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Polarization on transgender-related issues

Updated: Mar 15

This is an excerpt from Defusing American Anger on topics related to transgender- and gender- related issues. It includes:

  • Attempt to help people see the more rational points of the arguments on "the other side"

  • Thoughts on how we should engage when we think the "other side" is doing significant harm

  • Discussion of removal of books from schools (aka "book bans")

To see all excerpts and learn more about them, go here.

Transgender/gender issues

Transgender-related topics are another source of us-versus-them anger. 

On the liberal side, there can be a perception that conservative-side stances on the trans issue are motivated by bigotry and hate. The left perceives this topic through the Civil Rights Movement lens: a group is being oppressed, and we must help them. 

On the conservative side, there’s a widespread perception that most gender dysphoric and transgender people are under the spell of a delusional social fad, or else suffering from mental issues. On the more extreme end, some conservatives view liberals’ stances on the trans issue as evidence of a sexually perverse plot to “groom” and abuse children. 

For my podcast, I interviewed Carey Callahan, who once had began transitioning from female to male by taking hormones, and who later changed her mind and detransitioned. Part of our talk focused on why this topic is so hard to talk about, and why it generates so much anger and polarization. 

In that talk, Callahan said something that summed up so much about the nature of polarization: “The complexity of the issue is inconvenient for both sides.” I think it’s a great quote: It captures the essence of how polarization dynamics tend to make us flee a nuanced debate, for fear that a nuanced discussion will help the other side or hurt ours. 

As with many of the issues we’ve discussed, the transgender issue is a tremendously complex one, and yet some highly polarized people exert pressure to choose one of two binary with-us-or-against-us stances. We’re pressured to see either one side or the other as deranged and evil. 

I will attempt to walk you through how it can be that a rational, well meaning person would be able to view either side as the bad guys. 

For some people, this is a very sensitive topic, right up there with race. So there’s a decent chance something I say in this section will bother you. And I hope you’ll remember the goals of this book: that to lower our anger at others, we must try to understand the views of others, and we don’t have to agree with those views to do that. 

The unknowns of being transgender 

Some people have a strong desire to change their sex, and are made happy by that process. 

Douglas Murray is politically conservative, and his book The Madness of Crowds examined what he saw as bad liberal-side thinking, and that included bad thinking on transgender issues. And yet even he argues that conservatives shouldn’t dismiss transgender experiences. He writes:    

[James Morris’s] transition into Jan began in the 1960s and culminated in a sex-change operation in 1972. Already renowned as an author, this soon made her one of the most famous trans people in the world. Morris’s memoir of that transition, Conundrum (1974), remains one of the most persuasive and certainly the best-written accounts to date of why some people feel a need to transition across the sexes. Indeed, it is hard to read Morris’s book and come away thinking that something like trans doesn’t exist or is ‘merely’ a trick of the imagination. 

Morris describes her earliest memory as being a young boy sitting under his mother’s piano—at the age of three or four—and realizing that he had been ‘born in the wrong body’. In the years that followed—through the military, marriage, and fatherhood—the conviction never left him. It was only on meeting the famous New York-based endocrinologist Dr Harry Benjamin that some solution to the problem presented itself. These were the very earliest stages of trying to understand trans. [...]

Anyone who doubts that there are some people completely persuaded of the need to change sex should consider Morris’s description of what he was willing to go through. [...]

Morris described the period following the operation, including after the return home, as the experience of a constant feeling of ‘euphoria.’ This went along with an absolute certainty that ‘I had done the right thing.’ Nor did the feeling of happiness wear off. At the time of writing Conundrum, Morris was aware that what had happened in the process of James becoming Jan was ‘one of the most fascinating experiences that ever befell a human being.’ [...]

As she says, ‘Of course one would not do it for fun, and of course if I had been given the choice of a life without such complications, I would have taken it.’ Nothing, she says, could have shaken her conviction that the person born as a he was in fact a she. And in search of a fulfillment of that realization there is, she says, absolutely nothing she would not have done. If she were trapped in that cage again, she says at one point, ‘nothing would keep me from my goal … I would search the earth for surgeons, I would bribe barbers or abortionists, I would take a knife and do it myself, without fear, without qualms, without a second thought.’ 

I include this to show that even a dedicated conservative like Douglas Murray can argue for recognizing the depths of people’s feelings in these areas, and argue for respecting their experiences. 

For people who are skeptical about transgender identity, it’s good to recognize our uncertainty in these areas. There are many things we don’t know about the human body and mind. 

Let’s take the condition referred to as body integrity dysphoria. This is a rare condition where people feel such a painful mismatch between their mental image of themselves and their physical body that they have an overwhelming desire to remove one or more parts of their body to soothe that pain. For example, someone might report being physically disgusted by a completely normal and healthy leg and have a desire to cut it off. Some report feeling that the offending body part doesn’t feel like part of them, that it feels disgustingly alien. 

