There is perhaps no topic in America more radioactive, more difficult to discuss, than kids and gender. Everything about the subject is turned up to 11. One day, a pediatric gender clinic in Boston receives a hoax bomb threat; another, a trans woman says she condones violence against a young woman who regrets her transition and the double mastectomy she had at 15. Some Catholic schools insist that anyone operating outside the gender binary be expelled or fired; some public schools appear to be teaching that the gender binary is an imperialist invention. School boards and teachers battle over gender guidelines and gender books.
Many liberals I know tend to see the issue as left and right. The thinking goes that lefties embrace gender diversity and inclusion and teach those values in school; conservatives reject or even ban those ideas. Thus, if someone challenges those ideas, they are labeled right-wing.
But we on the left need to be able to scrutinize and talk about what schools and the broader culture are teaching our kids about sex and gender without being dismissed as hateful. Because if we cede all criticisms of gender identity ideology to the right, we’ll lose important liberal ideals about sex and gender. If we’re looking for gender culture peace instead of just trying to win the gender culture war, we have to stop seeing this as a left/right issue and create an environment where liberal objectors are heard and right-wing critics aren’t dismissed outright.
For instance, a couple of weeks ago, Manhattan Institute fellow and critical race theory provocateur Christopher Rufo released “A Parents’ Guide to Radical Gender Theory.” It’s something like the Cliffs Notes to many of the ideological stances on sex and gender being taught in schools today — often with the support of liberal institutions and the mainstream media — as well as instructions for how to combat them.
Difficult as it may be to swallow, some liberals may agree with Rufo’s objections to “radical gender theorists,” who “argue that white, European men invented the ‘gender binary,’ or division between man and woman, in order to oppress racial and sexual minorities.” I’ve heard from teachers that this idea has permeated diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training sessions, but it’s inaccurate. Anthropologists and archaeologists have taught me that every culture we know of has gender — which I define as ideas about how women and men should behave — in some form or another, even if it makes room for individuals who don’t conform to those standards. Gender is hardly a Western creation. Rufo also notes that many kids are learning that sex as well as gender is a spectrum, or that everyone has a gender identity — that is, a gendered soul, independent of the body. Such ideas are taught and are rippling through mainstream publications as unassailable truths.
Plenty of feminists and liberals, and some trans people who acknowledge their biological sex, object to this belief system and find these claims about sex dubious but are rightly afraid to say so. They fear losing their jobs, friends, or livelihoods, being censured by colleagues or censored by social media. I believe people should be armed with the knowledge and courage to question and push back — effectively and respectfully — on these notions. Questioning and pushing back should be standard practice in a democracy and an acceptable approach for both liberals and conservatives.
What I don’t want is for the pushback to come only from people with a narrow view of “normal” when it comes to sex and gender — a path that leads to Justice Clarence Thomas’s “reconsideration” of same-sex marriage or to Republican bills that would make gender nonconformity a cause for alarm. I don’t want to see the gains that have been made by women and gay and trans people overturned by ideological overreach. But that’s what I fear will happen if the critiques come only from the right.
For instance, Rufo writes that gender ideology advances the notion that “sex and gender are socially constructed — that is, they are human inventions used as instruments of power, rather than features of objective reality.” Of course sex is not socially constructed; biological sex is real and, in humans, dimorphic. But after that point, I diverge from Rufo. While some male-typical and female-typical behavior has biological roots, much of gender as I and other feminists define it — culturally based expectations of how men and women should behave — is socially constructed. And gender can indeed be used as an instrument of power.
Women have had to fight for the right to vote, for the right to own property, to not be legally raped by their husbands, for the right to practice medicine or law, for the right to control their own bodies, to be paid what men are paid, and to have equal access to education. A few of these battles have been won — only recently. Some have been lost. Some are ongoing. But these battles are being fought on the basis that women can do much more than they were historically allowed to, culturally or legally, because of their sex.
Gender varies across cultures, geographies, and generations. Pink is an ungendered color in some cultures, and it wasn’t always associated with femininity here. Men had and have long hair in some cultures; in some cultures they have long worn what might look to us Westerners like dresses. The ancient Pueblos were matrilineal — women owned the property and their daughters inherited it. Evelyn, Kimberly, Dana, Beverly, and so many other “girl names” used to be “boy names.” Computer programming used to be a “woman’s job.”
