By his own admission, Ross Douthat’s latest piece on the culture war over transgender rights is written “in a studiously cautious style.” While it may lack some rhetorical force and flourish it makes up for that by offering a clear way to understand the current debate that seems fair to various viewpoints.
The underlying issue is the sudden rise in the number of people, especially young people, who identify as trans or gender fluid. What you make of that surge depends on whether you think it’s the result of increased acceptance on the one hand or something like social media contagion on the other. Specifically, Douthat breaks the current debate into three basic camps starting with what might be called the affirming position of those who see this as progress:
…the response from society should be sustained encouragement, especially if you care about teenage mental health: This newly awakened diversity should be supported from the time it first makes itself manifest, at however young an age, and to the extent that parents feel uncomfortable with their children’s true selves, it’s the task of educators and schools to support the kid, not to defer to parental anxiety or bigotry.
Separate from that is a view which sees the rise of trans identification as a kind of teen experimentation which, while not necessarily harmful in the long run, is not something that needs parental or societal affirmation. This is view number two:
…we shouldn’t freak out over their self-identification — but neither should we treat it as a definitive revelation about human nature or try to build new curriculums or impose certain rules atop a fluid and uncertain situation. Tolerance is essential; ideological enthusiasm is unnecessary.
And finally the third view, which sees this as a sign of social media influencers running amok with the support of far left activists and professionals:
What we’re seeing today isn’t just a continuation of the gay rights revolution; it’s a form of social contagion which our educational and medical institutions are encouraging and accelerating. These kids aren’t setting themselves free from the patriarchy; they’re under the influence of online communities of imitation and academic fashions laundered into psychiatry and education — one part Tumblr and TikTok mimesis, one part Judith Butler.
Having spelled this out, Douthat argues that the two opposing camps (one and three) are to some degree fighting over the people in the middle who could go either way. He goes on to identify transition drugs and surgery as one of the key wedge issues in this ongoing cultural battle, precisely because it forces people in the middle to choose sides.
The moderate position sketched above, the wait-and-see, kids-are-experimenting approach, is plausible to the extent that teenage exploration takes the form of dating both sexes, using a different pronoun or name, changing a wardrobe. But it collapses quickly if the choice is for or against a path of treatment that even advocates concede moves to stages that are only “partially reversible,” and then sometimes “not reversible,” within adolescence itself.
And the anxiety of parents, especially, at being potentially in the dark about their children’s self-identification is heightened by the possibility that without their knowledge, their child could end up on a path that leads to surgical intervention — and that their own fitness as parents may be attacked if they object.
On the other hand, the progressives argue that failure to affirm transition, even at a young age, leads to suicide attempts and death which can be prevented if we just showed more acceptance. So the center is getting beat up on both sides for refusing to take a position other than let’s-wait-and-see.
Ultimately, Douthat as a religious conservative is in the third camp. He concludes the piece by arguing that this is a case where progressives may one day find themselves on the wrong side of history: “Within not too short a span of time, not only conservatives but most liberals will recognize that we have been running an experiment on trans-identifying youth without good or certain evidence, inspired by ideological motives rather than scientific rigor, in a way that future generations will regard as a grave medical-political scandal.”
I guess we’ll have to wait and see if he’s right. There are certainly some signs that other countries are backing away a bit from medicalizing teenage gender transitions. But it seems difficult to have those kinds of discussions here precisely because any divergence from progressive orthodoxy is prosecuted online as a kind of thought crime. You can’t be canceled if you’re JK Rowling and independently wealthy but almost any normal person has to think about the consequences of speaking up.