One of the most disturbing passages in 1984 has nothing to do with telescreens, Newspeak, or rats. Rather, it is the assertion by Winston Smith’s torturer that he could “float off this floor like a soap bubble” if he wished to do so. Such a claim, the reader understands, is neither hyperbole nor metaphor but an earnest expression of the belief that reality is contingent on human perception. Winston could be forced, if necessary, to affirm his torturer’s proposition. His acquiescence would render it “true” in the only remaining sense of that word.
The United States is now half a decade into the “transgender moment” declared by The Atlantic and other media outlets in the months before and after Obergefell v. Hodges settled the anterior matter of same-sex marriage. Yet unlike the gay-rights movement, which pursued judicial victories and cultural legitimacy with equal fervor, the struggle for transgender equality has thus far been fought largely in the court of public opinion, the occasional executive or jurisprudential expansion of existing anti-discrimination provisions notwithstanding. To the extent that the average American engages with transgender issues at all, he or she is more likely to do so emotionally or intellectually than legally, facing pressure from social norms and the informal demands of etiquette rather than the written requirements of the state.
Certainly this could change. The New York City Commission on Human Rights’ various guidelines regarding gender expression and employment provide an example of how it might, as do the handful of school-bathroom cases making their way through the courts. Yet so pronounced has been the transgender movement’s influence on the American mind that further alteration of the nation’s laws hardly seems necessary. On the subjects of identity and the nature of gender, the sexual avant-garde is steadily gaining the field. On the question of language, their battle may already be won.
That the latter is true in part because the transgender movement has on its side a number of traditional American values is a possibility worth considering at some length. Before any discussion of bathroom assignments, military service, amended birth certificates, or who is to pay for surgeries and at what age, there exists a fundamental dilemma. A man asserts that he is, and means to be referred to as, a woman; what are we to say in response? Which of our ideals and habits of mind are we to apply? With what words, crucially, must we describe the human being in front of us?
The most obvious answer may well be the one that many Americans are arriving at, and indeed the arguments in its favor are high-minded and clear. Chief among these contentions is the notion that, because civility compels us to address people as they wish to be addressed, the use of undesired names and pronouns (“deadnaming” and “misgendering” in transgender parlance) is an act of social aggression — a choice analogous to calling a female physician “Miss” because one doesn’t believe that women should be doctors.
So, too, is it the case that complying with the stated requests of a persecuted minority can be a way to redress historical grievances. One need only examine the statistical record to see that transgender individuals have long been affected to a disproportionate extent by violent crime, and especially crime of a sexual nature. To the degree that one can signal one’s support for a victimized community by minding one’s tongue, doing so can legitimately be understood as an act of justice.
Though Anthony Kennedy was wrong to state in his Obergefell decision that the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause necessarily protects “intimate choices defining personal identity,” his sentiment nevertheless amounts to a kind of American creed. Self-determination is one of the values on which this nation was founded and is arguably the principle behind the Declaration of Independence’s allusion to the “pursuit of happiness” and the Preamble to the Constitution’s celebration of “the Blessings of Liberty.” The transgender individual whom I encounter in the street is not a political abstraction but a fellow American attempting to make what sense he can of his life. It is not entirely wrong to say that I deprive him of something significant if I speak of him in terms that violate his most deeply held sense of self.
Finally, there is the matter of money. While the process of repairing America’s relationship with its black citizens is increasingly held (on the left) to require financial reparations, the decision to use the preferred pronouns of transgender individuals carries no obvious financial obligations. Instead, such a gesture is, on its face, wholly symbolic. “Whatever my beliefs,” it communicates to its recipient, “I will refrain from behaving in a way that denigrates your own.”
It is a sign of these arguments’ moral seriousness that they are lately being taken up in unexpected quarters — not only in National Review Online, where columnist J. J. McCullough declared last May that “ostentatiously calling people by pronouns they don’t want” is “boorish and petty,” but on the many occasions in which fellow Christians have informed me that “inclusive pronouns” are a means by which I can show God’s love.
