merican history tells a story of rights and recognition extended to formerly excluded people. Going back to the 19th century, movements of the peripheral and the persecuted have risen up, won emancipation, and eventually had their struggles memorialized in the national story. For good and ill, the Founders bequeathed us a regime capable of absorbing a tremendous amount of social change without altering the fundamental constitutional structure.
But these things take time. It took a bloody civil war to abolish slavery, but de jure racial apartheid persisted for another century after Appomattox. Forty-six years separated the Stonewall Riots in 1969 from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision, which asserted a right to gay marriage in the Constitution.
Compared with those examples, acceptance of the transgender movement is proceeding at meteoric speed. Transgenderism has moved swiftly from the margins of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to the forefront of public consciousness. In just a few short years, mainstream institutions have come to accept, in toto, the transgender movement’s claims. States and the federal government under President Obama harmonized public-accommodations rules with the goals of the movement. Many Americans are celebrating this as the latest civil-rights cause, while others have found themselves going along, not least because any challenge to those claims is all but certain to invite the fury of an energetic activist class.
Hang on a minute.
The trans movement is asking Americans to accept and indeed to make their lives and their perceptions of reality conform to a set of extraordinary ideas based on very little debate. These claims are often put forth in the language of psychiatry and psychology, and they implicate the lives of real people, many of whom suffer genuine, sometimes unbearable anguish. Which good American can say no to the cries of a suffering minority, especially when they are amplified by scientific authority?
The science isn’t there yet, in point of fact. The case for accepting and advancing the cause of transgenderism is, at root, a radical philosophical argument—one that goes to the heart of what it means to be human. Accepting the trans movement’s argument requires us to lend credence to an extreme form of mind-matter dualism, and involves severing the links between bodily sex, gender identity, and erotic desire.
But first: What do the activists claim? If there is one unshakeable tenet, it is that gender identity and expression—a person’s self-concept as a gendered being and how that person outwardly manifests it—are different from the sex organs that have distinguished male from female since the emergence of the species. They argue that while a physician might “assign” a sex to a newborn, that label may well be at odds with the baby’s true gender. As the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) puts it in a guide for journalists, a transgender person is one “whose sex assigned at birth is different from who they know they are on the inside.” The term applies to those who are assigned the male sex at birth but whose innate sense tells them they are women, and vice versa. It also includes those “who do not fit in the distinct and opposite binary of male and female.”
The possession of sex organs has thus been deemed factually irrelevant. Instead, gender identity is based in the innate sense of the person himself or herself. A transgender woman is a woman, and a transgender man is a man—period, the activists say. Here is the HRC: “Contrasting transgender people with ‘real’ or ‘biological’ men and women is a false comparison. They are real men and women, and doing so contributes to the inaccurate perception that transgender people are being deceptive when, in fact, they are being authentic and courageous.”1 Thus, according to the activists, transitioning—whether by medical or social means or both—isn’t a process of becoming but of living out who transgender people really are.
This view of subjective gender identity as the unimpeachable guide to whether someone is male or female (or both or neither) has gained currency among some clinicians. In his book When Harry Became Sally, the Heritage Foundation scholar Ryan T. Anderson quotes the Duke University pediatrician Deanna Adkins to the effect that “it is counter to medical science to use chromosomes, hormones, internal reproductive organs, external genitalia, or secondary sex characteristics to override gender identity for the purposes of classifying someone as male or female.” I will return to these assertions shortly. For now, it suffices to note that the activists aren’t entirely wrong when they boast that their claims enjoy broad support among psychiatrists and psychologists.
At the same time, the activists hold—and this is their second major tenet—that gender itself is largely a social construct, since it is society that labels various traits or characteristics “masculine” or “feminine.” In a pamphlet addressed to loved ones of transgender people, the advocacy group Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, defines gender as “a set of social, psychological, or emotional traits, often influenced by societal expectations, that classify an individual as male, female, a mixture of both, or neither.” Gender identity and expression, therefore, are infinitely fluid and plastic, subject to change over time, and existing on a spectrum that encompasses “a whole range of identities,” per PFLAG.
