Readers go back and forth regarding the best ways to address the contentious politics surrounding bathrooms and other areas of transgender rights and identity. To join in, especially if you’re transgender yourself or a conservative critic, please send a note to email@example.com.
Trans issues are not a left/right issue. They are a human issue. The suggestion by your reader that Caitlyn Jenner is part of “the left” is totally absurd. Her first pick in this election season was Ted Cruz. And “the left” is not broadly making spiritual claims in favor of trans rights. In fact, the mainstream left arguments all tend to come back to “born this way” narratives about being trans having a biological basis, which the evidence suggests it does. Caitlyn Jenner is an individual human being describing her own experience. She happens to be trans and quite conservative.
It is not unusual for trans people to talk about our lives this way; I certainly do. Trans people are not part of some anti-religion communist conspiracy. Many of us are religious, just like many non-trans people. A trans person sharing their perception of God’s will in their lives is no different from a person who says “I think it was God’s plan for me to fall in love with this person/pursue this career path/etc.”
As for circular definitions of the word “woman,” that’s not on trans people or our allies; it’s a flawed concept to start with.
There is tremendous sexual and gender diversity in our species. There is no single biological measure than can be used to define a woman or man. It’s more like a messy venn diagram.
Intersex conditions are way more common that people think. Many people deviate from the male/female binary in our textbooks, from birth or from a later point. If one really scrutinizes it and goes looking for “man-ness” or “woman-ness,” one finds that nothing—not hormones, not chromosomes, not genitalia, not gonads, and certainly not any personality trait—is actually a completely reliable sure thing.
Gender is a social structure overlaid onto the spectrum of biological sexual difference. There is excellent reason to think our brains play key roles in how we navigate this system, as described in the articles you linked to. Some people just don’t fit the box, whether that be trans people, intersex people, gay, lesbian and bisexual people, and other folks, too.
Can you have compassion for us, and allow us to participate fully in our communities? Or do you care more about pink and blue divisions than you care about human beings?
Perhaps a bit of my own story would helpful here. I was not that kid who could say at age 3, “I’m supposed to be a boy.” I was that kid who was severely depressed by the time I started kindergarten. I suffered under the fog of clinical depression every day of my life from age 5 until I finally began to express my male self, a process when I was 17-22 years old.
Fifteen years is a lot of life to waste to misery. I remember being 5 or 6 and screaming at my mother till my voice went hoarse: “I hate you and I wish I had never been born.” This was a nightly occurrence for long stretches of my childhood. I truly wished I did not exist and I blamed my mother for giving me life.
I did not realize at the time that it had to do with gender. What I realized was that there was something profoundly, permanently wrong with me. It felt like everyone else could see it, but I could never put my finger on what it was.
Finally, in my late teens, after a lot of support from therapy, antidepressants, my family, my religion, and good friends, I somehow found the wherewithal to face it. I began allowing myself to wear the masculine clothing I had always secretly wanted, I cut my hair short, I took on a gender-neutral nickname. It was like I’d had a dull headache my entire life and it was suddenly gone.
Bit by bit, I grew up into a man. I knew hope for the first time in my life. I became able to imagine myself getting married, having a family, growing older, being someone.
Today it’s been some ten years since I first allowed myself to express my masculinity and more than six since my social, legal, and medical transition. I have an ordinary life. I am happier than I ever thought possible. It is no understatement to say that transition saved my life.
This week at the Aspen Ideas Festival (which The Atlantic is covering at length), Caitlyn Jenner made an appearance with her memoirist, Buzz Bissinger, who asked her the question, “What has it been like to finally reach your soul?” Jenner’s response:
“This is how I explain myself,” [Jenner] said. “God’s looking down and he’s making little Bruce. He said, ‘What are we gonna do with this one? Let’s give him good looks, make him intelligent, make him athletic, that’s kind of cool. Let’s make him really athletic—that’s even cooler.’ He gets to the end and goes, ‘Look at all these wonderful qualities we’ve given this one. But everybody’s got their stuff, what are we going to give this one to deal with?’ He sits back, chuckles, and says, ‘Let’s give this one the soul of a female and see what happens.’”
