And Now I Will Again Ponderously Explain Why I Am Trans-Affirming
Recently, I was again moved to reiterate that I will not tolerate negative fixation on trans people in my comments. I have in fact felt compelled to declare comments on this issue off-limits in general unless I specifically bring the subject up. The problem stems from a small minority of commenters, and commenters are a small minority of readers. But discussion of trans people in the comments space too often creates an environment that’s unwelcoming and hostile, and I’m not willing to accept that. This isn’t a betrayal of my civil libertarian principles because the comments section of my newsletter is not an open forum or platform in which anyone can say anything. Were I the CEO of a social media company I wouldn’t enforce the standards that I’m enforcing here. But I’m not; I’m a writer producing a publication that hosts a comment section as a service to readers. I will implement my own policies for what can be said in that comment section, as I please.
Because of this policy, and because I’ve rarely ever written about this topic, I’m frequently accused of ducking the issue. But I’m not at all unwilling to share how I feel about LGBTQ concerns; I just see little utility in doing so. The reality is that I’m not gay or trans and have no special insight or unusual perspective to share, so I don’t feel compelled to write about those subjects, just like I don’t write about climate change, horse race politics, economics, or many other topics on which I have no expertise or unique point of view. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a perspective on trans issues. It’s just that my point of view has always been a standard, not-particularly-interesting progressive one. I was raised to respect people from sexual identity and gender minorities, and I do. It’s not more complicated than that.
My stance here has repeatedly been represented (by a certain kind of online person) as either motivated by fear or a matter of confusion and guilt. But in fact my views on this issue are what I’ve said they are and are not complicated. I respect trans people’s gender identities, including their personal pronouns. I advocate for respect and acceptance for trans people and support efforts to protect their physical safety. I support the inclusion of gender identity in federal nondiscrimination standards. I don’t believe that transwomen represent a threat to cisgender women in public spaces. I think that by far the most pressing issue regarding trans people in this country is fighting the recent spate of Republican bills that target them. And, to address the controversy of the day, I think that medical decisions about transitioning for minors should be handled by those minors, their parents, and their doctors. Of course medical protocol will evolve over time. It may well be that, in the future, the protocol regarding medical transition for minors will include longer waiting periods or more psychological evaluation. But I really have no idea if that will happen because I’m not a doctor or researcher and am not involved in the development of medical guidelines for trans minors. And I don’t understand why this element of medical science has become everyone’s business to a degree that is simply not true in other fields. Let these minors, their parents, and their doctors determine the best course of action.
A particular fixation that’s cropped up here is the analogy between transgenderism and “transracialism,” ala Rachel Dolezal. A commenter:
Ancestry and genetic relatedness are facts about a person's body. The chromosomes in a person's cells, or what gametes their body produces (or produced), or what kind of sex organs they have, are also facts about a person's body.
In the case of transgender people, woke people think that the facts of what kind of body you have are irrelevant, and your internally felt gender identity is the only fact which is germane to the discussion. In the case of transracial people, woke people think that your internally felt racial identity is irrelevant, and the only fact which is germane to the discussion is the facts about what kind of body you have (namely, your ancestry).
I am not trying to insult or delegitimize transgender people: I sincerely do not understand the double standard here. Why does biology trump internally felt identity in one instance and not the other?
I find this powerfully unconvincing. To begin with, the original damage here derives from the social construction theory of race, which I’ve always rejected and which invites precisely this kind of manufactured controversy. Yes, the cultural expectations that we apply on top of race are socially constructed, but racial identity is widely understood to include matters of recent genetic heritage. Two Black people very likely share more recent heritage (that is, closer recent relatives among their ancestors) than a Black person and an East Asian person. Race is an extremely complicated set of concepts that involve all manner of social elements, but race is broadly understood to be inherited from parents. People like Dolezal have received great criticism because they have misrepresented their heritage; they have stated or implied matters of fact (“my ancestry is Native America,” “I am Black”) that are untrue and which concern issues of great sensitivity.
Gender identity, meanwhile, has no specific biological determinant. Yes, most human beings have either a penis and testicles and XY chromosomes or ovaries and a uterus and XX chromosomes, and most people in the former camp identify as men and in the latter, as women. But many don’t. The basic progressive argument about gender is precisely that gender identity isn’t tied to either genetics or physiology. The argument is that gender is socially constructed and mediated. That doesn’t mean that there’s necessarily no difference between cis and trans people’s genes or brains or whatever else. But it does mean that trying to enforce a particular gender identity on someone in conflict with their felt and experienced gender identity is aggressive and wrong. If you simply say “your gender identity is determined by your anatomy,” then you’re assuming away the very point of contention - what constitutes gender. Again, transracialism involves an inherent degree of deception that simply isn’t a part of trans culture. Someone who fakes Native American heritage is trying to secretly appropriate an identity they know that they don’t have for selfish gain; they actively deceive. A trans person presents their gender according to an identity they sincerely feel, which often comes at significant personal cost, with no intent to deceive. Indeed, for them, living with a gender identity they don’t truly feel is a deception.
