It's All True
On speaking up and speaking out about media coverage of gender dysphoric kids
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“If you’re getting death threats, you’re doing something right,” my father-in-law often said to me.
A renowned Cold War scholar who died peacefully at home Wednesday night, he posited some very sound yet salacious theories about the bombing of Hiroshima that made the US look really bad. Because his theories were so convincing and so well backed by evidence, there was sometimes backlash, and even death threats. And also tremendous respect from his colleagues, who knew that a real patriot calls his country to task.
One former colleague sent a letter after his passing Wednesday that really hit home, as I have been trying to speak out and raise awareness about how the media has been covering gender dysphoric children.
I was struck by [Marty’s] capacity to interact with people who presented different points of view and assimilate someone else's view point, in an age when most scholars withdraw in the inner fortress of what they have learned so far and refuse to acknowledge any innovation in the field. I saw his capacity to adapt and evolve his own thinking year after year, as he stuck to his guns on some issues but also showed an incredible capacity to absorb new ideas and accept new interpretations when necessary.
I can’t claim to have my father-in-law’s combination of smarts and humility. But I can say that I have worked hard to understand the issue of gender dysphoric children from multiple points-of-view, and to not vilify those who think differently than I do, and to let my own thinking evolve. I am asking the media to do as Marty did, to adapt and change in the face of shifting evidence, to not insist that the story needs no editing. Let the narrative evolve.
As such, I have been speaking out, first on Benjamin Boyce’s video series on YouTube and then on Meghan Daum’s podcast The Unspeakable, which is very much dedicated to seeing fraught issues from multiple sides. I do believe that I got a few things wrong on each, and that I didn’t make all the points I wanted to make (which would be impossible to do in a single interview—hence, this Substack).
I wish I had said that among the many reasons for this massive shift in how we are thinking and talking about gender is that it speaks to so many people. Changing a pronoun to they brings psychological relief, allows people to feel undefined by gender norms (though, as I have pointed out before, it does nothing to change those norms, and often reinforces them). The idea of gender identity also touches a lot of people, even if the term itself (not the idea, as I said incorrectly on The Unspeakable, but the term) is only about 60 years old.
But of course, just because some people have a deeply held sense of themselves as a man or woman, girl or boy, doesn’t mean everyone does. To insist that everyone has such feelings, or that everyone has a gender identity, and to arrange the society around those feelings, seems authoritarian to me. And left-wing authoritarianism is what I object to the most. But I understand to other people, that seems inclusive.
I also said that I think one reason the backlash is so severe is that maybe some of the ideas don’t stand up to scrutiny. Over on Twitter, that bastion of innovative thinking, I recently saw a quote: “The truth does not mind being questioned, but a lie does not like being challenged.” But I think in this day and age, with the level of scrutiny social media allows and encourages, nothing much stands up to intense questioning, especially research on gender. You can find a scholarly article on gender to match almost any bias. I think the backlash is severe not just because some arguments of gender identity ideology don’t stand up to scrutiny, but because some of the gains trans people have made were so hard fought and they fear losing them, thus are doing and saying whatever they can not to. I’m sympathetic to this, even if I don’t agree with the bullying of people who disagree.
One of those arguments is about intersex people. You may have heard that intersex people make up almost 2% of the population, but it really depends on what your definition of intersex is. To some, it’s 1.7% of the population; to others it’s .018%. Some people include in their intersex umbrella girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a disease that exposes female fetuses to higher than normal levels of testosterone and other androgens. (Those girls often grow up to be tomboyish, lending fuel to the argument that hormones affect gendered behavior.) But when I talked to some advocates for girls with CAH, they did not want those girls to be lumped into the intersex group.
Who gets to decide the boundaries of these categories? Who gets to decide who is included and who isn’t? These are questions we should be able to ask in a free society.
One critic said I had thrown intersex people under the bus. I don’t understand this criticism, but I wanted to make clear that when I say that not all intersex conditions confound the notion of biological sex, I’m not throwing anyone under the bus; I’m scrutinizing the argument that the existence of intersex people proves that sex is not binary. Some people believe that in fact intersex people prove that it is.
My thinking continues to evolve as I learn more and listen to stories I wasn’t open to as I wrote my book. I chose to not scrutinize some of the arguments my trans participants had made (and I also had trans sensitivity readers, to whom I often deferred in the editing process). I thought I had found a brilliant strategy, an end to the gender culture wars: pluralism. You think one way, I think another, we can live happily on the same planet. It was naive, but I thought I was doing the right thing. But pluralism requires each participant to accept that their way is not the only correct way. It only works if everyone agrees that a single, shiny truth is not attainable.
I do think there is one shiny truth in all of this: gender dysphoric children deserve the best health care possible. These kids may or may not be trans. They may or may benefit from medical transition, which may or may not be safe. The industry needs oversight, regulation, discussion and debate to be its best self. Insiders, including trans people, are saying this—not right-wingers, not transphobes. There is dissent within the industry, and the mainstream media refuses to cover it. But someone who really cares about gender dysphoric kids can call the industry serving them to task.
When a Facebook whistle blower went on 60 Minutes, the media covered it relentlessly, and she went on to testify before Congress. When detransitioners went on 60 Minutes what happened was… oh, wait—nothing. The media only covered it to say why it was wrong. They did not evolve.
One could argue that Facebook has a much farther reach than gender dysphoric children, but considering that many of our kids are learning that gender and gender identity are synonymous, I think it’s fair to say that many of us are affected, even if we don’t have trans or gender dysphoric kids in our lives.
Several people asked me to explain how we got to this point, and what is true. It’s all true. Some kids struggle to find access to gender-affirming care. Some have way too easy access to it. Gender-affirming care is big business for big pharma, and it eases the suffering of many. Some people are being liberated, others traumatized. But dissent is being ignored, often actively squelched, and people are afraid. Last week, philosophy professor Kathleen Stock was targeted by activists who find her reasoned book Material Girls transphobic; they pasted notices calling for her firing around the campus. Who feels free to dissent in such an environment? My father-in-law would say that she’s doing something right.
By the way, The New York Times didn’t cover what happened to Kathleen Stock.
I truly don’t know what else to do. I have pitched many of the mainstream media outlets I write for, and many I don’t, and have either been ignored or shut down. I am writing this Substack, and talking to people who will have me. If you have ideas for me, please share. I do not want to be threatened, but I do want to evolve, and help the media evolve, too.