A reader responds to that personal parable:
This discussion is so weird for the left to be having. On the one hand, they can’t explain transgenderism biologically. Someone who is physically male, with male chromosomes, and male sex organs is, by definition, “male.” Yet they also proclaim that “nothing is ‘wrong’ or ‘abnormal’” with transgenderism. To them it cannot be a mental health issue. So if it can’t be a biological issue, nor a mental health issue, then it’s a “spiritual issue.”
And, hot damn, that’s a really odd position for the left to take. What the left is essentially arguing, unbeknownst to them, is that a person’s “soul” doesn’t fit their biological state. Not a “mental soul” or a “brain state” but a true “spiritual self.” The left is arguing in favor of religion, they don’t even realize they are doing it.
(For Jenner’s part, she is not exactly of the left; she’s outspoken as a Republican and has said better things about Trump and Cruz than Hillary Clinton.) Another reader also sees a religious parallel in the rhetoric:
No one is able to define the word “woman” in this context without resorting to metaphysical jargon (“female soul”) or a circular definition (“a woman is anyone who identifies as a woman”). People can and should do whatever they want to be happy, but I do not support crafting legislation and public policy around such an irrational concept and forcing the general public to accept it as truth (see the Obama administration’s recent guidelines regarding the definition of the term “sex” as it applies to Title IX). It is nonsense, no different from those who base their political ideology on religion.
“Trans people have brains that are different from males and females, a unique kind of brain,” [Antonio Guillamon of the National Distance Education University in Madrid] says. “It is simplistic to say that a female-to-male transgender person is a female trapped in a male body. It’s not because they have a male brain but a transsexual brain.”
And here’s a Wall Street Journal item looking through more brain science, concluding that “sometimes people are born with bodies whose gender is different from what they actually are.”
I was a longtime subscriber and sometimes contributor to The Dish, so it’s nice to see you up and running again with all this bloggy goodness. Anyway, as this debate (if it really can properly be called one) about restrictions on transgender bathroom use goes on and on, I’ve had a question that I’ve not yet seen addressed.
From what I understand, this [North Carolina] legislation seems to be provoked primarily by the concern that someone with a penis will end up in a women’s bathroom and commit an act of sexual assault, and that they will have gotten the right to use this bathroom on the basis of a real or malingered transgender identity. And, because you can’t convincingly know someone else’s experience, it seems like the legislation being passed is primarily aimed at the issue of someone with a penis being in a women’s bathroom.
Now, as things currently stand, yes, it’s possible that an individual who identifies as a woman will still have male genitalia, and in choosing to use a woman’s restroom will create a situation in which one room is playing host to people with both male and female genitalia. That said, these laws, as currently constructed (i.e. the idea that one must use the bathroom designated by their sex as determined by birth certificate), ensure this will happen for some percentage of people regardless, based on reassignment surgery.
Different states have different rules about whether, how, and in what circumstances sex can be altered on a birth certificate, and I would imagine the states proposing these laws are likely less accommodating on that front. Since people are, in fact, getting reassignment surgery across the country, one can imagine a scenario in which a transgender man who has received surgery and as such has male genitalia, who identifies as a heterosexual man, would be forced to use a women’s bathroom AS A RESULT OF THESE LAWS.
Essentially, these laws, because of the lack of understanding of issues of gender and sexual identity on the part of the people writing them, create exactly the “nightmare scenario” (a sexually interested member of the opposite sex in a bathroom with “our women”) they’re intending to forestall. Does anyone else find that kind of funny, or just me?
The reader makes a good point, showing the incoherence of a lot of these bathroom bills. But reassignment surgery or not, genitalia is rarely seen in public restrooms anyway, primarily due to stalls, so the much more visible—and thus disruptive—factor is hair and clothing. A transgender woman, conventionally dressed as a woman, perhaps in a dress, is a startling sight in a men’s bathroom if the law forces her to use the bathroom of the gender on her birth certificate (male). If that person got hormone and reassignment surgery, providing her breasts and female genitalia, that would still be much less of a visible factor than feminine clothing, hair, and makeup.
