Does "T" Belong with "LGB"?
with John McWhorter and Mark Goldblatt
I’m a conservative, but I’ve got many liberal friends. My wife, the lovely LaJuan, is an avowed woman of the left. My children are all left-of-center in their political orientations. Our political disagreement doesn’t stop me from loving and respecting them, nor does it stop them from loving and respecting me. It’s possible, if it needs to be said, to respect a person even if you think their worldview errs in some deep, essential way.
By the same token, I might not understand who another person loves, how they choose to dress and present themselves to the world, or the nature of their self-understanding—we can still get along, as long as they’re not harming anyone else. But when individuals’ decisions about how they understand their relationship to their identity place coercive demands on everybody else to adopt new ideas about gender and identity, something more than a basic call for respect is being issued. In that sense, the transgender rights movements’ demands extend beyond what they can reasonably ask of their fellow citizens.
Compare transgender rights to gay liberation. The most successful aspects of the gay rights movement placed no real burdens on straight Americans. They asked for basic protections—not to be prosecuted or harassed or fired from their jobs for who they are, to be allowed to marry the person they love—that already covered all other citizens of the nation. The transgender rights movement is demanding something different, which is for their ideas about gender and identity to displace traditional, binary, and scientifically accepted conceptions of sex and gender. Moreover, these demands come with an implicit threat: If you don’t get with the program, we’ll label you a transphobe and do our best to make you persona non grata.
This is a political move, not a call for respect. It’s a power grab intended to silence even those of us with honest questions about trans identity and to crowd us out of the public discourse. In the following excerpt from my conversation with John McWhorter and Mark Goldblatt, we discuss the difficulties of asking honest questions about trans identity in such a charged environment. It shouldn’t be such a perilous venture. But unfortunately, when you give respect, you don’t always get it back.
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GLENN LOURY: One more question. And maybe, John, it's to you as well. I notice that transgenderism comes after gay rights liberation. You've got LGB, and then you've got T. And the thing I'm wondering is whether or not the rebellion against convention, which is the liberation of gay people from homophobic suppression—my son Glenn is a gay man. I'm for the liberation of gay people to live as they would choose to live, et cetera, if it needs to be said. I'm not questioning that in the least.
What I'm asking is whether or not there's a political connection between the revulsion at normality and conventionality being imposed on people with respect to their sexuality and that same conventional, “normal,” conservative—socially, with a small C—being imposed upon people with respect to their gender identity. And I just wonder if you would comment on that, the connection between the movements. It's to anybody who wants to respond, but mainly to you, [Mark], since you are our guest of honor.
MARK GOLDBLATT: As matter of fact, I mentioned in the book that I have never understood why LGB and T and the rest of the alphabet are grouped together. There is a recognition among many people in the gay community that transgender ideology is not necessarily in alliance with them. To take the obvious example, there's a consensus that has emerged—and I think it seems to be a scientific consensus, too, it seems to have an objective basis in genetics—that homosexuality is heritable to some degree. In any case, there seems to be a genetic basis for homosexuality.
JOHN MCWHORTER: It's obvious, yeah.
MARK GOLDBLATT: In other words, it's not something chosen. [But] if you believe that a man becomes a woman by the sincere belief that he's a woman, then homosexuality is chosen. You have to decide to remain what you are by birth or change it, and suddenly be engaged in heterosexual relationships. And by heterosexual, I mean you are now what you claim to be, therefore, your formerly gay relationship becomes straight.
And there's also the issue, and this is a much more serious issue, of what leads children, to go back to Glenn's point earlier, to decide that they are living in the wrong body, that there is a mismatch between who they are internally and what their biology is representing. And many times the answer is attraction to the same sex. There's a British journalist, Helen Joyce, who's written for the Economist, who's pointed out that many of the children who identify as transgender in the past would've just been gay children.
