Leor Sapir

Don’t Say “They”

No one should be required to express fidelity to academic queer theory. Those of us who care about actual pluralism should resist this form of narcissism-fueled political theater. If unconventional pronouns have any room in our society, they must be uttered in the context of civic friendship based on trust, self-restraint, and mutual respect. Above all, nonbinary pronouns must be strictly voluntary, and there should be no penalties—social or legal—for those who dissent from their underlying ideology.

The Biden administration has announced a series of policy initiatives in support of “transgender, nonbinary, and other gender expansive” Americans. Among these is that Americans will now be able to have “X” as the gender listed on their passports—a benefit for those who self-identify as neither male nor female.
Nearly two dozen states and the District of Columbia have already implemented similar measures for state-issued documents. In 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued a legal guidance that requires employers, landlords, and providers of public accommodations to use a person’s preferred name and pronouns, irrespective of the sex “assigned” to that person at birth. This includes not only “she” for men who identify as women and “he” for women who identify as men, but also honorific titles such as “Mx” and individual pronouns such as “they/them” and “ze/hir.”
According to the Williams Institute, 1.2 million adults in the United States self-identify as nonbinary. For Americans under 18 that figure is likely much higher, given recent data showing that over 20 percent of Generation Z (born after 1997) identify as LGBT, compared with 10 percent of millennials and 4 percent of Generation X.
Progressives tend to believe that this sudden rise in numbers reflects a society more welcoming to people “born that way,” but a more plausible explanation is that young people are responding to new social cues and incentives. Teenagers are now regularly told that being “cisgender” (identifying as male or female according to reproductive traits) means conforming to social expectations, while identifying as anything else reflects nonconformity, authenticity, and courage. Given this messaging—and the fact that, unlike homosexuality, which entails sexual feelings and behaviors, one need only to declare oneself nonbinary to be nonbinary—it is a wonder that merely 20 percent of youth regard themselves as part of the alphabet coalition. In any case, the Biden administration’s actions add further confusion to a conversation already characterized by shallow thinking and badly misunderstood research.
Start with the fact that what makes most transgender people transgender is precisely the fact that they conform to gender conventions—albeit those of the opposite sex. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists conformity to “stereotypes” as a relevant criterion for diagnosing childhood gender dysphoria. Federal courts have ruled that transgender boys really are boys, and thus deserve to use the boys’ restrooms at school because they look and behave like typical boys. If gender is an “identity” wholly independent of reproductive traits (of which there can be only two complementary sets), then there is no logical reason that there should be only two gender identities. Indeed, there would have to be as many gender identities as there are people, since each person’s way of expressing gender is unique and irreplaceable. As one federal judge conceded in a rare moment of candor, restrooms separated by male and female “gender identity” rely no less on stereotypes than does the conventional practice.
This presents a problem for the notion of gender identity used by diversity trainers, academic bureaucrats, federal judges, mainstream progressive and LGBT advocacy groups, and Democratic Party leaders: that gender is a core, immutable, and socially valuable aspect of the human person. According to superstar academic and godmother of queer theory Judith Butler, gender is not an innate property but a system of social oppression that gains legibility through repetitious “performance.” “Gender identity” is a “regulatory fiction,” Butler writes. A girl who seeks hormones and surgeries to make her body conform to social expectations regarding the male sex is not being a brave nonconformist but “submitting to the norm of the knife.” She is perhaps even more conformist than her “cisgender” peers considering the pain she is willing to endure to “pass” within the traditional “gender binary.” Feminists and gay rights advocates have echoed this line of argument.
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What Lia Thomas Means

Roughly three dozen bills that would ban trans women’s participation in women’s sports are currently wending their way through state legislatures. If they are passed, courts will almost certainly strike them down as unconstitutionally broad. These legal battles might eventually make their way to the Supreme Court, where their fate would be anyone’s guess.

If a single image could sum up Lia Thomas’s victory in the 500-yard freestyle event at the NCAA swimming championships last week, it would be that of Thomas and the runners-up taken right after they were awarded their medals. Behind a sign with the number “1” on it stands Thomas, who seems barely able to conceal embarrassment at what is undoubtedly an awkward situation. To the right, noticeably keeping their distance and a full head or two shorter, are the runners-up. Their smiles seem no less awkward.
The scene resembles an eerie propaganda video, in which a jubilant dictator can be seen waving at fawning crowds who know their lives depend on making it all look authentic. Thomas’s competitors will not face firing squads should they choose to complain, but they will almost certainly face a social media pile-on (assuming that Twitter doesn’t preemptively suspend them for suggesting that transgender women are not biological women). Their names and reputations will be dragged through the mud, their career prospects destroyed or severely curtailed, and their place on the college swim team—and, with it, their scholarships—jeopardized. A teammate of Thomas’s who criticized her participation in women’s sports told a U.K. newspaper that she would speak only on condition of anonymity, for she was concerned that future employers might Google her name and deem her “transphobic.” Meantime, those who support Thomas’s participation in women’s sports speak their minds freely and without fear of repercussions. What was that about transgender people being powerless?
Thomas, argue her defenders, is both a woman like any other but also a transgender trailblazer. Only in the minds of ideologues for whom reason and logic are oppressive social constructs can these two claims peacefully coexist. If gender identity alone is what makes one a woman, and Thomas has a female gender identity, then her transgender status is simply irrelevant to her achievement. Indeed, it doesn’t technically exist. Many transgender people prefer not to be recognized as trans at all, as this qualifies their self-identification as “real” men or women. “They hate, and I mean hate, the word trans,” reports trans activist and child psychologist Diane Ehrensaft. And how could it be otherwise?
The Human Rights Campaign warns that “contrasting transgender people with ‘real’ or ‘biological’ men and women is a false comparison” that “can contribute to the inaccurate perception that transgender people are being deceptive or less than equal, when, in fact, they are being authentic and courageous.” This is a strawman wrapped in a non sequitur. Critics of gender self-identification do not argue that people like Thomas are “being deceptive,” but rather that they are themselves deceived. HRC’s use of “authentic” here really means “sincere”: transgender women are being sincere, not deceptive, when they say they have a strong inner sense of being a woman. But that sincerity is irrelevant unless one first assumes that what makes a belief true is the fact that it is sincerely held, rather than its correspondence to objective reality. Who, apart from academic postmodernists, believes such a thing? Surely not those who display signs insisting that “science is real” on their front lawns.
This question-begging contrast of biological reality with “authenticity” and “courage” appeals to the therapeutic ethos, that powerful current in American culture. Elite support for transgenderism was never rooted in philosophical arguments about human sex differences or new discoveries in the human sciences. It derives from a narrative that stresses the harm to a person’s mental health if that person’s gender self-identification is not “affirmed.” The claim that only affirming someone’s internal sense of gender can release her of her agony has been subjected to serious and sustained criticism, but activists continue to tout it as gospel, and America’s power brokers seem unable or unwilling to resist it.
The sudden prominence of transgenderism in the West owes in large part to compassion having become unmoored from reason, and to ethics having been reduced to compassion. The proliferation on college campuses of mental health bureaucracies is one the more visible aspects of the rise of the “therapeutic state.” When the parents of female University of Pennsylvania swimmers wrote a letter to the university complaining about Thomas being allowed to swim on the women’s team, the university responded with a brief note reiterating its commitment to “inclusion” and providing a link to campus mental health services.
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