Locker rooms, however, are a different story; people in them change clothes in front of other people or take showers nearby, and both activities involve full or partial nudity. Transgender individuals with genitalia different than everyone else in the locker room are far more noticeable than transgender individuals using a bathroom stall. Would the presence of a transgender guy with breasts and female genitalia showering in a guy’s locker room, for example, increase the likelihood of sexual or nonsexual assault? That’s one of the tricky questions that doesn’t seem relevant to the bathroom bills.
Do you have any thoughts along these lines—the differences between bathrooms and locker rooms—or about the transgender debate in general? Drop us a note. By this point there are countless Atlantic pieces to use as a reference point, but Emma’s recent essay, “America’s Profound Gender Anxiety,” has a lot of things to grab on to. One commenter on her piece, a self-described progressive, makes an essential point about the political debate right now:
The T has always rested uneasily with the L and G in GLBT. Gays and lesbians tend to be—whether they realize it or not—pretty gender essentialist. It’s a not well-kept secret in the “movement,” and it's an issue of long standing. The T for transgender as currently being dogmatized by academics is nothing like the T for transvestite, which actually plays ON gender essentialism and evaporates with the New Transgenderism.
The New Yorker’s Michelle Goldberg has a must-read essay about that long-standing tension over gender essentialism, “What Is a Woman? The dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism.” Emma’s reader also makes this meta point: “The problem with epistemic bubbles today is that if people read their opponents, it’s mostly to confirm themselves in their Right-Thinking (TM), instead of actually considering that their own arguments may not be as persuasive as they realized.” So if you’re interested in popping these bubbles, away from the epistemic closure of the comments section and social media, please let us know.
Last week, Vox’s Emmett Rensin wrote a blistering critique called “The Smug Style in American Liberalism.” Whatever you think of the essay’s merits, Vox deserves a lot of respect for running it, since Rensin implicitly casts criticism on the left-leaning explainer site:
Elites, real elites, might recognize one another by their superior knowledge. The smug recognize one another by their mutual knowing.
Knowing, for example, that the Founding Fathers were all secular deists. Knowing that you’re actually, like, 30 times more likely to shoot yourself than an intruder. Knowing that those fools out in Kansas are voting against their own self-interest and that the trouble is Kansas doesn’t know any better. Knowing all the jokes that signal this knowledge.
The studies, about Daily Show viewers and better-sized amygdalae, are knowing. It is the smug style’s first premise: a politics defined by a command of the Correct Facts and signaled by an allegiance to the Correct Culture. A politics that is just the politics of smart people in command of Good Facts. A politics that insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts, the kind that keep them from “imposing their morals” like the bad guys do.
One of The Atlantic’s most frequent reader contributors, Ben Denny, highly recommends the essay and applies it to a few examples in the political discourse:
I lean pretty right, so I’ve been thinking the general uncharitably of the left for a long time. The essay mentions Jon Stewart as a driving force of the smugness movement, and I think that’s pretty on-point. Before the dominance of The Daily Show, the people I knew on the left who would make a snide, complete-sounding comment devoid of actual content and consider the argument settled were the dumb ones. During and after Stewart’s reign, though? All of them, or nearly so.
With few precious exceptions I can’t find anybody who is interested in political conversation anymore. Most of the kind of people I used to be able to have a friendly argument with are now convinced that anyone not on their side is either stupid, a bigot, or both. Many others can tell that isn’t true but can’t have the argument anyway. After being told that the other side is arguing in hateful bad faith for the majority of their adult lives, they never learned how.
A good example of this smugness in play is the common “If you are for the decent treatment of women, you are a feminist. We have a word for non-feminists: Sexists.” Let’s disregard that feminism is a giant movement with many complex offshoots advocating for any number of things ranging from reasonable to bat-shit crazy. If you don’t sign on with us, 100%, you are either a sexist or just ignorant. Maybe more soundbites will fix it.
Another decent but heavier example of how this forced “Anyone who doesn't agree with us is evil” dialogue works out can be seen in the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which would have let trans-gendered people use whichever restroom they felt comfortable with.
