You see a pair of laughing eyes,
and suddenly you’re sighing sighs.
You’re thinking nothing’s wrong,
you string along, boy, then snap.
Those eyes, those sighs,
they’re part of the tender trap.
— “The Tender Trap,” sung by Frank Sinatra, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn
You can bet that Ol’ Blue Eyes, with his fedora set at a rakish angle, coat slung casually over his shoulder, and a world-weary air, never saw this one coming. The very concept of male and female seems to be evaporating before our eyes as the nation suffers a collective trauma over the issue of gender identity. On a daily, if not hourly, basis, the media and various activist groups bombard Americans with stories insisting that the ability to choose and pursue a gender of one’s choice has become the basic challenge of modern life. We are told that the constitutional right to such a choice is the civil-rights imperative of our time. We are lectured that the protection of such a choice has become an essential duty of the federal government.
At a moment of death-spiraling health-insurance coverage, economic stagnation, looming Supreme Court choices, populist revolt against globalism, Great Power tension over trade and territory, and the jihadist threat to the United States and Western civilization, the sober-minded observer might be forgiven for paying little heed to the gender tempest in a teapot. But the new drive to promote “gender fluidity,” in fact, presents an existential challenge to traditional social norms and values. Moreover, even though the notion of self-chosen gender has won much support from a political, media, and educational establishment, it is profoundly flawed.
The campaign promoting gender fluidity and disparaging old-fogey categories of male and female has produced a flurry of controversies unimaginable even a few years ago. The “bathroom wars” have erupted throughout the country over whether transgender individuals must use facilities matching their biological sex or those matching their chosen gender identity. In Texas, a transgender wrestler — born a girl, now identifying as a boy and bulked up from testosterone treatments — won the state girl’s wrestling championship after crushing (non-testosterone-fueled) female opponents in a 54–0 season. The pronoun wars have exploded at colleges and universities as gender radicals have established Mao-like reeducation programs that instruct students on the oppressiveness of the him/her, he/she binary and pressure them to use “xe,” “ze,” or “hir” for those who identify as transgender, bisexual, gay, or any other gender variant.
Indeed, the span of identities among gender nonconformists has become nearly intergalactic. At one end stands the “asexual” or “agender” movement, whose members claim they feel no sexual attraction to anyone. At the other end of this Buzz Lightyear gender universe (“To infinity and beyond”) stand pangender people, who insist that any gender association is restricting: They identify as all genders at once and utilize the plural pronouns “they,” “them,” and “theirs” to capture their unbounded proclivities. As one pangender individual explained in a recent issue of the Columbia Missourian, “their” gender identity “depends on the day and the time.” Former Disney Channel child star, and now singer, Miley Cyrus, in confessing her own pansexuality, declared in 2015, “I am literally open to every single thing that is consenting and doesn’t involve an animal and everyone is of age.” In 2014, Facebook began offering users more than 50 choices — including androgynous, genderqueer, trigender, and two-spirit — to describe their identity in their profile. But after activists complained that the menu was suffocatingly insufficient, it added a freestyle option allowing users to express their unique gender identity using their own words “in an authentic way.”
In the face of this cultural onslaught, dumbfounded traditionalists have lined up in opposition. Such skepticism is well founded, given that the very concept of gender is fraught with problems and inconsistencies — even its most outspoken proponents disagree on fundamental matters of definition and human development. Moreover, the science on gender is all over the map. This has produced intellectual chaos rather than consensus, a fact that has not stopped politically correct activists —the Democratic party, agencies of the federal government, major media outlets, the academy — from endorsing gender radicalism without qualification. For those still devoted to the examination of evidence, however, a close look at the current gender concept reveals it to be more of a trap than a guiding light.
At first glance, things seem clear-cut. Anyone who takes a class at a high school, college, or university even touching upon this subject immediately hears the authoritative assertion: Sex is biological, but gender is a cultural construction. While biology provides human beings basic sexual equipment, the understanding of what that leads to or what it allows the individual to do is a matter of values. Gender is learned; the idea of a man or a woman is not biologically inherent but the result of what our culture deems appropriate.
