Another Side of the Gender Debate

Readers weigh in once more on a challenging cultural conversation.

illustration of a face
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

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.

This is another installment of reader responses on transgender issues. If you missed part one, it’s here.

Olive is a college student in Florida:

It feels like every day it becomes less safe for me to be trans in public. One of my trans friends is moving away for their own safety. As such, I’ve grown to have a lot of very strong opinions on this subject. One is related to sports, where people often cry that “biological sex” is what matters and that fairness should trump all. However, “biological sex” is not nearly as binary as people believe it to be. Many trans people have been treated medically for a long time and are in most ways indistinguishable from cisgender people. While the chromosomes remain different, they are not an advantage in sports.

Many physical traits are an advantage, yes, but these differences exist anyway! It is unfair to say that a trans woman has an advantage simply by being trans because it makes her tall, only to turn around and say that Michael Phelps should be allowed to compete when he has a biological advantage much more relevant than the one that most trans women have. Sports already select for those most fit to play them physically, be that the tallest or the ones with the most testosterone or the ones with the best relative wingspan.

Limiting people’s sports participation based on one trait that, while seemingly correlated with athletic performance, is in many ways irrelevant in a lot of trans people, does much more harm than goodFor example, it opens the question of how to check if an athlete is trans in the first place. Cisgender women athletes have already come under fire for having too much natural testosterone, with titles even stripped away. What are schools supposed to do? Genital inspections? It’s madness to say that this ideal of “fairness” is so important that children’s genitals should potentially be inspected for the sake of protecting it.

Lynne’s perspective changed after her child transitioned:

A few years ago, I’d have described transgender people as a small minority of men suffering from a rare and difficult dysphoria. I would have said they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and permitted whatever medical treatment they desire. During the pandemic, my adult daughter declared herself transgender, and now my answer is more complicated.

Many people assume that parents who question their child’s trans identity are doing so because they don’t accept trans people. In reality, many of us are questioning it because we have seen drastic changes in our child’s personality after they declare a trans identity. This includes extreme sensitivity to criticism, worsening anxiety and depression, and a complete withdrawal from the family. These changes are occurring regardless of whether the family is accepting of the child’s new identity.

Last year I joined a support group for parents of youth with rapid onset gender dysphoria. Within the group, all of us are well educated, nonreligious, middle-to-upper-middle class, and progressive politically. We all harbor suspicions about the origins of our kids’ trans identities. Most of us have biological daughters who suddenly declared themselves “trans” between April 2021 and September 2021, after increased use of social media. All of us desire a relationship with our trans-identified kids; most of us have been cut off by them. Some of us don’t know if our adult children are now homeless. I have been living with that uncertainty for two years now, and it’s excruciating.

I find solace in writers like StoicMom on Substack. At work, I have to keep my pain a secret lest I be seen as critical of the rainbow community. Having studied ideological movements back in graduate school, I believe that the current trans movement is a decentralized extremist ideology. The difference is that people are expected to object when their child joins an extremist group, but asking why a child suddenly wants to change their name and harm their own body is seen as cause for estrangement and social rejection. Ideological movements dissipate as the culture shifts, and so will the current trans movement. Until then, many young people and their families will have suffered tremendous physical and emotional harm.

Stephen wrote that “dealing with my transgender daughter’s name change was, in some ways, more difficult than dealing with her gender change.” He explained:

She asked us to start using her new name before she had really come out as trans to anyone else, so we were supposed to use it in some contexts but not in others. But eventually she was ready to go public.

I’m a Latter-Day Saint, so when my daughter was born, I gave her her initial name as part of a blessing at church. I wanted to mark this new change with the same kind of weight. So, we gathered with family and friends at a nice restaurant. After the eating wound down, I got everyone’s attention. Then I held up a handkerchief-size prayer flag an artist friend had made for the occasion that had my daughter’s previous name on it. I said, “This is the name we’ve known [previous name] by for 16 years. We’ve called him by it for as long as he’s been alive. It’s a name that has a lot of love attached to it. It carries memories that we treasure. It’s a precious name to us. I’ll pass this flag around the table. As you receive it, hold it a moment and say [previous name] for the last time.”

