Social conservatives need to face their own aggression in the culture wars to regain the trust of Americans.
Ryan Anderson, “When Harry Became Sally,” Encounter 2018.
We live in dizzyingly confusing times, and social conservatives are no exception. Under President George W. Bush, socially conservative ideas seemed ascendant, to the point that many on the left were claiming that the president was going to impose a theocracy or even cancel the 2004 elections. America seemed to have emerged under a kind of crusading spirit, with its good and bad aspects, eerily reminiscent of the United States’ almost religious war in 1917 to end all wars and defend democracy — all while forging a new uniting national identity with all the dangers such an effort contains (such as marginalizing dissenters and excluding outgroups).
Under President Barack Obama, the precise opposite happened — the country and the electorate swung hard to the left on social issues, albeit not so much on economic ones. This change, especially marked under Obama’s second term, was so rapid it hit the right and perhaps even many centrists like a freight train. Not only did same-sex marriage rapidly gain acceptance and legal support from states and ultimately the Supreme Court — a process which had been in train since at least the late 1990s — other people with orientations differing from the norm — including transgenderism, people considering themselves to be the opposite sex of their bodily form — also catapulted to fame and public attention. From media appearances to rapid changes in law and government policy, a (seemingly) new group was now presenting America at large with a serious challenge in terms of acceptance and social roles.
The reaction to this effort on the right was largely a strange mix of panic and outrage — the passing of “bathroom bills” alongside transgender Caitlyn Jenner and gay Peter Thiel jumping excitedly on the #TrumpTrain. History will yet marvel in wonder at this odd alliance of people at both extremes of the social spectrum joining together to elect a man both profoundly bigoted yet also incredibly (and self-interestedly) socially libertine.
Now that the Donald Trump administration is in place and our mind is almost always focused on the ever-embarrassing man in the White House, the time has come to let the dust settle, get our bearings, and try to understand what is going on and where we go from here — on the question of transgenders and much else besides.
The social conservative response to this social tectonic shift appears in the form of a book by Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Institute. Anderson, the author of a number of books on marriage and religious liberty from a socially conservative perspective, specializes in making arguments based on reason and compassion, often marshalling sources who would otherwise disagree with him in support of his position.
He continues this tradition in “When Harry Became Sally,” a response to the transgender phenomenon which will likely lead to lively debate and discussion, if nothing else. Yet as I will argue below, while Anderson makes important points and arguments, the book is as important for what is not really discussed than for what it addresses.
A Time for Humility
If I were to summarize Anderson’s argument about transgender Americans in one word, it would be: humility.
Although activists fighting for transgender rights and protections often act like they have all the answers to the question of how and why there is a group of people who feel they were born in the wrong physical body, Anderson shows pretty convincingly that even their own arguments show an uncertainty masked by zeal (sometimes reasonable and sometimes not) to protect those who identify as transgender; their definition of who counts as transgendered sometimes seems so fluid and constantly changing so as to be a game of Calvinball, making it difficult to reasonably discuss policy and attitudes when the goalposts keep getting moved.
Although he does spend some time on the question and questioning of the philosophical logic of transgender Americans — and I will leave it to philosophers to deal with those arguments — most of his efforts focus on the crusade aimed at ensuring hormone therapy for anyone who so much as briefly seems to identify as transgender — including children who haven’t reached the legal age to make vital decisions for themselves on almost anything else.
Per Anderson, somewhere between 80 and 95 percent of people who feel split between mind and body in terms of gender will grow out of it naturally, and the effort to effectively “fix” the disparity in place with biological intervention seems unnecessary — effective anti-bullying tactics and coping would seem better and more effective. This seems reasonable to me: most will eventually transition back, and those who do not can then choose whether to use hormones to buttress their felt identity as adults.
Indeed, per studies and testimonies he presents (including a long quote from a 2016 position paper done under Obama’s Medicaid/Medicare administration) there is scant solid evidence that hormone therapy is all that effective at helping the multitude of mental health dangers which transgender Americans feel — including within societies and communities that are quite accepting. More rigorous research is needed before we make hormone therapy the mandatory default option for all those who are this way.
