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.”)
Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser on the future of COVID-19 vaccination and how to prevent the next pandemic
A week after FDA and CDC advisory committees clashed on the nuances of when and whether to recommend COVID-19 booster shots, Anthony Fauci told my colleague Ed Yong that he still believes third doses of the mRNA vaccines are crucial, suggesting once again that they will eventually be part of a standard regimen.
As those committees deliberated, the experts considered qualitative evidence on the shots’ safety and efficacy, but also kept getting stuck on two larger conceptual questions. First: What, exactly, is the point of offering third shots? Skeptics of large-scale boosting argue that the COVID-19 vaccines were designed to prevent severe hospitalization and death, while third shots seem more likely to offer (temporary) protection against infection and mild disease. In their view, boosting wouldn’t offer any meaningful gains. “I reject that,” Fauci, who serves as Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said at The Atlantic Festival today. “I think we should be preventing people from getting sick from COVID even if they don’t wind up in the hospital.”
Justices love to proclaim their impartiality, all evidence to the contrary.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett is offended by those questioning the impartiality of the Supreme Court.
“This Court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks,” she announced at a recent event at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center, named for Senator Mitch McConnell. “Judicial philosophies are not the same as political parties.”
For Barrett to insist on her nonpartisanship at a center named for the legislator whose procedural hardball was instrumental in securing her seat suggests that, although Barrett’s peers have praised her legal mind, her sense of irony leaves something to be desired. But then, it’s not much more absurd than her colleague Justice Brett Kavanaugh insisting on his impartiality days after vowing revenge against the left while under oath. Similarly, Justice Clarence Thomas recently warned against “destroying our institutions because they don’t give us what we want, when we want it,” complaining that “the media makes it sound as though you are just always going right to your personal preference.” Next month, Thomas will give a keynote address at a symposium celebrating his years on the Court at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, alongside McConnell.
This has become a common refrain among the cautious—and it’s wrong.
For many fully vaccinated Americans, the Delta surge spoiled what should’ve been a glorious summer. Those who had cast their masks aside months ago were asked to dust them off. Many are still taking no chances. Some have even returned to all the same precautions they took before getting their shots, including avoiding the company of other fully vaccinated people.
Among this last group, a common refrain I’ve heard to justify their renewed vigilance is that “vaccinated people are just as likely to spread the coronavirus.”
This misunderstanding, born out of confusing statements from public-health authorities and misleading media headlines, is a shame. It is resulting in unnecessary fear among vaccinated people, all the while undermining the public’s understanding of the importance—and effectiveness—of getting vaccinated.
The former president could still win fair and square if Biden lets these five problems spiral.
Are constitutionally committed Americans doing all they can to prevent a pro-Trump plot to pervert the 2024 election?
But along with that question, here’s another: Are constitutionally committed Americans doing all they can to prevent Donald Trump from winning the 2024 election fair and square?
The Biden administration’s numbers are slumping in the fall of 2021, opening the way for Republican gains in 2022 and the return of the twice-impeached ex-president as a presidential nominee. The schemes and machinations of the pro-Trump movement are part of the story. But if we’re heading toward a crisis of the republic, the mistakes and misfortunes of the anti-Trump coalition deserve a mention as well.
A conversation with the former Google CEO Eric Schmidt
For years now, artificial intelligence has been hailed as both a savior and a destroyer. The technology really can make our lives easier, letting us summon our phones with a “Hey, Siri” and (more importantly) assisting doctors on the operating table. But as any science-fiction reader knows, AI is not an unmitigated good: It can be prone to the same racial biases as humans are, and, as is the case with self-driving cars, it can be forced to make murky split-second decisions that determine who lives and who dies. Like it or not, AI is only going to become an even more omnipresent force: We’re in a “watershed moment” for the technology, says Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO.
Schmidt is a longtime fixture in a tech industry that seems to constantly be in a state of upheaval. He was the first software manager at Sun Microsystems, in the 1980s, and the CEO of the former software giant Novell in the ’90s. He joined Google as CEO in 2001, then was the company’s executive chairman from 2011 until 2017. Since leaving Google, Schmidt has made AI his focus: In 2018, he wrote in The Atlantic about the need to prepare for the AI boom, along with his co-authors Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, and the MIT dean Daniel Huttenlocher. The trio have followed up that story with The Age of AI, a book about how AI will transform how we experience the world, coming out in November.
The retired quarterbacks are giving Monday Night Football a glow up. But the league need to do more than that to connect with Gen Z.
