosexual male. I’m an outsider to the trans movement, but until fairly recently—like most gay Americans—I’ve seen the trans movement as an extension of our own. I believe trans people deserve equality in all its meaningful respects.
I’m also well aware that many of the same arguments which were used against gay people are now being deployed against trans people.
But the other parallel involves the extremists in both movements whose views and authoritarianism have turned off Americans, holding back (as Rauch claims) moral progress:
But I also see a different and more disturbing historical parallel. A generation ago, in the early 1990s, the gay and lesbian rights movement (as it was then called) came under the sway of left-leaning activists with their own agenda. They wanted as little as possible to do with bourgeois institutions like marriage and the military; they elevated cultural transgression and opposed integration into mainstream society; they imported an assortment of unrelated causes like abortion rights. To be authentically gay, in their view, was to be left-wing and preferably radical.
A loose collection of gay and lesbian conservatives, libertarians, and centrists watched with growing concern. We thought that the activists were dangerously misguided both about America and also gay people’s place in it. We resented their efforts to impose ideological conformity on a diverse population. (In 2000, a fourth of gay voters chose Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush.) We saw how they played to the very stereotypes that the anti-gay Right used against us. We knew their claim to represent the lesbian and gay population was false.
And so we pushed back.
You can read about the pushback in his piece, for we’re concerned today with extreme transsexual claims and demands. And here my views are coincident with Rauch’s, though he argues them must more cohrently and persuasively than I’m capable. So let me quote him:
A few domains that are sex-specific, such as women’s sports and prisons, require differential treatment based on biological sex. Issues involving medical transitions for children are just plain difficult and require more and better research. But those issues are narrow in scope, and the political system, the medical profession, and civil society are more than capable of working through them, if allowed to do so in a minimally politicized way.
As Helen Joyce argues in her book Trans (2021), radical gender ideology (or gender identity ideology, as it’s also called) is a horse of a different color. It is not at all the same as trans rights. Nor is it any one thing: It’s a conceptual mess, propounding some ideas that make sense (gender is socially conditioned) but also wild claims, such as that (as Joyce writes) “depending on its owner’s identity, a penis may be a female sex organ.” I take its central claims to include these:
· Trans women are women and trans men are men, no difference, full stop;
· Human gender and sex are social constructions and are not a binary but on a continuum, so concepts like “male” and “female” are relative and subjective;
· Gender and sex are chosen identities, and an individual’s declared choice can never be doubted or challenged;
· Denying or disputing any of the above is violence.
Even if you don’t agree me that the first three propositions are false and the fourth is intolerant, you might concur that they are not the only or best way to think about transgender civil rights. Rather, they are extrinsic notions that escaped from academia and attached themselves, limpet-like, in the same way that left-wing politics parasitized gay rights a generation ago.
Rauch thinks that these extreme demands are counterproductive, and I can’t reject that claim out of hand. Almost anything like this is fuel for Republicans, and while we shouldn’t tailor our beliefs so they don’t offend Republicans, neither should we say what we don’t believe so that we aren’t called “transphobic” by transsexual people or “progressive” Democrats.
And here, then, is Rauch’s solution, which is likely to appeal to many people of good will who nevertheless can’t buy into the “trans men are men” (and the same for women) mantra.
Insisting that it’s always hateful to draw distinctions based on biological sex in sports, prisons, and medical training strikes most of the public as nutty, unfair, and dangerous. The backlash that is forming will harm trans people, gay and lesbian people (who are already caught in the undertow), and everyone who hopes for candor and compromise. Radicalism makes the only path forward—social negotiation tailored to diverse situations—unattainable.
The first step out of the radicalization trap is what’s already happening: decoupling trans civil rights from radical gender ideology by recognizing that they are not at all the same. You can support the former and reject the latter. The excesses of activists, along with books and articles like Joyce’s, are bringing about that realization. But a second, equally important step remains: the emergence of an integrationist, accommodationist, and reality-based transgender center, led by trans moderates who have had enough. Only they can take back their movement. I can say from experience that once they do, they will win, and so will the country.
So why do I argue for moral and civil equality for transsexual people but reject the term “pregnant people” for “pregnant women”? For two reasons, I suppose. One is that I’m a biologist, and realize that “pregnant people” obscures the fact that only biological women can get pregnant —and obscures it in the interest of an ideology. (It’s a similar distortion to denying that human sex is almost completely binary rather than a spectrum.) But “pregnant people” and similar terms also erase a group of people—in this case, biological women, for “biological woman” really is a class distinct from “transsexual women”. Indeed, it is the biological dichotomy that leads people to transition between the sexes in the first place. They are born as one members of one biological sex, but feel like members of the other one. (As for the intermediates, like those who feel that they’re members of both sexes, or of a different gender entirely, that doesn’t change this argument.)
To see an example of a transsexual who is “moderate”, read Rauch’s opening about Giselle Donnelly.