Leor Sapir is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly spoke with him about his work on issues of gender identity and transgenderism.
What’s your view of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, including the reaction against it?
I think the law makes a great deal of sense in light of what’s been happening in K-12 schools throughout the country. The effort to brand the bill as “Don’t Say Gay” speaks volumes to the stealthy tactics used by trans activists to push radical and unpopular policies in our schools. Anybody with familiarity on this topic knows that Florida’s law is not about homosexuality but about teachers, activist groups, and DEI consultants promoting scientifically and medically unfounded ideas about gender and sex. Though its approach is not flawless, the DeSantis administration is becoming a real leader in pushing back against trans extremism.
Why have so many corporations chosen to weigh in on transgender issues—from Disney recently all the way back to the corporate boycott of North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” in 2016?
First is the question of incentives. Corporate leaders face pressures from small but vocal minorities of employees within their organizations to comply with progressive pieties or face public shaming by left-wing elites who dominate the cultural establishment. Disney’s case suggests that there is often a silent majority of employees who either don’t care enough about these identity battles or who disagree with the company line but know better than to speak up.
Second, our civil rights laws—especially Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—create incentives for corporations to go overboard in appeasing outside activists and in-house HR bureaucrats to protect themselves from civil rights lawsuits and federal investigations. You gain little but risk much by not hewing to the ever-evolving DEI requirements.
Third is what I would call the San Francisco Compromise: corporations can deflect antibusiness sentiment on the left by waving the rainbow flag. Because progressive elites are unlikely to want to give up or even recognize their privileged economic status, rallying around race and gender issues is a way to be “on the right side of history” without really sacrificing anything. Google, Apple, and Disney think nothing of doing business with China, one of the world’s most oppressive regimes and biggest markets; yet Florida is a bridge too far for them.
Finally, corporate trans activism is couched in soaring abstractions about “diversity” and pleasing platitudes about “inclusion.” While corporations benefit from appearing pro-LGBT, the concrete harms of trans extremism are hard to trace to their rhetoric and policies. If a young woman comes to regret the mastectomy that she had at age 15, it will be hard to say that Disney encouraged her to do it—even if cultural signaling played a huge role in her decision. It’s not much different from how Congress enshrines vaguely worded, unobjectionable legislative mandates and then passes on the politically risky task of specifying what they mean and what trade-offs they require to unelected bureaucrats and judges. If the latter implement an unpopular policy choice, lawmakers can always say: well, we didn’t intend that interpretation.
There are also broader class-cultural forces at play. For instance, the idea that there are biologically innate and meaningful differences between the sexes holds little appeal to a professional class that has distanced itself from physical labor and that sees motherhood as one “lifestyle choice” among others—and more likely as a hindrance to professional self-realization. I think LGBT issues also tap into that deep wellspring of American sentiment: expressive individualism. The ethos of individualism and expressive choice has long been a driver of American capitalism. As long as trans activists can frame their policy preferences as “letting people be who they are” rather than coercing others to accept a controversial ideology, they will continue to enjoy strong tailwinds in the corporate world.
Many European countries seem to be taking a more cautious line on these issues than the U.S. Why is that?
A big part of it has to do with the decentralized nature of the American medical system, which in turn has to do with our political and administrative decentralization. If we had something like the U.K.’s National Health Service, it might make it easier to identify and hold accountable a particular institution or even a set of individuals for misguided medical practices. As it is, there is little data about who exactly is facilitating pediatric transition, what processes they are using, and how many American kids are being transitioned.
No less important, in the United States the transgender cause has been framed as (to quote Joe Biden) “the civil rights issue of our time.” Of essence here is the idea that “civil rights” depend on normalizing transgender identity as a natural and healthy human variation and reducing any stigma associated with it. But if you think about it, this makes a cautious, evidence-driven approach to medical management of childhood gender distress very unlikely. The assumption behind psychological prescreening of teens before prescribing them hormones and surgeries (something advocates of American-style “affirming” therapy strongly oppose) is that, all things considered, it is better for a person to feel comfortable in their own body—in other words, not to be transgender. Civil rights rhetoric creates strong pressures to eliminate such medical gatekeeping and take kids’ declarations at face value.
Who are some of the best books or authors you’ve read on gender issues?
On the institutional foundations for gender regulation in education, I know of no better book than R. Shep Melnick’s The Transformation of Title IX. Though focused on that statute, the book is really a deep dive into the obscure and opaque legal and administrative processes by which our public policies are created and enforced.
Melnick’s book came out in 2018, and there have been important developments since then in transgender medicine, law, and social policy. For a chilling and well-researched overview of what the new gender orthodoxies are doing to teenage girls, Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage is a must-read. I’d supplement it with blogposts like this one by detransitioned young women who tell harrowing stories of being medically fast-tracked by well-intentioned but ideologically misguided medical “experts.” For those looking for a good resource on the scientific-medical research, I recommend SEGM’s website.
In contrast to many conservative and feminist critics of transgenderism, I find that gender ideology is less important in shaping current realities than the deeper currents of our therapeutic culture. Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is a good read on this topic, as is, of course, Philip Rieff’s classic Triumph of the Therapeutic. James Nolan’s lesser known but more up to date and institutionally focused The Therapeutic State is also helpful.
Finally, I think it’s necessary to have some familiarity with transgender/queer literature, which serves more as a rudder than an engine for trans policy. Judith Butler’s 1988 essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” is illuminating because it shows how current mainstream progressive definitions of “gender identity” are in fact deeply at odds with queer theory. (The current pediatric gender-transition regime would make Michel Foucault turn in his grave.) More relevant—and eminently more readable—is UCLA sociologist Rogers Brubaker’s book Trans, which, though obviously sympathetic to transgenderism, sheds light on the movement’s inner contradictions and confusions. The transgender scholar-activist Susan Stryker has an introductory essay in The Transgender Studies Reader that makes the case that the fundamental purpose of transgenderism is to subvert the Western epistemological paradigm, which places objectivity and fact above subjectivity and feeling. Trans activists deny such things when speaking to mainstream liberals but openly and enthusiastically say them when nestled in their academic cocoons.
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