Seated woman reading by contemporary artist Hennie Niemann jnr
‘The Visitor’, by Hennie Niemann, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Resized.

­­Keeping Our Story Straight: The Peril and Promise of Transgender Analogies  

Everybody wants a revolution. Nobody wants to do the randomized controlled trials.

It makes sense: social science is slow and finicky, and responsible researchers balk at providing causal explanations for sweeping, society-wide shifts. That’s even more true when those shifts are controversial or polarizing, as in the case of our “transgender moment.”

The percentage of Americans identifying as transgender has doubled over the past five years, with an incredible 5.1 percent of 18-29 year-olds now identifying as trans or non-binary. This reflects an astounding increase, from an estimated 10,000 Americans in 1976 to over 1.6 million today, one in five of whom are under the age of 18. Why is this happening? We don’t really know. The science is weak, and even if it were better, science alone couldn’t answer our ethical questions. Is this explosion in transgender identification good or bad? What are its ramifications for other values we hold dear, such as religious freedom and women’s rights? How should we respond to it?

Under conditions of uncertainty, we often find ourselves reasoning by analogy. Analogies can be extremely useful: they explain phenomena, often by reference to the past, and provide guidance for our actions. Yet analogies can cause trouble, too, highlighting unimportant elements of a situation while shadowing crucial ones. Unlike the scientific method, in which we eventually hope to land on one single truth, analogies multiply, sometimes in contradictory ways.

This is certainly the case in the trans debate. Five key analogies are commonly used to explain ­the rapid increase in transgender identification in the United States. These are:

(1) Gay Rights

(2) Medical Progress

(3) Social Contagion

(4) Religion

(5) Trend

The first two are generally employed by those who interpret the increase positively, the latter three by those who are more skeptical. Each individual analogy has been helpful to the activists who rely on it. Yet within each set—the two positive analogies and the three negative ones—we find contradictions. The medical progress narrative undermines the comparison to gay rights­, while contagious mental illnesses or mere trends are not, and should not be, thought of as religions.

The conflicts between the two pro-trans analogies have led to some fascinating schisms within the pro-transgender movement. Liberationists who adhere to the gay rights analogy, for example, viciously attack “trans-medicalist truscum” and accuse them of harmful “gatekeeping.” But the conflicting analogies are also problematic for trans-skeptics. This rather rag-tag coalition is made up of disparate groups, including sex-realist feminists, gender-critical activists, and social conservatives, each of whom is likely to find a different analogy appealing. It’s easy to find yourself leveraging an analogy to make a policy case, only to see it undermined by your ostensible allies.

One way of handling this problem is to try to find common ground among the analogies, enabling your movement to coalesce around a set of policies that would achieve maximum buy-in. This isn’t possible for the pro-trans side, as I’ll show below: there is no coherent set of policies that can satisfy both narratives. But for the trans-skeptics, it’s worth thinking about how religion, social contagion, and trend all share a more fundamental connection to the problem of diversity of belief in a pluralist society.

In what follows, I’ll briefly outline each analogy in turn, showing how these different ways of thinking point towards different policy solutions. For sex realists, in particular, this discussion should remind us that we need to give people chances to recover from their mistakes. Rather than attempting to ban “treatments” or “eradicate” trans ideology, trans-skeptics should conceive of their work, in part, as building escape mechanisms for those who are caught up in the gender paradigm. No society will ever be without harmful ideas, but a healthy community balances freedom and protection, giving us not only the space to fail, but also the grace we need to get back up again.

Gay Rights & Medical Advancement: Conflicting Pro-Transition Analogies

The two most popular analogies on the pro-trans side are that of gay rights and medical progress. In the first, a natural human trait is finally “freed” from oppression, and the population grows in response; in the second, a pathology heretofore misunderstood is finally treatable, increasing the visibility of the diagnosis. Each analogy has internal problems, and the conflict between the two has been destabilizing for the trans rights movement as a whole, leading to fierce in-fighting and general confusion. Highlighting these contradictions, then, can be one way of encouraging pro-trans friends and family to critically engage with the subject, opening up space for more productive conversations about these beliefs.  

