There is nothing new about gender ambiguity. The Greek mythic figure of Tiresias, whom T.S. Eliot described as “throbbing between two lives,” had experienced life as both male and female. Countless ancient sources testify to men behaving and posing as women (and vice versa). Camille Paglia does an excellent job of documenting these historical phenomena in her book Sexual Personae. But modern culture has also had its androgynes, well before gender identity became a topic that our regime imbued with the utmost seriousness and importance. Consider David Bowie’s personal reinventions throughout the ‘70s, the popularization of make-up for men in rock music (see: Mick Jagger, KISS, Motley Crue, Kurt Cobain, and more), and the ‘90s mainstreaming of cross-dressers like RuPaul.
Until very recently, mixing sex traits and gender roles was a playful way to signify various forms of cultural transgression. In the past though, everyone agreed on the realities that lay beneath these performances: David Bowie was a man, the hair metal guys with perms and eye shadow were bagging more ladies than is healthy for anyone, and the Cobains of the world were simply expressing solidarity with the queer identities that were “marginalized” by traditional culture. It was only about five years ago when these public rituals and performances of gender confusion acquired a kind of sacred status. Gone were the winks that signified we were all in on the joke. Transgendered and “non-binary” identities suddenly demanded not only our tolerance, but our respect and reverence. This doesn’t bode well for society: Paglia notes that as great civilizations approach their collapse, history tends to reflect an uptick in confusion regarding sexual identity.
So serious are today’s increasingly-common “transitions” from one sex to another that a whole constellation of new pronouns have been fashioned to pay homage to the authenticity of every tiny variation in the individual’s sense of self when it comes to sex, gender, and sexuality. The “allies” of the trans-movement insist that we are obligated to make use of these non-words. But it was only ten years ago that academia held that sex and gender were entirely separate categories – sex was a real, biological category, whereas gender was merely a “social construct.” Because gender was a kind of collective hallucination, it was deemed a falsehood that boys should act “like boys” or girls should act “like girls.” But at the very moment when the boys actually stopped acting like boys (and the girls stopped acting like girls), the same professors began insisting that the new gender identities – which just yesterday were mere “effects of language” or figments of our imagination – represented the deepest, most essential, inviolable part of the self. To deny this capital-T Truth was nothing short of an attack on one’s humanity.
“Non-binary” identities were the obvious next frontier in this revolution of mores. Only a few years ago, we were arguing over whether man or woman, male or female, was the correct term for this or that individual. The newly-ascendant non-binary identities slide us even further down a slope we were mocked for thinking might be slippery: today’s converts insist they don’t identify as either male or female. How do they achieve this feat? How do they so breezily sidestep categories as old as civilization itself? Merely by saying so!
The new zealots of Left gender politics are transfixed by the concept of authenticity. After all, the announcement of one’s non-binary identity is the debut of their truest self! But oddly, the bar that transformations must clear to be deemed authentic is set remarkably low. All that is required is for a person to say that they “identify” as neither sex (or gender). This, LGBT allies insist, is totally and necessarily sufficient to seal the incontrovertible reality of their non-binary identity. Having verbally laid claim to a non-binary identity, everyone with whom the convert comes into contact – parents, co-workers, students, teachers, children, grandparents, neighbors – is bound to recognize, validate, and affirm the new identity in perpetuity (or until the individual undergoes yet another transformation).
Despite the hectoring of elites in media, culture, and academia, many Americans still aren’t ready to say that a man they have known for years who now claims to be a woman or “non-binary” really is who he says he is. In short, many are unwilling to accept the criterion of authenticity that the LGBT lobby seeks to impose: the mere verbalization of “non-binary” or “trans” identity isn’t enough to convince people that this description correlates with any social or biological reality. It isn’t just conservatives and traditionalists who contradict the new (il)logic of identity: the leftists are now contradicting themselves.
