How the Gender Debate Veered Off Track

The debate unfolds between groups with different points of reference.

illustration of a human face in profile
Illustration by The Atlantic

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

What is a position that you hold––or a question that you have––about any issue related to gender identity, transgender rights, gender medicine, or any of the associated cultural debates? Also welcome: reflections on relevant personal experiences, especially from trans readers.

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Conversations of Note

I’ll go first. Trans people have rights to liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and equality under the law, same as anyone else, and ought to be treated with respect and dignity––and although those baseline convictions would preclude the passage of various laws that some anti-trans bigots favor, they don’t resolve most issues Americans are debating, a debate that is more extreme than it would be if liberal discourse norms prevailed.

Even in the best circumstances, it would be challenging to join in as passionate partisans contest questions like “How ought we to understand sex, gender, and gender identity?”; “What, if anything, should the curricula at public schools say on these subjects?”; “What’s the best way to help a child who is experiencing gender dysphoria?”; “How should sports leagues be organized with respect to sex and gender?” (a subject that is now being taken up in Congress at the behest of Republicans).

But our circumstances are not the best.

Observing the country’s major divides on gender and transgenderism, I see an issue that is as disorienting for participants and observers as any that our society confronts. Antagonists who inhabit different epistemic universes do battle each week on the internet, and merely understanding the most common perspectives can be burdensome. (If you set aside enough time to listen to this seven-episode podcast series from The Free Press and this nearly two-hour review of it on the ContraPoints YouTube channel, you’ll come away decently informed––not on all trans issues, but on the competing perspectives about how to understand the place of one author, J. K. Rowling, in the larger debate.)

Many Americans who observe the overall tenor of these online conversations are reluctant or even terrified to participate––to ask honest questions, to hazard tentative opinions, to try out arguments––because culture warriors on all sides of the issue police ever-changing taboos. Some are difficult for even the very-online to understand. For example, if a person were to say, “Sex is determined by one’s biology, while gender is a social construct,” would that be consistent with conventional wisdom, or seen as fighting words, or offensive to the left or the right, or somehow, all of the above? To merely ask others to clarify their views is to risk being castigated for “just asking questions”––internet vernacular for accusing others of bad faith that manages to stigmatize curiosity-driven dialogue––if not to be labeled as transphobic from one faction and “a groomer” from another. Little wonder that many decline to talk about the subject at all.

In theory, academic institutions are supposed to excel at truth-seeking by virtue of values and practices that prioritize it, even when the public square is full of venom or passionate intensity. But advocating for the widely held, if controversial, view that biological sex matters in gender-segregated sports recently got a woman mobbed on one California campus. To perform drag is to risk having one’s First Amendment rights violated, as happened at a Texas university last month.

Alex Byrne, a philosophy professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, laments obstacles to publishing scholarship on gender, recounting his own experience probing and positing precise definitions of women; rather than seeing the importance of viewpoint diversity for truth-seeking, he argues, some in the field aggressively chill free inquiry. Underscoring his point about ascendant taboos, a Quillette article—an attempt to set forth competing gender paradigms—was published pseudonymously by the professor who authored it. And Jesse Singal––whose work I’ve found to be consistently humane, rigorous, and unjustly maligned, even after carefully reviewing the complaints of critics who lambast him and his journalism, and who may dismiss my viewpoint merely because of our divergent evaluations of his work––ably documents troubling flaws in youth gender-medicine research. It is hard to make sense of the world when our centers of sensemaking are compromised.

Red-State Gender Politics

In a recent segment, the MSNBC host Chris Hayes characterized recent legislative pushes this way:

In March of 2023, in the last few weeks, Kentucky, Idaho, Georgia, Utah, Tennessee, Wyoming, have all passed, signed and enacted laws that outlaw drag performance, that restrict bathroom access, that restrict youth participation in athletics for trans folks, trans health care.

I mean, this has been the number one priority, I think it’s fair to say. Republican state legislators around the country, keep in mind these Republican legislators, you know, their sessions started let’s say in January. So the first thing they did more or less in a lot of these states, we’re three months in, is go after trans youth sports participation; the bathrooms that trans folks can and can’t use; drag performance; and, most crucially, trans health care.

This is a four-alarm fire. It is a complete crisis. And I think it’s an outrage, and it’s despicable. And it’s an insult to the full dignity that equal citizens in our great nation are entitled to. Whatever their lives are; whatever their gender status is … it’s an offense against the basic pluralistic values that I hold dear, and I hope we all hold dear.

