Andrew Sullivan was once the gay conservative (no, this is not an oxymoron) that many of us liked. Sure, he played for the other team, but he was still a relatively progressive, levelheaded Brit.
And then this truly disturbed and disturbing nugget from him appeared recently in New York magazine:
"In the nature-versus-nurture debate about sexuality, nature seems to be gaining. This will come as a bit of a shock to the blank slaters who view everything human as a product of 'social construction' to be remolded by politics. Even gender, we are now absurdly instructed, is a choice. Much of the transgender movement, for example, insists that gender is a completely fluid idea, while paradoxically using testosterone and estrogen to change their bodies from male to female and vice-versa."
One hardly knows where to begin.
First, there seems to come a time in nearly every cisgender theorist/politician/commentator’s life when they feel called upon to opine and pronounce upon transgender people, or use us as an example. Andrew provides the perfect illustration of why they should resist the impulse. Because it is nearly always to kick the shit out of us. In fact, this is practically a national pastime; we could make a cisgender holiday of it: Smack the Trannies Day.
Because what could be more ridiculous than this really, really small and often-tormented minority that runs around saying they are one thing “inside” when one can plainly see that “outside” they are another?
Second, saying that gender is socially constructed — through things like how we look, act, dress and use posture, adornment, hair-style, and vocal inflection — is not the same as saying that gender identity is constructed. Or even that gender identity is mutable (which, for most people, it clearly is not).
In fact, pointing out that gender is “socially constructed” is not only not “absurd,” it has pretty much morphed into common sense for anyone under 30, which, alas, Andrew is very much not.
Third, it is not “the transgender movement” that is insisting that gender is fluid — even within the movement there’s a lot of disagreement over that — it’s pretty much every gender and women’s studies professor in a college or university (not to mention every postmodern theorist who speaks either French or “pomobabble” as their native tongue).
No doubt Andrew would be shocked! shocked! to discover that, for the past two decades, critical race theorists have been quietly and determinedly documenting how race itself is a social construction, one whose definition has been refined and then redefined repeatedly for the benefit of white majorities.
Finally, there is no, repeat no, “paradox” between saying that gender is socially constructed, and then “using testosterone and estrogen to change [our] bodies from male to female and vice-versa.”
This is Andrew as biological determinist, unable to restrain himself from throwing our bodies back in our own faces.
In this, he is like every Christian-right male who cries that “homosexual behavior” is “a choice” but then insists with revulsion that the fact that he could never go down on another man’s penis is not a “choice” at all, but nature’s way.
Andrew’s manhood, one assumes, feels pretty hardwired to him. Yet if he found himself tomorrow, beard and bald head and all, inside a female body — God grant me the power! — one assumes that he too would reach for hormones and/or surgery to change it to match his gender identity, all without finding the effort “paradoxical” in the least. Unlike some of us, he just happens to enjoy the luxury of not facing that particular situation.
Actually, it is not trans people but mostly the right-wing nuts who have tried to postulate that gender identity is biological, mostly to anchor it to Mother Nature and better delegitimize trans people. While there are some on the left saying that gender identity has biological anchors (a position with which I happen to agree), there is a much larger diversity of opinion.
Like being gay — as being trans becomes more accepted — the political and social impulse for inquiring after its etiology becomes successively less pressing.
For years, gay researchers ardently sought a biological basis for homosexuality, because doing so strengthened the argument against the state-sponsored discrimination that was still the law of the land. And our enemies sought a biological basis for heterosexuality for exactly the same reason, in reverse.
Now that legalized discrimination is mostly gone, the need has gone with it. Who cares anymore what “causes” gayness or sexual orientation? Almost no one. Trans is about to go the same way.
Alas, this whole sad column puts Andrew not too far along down the same spectrum with Milo and Survivor's Jeff Garner — yet another gay man who feels empowered to Smack the Trannies in order to boost his own sense of normality and acceptance, without a shred of self-consciousness on how these same rhetorical tools were used for the past 100 years to stigmatize and humiliate male queers like him.
RIKI WILCHINS is an author and advocate.