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Why Deadnaming Matters

When we allow the other side to the set the terms of discussion, and police ourselves to conform to them, the battle is already lost.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 25: Rachel Levine, nominee for Assistant Secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services, testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee February 25, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Levine previously served as Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health. (Photo by Tom Brenner-Pool/Getty Images)

Richard Levine was born in 1957 in Wakefield, Massachusetts, an affluent suburb 20 minutes north of Boston. He went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah before heading to the very tony (very expensive) all-boys Belmont Hill School, where he played as a linebacker on the football team. From there he went to Harvard undergrad before heading south for med school at Tulane. While still in school, he married classmate Martha Peaslee; the couple would go on to have two children, one boy and one girl.

Richard’s career got off to a running start with a residency and fellowship at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. From there he moved to Penn State Hershey Medical Center, where he established himself firmly as a leader in his field, building both an adolescent medicine division and an eating disorders clinic. But even with a loving family and a meaningful career, something was amiss in Richard Levine’s world. Eight years after his move to Pennsylvania, the doctor began to see a therapist. Another eight years after that, he publicly announced his decision to transition to presenting as a woman. Now, a full decade after that announcement, Richard—now Rachel—stands as Joe Biden’s nominee for the United States’ Assistant Secretary for Health.

The broader situation has evolved dramatically even since Levine’s 2011 transition, when about a quarter of a percent of American adults identified as transgender. A mere five years later that percentage had more than doubled, and now the nation’s (potential) first trans federal official awaits confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

This would have been unimaginable a few years ago—as even supporters acknowledge, boasting of Levine’s “historic” nomination. In fact, long after gay and lesbian politicians broke into legislatures across the country, the idea of a transgender official remained decidedly taboo. In 1992, for instance, Althea Garrison—a black, conservative Republican and perennial candidate for state-level office—squeaked out a narrow election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Two days later, the Boston Herald reported that Garrison had been known, in a past life in Georgia, as A.C. Garson—and as a man. Garson/Garrison was defeated by a ten point margin in the next cycle, and despite continued efforts—totaling 32 campaigns to date—the onetime legislator has never managed to win another election.

The glass ceiling sustained cracks at times, but never showed any serious signs of breaking. As late as 2017, “only three elected transgender officials and a smattering of appointed officials” were serving anywhere in the country, according to a glowing Washington Post profile of Levine, then serving as Pennsylvania’s physician general. To understand how the situation has developed at such a breakneck pace, we have to realize how rapidly and readily social conservatives have ceded ground to the progressive left.

Consider the terms of the argument: None of them are ours. Even conservative writers, when addressing what was once a controversial subject, tend only to employ the preferred pronouns and new chosen names of the individuals in question. Deadnaming, they know, is a grave and unforgivable sin. It would be practically unthinkable for any respectable journalist to use “he” or “him” when referring to Dr. Levine, to say nothing of the gendered birth name Richard. This proscription results in bizarre constructions like “She has two children from his marriage to Martha,” and this from the Washington Post, which defies parody even as it stabs at something like humor: “The staid office where Rachel Levine works as the Keystone State’s top doctor is lined with family photos, including one perched high on a shelf that was taken on a vacation long ago, when her children were young and she was a broad-shouldered man named Richard.”

Words matter, and not just because it’s nearly impossible to win a fight in which every rule is set by your opponent. In practice, using the other side’s terms amounts to—or, at least, appears as—conceding the substance of their points. Every time we call Dr. Levine “she,” or even “Rachel,” we reinforce the belief that Richard Levine—linebacker, husband, two times a father—can become Rachel Levine—female public health authority—by sheer force of will and against the dictates of his body. We deny reality for the sake of civility. We suspend what we know to be true—that the human person is a hylomorphic creature, a union of body and soul that is not (and is not meant to be) divided against itself—for what? For fear of being called bigots by the editors of Vox?

The semantic concession is tied to a tangible loss—or, rather, a long string of losses—in the policy arena. The conservative mainstream has adopted a general position of “this far, but no further,” acknowledging transgender claims either as legitimate or as a losing battle, and only attempting to limit (as they retreat) the enforcement of those claims in the public square. Thus we find ourselves talking not about whether troubled people should be given medical assistance in mutilating themselves based on feelings, but about whether those people, after said mutilation, should use the men’s or the women’s restroom. Not about whether young men and adolescent boys whose self-image has been savaged by incessant attacks on masculinity should be encouraged to abandon the masculine altogether; only about whether their abandonment should be hurried along medically before or after puberty, and whether or not they should be allowed to run varsity track on the girls’ team. There is never a substantive question of whether we should concede to the left’s agenda; only a procedural one of how we should go about it.

Conservatives must reclaim some hastily abandoned ground. The question is not whether Doug should be allowed onto the field hockey team, but whether Doug can become Daisy in the first place. (He can’t.) The best and the most honest way to quell the totalizing power of the transgender agenda is not to trim away at its edges but to take aim at its root. We have let this twisted tree grow unimpeded—and even watered it, when we found the time—and now it’s standing off-keel in the Capitol ready to topple and do some real damage.

We can only blame ourselves that Rand Paul’s inquiry as to whether Dr. Levine would support hormone therapy, puberty blockers, or mutilative surgery for minors confused about gender has met accusations of “transphobia” and extremism. Never mind that shielding children from harmful treatment in service of a political agenda is the absolute least we should expect of a respectable right in the debate over transgenderism. Conservatives have so fully abdicated our role here that a mild, moderate presentation of the conservative position is now denounced almost universally as miles beyond the pale. Nobody can pretend to be surprised that Ryan T. Anderson’s book got banned by Amazon; for years we’ve granted tacit credence to the left’s belief that trans-skepticism is a heresy against the ever-changing soft science of ever-changing genders, incurring latae sententiae excommunication from the ranks of respectable, intelligent people. We invite them to trample on us, then squeal in disbelief when they take us up on the offer.

No Republican senator has even thought to suggest that a man who is convinced he is a woman might have personal troubles that disqualify him from holding a high-ranking position in the nation’s public health apparatus. The mere idea that any of them could, after years of giving up on an entirely winnable issue, is laughable. We have admitted to the world that Richard is Rachel and Bruce is Caitlyn and everything they’re telling you is entirely correct but please don’t let them act on it too much (though we can’t explain to you why you shouldn’t).

Voltaire got very little right, but one warning still rings true: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” We might find the atrocities both much less common and much more easily combatted if we could manage, at the very least, to keep the obvious absurdities out of our own mouths.

about the author

Declan Leary is The American Conservative's editorial fellow and a graduate of John Carroll University. His work has been published at National Review, Crisis magazine, and elsewhere.

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