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Manufacturing Trans Reality

Jennifer Finney Boylan (Screengrab from TEDxMet)

Yesterday, The New York Times op-ed page published what is, for the Times, an evergreen column:

Here’s a link to the column, by the transgendered Jennifer Finney Boylan. Excerpt:

Meanwhile, on Feb. 20, Ryan T. Anderson, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, released a book that suggests that transgender people are crazy, and that what we deserve at every turn is scorn, contempt and belittlement. The book (with a particularly insulting title that I’m not going to put in print here) is abundant in junk science; its most frequently quoted source is one Dr. Paul McHugh, the right-wing doctor who succeeded in shutting down Johns Hopkins’s gender-research clinic almost 40 years ago.

Anderson was rightly offended by this slanderous mischaracterization (a “reckless hit piece,” he called it), writing in part:

Anti-trans bigotry exists. It’s wrong, and we should all condemn it. I condemn it in my new book “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.”

But we lose the ability to effectively call out bigotry when all disagreement is condemned as bigoted—and when lies are told in the process.

That’s what happened earlier this week in a New York Times op-ed. Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer for the Times, and a professor of English at Barnard College of Columbia University, told several bald-faced lies about my work. I’m surprised her editors published it.

For the record, Boylan never contacted me regarding my research or my book. Nor did the Times contact me to verify any of the claims made about me in her column.

Boylan claims I wrote “a book that suggests that transgender people are crazy, and that what we [people who identify as transgender] deserve at every turn is scorn, contempt, and belittlement.”

Good luck finding a single line from my book to back up either claim. I wrote nothing of the sort. On the contrary, at several points in the book I admonish my fellow social conservatives not to treat people who identify as transgender with “scorn, contempt and belittlement.”

Indeed, the introduction to the book notes that:

Chapter 3 presents the stories of several people who found that transitioning didn’t bring the peace and wholeness they sought, but only new problems. The stories of detransitioners complicate the sunny picture frequently presented in the media. Many of these people recall a feeling of being pushed into transitioning, as if there were no other options, and they wish that medical professionals had made an effort to help them understand the deeper psychological issues that alienated them from their own bodies. Many regret the permanent damage done to their bodies, and some who transitioned as teenagers believe they were not mature enough to make such consequential decisions. Some feel that their dysphoria resulted from social hostility to people who don’t conform to gender norms or who have same-sex attractions.

The very next sentence reads: “In this light, social conservatives (including myself) should take care to be respectful and compassionate toward people we may disagree with.”

I repeat the point in Chapter 3 itself, writing: “This charge should prompt social conservatives (like myself) to be careful not to attack or marginalize people as we advocate for the truth.”


Americans disagree about gender identity and the best approaches to treating gender dysphoria. Boylan claims my book is “abundant in junk science,” but couldn’t point to anything in particular that I got wrong.

As I explain in “When Harry Became Sally,” contrary to the claims of activists, sex isn’t “assigned” at birth—and that’s why it can’t be “reassigned.” Sex is a bodily reality that can be recognized well before birth with ultrasound imaging. Cosmetic surgery and cross-sex hormones don’t change the deeper biological reality.

People who undergo sex-reassignment procedures do not become the opposite sex—they merely masculinize or feminize their outward appearance.

The medical evidence suggests that sex reassignment does not adequately address the psychosocial difficulties faced by people who identify as transgender. Even when the procedures are successful technically and cosmetically, and even in cultures that are relatively “trans-friendly,” transitioners still face poor outcomes.

In truth, very little is understood about the causes of discordant gender identities, and yet we are now promoting radical, experimental therapies for children. Starting a child on an experimental process of “social transitioning” followed by puberty-blocking drugs and cross-sex hormones was unthinkable not long ago. It should still be today.

Read the entire response. 

What offends Boylan is the fact that Anderson questions her — and the transgender movement’s — preferred narrative. We have been down this path before — “If you don’t give me everything I want, then you must HATE me! — and it works. It works especially because the media reinforce the narrative. Regular Times readers — I have been one for decades — know that the newspaper crusaded on behalf of gay rights in its news pages, just as it has been doing on behalf of transgenderism. It decided that there was no “other side” to the story, that those who questioned the progressive narrative were bigots who did not deserve to be heard. It’s not just the Times; I had this same argument with former colleagues at The Dallas Morning News, when I pointed out that our newspaper had taken up pro-LGBT crusading in our news pages (as distinct from the editorial pages). When I said to one colleague that our unfairness to social conservatives offended a lot of our readership, he told me that he wasn’t bothered by that, because we didn’t need bigots as readers.

