Ten Theses for Liberals on Sex and Gender
Democrats need to stake out a more substantively defensible position.
In the eight years since the Supreme Court handed down the Obergefell decision embedding a right to same-sex marriage in the U.S. Constitution, many of the activists who spearheaded the push for gay and lesbian rights have turned their attention to advocating for transgender rights. Many Democrats have responded by endorsing their efforts. The impulse is laudable. Liberalism in the United States has unfolded, in part, as a story of extending rights to groups formerly excluded from legal protections. It's fitting that transgender individuals would be included in that ongoing project.
Yet liberals have been too quick to defer to the assumptions, priorities, and political strategies favored by transgender activists who affirm positions that are sometimes quite radical. That radicalism, in turn, has made its way quite quickly into policy made by the Department of Health and Human Services, the wording of state laws, public-school curricula, protocols covering treatment by health-care professionals, journalistic standards, and norms and expectations that prevail in leading progressive institutions.
This has provoked a backlash on the political right that is gaining ground in states around the country. Democrats need a response that goes beyond doubling down on the maximalist position of activists and demonization of Americans who are troubled by it. They need a response that takes a strong stand against the most egregious moves being hatched on the right while also staking out a new position that’s more reasonable and closer to mainstream views on sex and gender. The effort to do so isn’t motivated by a cynical desire to triangulate politically between conservatives and progressives. It’s motivated by the desire to arrive at a more substantively defensible position.
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The Republican effort (recently tested in Missouri) to restrict gender transitioning by adults needs to be opposed, full stop. Conservatives have taken to describing such interventions as “mutilation.” Yet we live in a country and a culture in which adults routinely undertake all kinds of cosmetic plastic surgery: face lifts, nose jobs, breast enhancements, breast reductions, butt jobs, tummy tucks, Botox injections, and much else. It’s a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry that enables individuals to bring their bodies into closer alignment with their subjective preferences and aesthetic vision of themselves. If conservatives want to begin describing all such efforts as forms of bodily mutilation and seek to regulate them more strictly, they are free to try it. What they can’t do is place pharmacologically and surgically facilitated gender transitioning for adults in a separate, restricted category by law. The attempt to do so is arbitrary and cruel, and liberals should be saying so loudly and without apology.
But this unconditional defense of transgender rights for adults cannot and should not apply to minors (those younger than 18 years old). As noted above, the decision to undertake gender transitioning using medical interventions follows from subjective and aesthetic preferences. We normally defer to adults when it comes to such major life choices. We normally don’t with children. That’s because children are both physically and psychologically underdeveloped. They have minimal life experience. And adolescence comes with its own hormonal and emotional confusions, making teenagers notoriously impulsive, capricious, and prone to rash decision-making.
The line between childhood and adulthood is fuzzy and imprecise. Some 17-year-olds are wise beyond their years. Some 23-year-olds are as immature as middle-schoolers. But lines need to be drawn somewhere, and 18 makes as much sense as any demarcation. Older than 18, and you can do what you want with your body in private consultation with your doctor. But younger than 18, parents should get—must get—the final say.
This doesn’t mean Democrats should follow Republicans actively banning gender transitions (with puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and/or surgery—now often euphemistically described as “gender-affirming care”) prior to adulthood. But it does mean that Democrats should favor deferring to parents when it comes to decision-making about initiating such transitions. Parents who live in school districts/states controlled by Democrats and favor caution about starting down the path of medical transition for their kids should not have to worry about the government siding with their children in a family dispute on a matter of such great importance. Republicans are already turning themselves into a party that uses state power to block parents from allowing their children to undertake medical transition—and even to take those children away from their parents if such transitions are already underway. Democrats shouldn’t follow suit from the opposite direction by becoming a party that uses state power to overrule parents who want their children to wait before initiating medical transition.
To this the activists will respond: Refusing to allow a teenager to initiate medical transition is a form of child abuse; in cases of such abuse, social services regularly (and rightly) intervene on the child’s behalf. But the analogy is invalid. It’s based on the premise that every teen who seeks to initiate medical transition is, in fact, transgender, and that failure to affirm that identity and allow the child to act on it fully is therefore a form of abuse. But such teens can be mistaken.
The number of young people claiming to be trans is currently skyrocketing. Some of this increase may be driven by teens announcing their trans identity in public when in earlier generations they would have concealed their experience of gender dysphoria due to stigma. But others—those who claim to be trans for a while and then reaffirm their birth sex (and/or come out, instead, as gay, lesbian, or bisexual) after a period of months or years—appear to be taking part in a social contagion that encourages them to believe their experience of adolescent alienation and unhappiness arises from transgender tendencies and can be alleviated by initiating medical transitioning. This possibility—not to mention adult detransition rates of 30 percent in a recent study—points to the need for caution.