The third tenet is that gender identity and sexual desire have nothing to do with each other. According to a model school-district transgender policy drawn up by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, sexual orientation is “a person’s romantic and/or physical attraction to people of the same or opposite gender or other genders. Transgender and gender nonconforming people may have any sexual orientation.” PFLAG likewise bifurcates gender identity and sexual preference: “It is important to note that gender identity neither relates to, nor determines, sexual orientation….People who are transgender can also identify as gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, or queer.” The “focus” of transgender people’s decision to transition isn’t sexual orientation but gender identity. “Their internal sense of gender does not correspond with their biological sex, regardless of their attraction to other people.”
Now we have the necessary elements to put together the vision of the human person offered by the trans movement. Each person has a strong innate sense of gender that, according to the activists, may or may not align with his or her physical sex. When the two don’t align, we are dealing, in essence, with brains or minds that are trapped in bodies with the wrong sex organs.2 It is incumbent on the rest of us, then, to recognize the “true” self that is so trapped and help it break free from the prison of the body.
This is a profoundly metaphysical, even spiritual, vision.
As the Princeton philosopher Robert George has written, today’s trans activists hold “an understanding of the human being—an anthropology—that sharply divides the material or bodily, on the one hand, and the spiritual or mental, on the other.” And more than that, they posit that the mind is superior to the body—a radical but logical extension of Rene Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am.” For their part, both George and Anderson characterize the trans anthropology as a contemporary version of Gnosticism, the ancient Christian heresy. But it is also a postmodern anthropology, in that it is on a warpath against traditional sexual categories as well as objectively knowable truth. The trapped mind, the activists say, trumps the Book of Genesis and modern biology. Can it?
Let us focus on the latter. Biological science tells us that sexual differentiation among human beings starts at the chromosomal level—X and Y. It is present at the moment of conception. The sex binary, in other words, is literally written into our code. A minuscule number of unfortunates are born with disorders of sexual development (intersex people and the like). But as Anderson argues, these cases are no more an argument against the essential nature and function of human sexuality—reproduction—than congenital heart disease is an argument against the essential function of the cardiovascular system.
How can a mind or a brain defy these iron laws? Or how can a mind know intimately a state of being of which it has never had bodily experience? How can a male be a female from birth, or know he is female from birth, when he has no knowledge at birth of what a female is? This is the metaphysical leap transgender theory asks us to make—that we can know something that is entirely external to our bodies, our experience, and our knowledge.
Trans activists and their medical allies point to some cross-gender features in the brains of transgender people to suggest that being transgender has neurobiological roots. Yet there is scant empirical evidence for this. Surveying the literature, Lawrence Mayer and Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins University noted in a 2016 study published in the New Atlantis that there is, at best, “inconclusive evidence and mixed findings regarding the brains of transgender adults.” They add that “there are no serial, longitudinal, or prospective studies looking at the brains of cross-gender identifying children who develop to later identify as transgender adults.”
The studies that do identify a brain connection tend to suffer from small sample sizes, the absence of control groups, and other methodological defects, according to Mayer and McHugh.3 Then, too, they rarely take into account neuroplasticity—the possibility that transgender people’s brains differ from those of people of their own biological sex precisely because they have spent years thinking and acting in cross-gender ways, not the other way around. In the absence of rigorously designed, long-term studies, Mayer and McHugh concluded, it is difficult to posit “causal relationships between brain morphology, or functional activity, and the later development of gender identity different from biological sex.”
That leaves the door open to psychological or psychosocial theories of the transgender condition. Only, the activist movement hounds anyone who questions the trapped-in-the-wrong-body theory or who puts forward alternative explanations for why some people change their gender.
hat is what happened to J. Michael Bailey. Once an academic superstar, the uber-liberal researcher lost his psychology-department chair at Northwestern University and was turned into a professional pariah after activists raised a firestorm over claims he made in his 2003 book, The Man Who Would Be Queen. The book’s thesis was that, at least in some cases, transgender identity and sexual preference are intimately linked. “One cannot understand transsexualism without studying transsexuals’ sexuality,” began the paragraph that landed Bailey in hot water. “Transsexuals lead remarkable sex lives. Those who love men become women to attract them. Those who love women become the women they love.”4
Bailey’s book drew on the work of Ray Blanchard, a Canadian-American sexuality researcher after whom Blanchard’s transsexualism typology is named. Blanchardians hold that there are, in fact, two groups of male-to-female transgender people, distinguished by their objects of desire. One set consists of the “extremely feminine gay men” (Bailey), who struggle to succeed as men in a sexual market that prizes masculinity. They transition because they believe, not without reason, that they are more likely to attract sexual partners as “women.”
