I Think You Should Be Kind
The character pictured above is Hollywood Montrose from the film Mannequin. It’s a 1987 comedy, about a dreamer and artist played by Andrew McCarthy, who falls in love with a mannequin at the department store where he works, which is made more understandable (and yet even trickier) by the fact that said mannequin has been occupied by the spirit of an Ancient Egyptian woman who was rescued from an arranged marriage by the gods, played by Kim Cattrall. To McCarthy’s character Jonathan, Cattrall appears as a flesh and blood woman when they’re alone, but whenever someone else is around, she looks and acts like a mannequin. For a long time the movie was quite difficult to find (I watched it broken up into ten-minute chunks on YouTube awhile back), but has recently been made available on HBO Max, which can only contribute to a burgeoning reappreciation. A well deserved one, actually. Given its era, its focus on gender and sexuality, and the complexity of its conceit, it’s shocking how well the movie holds up. And no doubt Hollywood will have a great deal to do with any new love the movie engenders.
I have, for quite a long while, wanted to write about Hollywood as a symbol of progressive values, the best kind of progressive values, when it comes to sex and gender. (I in fact considered pitching such an essay a couple of times, but it’s not easy to sell a story about an obscure comedy from the Reagan administration.) The basic structure of the movie lies in placing McCarthy’s character Jonathan in awkward or embarrassing positions, thanks to the fact that Cattrall’s Emmy only reveals herself to Jonathan when he’s alone. You can imagine the hijinks even if you’ve never seen a minute of the movie: after hours, Jonathan is slow-dancing with Emmy in the sporting goods section, say, and then the suspicious nightwatchman walks in on them, and it appears that he’s in fact getting pervy with an actual mannequin. Society judges him a weirdo for his unusual love and desire. We as an audience know that Emmy really is a lost Egyptian spirit, and that she really does appear to him as a (very attractive) flesh-and-blood woman, which would appear to justify his behavior to most. What makes Hollywood beautiful, as a character and as a thematic device, is that until the movie’s climax he’s pretty sure that Emmy is just a mannequin, that Jonathan is pretending otherwise to justify his love - and accepts that love anyway. Jonathan, in turn, rejects the bigotry other employees show towards Hollywood, and indeed homophobia is consistently coded as ugly in the world of the movie.
As a flamboyant gay man in the 1980s, Hollywood appears to be the kind of person who has lived with other people’s judgment and revulsion and their consequences and has arrived at a place of radical acceptance, which allows him to treat Jonathan with a kind of amused generosity, always quietly commenting on the absurdity of it all, but with real amusement, never malice. Key to the whole thing is that, while Emmy revealing herself is certainly convenient for Jonathan, it isn’t strictly speaking necessary - Jonathan begins the movie working at the mannequin factory where Emmy was created, and it’s there that he develops his attachment to her, when she is decidedly inanimate. (Indeed, Jonathan only finds himself at the department store because his serial personal oddities mark him as someone incapable of making it in the straight world.) His attraction is consummated by Emmy’s transformations but not generated by them, which speaks to a deeper commitment to unsanctioned love. The movie is, if we’re inclined to be generous, a parable about the importance of tolerance as a capacious and mutable virtue; it suggests that the literal magic which might provide Jonathan with society’s approval is of lesser importance than the abstract magic of those who are willing to accept our true selves, even when the things we desire are unusual, provided those desires don’t hurt anyone else. None of it would work without Hollywood’s charisma and his infectious kindness.
“I find it best not to explain,” he tells Jonathan on first meeting him and learning of his infatuation with Emmy. “It adds a certain mystique to one’s reputation.”
