Last summer, as I set out on a cross-country trip to cover what the New York Times excitedly declared the largest protest movement in US history, one realization quickly became apparent. Though the initial impetus for the protests was ostensibly outrage over the killing of George Floyd, another current was very discernibly coursing through the movement, and had taken on a comparable level of prominence: demands, in one form or another, for greater validation of Trans and gender non-binary people.
Of course, any mass street movement was inevitably going to shape-shift and evolve; the protests and riots of 2020 erupted with break-neck speed, and almost immediately transcended anything solely to do with George Floyd. What emerged was a kind of all-purpose left/liberal youth activist mobilization, so one would naturally expect this to reflect the general political and cultural priorities of the participating demographics. It was striking, then, to see just how much of an unyielding priority the issue of Trans and gender non-binary identity recognition had become for the cohort of activists and journalists — mostly in their teens, 20s, and 30s — who were driving the movement.
At virtually every protest action I observed, from Chicago to Portland, the slogan “Black Trans Lives Matter” or some variation thereof featured prominently in the chants, signs, and other public expressions of the demonstrators. Often the most visibly vociferous chanters in support of Black Trans Lives were very conspicuously white. To them, the cause of dismantling systemic racism and reforming and/or abolishing the police was intrinsically linked with the cause of dismantling the oppressions allegedly faced by the predominantly young, rapidly-growing number of people who had recently come to adopt various stripes of non-traditional gender identity. This linkage was regarded as so obvious that it required no argumentation. Some black commentators were slightly baffled by the activist whites’ virulent promotion of Trans issues to the center stage of a movement that was purportedly about anti-black police brutality, but that’s neither here nor there.
One day in Brooklyn last June, the restrictions which had previously limited mass gatherings in order to prevent the transmission of COVID were abruptly cast by the wayside as thousands and thousands of people dressed in heavenly all-white attire packed tightly together for an enormous rally under the banner of “Black Trans Lives.” Even protest activities that weren’t marketed as having any connection to Trans issues somehow seemed to invariably become in large part focused on Trans issues. For younger activists and journalists intensely animated by questions of personal identity, it had assumed the status of generation-defining struggle. And they found genuine success in their efforts: the campaign for Trans and gender non-binary recognition was consequently elevated higher than it had ever been on the national political and cultural agenda.
It was against this backdrop that I developed a newfound interest in what might be called gender identity ideology, a subject which I admit I’d previously been largely apathetic about. (More later on whether “gender identity ideology” is a defensible formulation — I’m well aware that many people vigorously object to the mere usage of the term.)
A decade before the tumult of summer 2020, I’d been a staunch proponent of same-sex marriage — even engaging in extensive activism to get same-sex marriage legalized in my home state of New Jersey. From 2008-2010, I wrote op-eds (long before I was involved in any kind of professional journalism), canvassed, and petitioned state legislators in support of a pending same-sex marriage bill. Though the initial legislative effort failed, same-sex marriage was eventually enacted in New Jersey three years later by judicial ruling. In the end, it felt as if our efforts had been vindicated, if only because we successfully changed a lot of minds along the way.
I vividly recall being secure in my advocacy of same-sex marriage at the time, because — from my perspective, at least — all of the arguments I’d embraced for it were clear, rational, morally salient, and grounded in eminently reasonable interpretations of empirical evidence. Conversely, the arguments against same-sex marriage were usually predicated on pseudoscience, hysteria, religious dogma, ignorance, or outright prejudice, and could usually be rebutted with ease. What seemed like the self-evident justness of the pro same-sex marriage position, I found, frequently translated to a high success rate in persuading those who’d been skeptical or even hostile toward the idea.
There were an over-abundance of arguments in favor of same-sex marriage that could be drawn from across the ideological spectrum — for instance, Andrew Sullivan’s pioneering argument designed to appeal to conservatives — as well as a great multiplicity of arguments crafted by everyone from libertarians, to liberals, to more radical leftists. A cross-partisan consensus had emerged, and not surprisingly by 2015 same-sex marriage had been fully legalized everywhere in the US.
One of the more ridiculous arguments often heard against gay marriage at the time, advanced primarily but not exclusively by religious conservatives, was a classic slippery slope fallacy: if gay marriage were legalized, the argument went, it would embolden all manner of deviants to demand the state recognize their proposed marriages to everything from farm animals to inanimate objects. After all, if we accede to diluting the institution of marriage to include same-sex couples, what’s to stop subsequent dilutions from becoming even more extreme and absurd?
