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Everything Old is New Again: How the Gender War Repeats Itself
And some ways in which the conversation has changed
When I first discovered pushback to gender ideology in 2018, it certainly seemed to me like I had stumbled upon a new conversation. I was relieved to see others criticizing aspects of the transgender movement that I thought I was alone in feeling uneasy about. But I quickly learned that these discussions, as important as they were, were nothing new.
I think there is a widespread assumption today, especially among people new to this debate, that many of the issues with gender ideology are new. You see it in talk of “old school transsexuals” who didn’t cause any trouble and just lived their lives and skirted by under the radar of most of society. While I agree that recent years have seen the influx of a particularly deranged breed of activists, these men have been clashing with feminists, lesbians, and gay rights activists for several decades before the rest of society started paying attention.
The initial conflicts with feminists and lesbians really came to the fore in the1970s. This has been one of my main areas of interest over the past few months and I have done research by looking at primary sources like lesbian feminist magazines of the time.
I’ve written about a letter that a “transexual” sent to a radical feminist newspaper in 1970 and about a call not to include trans-identified men in the women’s movement at the 1973 West Coast Lesbian Conference. By 1977, the conversation was really heating up with the Sandy Stone and Olivia Records controversy, feminist lesbian magazines discussing sex reassignment surgeries, and continued discussion on whether men can not only be women, but lesbians.
Janice Raymond closed out the decade by publishing The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male in 1979, which captured and expounded on all of these issues and controversies and more.
Problems between trans-identified men and feminist and lesbian communities only continued to grow after that. By the 1990s, a man named Davina Anne Gabriel was leading the “Camp Trans” protests against the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. (As I wrote recently, Gabriel later came to regret and reject all of his previous activism.)
The 1990s was also when the trans movement began making the move from focusing on the women’s and lesbian movements to the gay movement as a whole, insisting that the T be added to the LGB. Up until around that point, gay and trans activism were two separate movements with different cultural and political goals.
Since most of these conflicts were happening in the feminist, lesbian, and gay rights movements, society as a whole could easily ignore them and be none the wiser to the completely unhinged, reality-denying movement that was slowly gaining more and more steam behind the scenes.
Today, many people point to roughly around 2015—after the U.S. legalized same-sex marriage and the entire non-profit gay rights apparatus had to shift its focus somewhere else to justify its continued existence—as around the time that gender ideology went “mainstream.” As it burst onto the scene and went rogue in the culture, we suddenly found ourselves having the same conversations that had been hashed out endlessly in decades past on a much larger scale. Can men be women? Can men be lesbians? What does “gender identity” have to do with sexual orientation?
It can be a little maddening to read documents from half a century ago and see that we are still engaging in many of these arguments, sometimes word-for-word. I’ve often paused and wondered whether it is all futile and not a sign that we don’t actually have a hope of beating this utterly absurd ideology.
But, as much as things have stayed the same and we are once again in the grip of a conversation that has been going on for all these decades, much has changed as well. Gender ideology set its sights past just feminist, lesbian, and gay rights groups and on society as a whole. Then it pressed even further and set its sights on children, and then pretty much everyone was forced to get involved—which I think is fundamentally a good thing. Something this pernicious needs to be attacked from all angles and bring together various perspectives.
In past decades, when the issue was mainly contained in lesbian and feminist communities, a lot of the critique was focused on privilege, oppression, and patriarchy. Many of the articles I have read, for example, framed the idea of whether or not a man can be considered a woman within the context of whether or not he can ever truly give up his “male privilege.”
(Of course, as a friend who was involved in the fight back then has pointed out to me—most women very well knew that a man couldn’t be a woman because he was a man, regardless of these more academic discussions.)
Either way, the feminist critiques around privilege, oppression, and patriarchy animated and inspired many women in this fight and continue to do so today, but they didn’t really do it for me and many others who are now involved as well. I am glad about some of the ways these conversations have evolved, particularly in the area of biological sex differences.
In fact, it seems that many people in our movement, as it were, have become quite the expert amateur biologists! Trans activists insisted on blurring the boundaries between the sexes with nonsense talk of sex “spectrums” and misrepresentation of disorders of sex development, so we learned how to articulate exactly what it is to be male and female and why the difference is significant.
I think where these advancements to our arguments have been particularly beneficial is in the realm of sports. While it feels painful to have to state the obvious, many critics of the trans movement can articulate male/female sex differences in sports at the drop of a hat. This is important to me because, as a child of the 1990s, it was often impressed upon me that women and girls could physically do anything that men and boys could do.
While this bumbling attempt to teach us that males and females are equal in value by making value hinge on physical strength didn’t stick to me, I do see it in many women of my generation who get downright offended at the implication that no, we are not physically equal and that’s exactly the reason that women need our own sports and spaces. (I’d like to add that we deserve them regardless, but the physical disparity is the reason for the need.)
I also appreciate the greater focus on evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology to drive home the idea that the differences between the sexes are not all socially constructed and that you can’t just use language games and blank slatism to convince others that you have changed gender and/or sex (Colin Wright and Zach Elliott come to mind as two people doing excellent work in this area).
The idea that there aren’t significant differences between men and women—or that the differences were purely physical and “from the neck down,” so to speak, helped contribute to some of the issues we are facing in the first place. To see the conversation move in a direction that acknowledges our differences and affirms the value of men and women as men and women is heartening.
This conversation has also moved into the realm of religion in a way that, if I am being honest, I never truly expected. From Catholic schools flying progress pride flags to “transgender Bishops,” gender ideology has infiltrated religious institutions. I daresay even the anti-religious may have secretly hoped that traditional religion could have stood up as a bulwark against it. Sadly, this has not been the case.
But we shouldn’t have been surprised if we were truly paying attention. As my friend and editor Matt Osborne points out, “gender identity” is a new gnostic gospel.
This isn’t a conversation that started in the ‘70s—this is a heresy we have been dealing with for centuries!
The adherents of gender ideology are fundamentally dissatisfied that the world is the way it is. But with their divinely imparted and irreproachable knowledge of “gender identity,” they get to be God. They get to shape the world by utterances or by simple inner wishes.
But when that doesn’t work—when they can’t convince women that we have the same struggles, when they can’t convince lesbians that their penises are female, and when they can’t convince homosexuals that we are attracted to “gender” instead of sex—its shatters the illusion. That’s when they lash out, threaten violence, and even commit violence.
The transgender movement of today is echoing the transgender movement of the ‘70s, but the totalizing and authoritarian impulse behind it is just one of the many echoes of a deeply rooted desire for control over a world judged to be imperfect, a world that those with special knowledge are going to recreate according to their own vision.
We have to fight it on all fronts, but the ultimate battleground is on the fundamental level of reality and truth. This is why the movement against gender ideology is now so diverse, and why the one big happy “gender critical” family had to come to a reckoning and realize that criticism of this movement doesn’t belong to any one group.
Credit should always go to those wily radfems who never fell for any of this in the first place, but we should also be glad that standing against this movement is an issue that people from all walks of life and political backgrounds can agree on.
We can go back to fighting each other about other things when they stop sterilizing kids.
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