For most of us, this would seem bizarre and insane. If you didn’t know anything about this, you might expect that someone who wants to cut off a healthy limb would almost certainly be quite psychologically unstable. But that’s not the case. The case histories include some highly functioning, seemingly normal people. 

A 2005 New York Times article on this condition was titled At War With Their Bodies, They Seek to Sever Limbs. Here are some excerpts from that article: 

Body integrity identity disorder has led people to injure themselves with guns or chain saws in desperate efforts to force surgical amputations. A few have sought out amputations abroad, including one man who died of gangrene after an elective amputation in a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico. [...]

In 2000, Dr. Gregg Furth, a New York child psychologist and one of Dr. Money's co-authors on his 1977 paper, published a book about the disorder, calling it amputee identity disorder. In addition to his professional interest in the subject, Dr. Furth had a personal one: from early childhood, he had wanted to have his right leg amputated above the knee.

Dr. Furth wrote the book with Dr. Robert Smith, whom he met while searching for a surgeon who would perform the elective amputation. When Dr. Furth found him in Scotland, Dr. Smith had already done two such operations, and he agreed, after consulting with two psychiatrists, to operate on Dr. Furth. But in 2000 Dr. Smith's hospital, the Falkirk Royal Infirmary in Glasgow, prohibited any further procedures of this type. Dr. Furth never received his amputation. [...]

According to Dr. First, people with the disorder are basically normal. "They have families," he said. "They hold all kinds of jobs, doctors and lawyers and professors. They're not screwed-up people apart from this. You could spend an evening with them and never have the slightest clue."

And studies have found abnormalities in the brains of people suffering from this condition. Here’s an excerpt from the summary of a 2020 paper titled Neural Correlates of Body Integrity Dysphoria

We tapped into the brain mechanisms of BID, examining sixteen men desiring the removal of the left healthy leg. The primary sensorimotor area of the to-be-removed leg and the core area of the conscious representation of body size and shape (the right superior parietal lobule [rSPL]) were less functionally connected to the rest of the brain. Furthermore, the left premotor cortex, reportedly involved in the multisensory integration of limb information, and the rSPL were atrophic. [...]

The neural correlates of BID may foster the understanding of other neuropsychiatric disorders involving the bodily self. 

My point is not to compare being transgender with body integrity dysphoria, or to say that I think being transgender is a medical condition. I mention all this just to make the point that there are still many things we don’t understand about the human mind and body. Things that can strike us as a psychological problem will sometimes have underlying biological causes. 

To take a personal example: I went from being in the best physical shape of my life at age 35 to, within a few weeks, being extremely weak, with significant body pain. Even just lightly pressing my finger into my muscles hurt. My cognition and memory were also impaired. I literally thought I was dying. After weeks of tests and seeing doctors, with the tests showing nothing wrong, I finally realized I had what people call Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), which are names given to a grouping of several symptoms, including weakness and body pain and cognitive issues, even while medical tests don’t show anything wrong. Up to that point in time, I’d always thought that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was just in people’s minds because, so I thought, if advanced Western medical tests couldn’t find anything, it must not exist. (I did dramatically improve at the two year mark. If you’d like to learn more, you can read my story at

Again, my only point is that there are many things we don’t yet know about the human body and mind. And sometimes it’s hard for us to imagine or understand other people’s experiences because they’re so foreign to us. Sometimes we can’t imagine what other people’s experience and suffering are like unless we experience it for ourselves. 

There’s a lot we don’t know. And if you’re someone who’s skeptical about the realness of gender dysphoria and transgenderism, I’d ask that you keep that in mind as you read this section. 

As with a lot of issues we’re polarized around, the rudest and most aggressive people on each side are responsible for driving the other side’s perception of that side. And this is especially the case for trans issues. When influential conservatives use insulting, demeaning language about these matters, they contribute to the liberal-side narrative that conservatives are motivated by bigotry and hatred. And, even if it’s not their aim, their belligerent language spreads hate and anger, and makes violence against transgender people more likely. And from a purely practical perspective, conservatives who take these belligerent approaches hurt their own cause by making it easier for other people to see conservatives as the bad guys. 

A tweet from a spokesperson for Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis. 

If you’re someone who is concerned about liberal-side transgender ideas and policies negatively affecting children, you should care about the insulting, aggressive things conservatives say. You should want to influence people on your side to speak more respectfully, just as you likely wish that more liberals would speak up to defend conservatives from unfair accusations of bigotry and hate. 

Respecting the humanity of transgender people, and seeing the well meaning motivations of their allies, is how you get more people to examine your points about the mistakes of liberal-side thinking. 

Could gender identity theory be creating gender dysphoria? 