A news story from last week illustrates that the Left doesn’t really believe the “truths” that they seek to impose on everyone else by fiat. In late November, outlets reported on yet another mass shooting – this time at a gay bar called Club Q, where a drag queen’s birthday celebration was being held. 5 people lost their lives and over a dozen were injured before a patron heroically beat the assailant into submission. Journalists and talking heads immediately began wagging their fingers – at Tucker Carlson, at opponents of Drag Queen Story Hours, and at regular people who have any misgivings at all about the new, radical sexual politics that have gripped America. This massacre is their fault, the left insisted. Conservative scare-mongering and hate-peddling finally resulted in lives being lost, just as the activists promised. The blood is on their hands!
This is all well and good…except for one thing. As we learned more about the shooter, legal documents revealed that he identified as “non-binary.” And the perpetrator wasn’t the only one in his family who had adopted the libertinism inherent in our cultural zeitgeist: it seems the young man’s father “acted” in porn films under the moniker “Dick Delaware.” In light of this new information, the media narrative turned on a dime (as it so often does, when every story must be leveraged to reinforce a leftist worldview). But the particular turn that it took came as a surprise. I expected the media narrative to shift from “Anti-trans sentiment and traditional values are costing lives!” to “Trans-identity and the decline of traditional values have nothing to do with this shooting – stop politicizing it!”
But that’s not what happened. While the police took pains to announce the preferred pronouns of each victim of the shooting (for the sake of accurate reporting), it seems they have never seen fit to refer to the shooter using the “them/them” pronouns that he prefers.
The media followed these cues. Journalists went from blaming “transphobia” for the violence to saying “transphobia is still to blame because the shooter isn’t really non-binary.” This pivot is deeply suspicious, if only because it violates the criterion of authenticity that elites have consistently imposed when it comes to trans-identity: if you say you’re a woman, well then…you’re a woman. If you say you’re a man, then you’re a man. And if you say you’re “non-binary,” that’s proof positive that you are, in fact, “non-binary.” Full stop.
After the revelation of the shooter’s non-binary identity, though, LGBT allies suddenly discovered some skepticism: just because the shooter said he was “non-binary” doesn’t mean that he’s really “non-binary.” This time, they say, it’s just a ploy – a clever rouse cooked up by the shooter to mitigate his culpability in a deadly hate crime! And maybe they’re right. Maybe this is a cynical move to avoid harsher punishment. But these questions of authenticity are beside the point, because those aren’t the rules. The rules – at least the ones by which they have demanded we play – tell us that this man is “non-binary.” He said he was, and so he is. As such, “they” are deserving of our empathy and reverence.
Why does any of this matter? After all, we always knew that “non-binary” identity was a recent invention that attempts to make the pathology of gender dysphoria into the basis of one’s personhood. We always knew that the invented pronouns were laughable. What do we learn from the fact that the progressives so blatantly contradicted their claims about gender, respect, and language?
Most importantly, we learn that it’s not just conservatives who think so many of the claims regarding non-binary identity are ludicrous. Progressives agree with us. That’s the only explanation of their equivocation; people don’t so quickly abandon sincerely-held beliefs. And yet, they continue to insist that they do believe them. This indicates the second lesson conservatives should draw here: our counterparts on the political left think the rules are for us. They make the rules; it’s our job to obey them. This exposes what is really at the heart of the rhetorical tug-of-war over non-binary identity and pronouns. It’s not really about gender. The whole drama is about power: progressives’ assertion that they have sole discretion to dictate the terms of civic discourse and public life in general. They expect us to ignore their self-contradiction. To do so would be to affirm their hold on this power, which is the biggest reason that it cannot be ignored. Their claim to these powers is illegitimate.
The slipping of their mask confirms what we’ve been saying all along: that the new standards they insist upon for language use, behavior, and public interaction with gender non-conforming persons are blatantly unworkable. We must remember this as they inevitably double-down on novel pronouns and compulsory displays of “respect” – especially as the Colorado shooting fades from the headlines. Indeed, this fading has already occurred. It happened at lightning speed, as soon as the news hit that the shooter identifies as non-binary, despite the fact that stories of mass shootings usually remain prominent for weeks after the tragedy. The embarrassed silence that has now engulfed the media on this story shows that they would already prefer to forget the whole affair. It’s our job to remind them: again and again.