This would have had a positive effect for the folks for whom the law was designed, but the law was also not without potential issues. Any law that allows trans people to use whichever restroom they feel more comfortable with also allows anyone to do so, unless an arbiter of some sort is empowered to declare who is and isn’t genuinely trans. Nobody would dare do this, and as such trans is as trans says it is. Anyone could have used any bathroom, and anyone who wasn’t trans but was called on it would have had avenue to sue. It was a mess waiting to happen.
Proponents of the bill were quick to point out that trans people aren’t known for violence when using the opposite sex's bathrooms, and I agree with them on this. Even if every trans person was a celibate asexual, though, it wouldn’t matter. The danger is not from the law when used correctly, but when a poorly designed law without necessary fail-safes is abused by those it wasn’t designed for.
Proponents will be quick to point out that there’s no record of this happening, either, but laws that would allow them to do so don’t exist yet. Hunting season isn’t open yet, but I think that anybody who trusts the criminal perverts of America to do the right thing on this issue is probably a little more optimistic than reality will back up.
This isn’t to say that there weren’t hateful reasons for fighting the bill, as I’m sure there were, but every concern of any kind related to HERO was dismissed as hatred and ignorance by the act’s proponents. The narrative was quintessential smugness: Our side is 100% right, and your side is 100% hateful bigots whose opinions don’t matter.
I tried, in writing this email, to find any article that acknowledged that “the law can be abused” angle as legitimate, but I was unable to. [CB note: If you are able to, please email.] The narrative was simple: fall in line, or we will call you a bigot. When the people of Houston saw every concern—legitimate or not—hand-waved away, they rejected the bill entirely.
Is it surprising that this bill failed and that other bills are being introduced and passed to preemptively counter this “threat”? I don’t think so. I think a massive amount of Americans have come to the realization that the establishment left doesn’t accept anything but absolute party-line adherence. I think it would have been impossible for them to not notice that debate and discussion aren’t allowed anymore and that the media as a whole isn’t willing to give a fair representation to arguments that run counter to a generally socially progressive agenda, even where legitimate points of debate are to be had. Faced with the reality that they would be considered racist, bigoted homophobes unless they completely abandoned every single element of their beliefs and political convictions, massive amounts of Americans have stopped caring about any media influence’s opinions.
Everyone loses here. I don’t think any reasonable person really believes that either side of our political spectrum can be healthy without push-back from the other side; no powerful group is without its excesses, and without competition to trim them, overreaches can become dangerous. Neither side can be 100% right; we need dialogue and disagreement to refine us.
While I’d like to be glad about the current revert to the right the country is going through, I think Trump is a very good example of why I can’t be. His candidacy doesn’t happen in an idea-market where reasonable debate between people of differing party affiliations is possible, but without change I suspect our future holds more of the same. This is bad for all of us.
Disagree with Denny? Does Rensin’s essay miss the mark? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll air the strongest counterpoints. Or, if you agree with Rensin and Denny and want to highlight notable examples of the “smug style,” we’ll consider those too. (Personally I think they unfairly single out Jon Stewart, whose self-deprecating style is much less smug than, say, Bill Maher. Update: Rensin clarifies via Twitter: “For what it’s worth, I don’t think Stewart is personally smug, just that he was weaponized by Knowing.”)
The former national security adviser’s secrets are valuable, and will come at a cost.
John Bolton, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, announced the title of his forthcoming memoir last night: The Room Where It Happened, a reference to the Oval Office, the scene of some of the misdeeds he is likely to attribute to the president. (I had hoped for something jauntier, perhaps ’Stached in the Cabinet.) Accompanying that announcement was a story in The New York Times teasing readers with revelations. The most significant is that Trump allegedly conditioned his release of Ukrainian military aid not only on that country’s announcement of an investigation into Hunter and Joe Biden, but also on its release of evidence of the Biden family’s involvement in Robert Mueller’s probe. In fact, there is no such evidence, and the only people who believe that there is such evidence are wing-nut conspiracy theorists and, it seems, the president of the United States.
