Conservatives Ask How They Lost the Culture War Over Transgender Rights
On May 28, Sean Fieler wrote a warning about the transgender rights movement, directed to fellow social conservatives. The chairman of the American Principles Project worried that the movement had blown it on Bruce Jenner's story of gender transition.
"Rather than dismiss this change as a politically irrelevant story that belongs in the tabloids, Republicans should view it as a case study in the political power of principle," Fieler argued. "The idea is simple: Your sexual desire, not your biology, constitutes your identity... the rapidly growing acceptance of the previously marginal idea that underlies the transgender moment was only made possible by the Republican decision to opt out of this debate entirely."
Just days later, Jenner—who now asks to be identified as a woman named Caitlyn—became the biggest story in pop culture. She was the cover subject for the next issue of Vanity Fair, a strikingly beautiful woman who resembled Jessica Lange. (Lange herself seemed delighted by the comparison.) Within 24 hours, the debate among supporters of trans rights was not whether Jenner was brave and beautiful. That was obvious. The debate was over whether the media was celebrating Jenner because, as academic Marc Lamont Hill put it, "she conforms to tradition (sic) cis/and European standards of beauty."
There was no debate about how to handle the people who criticized Jenner or insisted on calling her a man. They had to be taught a lesson. Snoop Dogg called Jenner a "science project," and was deluged by fans saying they'd deleted his music from their computers. Timbaland posted a meme about calling Jenner "Bruce," and half-apologized after the comments on that post condemned him.
The root of the conservative Jenner-angst: As recently as 2004, conservatives could take a conservative position on LGBT rights—specifically, arguing for officially defining marriage as between a man and a woman—and scare Democrats into their bunkers. In 2015, their candidates for president were unhappy about answering any questions about sexuality or gender. And the transgender rights movement appeared to be making 99.7 percent of the population change its behavior to make 0.3 percent of the population comfortable. Maybe the victory of the gay rights movement was inevitable, given that most people knew a gay person; were their children going to be told that gender was mutable, based on the experience of some celebrities, and the coverage of the mainstream media?
The Washington Post's Robert Costa and Philip Rucker have profiled some of the conservatives taking an "apocalyptic view" of Jenner's transition, and noted that many are citing military heroes as an alternative for media attention and asking where their Internet-breaking coverage is. (The news that Jenner will receive a courage award has spawned a misleading storyline about how she beat out a deserving veteran. There was technically no "runner-up" for the prize.)
The more telling Post story about Jenner is digital culture critic Caitlin Dewey's account of creating a Twitter bot, she_not_he, to "politely correct misgendering errors" and get people to stop calling Jenner a man. "'Misgendering,' as this practice is known is the LGBT community, isn’t just a style error in violation of [the Associated Press's] own rules—it’s a stubborn, long-time hurdle to transgender acceptance and equality, a fundamental refusal to afford those people even basic grammatical dignity," wrote Dewey.
Timely disclosure: I resigned from the Post in 2010 after a controversy over crude personal opinions I expressed in e-mails to a listserv. At the time, journalist Amy Sullivan wrote that my resignation was "a good thing for journalism," because I'd said I didn't understand or respect why people would campaign against gay marriage. It was "a flat statement of uninterest in figuring out why some people believe gay marriage should be illegal," which meant that I could not cover those people. (I'd argue this was actually a lesson about why journalists should reach out to people instead of taking tweets out of context. I was talking specifically about people who devoted their careers to blocking gay marriage, not just opposed it. Even then, I was wrong to say I didn't respect or understand that.)
There has been no similar outcry about Dewey's ref-working for Jenner. There shouldn't be—AP rules are AP rules, and Caitlyn Jenner defines herself as a woman. Yet the bot said plenty about the assumptions of the pop culture mainstream, and how alienated conservatives felt from that. Seemingly out of nowhere, they were told that it was not just ignorant, but bigoted, to question whether gender identity was a construct instead of something assigned at birth.