I. Gay Rights

In the lead-up to the 2015 Supreme Court decision that established same-sex marriage in the United States, many gay and lesbian people declared that they were “Born This Way.” Sexual orientation, they asserted, was an unchangeable and unchosen aspect of their identity. Instead of asking the individual to change to fit society, they argued, we ought to change society to fit the individual.

This approach was always controversial, even within the LGBTQ community. Queer theorists rejected outright the naturalization of identity and its use as the basis for calls for social change. However, there was plenty to be said in favor of the approach. It was intuitive, a political winner that seemed to have a strong basis in fact. Indeed, some research suggests that homosexuality may be at least partly genetic or epigenetic (though many dispute this claim). What’s more, even if the term “homosexuality” is a new invention, same-sex activity certainly has a long history. 

Many of today’s transgender activists compare their situation to that of gay Americans thirty years ago. They claim that transgender identities are intrinsic, that some people are simply “born in the wrong body.” A popular graph compares transgender rights to left-handedness: when oppression is removed, the story goes, the natural population stabilizes. Advocates argue that transgender behavior, like same-sex relationships, has always existed and always will. 

There are a few problems with the analogy, however. First, there are evidentiary problems for its foundational claims of immutability and historical inevitability. Second, there are important ways in which the changes to public policy called for by transgender identities are different from those called for by gay identities.

To begin, the evidence that transgender identification is immutable just isn’t very good. This has required some backpedaling on the part of advocates, many of whom now reject the “wrong body narrative.” Indeed, the case looks bad enough that some are calling to end the search for any evidence altogether. The history also creates difficulties. Given the overlap between gender-non-conforming behaviors and homosexuality, it’s hard to know if Sporus, slave-boy to Emperor Nero, actually considered himself a woman when he married in women’s clothes. And were female vikings men, or were they just breaking the shackles of their socially prescribed gender roles? Groups representing so-called “third genders,” such as the Hirja in India and Fa’afafine in Samoa, are strongly associated with non-heterosexual behavior. This leads to complaints that claims to transgender history erase gay people and proto-feminists

What’s more, if such care is truly life-saving—if the choice is between a dead daughter and a live son, in the oft-repeated phrase—why haven’t we historically seen suicide levels commensurate with the percentage of the population we’d expect to be trans? Five percent is no small number; the lack of such statistics supports the claim that people are over-identifying today, that such care was not needed in the past, or both.

Most importantly, the analogy undermines a key activist demand: expansion of “gender affirming” care. Unlike “coming out of the closet,” medical “affirmation” of transgender identities requires extensive, life-long treatment carried out by a whole team of individuals. There is no medical care required to live one’s life as a gay man or lesbian woman. The social structures demanded by trans-rights activists thus differ in kind from those of the gay-rights movement; they are not an extension of what is already afforded non-transgender (“cis”) people, but something new altogether, a fact which has been relied on by those proposing a different analogy for the increase in transition: that of medical advancement or progress.

II. Medical Progress

In this analogy, trans-rights advocates compare “gender-affirming care” to other medical developments. In this narrative, there is a condition that existed long before it was named, and only with the advancement of science and technology have we been able to identify its etiology and develop appropriate cures.

Consider schizophrenia. Before the development of modern medicine, the illness may have been interpreted as demonic possession or punishment for sin. It was not until the nineteenth century that schizophrenia was understood as a clinical condition. Today, schizophrenia affects approximately 24 million people world-wide. Meanwhile, accusations of demonic possession have declined precipitously. Analogously, the emergence of a diagnosis of gender dysphoria enables us to understand and treat people who would have been labeled as socially deviant before. On this view, the rapid growth in diagnosis is only facilitated by the increasing technical adeptness of sex-reassignment surgery, paired with widespread and increasingly easy access to cross-sex hormones, which make transgender people more willing and able to find the help they need.

Currently, this is the predominant understanding of transition. Yet, once again, this analogy is controversial, resulting in heated, even vitriolic, fights between old-school transsexuals and trans rights activists.

