The Origins of the Transgender Movement

A demonstrator holds a transgender flag at a protest in New York City, 2018. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
We must not ignore cultural blind spots that put children at risk of abuse.

Editor’s Note: This article has been adapted from remarks delivered at a Heritage Foundation summit.

I’ve been asked to talk about the origins of transgenderism and how it relates to children and their exploitation. But first, I would like to start with a little story.

Yesterday I was wandering around outside the Supreme Court chatting with some people who were there to support what’s known as the LGBTQ+ community. I spoke with a lovely guy who identified as homosexual and then four teenage girls who identified as lesbian and queer. They asked me what I thought of the Human Rights Campaign, so I told them up front that I think it’s a force for tremendous harm in this country. Then, I asked them what they thought of Martin Luther King’s idea, the one about not defining people by irrelevant characteristics like their skin color, or in this case their sexual desires. They said it sounded like a very good idea.

Later, two men who were slightly less open-minded wanted to tell me about some horrible feminists called “terfs” who are apparently in cahoots with an even more horrible right-wing institution I probably hadn’t heard of because I’m Scottish. It’s called the Heritage Foundation. So, if anyone knows anyone from there, just let me know, because I want to make sure I don’t die by association.

The reason I mention this story, of course, is — other than the Heritage Foundation being a symbol for all that is evil and far-right in American politics — my experience with the LGBTQ+ community was that it wasn’t really a community so much as it was a big mishmash of people who feel they belong to a certain cause for very different reasons. Yet they were all there at the end of the rainbow to claim their pot of gold, which they had been promised by the Human Rights Campaign.

I’ve been asked to get to the origins of this movement, and I’m going to try to do that. Of course, as you know, it’s just one stripe of the rainbow, and I couldn’t possibly do it justice in ten minutes, but I’ll do my absolute best. There are three things that I think have been changing since the mid-20th century. The first is in medicine, the second is what I like to call an ontology of desire, and the third is what I and others call the politicization of everything.

Let’s start with medicine. When sex-change surgeries became surgically possible in the post-war period, it was understood to be something of a euphemism. Of course, a person couldn’t literally change from one sex to the other, it’d be more accurate to call it genital surgery, but people were trying to be euphemistic. These procedures were highly controversial, in part because they weren’t always that successful.

You might’ve seen the movie The Danish Girl, and you’re familiar with the Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson’s book, in which he talks a lot about Paul McHugh, the psychiatrist who had to put an end to the surgeries in the 1970s at Johns Hopkins University, which he described as “collaborating with madness.” That’s how he called it. People who wanted to change their sex back then were called transsexuals. That was a term popularized by an endocrinologist, Harry Benjamin. Demand was fairly low; it was mostly males wanting to become females. It’s complicated, but sexologists realized there were two types of male-to-female transsexuals.

There was the homosexual transsexual. That’s the person who feels inconspicuously feminine and uncomfortable as a man and is actually a deeply sympathetic figure, I think. Then there’s the person with autogynophilia. That’s the person who finds the thought of themselves as a woman to be sexually exciting. Studies of interviews with such individuals, conducted by sexologists like Ray Blanchard or Anne Lawrence, suggest that it’s anything ranging from a man who’s turned on from the check assistant’s calling him “ma’am,” to somebody who likes to urinate on sanitary pads and to pretend they’re menstruating, and many other things that I think many of us would find too unpleasant to dwell on so early in the morning.

In my friend Douglas Murray’s new book, The Madness of Crowds, he explains that the struggle for defining things turned into this hardware versus software issue. So, intersex for instance, is very much a hardware issue. You can’t exactly get concerned about somebody who has a hardware issue because that’s not their fault. Of course, the reality with homosexuality is that it’s most likely some kind of combination of the two. People may be predisposed to certain proclivities, then there’s environment and so forth, but in any case, like Martin Luther King’s point, don’t define people by that.

This brings me to my second point, which was what I’m calling the ontology of desire. That’s basically when in the 1990s, the definition of trans began to change. Transsexualism, specifically as a sexual fetish, as autogynephilia, had been known as a perversion. This was politically incorrect, so they changed it to paraphilia, which became politically incorrect and is now known as an identity. The broader term “gender dysphoria” (formerly gender identity disorder) is actually still listed in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, so it’s still a disorder in the DSM, but that’ll likely change.

Transgenderism was widened, adopted, and celebrated in the academy, in large part thanks to people like Judith Butler, who thought that gender was a performance. This is where it gets really interesting in the contradictions. On the one hand, this is Murray’s point, transgenderism is a hardware issue for trans people, but for everyone else gender is a software issue. So, if you think about it, the only people who are born women are trans women, which is rather an astonishing claim.