Republicans who have walked into this subject might as well have been walking over hot coals. After Jenner's "coming out" interview aired this spring, BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray asked former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum if the Olympian was a woman. "If he says he’s a woman, then he’s a woman,” said Santorum. “My responsibility as a human being is to love and accept everybody. Not to criticize people for who they are. I can criticize, and I do, for what people do, for their behavior."
As Rucker and Costa report, Santorum had to massage that for social conservatives, but the answer even angered some trans rights supporters: Santorum was calling Jenner's transition a "behavior" and not a realization of identity. That same weekend, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham told Bloomberg that Jenner was a "tortured soul, and if he can find relief, and a better life, god bless.” Still not quite the script, but both men fared better than former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. On Tuesday, Buzzfeed pointed to video of Huckabee joking that had trans rights existed when he was a boy, he "could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE." Comedy Central host Larry Wilmore suggested that Huckabee retitle his latest book ''God, Guns, Grits and Gravy and Go F--- Yourself."
Republican candidates, unsure how to react, are otherwise remaining silent with one notable exception.
The only Republican diving into the issue by choice was George Pataki, the socially liberal former governor of New York, who tweeted a rebuke to Huckabee and a defense of Jenner:
Meanwhile, the only people taking Sean Feiler's advice are in the conservative media; National Review, especially, has become a repository of articles asking what happened to decency. In 2014, after transgender Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox earned the Time cover, NR's Kevin Williamson planted the flag with an essay titled "Laverne Cox is not a woman." Williamson allowed that "the obsession with policing language on the theory that language mystically shapes reality is itself ancient," but that trans rights advocates were asking most of the world to endorse, basically, self-mutilation.
"This seems to me a very different sort of phenomenon from simple homosexuality," wrote Williamson. "The question of the status of gay people interacts with politics to the extent that it in some cases challenges existing family law, but homosexual acts as such seem to me a matter that is obviously, and almost by definition, private. The mass delusion that we are inculcating on the question of transgendered people is a different sort of matter, to the extent that it would impose on society at large an obligation—possibly a legal obligation under civil-rights law, one that already is emerging—to treat delusion as fact, or at the very least to agree to make subjective impressions superordinate to biological fact in matters both public and private."
Williamson's piece was syndicated by the Chicago Sun-Times. That led to outraged petitioners uniting on Change.org—and then to the newspaper retracting the piece. "The column failed to acknowledge that the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association have deemed transgender-related care medically necessary for transgender people," wrote editors in an apology. "It failed as well to acknowledge the real and undeniable pain and discrimination felt by transgender people, who suffer from notably higher rates of depression and suicide."
The Williamson/trans incident is recounted in End of Discussion, a new book by conservative pundits Guy Benson and Mary Katherine Ham, as a complete defeat for free thinking. In an e-mail interview, Benson, who is gay, said that the Caitlyn Jenner pile-on was more of the same thought policing.
"The language enforcement mob demands that everyone be immediately comfortable with, and celebratory of, Caitlyn Jenner's transition—and that they speak about it using only 'approved' nomenclature," wrote Benson. "Average people who may even be positively-disposed or ambivalent towards Jenner are nevertheless risk being pilloried as 'transphobic' should they talk about these complex issues without the lexicon or expertise of, say, a campus safe space liaison with a Ph.D. in queer studies from Oberlin."
So far, the calls for Republican candidates to take a bolder stance against transgender rights have been limited. The Obama administration's many extensions of those rights, though—everything from loosening the ban on transgender people in the military to reinterpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act—will present the next Republican president with a choice. Would he do what some conservative Republican governors have done already? Would he unwind those new protections, and refuse to let the norms of "queer studies at Oberlin" become the norms for a whole country?
"I suspect that a lot of Americans feel this way: Caitlyn Jenner was born a male, and remains biologically male," argued Guy Benson. "That's empiricism. That's science. But she has decided to transition to a female identity, and even if it's tough for a lot of us to fully understand, her decision should be respected and she should treated with dignity and humanity. How many thought crimes did that sentence betray, I wonder?"