Is the 'Trans Lobby' Disproportionately Strong?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A quick recap: This discussion thread began with reader Ben Denny—who “leans pretty right”—bemoaning the smug tone that much of the political left has in the public arena, namely when it comes to the fraught debate over transgender rights. Another reader noted the irony that supporters of bathroom bills like the one in North Carolina don’t seem to realize that reassignment surgery could jumble their goal of keeping male genitalia out of the ladies room. (I also broached the differences between bathrooms and locker rooms when it comes to personal privacy.) Meanwhile, a few readers scratched their heads over Caitlyn Jenner talking about her female soul, followed by a trans reader standing up for Jenner and her Republican views not fitting into a tidy political box. Most recently, two readers (one a transgender woman) proposed that everyone—trans or cis—should have access to private bathrooms, or at least private stalls.

A reader in Wyoming dissents from the discussion thus far:

A “good faith” debate when not a single conservative critic on board here, whom I can see? I doubt the transgender lobby seeks debate; it wants the nation to toe a party line on all aspects of transgender, including their claims of fact. The bathrooms and the religious legislators in North Carolina are mostly a red herring as well.

Our real issues will revolve around the teaching of gender ideology to young children, diagnosis of gender dysphoria in children, and initiation of hormone therapies and sex-reassignment surgery at the earliest possible age, which health insurers and Medicaid will be required to cover. Bathrooms will enter only insofar as schoolgirls at gym class may be disturbed at the sight of a swinging penis in their locker room.

If an adult decides to pursue this lifestyle (and it is ultimately a choice), I have no problem with that. I don’t favor bringing back the old “impersonating a woman” laws against cross-dressing. Yet I’m gonna resist the notion that a vocal, highly politicized minority comprising 0.008 percent of the U.S. population should drive public policy. [CB: Estimates are actually closer to .3 percent.] Yet they’ve applied enough pressure to bend the American Psychological Association to create a diagnosis to order for them.

With the exception of bullies who lay hands on transgender persons, or rare instances of employment and housing discrimination, none of the issues this lobby raises are matters of human rights. Rather, I think children should be insulated from these adult issues until they come of age. In my opinion, transgender in the USA is a cultural construct, with the hormones and surgeries its rite of passage.

If you’re generally a supporter of transgender causes, here’s a challenge: Is there anything about that reader’s note you even vaguely agree with? For instance, regarding “the initiation of hormone therapies and sex-reassignment surgery at the earliest possible age”: Should there be any limitations on minors when it comes to such medical procedures, especially the irreversible ones? How does a young child know for sure that he or she is the opposite gender?

Those are some tricky questions addressed in a fantastic and fair-minded piece from the left-leaning American Prospect in 2013: Transgender activists believe that when children insist their birth sex is the wrong sex, their wishes should be honored. Dr. Kenneth Zucker disagrees.” Zucker is one of the leading experts in the field of transgender and gender-variant children, but he was fired from his clinic in December following intense pressure from certain trans activists. New York’s Jesse Singal has a solid report on that saga if you’re interested.

If you’d like to address that subject in general—hormone therapy and reassignment surgery for minors—please send a note to hello@theatlantic.com. Pushback against that Wyoming reader also very welcome. Update with some pushback from a reader, Emmanuel, below. But first, here’s some quick context from Slate’s Hugh Ryan regarding Emmanuel’s use of “trans*”:

[T]he asterisk stems from common computing usage wherein it represents a wildcard—any number of other characters attached to the original prefix. Thus, a computer search for trans*might pull up transmission,transitory, or transsexual. But in this neologism, the * is used metaphorically to capture all the identities—from drag queen to genderqueer—that fall outside traditional gender norms.

Here’s Emmanuel:

For the purposes of the original topic in this discussion thread, I am a young liberal who is trying to become less “smug” by genuinely listening to the concerns of those on the Right. I can agree with the Wyoming reader that the kind of trans* activists who pressured Dr. Zucker are overzealous when it comes to children. Children are often still developing their understanding of gender, so we should be careful not to push irreversible surgeries and hormone treatments on a little girl who really only wanted to try out toys and clothes in the boy aisle.