One of the largest disagreements is on the matter of gatekeeping. The term “gatekeeping” has two meanings: first, the desire to only provide treatment to those with a diagnosis; second, the limiting of the community of trans individuals to only those who have undergone medical treatment. Transsexuals tend to support both kinds of gatekeeping, insisting that people must medically transition to be recognized as their preferred sex. Trans-rights advocates, on the other hand, disdain gatekeeping, as numerous articles show. Influential groups like Human Rights Watch have even campaigned against the existence of gender identity disorder. Once again, the analogy to gay rights is drawn: we do not ask someone to receive a diagnosis of “homosexuality,” for such a diagnosis is itself stigmatizing.

Yet the medical progress analogy also causes problems for trans rights activists. For one thing, the legitimacy of gender-affirming treatments will be determined by medical research, and their efficacy can therefore just as easily be disproved as validated. Some compare the transgender phenomenon to more controversial medical diagnoses, such as multiple personality disorder, whose rapid increase can be attributed to a mixture of social contagion and overdiagnosis. Such overdiagnosis medicalizes ordinary life experiences, such as the inability to live up to impossible gender standards or the urge to exercise control over one’s body when the outside world is frightening or unstable. The point about stigmatization also remains: this analogy shows that it is less-than-optimal to be trans. After all, who wants to be a life-long patient?

In everyday conversations with those who are sympathetic to calls for “trans rights,” it’s common to see them jump back and forth between the gay rights and medical advancement analogies. Highlighting the contrasts can help them see that the matter isn’t settled. The policy outcome isn’t obvious, because the nature of the problem isn’t obvious.

These two analogies call for entirely different outcomes: “live and let live” versus the treatment of a pathology. 

Trans-Skeptical Analogies: The Problem of Diverse Beliefs

Like the two pro-trans analogies, the three trans-skeptical analogies—social contagion, religion, and trend—initially seem to contradict one another. We ought to fight social contagion, tolerate new religions, and ignore passing trends. However, taken together, these three analogies highlight a long-standing problem of contemporary societies: how to balance individual well-being with freedom of belief.

I. Social Contagion

By now, the social contagion analogy will be extremely familiar to anyone who has been following public debates about youth medical transition. Here, the rise of transgender identification, particularly the astonishing change in sex ratios—with gender clinic referrals in England going from 75 percent male to 70 percent female in just a few years—is compared to other examples of social contagion, such as the rise of bulimia in the 1980s. Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage, is one of the texts to make this analogy most explicitly, but many others have drawn similar parallels. 

This analogy has a great deal of explanatory power, which makes it extremely popular. But it is also quite limited: it provides guidance and insight into the condition of teenage girls, and it can be extended to other populations insofar as they share the same base characteristics. This isn’t the case for all who transition.

Teenage girls and young women share three characteristics that make them especially susceptible to social contagion: a sensitivity to social esteem, a propensity towards inward-directed self-destruction, and tendency to experience the strong desire to escape their female bodies.

Teen girls are the canary in the coal mine. If society is trending towards a particular value, you will see it in their behavior. From the suicide contagion of the Romantic Sturm & Drang movement to the rapid spread of eating disorders in the wake of the “Thin Ideal,” they will go where the social esteem is. Today, in many teens’ social circles, being transgender establishes your identity and earns you acclaim and acceptance. According to one young woman who identifies as a transgender man, “They all flaunt it around, like: ‘I’m trans, I’m trans, I’m trans.’ They post it on social media.”

Girls are also especially likely to engage in behavior that results in self-harm. To be sure, many teenagers have destructive tendencies, but these are decidedly gendered in appearance. As Celeste Marcus points out, “Women are three to four times more likely to suffer from anorexia and bulimia and to cut than men are.” Men, by contrast, are four times more likely to commit murder. “It would seem”, she concludes, “that men brutalize one another and women brutalize themselves.”

Furthermore, as various feminist authors have observed, teenage girls are also discovering just how bad it is to be a woman today: a sexual object in a pornified world, good only for being choked and abused before aging into obsolescence and becoming a disgusting, vacuous Karen. As Sarah Ditum puts it, “The tragedy of a misogynistic world is that it makes girls believe they need a cure for femaleness. The scandal of GIDS [the UK gender clinic] is that it pretended it could supply one.” 

If this analogy is apt, then the solutions to the societal explosion in gender dysphoria should mirror those applied to eating disorders: education about pernicious and sexist social structures, therapy to develop comfort in one’s body, and societal activism to fight female subordination. Binders thus should be seen as a form of self-harm, rather than affirming care, and dissuaded as much as possible.  