Chalk up one more anomaly to These Unprecedented Times: Something genuinely weird is happening on an NFL broadcast. For this season of its marquee Monday Night Football program, ESPN is airing an additional broadcast featuring the brothers and retired Super Bowl–winning quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning. The “Manning-cast,” as sports media have affectionately dubbed it, has the hangout feel of a Twitch stream: The Mannings break down the game as talking heads from their couches, frequently digressing at length from the on-the-field action to go deep with some football wonkery or welcome a procession of celebrity guests, including LeBron James and Charles Barkley.
If “Tampa 2” sounds more like a vacation booking than football terminology to you, the program also contains a hefty dose of what can only be described as “antics.” During last night’s broadcast, a snoozer of a game in which the Dallas Cowboys demolished the Philadelphia Eagles, Eli flipped a double bird and danced around in his socks, quoting Shakira, while Peyton sternly argued in real time with a notorious Twitter troll. In the three short weeks the Manning-cast has been on the air (seven more episodes are slotted for the rest of the season), Eli’s home fire alarm has interrupted a broadcast, Peyton has struggled to fit his massive cranium into a football helmet, and the duo have occasionally had to hustle like fast-talking talk-show hosts to get through segments before a commercial break.
One sign EVs are no longer the auto industry’s neglected stepchild? Norway could sell its last gas-powered car as soon as next year.
This is an excerpt from The Atlantic’s climate newsletter, The Weekly Planet. Subscribe today.
One theme of this newsletter is that the world’s physical infrastructure will have to massively change if we want to decarbonize the economy by 2050, which the United Nations has said is necessary to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis. This won’t be as simple as passing a carbon tax or a clean-electricity mandate: Wires will have to be strung; solar farms will have to be erected; industries will have to be remade. And although that kind of change can be orchestrated only by the government (hence the importance of the infrastructure bills in Congress), consumers and companies will ultimately do most of the work to make it happen.
Facebook is acting like a hostile foreign power; it’s time we treated it that way.
In 1947, Albert Einstein, writing in this magazine, proposed the creation of a single world government to protect humanity from the threat of the atomic bomb. His utopian idea did not take hold, quite obviously, but today, another visionary is building the simulacrum of a cosmocracy.
Mark Zuckerberg, unlike Einstein, did not dream up Facebook out of a sense of moral duty, or a zeal for world peace. This summer, the population of Zuckerberg’s supranational regime reached 2.9 billion monthly active users, more humans than live in the world’s two most populous nations—China and India—combined.
To Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, they are citizens of Facebookland. Long ago he conspicuously started calling them “people” instead of “users,” but they are still cogs in an immense social matrix, fleshy morsels of data to satisfy the advertisers that poured $54 billion into Facebook in the first half of 2021 alone—a sum that surpasses the gross domestic products of most nations on Earth.
The stakes were high for a Sopranos prequel. The Many Saints of Newark doesn’t measure up.
Whether you call it a spin-off, a prequel, or a companion film, The Many Saints of Newark is inescapably tied to David Chase’s HBO show, The Sopranos, which is still one of the greatest television series ever made. Who Made Tony Soprano, the movie’s poster blares, with its actual title in a far smaller font underneath. Written by Chase and Lawrence Konner and directed by the Sopranos mainstay Alan Taylor, the film is set decades before the show and mixes a self-contained drama of 1960s Mafia life with backstory targeted at devoted fans of the series. Separately, both elements largely succeed; together, they never quite gel into a cohesive narrative.
Even a simple question about The Many Saints of Newark is damning: Would a non-Sopranos viewer bother watching it? The film is narrated by the TV-showcharacter Christopher Moltisanti (played by Michael Imperioli), who, within minutes, references a crucial plot point about his arc on the series that was revealed in one of the final episodes. Fans will remember the story line; newcomers, I imagine, will be baffled. The Many Saints of Newark is more of a curious side project than a distinct work. That was probably inevitable: The Sopranos is too sprawling for a straightforward prequel treatment, and Chase is too ambitious a writer to follow a known formula. The result is a movie that, ironically, might have functioned better as a TV show.
One of the ocean’s top predators has met its match.
Filipa Samarra could hear the pilot whales before she could see them. In 2015, out on the choppy waters off of southern Iceland, Samarra and her research team were eavesdropping on a group of killer whales. She listened as they pipped, squealed, and clicked when suddenly her ears were filled with high-pitched whistling. “Then the killer whales just went silent,” says Samarra, a biologist and the lead investigator of the Icelandic Orca Project. As the whistling grew stronger, a group of pilot whales came into view, and the killer whales seemed to turn and swim away.
“It’s quite unusual because the killer whale is this top predator,” says Anna Selbmann, a doctoral candidate at the University of Iceland who is supervised by Samarra. “It’s very unusual that they’re afraid of anything—or seemingly afraid.”