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Don’t Say “They”

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eye on the news

Don’t Say “They”

Coerced recognition of “nonbinary” identity entrenches academic queer theory, exposes tensions within the transgender movement, and defies sanity. April 24, 2022
The Social Order
Education
Politics and law

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.

When the Biden administration affirms its support for “transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming” people, it demonstrates its ignorance of this tension. As UCLA sociologist Rogers Brubaker explains in a 2016 book sympathetic to transgenderism, the category of “transgender” can mean movement between purportedly fixed and essential categories of gender, or movement beyond gender altogether. These concepts are not merely distinct but contradictory. Trans scholars have recognized “philosophical tensions” within the broader “transgender umbrella,” claiming that the language of the movement as well as its underlying concepts are still, and will forever be, “evolving.”

Postmodernists can relish incoherence and self-contradiction, but we should expect more from our elected representatives and policymakers. Imagine if the Biden administration had said that it is wholeheartedly committed both to aggressively promoting and thoroughly eliminating any trace of religion from public life, all in the name of “faith diversity.” Our collective response would be confusion.

Queer theory, the intellectual home of non-binariness, maintains that gender is an oppressive social system that gains its force by duping us into believing that it arises from nature and that it can be known through objective science. If, however, we conceive of gender and its categories as “performances”—things that exist only because of culturally grounded and therefore arbitrary behaviors—then resistance to gender becomes possible. To be liberated, authentic, and free is to perform gender in ways that thwart social expectations and offend conventional sensibilities. It follows that most transgender people, if they are male-to-female or female-to-male, belong in the same contemptible conformist category as the rest of us: only the nonbinary vanguard see gender for what it truly is.

If using “they/them” seems jarring and even uncomfortable, that is the point. Queerness begins to resemble a consciously and deliberately antisocial posture. So when a teenage girl or young woman—the demographic that seems responsible for most nonbinary self-identification—declares that her pronouns are “they/them,” what she is really asking us to say is, “I recognize that you are a courageous nonconformist, and that I am too unenlightened or weak-willed to resist the gender system.” (Maia Kobabe, the nonbinary author of the controversial book Gender Queer, uses “e/em/eir” pronouns; in their coverage of the national controversy surrounding the book’s appearance in school libraries, neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post bothered to use Kobabe’s “preferred pronouns” even once.)

The Biden administration is now pushing for Americans to be required—if not directly by government, then indirectly by employers, school districts, and organizations that are legally risk-averse or lured by federal grants—to make self-deprecating confessions of inauthenticity. The most important example of this is the administration’s intent to revive Obama-era guidelines under Title IX. Through convoluted legal reasoning, these instructed schools to avoid relying on the “stereotype” that sex is a biological binary. The Biden administration has an interest in maintaining strategic vagueness in regard to what exactly schools must do to comply with Title IX: instructed to maintain “safe and supportive” environments free from “discrimination” and “harassment,” risk-averse districts will err on the side of caution and adopt policies that well exceed what the Department of Education could ever hope to get away with. Perhaps in anticipation of the old-new regulations, school districts across the country are already implementing early-childhood training on non-binariness and “neo-pronouns.”

Like most progressive elites, the Biden administration has come to think about these matters through the lens of therapeutic culture rather than that of queer theory. According to the therapeutic ethos, all forms of unconventional “gender identity” are expressions of a deep, emotive, and good self. The role of social institutions—indeed, the condition of their being just and worthy of citizens’ respect—is to facilitate the self’s “authentic” self-expression. Repression (that is, self-restraint) means injustice. We are enjoined to accept these ideas and attitudes not necessarily because they are true but because failure to do so will lead kids to want to kill themselves. Truth is thus subordinated to therapy, and critical thinking to compassion unmoored from reason.

In practice, however, progressive elites are demanding public approval for the profoundly subversive and nihilistic ideology of queer theory. We should treat demands around “preferred pronouns,” when these depart from the conventions of the English language (to say nothing of science and common sense), as no different from how we treat public professions of religious piety. If a faction of devout Christians began lobbying the government to require all Americans to introduce themselves with “I accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior,” the progressive Left rightly would go ballistic. If the Christian sect in question protested that failure to adhere to its request would increase depression and suicidality among its members, the appropriate response would be to say that something must be troubling these unfortunate souls other than public refusal to “affirm” their religious beliefs. Nonbinary pronoun policing entails the same violation of liberal tolerance and civility, yet it is condoned under the misleading guises of “mental health” and “gender diversity.”

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. Of course, queer theory itself tells us that liberal principles of tolerance and civility are themselves masks for power and oppression, so we should not hold out much hope for compromise on this issue.

For now, the best advice is simple: don’t say “they.”

Photo by Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images

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