People are Drawing Bad Conclusions From the Gay Rights Fights of the 2000s
Stupid lessons from a stupid time
Arguments over transgender issues are heating up. This month, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) organized two open letters to the New York Times criticizing the paper’s coverage of trans issues. One letter accused the Times of “[following] the lead of far-right hate groups”, which is like accusing Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of promoting a toxic culture of jock masculinity. The Times — to its credit — stood firm, offering the charmingly retro explanation that journalism and activism are two different things. GLAAD responded by politely and respectfully calling the Times an ignorant bunch of bigots who are putting children at risk.
If you printed out the vile and/or deeply stupid tweets about this episode, they would stretch from here to Saturn. I’ve learned to ignore those tweets, much like I’ve learned to ignore the fact that if an asteroid targets Earth, our current plan is to shake our fists at it while it destroys us — you just have to mentally wave some stuff away. But one tweet from a generally sane account caught my attention.
I normally see eye-to-eye with the Neoliberal account; they usually tweet the revolution-through-congestion-pricing type content that butters my muffin. But here, the accountwas saying that the liberal journalists in this kerfuffle — which include Emily Bazelon, Jon Chait, and Jesse Singal — were repeating a mistake from the 2000s. By which I assume they mean the mistake of trying to carve out an in-between position on gay marriage instead of just supporting gay marriage.
I’ve been thinking about how we arrived at this moment in the transgender debate. I think the 2000s have a lot to do with it; I think the gay rights side was so decisively victorious in those fights that people assume that pattern will repeat itself with any and all transgender issues. Personally, I’m not so sure. I think the 2000s have tricked a lot of well-meaning people into taking maximalist positions on transgender issues that might not age well.
In 2004, Massachusetts became the first US state to legalize gay marriage. It happened on my birthday, though I don’t think it had anything to do with me. I suppose it’s possible that the Massachusetts Supreme Court knew that I was, at that time, in a train wreck of an opposite-sex marriage, and they chose that day for their ruling in order to send a message saying “Just FYI Maurer: You have options.” But that seems unlikely.
I supported gay marriage back then (and I still do). The question seemed obvious to me; I never saw any reason why the state should stand between a union of two consenting adults. Conservatives struggled to explain how gay marriage threatened straight marriage, but I felt that their argument never amounted to anything more than frantic hand-waving. Plus, my personal experience supported my intuition that straight marriage was not under threat; when my hetero marriage exploded into a brilliant ball of shit, the gays had nothing to do with it.
I spent the summer of 2004 living in Chicago and making phone calls in support of an up-and-coming Illinois Senate candidate whose name — if I remember correctly — was Beefsteak O’Blammo (or something similar). The main thing I learned from those calls was that America was not ready to embrace gay marriage. I was calling registered Democrats, and they frequently told me that they opposed gay marriage and wanted State Senator O’Blammo to do the same. And at that point, it was my turn to do some frantic hand-waving: “He doesn’t support gay marriage!” I would explain. “Though he has considered that perhaps civil unions…whuh oh, you’re breaking up — TCCCCZZZZ! BSSSSHHSSCCHH! Darn this unreliable 2004 cell phone connection! Anyway, don’t forget to vote!” That was my go-to move.
That fall, conservatives got constitutional amendments banning gay marriage on the ballot in 13 states. They won in all 13. Oregon — a state that’s gayer than the Bravo prime-time lineup — passed the measure by a 57-43 margin. This was part of a streak in which anti-gay marriage ballot amendments won 31 times in a row. Some people think that John Kerry would have won if not for those ballot measures, though when an election is that close, it’s easy to say “if not for the ballot measures” or “if not for so many photos of him looking like a weirdo in ways that are hard to describe.”
After this Chris Rock-esque public smackdown, most liberals learned to prevaricate on gay marriage. The standard liberal response when someone asked about gay marriage became:
Mutter something about civil unions;
Look for an open window or elevator shaft to jump down;
If none were available, fake a heart attack.
The polling from that time appears to capture how spooked liberals were — I think that the five-point drop in support for gay marriage between 2004 and 2005 is liberals saying “I would never support gay marriage!!! Who told you that?!?!? SLANDER!!!! I support a completely different and intellectually distinguishable thing called civil unions!!!”
This was more-or-less President O’Blammo’s position when he took office. But then a miracle happened: Public opinion turned sharply in favor of gay marriage. Here’s the rest of the graph that I unceremoniously chopped off above:
In 2012, President O’Blammo’s position on gay marriage “evolved”. It was the least-surprising twist since the reveal that the little girl in George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky wasn’t actually there (no “spoiler alert” necessary because it’s completely fucking obvious). In an amazing coincidence, the president’s evolution occurred at the exact moment when support for gay marriage was becoming a majority opinion.
