What if the Standard Left-Wing Position on Trans Issues Was to Support Evidence-Based Care But Skip All the Cultish Bullshit?
Could you IMAGINE?
On Sunday, Jon Stewart trended on Twitter. That sent a chill through my bones; it was unlikely to be for anything good. Best case scenario: He died, thus curtailing his effort to squander all the good will that he earned in the first 25 years of his career. Watching Stewart’s devolution into an unfunny left-wing hack1 has been painful; he was a major influence on me, so watching his current work feels like watching Dr. Seuss make a late-career foray into rap rock. I applaud Dr. Seuss for not putting me through that; I can still read Green Eggs and Ham without having to recall the years he spent wearing a backwards baseball hat and rapping about poontang.
I was relieved to see that Stewart was trending due to a clip in which I actually thought he did pretty well. Here’s the clip: He’s interviewing Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge about a bill her state passed that outlaws prescribing hormones or puberty blockers to people under 18.
For what it’s worth, Stewart’s big Vince Carter dunking on some French dude moment — when he calls Rutledge’s 98 percent de-transition number a “made-up figure” — seems to be substantively fair. I cannot find that number anywhere. It’s not in the bill itself, it’s not in the legislative history that Rutledge cites or elsewhere on the Arkansas Legislature’s web page. I could not find that number anywhere on the internet, which is remarkable; one of the defining features of the internet age is the ability to find some crank somewhere spouting whatever number you’d like to cite. But this seems to be the exception to that rule; as far as I can tell, that number was pulled straight from Rutledge’s ass.
I have some issues with Stewart’s approach. Specifically, he plays the “science!” card a million times without seeming to know what the science is, himself. For example, he chastises Rutledge for contradicting “guidelines”, but doesn’t acknowledge that some key guidelines were written partly to discourage irresponsible prescribing of hormones and puberty blockers to minors; Stewart doesn’t mention that problem at any point in the 44-minute episode. There are also guidelines from organizations in other countries — specifically public health agencies in Sweden and the UK — that take a dimmer view of the effects of puberty blockers and hormone therapy for minors than the groups Stewart cites. Even Stewart’s preferred sources are more nuanced than he makes them sound; the Endocrine Society “suggests” — which is a weaker term of art than “recommends” — puberty blockers for minors who meet diagnostic criteria. They also rate the evidence supporting this suggestion to be “low-quality” (see page 3880 of their guidelines — two “pluses” and two “circles” means “low quality evidence” in the weird hieroglyphs of the science world). At one point, Stewart says “puberty blockers aren’t changing people permanently” — that is not something that we know. The bottom line is that we know a lot less than Stewart pretends that we do. At some point in the last five years, science became less of a systematic study of the natural world and more of a pageant in which partisan hacks trot out cherry-picked people in lab coats to say: “I affirm the thing you believe.”
But here’s another bottom line: I think that Stewart is right — the Arkansas bill is terrible. It takes what should be a personal decision between a young person and their parents — advised by medical professionals — and hands the decision-making power to the state. It’s fucked up; nobody should have the state butting into their medical decisions. Personally, the number of times I’ve had a tough medical decision to make and thought “better punt this one to the State of Arkansas” is exactly zero. The bill is old-school, moral majority “let my religion run your life” bullshit at its worst, and it precludes an option that would allow some people to live happier, more fulfilled lives.
If only things had ended there. Unfortunately, I soon learned that while left-wing Twitter was applauding Stewart for the Rutledge clip, right-wing Twitter (or at least the part of Twitter that doesn’t march in lock step with left-wing orthodoxy) was roasting Stewart for a different clip from the same episode. This one:
If that’s not Dr. Suess in a sleeveless T and a puka shell necklace rapping about wanting to get “all up in yo’ panties”, then I don’t know what is.
If I wasn’t familiar with the Twitter left’s argument in this area, then I wouldn’t know what the hell Stewart was talking about. But I am familiar with that argument (the writer may have pulled the bit straight from this Twitter thing), so I have an inkling of what he was getting at. I also watched the full episode — which was as painful as driving a railroad spike through my scrotum — so I heard Stewart’s argument in full. I feel comfortable saying that his case was identical to the standard lefty activist position on this topic. I will now try to summarize that argument, and please believe me when I say: I am going to try to recreate this argument in good faith. I am going to attempt that. But also don’t be so naïve as to assume that I’m a neutral arbiter. Anyway, here goes:
There’s sex, and then there’s gender. Sex involves biological attributes — chromosomes, hormone levels, that kind of stuff. There are anomalies in sex such as Klinefelter syndrome (chromosomes are XXY) and androgen insensitivity syndrome (the body makes testosterone but doesn’t respond to it) that make sex not completely binary. Therefore, sex is basically meaningless and can be ignored. Gender is all that matters. Gender refers to socially-constructed gender roles — playing with dolls if you’re a girl, playing with trucks if you’re a boy, that type of thing. A person chooses their gender identity, so when a person identifies with a gender, they ARE that gender, end of story.
I feel that that’s a fair summation of left-wing canon on this issue. I also feel that it’s the argument Stewart makes on his show. He spends a great deal of time on the non-binary nature of sex, and of course he’s right that sex is not completely binary. There are people who don’t fall neatly into either the “male” or “female” category. I’d also agree that people should be free to live out whatever gender expression they want.
