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Thinking about Transgenderism

p>Deirdre McCloskey, via Wikipedia

Some years ago I was conversing with a Christian academic who is very conservative theologically — and conservative in his social views as well. We were trading ideas about a possible conference in which Christian scholars from a variety of disciplines would talk about what distinctively Christian approaches to their work might look like.

One person we discussed was the eminent economist Deirdre McCloskey, who at that time had recently written an extremely thoughtful essay on what it’s like to do economics as a Christian. My friend had read the essay and thought highly of it — but then he grew meditative. And I knew why. It was because Deirdre McCloskey had once been Donald McCloskey, but had undergone sex-reassignment surgery in the mid–1990s, an experience documented in the memoir Crossing. But when my friend finally spoke, he said something that surprised me:

“I’m reluctant to ask McCloskey to participate in such a conference — I’m not dead-set against it, and I’m open to persuasion, but I’m reluctant. Here’s the thing, though: it’s not because I think her gender change was sinful. It’s because the fact that Deirdre used to be Donald, or Donald is pretending to be Deirdre if you want to put it that way, is the only thing we’d hear about. Nothing that any of us actually said at the conference, including what McCloskey said, would even be noticed. All we’d get to do is field questions about what her presence there meant.

“Was it sinful for Donald to transform into Dierdre? Honestly, I don’t know what to think. I mean, yes, ‘male and female created he them,’ but to use that to settle the question would be the grossest kind of proof-texting. I think we have clear biblical evidence that homosexual behavior is wrong, but if we say that we can’t use surgery to change sex because we are altering the way we’re made, then is cosmetic surgery also sinful? Maybe … but sometimes the line between ‘merely’ cosmetic surgery and surgery to restore full bodily function, or achieve it for the first time, is hard to draw. You get dictatorial about this kind of thing and you end up becoming a Christian Scientist. I’m just not sure where to stand on this. This is probably not what you expected to hear from me, is it?”

No, it wasn’t. I was somewhat taken aback. But in his view — and as soon as he stated it I realized that he was correct — the theological and moral issues raised by homosexuality are completely different than those raised by transgenderism. And if we’ve all had a long time to think about homosexuality, we haven’t had much time at all to think about transgenderism, which is effectively new. (There have been crossdressers forever, of course, and men who have “passed” as women and women as men, but surgery and the role of the law in establishing identity create a new situation.)

And nobody is thinking about it now. Nor are many people likely to think about it, because it has become the new battleground in our endlessly absurd and absurdly endless culture war.

For some a rejection of transgenderism is now intrinsic to Christianity, on theological grounds that are almost never articulated (and that they almost certainly could not articulate); but they are largely responding to others for whom making every accommodation to transgender people has become The Great Civil Rights Issue of Our Time and for whom the nuclear option is always the first and only option — because error has no rights, remember? Among these people there’s no interest in thinking, or talking, or persuading; the demand is instant capitulation, or else.

And, it should be noted, most of those making such demands are people who, to put it in the mildest terms I can manage, didn’t give a rat’s mangy ass about transgendered people until about six months ago.

This is no way to live. And it’s certainly no way to think. It’s impossible, I believe, to read Deirdre McCloskey’s memoir with even a modicum of charity and not be moved by the plight Donald McCloskey found himself in for decades; but it is also impossible to take seriously casual cross-dressers who insist that their moral and legal situation must be precisely the same as McCloskey’s. If we were to think about all this, we’d realize that a great many experiences, beliefs, and behaviors are currently being lumped together under amorphous notions of “transgenderism” and “gender fluidity” — but meanwhile the idea that anyone, even a child, might have temporary gender dysphoria is not just rejected put punished to the fullest extent.

Such oversimplifications serve and promote extremism, which in turn promotes more ingroup/outgroup thinking, which leads to intensified culture wars. And I’m not at all convinced that all this is going to help the tiny, tiny number of transgendered people in America; I suspect we will end up with more people like Don/Dawn Ennis.

Not sure about that. But I do have a firm prediction: We will eventually see the Supreme Court rule whether the Constitution allows separate public restrooms for men and women. The arguments against such “separate but equal” provisions will mimic, as that phrase suggests, the case against school segregation in the Civil Rights era, though perhaps the more central arguments will be based on the claim that we have an inalienable right to self-definition. Because at bottom that’s what all these fights are about: not sex or gender, but about whether society is morally and legally obliged to defer to each individual’s self-understanding, and to do everything possible to enable each person to achieve a public identity that matches that internal one.

The existence of separate but equal public restrooms is an intolerable imposition on this right to self-definition, this right to live out to the fullest my own sense of self, however fluid that sense may be — so the argument before the Court will go. And I further predict that SCOTUS will accept that argument and order the elimination of men’s and women’s public restrooms.

The media will rejoice at this great victory for human flourishing — and perhaps most Americans will join them. After all, it will be an excellent excuse to forget about poverty, war, infrastructure collapse, porn addiction, universal governmental surveillance, and all the other problems we don’t have the first idea how to approach, must less to solve.

When will this court case happen? I’m setting the over/under at nine years.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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