Although people firmly on the left side of the LGBTQ debate will find plenty to dispute here, I have to say I did not find anything that spoke of hate or bigotry. Indeed, the book contains a number of pleasant surprises — Anderson explicitly refers to gay “conversion therapy” as “abhorrent,” and in arguing for alternative paths to dealing with at least some transgender people, he proposes loosening the guidelines for what it means to be a boy or a girl — a rare sight in an age when social conservatives seem to be doubling down on a very rigid understanding of how men and women should be. He also seems unafraid in bringing testimony of “desisting” transgender persons who are fiercely critical of families and communities (presumably some of them religious) who mistreated them.
I find Anderson’s call for humility and caution refreshing and at least some of his recommendations strike a nice balance and middle ground between the extremes of present-day discussion on transgender Americans. However, as I said above, there are two crucial parts of this story which are missing and which social conservatives must deal with — ideology and history.
A Liberal Crusade with a Radical Twist
Anderson devotes an entire chapter to the question of the role of gender in society and especially the programs of activists to fundamentally change society’s view of gender, marriage and general human relations. Although I am aware of these arguments and, for the most part, do not agree with them, I think Anderson has confused cause and effect.
Put very simply, the main reason that gender identity has succeeded is far less due to radical gender theory or social revolution than what the late scholar Peter Lawler called “libertarian securitarianism.” This view — now entirely dominant on both the left and right — agrees that people should have the right to live how they want on their own terms without interference from either state or society — except for when they need protection from others or their own mistakes (hence “securitarianism”).
This is the view which has been increasingly dominant since at least the 1960s, and although more radical theories did and do piggyback on it and sometimes even drive it forward, it is this view of absolute social autonomy as a liberal principle which is what has led us to this point.
After all, it is not “smash the patriarchy” which led to no-fault divorce but personal freedom for women who argued they were trapped in bad marriages. It was not “change or eliminate gender” that ended sodomy laws in many states but the simple argument of “What business does the government have in my bedroom?” The decisive argument for gay marriage was the “What does my relationship have to do with you?” claim.
The same vein very much holds when it comes to people who are transgender. Let’s say, arguendo, that they are indeed confused as to reality for whatever reason: so what? In a democracy which tolerates and even encourages diversity (including, from the very start of America, religious diversity, where not everyone can be correct about the most important truths of all), people have the “right to be wrong.” We have the right to have the “wrong” opinions, we have the right to vote for the “wrong” party, or live in a “wrong” familial arrangement or community — so why not live in a “wrong” state of mind gender-wise? Indeed, even per his admission, somewhere between 5 and 20 percent of those who identify as transgender will remain so — do they not have the right to continue to be among us?
I sympathize with Anderson when it comes to people with radical ideas for reforming society in the image of what seems like near-anarchy, identity-, community- and family-wise, but if he really wants to do more than preach to the converted, he is going to have to work much harder to deal with this objection, not just the low-hanging fruit of radicals.
It’s not just that. Anderson, in his book on transgender people and in his other book dealing with same-sex marriage, seems to act as though history began in or slightly prior to 2008, with activists and groups all angry and furious at the religious and social conservatives for seemingly no reason except a desire to “burn it all down” and destroy a crucial part of western society out of spite.
Although I’ve no doubt that such people exist, the reality is that history is much older — and this history includes a long and extended period in which it was social conservatives of all kinds who were the aggressors.
It is no coincidence that when fighting zealously for transgender rights, activists often mention social conservative treatment of homosexual men and women. It was not so long ago that homosexuality was considered a mental illness. It was not so long ago that sodomy laws were struck down by the Supreme Court (and some 12 states still have them on the books). Given the utter failure of the social conservative argument regarding gays — sometimes even arguing that one can “pray the gay away” — is it any wonder that even the non-zealous are skeptical that this time “it’s different?”