However, I’d challenge the reader’s dismissal of trans* issues are rare or not real human rights concerns. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, “One in five transgender people in the United States has been discriminated when seeking a home, and more than one in ten have been evicted from their homes, because of their gender identity” while one in five have been homeless at some point. [A government report (PDF) put that eviction rate at 11 percent.] “More than one in four transgender people have lost a job due to bias, and more than three-fourths have experienced some form of workplace discrimination...one in eight become involved in underground economies—such as sex and drug work—in order to survive.”

The site also points out that it can be difficult for trans* people to find physical and mental health professionals who are knowledgeable and willing to care for them. The Youth Suicide Prevention Program states that “More than 50% of transgender youth will have had at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday.” [Another study, vetted by The Washington Post, puts the suicide-attempt rate for all trans people in similar territory: 41 percent.]

For the two or three people I know who work as LGBTQ advocates, these issues are much more pressing than bathroom use. Maybe the Wisconsin reader has better data to show that human rights concerns really are “rare” among the trans* advocates, but I haven’t seen it. If North Carolina’s bathroom bill dominates the media, it’s not because that’s trans* activists first or only concern. Maybe the Wisconsin reader can explain why he thinks real human rights concerns are rare in the trans* lobby, but everything I’ve seen says otherwise.

A trans guy piles on more statistics:

Your reader in Wyoming who mentions “bullies” and “rare instances of discrimination” has no idea what [he’s] talking about. Trans people face a truly appalling level of violence and discrimination in the USA and around the world, and I speak from personal experience. I’d point interested parties to the largest survey conducted of trans people for the harrowing realities (pdf of executive summary). It’s not a random sample—that’s not feasible with a small, stigmatized minority—but it is nonetheless highly valuable and illuminating. In that study, 41 percent of participants had attempted suicide (compared to 1.6 percent in the general population), 15 percent were living on less than $10k/year (4 percent in the general population), 78 percent has been harassed at school, 90 percent had been harassed at work, 19 percent reported having been homeless due to discrimination for being trans ...

It goes on and on and on. The trans community has an annual somber observance called Trans Day of Remembrance where we read the names of trans people murdered in the past year. It takes a long time.

The Wyoming reader offers a final reply, which I happen to find unpersuasive but you can judge for yourself:

I certainly learned something by participating in this exercise. Such as that neither I, nor most of the trans activists, are doctors or psychologists. I’m fairly open-minded to the idea of allowing children to dress and school with the alternate gender in the classroom on a trial basis. Will the other kids accept it, however? Will the trans kid become a prima donna, or a target of negative attention, either of which is bad? I don’t know.

Hormones are mind-altering drugs which carry substantial risks, and even puberty blockers, by interfering with normal biological events, can’t be considered innocuous. There should be very good medical or psychological reason for using these, more so if under 18.

Bullies and beatings are common incidents the schools and the sheriff’s star should suppress. It’s unbecoming a civil society. I’m old enough to recall when jocks or bikers out with baseball bats for “queers” was almost overlooked. In gym, a smaller or “different” child faces a bear even having private chambers would address incompletely. Kids are cruel to one another whence fallout extends into adulthood.

Yet the 11 percent bias-motive rental eviction rate in the Federal Register (Proposed Rule HUD; 76-15-IV, 24 Jan. 2011) is from self-reporting and unverifiable. Frequencies of the adverse events in question need to be compared versus the general population, which also experiences them. This might tell us whether the homelessness or sex trafficking is weighted by transgender, as other variables: IQ, SES, and substance abuse figure here. HUD’s rule—that landlords dipping into Uncle Sugar’s money cannot ask prospective tenants about gender background, not a business matter anyway—is reasonable.

In the end, do we have the conundrum of a girl trapped in a boy body, or does our society fail providing an honorable role for children who are different?