Published September 10, 2021
A decade ago, few Americans had really thought much about transgender issues. Sure, the acronym was LGBT, but the debates in the 1990s and early 2000s were all about the L, G, and B — about “gay rights” and “marriage equality.” But in spring of 2015, as activists sensed that Anthony Kennedy was about to judicially redefine marriage throughout the United States, their organizations pivoted to the T. The Friday night before oral arguments in Obergefell, Bruce Jenner, as he was then called, went on ABC’s 20/20 for a two-hour special to declare that “For all intents and purposes, I am a woman.” And in May 2016, the Obama administration announced that the word “sex” in our federal civil rights laws now meant “gender identity” — which was an entirely subjective, “internal sense” of gender, “which may be male, female, neither, or a combination of male and female.”
But what are the consequences of grounding civil rights law in such nebulous concepts? Joe Biden declares “Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time. There is no room for compromise when it comes to basic human rights.” Helen Joyce retorts: “But demanding that self-declared gender identity be allowed to override sex is not, as with genuine civil-rights movements, about extending privileges unjustly hoarded by a favoured group to a marginalised one.” And in her new book, Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, Joyce documents the many costs of creating a faux civil right based on gender-identity ideology.
Joyce is no conservative. The Britain Editor at The Economist, Joyce argues along what were once standard liberal lines. Adults should be free to do what they want to do, but what “a liberal, secular society … must never do is impose one group’s beliefs on everyone else.” And that’s the main problem, for Joyce, with gender-identity ideology — it doesn’t ask for freedom, it demands affirmation and validation from others.
This demand has huge costs. Chapter by chapter, Joyce carefully documents the ways in which gender-identity ideology harms others. Start the list with children. While Joyce is a live-and-let-live liberal for adults, she argues that a “medical scandal” has “been unfolding for years,” with children being placed on puberty blocking drugs and cross-sex hormones and even in some cases being subjected to surgical mutilation. And on what basis? None, really. As Joyce rightly points out, “high-quality research casting doubt on [gender-identity] affirmation has been suppressed, and low-quality research in its favour gets fast-tracked to publication.” An entirely experimental medical regimen for children is now being demanded as a human right.
Children struggling with gender dysphoria are not the only ones harmed by gender-identity ideology. It also harms the children indoctrinated with it in school, who are taught that their sex is arbitrarily “assigned at birth” and that their “gender identity” depends on how much they identify with reductive stereotypes of what “real” men and women are supposed to be like. It harms women and girls who must allow men and boys into their bathrooms, locker rooms, spas, and prisons. It harms female athletes who must compete against men. Joyce carefully and thoughtfully documents each in due course.
The main strength of Trans is that it will appeal to a broad range of readers. And that is a real strength. Conservatives need to be willing to partner with liberals who share many of our concerns about gender-identity ideology. Indeed, Joyce praises radical feminists and others on the Left who have partnered with conservatives on these issues. When I was at the Heritage Foundation, I was honored to be able to host two groundbreaking events where left-leaning women articulated their problems with gender-identity based civil rights laws such as the proposed Equality Act. While we disagreed on many other issues, we agreed to work together where we could. Joyce’s book will be persuasive to open-minded people across the political spectrum, especially those who have a nagging suspicion that something is wrong with what’s taking place right now in the name of civil rights but can’t quite put their finger on what it is.
But there are serious weaknesses in the book. Its main argument is that gender self-identification is harmful to others. The subtitle, however, promised an exploration of “when ideology meets reality,” and the book devotes little attention to the reality of our embodiment as male or female, how this facilitates our flourishing, and why living in accordance with reality is good for everyone. Is it good or bad for an adult to transition provided they only use single-occupancy facilities, don’t compete in sex-specific sports, and don’t demand that others use their preferred pronouns? Joyce doesn’t say. These deeper concerns aren’t her focus.
In the conclusion, Joyce repeats her opening claim that “liberal, secular democracies should not privilege one belief system over others” and then complains that governments “have required everyone to ignore some people’s sex.” But wouldn’t the opposite — a government requirement not to ignore sex — be just as much of a “privilege”? The reality is that every law will privilege some belief system over others. The question, then, is to discover the truth of the matter and embody that in law. Either sex or gender identity will be enshrined in law. So which one should be?
Finally, Joyce seems utterly oblivious to how her own rhetoric about “homophobes” and “homophobia” abets the very same social and cultural forces that accuse her of being a “transphobe.” She seems to believe that those who opposed the legal redefinition of marriage are bigots but that those, like her, who oppose the legal redefinition of sex have been unfairly maligned. But “this far and no farther” has its limits. The revolution will eat its own, as Andrew Sullivan and Martina Navratilova — two gay rights icons who have been pilloried for criticizing gender-identity ideology — can attest.
This obliviousness is particularly egregious when it comes to Joyce’s views on abortion. Near the end of the book, she announces that the 2018 Irish referendum legalizing abortion “made me proud to be Irish.” But should we be surprised that the logic of “my body, my choice” is now being applied to gender identity? The conclusion follows naturally from the premise. Can we insist on the biological reality of sex while denying the biological reality of the unborn child?
While Trans succeeds in marshalling evidence of the concrete harms that stem from gender ideology, it fails to wrestle with the underlying worldview that got us here. Indeed, in many respects it embraces it. Conservatives should partner with those on the Left who oppose gender ideology, but we should also be clear-eyed about their limitations.
Ryan T. Anderson is the President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of several books, including When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.