This is a common sentiment in media. It’s why ESPN, of all entities, has gone all in on the transgender crusade. As one newspaper journalist told me, “My generation missed the Civil Rights movement. This is our chance to participate in one.”

Anyway, here’s a transcript of a December meeting that James Bennet, the new editorial page editor of the NYT, had with the paper’s staff, over concerns that he was allowing bad people to transgress upon the liberal altar that is the Times editorial pages. Excerpts:

And then the last component for it is ideological range, where I think both on the editorial line and our columnists and a lot of our op-eds were conducting a debate that was often between the 40-yard lines. And this was evident in the last campaign, where — the last presidential campaign, now I am talking about politics again — where, you know, there wasn’t really an advocate for the Bernie Sanders view of the world formally in our pages. And we’ve had fewer voices to the right for quite some time. Now, of all of this work, it’s that last thing I mentioned that’s getting the most attention and the most concern, and the most blowback. But what I’m trying to explain is, it is one element in everything we’re trying to do.

So he’s trying to bring some ideological diversity to a deeply liberal op-ed page.  That’s good, right? Bennet:

The third reason I would say is, I just think it — the world needs this from us right now. You know it is, it is cutting against, and I don’t mean to sound pious, but it really is true that this is a crude and dangerously polarized time. And this is where it’s journalistically true to the ambitions of the Times, to approach opinion in this way. The notion that anybody has a monopoly on what the right answers are is just a dangerous kind of form of hubris that too many of us are really falling prey to right now. And you look what’s happening in the world, the sort of crackup of ideologies, of political parties. Neither party really makes sense, I don’t think, right now, in the U.S., ideologically, and there are big questions about trade, for example, that have been reopened. And to simply assert that we know what the right answers are is not good for the democracy. So I think trying to show that it’s possible, both to have strong convictions and an open mind to other people’s egos, is a valuable contribution that we can make.

That sounds like … journalism to me. I used to edit an opinion section of a major newspaper. I tried to do my job as Bennet does his: being open-minded and questioning of accepted pieties of both the left and the right, because that’s what I thought served our readers best. I had the support of my boss, too. One more statement from Bennet about the kind of opinion journalism he’s trying to do:

I’m really concerned about this for opinion journalism generally, because right now in the last couple of years, with your — particularly now, though, the rewards for saying the same thing over and over again, and providing that kind of affirmation, are huge. And the punishments for stepping out of line and saying something — I’m talking about the individual writer, now — saying, hey, actually you know, the Democrats have a point about X or the Republicans have a point about Y, depending on their point of view, you just get killed for that in social media.

Then the effect of this, and I think you can see it happening, is that writers are becoming less interesting. You know, I can say this particularly as someone who is looking forward to new opinion writers. And you want supple minds and people who are a little bit unpredictable, and you’re not reading the same piece over and over again. It’s getting harder to find people like that. And it is partly a function of the media environment. We need super-strong, tough people, for one thing, to weather that environment and stay true to the ambitions that we have for the work we want done.

Time for the pushback:

NYT employee: So question for you. Do you consider women’s rights, trans rights, people of color’s rights, to be liberal stances?

Bennet: Um, I consider them to be classically liberal stances, as I understand liberalism classically. Which is to say, very concerned with the rights of the individual. The sort of John Stuart Mill sense of the world. You know, in a sort of American modern ideological framework, I would say they are also understood to be liberal. But I guess that’s not necessarily the way I would — I mean, these are human rights and deeply connected, I think, to our understanding of human value, which, again, I think is core to the editorial convictions of The New York Times. The essential equality of human beings.

NYT employee: Maybe, can I just do a follow-up on that one? How would you think about, like, when you think about encouraging open debate, something like trans rights versus climate change where, you know — are there certain things where you said, like, there’s really not a debate?

Bennet: Oh yeah, there are certain things I would think of as settled law. And I think the fact of climate change is one of them. That is the science of climate change, that it’s happening and that humans are driving it. What to do about it, how to address it, I think that’s a big debate that, in general, we should be participating in more actively than we are, right?

