Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Theological Conflict

An exclusive interview with Michael Knowles on transgenderism.


Michael Knowles made headlines at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference when he argued that transgender ideology should be "eradicated from public life." Knowles's critics, of course, accused him of advocating genocide, and when he debated libertarian pundit Brad Polumbo at the University of Pittsburgh on transgenderism earlier this month, protestors burned his effigy in the street. Knowles draws the ire of transgender activists precisely because he frames their argument correctly: Either men can become women, or they can't. If they can't, that's just as true for adults as it is for children.

I spoke to Knowles, a friend and fellow Catholic, about the roots of transgender ideology, the state's role in combatting it, and the religious dimensions of the sex and gender debate. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


John Hirschauer: When you spoke at the University of Pittsburgh, protesters burned your effigy on the streets outside, pulled the fire alarms, and otherwise tried to disrupt the event. Why do you think that pushing back on transgenderism specifically makes some progressives so angry?

Michael Knowles: The transgender ideology is intrinsically irrational. It's not merely wrong, or a little bit off, but it exalts irrationality itself. It seems to me no surprise that people who hold that position would behave in an irrational way. You would expect this especially at a debate, because the debate takes away the shouting and the screaming and the yelling and the intimidation—and the explosives that they threw at the building, which didn't make it inside, thankfully—and it lays the arguments out for everyone to consider in a calm manner. And when that occurs, transgenderism flops. There is no defense of it.

That's why my first debate partner, Professor Donald McCloskey, who identifies as transgender himself, has three degrees from Harvard, has half a dozen honorary doctorates, has two dozen academic publications, even he would not debate the issue with me, a humble podcaster with no particularly advanced degrees. He would not sit down despite his being probably the most erudite, best-educated defender of transgenderism in the country. He pulled out of the debate specifically after he discovered that I am not merely a provocateur or a rhetorical bomb thrower. He pulled out of the debate after hearing my arguments against transgenderism after we had spoken in our pre-debate phone call. It was a generally polite phone call, and then, all of a sudden, at the last minute, he pulled out, and I think he pulled out specifically because I assured him that I was going to conduct the debate in a calm, measured, and reasonable manner. I think he realized that in that case, he had no way of winning the debate. Had he shown up to the University of Pittsburgh and I yelled and screamed and called him mean names, then he could have won by looking like the adult in the room. But if the debate was going to be calm and reasonable, there was no way he could win, because his position is indefensible.

J.H.: I think there is a mistaken idea of what politeness actually constitutes in this context. You don't use Professor McCloskey's "preferred pronouns," for example, and some people would say that is impolite. What do you say to people who argue you should "respect" his chosen pronouns? What does real politeness look like in a conversation with a transgender-identifying person?

M.K.: I do respect Professor McCloskey's pronouns. I respect his correct pronouns, and I respect him enough to tell him the truth. It is disrespectful to lie to people. This does not mean that we have to use the bluntest language available to us. I'm not opposed to euphemism, which is an important aspect of politeness. But there's a difference between euphemism and lying. If I refer to a 90-year-old woman as "a woman of a certain age" rather than as an "old hag," I'm being polite, but I'm not lying—she really is a woman of a certain age. If I stand up at dinner, and say, "I'm going to go use the water closet," instead of saying, "I'm gonna go use the toilet," I am using softer language that's less revolting at the dinner table, but I'm not lying.


If I call a man "she" and "her," I would be lying. And it's disrespectful to lie. It is wrong, objectively. It's disrespectful to God, but it's also disrespectful to the person to whom you're lying, because when when you call a man "she" or "her" after he requests that, you are implying that that person is not in command of his reason, that that person is not capable of rational thought and discourse. And so, you will lie to that person and mollify that person as you would to any unreasonable creature, any lower sort of animal rather than to a human being endowed with intellect, albeit, in the case of transgenderism, an intellect and will that have been clouded and disordered by a confused ideology.

J.H.: You said in your CPAC speech that you want to "eradicate transgenderism from public life." What does that mean in practical terms?

M.K.: At the very least, it means returning to the way that society operated before 2015, back in those halcyon days of 2014. By which I mean, transgenderism had not been established in our law and culture until Barack Obama changed military policy in 2015. And some legislators in Charlotte, North Carolina, decided to give men a license to enter into women's bathrooms. We did not have any public establishment of transgenderism before that.

I chose my words carefully, which is why the liberal media had to rewrite them in order to libel me. But all of those words matter. They're in the speech, which I've now memorized, because it's come up so often. I said, "For the good of society, and especially for the good of the poor people who have fallen prey to this delusion, transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely, the whole preposterous ideology at every level." So I defined it in the sentence as an ideology, and I specify public life. I'm not suggesting that we send the purity police around to people's homes, knock on the door or go inspect their closets and make sure that the men don't have any bras or stilettos in there. But, as a matter of public life, men don't have the right to enter into the women's bathroom. They don't have the right to present themselves as women in public. They don't have the right to take women's roles on sports teams or in the workplace or anywhere else.

