Published December 12, 2022
Liberals in good standing are finally permitted to question transgender ideology. Just look at a recent piece in The New York Times — the high holy chronicle of upscale liberalism — in which columnist Pamela Paul denounces the crude stereotypes that inform transgender ideology (e.g. a girl who likes short haircuts and playing with trucks is really a boy). Though she did not challenge the full transgender agenda and ideology in the way that conservatives or gender-critical feminists would, she has written an important column.
Taken alongside the Times’ reporting on puberty blockers and men in women’s sports, this piece establishes a permission structure for good liberals to disagree with transgender orthodoxy, and especially transitioning children.
Even though a few pieces in The New York Times will not in themselves turn the tide, they show that dissent from transgender dogmas is allowed while remaining a liberal in good standing. For a long time now, a multitude of doubts and misgivings have been swallowed by liberals terrified of being seen as on the wrong side of the latest frontier in rainbow identity rights. But they can take courage.
This is a wonderful development. Still, as welcome as Paul’s piece is, it still demonstrates the liberal weaknesses that transgender ideology has been able to exploit. The problem is not just that liberals were afraid to dissent, but that liberalism is ill-equipped to address human embodiment as male and female.
This is seen in Paul’s reminiscing about the “Free to Be … You and Me” album and book of her childhood. She writes:
I accepted the reality of biological science that I was a girl—and rejected the fiction of gendered social conventions that as such, I should incline toward pink dresses and Barbies. Now we risk losing those advances. In lieu of liberating children from gender, some educators have doubled down, offering children a smorgasbord of labels—gender identity, gender role, gender performance and gender expression—to affix to themselves from a young age. Some go so far as to suggest that not only is gender “assigned” to people at birth but that sex in humans is a spectrum (even though accepted science holds that sex in humans is fundamentally binary, with a tiny number of people having intersex traits). The effect of all this is that today we are defining people—especially children—by gender more than ever before, rather than trying to free both sexes from gender stereotypes.
There is a lot to cheer in this. But the insistence on “liberating” children from gender is a mistake that goes beyond the commonsense observation that some girls will be tomboys and that some boys will be more sensitive. Gender, rightly understood, is the social and relational expression of our embodiment as male or female. It therefore allows for variation, both between cultures and between individuals, but it cannot be separated from our physical embodiment. Masculinity and femininity are derived from the reality of male and female. Therefore we cannot be “liberated” from gender because we cannot be “liberated” from our bodies. The issue is not whether to have gender or not, but whether it will be rightly ordered based on a true understanding of our existence as male and female.
A Mistake to Seek Liberation from Gender
Consequently, though Paul is justly critical of the too-rigid gender conventions of mid-20th-century America (which were far more historically anomalous and contingent than their champions recognized), she is mistaken to seek liberation from gender. Indeed, this error helped to prepare the way for the gender ideology she deplores. After all, if gender expression is disconnected from biological sex, then it may offer an independent basis for an identity that is perceived as more authentic than the accident of anatomy.
Furthermore, the ideal of androgyny has a cruelty of its own. For adults, this may be seen in the way that workplaces expect women to adapt to them (especially with regard to fertility), rather than adapting themselves to the needs of their female workers. The result of ostensibly neutral policies was to ignore the realities of womanhood and to treat women like defective men who are oppressed by their own bodies.
Perhaps worse still, the ideal of liberation from gender deprives children of guidance on what it means to be men and women. Children’s desires are not enough to bring them to flourishing adulthood. It is not liberating to abandon all rules and role models in favor of the oft-repeated pablum of “you can be whatever you want to be.” Instead of liberating their children, parents who follow this model condemn them to be ruled by a mix of their own immature impulses, often-toxic cultural influences, and the agendas of other adults.
A Need for Norms
There is no escaping the task of developing and living out a right understanding of gender. We need masculine and feminine norms and ideals that direct boys and girls toward fulfillment and flourishing as men and women. These norms need to be concrete enough to provide guidance for the majority of people for whom they are good advice, and yet capable of flexibility and kindness toward those who may not fit as easily into current cultural ideals. We need an understanding of masculinity that can encompass priests, philosophers and poets as well as soldiers, welders, and athletes.
Put simply, dealing with gender requires prudence. We need to be able to appreciate general truths about men and women while also acknowledging the limits and exceptions to these generalities. This is difficult, but it is necessary in order to provide an alternative to transgender ideology. As the adage says, you can’t beat something with nothing. Transgender ideology is an incoherent mess, but it still contains fragments of something solid, even if they are just the broken remnants of crude stereotypes.
Though it is marvelous that New York Times writers and reporters are dissenting from the extremism of transgender ideology, we need more than dissent — we need wisdom about what it means to be men and women.
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has included work on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on a study of Kierkegaard and labor. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.