I doubt that many Americans would disagree that the country’s conversation about gay rights is far more mature and considered than it was two decades ago.
Today, there exists broad understanding that homosexual people are unavoidable and common, present in all corners and demographics of American life. Through education, and especially exposure, homosexuality is no longer regarded as bizarre, threatening, or mysterious. Even if we remain unsure about what makes a minority of men and women gay, only the tiniest fringe still consider the orientation something worth trying to “fix.” When states attempt to ban homosexual “conversion therapy,” as California is trying to do at the moment, it feels like anachronistic performance. Disinterest in judging homosexuality is not an attitude government has coerced Americans into, it is the product of a free people’s informed knowledge.
To the extent that America is still having any political debate about homosexuality, it has evolved into a more substantial conversation about religious liberty. Motivated by their constitutionally protected freedom of belief, today some Christians seek assurance of their right to opt out of participating in activities they see as condoning or endorsing homosexual acts or behavior — chiefly same-sex weddings — which are considered destructive to both the individual and broader society. These are difficult debates but are also far more useful than those of earlier eras, which mostly centered on demagogic judgment of the gay “lifestyle” untethered to any tangible constitutional principle or policy objective.
Looking at the state of America’s transgender debate, I often wonder if things are destined to unfold in a similar way.
At present, it feels we’re still in the immature, demagogic phase. In some quarters, it remains fashionable to act theatrically repulsed by transgender people, emphasize their weirdness, and make populist appeals to the preposterousness of women asking to be called “him” or surgeons amputating penises and so forth. Yet this seems more cathartic than anything, in the same way that showy judgment of gays did a generation earlier. As with homosexuality in the 1980s and ’90s, the loud revulsion of critics conceals a fading interest in actually attempting to “solve” transgenderism, as even those most offended by it seem to quietly regard purported cures as quackish and authoritarian.
Though transgenderism is a far rarer phenomenon than homosexuality, I think most adults could admit it does seem like a rather persistent aspect of humanity. Most can probably recall a transgender person making at least some minor appearance in their life. If we concede that transgenderism is not going away, and is not something anyone intends to exert effort toward ending, then Americans, especially conservative ones, should reflect on our culture’s honest and fair attitude toward homosexuality and acknowledge that the most sensible path out of the present acrimony will probably require similar compromise. Some degree of cultural ceasefire and consensus seems the only path for both sides to maintain a degree of pride while avoiding a more radical, disruptive societal transformation.
Part one of the compromise will be borne by cultural conservatives and traditionalists. It asks for broad tolerance for the reality that transgender men and women exist, and are entitled to basic human dignity, just like everyone else. This does not mean having to morally endorse behavior many may believe runs contrary to God’s plan for a just and healthy society, but it does imply that acts like ostentatiously calling people by pronouns they don’t want, or belittling their personal struggle, are boorish and petty. It means acknowledging that arbitrary discrimination against transgender people is a cruel bigotry like any other.
But part two of the compromise requires sacrifice on the part of progressives, who are currently overplaying their hand in an effort to strong-arm sweeping social change as a flex of their power. There must be a halt in the use of state authority to impose accommodation of transgenderism in a fashion far more totalitarian than is rationally justified. Transgender people constitute a tiny minority of Americans who, in the vast majority of cases, are explicitly eager to opt into the broad two-gender social order our civilization is based around. Tolerance does not necessitate a purge of any and all public manifestations of the gender binary in the name of extreme exceptions to the rule.
Transgenderism seems to be the issue on which many on the right prefer to let loose their inner reactionary, which then further rationalizes petty tyranny on the left.
Accepting transgenderism as an inescapable human phenomenon does not mean that there is nothing left to learn about it or that cautious or even skeptical attitudes toward purported manifestations of it are never legitimate. In particular, the risk of psychologically and physically damaging children by encouraging or enabling them to embrace transgender identities before pubescence must be acknowledged as a valid concern backed by credible evidence. Protecting children from the confusing, anxious, dangerous world of adult sexuality and sexual identity before their developing minds can fully conceptualize its complexities is not bigotry, it is good sense, and the sovereign right of every parent. It should be the responsibility of the public education system as well.
Today’s purveyors of identity politics cause acrimony because they seem determined to invent and prosecute new accusations of intolerance against those otherwise trying hard to behave properly. Embracing open prejudice can seem a cynically comforting response among those feeling doomed to be judged regardless. Because transgenderism affects few people, and therefore provokes relatively low social stigma, it seems to be the issue on which many on the right prefer to let loose their inner reactionary, which then further rationalizes petty tyranny on the left.
American history teaches that it is neither the radical nor the regressive who are ultimately vindicated in their response to cultural disruption, but rather those cautious conservatives who assign themselves the difficult task of thoughtfully working through the new and unexpected in the cause of preserving a social order as peaceful and free as the one that came prior.
Who will now rise to that task?