But there are many individuals to whom this analogy would seem inapplicable: what about sixty-year-olds—“conservative men in conservative dresses”—who see the process of transitioning as finally achieving self-acceptance? Or those who consider “queering” their presentation a key step in the fight against oppressive gender norms? This analogy doesn’t account for such “true believers.”

Policies meant to protect teenagers cannot be applied to adults without backlash and accusations of paternalism. Even limiting their application to minors might have worrying ramifications for parental rights: telling parents how they must address their child or what their child ought to wear creates worrying precedents. The urge to over-define child abuse may backfire; what begins with sex-reassignment surgery may end with bans of religious circumcision. And the medical connotations of the social contagion analogy imply certain “objective” fixes to the problems, some of which we may not yet have. Thankfully, the next analogy can serve as a helpful supplement to that of social contagion.

II. Religious Movements

The United States is prone to religious revivals, and we have a great deal of practice balancing religious freedom and individual well-being. During the various “Great Awakenings,” religious interest was high, and Americans searched their souls for signs of sin to eradicate; the “Great Awokening” is only the latest iteration.

In this analogy, transgender ideology functions like the new denominations that arise and rapidly attract converts characterized by great moral fervor. Calling attention to this analogy, Andre von Mol has called transgender ideology “a modern day gnosticism” and Mary Harrington sees it as an aspect of our “Cyborg Theocracy.” Similarly, Patrick Parkinson argues that transgenderism has “many characteristics of being a religious belief,” including distinct language, rituals, and fundamental tenets of faith. 

The movement does entail a certain metaphysics—something acknowledged by philosophers aiming to support the transgender project. Likewise, transgender identification has clear parallels to the discovery of faith: one claims that there is a hidden truth found via soul-searching and accepts the call to live in accordance with that truth, despite the sneers and misunderstandings of others. There’s an associated ethical claim, too, even for those who do not identify as trans: fighting sexism requires breaking down the gender binary. Transgender people are the vanguard, taking on the most risk and doing the most work in building a post-gender world

While this analogy is often employed by those who challenge school gender curricula, it has surprising upshots for the more general project of collective living in a pluralist state. It also allows us to look to history for guidance. Transgenderism is not the first movement whose adherents seek to change their bodies in accordance with their souls. What might something like the case of the Skoptsy, a religious group which removed its adherents’ genitals, illuminate for us? If transgenderism is functionally a new religion, our society must balance act protections for the vulnerable with space for free exercise of belief. Those who reject the metaphysics and ethical projects of the transgender community may still have certain obligations to accommodate their belief system, just as other minority religions must be accommodated

Notably, this analogy does not provide support for publicly funded medical treatment, or for the claim that trans women are women, since that would require forcing one metaphysical understanding of “women” on those who disagree. Transgender activists generally prefer the medical progress analogy, because it enables people to argue that this is an objective state of the world that requires immediate action, not a debate about how to reasonably accommodate different beliefs. Still, the analogy may be useful in moderating what is currently a fairly vicious discourse. There can be no calls to “eradicate” transgenderism if it’s understood as a religion, like scientology, which has certain freedoms yet cannot be taught as fact in public schools.

For religious individuals, reframing the debate this way has benefits both strategic and political: in fighting the institutionalization of gender ideology and in winning hearts and minds. Although religious tolerance calls on us to respect other’s beliefs, it also ensures protections for one’s own. To be forced to listen to, for instance, an HR spiel explaining “gender unicorn” is to be subject to evangelization at work; a well-placed lawsuit may make this institutional project not only visible, but less successful. The same goes for access to single-sex spaces.

When talking to “normies”—those not yet well-versed in the trans debates—highlighting the differing metaphysics while emphasizing religious protections can highlight that this truly is a matter of balancing rights: your right to believe in your feminine soul against my right to shield myself from male eyes. And, just as the gay rights and medical progress analogies conflict, the religious analogy will sometimes clash with that of social contagion. It is one thing to allow an adult to mutilate their genitals in a fit of religious fervor. It is a very different matter to allow a teenager to do the same. Where social contagion begins, religious tolerance must end.