When the prayer flag got back to me, I folded it carefully and gave it to my wife. Then I took out the flag with my daughter’s new name on it and held it up. “This is her new name,” I said. “It is a name she chose herself. It is the name that our love will now be attached to. It is the name that will gather precious memories around it. It is the name that will evoke her face, personality, and soul. I will pass this flag around the table. As you receive it, hold it a moment, and say her new name.” When the flag got back to me, I presented it to my daughter. I don’t know how anyone else remembers that little ritual, but I treasure it, because it gave me a way to bless my daughter’s passage into her new life.

Anonymous wanted their name withheld for fear of professional repercussions:

I completed two years of a clinical-psych Ph.D. program, did psychological evaluations for eight years, and am working on my dissertation in psychology. On trans issues, there is such a desperate need for research by impartial researchers with no agenda to get an accurate idea of what is happening, yet in the current climate that research will never happen. Researchers taking the issue on would also have to be able to tolerate sustained public vilification and social-media harassment from both sides of the debate, which is traumatizing and can be dangerous for individuals and their families. It also makes it impossible to find out what the average trans person thinks about trans activists and what their actual concerns and beliefs are. This would greatly inform public debate.

Matt is frustrated that “concern, confusion, and legitimate questions get conflated with hate, and it all gets labeled ‘violence,’ ‘genocide,’ etc., which alienates the people with concerns and questions.” He shared an opinion that he feels unable to express to his friends and colleagues:

Here goes: “Nonbinary” as an identity category is inherently anti-feminist. Feminists have fought for centuries to expand cultural notions of womanhood (and, by extension, manhood) precisely so that individuals could cross beyond binary notions of gendered behavior, presentation, aspiration, and more. To break out of that binary only to reject the labels of “man” or “woman” serves only to reify those regressive and restrictive notions of gender by implying that, if you transcend them, you are no longer a man or woman but something entirely different.

I work in a progressive industry where marginalization and oppression function as capital, and “nonbinary” is the new marginal category. But unlike being Black, female, gay, or disabled, non-binary status can seem like it’s opt-in. You announce you’re nonbinary and change your email signature to say “he/they” and you’ve conferred upon yourself a status at no real risk to yourself—in theory, you can simply abandon the transgressive they for the safety of he as it suits you.

A.N. offers “a few comments from a (mildly, nonbinary) trans perspective”:

People need to realize that for some of us, this is an existential issue where our vital interests are at stake and, in some cases, under attack. The “fight or flight” instinct may be a factor in the tone of commentary on trans issues from trans people.

A lot of commentary is problematically focused on whether transgenderism is compatible with someone’s preexisting ideological or theoretical commitments about gender. A friend once tried to convince me that an argument by a philosopher proves that transgenderism is impossible. But theory has to bend to reality, not vice versa. Reality-based discussions of trans issues begin with talking to real-life trans people and clinicians who work with them and have learned how transgenderism presents in the concrete. Transgenderism is not a political statement but a complicated issue that can destroy someone’s life if handled badly. Grasp the reality, and theory will fall into place.

Jaleelah considers critiques of gender-affirming medical care in the context of the health-care system:

The media coverage of transition care feels disproportionate, and it feels demeaning when public figures suggest that trans health care is the serious threat to young females. Every woman I know has had a negative experience with the health-care system. Many (but not all) of their experiences are tied to female reproductive issues.

I know women who have been denied pain management for IUD procedures and women whose polycystic ovarian syndrome went undiagnosed for years because doctors thought they were exaggerating their pain. I know women who were thrown on birth control at age 13 (after very few tests and conversations) because their doctors couldn't be bothered to look into what was actually wrong with them. (If we want to talk about hormonal treatments being forced onto naive children, birth control should be our first conversation.)

