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The latest screed against gender transition (National Review, Aug 2016)

David French's column "The Tragic Transgender Contagion" (National Review, Aug. 18, 2016) is only the most recent attempt to revive old tropes that invalidate transgender identities. The word "contagion" in the headline should give a clue; undesirable groups have always been spoken of metaphorically as carrying infection or otherwise recruiting normal people into their ranks. In this case, the article is built around the idea that some impressionable children copy each other's assertions of transgender identity because it is seen as the cool thing to do. The author mentions this anecdotally but does not really explore the topic.

French spoils an opportunity to learn or teach anything meaningful in the following ways: by relying on terms like "radical ideology" in reference to those who have transgender identities or who support others who have them; by claiming that the medical procedures transgender people choose to undergo are "mutilating;" by implying broadly that all queer people and their allies are plagued by such lack of insight that they believe that "every bad outcome is a bigot's fault;" and by declaring that "our responsibility is to deal with people as they are, not as identity politics defines them" (read: other people are the gender I say they are). He caps his error by adding that "to claim otherwise is nothing short of cruel" (read: when we allow other people to live according to their own self-understanding, we are at fault for their misery and regret because we ought to have stopped them).

There is a looming contradiction throughout the article: After complaining about the facile wrong-headedness of the belief that "every bad outcome is a bigot's fault," the author himself treats transgender support systems and care providers as the real bullies who damage children. If it is an oversimplification and a shirking of responsibility for queer people to take the former attitude, how is it a greater philosophical achievement for him to take the latter position? In either case, the problem is a deep identification with the role of a victim and the belief that all damage in one's own life is caused by someone else's ideology. In this article, French begins by saying that the problem is with blame itself, but he does not go on to encourage people to take responsibility for themselves — instead, he shifts blame onto allies of transgender people, accusing them of misusing their influence, and then he swipes and assumes their mantle of moral authority for himself. This doesn't get at the root of the problem he purported to identify, but just perpetuates it.

In this column, French appears to be deeply uncomfortable with or disturbed by the idea of anyone transitioning. For him, the idea of a child's transition is worse than the idea of an adult's transition, and anecdotal weird social phenomena among children who transition are worst of all. He uses his personal nightmare worst-case scenario — that gender transition could become a fad — to issue a polemic about other people are the gender I say they are rather than exploring the details of the incident in a journalistic way. This is just as well, since it is unclear why the personal details of anyone's gender identity (temporary or permanent, physical or not, insightful or not) would be fair game for a magazine column and should become anyone else's business, all the less so when the people involved are minors. The incident with the children in question isn't really the driving force behind the article. Think of the children, goes the typical rallying cry against sexual liberation, but the concern is rarely about the children. It isn't one specific misinterpretation or misapplication of medically assisted and socially sanctioned gender transition that French wishes to flag; it's everyone's gender transition that he invalidates by association.

French does provide some examples in his article to buttress his concerns about specific incidents where social support for gender transition may have missed the mark and backfired. The problem is that the article also reveals his disapproval of gender transition overall, so it is impossible for the reader to spot fine distinctions about how he thinks the social support system could be improved. The author ought to disentangle it for the reader and make viable recommendations, and he hasn't done so, because he seems to believe that no one's gender transition should receive any support. He calls the recognition of the validity of transgender experience "a comforting lie." He denies that transgender people are "trapped in the wrong body" and says that many have "traumas" and "mental disorders." Indeed, few would say that they are literally, rather than metaphorically, trapped in the wrong body, and it is true that many transgender people (as do many people of all types) have emotional difficulties, but what this has to do with the price of fish is hard to say, other than that it bolsters an atmosphere of discarding transgender people's testimonies. He also sets up a straw man by finding a five-word definition of "transgender" — “defy[ing] societal expectations regarding gender” (Julia Serano) — and then tearing it down as hopelessly vague, saying that it applies to everyone, thus gleefully erasing the specificity of what makes a feeling, experience, or life a transgender one. If other people's feelings and experiences aren't any different from your own, you don't have to go to the trouble of respectfully acknowledging them.

This rhetorical approach isn't unique to anti-transgender complaints. It has always been common in the debates over same-sex relationships. The critic of homosexuality finds an example of a gay relationship that doesn't meet their personal standards for a role model. Perhaps the relationship is sexually "open" to multiple partners, involves parenting, doesn't involve parenting, is affiliated with religion, isn't affiliated with religion, results in immigration, features HIV, has too much money and privilege, has too much poverty and sorrow, or ends in a breakup. The details don't really matter. It's usually a normal human story. The critic assumes that the people, behavior, incident or situation in question is somehow irredeemably bad, that it serves as a stereotype of all same-sex relationships, and that the badness can be avoided if the people in question were not in any same-sex relationship. The essential conclusion is that homosexuality should not be allowed because love, sexuality and marriage is what I say it is and anyone who believes otherwise has "radical ideology." Curiously, the otherization and demonization of typical human behavior is a contradictory approach to the erasure of the other's real differences, and yet they coexist together — in this case, within the same article. An example of the former: The sexually liberal are otherized by being characterized by "smugness" and "never taking responsibility for [their] own beliefs." An example of the latter: Children's gender confusion "should shock exactly no one" and "every female but Barbie herself is transgender" if the definition of "transgender" is too loose. We are all the same. Nothing to see here; move along, people.

It happens too often. Whether the topic is same-sex relationships or gender transition, the critic doesn't typically make a meaningful attempt to figure out exactly what happened to the people in the anecdote in question. Those people are used only to illustrate the "other." If the critic did explore their worst-case scenarios deeply and honestly to learn more about the facts of others' lives, they'd likely find that that the incident that scares them might not have been entirely bad; if it was bad, it wasn't necessarily anyone's fault; that it was anecdotal and can't be used to generalize; and that the possibility that things can go wrong does not in itself recommend that government authorities or self-appointed moralists should take away other people's freedom to make their own life choices for themselves and for their own families. This is paternalistic ideology. Characterizing queerness as "radical ideology" (and following up with feeble attempts to say that queers don't really exist because we're all a little bit queer and that doesn't mean we have to act on it) does not in itself provide a reason to find factually uninformed, moralistic, paternalistic ideology any more appealing.

Comments

  1. David French only needs the word Mendacious for his description, with that you will get a different read from his diatribes. Note this: Neil DeGrasse Tyson once said that great thing about science is it's true whether you believe it or not.

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