III. Trend 

The final analogy used to criticize the growth in transgender identities is to argue that it’s simply a trend. Like punk outfits or Beatlemania, transgenderism is the latest fad to sweep the country and, thanks to globalization, the world. 

Though this has certain similarities with the argument from social contagion, this analogy makes something of a different claim: humans are mimetic creatures, and it’s natural for each generation to pursue its own distinguishing trends. Whereas socially contagious disorders are pathologies, and emerge from negative background conditions, trends simply happen regardless of the environment. Proponents of this analogy point to the many ways in which transgender identities, and associated concepts such as gender fluidity and androgyny, have become markers of status in trend-obsessed industries, such as fashion and beauty. They note that people now identify as “trans for a variety of political to social to emotional reasons.” Even when ostensibly tied to a medical diagnosis, transgender identities seem to come in waves that hit entire friend groups, just like other trends.  

For opponents of the gender paradigm, this is something of a comforting analogy. If it’s a trend, then just like other trends, it will peak and then decline as the next generation decides what came before is now unbearably passé. If this is the case, there’s not much to do. We must simply ride out the storm. Like the Elvis hysteria before it, this too shall pass. 

The problem with this analogy, of course, is all of the above. Bulimia isn’t just a fashion; although it too peaked and then declined, it remains a blight on the lives of innumerable youth. Christianity, too, may have begun as a trend, but it developed immense political and social power and dramatically changed the shape of the world after it. If transgenderism has more in common with a socially contagious pathology or religious movement than the more harmless trends of fashion and hobby, then to do nothing is to surrender to damaged social institutions and deep pain for countless young people. 

A Balancing Act

Despite the contradictions of the analogies of social contagion, religion, and trend, they share a fundamental similarity: that of diverse beliefs. In each situation, individuals are acting in ways that they think will best suit their life-ends. In a pluralist society, we have an obligation to respect those beliefs—up to a point.

That phrase—“up to a point”—may be the key to reconciling the conflicts between the analogies. The state must always balance freedom of belief with (1) the beliefs of others and (2) the general health and wellbeing of the population. This it does in a variety of ways, from forbidding certain acts to creating opportunities for individuals to “bounce back.” Right now, although both tools are being neglected, the second is especially so.

By “bounce back,” I mean that the state should be not only a safety-net, which limits one’s fall, but a trampoline, enabling the individual to once again flourish. For example, in the case of religious schooling, the state has an interest in students’ ability to participate not just within but also outside of their religious community. In the case of a deconversion, the individual should still be capable of thriving. This is one of the reasons the case of New York City Hasidic schools failing to teach English is troubling; it “locks” children in, preventing their ability to integrate with the broader society in the future, should they desire to do so.  Education is one means by which the state provides its citizens such flexibility. Welfare, if done right, can be another.

Both children and adults could benefit from the state providing tools to those who have found themselves on the wrong side of transgender ideology, whether they experienced social contagion, conversion, or simply a desire to be trendy. The benign-sounding paradigm of “informed consent” enables doctors and surgeons to prey on individuals, increasing their profits at the expense of the individual’s wellbeing. Instead of banning medical procedures—which will be seen from the inside as persecution—we need systems that allow adults to make their decisions, and then recover from them. Informed consent waivers currently prevent detransitioners from suing; legislation could change this more easily, and more popularly, than attempting to ban adults from procuring cross-sex hormones or surgeries. 

Other ways of highlighting that this is a problem of pluralism would be to engage with advocates on those terms. Inviting trans advocates to religious events to discuss differences in perspective would highlight the metaphysics that are at stake. Protecting diversity of speech in the workforce and in schools would not only protect “unbelievers,” but would also ground the discussion in the fact of ideological differences. Other tools, such as advocating for protections for trans people on the basis of belief, rather than gender, can not only contribute to the desired paradigm-shift, but may also shape a gentler, more productive conversation. 

In the end, these analogies show us that this problem isn’t new: society is prone to ideological upheaval. When the “transgender moment” passes, we’ll find ourselves facing the next dramatic change. In solving this problem, we should take care to set ourselves up well for the next, when one day this too becomes a source of analogy.