He spoke with Chase Strangio, the deputy director for transgender justice with ACLU's LGBT and HIV Project, who added:

I litigate cases on behalf of trans litigants. I lobby in-state legislatures over the anti-trans bills that we’re seeing around the country. And then I live as a trans person with communities of trans people. So on every level, I feel like I’m sort of taking in the realities of what’s happening to trans communities at this moment.

I would say that in the legislative context, we are at a catastrophic point in terms [of] what we’re seeing: the volume of bills attacking the community, the subject of the bills attacking the community, and the pace at which [they’re] moving through state legislatures and being enacted into law.

A New York Times article about the same legislative push characterized it as follows: “Defeated on same-sex marriage, the religious right went searching for an issue that would re-energize supporters and donors. The campaign that followed has stunned political leaders across the spectrum.” In National Review, Madeleine Kearns counters that progressives initiated this front in the culture war, while The Economist editorializes that “the evidence to support medicalised gender transitions in adolescents is worryingly weak.” Citing that article, Judson Berger argues in National Review that conservatives can justly claim to be protecting trans kids by restricting such care, even as many LGBTQ activists insist that this same course will lead to harms including trans suicides. Like I said: the debate unfolds among participants who inhabit different epistemic universes.

Much Ado About Beer Cans

Then there’s a catastrophizing impulse among people who seem to have lost all sense of perspective. Did you hear Kid Rock was shooting his gun at Bud Light cans? At Vox, Emily Stewart explains how that improbably relates to the culture war over transgenderism:

In early April, Bud Light sent an influencer named Dylan Mulvaney a handful of beers. Mulvaney, in turn, posted a video of herself dressed like Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, using said beers to celebrate both March Madness and her first year of womanhood. One of the cans featured her image. It was part of a paid sponsorship deal and promotion for some sort of sweepstakes challenge where people can win $15,000 from Bud Light by sending in videos of themselves carrying a lot of beers.

This made some people very mad, and not because Holly Golightly wasn’t really a beer gal (her preference was the White Angel, a boozy mix of vodka and gin, which, whew). Instead, they were upset because Mulvaney is transgender.

Trans issues are currently front and center in America’s culture war. Anti-trans sentiment is sweeping many corners of the right, targeting children, drag shows, driver’s licenses, and health care, among other areas. It’s showing up in conservative media and conservative legislation and even working itself into the mainstream.

Now, Bud Light has found itself in the eye of the anti-trans storm. Kid Rock is shooting cans of the beer, and Travis Tritt says he’s banning the brand from his tour. Many on the right are calling for a boycott of the bestselling beer in the country. If this all sounds ludicrous, it’s because it kind of is.

One can find more sympathetic appraisals of the anti-Budweiser backlash. In National Review, Charles C. W. Cooke argues that when brands like Bud Light say they’re aiming to be more inclusive, as a marketing VP did in an interview that went viral during the backlash to the Mulvaney can, they aren’t using that word as most people understand it. In his telling, they’re actually using it in a way that includes only groups that are coded as culturally progressive, never groups that are coded as culturally conservative.

He writes:

I am not a habitual drinker of Bud Light, but, from my limited experience with the product, I can tell you that “uninclusive” is among the last terms that I would have used to describe it. Bud Light is the Amazon Basics of bad beer. I have drunk it on hunting trips with friends who have Second Amendment tattoos, and on the beach with friends who are gay. I’ve drunk it with Protestants and Catholics and Jews and Hindus. I’ve drunk it at football games, at baseball games, at NASCAR, and at concerts. I’ve drunk it with black friends, with Hispanic friends, and with white friends of both sexes. When Heinerscheid says that she wants Bud Light to be more “inclusive,” I must ask what that actually means? Putting the pope on Bud Light cans would be “inclusive.” Putting homeschooling parents on the cans would be “inclusive.” Putting feminists who find Dylan Mulvaney’s act infuriating on the cans would be “inclusive.” Hell, putting Old Order Amish people on the cans would be “inclusive.”

To me, regardless of the merits, getting excited or upset by the Bud Light marketing department is a fool’s errand, but in 2023 public discourse, there’s even a backlash to the backlash.

In The Advocate, John Casey writes:

Rather than come to the defense of a transgender woman, rather than defend a noble campaign that sought to reflect acceptance, and rather than let the campaign with Mulvaney speak for itself, Budweiser poured alcohol all over an extremist’s fire, and that will continue to singe our community.

Maybe the worst thing Budweiser did was leave Mulvaney all alone, twisting in the wind, abandoning any kind of defense of her. That is an utterly repugnant reflection of the brand.