Although I applaud Anderson’s condemnation of conversion therapy, there is simply nowhere near enough discussion of the very real and visceral abuse of LGBTQ Americans both prior to today and sometimes even ongoing today, including parents throwing their LGBTQ kids out of the house and communities from their midst, often rendering them hopeless to deteriorate to a life on the street or worse; LGBTQ Americans who were forcibly institutionalized (one mentioned in a testimonial Anderson brings of a “desistor”) or driven to suicide by the people who should have cared for them most; kids beaten up at school for things over which they really don’t have much control (regardless of whether one is “born that way” or through a combination of factors).
Anderson and I may disagree with their philosophical conclusions and ideology, but is it really so impossible to understand the anger, the pain, the hurt, even the desire for revenge? After all, we are talking, even at the LOW end, about thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of people whose lives were destroyed or at least deeply scarred.
The sad and honest truth, which needs to be said openly if social conservatives are ever to be taken seriously again, is that for everyone like Anderson, there are those whose motives are far baser and against whom we on the right took far too few measures.
As National Review writer Kevin Williamson, no hater of religious liberty or lover of the sexual revolution, put it in describing the difference between people like Anderson and the people whom many activists and their supporters remember as the face of conservative religion:
“A great many Aspiration Republicans oppose gay marriage or permitting same-sex couples to adopt children because they believe that traditional family is a natural part of human life and that traditional families produce happier, healthier children and societies. Resentment Republicans oppose gay marriage because those perverts are disgusting.”
And if we’re going to be brutally honest — far more people have encountered the latter than we’d like to admit.
Social Conservatism’s Past and Future
Between this, the frequent scandals of sexual morality involving people who claimed to champion it (the contemptible defense of Roy Moore’s predations being just the latest example) and the humiliating kowtowing to a man who holds any kind of moral conduct or decency in contempt, it’s easy to see why even many people on the right would like to see social conservatives of all kinds gets rode on a rail out of town at worst, or shut up in ghettos at best.
I do not want this to happen, not just because I am socially conservative both by temperament and religion, but because I think that social conservative thought is a legitimate and important voice in a dizzying and confusing time where public discourse runs the gamut from genetic engineering to “post-human” discussions to the essential questions of how marriage, community and society should be arranged.
But given just how much trust we have lost, it’s time that we learn some humility — and the sooner, the better. It’s time that we realize that no one will listen to us about moral conduct if we do not enforce it among ourselves. It’s time to realize that no one will take our arguments to “live and let live” seriously if we are just as coercive and sometimes even abusive whenever we are in power — the recent reimposition of a ban on transgenders in the army with nary any evidence in its favor being a clear example. It’s time to realize that Americans with different orientations are first and foremost fellow Americans, that they have their own accounts to settle with us, and that we were far from always being in the right there.
We need to stop talking about members of the LGBTQ community as though they were some alien species and start talking to them. There is, after all, no community that does not have some number of members who are LGBTQ. They are our neighbors, our friends, sometimes our relatives.
If what activists suggest to protect them is too radical, then we need to demonstrate that we can find better ways to help protect and nurture them that do not make even neutral Americans think of “re-education camps” of the sort that existed in some of the mental institutions. Showing that the activists’ methods are wrong is not enough — practical and concrete alternatives are also needed.
We also need to come to peace with the fact that many, and perhaps the majority, will not agree with us on this issue — even in the welcome event that we learn to get along without cries of bigotry entering every second sentence and in the best case scenario where “live and let live” becomes a reality.
Nor does it necessarily follow that we are and will always be on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. One openly gay lawyer I follow is stridently pro-life — among other reasons because he knows that although it’s Down syndrome babies being detected and aborted today, it could be LGBTQ that are detected and aborted tomorrow. The author of a touching piece on her life as a gay woman which will be published on this medium recently tweeted me a picture of her aunt who has Down syndrome, labeling her as a “problem” in scare quotes. We can learn to disagree like friends, or at least fellow citizens and sometimes conservatives, instead of seeing ourselves in a war in which I believe only losses will be apparent.
In sum, Anderson’s book is a good start, but we’ve a long way to go before social conservatism regains all the trust it squandered. That should be no deterrent — the best conservatives, after all, take the long view.