A Boise State University professor’s recent essay exploring the intellectual history of the meaning of gender has roiled the campus, with claims by administration officials that the article represents “the root of genocide.”
Scott Yenor, a professor of political science, wrote the essay for the Heritage Foundation website; it traces the development of contemporary transgender theory to the seminal early-feminist work The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir. Yenor demonstrates that a key premise of transgender discourse—the disassociation of biological sex from gender identity—is rooted in Beauvoir’s effort to show that femininity is not a biological fact but is imposed by society. He traces the development of this idea through first- and second-wave feminist thought, culminating in today’s radical claims that small children should be allowed to choose their gender identity and even receive hormone therapy, and that everyone should be free to use the bathroom or locker room that suits his or her identity.
Yenor’s essay is an intellectual history, not a diatribe. He concludes that the objective of transgender theory is to stop treating “gender dysphoria” in children as “a pathological syndrome requiring counseling and preventive parenting.” Rather, its “ultimate goal is public recognition of queer theory’s view of the human landscape”—an aim that leads to a fundamental conflict. In demanding that children be free to choose their gender, transgender activists would condemn as child abuse parental actions that fail to respect their child’s gender selection. Ontario’s Minister of Children and Youth Services Michael Coteau took such a position earlier this year.
In response to Yenor’s scholarly inquiry, Boise State officials reacted in a fashion now familiar on campuses nationwide. The university’s Director for Diversity and Inclusion charged in a statement that Yenor and others sharing his views have a “pathetic fear of change,” and that his essay “includes a seed of hate that needs to be labeled for what it is, the spirit of an ideological animal called supremacy.” Members of the faculty senate concurred that Yenor’s scholarship was fascistic “hate speech.” Just publishing the essay represented a violation of women’s and transgender rights, they suggested.
Meantime, students have gathered over 2,100 signatures on a petition demanding that the university fire Yenor. His scholarship, they allege, threatens “the existence of queer and non-binary folks.” Under pressure of condemnation from fellow students and potentially damaged career prospects, a would-be student defender of Yenor’s academic freedom has redacted his column in the student newspaper and relented in his support for the professor’s right to academic freedom. Other supporters, fearing similar reprisals, have silenced themselves.
No counterargument to the professor’s scholarship has been presented. Instead of rational debate, Boise State authorities demand that certain questions be removed from the sphere of legitimate scholarly analysis—a betrayal of the purpose of any university. Satisfying these directives would mean, for Yenor, no further scholarship concerning the family, religious liberty, or the nature of human sexuality.
Tenure may protect Yenor’s academic freedom, for now. Boise State dean Corey Cook says that he’s “not willing to condemn” him. Yet, on campuses, an empowered vanguard’s demand for unflinching reverence for “collegiality, caring, tolerance” increasingly overwhelms intellectual liberty. Will freedom of thought trump “tolerance”? It might—but outside academia, its prospects are growing more uncertain. After all, unlike Yenor, few Americas enjoy tenure protection and the intellectual independence that it safeguards.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images