Yet gender identity ideology embraces the very gender stereotypes that feminists and others on the left spent decades dismantling in order to advance women’s rights. These days, in an attempt to be inclusive, some adults assume that a girl who wears her hair short and plays baseball or has other typically masculine interests may identify as or actually want to be a boy, as I know from personal experience. We hear tales of young boys who wanted pink, sparkly dresses and felt at an early age that they were girls.
Historically, the majority of such kids stopped cross-gender identification and were later attracted to people of the same sex. Now they are more likely to socially transition, despite the fact that “early-childhood social transitions are a contentious issue within the clinical, scientific, and broader public communities,” as the authors of a 2019 paper put it, and they often lead to medical transition. And though there are many adolescents whose lives seem to have improved by changing bodies and/or identities, medical transition seems to have been incredibly difficult for others. All this should spark classically liberal discussions and debates about medical ethics and about how to free kids from gender stereotypes — not a culture war.
There are a lot of reasons that gender identity ideology has taken such a hold in our society, from social contagion to massive institutional support. But it has also provided people with a language to understand and explain themselves, as well as a sense of meaning. The idea that we each have a gendered soul speaks to many. Fighting about gender — or at least about what women should do and be like — is nothing new, but it’s been taken to an extreme. And now it is about kids. And medicine. And silencing critiques, debate, and science. None of that is actually good for children, whether or not they are gender-atypical.
I think this silencing has happened in part because of a well-intentioned but misfiring shift in the media and liberal institutions, to focus more on protecting marginalized groups and promoting social justice than on unbiased reporting or evidence. Some ideas about sex and gender that pertain to a tiny minority of people are now imposed on the majority. We have taken social transition, a treatment for extreme gender dysphoria, and rejiggered it for the larger population, telling children that “boy” and “girl” are constructed social categories, not biological ones. We have redefined gender to be a fixed feeling inside someone — rather than a repressive idea imposed on them.
Chaos has ensued, in part because what we are imposing is a belief system, and it’s not right or fair to insist that people embrace or share someone else’s beliefs — beliefs that, according to a recent New York Times poll, voters in both parties are not eager to see taught to young children.
The most humane solution I can think of is to acknowledge competing beliefs, to teach children to traverse a complex subject in which people have very different ideas about the same thing — but to understand that there are some biological realities, facts we can and should rely on as we do that. Sex is one of them.
I want liberals to help spread this message: There is no one right way to be a boy or a girl — and these are fundamentally biological, not social, categories of humans. It’s important for scientific and medical reasons to recognize sex differences. You can be as masculine or feminine as you want to be or naturally are. There is nothing wrong with your body if you behave more like members of the opposite sex than your own — and there are many ways to treat gender dysphoria if you feel that way. There is nothing wrong with same-sex attraction.
It’s hard and risky to speak up, but an amazing thing happened when I did. I found an incredibly diverse group of people concerned about this issue, people I now consult on a regular basis: trans people and transsexuals (as some people I know still call themselves), gays, bisexuals, lesbians, conservatives, detransitioners, feminists, and lefties. We don’t always agree. We have similar concerns but different belief systems about gender, and mine is informed by feminism and by the research I’ve done into how gender norms change culturally and generationally. But many of us want to challenge gender identity ideology without ceding the ideas that women’s rights are essential, that trans people deserve dignity and respect, and that gender nonconformity and homosexuality are normal. There is a silenced center that rejects both the extreme right’s and left’s views on sex and gender.
We have to create an environment where more liberals feel safe to speak up with questions and concerns, but we can’t create that environment until more liberals do speak up. It’s the gender catch-22. I don’t remember how that book ends, but I recall it being dark and murky. I hope we can find a better resolution. I hope the gender peace talks can begin.
Lisa Selin Davis is the author of “Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different” and writes a Substack newsletter called Broadview, where a version of this essay first appeared. Follow her on Twitter @LisaSelinDavis.