You can debate the ethics of the liberal obfuscation of the time. The case for hewing a middle line on gay marriage is that it helped Democrats win elections, and those Democrats appointed and confirmed two Supreme Court Justices who cast the votes that legalized gay marriage. The case against it is that you should say what you believe, and if no-one has the courage to voice unpopular opinions, then progress will grind to a halt.
People who voiced the unpopular opinion in the 2000s took a position that aged well. If you spent the 2000s saying “I support gay marriage, no ifs, ands, or buts,” then you were on the right side of history. And I think the lesson many people took from that era is: “The maximalist position is the correct one.” Because in that situation, it certainly was. If you signed onto GLAAD and Human Rights Campaign’s top-line agenda circa 2004 — which would have been all about gay marriage — then today, you look like a visionary. It was the right bet back then, and I think some of the people who still back everything GLAAD and HRC do have basically left their chips on the same spot on the roulette wheel and said “let it ride”.
Maybe history will prove them right. Or maybe things are different this time.
At least one thing is different. I know that I speak for myself and many other liberals of that era when I say: When I hemmed and hawed about gay marriage and tried to steer the conversation towards civil unions, I was bullshitting. I supported gay marriage, but I knew that the word “marriage” was toxic, so I spouted some claptrap about civil unions, a tactic whose main asset was that nobody knew what the fuck I was talking about.
This time, my discomfort with some of what activists are calling for is principled, not strategic. I don’t work in politics anymore, and I don’t even know what the politically savvy move on many of these issues would be. Furthermore, in my current field — entertainment — the career-advancing move would be to enthusiastically back GLAAD no matter what; if GLAAD announced plans to launch seniors into the Grand Canyon, then I should head to Arizona with a catapult and a “fly granny, fly” t-shirt. At this point, the only reason for me to contradict the maximalist position is that I think that position is flawed.
The issue that led to the Times uproar is treatment of minors with gender dysphoria. Two things are unquestionably true: 1) Some teens lead happier, more fulfilled lives after transitioning genders; and 2) Some teens are misdiagnosed by hack clinicians and rushed into transitions that they later regret. The entire debate among fair-minded people is how we can ensure that more young people make the decision that’s right for them.
GLAAD parked a billboard in front of the New York Times’ office with a sentence highlighted in red: “The science is settled.” That is objectively false. Reviews of care for gender dysphoric youth in Sweden, Finland, and the UK led to shifts away from the type of care that is common in the US. Two of the Times articles that were the subject of GLAAD’s ire were about contentious debates within the medical community; for all of GLAAD’s quibbles with the articles, they didn’t — couldn’t — say that the disagreements simply didn’t happen. Evidence for some of the treatments given to gender dysphoric youth remains thin. Just last week, BMJ published an account of the decidedly unsettled state of the science. I’ll concede that science can, in a practical sense, be basically settled; we are, for example, pretty damned sure that rocks exist. But best practices in the relatively new field of youth gender medicine are still being hammered out, and to argue otherwise is a lie.
Attempts by GLAAD and other activists to call anyone who points this out a TERF and a transphobe make me more apprehensive than I would otherwise be. This is a “what is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?” situation — declaring any inquest into this area of medicine verboten makes me wonder what a closer look might find. If trans youth medicine is a well-oiled machine, then wouldn’t an inquest from Emily Bazelon — nobody’s idea of a conservative hack — be welcome? And when did the American left develop such abiding faith in the for-profit medical system? The joke in the Last Week Tonight writers’ room was that every piece ended with “we need more regulation and oversight” — you can find that opinion in relation to medicine, specifically in this piece, this piece, this piece, this piece, this piece, this piece, this piece, this piece, this piece, and this piece. But apparently, youth gender medicine is the one corner of American medicine where everything is absolutely peachy-keen. And to even wonder if that might not be true makes you a bigot.
I know a few of the people who signed the contributors’ letter to the Times. They are — to a person — folks I consider good people. They’re also roughly my age — they came of age in a time when the heuristic “do whatever GLAAD says” would have served them very well. It may have been a while since they reevaluated their opinion of the organization. And, at the risk of being condescending, I think that they probably just don’t know what happened in Finland, Sweden, and the UK. This is partly because many left-wing media popularizers seem determined to keep those situations out of the dialogue. They also might not know that the population of teenagers seeking gender conversion has radically changed in the past few years. If you exist in a media and cultural bubble in which the soundness of youth gender medicine is as well-established as gravity, then it would seem strange for the Times to publish articles suggesting that maybe the issue is not so settled, after all.
A lot has changed since the 2000s. Today, no person on Earth knows a single phone number. You will no longer be ostracized for failing to rewind a video tape. The “cell phones give you brain tumors” problem has either been solved or we decided that we just don’t care — I’m honestly not sure which. Many aspects of our world would be unrecognizable to our younger selves.
