Engaging Andrew Sullivan’s transphobia

Andrew Sullivan, godfather of the GGGG movement, has decided it’s time to start ‘Engaging the T’. In his column at the Dish, he doesn’t so much engage with trans activists as engage them like Nelson engaged Spain.

The article, offset with a scrutinising photo of Laverne Cox’s ankles, gets most things wrong. I thought I’d have a go at cutting through the innuendo.


There are few topics I feel nervous to write about on this blog, as you might have surmised over the years. But one of them is the question of transgender people.

‘It frightens me that trans people are capable of anger.’

It’s a fascinating topic…

‘Trans rights are an academic thought experiment to me.’

…but remains so completely fraught and riddled with p.c. neurosis that no writer wants to unleash the hounds of furious, touchy trans activism.

‘I want a free pass.’

And that’s the first thing to note here, I’d say. Any minority – especially a tiny one like gays or transgender people – has, at some point, to explain itself to the big, wide world. That’s not entirely fair but it’s unavoidable if you want a change in attitudes or an increase in understanding.

‘I can’t be bothered reading Wikipedia. Please do my homework for me. Why are you getting angry?’

And my view is that there is no need to be defensive about it.

‘I want to attack you with impunity.’

Most people are just completely ignorant, and have never met or engaged a trans person, and so their misconceptions and misunderstandings are inevitable…

‘People can’t be expected to know what they’re talking about.’

…and not self-evidently a matter of bigotry or prejudice.

‘It’s only bigotry if you’re doing it deliberately.’

I think we should be understanding of this, as open as we can be, and answer the kinds of questions some might feel inappropriate or offensive. That’s the basis for dialogue, empathy and progress.

‘Tell me about your genitals.’

Paragraph 2

But this has not, alas, been the way in which the transgender movement has largely sought to engage the wider world (with some exceptions). Kevin Williamson notes how Laverne Cox, appearing as a trans person on the cover of Time, nonetheless refused to answer a question about whether she had had her genitals reassigned as too “invasive’.

‘I think trans people are their genitals.’

Sorry, Laverne. But if you’re out there explaining yourself, you’ve gotta explain all of it. 

‘You can’t be in magazines and have boundaries.’

And the elaborate and neurotic fixation on language – will writing “transgender” rather than “transgendered” reveal my inner bigot? – is now so neurotic even RuPaul has been cast aside as politically incorrect.

‘Trans women owe men who play dress-up a free pass.’

The insistence that the question of transgender people is essentially the same as that of gay people…

‘What do you mean it’s not a question?’

…when they are quite clearly distinct populations with very different challenges…

‘Except RuPaul, a gay man I’m counting as trans.’

…is also why we have the umbrella term “LGBT”.

‘Trans people should leave the movement they started. (You too, bisexuals.) Look, stop getting so angry.’

And so Kevin Williamson is not wrong, I think, to note the way in which politics has eclipsed the English language here and that language itself has become enmeshed in a rigid ideology:

“The obsession with policing language on the theory that language mystically shapes reality is itself ancient — see the Old Testament — and sympathetic magic proceeds along similar lines, using imitation and related techniques as a means of controlling reality.”

‘I’m trying to distract you from what I just said.’

Paragraph 3

But Williamson is just as wrong in his brutal, even callous, denunciation of transgender people as acting out “delusions”.

‘Now you have to give me a free pass.’

And he’s wrong not because he[’s] politically incorrect, but because he’s empirically off-base. He too is creating his own reality. For Williamson, it seems, you can only have one sex and it is dictated by your genitals. End of story. Naturally, he doesn’t address the question of what biological sex is when you are born with indeterminate genitals that are not self-evidently male or female.

‘I’m calling sex a social construct and a scientific fact.’

The intersex are a small minority – from 0.1 to 1.7 percent, depending on your definition – but in a country of 300 million, that adds up. And the experience of those people – especially those [who] have been genitally mutilated to appear as one sex, while feeling themselves to be the other – is a vital part of understanding what sex and gender are.

Kevin may not like this – but it’s complicated.

‘I see trans people as straight people in the wrong bodies.’

Paragraph 4

We can see crucial differences between male and female brains, for example, and they do not always correspond to male and female genitals.

Citation needed.

Since by far the most important sexual organ is the brain, the possibilities of ambiguity are legion.

‘But I still think you binarily just are a man or woman.’

And this is not a matter of pomo language games. The experience of a conflict between self-understood gender and assigned gender is real, and a source of great anguish.

‘Treating trans people as an academic phenomenon is awful when other people do it.’

That human anguish is what we should seek to mitigate, it seems to me, rather than compound as Williamson does.

‘Seriously, where’s my free pass?’

Paragraph 5

And as J. Brian Lowder notes, the insistence of many transgendered people on the need to permanently reconcile their physical bodies with their mental states is in some ways a rather conservative impulse.

‘Transitioning makes you straight.’

There’s a reason that Iran’s theocrats allow for sex-change operations but not gay relationships.

‘Trans people aren’t real victims like gay cis men.’