The argument is still ridiculous; there were never hordes of depraved men demanding to marry their horses. But if we’re being honest, advocates of same-sex marriage — myself included — have to acknowledge that in hindsight these “slippery slope” objections did have a certain merit to them, in ways we may have been oblivious to at the time. Because as it turns out, the real “slippery slope” was not the risk of legitimating man-horse marital bonds, but rather a slide by LGBT activists and “allies” into yet another elaborate identity-themed offensive. Clearly it was impossible for them to see a previously-unthinkable legal change take hold across the country, be contented, declare victory, and move on to other subjects. Quite the opposite: the never-ending Culture War escalated even further, now centering on a series of far more transgressive identity considerations. This probably should have been foreseeable, given the emotional gratification and sense of purpose that identity-themed battles provide those who wage them. Which brings us to the ongoing battle over gender identity ideology.
Unfortunately, writing this post in a manner that doesn’t just piously recite the ideology’s quasi-theological precepts — no matter how many qualifiers I add — could and probably will be interpreted by some as a violent attack on Trans and non-binary people. So if you’re one of the many anti-Substack crusaders out there agitating for the destruction of the platform, and you’re currently trawling through this post for evidence of my promoting “violence” or “harassment,” here’s your unambiguous qualifier: I am not advocating violence or harassment. I say this because it increasingly seems like any examination of these issues on any level other than uncritical affirmation is automatically construed as violence or harassment. This alleged “harm” is then cited to demand censorship or other forms of punishment, and the demands are frequently successful in generating panicked frenzies. Which, one would think, makes it even more vital to critically analyze the ideological underpinnings of an increasingly powerful political and cultural movement.
An ideology is a collection of beliefs and values, so to call the beliefs and values held in aggregate by the current crop of gender identity activists “gender identity ideology” should not be interpreted as some sort of gratuitous insult. To understand the nature of this ideology, one simply needs to listen to what these activists say they believe. (For the record, opponents or critics of gender identity ideology could also be said to be operating from within an ideological framework of their own.)
Additionally, positing the existence of a gender identity ideology does not mean everyone who identifies as Trans or non-binary necessarily subscribes to all aspects of the creed currently prevailing in activist and media circles. In fact, many flatly reject it. To come up with a workable definition of this ideology, I spoke with two Trans women who depart from the consensus view of most Trans and non-binary activists.
“There are tenets of gender identity ideology that you can clearly define,” Corinna Cohn, a Trans woman and the author of an excellent article on her divergence from contemporary gender identity activism orthodoxies, told me. “The central tenets of this ideology is that Trans women are women, Trans men are men — and it has been recently amended to add that non-binary identities are valid.”
Accepting those tenets would plainly necessitate the implementation of far-reaching policy reform, as well as sweeping overhauls of people’s private attitudes relating to the most elemental conceptions of sex and gender. “This goes way beyond just having civil rights protections,” Cohn said. “This is a desire to have some fundamental changes in society.” Namely, the abolition of all social constructs around sex and gender — because those constructs are now thought to have been generated by power disparities and other sources of “intersectional” oppression.
What adherents to the ideology ultimately seek, Cohn said, “is a world where those constructs are destroyed, and any person for any reason should have access to hormones or surgery to accomplish whatever body modifications are necessary for a person to try to achieve the sex that they believe they ought to be.”
Erin Smith, another Trans woman and political activist, told me: “I do think there is a gender identity ideology, or at least a set of consistent talking points. Which is to some extent what an ideology is.” Smith happens to be a Republican, demonstrating a diversity in viewpoints among Trans people that is often ignored in popular discussions of the topic — as is often the case when the media and activist class appoint themselves to speak on behalf of entire demographic groups, only to “erase” a vast array of opinion within those groups that doesn’t happen to align with their foundation-funded imperatives.
Previously, being Trans “was just kind of a fact of existence,” Smith said. But with its ideological dimensions taking on such heavy emphasis in the past five years, “now it’s more like we’re making a political statement, so we’re going to make our gender identity — by its very existence — a political action. It’s almost a form of gender direct action, you could say.”
In her 2013 book Excluded, Trans academic and writer Julia Serano described a tendency which she said had become dominant in her activist and intellectual circles — that is, an “approach” which “has encouraged some cissexuals who have no history of cross-gender identity whatsoever to embrace a transgender or genderqueer identity out of their desire to shatter the gender binary.”
If you have a desire to “shatter the gender binary,” that would seem to arise out of an ideological conviction about the undesirability of the gender binary. In which case, you can be said to possess an ideology, as well as a desire to act on those ideological convictions. To note that you possess an ideology isn’t even to necessarily argue that you are wrong — although that argument could obviously be separately made — just that your actions and beliefs stem from what could be reasonably described as an ideology. If I say that Bill Kristol is an exponent of neoconservative ideology, it doesn’t mean he’s wrong in his views (though he is, but that’s a topic for another Substack post). Saying someone is part of the conservative movement, or the democratic socialism movement, or the gender identity movement isn’t an insult — it’s just a descriptive statement.