Anheuser-Busch, weakly, did not stand up against hate. And while boycotts don’t work, they do make a statement. It’s not Kid Rock and Ted Nugent that should be boycotting Budweiser—it should be us.

Unless Bud has changed its formula, even pouring it over a fire would be of no great consequence.


In The Nation, Nanjala Nyabola inveighs against the material and the economic system that produced it:

Plastics are some of the most useful materials ever invented, and they are killing the planet.

Plastic is everywhere, and it perfectly encapsulates the notion that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Whether you are reading this on your phone or on your computer, you are handling the material. If you brushed your teeth this morning, odds are both your toothbrush and toothpaste contained plastic. Almost all artificial fabrics are made from plastic or its derivatives, including those presented as ethical alternatives like many kinds of vegan leather. If you are a person who menstruates, it is probably in the materials that you are using to manage that. That durability and malleability at relatively low prices is precisely what makes it dangerous to the natural environment. We consume it unthinkingly and in absurd volumes because the cost of accessing it is so low—yet it can last in the environment for hundreds of years.

The problem of plastic encapsulates everything that is wrong with whatever international order exists today. We miscalculate its balance sheet of utility because we don’t account properly for harms that cannot be easily measured in money. Decisions that look cheap on the surface look a lot different if we used a longer time horizon or stopped assuming that the planet has an infinite capacity to absorb human excess. Regions that are the most responsible for causing the problem are working hard to reallocate its consequences to other parts of the world. There would perhaps be greater cooperation if there weren’t deliberate choices taken to keep people oblivious to the scale of the problem. Companies happily brand materials like single-use water bottles as recyclable, knowing that even the most efficient recycling system cannot keep up with the rate at which they are consumed.

Although I share the author’s concerns about plastic in particular, and our general ability to consider all the negative externalities of our actions, I do not believe those problems are unique to capitalism––a point most persuasively illustrated by reading up on similar problems in noncapitalist systems.

Art, Morality, and Beauty

At The Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz argues that it’s okay to like complicated art by problematic artists:

We’re at the point when we could use a little more of the art-for-art’s-sake spirit; could let ourselves luxuriate in sensuality, beauty, and form; should offer more resistance to the pressure to find and deliver socially useful messages. I look back with a certain chagrin at how, as a young critic, I delighted in bucking my high-minded education by hunting down traces of a writer’s mixed motives, bad faith, petty and not so petty obfuscations in his writing. I took hubristic pride in my gotcha criticism and my eagle eye. But what used to feel subversive now feels like an imperative: Either scan the text for signs of immorality or be suspected of reactionary tendencies. You were hoping for aesthetic transport? Back to the consciousness-raising session with you!

She concludes with a warning from Oscar Wilde about the consequences of a world where morality somehow triumphs over art: “Art will become sterile, and Beauty will pass away from the land.”

Provocation of the Week

Gerard Baker, editor at large of The Wall Street Journal, praises anti-discrimination while denouncing a new aristocracy of elite progressive manners that he perceives as newly ascendant:

The past 50 years have been marked by the genuine eradication of barriers to opportunity for the underprivileged regardless of ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation or anything else. This is how we were genuinely starting to fulfill the promise of equality. But the cultural revolution that began in the past decade is re-erecting those barriers and creating new elite power structures, elevated not by talent or hard work, but, curiously, by membership of the self-approved class, signaled by the right luxury beliefs and articulated by the right “inclusive” language.

Adrian Wooldridge, who has written a book on the rise of meritocracy, frames this in a recent article in the Spectator. The left, he says, is “creating a new social order based on virtue, rather than ability.”

Bear with me because I am going to extrapolate from these baneful developments to a much larger worry about the geopolitical conditions we confront. As we survey the competition between global civilizations in the multipolar world we now inhabit, we see that the West is challenged as it hasn’t been in centuries. It’s axiomatic that a rising China and perhaps other powers look like formidable contenders for global leadership—with implications for our own security and prosperity.

But if we are losing that struggle, it isn’t because of the superiority of authoritarian, communist or autocratic systems. We know that liberal capitalism has done more for human prosperity, health and freedom than any other economic or political system.

If we are losing, it is because we are losing our soul, our sense of purpose as a society, our identity as a civilization. We in the West are in the grip of an ideology that disowns our genius, denounces our success, disdains merit, elevates victimhood, embraces societal self-loathing and enforces it all in a web of exclusionary and authoritarian rules, large and small.

That’s all for this week––see you on Monday.

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