The others, known as autogynephiles, are less concerned with attracting partners, because their “attraction is to the women that they would become,” according to Bailey. As boys, autogynephiles exhibit sex-typical male behaviors. When they grow up, they take on masculine careers, marry, and have children. But around puberty, they begin secretly cross-dressing and masturbating, an encounter with the “woman” in the mirror that redirects their heterosexuality—away from real women and toward themselves. Some take their obsession no further than cross-dressing. Others transition and take on new personas, such as “Caitlyn Jenner.”
You can see why this theory would enrage transgender activists. It implies that a subset of trans people is motivated by sexually opportunistic, if rational, reasons to alter their bodies. And it characterizes others as victims of disordered heterosexuality. Though it may appear bizarre at first glance, the Blanchardian approach is far more intuitive than the trans orthodoxy, which has little to say about the sex lives of transgender people. Blanchard’s typology, moreover, continues to be subjected to the rigors of empirical testing, and it holds up.
A study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2009 compared “lifetime transvestic fetishism”—cross-dressing accompanied by arousal—among transgender people who identified as homosexual versus those who identified as heterosexual. It found that 81.7 percent of the heterosexuals reported lifetime transvestic fetishism, compared with only 23 percent of homosexuals.5 The same journal in 2011 reported that two MRI studies have confirmed Blanchard’s hypothesis that there would be cross-sex features at the level of brain anatomy among homosexual transsexuals “but not among heterosexual male-to-female transsexuals.”6
The Blanchardians have less to say about female-to-male transgender people. There is probably no female equivalent of autogynephilia. They have argued, however, that most female-to-male transsexuals are homosexual women, who, for various reasons, not all of them having to do with attracting partners, conclude that they would function better as “men.” But one needn’t accept everything that the Blanchardians say to agree that sexuality has something to do with why trans people transition.
Yet sexual desire is the factor that is missing from all mainstream-media accounts of the trans experience. This is what struck me most forcefully when I interviewed trans people and immersed myself in the online chat rooms where they socialize, commiserate, argue, boast, and try to find love.
ubscribed to by more than 16,000 users, the chat room “Girls Like Us” is one of several such salons catering to male-to-female transgender people. Judging by the active users, the vast majority are African-American and male-to-female. Blanchard and Bailey would say that these are mainly homosexual transsexuals. On any given day, the participants post flattering selfies of themselves, solicit potential clients, share beauty advice, and poke fun—sometimes gently, often maliciously—at themselves and others.
The main motif is the elusive dream of straight male partners and the living nightmare of “chasers.” Chasers are men who obsessively seek out male-to-females, especially those who retain their male apparatus. Most chasers identify as straight, and many offer to “top,” meaning to assume the dominant position in intercourse. But the male-to-females of “Girls Like Us” think they deceive themselves. “Every single admirer or tranny chaser I have met wanted c—k,” says Rachel,7
no exception. Even the ones who claimed to be ‘strictly top,’ sooner or later, wanted d—k. When I confronted them, they told me ‘if it wasn’t for the d—k, why would I be attracted to a t-girl?’ I tell them, if I wanted to f—k a chaser in the ass or if I wanted to use my d—k, I would have stayed gay.
Rachel’s complaint encapsulates the link between being transgender and sexual desire. She has made a rational choice not to “stay” a gay man, but she has yet to secure the obscure object of desire: a man who wants her as a woman. Ronda comments: “I agree, it’s been hard to find a guy to take serious for me, cause they all seem to want”—here she inserts a graphic “emoji” of an eggplant.