To seriously consider such claims is proper and good. So is sincere reflection on the possibility that referring to one’s neighbor as he wishes stands in accordance with prized American notions of tolerance and fellow feeling. Yet ultimately to endorse such thinking is rank foolishness. Like nearly all of the contentions that undergird transgender ideology, the arguments in favor of transgender pronouns — defined here as the incorrect application of “he” and “she” as well as absurd neologisms like “ze” and “zir” — are, in the end, shortsighted. Though compelling on their own limited terms, they fail to take into account that further capitulation where language is concerned can only give aid and comfort to a movement whose success is inevitably attended by the sexualization of children, the sanctioning of brutality, and the dramatic curtailment of freedom of speech and thought.
About the scale of their ambitions, transgender activists have not been shy. “Nuance around gender identity and expression will,” the journalist Liam Lowery wrote in Newsweek four years ago, “improve the quality of life for all people.” “If gender identity is no longer a fixed commodity,” Laurie Penny averred in New Statesman America in 2014, “that affects everybody.” To the surprise of exactly no one who has followed the progress of transgender ideology in this country and elsewhere, the concept of “everybody” is increasingly understood on the left to include even young children. Abetted by the American Academy of Pediatrics’ declaration that most children “have a stable sense of their gender identity” by their fourth birthday, transgender activists in the United States have set about removing any age-based obstacles to that identity’s expression — an effort that peaked with California’s 2018 law providing transgender treatments to minors as young as twelve without requiring parental consent.
Abroad, developments are even worse, ranging in severity from the despicable to the truly nightmarish. As Wesley J. Smith recently reported for NRO, a Canadian 14-year-old was allowed, earlier this year, to proceed with “gender-altering” hormone treatments despite her father’s strenuous objections. In Australia, meanwhile, multiple news reports declare that, sometime in 2016, a four-year-old began the process of “transitioning.”
What these disturbing stories have in common is the extent to which they require children to make decisions that are innately sexual, involving as they do the most intimate of anatomical characteristics. If a preteen boy can consent to the removal of his penis, by what possible standard is he unable to consent to sex with an adult man or woman? Sexual consent is, of course, a moral reality, present whether or not human beings acknowledge it. Yet the age of consent is a mere political construct. Majorities can raise or lower it as they wish. An ideology that places children’s bodies beyond the reach of their parents will not easily be contained in this fallen world. Nor will one that makes children the irrevocable arbiters of their physical destinies.
That the physical destinies pursued by transgender men and women are often barbarous is a fact that cannot be overstated. Neither can it be hidden behind such antiseptic euphemisms as “gender confirmation” (on the left) or “the excision of healthy tissue” (on the right). Instead, the transgender individual who seeks surgical ratification of his or her delusions asks a doctor to mutilate, and even destroy, whatever body part does not conform to his or her desires. It is no wonder that a 30-year study published earlier this decade found a highly elevated suicide rate among patients who underwent such procedures. As the distinguished Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Paul McHugh wrote in 2015, “it proves not easy or wise to live in a counterfeit sexual garb.” Or as a transgender correspondent recently confessed to one of Slate’s arch-progressive advice columns following “his” surgically induced menopause, “I feel dried up, neutered, broken, and empty.”
It is not the case that every transgender individual will choose to endure surgery. Yet it is the case that transgenderism is socially contagious, that it is advancing with astonishing rapidity, and that surgical interventions will surely proliferate as a result. Conservatives are not to blame for the fact that 12 percent of Millennials now identify as “transgender or gender non-conforming,” according to a recent GLAAD survey. We are to blame, however, if our conciliatory language impairs our ability to declare that this is wrong. It is not real. We have to stop it. If the transgender man or woman really is “held” or “trapped” or “born” in the wrong body, let us say so and accept the cultural and medical consequences. But if the central transgender assertion is a lie — if it derives from the same fantasy that says a man can float like a soap bubble — then God forgive us if we utter a word in its favor.
To be sure, conservatives will pay a price for their stubbornness. A transgender movement that holds public opinion in its grasp may well increase the legal pressure on nonconformists should that grip begin to loosen. Jobs may be lost or friendships ruined. Our own children may one day condemn us. What is at stake, however, is the irreplaceable right to say of one thing, “true,” and of another, “false” — to define the basic realities from which our politics proceed. A man is a man. A woman is a woman. Let us not pretend otherwise.
When Big Brother arrives in the 21st century, he will appear not on posters but in grammar handbooks, HR manuals, and social media. Not as a tormentor but as a disappointed neighbor or friend.
No matter. We still mustn’t submit to him.