You might anticipate why I would be hesitant to valorize Hollywood in this way. He is, certainly, an exaggerated figure, though honestly not more exaggerated then some gay men I have known in real life. There was a time, when gay rights were becoming a mainstream affair and the struggle for gay marriage becoming a winnable one - when gay normalcy had become an important political tool - that Hollywood would have been roundly dismissed as a gay minstrel type. Certainly, he exemplifies a number of stereotypes of gay men that were prevalent at the time of the movie’s release, and often invoked in a not particularly flattering manner: effeminate, theatrical, catastrophizing. That none of this is presented as worthy of mockery helps, but it’s certainly an outsized portrayal nonetheless. This is all perhaps complicated by the fact that Meshach Taylor, the actor who played Hollywood and died in 2014, was not himself gay. But I don’t really care about that; I care about Hollywood. And while some will no doubt be suspicious of my appreciation for the character given that I am, at least, someone from a different culture, I also imagine that there’s been several re-appropriations and reevaluations and rediscoveries of Hollywood, probably on Tumblr. (Just a guess.) So fuck it: I think you should be like Hollywood. I think you should consider radical acceptance as a durable and adaptable value, a good guide for engaging with people who are not like you.
(Not that this post is really about the moral value of the film Mannequin, but that Emmy is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Egyptian with what appears to be a Jewish mother I can neither explain nor defend. Then again the movie is cheerfully indifferent to its own mythology, so.)
I’m here today to say this. I do not need to extend the kind of tolerance that Hollywood shows to Jonathan to trans people, because I believe in and support the basic argument for recognizing trans identities and defending the rights of trans people. I intuitively recognize the gender identities of trans people because I accept the general progressive argument that gender roles are not fixed by biology or society but emerge from the lived experience of each of us. Because I have so often trained my fire on liberalism and the social justice politics that, I believe, have gone so wrong, some readers talk themselves into the idea that I secretly am “gender critical” no matter how many times I say otherwise. But this is simply incorrect. I was raised surrounded by a remarkable number of LGBTQ people, relative to the context of the 1980s, without ever really being aware that there was anything unusual about that as a child. I have known what are now called trans people my entire life and I have never had the slightest interest in questioning their identities or their rights.
But what I’m here to ask you today, though it’s likely futile, is to consider extending that tolerance I described earlier yourself even if you can’t accept the political and moral arguments that defend trans existence. I have readers of all kinds, many more of whom are straightforwardly leftist people than my critics would allow. It’s true though that some are just social conservatives who can’t be moved. But some, I think, are potentially openminded people who have become too addicted to being “heterodox” and agitate about trans issues for what are fundamentally tribal reasons, and I’d like to think some of those people can be reached. I will risk saying that I think that I am one of a very few people writing about politics today who both supports trans rights and might be listened to by a certain type of person who doesn’t. Maybe that’s self-flattery, I don’t know. But I do think that, inspired by recent turns in the culture war, we’ve seen a backsliding when it comes to basic respect for trans people. Yes, I think that there’s a lot of rhetorical excess coming from some of those who defend trans people in the public sphere. But those excesses can’t and don’t undermine the case for defending trans identities. And frankly, I think some of you have lost your fucking minds when it comes to this issue. Trans people remain a tiny portion of the population and you can choose not to associate with them; treating them as just another culture war lever to push is pointless as well as unkind.
So much of what gets said in this domain, in these supposed heterodox spaces, is preceded by some version of “I don’t hate anyone” or “adults can do what they want” or “you can call yourself whatever you want,” right before moving on to obsessive criticism of trans people which never bothers to reestablish those elementary rights that are granted in a hand wave. Maybe you should focus a little more on the first part, because many, many people in this world most certainly do hate trans people, don’t want adults to be able to identify or dress or act as they wish, and don’t want them to be able to name themselves according to their lived gender identity. That part is a contested, vulnerable position too! And if you treat the first part just as a kind of throat-clearing exercise that you only ever drop prior to complaining about pronouns and children’s gender medicine, you are not in fact a defender of the right to simply exist as a trans adult.