If we say that women do have any special rights and privileges, it's not that I'm advocating some shockingly authoritarian point of view. I'm just observing the fact that either women will have bathrooms, or they will not. This has nothing to do with children or the age of consent, or the psychiatric evaluations that must occur before one begins to identify as the opposite sex. It means that, for everybody, the minute that a single man has the "right" to enter into a women's bathroom, then women no longer have the right to their own bathrooms. It's not 5-year-olds doing this, by the way, it's 25-, and 35-, and 45-year-olds. The moment that you allow one single man to do this, you have eradicated the category of women's bathrooms. The moment that you allow any man to play in a women's sports team, you have eradicated the category of women's sports teams. And so the question then becomes, which seems more right: women having their own bathrooms, or men stripping in front of women and girls in the locker room and in the restroom? Which seems to be more right? Which would constitute some kind of actual right? We all know the answer to that. It's just that many liberals and, I'm sorry to say, even many self-identified conservatives are afraid to say it, for fear of seeming bigoted.

J.H.: You mention the women's sports issue. It seems like for some conservatives, the biggest problem with transgenderism is that it disrupts the competitive integrity of girl's high school volleyball. Why do Republican legislators focus so much on that issue? Is it a dodge to avoid grappling with the broader implications of transgender ideology?

M.K.: It's obvious. And so it's an easy place for legislators to start when you see some poor girl get a concussion, because a man's spiked a volleyball into her head, it's pretty clear that this is wrong. They'll also focus on the bathroom issue, again, because it's obvious. And so inasmuch as it's obvious and can persuade lots of people, I think that's perfectly fine. But we have to follow these ideas to their logical conclusions. Yes, of course, we shouldn't trans the kids. But why shouldn't we trans the kids? We shouldn't trans the kids because a man can't secretly be a woman, and vice versa. Well, if a man can't really be a woman, and vice versa, then that's true for a 5-year-old, and it's true for a 25-year-old, and it's true for everyone.

We need to follow those ideas to their logical conclusions, because transgenderism is not merely a matter of psychology or eccentric behavior, but it's a question of how we will order society and according to which epistemology. I think epistemology plays a role here, because many conservatives accept all sorts of liberal, lowercase l, principles. And so a lot of them will say, "Well, look, I don't think that a man can be a woman. But who am I to say that? How am I to know? I'm not an expert. I don't want to force my religious or cultural views on anybody, and so let's just leave the public square as a neutral space and I don't want to think about it—but don't let the guys take the little girls' trophies." Well, we can't ignore those broader questions. And we can't have a neutral space, because the women will have bathrooms, or they won't.

What these conservatives need to be reminded of is that not only can we know things, at the very least basic things like the difference between a man and a woman, but we must know those things, we must be able to say something about those things. We will live according to one principle or another. We will live according to one view or another. In the United States, not only do the people have the right to come to those conclusions, but we have the responsibility to come to those conclusions, because we live ostensibly under a self-government. If we lack the faculties of reason and moral conscience, to come to basic conclusions about human nature and society, then we lack the capacity for self-government. And, sadly, many conservatives even seem to be proving that point.

J.H.: We tolerate a whole bunch of false ideologies, right? How do you distinguish between a false ideology that requires state suppression from a false ideology that doesn't?

M.K.: On the question of anthropology, we have two contrary ideas. On the one hand, we have the transgender idea, that one's true self has nothing to do with one's physical body, which implies that the true self, the metaphysical self—we used to call that the soul though, these days, modern people are uncomfortable with that language, they can call it "identity," or "gender identity" or whatever, but they're talking about the soul. Their idea is that the soul can be opposed to the body, and separate, and the two can be in conflict with one another. The conservative idea is that the body and the soul are a composite. The technical term for this is hylomorphism, and it's an idea that has dictated our view of human nature for at least 2,300 years in the West.

According to that view, our sex derives from our bodies, because the soul is not gendered, because men and women are of the same species. Sex is an inseparable accident of the individual that persists as long as that individual exists. According to this view, there might well be a distinction between sex and gender expression—there are effeminate men, and there are butch women. But as a rule, contrary to the transgenderists who believe that when there is a distinction between sex and gender expression, one must butcher one's body to better conform with one's perceived gender expression, the conservative view is that because the soul and the body are a composite, that one has a duty to live according to one's nature, and in accordance with reality.