In the past few years, there’s been a big increase in the number of people who say they are transgender or nonbinary. To quote from a June 2022 Pew Research study:

1.6% of U.S. adults are transgender or nonbinary – that is, their gender differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. [...] 

Adults under 30 are more likely than older adults to be trans or nonbinary. Some 5.1% of adults younger than 30 are trans or nonbinary, including 2.0% who are a trans man or trans woman and 3.0% who are nonbinary – that is, they are neither a man nor a woman or aren’t strictly one or the other. [...] This compares with 1.6% of 30- to 49-year-olds and 0.3% of those 50 and older who are trans or nonbinary.

The share of U.S. adults who are transgender is particularly high among adults younger than 25. In this age group, 3.1% are a trans man or a trans woman, compared with just 0.5% of those ages 25 to 29. 

The liberal-side explanation for this increase is that there have always been many people who were gender dysphoric and nonbinary and now it’s simply become more accepted to talk about it, which makes people more open about such things. 

An alternative view is that most of the transgender phenomenon is due to social influence. In this view of things, a young girl may see a couple of her friends say that they’re transgender, and hear more about transgender ideas in the media, and thus may be more likely to see themselves as transgender. 

For most liberals, the idea that at least some part of this trend is caused by social effects is a position associated with a conservative stance, but there are liberal people and even transgender people who believe that. 

To take one example: A psychologist named Erica Anderson, who is a transgender woman, has said that she believed the rise in gender dysphoria was at least partly due to peer influence. Here are some excerpts from a 2022 Los Angeles Times article about Anderson: 

[Concerned] parents come to Anderson, 71, in part because she herself is transgender. Anderson also stands out because she is one of the few clinical psychologists specializing in transgender youth to publicly question the sharp rise in adolescents coming out as trans or nonbinary.

She has helped hundreds of teens transition. But she has also come to believe that some children identifying as trans are falling under the influence of their peers and social media and that some clinicians are failing to subject minors to rigorous mental health evaluations before recommending hormones or surgeries. [...]

“I think it’s gone too far,” said Anderson, who until recently led the U.S. professional society at the forefront of transgender care. “For a while, we were all happy that society was becoming more accepting and more families than ever were embracing children that were gender variant. Now it’s got to the point where there are kids presenting at clinics whose parents say, ‘This just doesn’t make sense.’ ” [...]

“The people on the right … and on the left don’t see themselves as extreme,” she said. “But those of us who see all the nuance can see that this is a false binary: Let it all happen without a method or don’t let any pass. Both are wrong.” [...]

Some drifted from one identity to the other: gender-questioning, trans, nonbinary, gay. And many of their cases were complicated by anxiety, depression, autism, bipolar disorder or other mental health conditions that predated their desire to transition.

“A fair number of kids are getting into it because it’s trendy,” she told the Washington Post in 2018. “I think in our haste to be supportive, we’re missing that element.”

One quote from Anderson was: “To flatly say there couldn’t be any social influence in formation of gender identity flies in the face of reality. Teenagers influence each other.” Anderson has also said she thinks there should be more rigorous mental health screening for people who want to transition using hormones or surgery. 

The idea that people can be influenced by their peers and their environment has an intuitive logic. We’re all social creatures and we get our ideas from people and things around us. Regardless if you agree with that stance or not, hopefully you can see why rational people would perceive social influence as a likely explanation for at least some of the increase in the number of transgender people. 

When it comes to the routes by which social influence may be happening, one possible route of influence is gender identity theory. Gender identity theory is a theory used to explain gender dysphoria: its basic concepts are frequently explained in mainstream media and in schools. It’s possible that accepting the ideas contained within gender identity theory can make someone more likely to consider themselves transgender. 

For people who believe that gender dysphoria and transgender identity are largely a social contagion, this is an important idea, so I’ll spend some time explaining this point of view. For liberals who believe conservative stances on transgender issues are motivated largely by bigotry, seeing these points is important because it will help you see how it is that “anti-trans” stances can be motivated by compassion and concern. 

So let’s start with defining gender identity theory. Gender identity theory asserts that: 

  • We all have an internal sense of gender, our “gender identity,” which is roughly defined by how male/masculine or female/feminine we feel. 

  • Our internal gender identity can conflict with the gender associated with our birth sex. 

  • This concept of internal gender is distinct from who we’re attracted to sexually (this helps explain why a heterosexual man might transition to become a woman while still being attracted to women).

Gender dysphoria is the term used to describe people who believe that their internal gender identity is mismatched with the gender associated with their birth sex. 

How would one come to believe that their internal gender identity is mismatched? There are no objective qualifications: it would require an internal perception that something is amiss. To quote from a medical brochure I saw in a doctor’s office, one’s gender identity is based on a person’s “inherent sense of being male, female, or another gender.”

