Right-thinking Americans, until very recently, tended to believe that heated arguments over transgenderism were a peculiarly British phenomenon. While the UK had been inexplicably captured by anti-trans bigots, and the country become a “Terf Island”, Americans had largely accepted that the struggle for transgender equality was, in Joe Biden’s words, “the civil rights issue of our time”. Unreconstructed transphobes might lurk on Substack and in GOP-controlled state legislatures, but they could safely be dismissed as cranks, their bills met with massive economic punishment, and their books deplatformed from Amazon.
That all changed last month, when a series of high-profile stories swept trans issues into the national spotlight, starting with the victory of transgender swimmer Lia Thomas at the NCAA women’s swimming championship. Although Thomas was, for the most part, lauded by the press, the victory was accompanied by protests, complaints from the parents of other competitors, and a string of anonymous tabloid leaks from Thomas’s teammates — at least some of whom seemed opposed to her presence on the team.
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The pictures of the broad-shouldered, 6’1” Thomas towering over her competitors, were striking. Long-winded explanations about the role of testosterone in athletic performance aside, it was hard for the average person to conclude she hadn’t had a competitive advantage.
Then, later the same month, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Act into law. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill was vociferously opposed by the White House, much of the media, and major corporations such as Disney and Apple; it prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity from preschool to third grade — roughly ages four to nine — and requires that parents be notified about any medical or mental-health issues with their children. Prominent liberals were scathing, with Biden denouncing the law as “hateful”, Pete Buttigieg’s husband warning that it will “kill kids”, and the hosts of the Oscars chanting the word “gay” in protest. The Right, meanwhile, has launched itself into a frenzy, accusing Democrats of wanting to “groom” children and insinuating that opponents of the law are pedophiles.
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It is no coincidence that both pillars of the current trans controversies relate to education. A leitmotif of the post-pandemic world has been parental rebellion against progressive excesses in schools and instruction on issues such as race and gender. Remote schooling allowed parents to peek into their children’s classrooms, where they saw elementary schoolers being instructed to rank themselves on an intersectional privilege hierarchy and to celebrate the “black communism” of Angela Davis.
Republicans, sensing opportunity, have embraced the parental crusade with anti-CRT bills, curriculum transparency bills, and, in some states, new restrictions on trans athletes and “gender-affirming” medical procedures. They are responding to the fact that the woke extremism popular with professional educators is deeply unpopular with voters. Indeed, wokeness in general is unpopular, and “educators”, as a class, are something like the Salafists of social justice. This is a specific instance of a general problem for the Democrats: its professional and leadership class is fond of social positions that strike a lot of ordinary people as wacky or perverse.
Democrats, however, have fallen into what Ruy Teixeira calls the “Fox News fallacy” — the idea that if Republicans are complaining about something, it must be made up. On CRT, for instance, they have used the unconvincing defence that CRT is only taught in law schools and dismissed parental concerns as a product of “disinformation.”
Similarly, they have cast the Parental Rights in Education Act as a homophobic attempt to “force kids back into the closet” and prevent gay teachers from discussing their home life in the classroom — when, in fact the main concern of the bill is gender identity. The strategy, as Leor Sapir has argued, has been to make the debate over the law a debate over gay rights — which are supported by the vast majority of Americans — while dodging the much more contentious issue of whether, and how, schools should be teaching about gender.
This is no idle concern. What evidence we do have suggests that paediatric gender dysphoria is rising at a rate that would be almost impossible to explain purely as a result of greater acceptance or diagnostic sophistication. One clinic in Northern California reported an 500% increase in paediatric referrals for gender dysphoria between 2015 and 2018, while in Sweden, gender dysphoria diagnoses among teenage girls rose by over 1,500% between 2008 and 2018.
Some researchers, such as Brown University’s Lisa Littman, have argued that this rapid increase is consistent with other social contagions such as anorexia or cutting. This suggests that many children are adopting these identities due to peer influences and social media consumption rather than a stable and deeply felt sense of dysphoria. But if these messages are reinforced at school, they may be more likely to stick. This is a particularly explosive issue given that schools have encouraged children to socially transition without notifying their parents, and some states, such as California, consider failure to affirm a child’s gender identity as grounds for stripping a parent of custody rights.
Although Littman’s work has been denounced as “misinformation”, it has received support from a number of “detransitioners” who have gone public with their stories. Their stories, on the whole, follow a pattern: a girl who is struggling with an unrelated mental health issue such as anxiety or depression falls down an Internet rabbit-hole, where she learns she is unhappy because she was born in the “wrong body”. She visits a psychiatrist who, instead of interrogating her feelings, “affirms” that she is actually a boy and sets them on the road to medical transition.
Only later, sometimes after painful surgeries, do the girls realise that whatever was bothering them was not gender dysphoria but another unresolved psychological issue. They are left wondering why the adults in their lives allowed them to damage their bodies in the name of what they later come to believe was a delusion. Due in part to stories like these — and to the lack of solid evidence in favour of “gender-affirming” care — a number of European countries have begun to discourage medical interventions for youth gender dysphoria in favour of psychotherapy.
The Biden administration’s great strength so far has been its ability to recognise when the preferences of the Twitter class are deeply out of step with those of the public and then side with the public. Here, it has done the opposite. Last week, in response to the Florida and two recent Arizona laws (one banning biological males from girls’ sports, the other banning medical transitions for minors), the administration announced that it would be expanding its interpretation of Title IX — a federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in education — to include protections for gender identity.
The full implications of the move are unclear, but they could include denying federal education funds to states that bar trans athletes from girls’ sports. Separately, the Justice Department warned states that any attempt to limit access to “gender-affirming” care for children could be in violation of the Constitution and federal civil rights law.
Biden may be miscalculating. Americans are by and large tolerant of differences and tend to take a laissez-faire attitude when it comes to how individuals choose to live their own lives. But they also have a basic sense of fair play and proportion. Majorities oppose laws, such as Arizona’s, prohibiting “gender-transition related medical care for minors”, presumably because they seem to legislate individual medical decisions. But a solid majority believe that trans athletes should compete on teams that match their birth sex, and polling suggests that even a majority of Florida Democrats supports the language of the Parental Rights in Education Act.
In short, Americans tend to support trans rights when they are analogous to gay rights, meaning when they are seen as a simple matter of accepting those who are different. But they are more sceptical of the maximalist positions pushed by elite progressives — that the Lia Thomases of the world should be permitted to compete as women, or that schools should be allowed to facilitate major medical decisions for children without parental notification or consent.
By picking a national fight over these issues, the Biden administration risks stepping into a trap it has so far avoided: siding with the common sense of college-educated progressives against the common sense of the electorate as a whole. For a GOP attempting to rebrand itself as the party of ordinary people, this could be a blessing in disguise.