In early discussions of transgenderism, many people pointedly quoted Thomas Jefferson’s line about government power and religion: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Why, I was asked, are you bothered about whether someone born male later comes to identify as a woman when it does you no harm, financially or physically? At the time, this question gave me pause for thought; but that has long since ceased to be the case.
Take, for example, Biden's executive order on “Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation,” signed within hours of taking office and followed days later by an order lifting the ban on transgender people in the military. There is no doubt about the new administration’s priorities in this area.
Justice Gorsuch may have genuinely believed that his ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County had implications only for employment practices, but this new order, citing the Bostock precedent, made obvious that which Gorsuch had somehow missed: Once a group has been granted legal status and protections in one area of the law, it is very difficult, and arguably unfair, to prevent those protections from being legitimately extended to other areas. According to Biden's new order, school restrooms, locker rooms, and sports can now no longer be organized on the basis of sex—or “sex-based stereotypes,” to use the current administration’s favored terminology.
There has been an understandable outcry about the consequences of this, most obviously for women’s sports, where physical differences exert rather a significant influence. For example, women’s running, from the 100m to the marathon, will easily be dominated by men who identify as female. More worryingly, contact sports such as women’s rugby will become very dangerous.
I am the faculty advisor to the women’s rugby team at Grove City College. Will it soon become illegal for me to refuse to allow the women to play against a team containing biological males who have rejected “sex-based stereotypes”? Whatever might be the legal case, I would consider it criminally irresponsible to allow such a match to take place.
If only it was just women’s sports that were headed from ESPN to the History Channel. Even more serious, however, is the utter collapse of any stable notion of human personhood. What constitutes a person is now apparently nothing more than your feelings, your psychology. You feel you are a woman, despite what your body tells you? Then understand that your body has no authority here; go with your gut. And when there is (as J. K. Rowling discovered) an a priori commitment to categorizing anything to do with the body as irrelevant to gender identity, there is no way to argue against this nonsense. Has President Biden ever read a page of gender theory? With the stroke of a pen he has made its egregious and far-fetched fictions the law of the land.
Transgenderism is really just the latest, most radical expression of the notion that there is no human telos beyond that rather nebulous concept we might summarize as “feeling good about ourselves as individuals.” Humans are just matter, the biological organization of which has no moral significance. The body has no intrinsic telos or purpose, for it can be manipulated to serve those feelings in which we have come to invest decisive authority. As Angela Franks put it in a recent essay, the loss of the sense that human beings are for anything is the scourge of this present age:
We do not know who we are, where we come from, and where we are headed, all of which would require an anchoring in a more solid reality than contemporary ephemera grants us. Given that such formal and final causality is only a cultural memory, we are thrown back onto our own resources.
Franks’s punchline to this paragraph is profound: “Hence we replace being good with an easier project, looking good.” Or, one might say, with “feeling good.”
The political problem, of course, is that this expressive individualism that allows, even requires, that we create our own identities and destinies is still limited by notions of harm, as the executive order makes clear. Any form of social organization that denies or challenges the identity of transgender people is by definition discriminating against them.
And when you throw intersectionality into the mix, as the executive order does, then this matter of discrimination is yet further complicated, and its specific content made more elusive. Only the victim, or the one presented as victim, can have any real moral status. It is not just women’s sports that are heading to the museum. It is anything that can be categorized as oppressive—be they religious organizations, traditional moral convictions, or previously unexceptionable pronouns.
At root, the executive order exposes a rather obvious truth: Not all visions of personal happiness can be realized and society has always had to reject and suppress some—those of the serial killer or the rapist, for example. But traditionally, the legitimate and the illegitimate could be distinguished on the basis of agreed-upon human ends, which all humans share and which transcend the individual. Once those ends have been abandoned in favor of personalized, bespoke forms of individual happiness, an odd thing happens. With no consensus on what human beings are for, someone still has to make choices about which identities are legitimate and which are not. And thus the freedom of radical individualism ironically requires the authoritarianism of governmental decrees, with appropriate penalties attached.
The days when one could claim that transgenderism would not pick my pocket are gone. Trans ideology is set to change everything. The legal status that Gorsuch and now Biden have granted to it will bring financial penalties in its wake, I am sure. As to breaking legs? Well, my own pair are thankfully still intact. But how much longer that will be true of those of the women’s rugby team is anybody’s guess.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College.
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