But unless other Democrats take a page from his book—stressing the practical over the theoretical, the universal over the particular—they won’t prevail either.
“Left but not woke”is the Bernie Sanders brand. If anybody failed to recognize it before, nobody can miss it now. Last week, the mega-podcaster Joe Rogan endorsed Sanders. The Sanders campaign tweeted a video of the Rogan endorsement from Sanders’s own account. That tweet then triggered an avalanche of disapproval from other voices in the Democratic coalition.
Rogan is not an ally to the cultural causes that have come to predominate on the contemporary left. He even mocks many of those causes, while also dancing around conspiratorial thinking of the left and right fringes: 9/11 denialism, Obama birtherism, and speculation about dark deeds concerning Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation.
The “crazy worms” remaking forests aren’t your friendly neighborhood garden worms. Then again, those aren’t so great either.
On a sweltering July day, I follow Annise Dobson down an overgrown path into the heart of Seton Falls Park. It’s a splotch of unruly forest, surrounded by the clamoring streets and cramped rowhouses of the Bronx. Broken glass, food wrappers, and condoms litter the ground. But Dobson, bounding ahead in khaki hiking pants with her blond ponytail swinging, appears unfazed. As I quickly learn, neither trash nor oppressive humidity nor ecological catastrophe can dampen her ample enthusiasm.
At the bottom of the hill, Dobson veers off the trail and stops in a shady clearing. This seems like a promising spot. She kicks away the dead oak leaves and tosses a square frame made of PVC pipe onto the damp earth. Then she unscrews a milk jug. It holds a pale yellow slurry of mustard powder and water that’s completely benign—unless you’re a worm.
Understanding the events of 1979 is crucial for those trying to figure out a better future for today’s Middle East.
What happened to us? The question haunts us in the Arab and Muslim world. We repeat it like a mantra. You will hear it from Iran to Syria, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, and in my own country, Lebanon. For us, the past is a different country, one not mired in the horrors of sectarian killings. It is a more vibrant place, without the crushing intolerance of religious zealots and seemingly endless, amorphous wars.
Though the past had coups and wars too, they were contained in time and space, and the future still held much promise. What happened to us? The question may not occur to those too young to remember a different world, whose parents did not tell them of a youth spent reciting poetry in Peshawar, debating Marxism in the bars of Beirut, or riding bicycles on the banks of the Tigris in Baghdad. The question may surprise those in the West who assume that the extremism and bloodletting of today have always been the norm.
It’s tragic that a superstar known for his thoughtfulness and willingness to learn never fully reckoned with his life’s darkest off-court episode.
Yesterday afternoon, the shocking news that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash, alongside his daughter Gianna and seven others, ripped through my social-media feeds and group texts. Like many Lakers fans, I spent the first hour stunned and mostly silent, just trying to come to grips with the unreality of the first reports. But by the time night fell, I could no longer dwell on the tragedy’s scope, the lifelong heartbreak coming to Bryant’s family and so many others, the complexity of an off-court legacy left unfinished. As was so often the case during Bryant’s tenure as basketball’s most polarizing superstar, it was easier to think about the singular virtuosic beauty of his game.
Pro basketball can sometimes seem like a contest of upper bodies. Because the spectator’s eye follows the ball, it focuses easily on the jump shooter’s clean release or the controlled violence of a tomahawk dunk. But underneath, a player’s legs are always moving, creating space for the more dazzling work of the hands. Younger players use speed to conjure up these micro-islands of space on crowded hardwood, but fast-twitch muscles fade with age. To keep scoring at will, veterans must develop deceptive footwork, and few players had craftier footwork than Bryant.
On the second day of President Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, Chief Justice John Roberts told a joke—though not intentionally. Presiding over the trial, the chief justice saw the House impeachment manager Representative Jerry Nadler snipe at the president’s defense team over the falsehoods the president’s defense lawyers had put forward, and Roberts then watched as the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, sniped right back.
Roberts then weighed in: “I think it is appropriate at this point for me to admonish both the House managers and the president’s counsel in equal terms,” he said, “to remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body.”