Once again, this doesn’t mean Democrats should join Republican efforts to ban such medical interventions for teens. But it does mean Democrats should defer to parents who resist their child’s desire to begin such interventions. Might waiting until the age of 18 be difficult for some trans teens? Yes. But the insistence by such teens that they feel they simply must act now should not be enough to trigger state intervention against parents for abuse. It should be enough to trigger the need for mandatory counseling to get the teen through difficult months and years of waiting and discernment.
Then there are the social problems and confusions that follow from publicly affirming transgenderism and related forms of “nonbinary” sexuality. Should a person with a penis who becomes sexually aroused around women but dresses in women’s clothing be considered a man, a woman, or some other gender? Should this person have access to women’s bathrooms? Be admitted to a sorority? Or placed in a women’s prison? Should a trans woman with a physique on the large size of normal for a man but a far outlier for a woman be allowed to compete in sports as a woman?
These are challenging questions. Some will answer them one way. Others will answer another. Some will consider them easy calls. Still others will find them extremely difficult. On such controversial issues, a broad-based political party will make room for as many people as possible by not staking out a strong position on one side or the other of the dispute. The Democratic Party would be wise to remain as agnostic as possible on such issues, which means the party should welcome inside the tent people on both sides of these debates.
Things become more fraught when we delve beneath the level of specific policy questions to the premises that many transgender activists insist must be affirmed as a precondition for demonstrating “allyship” with their cause. Many Democrats want to be considered good trans allies and so explicitly or tacitly accept those premises. But that is a mistake.
The most fundamental of these premises is that biological sex is irrelevant for our understanding of or judgments about gender, and that gender is socially constructed in its entirety. This ideology presumes, in other words, that when it comes to human sexuality, nothing is natural and everything is conventional and therefore thoroughly fluid, malleable, and manipulable. The medical interventions mentioned above encourage this assumption (since we now have it in our power to transform bodies quite radically), as do our online lives, in which our minds are immersed in virtual worlds that are far more pliable than the physical world.
But this is illusory—a distortion of reality. The fact is that human beings are born and live out our lives as physical bodies, and that the overwhelming majority of us are born male or female (while a very small number are born intersex, with ambiguous genitalia). If you are born with XX chromosomes, a vagina, ovaries, and a uterus; if you produce lower levels of testosterone than those born with XY chromosomes; and if you have the biological potential to menstruate, ovulate, become pregnant, and lactate—then you are a female. You were not “assigned female at birth,” as the activists would prefer us to speak and think. Your parents labeled you a “a girl” (by convention) because you were born female (by nature). It is certainly possible to adjust conventions so that human females are one day called “vagina-having persons” instead of “girls” or “women,” but that would not change the underlying reality that such people are born that way, by nature.
The theorists who first developed these erroneous ideas about the absolute malleability of sex and gender were explicit that they favored categorical anarchy as a way of dissolving biological constraints, limits, expectations, and moral judgments. Such dissolution is indeed what they produce. But at what cost?
Homosexuals, for example, made enormous strides in convincing the wider world that their desires for sexual connection and love have as much dignity as heterosexual desires because both kinds of desire are equally natural. Certain men naturally long for unity with other men, and certain women naturally long for unity with other women, just as a larger number of men and women naturally long for members of the opposite sex. Homosexual love therefore deserves just as much social recognition and affirmation via the (conventional) institution of marriage as heterosexual love has enjoyed down through the millennia of civilization.
But if nothing is natural, if everything is conventional, then a “penis-having person” desiring another “penis-having person” could well be evidence that one or the other is a trans woman who conforms to heteronormative conventions of sexual attraction. The very stability and dignity of homosexuality, rooted in ineradicable natural-biological desire, which less than a decade ago convinced a majority of justices on the Supreme Court to embed same-sex marriage in the Constitution and has led a 71-percent majority of Americans to support the expansion of the institution to include same-sex couples, is now at risk of dissolving into an indeterminate swirl of mutable impulses and conventions.
Something similar can be said of the implications for women, who have won and continue to fight for recognition as equals in their natural difference from men. Only women can menstruate. Only women can become pregnant and bear children. Only women face the often-wrenching choice of whether to go forward with or terminate an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy. A trans woman’s body does none of these things, which means that trans women are not, in these crucial respects, women. An ideology that insists otherwise is demanding its adherents deny important aspects of our shared reality, and that is far too high an intellectual and moral price to pay. The same might be said for the political price, since becoming associated with such radical and untenable ideas risks losing elections to an increasingly illiberal party of the right that proudly, rudely, and obnoxiously takes a stand in favor of that shared reality, while simultaneously denying the equal dignity and rights of women, gays, and transgender people.
Liberals are therefore left in a somewhat awkward position when it comes to contemporary debates about sex and gender. They must passionately defend the rights of transgender adults and just as passionately oppose Republican attacks on those rights. But they should also defer to parents on whether minors should be permitted to go forward with medical transitions. The Democratic Party would be wise to avoid taking an official stand on various controversial questions surrounding access to gendered public facilities and institutions. And both the party and individual liberals should reject the radical ideology preached by certain transgender activists, which is at once intellectually and morally indefensible and politically toxic.
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