You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
Walking the Transgender Movement Away from the Extremists
Hollywood, Thomas Hart Benton, 1937-38

Walking the Transgender Movement Away from the Extremists

Today's radical gender ideologues are harming the transgender community the same way left-leaning activists harmed the gay and lesbian rights movement in the early 1990s.

Jonathan Rauch

My friend Giselle Donnelly is the kind of person whose views, these days, are routinely denounced in elite circles as transphobic. She favors reasonable accommodations for trans people in areas like sports and bathrooms, but she rejects what she calls the “biological silliness” of denying the gender binary. She thinks trans women are different from natal women and should be called “trans women,” not “women.” The distinction, she says, is important in fields where sex matters, such as medicine, and it also recognizes the unique challenges of being transgender. “I want ‘discrimination,’ in the sense of making precise distinctions,” she told me. “The ‘trans women are women’ thing drives me batty. Beyond the biological silliness, it suggests that being trans somehow isn’t legit. It’s a true form of ‘erasure.’”

A transphobe? Actually, Donnelly is a trans woman. The gender ideologues who claim to speak for transgender equality do not speak for her. “I lament that small numbers of activists appear to want to use these issues in service of a larger social and political agenda,” she told me. “Their fight is not my fight. I do not wish to be a tool of revolutionaries or a target for reactionaries, and I detest their wish to tear the fabric of Western liberalism to shreds.”

According to Gallup, 0.6 percent of Americans identified as transgender in 2020. There is no way to know how many of them see things as Donnelly does—but also no reason to think that they are all radical gender ideologues. Here is a strong statement that I have come to think is true: Unless more trans people like Donnelly find their voices and rescue their movement from the extremists who have captured it, the future of LGBT equality will be in jeopardy.

In saying this, 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. Gays were (supposedly) redefining marriage; trans people are (supposedly) redefining sex. We (allegedly) smeared all disagreement as homophobic; they (allegedly) smear all disagreement as transphobic. We were usurping democratic majorities, destroying privacy, defying nature, recruiting children, and politicizing science; they’re—well, you get the idea. Seeing the many parallels makes me humble about getting the trans issue wrong.

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. An opening shot was the publication of Bruce Bawer’s landmark book A Place at the Table in 1993, with its attack on what he called “group-oriented pride” and the famous aphorism, “The only time I ever feel ashamed of being gay is on Gay Pride Day.” That year, I launched what would be a twenty-year stream of output with a New Republic piece arguing that gay Americans should stop thinking of ourselves as oppressed. Andrew Sullivan took up the cause of marriage, embracing its fundamentally conservative nature, and he published his influential book Virtually Normal (1995), arguing that nothing about homosexuality is inconsistent with mainstream values.

Many others, too many to name here, chimed in over every open channel. We launched a listserv to stay connected and a webzine to platform our work. We published a book (1996) gathering our contrarian views. We were unstinting in our criticisms of the anti-gay Right, but we didn’t shrink from fights with the gay Left. I won’t claim we deradicalized the movement by ourselves, but we succeeded in establishing a viable intellectual center and breaking the Left’s ideological hegemony within the gay community. That was a big part of what made the gay-rights revolution acceptable to the public.

It helped that we were correct in what we were saying: There is nothing intrinsically radical or left-wing about gay equality. And there is nothing intrinsically radical or left-wing about trans equality. In most respects, trans people can be reasonably accommodated with modest adjustments to everyday life. Hardly any jobs and public spaces are gendered today, and we can live with preferred pronouns and arrange safe places to pee.

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 with 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.

The political play is the same now, too. Much as the Left sought to present itself as the take-it-or-leave-it alternative to the homophobic Right, so radical gender ideology insists that the choice is between itself and vicious transphobia. Both radicalisms—like all radicalisms—target centrism and compromise for extinction.

That may benefit people who drive academics from their jobs or call for “stopping the circulation” of books questioning gender ideology, but for everyone else, it’s bad. Concepts like “person with uterus” make nonsense of feminism by erasing the category of woman. (“As the class of women is rendered vacuous, feminism is, too,” writes Joyce.) The same is true of the categories gay and lesbian, whose reality my generation fought hard to establish, but which mean nothing in a de-gendered world.

Telling tomboyish girls or effeminate boys that they should identify as the opposite sex embraces all the hoary gender stereotypes that made generations of gay and lesbian people (and many straight people) miserable. Worse, it can cater to homophobic pressures not to be gay. (Evidence in this domain is thin, but one study found that almost a fourth of gender detransitioners cited homophobia or difficulty accepting themselves as lesbian, gay, or bisexual as a reason for transitioning.)

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.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His books include Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America  (2004) and Denial: My 25 Years Without a Soul (2013).