Roberts was being earnest. But given the Senate’s conduct over the past weeks, the only reasonable way to interpret his description of the chamber is as the bleakest of jests.
With Senator Bernie Sanders rising in the Democratic-primary polls, it is becoming not just thinkable but even plausible that the United States could, for the first time, elect a self-described socialist to the White House.
Instead of relying on the party’s graying voters, Sanders has galvanized a younger coalition by promising a profound expansion of the welfare state, which would include free health care, free college, and the elimination of outstanding student debt.
Skeptical older voters might see little here but a list of fantastical promises that are utterly out of step with American traditional and modern capitalism. Socialism remains deeply unpopular among Americans born before 1975. Even in the Democratic Party, Sanders polls 30 points better among Americans under 45 than among those over 65.
After observatories retire, they can still spend hundreds, even millions, of years trailing the Earth.
A collection of defunct spacecraft, their mission to chronicle the wonders of the universe long ended, glide silently in Earth’s vicinity. This week, NASA will turn off another, the Spitzer telescope, which has spent 16 years observing the cosmos. The telescope trails the Earth, looping around the sun, and little by little, it has drifted away from us.
The growing expanse, now hundreds of millions of miles wide, has made it trickier for engineers to operate Spitzer and point it at the right places—the sun, to charge itself; Earth, to transmit data; and the dusky universe beyond, to collect even more. So they’ve decided to junk it.
Objects in space, even very expensive, prized telescopes, are considered debris when they no longer have a purpose or function. Some, like Spitzer, were lofted into high altitudes or special orbits, and will stay out there for anywhere from hundreds to millions of years.
A regional election offers lessons on combatting the rise of the far right, both across the Continent and in the United States.
Updated at 4:55 a.m. ET on January 28, 2020.
BOLOGNA, Italy—About a week ago, 30,000 people showed up to a piazza in this elegant city, known for its porticoes and tortellini, for a free concert. The event had been organized by the Sardines, a nascent civic-minded uprising that has been holding peaceful demonstrations to contest the nativist rhetoric of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s opposition leader and the head of its right-wing League party, a man who dominates airwaves and social-media channels with his sovereignist, anti-immigrant message. The atmosphere at the concert was convivial. Many waved cardboard cutouts of fish and sang along to renditions of “Bella Ciao,” the old communist anthem.
Just the day before, in nearby Maranello, the home of the Ferrari race-car factory, Salvini himself had campaigned in front of the town’s fascist-era city hall, wearing a red Ferrari baseball cap. The League, Salvini told the crowd, is the party of moms and dads and workers, while the left wears “cashmere socks” and “sings ‘Bella Ciao’ with Rolexes on their wrists.” He said he would defend Italy’s borders with his life and “liberate” this part of the country—one of the best-run and wealthiest regions in Italy—from 70 years of left-wing rule.
The pop star’s first new song since a near-fatal overdose offers no comfort other than the mere fact of its existence.
In June of 2018, Demi Lovato did something pop stars aren’t supposed to do: tell the difficult truth. The formerDisney actor had struggled in the public eye with drug addiction, but she’d also built a narrative of overcoming that addiction, with lyrics and a documentary attesting to six years of sobriety. Then she changed the story. “We've been down this road before,” she sang on a new song, “Sober.” “I’m so sorry, I'm not sober anymore.” A month later, she was hospitalized for a near-fatal overdose.
Lovato has kept a low profile since that hospitalization, but she is back now, with a more complex message than ever before. At the Grammys on Sunday, she gave her first performance in a year and a half, and expectations might have been for a triumphant—or at least hopeful—spectacle. Lovato did deliver that, in a way. But she also did something more powerful. In the face of wrenching realities—scandalous accusations of corruption and sexual assault leveled by the former CEO of the Grammys, plus the breaking news of Kobe Bryant’s death—the awards show had wrapped itself in bland affirmations. Music is “the most healing thing in the world,” Alicia Keys said at the top of the night. But Lovato, in hugely moving style, ditched motivational pablum. She debuted a song that said that singing, in fact, would not fix everything.