I will say that I think that a lot of recent rhetoric about trans people has unnecessarily muddied the waters about the basic physiological reality of sexual dimorphism in humans - the reality that the vast majority of people, though not all, are born with either a penis and testicles and XY chromosomes or a vagina and female reproductive organs and XX chromosomes. Traditionally, the former have been called men, and the latter have been called women. A core part of the fight for trans rights is simply to get people to recognize that there are people whose physiological and genomic reality do not correspond to their lived reality, which is no less real. I understand why trans activists reject statements like “your sex is male” or similar; those can just be another way to try and dictate someone’s gender to them, said only to insult or to undermine. That said, I do think that there was a certain simple sense in the older generation’s gender-sex distinction, which was intuitively understandable even for many normies. I don’t think it helps anyone to appear to reject any physiological or genetic sex distinctions at all, such as by putting “biological sex” in quotation marks, in part because it seems to imply that in order to defend trans people we have to deny that most people map to the genitals-and-genomes tendencies I mentioned. We don’t. Almost all vertebrate animals exhibit some sort of sexual dimorphism, and saying so does not in any way undermine the case for trans rights. The whole argument is that physiology does not dictate gender, and acknowledging that most people with penises go through life uncomplicatedly accepting a masculine gender does nothing to undermine the felt, lived, and thus very much real gender identities of people who have penises but go through life as women.
Ultimately, while there are penis-havers and vagina-havers, and this has relevance in certain domains such as in sexual partner selection, the basic empirical observation that has powered growing awareness of trans rights remains the most important thing: there are many people in the world whose felt, lived, intrinsic, internal, or otherwise experienced gender identity does not match with the sex category of their birth. This is, as I said, an empirical reality just as much as someone having a vagina or XX chromosomes is an empirical reality - whether you agree to abide by their gender self-identification or not, many people feel that identification with a gender other than that assumed by society. They exist whether you believe in them or not! And their gender identification is sufficiently inherent and powerful and passionate that they are willing to experience widespread stigma and the very real risk of violence in order to live in a way consonant with their identity. You remember the old “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” chant? The point of that chant was to draw attention to the fact that homosexual people existed, regardless of whether anyone approved of them or not; you could say that they didn’t deserve rights but you couldn’t make them disappear. The same point has to be underlined in the present moment: regardless of how you feel about them or your stance on various related controversies, there are millions of people who believe that they can’t live with the gender identity that society would once have forced on them.
And to speak in terms that American conservatives should respect, in a free society, how can these people be told that they can’t live the way they want to? Are people in a free society free to call themselves men, women, or other? The Constitution says that they are. Are people in a free society free to dress how they would like? They are. Are people in a free society free to enter into personal or romantic or sexual relationships with any adults that consent to being in those relationships? They are. Are people in a free society free to only associate with those who respect their gender identities? They are. Are those of us who are not trans free to respect the gender identities of trans people and call them by their preferred names and pronouns? We are. So what exactly is the beef, here? What do you have to do, if you accept these freedoms, other than to leave trans people alone? Again, you don’t have to like trans people or associate them, and they’re easy to avoid if that’s what you’ve made up your mind to do. And no, personally, I wouldn’t favor any law that required you to call them by their preferred gender identity, on free speech grounds. But then, you’re also free to say that I’m Tibetan; that you can say it does not will the falsehood into becoming the truth.
Maybe it would be useful to respond to some common claims I see in this domain.
They’re gonna rape the girls in the bathrooms!
Please, help me understand this, because it’s never made an ounce of sense to me. The claim is that, if you allow transwomen into women’s bathrooms, they’ll rape the women in there, right? Here’s my question: do you think that a sign on a door is gonna keep a rapist from raping? Like, there’s a sexual predator who wants to commit a rape, and he’s about to follow a woman into the bathroom to do so, but then he sees that it’s a women’s bathroom and says “ah shucks, I guess no rape for me today”? I simply do not understand this. If physical proximity is by itself sufficient incitement to sexual assault, then we have much, much bigger problems on our hands. How does legally allowing a transwoman into a girl’s bathroom create any greater threat than a cisgender man’s practical ability to simply walk into that bathroom and assault someone?