This is where the “boy’s brain in a girl’s body” stuff comes in, which turns out to be more of a metaphor. A more accurate metaphor might be that of a soul — a gendered soul, the fundamental essence of a person. It goes back a very long way to the Gnostic heresies in Ancient times. The idea is that matter is less important and that it’s all about your spirit or your essence. The exploitation of language evolved so quickly that basically everybody calling a trans woman “she” — initially that was meant to be a courtesy to accommodate people not to make somebody who has had a hard life have a harder life — is now meant to signal our absolute uncontested belief in their femaleness, which it doesn’t, because trans women are men. Not that there is anything wrong with being a man. Even if some people are uncomfortable being men. And fair enough.

The third point is the massive cultural and political tidal wave. The thing is, in the 1990s people might have been forgiven for thinking, “This will never catch on. This is so outrageous. This is absurd.” They would obviously be right, but the thing was the Internet and all these other things came into play. Society had just gotten used to defining whole sections of the population by their desires with regards to homosexuality, which was trying to correct genuine injustices that gay people faced in this country and still face across the world. They overcorrected and they became obsessed with identity. We moved further and further away from the sort of vision that Martin Luther King set out. We started to lose sight of all these different intricacies with regard to sexuality. Then, trans piggybacked onto gay rights, which had piggybacked onto civil rights.

A whole system of buzzwords popped up, like “transphobia,” “transmisogyny,” and “conversion therapy,” and all these buzz words that make people think, “Gosh I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.” I should say though, when I was at this thing yesterday with the LGBT crowd, when the police moved and we were walking down to the Supreme Court, it did kind of feel like it was this big angry mob chasing a bunch of women, which I have to say didn’t really feel like being on the right side of history, but maybe I’ll be proven wrong.

The point about civil rights is very important, which is perhaps why I don’t get it as much, coming from a different country. In America, rightly, people are very sensitive about civil rights and their very embarrassing history in that area. They don’t want to repeat that, and I think that’s a good impulse and we should respect that impulse. But of course, it’s been used by people like the Human Rights Campaign for their own cynical ends.

Which brings me onto the final point: What has any of this got to do with sexualizing children?

I want to suggest two things. The first is that it’s created a massive cultural blind spot. Psychologists have always understood transsexualism to relate or to potentially relate to adult sexuality. We could have a debate about whether we think urinating on sanitary pads is normal behavior or not, we can have that debate, but it is about sexuality. It’s been masked by an ideology, and because of the politics of it all, there’s a great fear for many people. It’s a legitimate fear because they might get fired, or worse, for signaling some terrible “phobia.”

This becomes very obvious in the subject of drag. Drag, which means “dressed as girl,” comes from the Elizabethan period when women were forbidden from performing publicly, so men assumed the role of women. For some drag queens — I was speaking to one yesterday, James Davis, whose stage name is Elaine Lancaster — it really is about performance. I come from the U.K. where we have this genre of theater called pantomime, and it’s funny. It’s just men dressed up as women called “dames.” But these things are very context dependent.

Davis yesterday was agreeing with me. While he was saying that for him it’s about performance, he recognizes that when he’s in bars and other public places, people come up to him at the end, and it’s all about sex for them. As an adult, who knows that and understands that, he can deal with it. He can say whether he wants to get involved or not — after all, it’s a free country — but why would we put children in that situation? Why would we invite salacious interest in children by dressing them up in drag? We shouldn’t do that, and I’m referring here to a whole new phenomenon called “drag kids.”

The argument we’re supposed to accept rather unthinkingly is that, “Oh you’re just being bigoted, and you’re just prejudiced, because this about self-expression.” And I’m thinking well no, because yes children dress up, but again, it’s context dependent.

The analogy I would invite you to think about here is imagine a little girl in a bikini. She’s 13 years old, in her parent’s private pool. Is it a big problem that she’s wearing a bikini? No, it’s not a big problem. She’s in her parents’ private pool. But if the same girl, in the same bikini, still 13 years old, is walking down a catwalk in a room full of adults, would we all feel uncomfortable? Yes, we all would feel uncomfortable. It’s a completely different thing, and it’s the same when it comes to drag.

This is not hypothetical. I invite you to look up the case of Desmond is Amazing, who should really be called “Desmond needs saving” because this poor little boy is dressed up in drag, gyrating in gay clubs in Brooklyn, and few have said anything because to do so would be “homophobic.” Well, no, sorry. Because this drag queen and other gay people would say the same thing on this — it’s just not on. It is not, and never should be, acceptable to sexualize children.

Our friends at the Humans Rights Campaign would prefer that none of us knew these intricacies, that people like me didn’t exist to remind you of them, that people like James Davis (the drag queen) didn’t exist, or those open minded people at the rally who thought that Martin Luther King had a point didn’t exist. They would prefer that the only people who opposed the sexualization of children were like the horrible, frightening right-wing boogeyman the Heritage Foundation. Everyone who’s too scared to talk about this will just have to get over that because there’s too much at stake, I’m sorry to say. And to be honest, the worst thing they can do is say that you’re the boogeyman, and you just say, “Boo.” And then that’s it, you’re done.

Madeleine Kearns is a staff writer at National Review and a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.
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