Major Trans-gression: Why Gender Ideology Brooks No Dissent
Characterizing long-held viewpoints of gender and sexuality as forms of violence and threats to a trans-identifying person’s existence reveals the shaky, subjective basis and need for external validation at the heart of the ideology.
“Cancel culture” is alive and well, with plenty of recent high-profile cases of individuals losing jobs or being deplatformed for expressing viewpoints that run afoul of the sensibilities of the elites who control Big Tech platforms or the progressive activists who patrol the digital streets of social media.
But a particular kind of hostility seems to be reserved for those who don’t accept the foundational claims of gender ideology — namely, that a person’s sexual identity is subjectively determined and affirmed, not something that is biologically “given” and inherently connected with his or her body. Oftentimes, dissent from this ideological framework is characterized as a form of violence or hate speech, even a threat to the existence of persons who identify as transgender.
This was certainly the case in perhaps the highest-profile dissent from gender ideology in recent years, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s 2020 outspoken criticism of transgender activism and its denial of distinct biological sexes as an objective reality. As Rowling wrote in an essay on the backlash she faced, she was told that she was “literally killing trans people with my hate,” while others wrote that her comments amounted to “denying the existence of trans people.”
Similarly, the Trump administration’s 2018 efforts to define sex on the basis of biology were characterized by The Washington Post as an attempt “to write transgender ‘people out of existence.’”
The hashtag #WontBeErased was the rallying cry of the Transgender Law Center and those who resisted the policy move.
And the same sort of dramatic, existentially loaded rhetoric has characterized a number of attempts at cancellation over breaching gender orthodoxy already this year.
Catholic World Report had its Twitter account suspended in late January after tweeting a news brief that accurately described Dr. Rachel Levine, President Joe Biden’s pick for Health and Human Services undersecretary, as “a biological man identifying as a transgender woman,” an apparent instance of “hateful conduct” that, Twitter claimed, promoted violence on the basis of gender identity.
University of Dallas (UD) professor David Upham faced a petition calling for his dismissal after he wrote a Facebook post referring to Levine with masculine pronouns, criticized the idea that he was a woman, and expressed concern that Levine would force others “to participate in these falsehoods, these hormonal and surgical harms.” Bethany Beeler, the trans-identifying UD alum who began the petition, characterized Upham’s perspective as “unreasoning hatred,” motivated by fear of the existence of transgender persons, and ultimately contributing to violence against those who identify as transgender. Beeler is a biological man who now self-identifies as a female.
And, most recently, Ryan Anderson’s book When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment was removed by Amazon from its website, apparently after the retail giant determined that the book, which was published three years ago, was a form of “offensive content.” The book, in which Anderson offers a fact-based critique of gender ideology rooted in philosophy and science, had previously been described as “an ‘attack’ on trans people.”
The characterization of alterative viewpoints as violent or existentially threatening isn’t surprising to some who have previously identified as transgender.
Laura Perry, who lived for nearly nine years as “Jake” and now speaks about the harms of transgender ideology, said identifying as “trans” involves both the conviction that living as your self-identified gender will bring you happiness, but also a constant awareness of the opposing truth of who you are as revealed by your biology. As a result, there is enormous pressure upon those individuals to seek validation for their self-identified gender from those around them.
“When you’ve invested a lot in this idea, and then you’re faced with some kind of fact where you know this is not true, you either have to embrace the truth at great personal cost because of what you’ve invested, or you have to sort of double down, find some external justification, and intentionally turn against the truth in order to do that,” she said, characterizing the “LGBTQ” community’s push to have others accept similar individuals’ self-described gender identity as a form of “proselytization.”
For this same reason, those who don’t affirm an individual’s self-identified gender, and offer an alternative perspective on how sexual identity is determined, are seen as existential threats, capable of contributing to or triggering an experience of cognitive dissonance that would challenge the version of one’s identity he or she is committed to.
Although Perry said she “didn’t have that language” of violence and threat when she decided to identify as a man and engage in hormonal treatments to alter her appearance in 2007, something similar animated her when her parents tearfully resisted her decision.
“I remember thinking at the time, ‘I wish they didn’t love me so much’ because I wanted to just go do what I wanted to,” she said. “I was convinced this would help me. So I told them that they were being hateful in the hopes that they would shut up.”
Perry said while some persons may legitimately feel like they are being threatened by those who don’t affirm their subjective account of their sexual identity, much of the language used today is a form of manipulation. Videos on YouTube and TikTok, she added, train kids on how to tell their parents they’re “trans,” including instructions to “tell them you’re going to commit suicide” if parents aren’t affirming.
Hudson Byblow, a Catholic speaker who also previously identified as a “trans,” says that “the more people buy into a mindset that said ‘this is who you are,’ the greater it feels like a personal attack when alternate ideas are presented.”
One reason for increased hostility to these alternative perspectives, which may “contribute to the destabilization of a person’s paradigm of reality,” may be because “they are simply too jarring to process.”