Large newspapers publish many articles about gender clinics that affect—at most—0.2 percent of children in the United States. I’m not arguing that reporters shouldn’t cover the issue, and I’m not arguing that anyone who approaches clinical practices critically is acting out of malice. It is important to continue researching gender care, because I want all children to receive the best possible treatments. I just wish the same amount of skepticism and critique was applied to medical practices that have harmed legions of my female friends and family members.

Mike asks, “How do we teach kids about gender, a social construct that is rooted in ever-changing cultural mores?”

He writes:

The oft-cited “Genderbread Person,” an infographic sometimes used to explain gender diversity to children, includes spectra of masculine and feminine gender expression, which it defines as our "actions, dress, and demeanor," as well as how people might perceive us based on gender norms. These "norms" can vary by era, geography, class, ethnicity, and more—and the locus of identity isn't just claimed to be personal, but affected by what others observe, assume, and even expect. In short, this model empowers the norms that we have worked so hard to dismantle!

One’s “actions, dress, and demeanor” shouldn’t need to have any relationship to one’s sex: Girls don't have to wear skirts and boys don't have to like aggressive sports. Girls can get really angry, and boys can cry—and often. We're becoming increasingly quick to label these behaviors as possible signs of being transgender, and worse, suggesting to young people that these characteristics might be indicators of some kind of identity category. In reality, we can let most of this be and let children be themselves without the need to help crystallize a specific gender identity.

I think about myself sometimes: What behavior do I exhibit that intrinsically makes me a man instead of a woman? At one point in time, I might have said weightlifting or consuming protein powder or wearing a jacket and tie, but I now realize how horribly sexist that all is. The answer is “truly nothing.” There is no demeanor or affect I possess that defines me as a man.

What I do know is that I feel at home in my body, and that what discomfort I’ve experienced hasn't been dysphoria. We need to support young people who are experiencing dysphoria with their sex, and the flurry of bills that are blocking trans kids from the care they need is profoundly un-American. I’m not sure what is actually productive to teach kids beyond the idea that one’s sex should have no bearing on how one lives one’s happiest life—along with, eventually, the truth that some people do not feel at home in the body they were born into and experience life as the opposite sex. Yes, we need to be attentive to when these feelings might arise in kids. But to preempt them too much with arbitrary gender frameworks risks tossing out all of the liberational progress that truly makes us—as the old TV special proclaimed—“free to be you and me.”

Troy is a gay man in his 50s who worries about homophobia:

I have always been supportive of trans people, and have always had a huge respect for gender nonconformity. What your gender is should have no control over your interests, career, or fashion choices. Where queer gender ideology has lost me is in the insistence that when a small child says they think they are the opposite sex, it is transphobic to ask them why.  

Not asking why is deeply homophobic.

When, for example, a little boy says he might be a girl, asking why might reveal that he is trying to find his place and has decided, because of a lack of role models, that his love for stereotypically girl things means he’s a girl. All it takes to resolve that confusion is to tell him that boys can totally like those things. Being assured from an early age that it is okay to like cooking or knitting, or that having a lot of emotions is okay (or, for girls, that it’s okay to like cars and sports and hate hard-to-manage hairstyles) is where well-adjusted gay kids come from. If trans activists take that conversation away, is there a future for being gay? What happens when well-meaning parents are encouraged to assume their sensitive boys and sports-loving girls are trans rather than just gay? Will there even be gay people in 20 years?

As queer gender ideology becomes hegemonic on the left, I am more and more sympathetic to the view that in the LGBTIQA+ community, the QA+ activists are out to eradicate the LGB folks (though contrary to LGB activists, I think trans folks are caught in the middle rather than being on the other side.) Hopefully I am wrong, but I don’t see the path forward that includes gay people right now.

Thank you for all the emails on this subject from all perspectives. We will revisit aspects of the discussion in the future. For now, I’d add my own perspective on the part of this topic I’m most certain about—that efforts by politicians to deprive trans adults of the liberty to live as they see fit and to get the medical care they desire are an affront to those most sacred rights of the American creed: the rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Be good to one another. And have a great week.