Yeah, there are issues like, “Nazism: good or bad?” is not a debate I imagine The New York Times necessarily convening. It’s just, like, I think there are issues that are settled law. Although, apparently now slavery is an issue again in the Alabama Senate race, as of today. There’s people making a case for that. Well, [Roy] Moore was asked — I only saw it — I guess he was asked when the last time America was great was, and that was when it was great.

NYT employee: So just to follow up on this, there was a thread in Slack on this. You know, with climate change, can people have opinions about it? You know, like with trans rights, can people have opinions about it? Or is The New York Times’ perspective, “No no no, the debate that we want to encourage is not whether there should be trans rights or whether there is climate change but the implications for society about it.” Or how do you think about it?

Bennet: I think we should have discussions about what the implications are for society. I’m not sure I understand the question exactly.

NYT employee: The question is — we’re talking about the debate, what matters are settled that shouldn’t even be debated, versus what the debate actually is. I think, you know, climate change is a good example. So they said that you have a voice in the opinion pages who maybe has a different perspective about what to do with climate change. You’d say, “It’s not that Bret Stephens opposes or doesn’t think climate change is happening,” right? Or is he representing that other perspective? How do you think about where the debate begins versus the debate having been settled?

The talk goes on for a bit longer, but Bennet never comes back to the “trans rights” point. I would be surprised — and delighted — if Bennet published a piece from Ryan T. Anderson arguing against the concept of “trans rights,” by questioning the transgender narrative. You don’t have to be a conservative to do that, you know. The 4thWaveNow community is made up of parents — some atheists, some left-wing, some even gay — who are deeply skeptical of the movement to normalize transgenderism for children. If you read the stories on their site — stories from parents, and from their de-transitioning children — you realize that it is a scandal that stories like these are suppressed by the mainstream media, which propagandizes ceaselessly for transgenderism.

I can hear some of you now, “Nobody reads The New York Times; you’re exaggerating.” Anybody who says that is a numbskull who doesn’t know anything about how American media works. The Times sets the standard in most newsrooms — print and broadcast — around the country. The people who run your local newspaper and broadcast outlets read the Times, and take their cues from it. The people who run the network news divisions, and indeed the cultural elites who run our universities and our companies that do creative work — they read the Times too. I have never been a liberal, but I’ve been reading the Times since college, because on issues other than cultural ones (in which the newspaper is embarrassingly parochial), its reporting is excellent, and besides, if you are going to be informed about the kind of people who run this culture, you need to read the Times, even if you disagree with it.

If Bennet published Anderson, or one of the parents from 4thWaveNow, he would face a hell of a reaction in that newsroom, I’d wager. To question the trans narrative is considered to be a hate crime in and of itself, and to make oneself complicit with the suicide and murder of transgenders. Therefore, there cannot be another side to the story, a competing narrative. As a former newspaper colleague of mine said about our coverage of gay marriage over a decade ago, “Do you think the Ku Klux Klan deserves a fair hearing in our paper?”

This is how media manufacture public opinion on LGBT issues: through constant opinion and news coverage favorable to whatever the activist community wants; through criticism of anyone who holds a counter opinion; and — this is the most effective but least appreciated way — representing the world as a place where dissenting opinions don’t exist among respectable people.

If you have convinced yourself that the people who disagree with you are the contemporary equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan, then to give them a hearing or to treat them with fairness is a grievous moral fault. Game, set, match. This is a left-wing parallel of pro-Iraq War right-wingers calling those on the right who opposed the war “unpatriotic conservatives.”  In both cases, these are designations that do not clarify the issues at hand, but muddy them with atavistic emotions, and stigmatize dissent.

We see where that got us in the Iraq War. Ten or twenty years from now, when all these children who destroyed their bodies and their reproductive capacities by transitioning as children or teenagers start lawyering up and demanding to know why adults let them do this to themselves, the media will bear a lot of blame.

I wonder, though. In his comments to the Times staff, James Bennet said that the Times editorial page fact-checks its pieces. I know that to be personally true, because I wrote a piece for them last year, and they fact-checked it. Was Boylan’s piece slamming Anderson fact-checked? If so, how did it pass muster? Granted, opinion pieces are by definition not factual, but they are (or should be) based on factual claims. It would be unreasonable to expect Boylan to agree with Anderson’s book, but her column went beyond disagreement to the point of slander. I’d love to know how the Times justified allowing Boylan to make the kind of claims that she made about Anderson’s book, when the book says something very different. Or is it the case that slander in service of the LGBT Narrative is no vice?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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