It is impossible to ignore the transgender issue today. The trans community is not only the T in LGBTQ, but their cause has been raised everywhere from the campus of the University of Toronto (psychology prof Jordan Peterson has stirred controversy by bucking the institution’s standards for addressing transgender individuals) to the public restrooms of North Carolina (state officials have ruled that gender-specific facilities may only be used by those born as that gender) to popular culture (via celebrities like Chaz Bono and Caitlyn Jenner) to high school graduation ceremonies (trans kids have sought to attend as different genders than the ones they registered as Kindergartners). The transgender movement is often cited as the next, natural avenue of liberation and social justice – but I have my doubts.
In the first place, we have lived with an idealized notion of civil rights for so long that many believe citizenship is only recognized through protest and disruption. The historic advances achieved by non-whites, women, homosexuals and the disabled in the last century are now rightly seen as triumphs of democracy – no one in 2019 thinks blacks should sit at the back of buses, or female employees should be paid less than males doing the same job – but they also established a tradition of public resistance and legal advocacy which later groups have uncritically extended. Thus even the most comfortably enfranchised people can cast themselves as heroic pioneers, just like Rosa Parks or Harvey Milk, by declaring a transgender identity and demanding public acceptance of it. It is no longer enough to live as one pleases and assume protection under the law; the slightest personal inclination must be righteously politicized, goes the orthodoxy, or it isn’t real and it won’t be protected.
The civil rights model is problematic when applied to the trans campaign for other reasons as well. Though we have been conditioned to see all social restrictions or cultural norms as inherently unjust, we forget that overthrowing them can generate unintended, undesired consequences. With the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s, for example, prudish moral taboos gave way to healthier, happier possibilities of intimacy and pleasure – but there was a corresponding increase of fatherless children and STDs. Popular tolerance of recreational drugs has spurred overdue relaxation of punitive criminal penalties – but addiction and overdoses remain pressing crises. Likewise, our fashionable embrace of the transgender trend (including promotion of genital surgery and hormone therapy) may one day yield unforeseen complications for thousands of transgendered trailblazers. In a 2013 New Yorker article, “About a Boy,” journalist Margaret Talbot interviewed the mother of a transgender teen, who worried that
many teen-agers…seemed to regard their bodies as endlessly modifiable, through piercings, or tattoos, or even workout regimens. She wondered if sexual orientation was beginning to seem boring as a form of identity; gay people were getting married, and perhaps seemed too settled.
“The kids who are edgy and funky and drawn to artsy things—these are conversations that are taking place in dorm rooms,” Danielle said. “There are tides of history that wash in, and when they wash out they leave some people stranded. The drug culture of the sixties was like that and the sexual culture of the eighties, with AIDS. I think this could be the next wave like that, and I don’t want my daughter to be a casualty.”
The transgender lobby, finally, seems to me to suffer from an unfortunate self-absorption, perhaps an inevitable result of our longstanding everyone-gets-a-prize, you-matter-too educational regimes. In a world still wracked by war, pollution, and poverty, transgender activists are most interested not in the poor or the environment, but in themselves: no needs are more urgent than which washroom they get to use or what pronoun describes them. Yet surely when we take entitlement claims to the level of “gender expression,” we are down to a concept of identity that applies to virtually everyone. My sexual being is not the same as Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s, Pope Francis’s, or yours, so do I deserve a unique accommodation of it, along with seven billion other minorities? At some point, we ought to outgrow our fixations on private feelings, social statures, and special categories, and get on with the business of being human together.