I think there’s a weird fear out there that trans people are trying to erase any distinction at all between those whose gender identity agrees with that which they were assigned at birth and those whose conflict. But the evidence against this is right in front of your face: the very word “trans” announces the distinction. It’s the trans movement! If the point were to insist that there are no physiological or genetic differences between trans and cisgender men or trans and cisgender women, then it would be awfully odd that trans people identify as trans, wouldn’t it? Look around at how trans people portray their identities online; you’ll find that it’s very common for trans people to announce that they are trans, to post the trans pride flag, or to otherwise indicate that status. This is not the behavior of people who are out to erase that distinction. And trans people don’t need to be reminded about their anatomical differences; I find that they’re often exquisitely aware of those differences. After all, they have to live in bodies that they (often but not always) find to be out of step with their felt identity, even following gender confirmation surgery. They’re well aware of the dictates of biology. What they’re asking for is the right to live in dignity and peace according to the dictates of their lived selves, to live in their authentically felt gender identities. And I think compassionate people should respect their effort to do so.
I also just don’t agree with the conclusions drawn from some kinds of evidence. For example, it’s entirely possible for clinics that specialize in adolescent transition to be mismanaged or otherwise imperfect. That’s simply the reality of medical care at scale. What I don’t understand is why this would be uniquely disqualifying; there are no doubt dialysis centers and radiology labs and pharmacies that have serious operational problems, but no one thinks that this discredits those kinds of medicine. I feel similarly when it comes to detransitioners. Yes, detransitioners exist. (I was close with someone like that in grad school.) This is the human species; people do all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons, including transitioning back to a gender identity that they once transitioned from. And I have no particular opinion on how many of those people there are. What I don’t understand is why the existence of detransitioners should undermine our respect for trans people. Why would the mere existence of people who transition back do anything to challenge our belief in the validity of the majority who transition and then maintain that gender identity permanently? I’ve never heard a coherent answer to that question. Worse, right-wing fixation on detransitioners has had the ugly side effect of making some people who are supportive of trans rights suspicious of them, when they should be treated with respect and understanding.
None of this is an endorsement of illiberalism about this issue. I’m never in favor of censorship. I agree that there can be enflamed rhetoric about this issue that’s unhelpful. It’s both wrong and bad politics to make violence threats against your political opponents. But I also think that the volume of coverage of trans issues, particularly of the relatively rare phenomenon of youth medical transition, is certainly subject to questioning. And fundamentally I think compassionate, progressive people should be welcoming and affirming towards trans people.
That’s the substance. I do want to add a bit of wearying meta-discussion here. I never see my writing as contrarian, nor do I write intentionally to provoke. Though many people disagree, I always see my political position as flowing naturally from basic leftist principles. I understand, though, why other people feel differently. But on LGBTQ issues, I’ve never really had an unusual angle, just like I’ve always been conventionally progressive on abortion or environmentalism. What gets to me is that, in expressing straightforwardly progressive views on this issue, many people who see themselves as dissidents or free thinkers or renegades or whatever will view this post as some sort of betrayal. The fact of the matter is that trans issues have come to occupy a unique position within the culture war; your stance on this topic is viewed as dispositive. But why? Why this issue and none other? I don’t understand why so many people have become so rabidly fixated on this one particular issue. If someone says something racist in my comments section, I just delete it and issue a ban and move on. But when someone posts a transphobic comment, others are sure to follow. Again, this is a small minority of commenters. But the heightened atmosphere is palpable.
I’ve never been particularly interested in being part of some community of dissidents. There are plenty of individual people I like and respect in the world of (for lack of a better term) outsider media, but I’ve always found the idea of a movement of such people to be a little dumb; the whole point is to be free from the constraints of group identity that do so much to influence mainstream media. But certainly there’s a group of writers who are considered heterodox or similar that I am frequently assigned to. And what I’m saying here is that people who are a part of it should allow me to harbor uncomplicated progressive attitudes on this issue as I do on others. If the point of this whole heterodox thing is independent thinking, this is how I independently think; if the point is resistance to conformity, well this is resistance to the typical point of view found in the heterodox space. Please permit me that stance. And to my readers, it’s the same - you are always free to take your attention elsewhere. But I would like it if you would permit me the same leeway you extend on other issues, or if not, to ask yourself why things are different on this topic from any other.
I think that someday, hopefully soon, discussions of trans issues will lose their singularly emotional and heightened place in our political debates, as has happened over time with gay marriage. (An issue about which people still disagree, but which now attracts nothing like the emotional force that trans issues do.) Until that happens, though, I have to stand with those who say that easily the most pressing responsibility we have in this debate is to oppose the legislative efforts Republican lawmakers have advanced to further stigmatize and repress trans people. Those are my feelings. I’m not planning to write about this again anytime soon. I just don’t have much of value to say.