Those comments obviously come from male-to-females who have chosen to delay sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) or to not undergo it altogether. Yet those who have still confront the same problem. Says Rayna: “I had SRS…. That being said, if you get SRS, tranny chasers will still want you for your c—k, if you are not 100% passable.” Nicole responds: “It’s true. I’m post. It’s no easier dating with a vagina.” The users of “Girls Like Us” have an itch they can never scratch: They wish desperately to leave the homosexual world behind, but homosexuality clings to them in the form of biological men, gay or straight, who lust after them for their male aspects.
Many female-to-male trans people face a similar problem. They gripe about it daily on “Female-to-Male Some Rules,” an online salon with nearly 20,000 subscribers. The difference is that, like other lesbians, female-to-males are much more likely to be involved in monogamous, long-term relationships or to be seeking them (sexual promiscuity being much more common among men of whatever sexual orientation). Writes Isaac:
What do you do if your partner is only attracted to the things about your body that make you dysphoric? My girlfriend is really into about every part of me that captures my body’s femininity, and kind of ignores/avoids/never compliments my more masculine features. Examples: my large breasts, wide hips, chubby cheeks, drastic curves, but not my thicker body hair, my muscles, my broad shoulders, etc.
Most of the users on “FTM Some Rules” have undergone testosterone treatment and completed “top surgery”—usually, a mastectomy and male-chest contouring. But many of them forgo phalloplasty, since medical science has yet to perfect the construction of artificial penises. Writes Norman: “Why the f—k is it so difficult to get a date? I’m legitimately not a crazy person. I am pretty normal. I am funny, caring, romantic. Yet because I don’t have a penis no one will give me a chance.” Norman’s selfie shows him with broad shoulders and a full if wispy goatee. Outwardly, he is as passable as female-to-males come. But alas, those features, without more, don’t suffice to attract women.
The agonizing truth rears its head once more: A subset of transgender people consists of homosexuals struggling to leave homosexuality behind. Again, one needn’t agree with Bailey that Eros—whether homosexual desire or inwardly directed heterosexuality—is the only factor that drives people to cross the gender binary. But it is clearly a factor, as logic, common sense, and observation testify. The fact that the trans movement so vehemently denies this idea and targets its proponents for personal destruction suggests that we should press the “pause” button before adopting its agenda in its entirety. At the very least, we could use more scientific research in this area, free from bullying and intimidation.
f the trans movement is right that transgender people are trapped in the wrong bodies, then transitioning socially and surgically should bring them clarity and confidence. The work being done to break down the male–female binary and the effort to introduce dozens of new “genders” into our understanding should allow Americans of whatever gender identity and sexual orientation to live more authentic lives, free from old stereotypes and the need to constantly define and redefine themselves against masculine and feminine ideals. But neither is the case today.
For transgender people, the human body remains the ultimate barrier. The obstinate husk, with its intricately connected organs and systems, refuses to give in. A vagina-like opening and canal carved out of a penis is not a vagina, because it is not integrated into a reproductive system. Ditto for mastectomies and chest-contouring for female-to-males. Even with rigorous hormone therapy and the most skillfull surgeries, the perfect simulacrum falls short of the original, with all its imperfections.
Trans people themselves are more acutely aware of all this than any social conservative. On “Girls Like Us,” Kerry writes: “Don’t forget to humble yourself today, because you still fell out your mother’s p—y with a twig and two berries, no matter how fishy you ho’s think you are.” “Fish” is the term male-to-females use to refer to biological women. To look “fishy” is the highest compliment among them. Sophia says: “Having a fake p—y will not make it better. . . . Can’t give your so-called man real kids.”
Allison posts a picture of a brick wall, with fish carved into each brick, writing: “A lot of hoes that think you are ‘fish’”—meaning that, in her view, many male-to-females imagine they are real women, or close to real women, when, in fact, they are unpassable “bricks.” Phoenix comments: “At the end of the day you still are and always will be a man, sista.”
