Culture

From Sussex, England, to New England, Gender Activists Are Losing

Signs at a protest against the Trump administration’s reported transgender proposals at City Hall in New York City, October 24, 2018. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
A broad group of dissenters is united by the belief that every woman matters, that every girl matters — that the female sex matters.

Remember the viral video of the Scottish teenager who was thrown out of class for saying there are only two genders? Now there’s another clip, in the same genre, doing the rounds. This week, approximately 150 parents and pupils (mostly girls, the footage suggests) staged a protest against enforced “gender neutral” uniforms outside a high school in Sussex, England.

Piers Morgan, the presenter of Good Morning Britain, who attended the school in question, tweeted, “The protesting parents & students have my full support. This whole gender neutral craze is out of control. Let girls be girls & boys be boys.”

Interestingly, this kind of teenage activism appears to be on the rise. The same goes in the United States. National Review readers who follow my reporting on gender extremism will be familiar with Selina Soule, the brave young athlete from Connecticut who, along with two other girls, has filed a Title IX complaint with the Education Department, which is now investigating the state’s policy allowing boys to thrash them in sports.

Back in March, 60 students (again, mostly girls) at Abraham Lincoln High School in Iowa staged a walkout after a boy was allowed to use the girls’ restrooms. Holding signs reading, for example, “We deserve our privacy,” as well as showing stick-figure images of a man and a woman found on bathroom doors, the young protestors chanted slogans such as “One over all is not fair.” Making the same complaint, students at Boyertown Area High School in Pennsylvania filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, though in May the Court declined to hear the case.

So what is motivating these adolescents to walk out of class, to contradict their teachers, to complain about unfairness? Have they been radicalized by a hateful “anti-trans” ideology? Or have they become exasperated by a world gone mad?

For Vox, Katelyn Burns — “the first openly transgender Capitol Hill reporter in US history,” per the article’s bioline — has written a lengthy piece on “the rise of anti-trans ‘radical’ feminists.” For Burns, it would seem, principled opposition to gender ideology — be it feminist, conservative, or adolescent — all comes from the same sinister place. It’s an “anti-trans” conspiracy. A place of deep and twisted hate.

Burns begins the piece by discussing the Supreme Court’s upcoming hearings in Harris Funeral Homes vs. EEOC, a case about a man who was fired for failing to comply with his employer’s sex-based uniform code after he began presenting as a woman. Burns explains: “The ACLU attorneys representing Stephens [the complainant], in turn, argued that their client was fired because Stephens failed to perform the sex role her employer expected of her, violating the legal precedent established in 1989 in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.”

Though there is no reason to think that those who drafted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 understood sex to be anything other than anatomical, Harris Funeral Homes vs. EEOC, which relates to discrimination in employment under Title VII, is a far more complex and nuanced legal argument than Selina Soule’s case, which relates to discrimination in education under Title IX. Indeed, in addition to defining “sex,” the Supreme Court will need to consider what the law says about sex stereotypes.

Let the culture-war narrative begin.

Really, though. Who are we to feel sorry for? The gender-confused man who wanted to come to work in a dress? Or the traditionally minded family business whose owners didn’t want to risk upsetting the grieving families they serve? Perhaps to National Review readers, the answer is obvious. But it isn’t National Review readers who need convincing. It’s nine sitting justices and yer-man-on-the-street.

There is a great opportunity here, as Burns has clearly realized, to quash the suggestion that non-traditionally minded people could find the defense laid out by Harris Funeral Homes to be reasonable. For this, Burns takes aim at the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), one of “the so-called ‘radical feminist’ groups with long records of opposing the rights of transgender people,” since WoLF filed an amicus brief for the Supreme Court in support of Harris.

From the brief: “Simply, Aimee Stephens is a man. He wanted to wear a skirt while at work, and his ‘gender identity’ argument is an ideology that dictates that people who wear skirts must be women, precisely the type of sex stereotyping forbidden by Price Waterhouse.

Lest we be persuaded by this, however, Burns immediately provides some crucial context: “Groups like WoLF are commonly referred to as ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists,’ or TERFs. They alternate among several theories that claim that trans women are really men, who are the ultimate oppressors of women.” Thus, WoLF (the big bad wolf) = TERFs. Even more sinister than the name “TERFS,” however, is their sin of association:

The key to understanding why a self-proclaimed radical feminist group would side with conservatives arguing for the right to force cisgender women into skirts at work is to understand who TERFs are and what they’ve been up to for the past 50 years. . . .

Online roots of the term TERF originated in the late 2000s but grew out of 1970s radical feminist circles after it became apparent that there needed to be a term to separate radical feminists who support trans women and those who don’t. [Emphasis added]

Aha. The question begs. “Became apparent” to whom, and wherefore?

The first link provided is to a piece in the Guardian written by an Australian blogger who thinks she may have invented the term around 2008 while waxing lyrical about the various ideological fault lines and purity tests that contemporary progressives often wax lyrical about. The second link directs us to a blog written by Cristan Williams — a “transsexual atheist abortion clinic defender” and “your worst nightmare,” per Williams’s Twitter bio — who says that “within feminist and trans discourse, the term refers to a very specific type of person who wraps anti-trans bigotry in the language of feminism.” Specific? I don’t know about that. I’ve seen TERF used as a catchall for any person who challenges gender ideology on any grounds. If you’re not a TERF, it’s that you’re associating with TERFS — who are, apparently, as bad as Nazis.

Back to Burns: “Many anti-trans feminists today claim it’s a slur, despite what many see as an accurate description of their beliefs. They now prefer to call themselves ‘gender critical,’ a euphemism akin to white supremacists calling themselves ‘race realists.’”

It does not convince. And why? Because the gender extremists are attacking the radical feminists for their least ideological premise. For their most commonsensical, easy-to-get, uncontroversial position, as summarized by WoLF in its rebuttal to Burns: “Radical feminism is a theory and practice of fighting for the rights of all women and girls, regardless of whether they self-identify as transgender, and regardless of their ethnic origin or political beliefs.”

What Burns & co are desperate to disguise is what’s really uniting such a broad group of gender dissenters, from the teens in Sussex to the women smeared as bigots by bloggers. It isn’t hatred, as gender activists so relentlessly insist, but rather the belief that every woman matters; that every girl matters; that the female sex — yes, sex — matters.

Which reminds me. When I sat down with 16-year-old Selina Soule, the Connecticut track athlete, and her mother earlier this summer, I asked each in turn to describe her politics. Selina’s mom is all over the place. A Romanian immigrant who fled Communism in the 1980s, she’s voted both Democrat and Republican in the past. Now she’s mainly worried that the country, as evidenced by gender mania, might be “going to hell.” As for Selina, she looked confused by the question and explained (as if I could forget) that there are bigger things to worry about in high school.

It suddenly dawned on me. What we’ve all been missing. Hans Christen Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is so overcited now that it’s become trite. Yet we’ve forgotten a crucial detail. In the story, who is it who cries out, But he isn’t wearing anything at all?

Ladies and gentlemen, women and men, females and males — it is a singularly pure and innocent voice. Not the voice of an ideologue. The voice of a child.

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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