I don’t want to see male genitals in the locker room!
Honey I don’t want to see anyone’s genitals in the locker room. I support a blanket “let’s all cover our genitals in the locker room to every extent possible” policy. The trouble is that as soon as you make this a “trans issue” you’re engaged in bigotry. Every man who’s regularly changed in a locker room has been forced to see some old guy’s dangling balls and that’s no fun either.
How many genders are there!
I don’t know. I don’t care. Like, I don’t understand why this is an operative or important question. The vast majority of people who are trans-identifying identify as transmen and transwomen, and not misgendering them is simple. Some people identify as non-binary or gender queer. Do I fully understand this? Not really. Do I need to? No, as I’m someone who knows how to mind his own business. Simple human respect and basic manners compels me to call these people what they would like to be called. (I cannot stress this enough: it costs you nothing to respect someone else’s gender identity.) Are there some people out there, particularly on social media, who have more exotic gender definitions? Sure. Do I sometimes find that stuff a little silly? I guess so. But, again, since it costs me nothing to respect their gender identity - as in, I literally don’t have to do anything at all - I’m very happy to do so. I suspect a lot of those people will probably adopt a more conventional gender identity as they age, but if they don’t, again… who cares? It’s none of my business.
If trans people are already the gender they identify with, why do they need to take hormones to become that gender! (Joe Rogan destroys trans activists with facts and logic!)
The hormones aren’t to become a gender. They’re to bring trans people’s bodies more into line with their self-conception. In this they are no different from people who take Ozempic or steroids or TRT to treat “fatigue.” If you’re a trans man and you want to look more like conventional ideals of masculinity, you might take hormones. Some trans men have no interest in that, so they don’t take the hormones. It’s not particularly complicated; if you’re concerned about people using medical advances to change their physical bodies, I’m afraid that ship has long since sailed. The hormones don’t make you a woman or a man, they just make your body more like the body you would like to have.
Children are routinely getting permanently-disfiguring medical treatment!
To begin with, every indication is that the number of trans children receiving hormones remains low, and the number undergoing surgical interventions vanishingly rare. Can I see understand some concerns with overly-aggressive medical providers pushing care on trans-identifying minors too quickly? I guess so. But what I can promise you is that I want medical decisions about children to remain between the children, their parents, and their doctors. That’s who should have a say - the children, the parents, and the doctors. If in fact there are risks or problems identified with the current manner of practicing trans-affirming medicine for children, then we will have to rely on the medical community to change their standard of care as new data comes available. Will this result in perfect outcomes? Of course not. Does pediatric sports medicine or pediatric oncology result in perfect outcomes either? Of course not. What I am certain of is that I don’t want the government getting involved in these medical decisions. Ron Desantis does not get a say, sorry.
Trans activists overstate how many people are born intersex or with otherwise ambiguous genitalia!
They might, yeah, maybe. And it’s a mistake to base the right to live with a gender-nonconforming identity on the existence of people who have atypical genitals or genotypes. But… it’s a mistake to base the right to live with a gender-nonconforming identity on the existence of people who have atypical genitals or genotypes. The right to gender self-expression does not require any underlying biological reality. Even if there had never been a single intersexed person born in history, the right to define your gender identity in a way that’s consonant with your heart would remain.
They’re trying to obliterate the distinction between male and female, between men and women, altogether!
