Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

While driving from Illinois to Iowa, ­Donald McCloskey had an epiphany. He had spent the previous night dancing at lesbian bars in Aurora and now was returning to his home in Iowa City, where he was known as a libertarian economist and “conservative in academic terms.” Once again he would be expected to act as a father to his children and a husband to his wife. He resented this expectation, but he saw no alternative—until an insight overwhelmed him. “I can be a woman,” he sobbed. “I am a woman!” At that moment, Donald McCloskey became Deirdre. 

McCloskey recounted his gender crossing in his 1999 memoir, which has been reissued by the University of ­Chicago Press with a new afterword. It is a striking tale, lent special interest by McCloskey’s status as one of the most glittering stars in the conservative firmament. He has received the Edmund Burke Medal, the Hayek Book Prize, and the Adam Smith Prize. His work was supported by the Earhart Foundation, whose founder believed “that the free, competitive American enterprise system, based upon the Christian ethic, was the highest form of social organization.” He publishes regularly in conservative outlets, including a recent special issue of National Review urging conservatives to resist socialism. (A writer for the same magazine has said it is “Time for a Compromise on Transgenderism.”)

McCloskey’s most monumental work is a trilogy on the “Bourgeois Era,” which updates Max Weber’s description of the cultural habits underlying the capitalist order. Weber’s account, published in 1905, described capitalism as arising from the “protestant ethic” of the bourgeoisie. Calvinism was especially effective in promoting this worldly asceticism. In order to assure himself and others of his divine election, the Calvinist eschewed all idleness. He deplored sports on Sunday and practiced a “strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life.” His abhorrence of ostentatious clothing and his ­commitment to sober living helped him to save rather than spend.

Much has changed in the last hundred years. A small-town, patriotic, Protestant bourgeoisie has given way to a secular, cosmopolitan managerial-professional class. ­McCloskey’s defense of the “bourgeois virtues” reflects this shift. He celebrates the gusto with which this new bourgeoisie breaks old bonds. “The breaking of constraints in the 1960s that so irritates neoconservatives was not the beginning of cultural rot,” he concludes, but “the fulfillment of a promise” of ever-expanding freedom. In McCloskey’s account, things that once would have been considered capitalism’s downsides are numbered among its supreme achievements. We live in the wake of a great cultural and economic enrichment that has made “more lives available.” People can assume new identities by “sifting through the cornucopia, making themselves in their music and their clothing.” This is the up-to-date ­apologetic for capitalism celebrated by today’s ­conservative movement.

Despite McCloskey’s evangelical efforts, some have failed to appreciate the splendor of the new freedoms. In the afterword to his reissued memoir, McCloskey censures all those who have failed to accept his identity as a woman. After all, people change. “In a free ­society shouldn’t they be allowed to? Tell me why not.” This appeal to freedom is powerful. McCloskey’s wife and children failed to embrace his gender change, and still do not speak to him twenty years on. But very few institutions have offered them support. Even conservative organizations such as the free-market Acton Institute refer to ­McCloskey, with impeccable correctness, as her and she.

It is now widely understood that anyone who questions the usefulness or validity of the notion of gender identity, and especially anyone who “misgenders” a person, must be a bigot. As ­McCloskey puts it in his memoir, “the crossphobe radical feminists are allies in hatred with the gay-bashing murderers of Matthew Shephard.” The possibility that there might be good reasons to doubt the theory of gender identity, or to resist its verbal protocols, has been excluded from polite conversation.

Even those who do not accept the claims of transgenderism sometimes adopt its terms. True, failing to address people as they desire risks communicating contempt rather than love, achieving a narrow honesty at the expense of a higher truth. But it is not always clear what love demands. If one’s husband claims to be a woman, is one obliged to agree? When ­McCloskey told his wife that he was a woman, she asked, “Who am I? . . . A woman who lived thirty years with . . . a woman?” The cultural powers who have since referred to McCloskey as a woman—governments, universities, media outlets, conservative foundations, churches—have said yes in reply.

According to GLAAD, gender identity is “a person’s internal, deeply held sense of their gender.” It is discovered by consulting one’s deepest feelings, not by observing one’s body or inhabiting socially assigned roles. Polonius’s exhortation to Laertes, “To thine own self be true,” was once understood as the sentiment of a fool, but it has since become an endlessly repeated public motto. Despite its supposed queerness, transgenderism relies on our acceptance of this cliché.

While establishment conservatives accommodate themselves to claims of gender identity, feminist scholars continue to challenge them. Gender-critical feminists point out that over the broad span of human history, most people have failed to discern an innate, deeply felt sense of gender identity. They have simply inferred their gender from their biology and social roles. Doing otherwise requires placing an absurd stress on contingent stereotypes (girls like pink; boys like blue).

Gender-critical feminists have suffered professional retaliation and concerted harassment. Such methods are now commonly employed against anyone who questions transgender claims. McCloskey was one of the first to use them, though this aspect of his career is not incorporated into his reissued memoir. The target of his harassment was J. Michael Bailey, a professor at Northwestern University who affirmed transgender people and even helped them to obtain surgeries, but who made the mistake of seeing transgenderism as based in erotic desire rather than as an innate identity.

Incensed by Bailey’s heresy, McCloskey and a few other activists arranged formal charges of scientific misconduct. They aided one of Bailey’s research subjects as he claimed that Bailey had engaged in “sexual relations” with him. They filed a series of complaints with the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation, charging that Bailey had provided psychiatric services without a license. Alice Dreger, a former professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern, published an exhaustive examination of these charges in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Dreger found that the charges were either spurious (practicing psychiatry without a license) or dubious (sex with a research subject).

Such acts sit uneasily with McCloskey’s professed libertarianism. He protests his sister’s attempts to commit him to psychiatric care, and insists that “since no financial fraud is involved, the government has no interest in stopping someone from claiming female gender.” But he does not hesitate to wield state licensing law and institutional disciplinary procedures against his enemies.

McCloskey describes himself becoming more gentle and empathetic as he becomes a woman. Soon enough, he is the woman in the family. As he takes on feminine traits, he tells us, his closed-minded wife becomes “the masculine force.” Her failure to accept his newfound identity is a sign of male selfishness and aggression. She asks him to slow down. He tells her she is “a pathetic failure as a wife.”

McCloskey finds a warmer reception at work. His ­academic dean is a fellow free-marketeer. When ­McCloskey announces his transition, his dean replies: “Thank God . . . I thought for a moment you were going to confess to converting to socialism!” When ­McCloskey encounters people who are less perfectly open-minded, they tend to be of lower status. While attending a drag convention, ­McCloskey gives a hotel maid twenty dollars. She reflexively replies, “Thank you, sir,” and ­McCloskey snatches back the bill, returning it only after the maid says “Thank you, ma’am.” When a cab driver calls ­McCloskey “sir” at the end of a ride, McCloskey throws the fare in his face. 

“Gender change,” McCloskey writes, “is a freedom thing, one of a long line of liberations from 1776 on.” This freedom is being advanced through professional intimidation, economic pressure, and by the heavy hand of the state. Ostensible conservatives have showered its champion with honors, while ignoring the claims of his family. They do not see, or do not care, that liberation requires coercion and bourgeois virtue has turned to vice.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things. A previous version of this article incorrectly described the article published by National Review as representative of the institutional view of the magazine.