But now you're giving many of them the option to change their anatomy so that they are, in effect, not gay. And that is really problematic. There are problems on the other end, too. Andrew Sullivan has has written about this. He's said, “Does the fact that I prefer a penis to a vagina in my sexual attractions make me a bigot? Does it make me a bigot if I'm not attracted to women who believe themselves men because they lack a penis?” And I don't know that that problem is solvable. That's why I really do question whether or not L, G, and B, which are sexual orientations, should be matched up with everything that follows T, which are sexual identities.
Well, here's my simple-minded response to that. It's political. It's the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The enemy being cis heteronormativity. And that's what we're against. We who are the QIA and we who are the LGB, we're against cis heteronormativity, and hence we find ourselves in the same alliance.
MARK GOLDBLATT: Yeah, I think that's the idea behind intersectionality is just, “Everything that represents white supremacy is what we're against. And if that means putting ourselves at odds with empirical evidence and Aristotelian logic, so be it.” And I just don't think that's a good road to go down, collectively. I think we're gonna wind up with too many “Emperor's New Clothes” moments if we go down that road. And we're going to wind up where what formerly would've been negotiated in the political sphere will be—our struggles—negotiated elsewhere from politics. It's a dark vision
JOHN MCWHORTER: And it's interesting that race issues are often said to be so complicated. I don't really think they are that complicated. I think we strain to pretend.
You mean compared to this.
JOHN MCWHORTER: This is complicated. These are very rich issues, and I have no patience whatsoever for the person who decides that having the discussion and bringing up these questions is transphobic. That's utterly anti-empirical. It makes no sense, and it serves no purpose. But I do not see easy answers here. This is very complicated.
Mark, you're proposing that an awful lot of people are mentally imbalanced, and I don't know where that line is drawn. It's counterintuitive to me, though, because it's so many people. One of the complexities is, where do you draw that line? And history has often presented that issue. This is fascinating to me.
MARK GOLDBLATT: You know, I don't have a book. I'm sitting at Linda's house, I do not have a copy of my book.
We just happen to have one in hand. That's the book, everybody.
MARK GOLDBLATT: I'm still not crazy about the cover, but I'll live with it. You don't want to over-medicalize these situations. You don't want to say transgender people are crazy, because they're functional, they're nice, they deserve to live, they deserve to be respected in the way they present themselves and the way they identify. It's just asking other people to acknowledge as true what's demonstrably not true is a bridge too far.
I have what might be a final question. John's in the chair, but let me just ask it quickly.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Go ahead, Glenn.
Because I know what many will say. They will say that you are a dangerous man, Mark Goldblatt, and that your arguments actually are inducing violence, that they're an assault on the very integrity of the being of people. They will be used by know-nothings to justify their rejection of those people. And I just want to give you an opportunity to respond to this predictable criticism.
MARK GOLDBLATT: Well, if my arguments are used to discriminate against anyone, then the person who's doing the discriminating is misunderstanding the argument I'm making. Where I can see a legit concern—and my book talks about critical race theory and the #MeToo movement as well as transgenderism—where I can see a sliver of truth in that what I'm saying is disagreeable would be insofar as it doesn't allow people their own truths.
If you believe that people should be allowed their own truths, to my mind, you're vitiating the notion of truth if you do that. But if you want to say that it is a natural right for me to believe what I want to believe, and you have no right to correct me or to point out where my error lies, then I'm guilty of that. But I think ultimately, everyone, whether woke or unwoke, is in a better place to respect everybody else if their shared ground is truth, if there is a reality to which they can compare their claims and decide who's right among them, even if those decisions are always tentative, we are just all better off because it makes it easier for us to get along.
I don't think that the Enlightenment should be seen as a threat to critical race theorists, to women who are involved in the #MeToo movement, or to transgender people. The Enlightenment, in fact, is the guarantor of their individual rights. It's just that the Enlightenment carries with it a burden of rational inquiry and socio-religious tolerance that, among the woke, I find a reluctance to extend to people who are skeptical of woke positions.