This formulation appeared originally in feminist theory, and its sacred text is Simone de Beauvoir’s famous declaration in The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (“On ne naît pas femme, on le devient”). But as this fairly commonsense notion has been extended outward in ever wider circles, it has become steadily more extreme. Many cultural radicals now insist that gender is solely a matter of “identifying,” meaning that we are completely free to choose a gender from a smorgasbord of choices. People can be whatever gender they so desire or imagine merely by saying so.
But here things get sticky. Many other activists, especially those pursuing legal and policy changes, root their efforts in an assertion of the biological, inherent quality of gender. Their usual formulation is that transgender, pangender, or any-kind-of-gender individuals have been that way since childhood, and they cannot deny their essential nature. When the Obama Department of Justice brought a lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” for example, it declared that “biological factors, most notably sexual differentiation in the brain, have a role in gender identity development.” Justice Anthony Kennedy, in writing the majority Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015, similarly proclaimed the “immutable nature” of the petitioners’ sexual orientation as a basis for his conclusion. CBS news, in a 2014 broadcast on its Sunday Morning program, presented “Born this Way: Stories of Young Transgender Children.” The problem, of course, is that the notion of biological, immutable gender is precisely what radical “identifiers” reject.
Science, supposedly the ultimate court of appeal in progressive culture, might seem to offer clarification of this conundrum. But it does not. The science of gender is a scramble of competing claims, with advocates presenting a range of possible explanations and few clear-cut conclusions. Some scientists have postulated a genetic cause for gender nonconformity, while a different school focuses on variations in hormones released in the womb. Advocates of “brainsex” believe that neurological wiring provides the basis of gender identity. Some researchers have pointed to autism, noting that a significant number of children who appear gender-nonconforming are within the autism spectrum. Finally, many psychologists see gender confusion as a species of emotional disturbance. They contend, for instance, that gender nonconformity among teens and twentysomethings is often simply another expression of confusion, rebellion, and alienation common to that age cohort. A February 2015 review of scholarly work, in the journal Endocrine Practice, concluded that “although the mechanisms remain to be determined, there is strong support in the literature for a biological basis of gender identity.” Yet a 2016 literature review in the Fall 2016 issue of The New Atlantis reached the opposite conclusion: “The hypothesis that gender identity is an innate, fixed property of human beings that is independent of biological sex . . . is not supported by scientific evidence.” The world of gender science, in other words, is uncertain at best and contradictory at worst.
Such confusion, not surprisingly, has helped produce deep fault lines among gender activists. On the one hand, many emphatically reject a biological paradigm. Instead, they insist that social conditioning overwhelms any physical factors and that gender identity is ultimately a matter of choice. Cordelia Fine, for instance, offers a version of this argument in Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (2010). Mocking the idea of a male or female brain — pondering whether there might be, for instance, a male or female gallbladder — she strenuously maintains that gendered traits and impulses are learned behaviors.
On the other hand, significant numbers of gender radicals, particularly certain radical feminists, insist that gender is linked to biological sex. They contend, for instance, that individuals who transition from men to women are appropriating female experience without a right to do so. In Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism (2014), Sheila Jeffreys argues that the historical subjugation of women has been based on their sexuality and that transgenderism is a kind of fraud. She describes gender-reassignment surgery as mutilation and suggests that men desiring to be women are an example of “autogynephilia,” or male sexual arousal at the thought of being female.
Things can get ugly between the gender essentialists and the gender culturalists. The founders of “Michfest” for example, a week-long gathering of feminists held in Michigan every August from 1976 to 2015, had originally intended the festival to be for “womyn-born womyn,” though this was never the group’s formal policy. Transgender activists grew so outraged that at one point they cut water pipes into the festival, keyed cars in the parking lot, announced a boycott of any musical acts performing, and spray-painted a six-foot penis on the side of the Michfest kitchen tent, next to the words “Real Women Have Dicks.”
Given such cacophonous divisions among gender radicals, what holds their movement together? A handful of individuals, to be sure, suffer from various biological “intersex” conditions that leave them poised uneasily between the female and male body. But for the vast majority of gender activists, it seems clear that ideology drives this project. In some cases, it is a reflection, whether conscious or unwitting, of the pervasive culture of self-fulfillment in modern America, which has contended for decades that human happiness stems from fulfilling desires and satiating appetites, not repressing them. In other cases, gender radicalism reflects identity politics run amok — it’s only the latest entry in the victimization sweepstakes sponsored by the modern American left. For still other activists, it is the culmination of a crusade for sexual liberation that has taken direct aim at bourgeois civilization. This campaign began in the early decades of the 20th century, when interpreters of Freud such as Wilhelm Reich, Norman O. Brown, and Herbert Marcuse advocated the liberation of desire as a weapon against the bourgeois repression of the capitalist system. Much of the sexual revolution in postwar America, and the full-frontal assault on sexual restraint in the late 1960s and 1970s, carried the crusade forward.