Who? Where? The term “trans woman” includes the word “trans,” which denotes that someone is something other than a cisgender person. To use this term while trying to obscure the difference between trans and cis would be very strange behavior indeed. I’m sure there are some trans people who attempt to pass, but most trans people I’ve known are very straightforward about their identity. In fact, a common conservative complaint is that trans activists never stop talking about being trans! Again, it would be very strange for someone who’s looking to destroy the gender binary entirely, to erase the very notion of a difference between a boy and a girl, to a) put the trans flag in all of their profiles and openly identify as trans, a term which implies the notion of a transition between differing states, and b) to fight very hard to be known as a boy or girl. Someone asking you to respect their pronouns is by definition not trying to eliminate any notion of sex or gender differences! No one wants you stop calling your kids boys or girls and no one wants you to stop being a man or woman. Besides, I have to live in a country where seven out of ten people believe that God sent Jesus to save us all from a hell he created himself, which doesn’t exactly make a ton of sense to me. And that set of beliefs is of course vastly more consequential than trans rights are for our society. You can live alongside people who believe things you find crazy. That’s the whole point of freedom.
They’re gonna take over women’s athletics!
At present, this sure looks like a controversy without a problem - Lia Thomas became an internationally-known figure precisely because transwomen competing at the highest levels of women’s sports is so remarkably rare. But let’s say that, over time, transwomen do come to dominate in women’s sports, and at the Olympics in 2028 transwomen are on every podium, OK. Then we as a society will come together and find some equitable, just solution that respects everyone’s rights and personhood, a solution which takes as a core requirement that transwomen be treated with dignity. I’m not entirely sure what that hypothetical change might look like, but I’m sure that people who spend all of their time freaking out about trans people in general don’t have the credibility to offer compelling advice. This is one of those constant “I have no problem with trans people, but…” ones, and the proof is in the pudding - if you really do have no problem with trans people and respect their rights as human beings, then you’ll be more likely to be included in whatever evolution in sports might come next. If you spend all day muttering darkly about “trans extremists” on X, it makes me think your actual interest isn’t women’s athletics at all. In any event, we’ll see if this ever develops into an actual problem at scale.
Terms like “birthing person” and “chestfeeding” are stupid and alienating to a lot of people!
Well… yeah. I think that stuff mostly doesn’t help anybody at all. I understand the desire to be inclusive, but I think making people believe that you want to get rid of the term “mother” is about as politically wise as punching a baby on camera. Again, though, plenty of trans people don’t use this language, and it’s mostly confined to the parts of our culture that have aggressive HR departments. I have been around LGBTQ people generally, and activists specifically, for most of my life. No one has ever scolded me for saying “ladies and gentlemen” or “breastfeeding” or “dad.” Not once have I ever been confronted about using language that suggests a gender binary. Not once! Because aside from a class of professional busybodies, most people are normal and just want to be chill about stuff. Honestly. The number of LGBTQ people who just go about their lives, asking only for rights and respect, dwarfs the number who yell at you on TikTok. Yes, there are social justice-y annoyances and excesses in this domain, as there are with any constituencies favored by progressives now. Don’t let that distract you from the fact that almost everyone just wants to live in peace and dignity.
The inevitable howls from a certain kind of person, in my inbox, will almost all proceed from a series of bad assumptions about my politics, assumptions which are in turn derived from the inanities of our culture war. (In my inbox because comments are off; comments are off because otherwise a small but voluble slice of my readers would say things that are cruel towards trans people, and I won’t be a party to that.) I am a leftist who believes in the equal value and dignity of LGBTQ people, their identities, and their love. This is all drawn straightforwardly from the basic socialist principles that organize my political life. I have made a name for myself attacking the illiberalism and inanity of much of contemporary progressive behavior, out of my fierce belief that civil liberties are core to left practice and because so much liberal rhetoric only aids the other side. You don’t have to agree with me on this or on any other issue, but I have had enough of people waving these views away as a feint or dodge on my part; they are core to my political identity. Nor do I find any of the strained analogies some critics make with my other work compelling, most obviously those who respond to any of my posts about mental illness by suggesting that I’m hypocritical because I don’t include trans people in that category. Here’s my complicated rebuttal: I don’t think trans people are mentally ill, and so the critique makes no sense.
