I will one day try to articulate what it feels like to know an overwhelming majority of mainstream media that an overwhelming majority of voting people access are determined to accept the most dangerous trans-antagonistic premises as simply given when debating our rights. This was the case with Judith Shulevitz’s predictably inaccurate contribution to trans rights discourse, an article I could generously describe as a hit piece rather than a think piece: Is It Time to Desegregate the Sexes?
I struggled with how to formulate a response without repeating myself, as many of the assumptions made by Jesse Singal during his defamatory works on trans people have already been challenged by me, and many of those same assumptions are here. It feels a bit like I’m Hercules fighting the hydra–cut off one head and two more take its place. And chances are the only way I will avoid reproducing the same refutations to the same bullshit peddled by strange bedfellows (religious biological essentialists and radical feminists? ableist hippies and the alt right? under one banner? wtf?) is to eventually collect the bullshit in one place to deal with it all at once.
Thankfully, this time, Chase Stangio stepped into the ring for me, sparing me another grueling analysis and hours of research that trans-antagonists won’t even bother to access.
Whether appearing in the New Yorker, New York Magazine, or the New York Times, these pieces follow the same formula — a non-transgender writer poses a question about the impact of respecting transgender people’s bodies and identities framing it as a “debate”, “culture war” or “clash of values” then interviews a lot of non-transgender people, and concludes that the issue is difficult because unlike other civil rights struggles, transgender people’s demand for humanity infringes the rights of others. Or, as Elinor Burkett put it in a June, 2015 Sunday New York Times op-ed, “the trans movement isn’t simply echoing African-Americans, Chicanos, gays or women by demanding an end to the violence and discrimination, and to be treated with a full measure of respect. It’s demanding that women reconceptualize ourselves.”
What Burkett and Shulevitz do is normalize the idea that demands by trans people to, as Burkett says, “be treated with a full measure of respect” necessarily hurt others. For Burkett this is by “demanding” that “women reconcentualize” themselves and for Shulevitz it is by implicating/upsetting the privacy and modesty rights of others — mostly cisgender girls. Though their frame takes these tensions as a given, they are anything but given. Instead, this framing reflects the authors’ ideological views about transgender people disguised by the sanitizing language of clashing values. It is dangerous to accept the premise of these pieces without interrogating those underlying views.
Lacking the voices of any transgender people or advocates, Shulevitz’s “debate” is set-up to reinforce all the assumptions about transgender people that many people share — the view that transgender girls and boys are not real girls and boys, the view that the bodies of transgender people infringe the rights of others, the view that inclusion of transgender people would disrupt educational and extracurricular settings.
She systemically introduces voices to reinforce each of these assumptions and never offers the expertise of individuals who can show that none of these assumptions is correct. She quotes Alliance Defending Freedom, a libertarian law professor, a so-called “radical feminist” organization defined by their belief that women who are trans are actually men, and a select group of educators to ostensibly highlight the challenges that transgender people pose in educational settings. Absent from her piece are the voices of transgender people, advocates, medical associations, pediatric associations, school administrators, and others who could clearly explain based on concrete experience that none of these assumptions comports with reality.
If she is going to deem protecting transgender people “a revolution” of notable “magnitude” then it might be useful to include the many school administrators who have testified to the exact opposite of her provocative warning — that such protections caused no disruption at school and were implemented seamlessly. This hyperbolic suggestion that merely allowing transgender people to be present in the locker room with their peers — most of whom love and respect them for who they are — is a revolution is offensive to both the concept of revolution and to the humanity of trans people. All Shulevitz has accomplished through this framing is to reinforce the talking points advanced by anti-trans groups like Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
When I challenged Shulevitz about this on Twitter, she responded dismissively and defensively and then deleted her tweets and ended the conversation. My intention was never to demonize her but to draw attention to the risks of what she did on a platform as powerful as the Sunday Times.
As writer Imogen Binnie explained on Twitter, when reading pieces like Shulevitz’s, one must ask “what does this article propose trans people should do”
“[I]f the answer is something like ‘not be trans,’ please consider that most trans people have tried that and it didn’t work,” Binnie tweeted.
And the effect of Shulevitz’s piece is no better demonstrated than the comments over on the NYT. Self-professed Butlerians high-fiving evangelicals interspersed with calls to arms to “protect America’s women.”
Guys, I’m tired of fighting. Jesus Christ.