“It’s kind of taxing,” Erin Smith added. “I’m very careful about the type of Trans people that I associate with. I don’t want to deal with people who are all gender politics all the time, and are very histrionic about how they feel oppressed.” Her impression of contemporary “gender identity ideology” is based on her personal engagement with the publicly-expressed priorities of activists claiming to be acting in her interests. One shift she has observed is that these activists are increasingly disinclined to treat gender transition simply as a process — a means to an end, so as to acclimate to wider society — but rather as an identity unto itself, with all the political connotations that entails. “The whole point of transition is to kind of fit in,” she said. “The ones who are definitionally less successful are the ones who stand out more, and have to embrace their identity.”
The denial that these beliefs and tactics could constitute an “ideology” — and that any reference at all to an “ideology” constitutes some grave offense — is strange for a number of reasons. First, in a free society, people have every right to advocate for their ideological preferences in the public arena. And indeed, gender identity activists are having major success in that regard, with politicians and corporations increasingly echoing their views.
Corinna Cohn provided an explanation for why adherents of this ideology often claim they find the mere positing of the existence of the ideology to be offensive: “Because what you’re doing is, you're framing it as saying that people are making choices, or people are choosing a way of thinking that makes them Trans, because you can be influenced in your ideology. No one is innately communist, or libertarian — but if you are exposed to certain persuasive texts or ideology, you may change your way of thinking. To describe it as an ideology rebuts or disagrees with this idea of an innate or inherent gender identity.”
Chase Strangio, who is one of the foremost proponents of Trans activism in the US as Deputy Director for Transgender Justice at the ACLU, recently tweeted a “manifesto” in which he posited that “sex & gender ARE the same thing and efforts to distinguish them are misguided & harmful.” His thread is worth reading full, as it expresses a firmly-held tenet of the ideology that is entering quickly into the mainstream:
Strangio has routinely argued that “so much” of the resistance to these ideological prescriptions is explainable by a hidden sexual lust for Trans people — a common rhetorical tactic employed by activists and journalists seeking to undermine their perceived adversaries. I asked him over email whether he finds it defensible to even refer to the concept of a gender identity ideology in the first place. He replied:
Of note, the use of “gender ideology” is largely associated with far-right politicians who claim a threat from “gender ideology” in order to exert governmental control over people under the guise of ostensibly protecting against the destruction of the heterosexual nuclear family.
In this particularly moment, referring to a heterogenous group of individuals generally seeking equal treatment from the government and opposing highly unusual and sweeping bans on their basic rights and autonomy as espousing a “transgender ideology” strikes me as a way to delegitimize the set of demands.
One can oppose rights for transgender people or support them but the mere fact that trans people exist, including trans kids, is not an ideological position. Even the political impulse to shatter the sex binary as it were can be tied to a set of material needs, be part of a larger political project or both, but to the extent that every demand by trans people to be seen as real or as having a set of survival needs is referred to as “transgender ideology”, that impulse should be interrogated but it leads very quickly to a debate over whether trans people exist.
Gender identity activists’ unflinching refusal to acknowledge the ideological components of their belief system often seems to mask a thinly-disguised insecurity about its foundational premises. (I’m not specifically referring to Strangio here, whom I credit for his willingness to engage on a very emotionally-charged subject — just making a general observation.) Lashing out and defaming journalists who politely scrutinize any of these premises, even as they take great pains to repeat all the requisite pieties affirming the validity of Trans and gender non-conforming people, would seem to further indicate a lack of security in one’s beliefs. As would relying on a set of slogans and talking points that exhibit exactly the kind of attachment to pseudoscience that earlier iterations of LGBT activism flatly rejected. On top of a rigid dogmatism, allergy to persuasion, and emotional manipulation that so repelled me from same-sex marriage opponents in the past. Or adopting tactics designed to intimidate, stigmatize, and expel anyone who has reservations about the massive societal changes they are proposing.
In any event, it’s a marked contrast from the almost serene, tolerant confidence of same-sex marriage advocacy in the 2000s, with its openness to argument and inquiry and its encouragement of debate (rather than denouncing debate as “harmful” or “violent”). I may be glamorizing earlier versions of LGBT activism, and certainly there were always radical elements that didn’t fit these characteristics. However, they were relatively marginal; today the most zealous and radical gender identity activists appear to be setting the agenda.
When Trans and gender non-binary journalists, activists, and “allies” are consistently at the vanguard of championing initiatives like hysterically demanding the censorship of Substack (and attempting to engineer a mass exodus from the platform), or agitating to have books purged from Amazon, or using the tattle-tale astroturf outfit Media Matters to pressure corporations to crack down on political speech, it is entirely fair to critically assess the ideological disposition which compels them to engage in such conduct. Unfortunately, they try to insulate themselves time and time again from any sort of critical interrogation by 1) Denying that their conduct is grounded in any discernible ideology, and 2) Interpreting any form of questioning as transphobic violence.
These activists have succeeded in getting their political and cultural prescriptions at the forefront of the national dialogue. Taking them seriously means paying serious attention to the ideological tenets on which their advocacy is based — and not capitulating to malicious and irrational attacks.