The transgender desire not to be trans-gender but to be one gender physically and mentally is actually quite an affront to queer theorists for whom all gender and sex are social constructions. Many of these people want testosterone and estrogen and surgery to end their divided selves. And it doesn’t get more crudely biological and not-social than that.

‘Now I’m saying genitals do define gender.’

Paragraph 6

Which means that there are also divisions within the trans world between those who might be able to pass completely as another gender, after reassignment surgery, and those whose visual ambiguity or androgyny will remain.

‘Trans people just pretend to be the gender they say they are.’

Lowder quotes a trans artist thus:

“If you don’t wish to own [tranny] or any other word used to describe you other than “male” or “female” then I hope you are privileged enough to have been born with an appearance that will allow you to disappear into the passing world or that you or your generous, supportive family are able to afford the procedures which will make it possible for you to pass within the gender binary system you are catering your demands to. If you’re capable of doing that then GO ON AND DISAPPEAR INTO THE PASSING WORLD!

‘I’m arguing for this system and don’t even realise it.’


This is the perennial question of a minority’s anxiety about sell-outs – whether it be expressed in the fights over how light-skinned some African-Americans are or how “masculine” gay men are or how feminine lesbians appear. In other words, this is a very complicated and sensitive area.

‘I’m pontificating so I don’t have to examine what I’m saying.’

But if we are to make progress in understanding – and William’s piece shows how far we have yet to go – we have to let go of these insecurities and defensiveness and accept that no question about the transgendered is too dumb or too bigoted to answer.

‘Really, just tell me about your genitals.’




  1. says

    WTF?! Either Sullivan went downhill recently, or he was always this lame and he only looked good when attacking easier targets like Bush Jr. Either way, this is “soft bigotry” at its most callous and willfully ignorant.

    Also, as another writer, I have to take issue with this asinine quote:

    “The obsession with policing language on the theory that language mystically shapes reality is itself ancient…”

    Fucking language, how does it even work? Language DESCRIBES reality, dipstick, and if you use the wrong words, you get a wrong description; and that, in turn, does indeed SHAPE at least a few people’s understanding (or misunderstanding) of reality. That’s not a “theory,” and there’s nothing at all “mystical” about it. It’s a basic fact I learned in junior high school, and if Sullivan can’t get his head around it at his current age, then he needs to admit he doesn’t have the chops to be a writer, and STFU already.

  2. says

    I just heard about Sullivan’s piece, went and read it, and felt like banging my head on the desk. But you’ve cheered me up now :)

  3. says

    Raging Bee

    Meh, Sullivan is OK for a conservative, I guess, sometimes, for certain values of OK. As far as I remember, he has always included quite illiberal things in the mix of what he has written. Last time I had paid any attention to him, he was going all Freeze Peach about the former Mozilla CEO and Prop 8 supporter Eich, which included the standard metaphors of physical harm for being criticized and having to bear repercussions from an organization which felt they no longer wanted him representing them, even if only for marketing reasons. (Same sort of crap one heard when wotisname got kicked off Duck Dynasty for being too blatantly a racist ass.)

  4. says

    I tried to read Sullivan’s piece, but my eyes suddenly desiccated as soon as the shape of the letters “p.c.” struck my retinas.

  5. says

    @Raging Bee (#5)

    He was always awful.

    @Jonathan (#6)

    Happy to heari t!

    @CaitieCat (#7)

    Any time.

    @F (#8)

    Very true.

    @johnradke (#10)

    I like you.

  6. says

    As I shared on Facebook I will share here as well, Andrew Sullivan has always been this awful. He only looks less awful sometimes because he has spent the last few years critiquing Tea Party era Conservatism by amateurishly ripping off the things liberals have been saying about conservatives since the ’80s . Here is the premier Sullivan critic, Driftglass (also of The Professional Left Podcast)

  7. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr says

    I’m saving this in my bookmarks for when cis people ask me about what is and isn’t appropriate when talking about trans people. Because your fisking is perfect, and Sullivan is not nearly as good at hiding his obsession with trans genitals as he thinks he is.

  8. says

    I wonder if Sullivan would find it forward of me to ask about his preferred sex practices, positions, and preferences.

    I wonder if he would make the connection.

  9. says

    Fascinating. From Sullivan’s response that’s mentioned in that article, some choice quotes:

    To answer them is to give legitimacy to the very premises of their argument: that the most intensely personal details of someone’s private life can and should be used for political purposes. The truth is: no-one’s legal, consensual, adult private life should be plundered and exposed for political purposes.


    Why should anyone in public life be forced to respond to such things? What, after all, was McCarthyism?

    He also launches into a “first they came” pastiche comparing his critics to Nazis, just in case anyone else still wondered if being awful was new to Sullivan.

  10. says

    I think it’s completely fair game to flag up his hypocrisy, after he spent years – including the essay that began contemporary gay marriage campaigning – throwing nonmonogamous and HIV positive queer men under the bus.

  11. says

    Totally agree. It’s a wonder that he understands privacy and questions people shouldn’t have to answer when it comes to sex and HIV status, but not so much when it comes to genital status.


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