“In being a trauma survivor myself, I know that this type of response can arise on account of unaddressed trauma and the desire to stay in that which is familiar — which may trap a person in a cycle of merely coping,” he said.
The tendency to reject alternative perspectives as forms of violence may be a coping mechanism, and at times a tool of manipulation, but it’s also a product of the philosophical underpinnings that ground gender ideology’s conception of the human person.
According to Margaret Harper McCarthy of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, gender ideology is consistent with other modern ideologies, which the political philosopher Hannah Arendt characterized as “a knowledgeable dismissal of the visible.” Gender ideology, McCarthy said, discards “what’s right in front of our noses,” the maleness or femaleness of human persons, because these realities “make a claim on us.”
“The visible suggests a prevenient natural order that we find ourselves in,” added McCarthy. “We’re born into it. We don’t make it.”
Modern ideologies like transgenderism reject this natural order as a limitation of human freedom, an inhibition of one’s ability to remake themselves, or affirm volitionally every aspect of their identity as a condition for accepting it. This perspective isn’t unique to gender ideology, McCarthy said, but has its roots in Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke, who stressed that man is born in “perfect freedom,” free from any kinds of commitments he does not voluntarily choose.
These kinds of ideas have been developed through the subsequent centuries to apply not only to one’s relationship to a political community or family, but even one’s own body and sexual identity. Sexuality, in particular, can be a challenge to this version of freedom, because it forces us to acknowledge that we were born in the first place and that our existence has been dependent upon others.
“We’re committed now, instead, to the idea that we create ourselves ex nihilo.”
But in such a state, McCarthy said, “you’re going to be constantly nervous about reality popping up all the time, like you are about the blades of grass that are always coming up between the cracks in the sidewalk.”
Thus significant effort is needed to maintain the potency of one’s subjectively-determined sexual identity, because “reality has the upper hand.” McCarthy described this as “very shaky ground” for one’s identity, which creates a need for outside affirmation.
Because gender identity can never be assumed, according to this framework, but only known after it is declared or expressed, external validation is needed for the identity to feel “real.”
“That’s why using the ‘wrong’ pronouns, or ‘misgendering’ a transgender person is often described by activists as demeaning or ‘harming’ the ‘trans’ person,” said Mary Rice Hasson, co-founder of the Catholic Women’s Forum and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She adds that this type of existential insecurity also explains why there is such a focus among transgender activists on changing the laws to recognize sexual identity as subjectively determined and to coerce compliance from others.
“It’s not terribly surprising that a trans-identified person who believes his dignity and identity are grounded not in the truth about who we are (God’s sons and daughters) and God’s unchanging love, but in external factors beyond his control (e.g., the law or others’ reactions), will feel threatened and insecure,” Hasson said.
Upham, the University of Dallas professor who was at the center of controversy over his critique of gender ideology, suggested modern life is characterized by a kind of double alienation — alienation from others, including ancestors, and alienation from ourselves. In the experience of this alienation, people seek paths to resolution, not by falling back on acceptance of a natural order, but by using tools like public policy and science in an effort for healing, implying that gender ideology is one such approach.
Upham said, “Hence it might feel like ‘hate’ to simply tell truth: that male and female He created them.”
Those interviewed for this story agreed that the dominance of gender identity in the public square represents a significant barrier to reasoned discussion on the topic, precisely because alternative perspectives are discounted out of hand as violent.
Still, Hasson said there is importance in using language in a way that reflects the truth of human sexuality.
“We should not ‘affirm’ a person’s desired identity when that identity is at odds with the person’s biological sex,” she said, noting that persistence in gender ideology often leads to spiraling depression and anxiety. “Instead, we should affirm the person’s created identity as a son or daughter of the Lord and treat him or her with respect and dignity.”
Hasson, whose organization has developed the “Person and Identity” project to educate and equip Catholics and Catholic institutions in response to gender ideology, underscored “the need to speak the truth, but gently and with love, guided by grace and the Holy Spirit.”
McCarthy doesn’t have much hope that meaningful conversation about sexuality can occur in the public square, citing Canadian philosopher George Grant’s claim that “the good” will only be evident now in an experience of authentic deprivation from it — which she believes is all but inevitable.
“I think we’re going to see, sadly, a generation of people who are going to grow up and say, ‘I really wish I hadn’t done this to myself,’” she said, drawing a comparison to the way in which the harms of divorce were most convincingly demonstrated only after its ill effects on children began to become apparent. McCarthy also underscored the importance of a positive counterwitness — “people who are happy in their skin, getting married, having children” — in this cultural moment.
Based on her own personal experience, Perry said that while people who identify as transgender may be “fragile in a sense,” there is still power in speaking the truth. She suggested that simply asking someone questions about how they came to understand themselves as “trans” can be helpful and perceived as non-threatening.
Perry said, “I wish somebody had really talked to me and sort of had me process what it was like living this life; I think I would’ve recognized earlier that it was not fixing my problems.”