The users at “FTM Some Rules” aren’t nearly as vicious as the “Girls Like Us” crowd can be, but they, too, disclose their doubts about who counts as a “real” man. Many post selfies to the group, demanding affirmation, or voicing frustration with the slow pace of physical change on testosterone. Chris shares his interior dialogue with testosterone, the hormone he has started to inject weekly, to register his anger at the failure to grow a beard where he most wants one:
ME: I really wish I could grow a beard sooner.
T: Throws a bunch of hair on my neck.
ME: Yeah, that’s totally what I meant.
Steven has been taking testosterone much longer—10 years—yet he, too, has beard troubles: “Was secretly hoping I’d wake up with a full beard from the power of a decade, but it just didn’t happen. Still have a sasquatch ballzac [sic] on my chin.” His selfie doesn’t lie.
Eli says: “I hate that my voice makes everyone immediately think female. Seriously considering going mute until voice changes. Shoot me.” Then there is the shortcoming “down there,” which many female-to-males address by “packing” their underwear with pouches that resemble male organs. Many users at FTM Some Rules report that these products, no matter how well made or expensive, don’t relieve their dysphoria or the sense that an organ is missing.
Try as they might, the trans men are haunted by the femininity of their bodies, and the women by the masculinity of theirs. Mind cannot overcome matter—at least, not in these cases.
s for the rest of us, the collapse, or near collapse, of the gender binary has wrought confusion and repression. Mayer and McHugh, the Johns Hopkins researchers, describe the state of affairs well. As gender is unmoored from its natural roots, they warn, it “could come to refer to any distinctions in behavior, biological attributes, or psychological traits, and each person could have a gender defined by the unique combination of characteristics the person possesses.” Just so.
Spend a little time surfing the social-media platform Tumblr, and you might learn that you are “pyroshift gender,” defined as a “gender that acts as a flame. It can flicker to feeling varying degrees of masculine or feminine for short periods of time, yet it generally settles right back down into a neutral, burning, and calm state.” Or you might decide that you are “visigender,” which means that your gender “is best described using images, visual aids, etc., as you are unable to put it into words due to neurodivergence.” Or you might be “mascuflux”—“your masculinity shifts during days/weeks/hours. On one day you could feel like a boy. Another day you could feel agender, and another somewhere in between.” There are hundreds more of the kind, each more hair-splittingly particular than the next.
Even many trans people roll their eyes at these newfangled categories. They have a nickname for those who adopt them—“gender trenders.” These are mostly upscale, college-age women who have latched on to transgender identity as it has gathered social prestige. As Donald, a 25-year-old who has fully transitioned from female to male, told me, “There is an issue with people glamorizing being trans. As being gay or bi has become more accepted, you have these people who aren’t really dysphoric, but they really just want to dress the part and have this aesthetic.”
One irony is that, by elevating gender identity to a sacred status, the trans movement has made it harder for young people to set themselves apart. For many high-school and college students, “gender” is now the primary source of symbols and ideas. It is also, along with race, the only available idiom for expressing the angst and alienation that have accompanied young people since time immemorial.
Then, too, the trans movement has breathed new life into the gender stereotypes it supposedly set out to dismantle. Today’s activists delight in quoting Judith Butler and other radical feminists, who teach that gender is a “performative” charade. Yet the trans movement has ended up restaging that charade and imbued it with existential and even ontological significance. The feminine mystique has returned among the male-to-females in the form of platform heels, coiffured ’dos, French-manicured nails, hourglass curves, and exaggerated affect. Old-school masculinity has returned among the female-to-males in the form of lumberjack beards and burly bodies (albeit, sans penis). Though they now appear as simulacra, “man” and “woman” retain all their magic power.
Divorcing gender and sexuality also breeds confusion. As we have seen, modern psychology has produced a body of evidence showing that the male-to-female trans world is composed of two sets of people. There are those who are attracted to men, transition relatively early in their lives, and successfully present as female. And there are those who are attracted to the image or idea of themselves as women but tend to make the transition later and often present less successfully as women. The dividing line between these two groups is sexual orientation. The first group wants to attract men. The second group is concerned with reaffirming their feeling that there is a woman within—and it is that woman within to whom they are primarily attracted. This is the key insight of the Blanchardians, and their findings can’t easily be dismissed, not least because empirical studies continue to affirm various elements of the basic typology.