What I have been asking for, for all these years, is for the right to be critical of all sides, to stake out my own territory, and to refuse to be pressed into any of the boxes that other people would press me into. You in turn have the right to read or not read me and to decide whether to support this project financially or not. But in the broader sense, I think that there is a cohort of people in our political world now who have made a fetish of counterintuitivity and who have mistaken the absurdities and petty corruption of many liberals for an affirmative argument against any liberal ideals. And that is a powerfully stupid thing to become. Let me say this as directly as I can: adopting a politics that is merely the inverse of what you take to be contemporary liberalism does not make you any less of a follower. You’re still allowing your fundamental political identity to be derived from the beliefs of other people; that you’re trying to turn those beliefs 180 degrees doesn’t make you any more independent. Genuine independence flows from developing your beliefs on your own, and requires your willingness to alienate anyone and everyone in the pursuit of what you find to be true and good. If I’m challenging you to do anything, it’s to force yourself out of the dirty rapids of culture war, to look past the path dependence and chance that so deeply influence our political lives. And, yes, I’m asking you to be kind to a group of people who have become a political football in a way that makes no sense whatsoever, given the scope of our actual problems.
I find that there’s a bizarre, unspoken collision in the anti-woke culture war these days: we are simultaneously to believe that the pro-trans forces have achieved total hegemony, able to cancel anyone they want at any time, forcing “trans ideology” down the throats of the rest of us, and at the same time, ordinary people all reject that ideology, Main Street holds good-old-fashioned gender values, “the people are on our side.” This is, I suppose, just the generic right culture war complaint - the elites are forcing their freaky values on the rest of us. But please ask yourself this: if it’s indeed true that ordinary people reject these values, is it not the case that the rights of trans people are the ones that are in jeopardy, not yours? And might it occur to you that, even if you feel some sort of personal revulsion at the idea of people with penises wearing dresses and people with XX chromosomes being referred to as “he,” the dictates of personal freedom should come first? If you’re a conservative, can you not focus on the wisest conservative value of all, which is the right to be left alone?
You know I say all the time that life is an endless series of moments of looking ahead, thinking that when we get there, finally, everything will be alright, only to find ourselves once again yearning for the next stage. Once I hit my growth spurt, everything will be great. Once I get my degree. Once I get my own apartment. Once I get that job. Once I get a boyfriend. Once I get that raise. Once I move to New York. Once I lose 20 pounds. Once I pay off the house. Once I beat this cancer. And then, if the news is good and these things happen, you find that you’re still yearning, still looking around the next corner. And I worry, for young trans people, that they’ll find transitioning to be just another of these human disappointments - things will be better, no doubt, but as we all tend to do they’ll have idealized the next stage of their lives and then may experience that sudden comedown when they realize that they’re still just humans with human problems. Certainly this happened to many gay people, of the past several generations, finally coming out and living according to the dictates of their hearts, only to be reminded that openly gay people have to pay the rent and squeeze onto the subway and be subject to all of lives little indignities. Equal rights, I’m afraid, generally lead to lives of equal disappointment. I do hope that young LGBTQ people will understand that, beyond all of the Instagram memes telling them to love themselves, there’s still just this broken world.
But, of course, it is better, far better, to be able to say that you are the gender that you feel you are, that you love the people that you say you love, that (even if a bit crass) you are down to fuck the kind of people you want to fuck. It’s easy to be cynical about the gains we’ve had in the past several decades, as I frequently am, but the reality is that in the societies which have dedicated themselves to LGBTQ rights, the ability of people to love and live in a way consonant with their hearts is one of the most significant positive changes in our collective lives, a sign of genuine societal progress. We are now offering the people who want to live a certain kind of life that right, and for many of them that will mean a redefinition of the self, an awakening of desire and of love, the ecstasy of bodies, the reassurance of freedom, and the simple right to say “I am what I am.”
And, you know, I’d kill for people’s right to live their lives and feel that way.