Those parts of the argument aren’t the problem. The problem is middle part, the idea sex is a meaningless concept and gender is all that matters. Stewart doesn’t explicitly say this, but it’s definitely in there; the other parts of his argument don’t make sense without it. And that’s the concept that I think is causing all the trouble; that’s the bit of cultish nonsense that I think is ruining an otherwise winning argument.
I’m not Mr. Science; the closest I could come would be to try to be Mr. Social Science, and I know that hard science folks look at social scientists the way Green Berets look at a kid in a pillow fort playing Army Man. But through my education and associations, I’m science-adjacent enough to know that the science crowd is not running around saying: “Man? Woman? WHAT DO THESE WORDS EVEN MEAN? I can’t begin to imagine what people think they’re talking about when they use these words! This has been settled for centuries: Human identity exists on a circular spectrum that is at once totally meaningless but at the same time absolutely critical. There is no dissent about this! Am I even saying these words right? ‘Mfan?’ ‘Wo…mryan?’ I can’t get my head around these antiquated lay-person terms!”
You have to think people are awfully fucking stupid to even attempt this argument. To delude yourself into imagining that you can dismiss a basic biological concept with a bunch of pseudo-intellectual hand-waving is equal parts arrogant and obtuse. You’ll have just as much luck convincing people that slugs are the master race or that gravity is a Soros-backed conspiracy as you will that there’s absolutely no biological underpinning to the concept of “male” and “female”.
You also have to be neck deep in cultish group-think to pretend to believe such obvious bullshit. And please remember: I lived in this world, I worked in this world, I heard “gender is a social construct!” more times than I can count, I don’t think I’m misrepresenting what some people claim to believe. And of course I respect people’s extremely stupid beliefs; I grew up with people who swore that Noah’s Ark was real, I understand that you have to let people think whatever backwards claptrap they hold dear. Respecting a person’s right to believe the dumbest shit you could possibly imagine is a core American principle. So, I completely support anyone’s right to believe that “male” and “female” are nonsense concepts invented by advertising executives in the ‘50s. I just don’t believe that myself, and I don’t think that many people ever will.
The tragedy, of course, is that there’s a real issue here. Transgender people lack legal protections, and maybe even more importantly: They lack dignity and acceptance. We’re treating an aspect of the human experience as a defect, and that’s society’s problem to fix. Making it easier for trans people to live healthier, happier lives is a pressing and important project.
But I often feel that the left has chosen to fight this battle on the only terrain on which it can possibly be lost. Instead of focusing on dignity and personal liberty, we go to the mat to defend trans women’s right to compete in women’s sports, which happens to be one of the few aspects of life where biological sex really does matter. We push pseudo-scientific bullshit like the idea that uncommon genetic variations render the entire concept of sex meaningless. Observant people have noticed that the new orthodoxy blatantly contradicts other things the left believes, like the Obergefell decision and that gender roles should be deemphasized. And — crucially, from a “the goal is to improve people’s lives” standpoint — nobody is buying this crap: Here’s how the left is faring on the hot-button trans women in sports issue:
What if the left simply ditched the cultish aspects of our argument? What if we stopped demanding that people declare that sex is a meaningless concept in order to maintain their lefty cred on trans issues? What if we stopped pretending that there are no physical differences between men and women and that the only reason anyone could possibly object to trans athletes in high-level women’s sports is deep-seated bigotry? What if, instead, the argument was something like this:
There are men, and there are women. Most people fall neatly into one category or the other. But not ALL people do, and in those cases, the simple solution is for the person to choose which category they belong to (or if they belong to neither category). Some people — including minors — will pursue various forms of treatment to be the person they want to be, and we should support the choice they make consistent with evidence-based standards of medicine that we apply in all areas. There are a few uncommon circumstances in which things like bone density and hormone levels will need be taken into account, but for the most part, people should be free to live how they want to live without fear or judgment.
Maybe I’ve got Stewart’s argument completely wrong. If so, he could always correct me; he could simply say “sex is real”, or something along those lines. Not that he owes me a rebuttal; I’m just a blogger, plus the first thing you learn when you become a late night writer is that the host doesn’t answer to the likes of you.
I think that many on the left assume that trans rights will follow the same trajectory as gay rights. Which is to say: There will be stunning advances, and soon. But I think that people often forget just how good the arguments for gay rights were. The case for gay marriage drew on core liberal principles like freedom of association and equal rights. It called for gay people to be allowed access to a social institution that most people value. The argument was ultimately one that people found familiar and sound, and Americans overwhelmingly support gay marriage today.
I don’t think that the arguments made by people like Stewart on various trans issues are nearly as good. Which is not to say that good arguments don’t exist; I’m just saying that we’re not presently making them. At the moment, we’re endorsing every word that falls out of self-proclaimed activists’ mouths, no matter how ridiculous. I don’t think that’s wise; I don’t think that those arguments will lead to better, happier lives for trans people. The main thing this nonsense does is to provide fodder for Republican campaign commercials, which will lead to more people like Leslie Rutledge holding office, and one thing Jon Stewart and I seem to agree on is that that would be very bad.
He was always left-wing; he was not always a hack.