Now these various ideological impulses have converged. Whether identifying supposed transgender longing in grade-schoolers, or inventing pronouns for those claiming fluid sexual identities, or denouncing the emotional repression of all sexual categories, gender radicals seek to undermine the emotional self-discipline and the loyalty to marriage and the family that have served as key foundations of modern Western society. They envision a cultural Armageddon that would obliterate any remaining restraints on human sexuality. It would be the final battle in a war between defenders of traditional values and cultural insurgents who wish to “liberate” individuals from all bourgeois restraint so that they may achieve self-realization.
“Why does it matter if gender is the product of biology or culture?” progressives might ask. “Can’t we just accept a person’s claim of gender identity for whatever reason and accord everyone their legal rights?” Here is a tempting, but ultimately dangerous solution in this high-stakes cultural contest. It creates two enormous problems.
First, if there are no standards or limitations regarding gender identity, we face a slippery-slope future of moral anarchy. Where does it stop? Cross-dressing students and teachers in middle schools? Insurance coverage for people in a group marriage? Legal protections for necrophiliacs? These may seem extreme, but who could have envisioned a few years ago that individuals with penises would be using women’s bathrooms and showering in girls’ locker rooms? Or human chameleons changing their gender according to the day or the hour? Or a transgender young woman juiced up on testosterone wrestling — and soundly beating — other female athletes?
Second, while the live-and-let-live solution might be suitable for the private realm, when transported into the public arena, it poses a threat of institutional and cultural anarchy. What one does in the privacy of the bedroom regarding gender identity, sexual attractions, physical appearance, and erotic fantasies is one’s own business as long as no laws are broken. But when the personal proclivities of a tiny minority are made a public issue, and the population as a whole is forced to confirm and normalize them, it rends the fabric of our society. For a civilization to survive, it must know what it thinks; it must have common standards and values and uphold them even as it protects dissent.
Edmund Burke once observed wisely that society is not a transitory creation of the moment but a long-evolving contract between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Responsible citizens, he continued, should stand in opposition to those who, enamored of “floating fancies or fashions” and “unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters.” Thus, a defense of male and female gender identity does not mean bullying, denigrating, or punishing those who remain at the margins. Sufferers from gender dysphoria are fellow citizens, and they deserve toleration and compassion as they struggle to find a find a refuge for their restless sexual spirits. A refusal to abandon gender norms is not a justification for bigotry. It is a desire to maintain social stability, cultural coherence, and genuine community connection.
Modern Americans confront a perplexing situation: Demands for legal and policy protections for gender nonconformists are multiplying when it is far from clear what gender even is. Yet gender activists seem unconcerned by the dilemma they have created: If we embrace a biological model of gender, the entire edifice of unrestrained, ever-changing gender fluidity comes crashing down; but if we embrace a cultural model of gender identity which (by its own insistence) is entirely separate from biology, then the notion of people “being that way since they were children” goes up in smoke. Which is it? It cannot be both. And it cannot be a matter of choosing whichever model is most convenient for the matter at hand. Here is a trap from which even the hardiest social-justice warrior might find escape impossible. And our national culture also will also be ensnared in this trap if we continue rushing headlong into a world of unbounded gender fluidity.
And all at once it’s not so nice,
as folks are ditching suits and rice.
You hurry to a spot that’s just a dot on the map.
You’re hooked, you’re cooked,
you’re caught in the gender trap.
— “The Gender Trap”
(with apologies to Sinatra, Van Heusen, and Cahn)
— Steven Watts is author of JFK and the Masculine Mystique: Sex and Power on the New Frontier (2016)
- A Social Justice Warrior’s Guide to Being Many Genders Without Appropriating
- Obama’s Transgender Bathroom Laws & the Trump Administration
- LGBT Discrimination is Not the Point of Religious Freedom