Sexuality is a bodily experience. It stretches credulity to suggest that a trans person’s decision to alter his or her sexed body has nothing to do with what he or she wishes to do with that body—and whom he or she wishes to attract. Yet, as with gender itself, the trans activists treat sexual desire as an abstract and disembodied thing. They therefore struggle to explain, for example, why it is that a majority of autogynephilic male-to-female transsexuals—those who, according to Blanchard and his followers, are attracted to the “women inside”—experiences arousal from cross-dressing, while most homosexual transsexuals do not.
The activists and their academic allies throw up a host of often tendentious objections to the Blanchardians. They argue, for example, that correlation—between sexual orientation and trans type—is not causation. That is true enough. But rather than seek to achieve a fuller understanding of the correlation through additional research, they try to shut down debate by claiming that concepts such as autogynephilia and transvestic fetishism are stigmatizing and disrespectful. Once more, we are asked to believe that the subjective reports of trans people about their identities and desires trump all. We don’t treat any other psychological condition this way.
Now, even if desire is the primary cause of transgenderism, it may still be the case that transitioning is the best medical treatment for some people who suffer acute emotional distress from the feeling of being trapped in the wrong body, though the jury is still out on this question. Blanchard, Bailey, and like-minded psychologists and clinicians actually favor transitioning in appropriate cases. Indeed, Blanchard himself worked for years as a gatekeeper—the term for a medical professional who approves sex-reassignment surgeries. We shouldn’t, however, make the vast logical, scientific, and metaphysical leaps demanded by the activists and remake our whole gender world when so many profound and complex questions remain unanswered.
urs is an age racked by anxiety about truth and post-truth. The trans movement’s insistence on the anti-desire orthodoxy is yet another example of the postmodern effort to hinder our ability to perceive and speak the truth. We are told that we must resist the rise of a new class of politician, exemplified by Donald Trump, who has little regard for the facts and, when it serves his needs, doesn’t hesitate to inject falsehoods and conspiracy theories into the public square. Yet many of the same people insist that castration is a gender affirmation and that Caitlyn Jenner was never a man. What is more post-truth than this? Americans owe it to transgender people to treat them with compassion. But compassion must be anchored in truth.
1 This view represents a shift for the HRC, which as recently as a decade ago still acknowledged that gender dysphoria is a “disorder” of the mind.
2 How the mind came to this innate gender identity when, according to the activists, gender is a malleable social construct, is a contradiction that the trans movement has yet to resolve.
3 Mayer’s and McHugh’s concerns about inadequate medical research into the transgender phenomenon can’t be overstated. All absolute claims about transgender people, such as the ones put forth by the activists, should be taken with a large chunk of salt, simply because the available scientific research is new and tentative.
4 Note Bailey’s use of the term “transsexual,” which is now quasi-verboten, since it doesn’t capture those transgender people who don’t permanently change their bodies with hormones and/or surgery. I use it when discussing Bailey’s and Blanchard’s theories.
5 Blanchard and Bailey would likely argue, however, that even the 81.7-percent figure underestimates the rate of fetishistic transvestitism among the autogynephiles, since these patients have a tendency toward “memory distortion” after they transition. As Bailey told an interviewer in 2015, “they begin to assert that their gender dysphoria began in early childhood and was far more overt than they had alleged before. They also deemphasize the erotic component, even if they admitted it before. I think they do this for at least two reasons: shame (because: sex is involved) and the desire to believe they really have the brains of women.” The media’s preference for the brain-trapped-in-the-wrong-body narrative may impel the autogynephiles to adopt it.
6 Bear in mind, however, that the same caveat about neuroplasticity would apply here. It could well be that the brains of homosexual transsexuals show cross-sex (female) features because they, unlike autogynephiles, have thought and acted in feminine ways from a very young age. The cross-sex features in brain anatomy, in other words, could be an effect, not a cause, of homosexual transsexuality.
7 Although “Girls Like Us” is a public group, meaning that anyone can join, I have changed names in every instance and carefully scrubbed all other identifying information to protect the users’ privacy.