That was a windy answer to a simple question you gave, which is, how do we determine on which issues we need to be a little tougher? I think it's self evident that on a question of what human nature is, in the basic distinction between persons, that that's an issue that we have to take seriously. How do we take it seriously? Well, we ask, we ask basic questions, in philosophy, in theology, and we look at the weight of history. And we see which one seems more persuasive. I strongly suspect that everybody, presented with that distinction, would agree with the traditional view. This is why transgender activists refused to debate the issue. They can't really make a coherent argument. The argument they make is sometimes materialist—that we are just our bodies, or that the brains of transgender people, so-called, are different from what the rest of their bodies look like. But then, of course, the brain is part of the body. So then that kind of undercuts the argument. Or they'll make an argument from nominalism. They'll say that there's really no such thing as manhood and womanhood, there are no real universals, there are only particulars. Or else they'll make some argument that is downright Albigensian in some ways, but it's never coherent, and that's why even with multiple Harvard degrees, they don't debate the issue.

Now, if you asked me broadly, beyond transgenderism? How do we know when we have to draw the line? How do we determine which issues are so fundamental of society that we have to come down hard and exclude other views? I will give you the answer that Antonin Scalia gave me when I asked him about where to draw the line on certain constitutional amendments, and how to determine how to throw the line up on constitutional amendments. And his answer was, "Very carefully." We have to exercise prudence. Tradition can be a good guide for this. The significance for public life would be a good guide for this. So beyond gender, which issue might qualify for a firm line determined by the government? Marriage would seem to be the next obvious answer. A marriage is the fundamental building block of society. It's the basic political unit. So I think we probably need to be pretty clear on that. And because in recent years we've become confused on that matter, it is no surprise that we're now confused on the nature of sex and gender.

J.H.: Those issues are important and require state intervention precisely because they impact man's eternal destiny, right? If you get marriage wrong, you're imperiling a lot of people's salvation. If you allow people to be confused on gender and sex and the way that men and women were created, you're also imperiling people's salvation. Does your logic here apply itself to state establishments of religion?

M.K.: The state can never be divorced from religion. All human conflict, as Cardinal Manning observes, is ultimately theological. So we have to come to certain basic conclusions, religious conclusions, in public life. And religion is a habit of virtue that renders to God what he deserves. Aquinas says, "Law is an ordinance of reason for the common good made by him who has care of the community and promulgated." And because man is both body and soul, the law must be oriented, must be conducive, to our flourishing, both material flourishing and spiritual flourishing.

None of this was particularly controversial until very recently. When you ask what the limits ought to be on the establishment of a church and society, we had plenty of established churches at the state level, when the Constitution was ratified, and that persisted for some decades afterward. We have no establishment on a federal level in order to deal with the religious diversity in the thirteen states. And so today, prudence would dictate that a statesman who cares about the flourishing of the United States be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove. At the very least, we must all agree that the state must pursue good and avoid evil. Inasmuch as the law satisfies those conditions, the law will cultivate virtue and suppress vice. Inasmuch as the law cultivates virtue and suppresses vice, this will cultivate a society that more effectively responds to God's grace.

This was the understanding of the early men who founded our country, who sought to establish a shining city on a hill, and who, even in the dog days of the Enlightenment, recognized that our nation had to comprise a moral and religious people. And as we see a resurgence of the traditional religious practices of our civilization, one might even hope for an increasingly coherent theology among Americans. It was predicted by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America that the country would wind up atheist or Catholic. Many people forget that prediction of Tocqueville, and Tocqueville was right about many other things, so perhaps that will come to pass. But regardless, the basic principle remains that while politics is downstream of culture, inasmuch as movies and television shows matter, the law is also a teacher. People respond to incentives. And in recent years, the state has incentivized disordered behavior. Today, we have a far more disordered country. As the state, one hopes, incentivizes good and true behavior, one can hope that we will have a better, truer, and more beautiful country.

J.H.: To that point, do you think it's useful to think of transgenderism as a Christian heresy?

M.K.: I find it useful, because the analog between transgenderism and Catharism is quite clear to me. But most people have never heard of the Cathars or the Nestorians or the Arians or many of these Christian heresies, and so I'm not sure how helpful the comparison is to many other people. I think it would resonate more for more people to describe transgenderism as the logical or rather illogical conclusion of liberalism.

The liberal project seeks to liberate man not according to the traditional Christian understanding of liberty, which is the right to do what one ought to do, the freedom from the bonds of sin, but rather to liberate man from all constraints, from the ancien regime, from tradition, from the family, from now the moral order, from now biology, freedom even from the self. But freedom from the self is impossible, and in reality means only suicide. And in fact, you see the suicide act itself out in the transgender transition, which is a kind of ritual suicide, according to which the person that one has been is killed. A person is referred to as, literally, a "dead name." And a new person, supposedly, is born.

This is an ultimate kind of liberation, but it's the liberation that says, "It is better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." It is the liberation that says the mind is its own place. It is the liberation that says that "some people see things that are and say why, and I dream things that never were, and say, why not?" It's the attractive liberation of pride that ultimately enslaves.

J.H.: Thanks for your time Michael, I appreciate it.

M.K.: My pleasure.

Editor's note: The piece was amended to correct the content of Justice Antonin Scalia's exchange with Knowles.


Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here