Trans People and the Politics of Propriety

Over the last few years, leftists have intensified their attacks on traditional norms regarding sex and gender identity. This began in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage nationwide. Activists swiftly redirected their efforts toward securing transgender rights, which was trumpeted as the next frontier in the struggle for LGBT equality. 

Since then, their demands and assertions have become increasingly absurd. As recently as last month we were told that there was no universal way to define the word “woman,” that there is a moral obligation to use the pronouns (often made-up words) that conform to the preferences of the person to whom they refer, and that men can get pregnant. The LGBT lobby and their allies insist that “trans women” are women and “trans men are men.”

A trans woman, of course, is almost always a biological man—a person with XY chromosomes, born with male anatomy—who “identifies” (i.e., feels like) a woman. Only a few decades ago we would have said a person of this sort was “living as a woman,” a turn of phrase that subtly acknowledged the immutability of sex. Today, the slogan “trans women are women” is a rejection of that reality. The trans woman, we are told, isn’t wearing a costume, isn’t wearing a mask, and isn’t denying any basic reality about his identity. No. “She” is a woman. Full stop.

So there was a great deal of irony last week when a leaked draft of a decision showed that the Supreme Court will likely vote to overturn Roe. On social media and in the streets, furious leftists howled that men should have no say in the legality of abortion (never mind that the court was made up of nine male justices when Roe was decided). Many conservatives noted the lightning speed at which progressives resorted to claims about sex and identity that they in other circumstances routinely decry as bigotry. Suddenly, it was crystal clear what a woman is: someone with XX chromosomes, female anatomy, and a womb. Suddenly, it was plainly evident that only biological women can get pregnant. Suddenly, the scolds who demand “inclusion” everywhere and always wanted to exclude half of the population from having any say regarding public policy on one of the most important issues.

Leftist elites, who have recently peddled the phrase “pregnant people” rather than “pregnant women” to propagate the lie that men can get pregnant, now find themselves backtracking. 

The Associated Press, trying to provide cover for the obvious inconsistencies on these matters, announced an adjustment to their style guide: “Phrasing like ‘pregnant people’ or ‘people who seek an abortion’ [ . . . ] should be confined to stories that specifically address the experiences of people who do not identify as women.” Translated from Newspeak, here’s what they mean: “When covering abortion, ‘journalists’ should acknowledge the truth that only women can get pregnant; when covering other issues, they must continue to pretend that anyone can get pregnant.” Credit is due to the AP: they explicitly admitted that political expediency governs their use of language. At least they’re honest (about that). But this admission illuminates the true motives of those who claim that “trans women are women”—motives that are quite different from what activists suggest.

“Trans women are women.” The slogan refutes itself. If trans women really were women, we wouldn’t need the “trans” that precedes the “women.” The “trans” serves to modify the term “women”—it quietly indicates that the people in question are somehow different from normal women. 

The claim is often postulated as a scientific one. But the AP’s statement shows that the slogan is not a biological assertion. It is actually a claim about manners and propriety. What else is addressed in a journalistic style guide, but a set of standardized conventions—conventions which have nothing to do with the facts, but everything to do with how the facts are stated? “Trans women are women” masquerades as a statement of fact, but it is actually an appeal to normative power of politeness. What it really means is “you should refer to trans women as women (even though they aren’t women).”

That last parenthetical bit is always unstated, but it’s there. This is evidenced by the Left’s response to the pending decision by the court, which insists that men should have no say in public policy on abortion because they can’t get pregnant. Nevertheless, they must pretend to believe that men can get pregnant because such dissemblance is necessary if others will be persuaded to act as though it’s true. This reveals the secular vision of piety that the Left is trying to impose: it is one that holds politeness in greater esteem than truth. “Trans women are women” demands that society at large denies the basic facts of nature in the name of courtesy. 

It is important that we refuse to comply.

Surely, some people will conclude that pretending to believe that trans women are women (or that trans men are men) is a simple act of courtesy or a basic recognition of human dignity, and they will therefore agree that recognizing them as authentic women is the right thing to do.  Such allies might point to numerous social situations where we do not say what we really think out of concern for others’ feelings or well-being. Consider when someone asks “Do I look fat in this dress?” Sometimes, the person asking the question does, unfortunately, look fat in that dress. And on those occasions, almost everyone would agree that you probably shouldn’t tell that person the truth. This is because the person isn’t actually asking if they look fat. She is really looking for a vote of confidence—an affirmation that she looks good.

But isn’t that all the transgender community is seeking? Perhaps. 

But (try as the Left will to make it one), obesity is not a formal determinant of norms of public interaction and the structure of society in general. There are no separate dressing rooms for fat people. Sizing aside, there are no types of clothing reserved exclusively for those who are overweight. There are no differences in how fat people learn that would justify accommodations in education. There are no grammatical or linguistic rules that must be obeyed when speaking about an obese person. Obviously, we cannot say the same about sex. There are natural differences that manifest on the basis of sex. In other words, being fat is not a human characteristic that matters in terms of the higher organization of social life.

Sex is a characteristic that matters. Sexual difference permeates the very structure of society, family life, religious life, medical practice, and more. Many people like it that way. Many people cherish the fact that men and women are naturally different. Those differences are not “socially constructed” ones, as are a person’s choice of religious beliefs or political affiliation.

Because sexual difference is a biological reality that history shows has always been an organizing principle in human civilization, we cannot pretend it doesn’t exist just to satisfy the ephemeral demands of politeness. If enough people indulge this fantasy, it will bring about a fundamental restructuring of our world. Of course, this is the true aim of the people insisting that trans women are women. Sometimes they even admit as much. They’re weaponizing propriety to dissolve resistance to their demolition of the existing order, pretending that biological sexual difference is merely a matter of tolerance, courtesy, and good manners. They know that most people are good—or, at least, that most people want to be seen as good which, in our time, has become synonymous with “tolerant.” They know that our impulse toward human decency makes it hard to resist demands for accommodation.

Their appeal to decency is disingenuous, however. How do we know? The people who now insist on the importance of propriety are the same ones who have prosecuted a war on decency and manners for decades. They have argued for more profanity in public discourse—a dialogue that is already saturated with vulgarity. They enthusiastically endorsed the wide availability of hardcore pornography and encouraged children to seek it out as part of a “health” regimen. They not only support the “right” to abortion as an extension of “privacy” rights, they insist that abortion must be publicly professed and celebrated—that women should “shout their abortions.” They think your children should know the sexual orientation of their elementary school teachers. They think looting is a form of reparations. They support government-issued crack pipes.

The people who attack politeness as backwards, prudish, and repressive are the same ones who now want to dictate the terms of good manners. They are trying to impose speech codes in order to silence the speaking of truth. Their feigned concern for “decorum” is simply a vehicle to achieve this objective. If you don’t comply, they may try to cancel you. But if you do comply, you assist in the cancellation of the truth. Faced with that choice, some “impoliteness” might be justified.

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About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

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