Acceptance of gender non-conformity has undergone a revolution. Support for gay marriage now stands at 71 percent and growing. 64 percent of Americans say that transgender people should be protected from discrimination, and great news: They are, indeed, protected by the law. These realities were as unthinkable in the 2000s as Donald Trump becoming president or a moody reboot of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
In my opinion, these gains are some of the most important progress society has made in my lifetime. And more progress remains to be made. But it doesn’t follow that anything that any transgender activist calls for is part of a righteous crusade that will be embraced by history. There is — there logically must be — something activists could ask for that is a bad idea. Personally, I think that an embargo on coverage of youth gender medicine that strays from GLAAD talking points is in that category. I might be wrong (TM), but I do genuinely believe that. So, if I’m making a mistake, then I’m making an entirely different mistake than the one I made in the 2000s.
The Neoliberal account is run by several people, which is why I refer to it as “the account”.
When you write "teenagers seeking gender conversion", you are closer to the mark than you may realise. GLAAD and its sister organisations have become the exponents of what is essentially a religious movement, and those they label "TERFs" are either heretics or blasphemers.
Once-reasonable people such as Dan Savage have been hoodwinked by this movement into a false sense of solidarity, since gay people were often falsely accused of the very things that trans activists are brazenly doing -- namely targeting children across a broad cultural front for ideological indoctrination, from Drag Queen Story Hour to queer pole dancing to gender theory lessons implicitly and sometimes explicitly elaborated on Cartoon Network shows to schools colluding with young children to hide new pronouns and clothes from their parents.
Each of these things is either ignored or downplayed by the Dan Savages and Freddie deBoers of the world, people who are obviously well-meaning and otherwise-intelligent but who do not see how deeply theological and misguided and damaging this movement has become, specifically as it intersects with children and pedagogy. These things are either not happening because they resemble conservative hysterics from the early aughts, or they are happening and it is good because children should be able to learn queer people exist and if those children weren't destined to be trans themselves there is no danger to exposing them to graduate-level gender theory as presented by ideologues clearly hungry for converts.
Back in the bad old days when gay people were persecuted in the West, gay kids had to worry about conservative parents kicking them out or carting them off to some kooky Bible camp; these days, parents have to worry that their children are being recruited into a cult that will convince them their parents hate them if those parents don't instantly adopt new names and pronouns their children announce to them, and where the state can take those kids away if the parents don't comply, and where the children are locked into a lifetime of drugs and surgeries in the pursuit of an unobtainable miracle. The gay kids themselves must contend with a movement that tells them homosexuality is unnatural; that instead of being same-sex attracted, they have a mismatched gendered soul, and they will have to spend the rest of their lives changing their bodies to match that soul's expression.
This is an unacceptable and unstable state of affairs. I do not know what comes next, but I do not think it will be the best thing for families, for gay kids, or for kids who feel weird about being a boy or a girl.
Great post. For decades, political strategists will study how trans rights activists convinced loads of well-meaning Democrats that this is “just like gay rights” when it’s completely different and arguably hostile to the gay community.
Most of the gender non-conforming children who get hormones, and later surgery, would have grown up to be gay. Sometimes, they transition because of homophobia. For a while, I didn't believe it -- but I’ve now seen multiple cases where conservative parents tried to quash “effeminate” behavior in their young sons, and when it didn’t work, they decided to transition the child. And as a lesbian, it breaks my heart to see a huge increase in young girls thinking they’re boys because they don’t conform to regressive gender stereotypes (and/or because female puberty is awful).
When your child says “I’m gay,” acceptance is the right answer 100% of the time. Your child might change his or her mind one day, but you can’t go wrong by saying “That’s great! I support you.”
When a child says “I’m trans,” parents need to be much more cautious. Affirmation and social transition are hugely consequential interventions that quickly lead to puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, surgery, infertility, lifelong medical needs, and countless risks (loss of sexual function, surgery complications, increased risk of cardiac issues, significantly worse mental health outcomes….) The detransitioners who regret these interventions speak for themselves.
Even in the best case scenario, with no complications or regrets, these individuals will spend the rest of their lives staking their mental health and wellbeing on everyone else going along, and validating something we all know to be false. Some older trans individuals seem to have a healthy self-perception grounded in reality, but the new ideology teaches people they’re *literally* the opposite sex, setting them up for a lifetime of insecurity and disappointment.
Yet, parents aren’t supposed to say “hang on, let’s talk about this” before getting on board. They’re supposed to be indifferent to whether their child goes down this path or not, because it’s all valid and wonderful.
It’s not transphobic to have concerns. As more people become aware of what is happening, they are realizing that this isn’t simply the “next gay rights” and that it’s much more complicated, which is why activists are so desperate to shut down debate.