Here’s a little more detail from the 2021 book Human Sexuality by Rokach and Patel:

So, for example, a male-to-female (MTF) transsexual is someone who is born male but perceives herself as female, whereas a female-to-male (FTM) transsexual is born female but perceives himself as male. 

The characteristics of transsexualism are described as follows: a strong desire to exchange one’s primary sex characteristics with the sex characteristics of the other gender; a desire to be the other sex, and to be treated accordingly; a belief that one’s feelings and behaviors are actually related to the other sex. 

For some people, the things that lead them to believe their internal gender identity is mismatched are related to stereotypes about what represents masculine and feminine behaviors and traits. In the TV program Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric, Couric interviewed Sam Killerman, who wrote the book A Guide To Gender. This was one exchange about gender expression from Couric’s show (edited slightly for readability): 

Couric: So gender expression is the way you present yourself to the world. So you could be talking about the way you dress, the way you comb your hair…

Killerman: Or don’t. 

Couric: Or use product. So everything kind of as it relates to the outside world.

Killerman: Yeah, that's a perfect way to think about it. So this is funny: the way that I’m sitting right now is a very feminine expression of sitting, because like, how we sit is gendered, right? 

Couric: Meanwhile, I'm kind of manspreading. 

Killerman: (crosses his legs) This is the man-cross, the masculine way of crossing the legs. This is just uncomfortable for me. It feels like so much. 

Couric: It feels good to me. It’s like yoga… So gender is different than sexual orientation. But a lot of people get them confused. 

Killerman believes that some behaviors and tendencies are “gendered”: that some are more masculine and some are more feminine. 

In a post titled 17 Signs I Was Transgender But Didn’t Know It by Natalie Egan, a male-to-female trans person named some of the early indicators they were transgender. Here are some of the indicators listed in that piece: 

I have always been super emotionally intuitive and sensitive.

My dad’s ‘father-son’ activities were not my thing. My dad loves to go hunting and fishing (and so does my sister, ironically). I didn’t enjoy either activity. 

I have a tramp stamp. Enough said. Well, it really isn’t a traditional ‘tramp stamp’, but it is close enough (in the center of my lower back).

Again, we can see how some of the ways by which people know they’re transgender are related to behaviors that the transgender person sees as either masculine or feminine. 

In a 2021 article on titled Signs your child may be trans, according to an expert, it said the following, “A common sign of gender variance in children is dressing up or playing in ways that do not correspond with the sex they are assigned at birth, according to [Samantha] Busa.”

In these examples, we can see that some of the things people often point to as being tied to gender identity are essentially stereotypes about women and men. In order to believe that one’s own traits and habits are mismatched, one must initially believe that there are certain behaviors and traits strongly associated with being a man (for example, aggression, toughness, crossing one’s legs, an interest in sports, or an interest in hunting) and certain behaviors and traits strongly associated with being a woman (for example, gentleness, a desire to be pretty, an appreciation for the color pink, or a desire to get a “tramp stamp”). 

If one thinks that such stereotypes are meaningful, one becomes more likely to perceive a mismatch between one’s gender identity and one’s physical sex. If one doesn’t believe that those kinds of stereotypes are meaningful, one is unlikely to perceive a mismatch. 

Gender identity theory, by saying that all of us have an internal gender identity and that it can be mismatched with our sex, seems like a concept that can potentially make someone who believes in it more likely to perceive a mismatch. 

To put this in more concrete terms: I personally don’t believe in the concept of gender identity. I don’t believe I have an internal gender identity because I don’t believe that the stereotypical traits we tend to associate with “male” or “female” mean much at all. There may be various traits that our physical sex makes more likely, but there’s clearly also significant variation, and significant mystery involved about what those things are exactly. Because I believe men and women can have all sorts of traits, and because I don’t believe in the gender identity concept, there’s no mismatch I can imagine perceiving. 

But if I did come to believe in gender identity theory, I might start looking for the ways my traits seem to not be aligned with my physical sex. I might think something like, “Oh, I’ve got a few traits that are associated with femininity, maybe my gender identity is actually quite feminine.” But again, I don’t believe in gender identity, so I would never start down that road of enquiry. 

To be clear, there may be other routes through which I might have a sense of gender dysphoria: for example, if I had a strong urge to become a woman that was based purely on a visceral feeling that I was in the wrong body from a young age (as Jan Morris reported), that would be another, different route. But what I’m examining here is how the conceptual nature of gender identity theory may make feelings of gender dysphoria more likely through a more cognitive, idea-based route. 

Gender identity theory seems to say that we’re all free to transcend societal stereotypes of what male and female are. But, a bit paradoxically, it also seems to say that those societal stereotypes are still hugely important because, if you perceive that you have male or female personality traits (however you define those) and those don’t align with stereotypical ideas about your physical sex, you’ve got a serious problem.

Gender identity theory is often framed as a progressive, liberating idea, in that it’s meant to break down the restricting male/female-associated roles that society forces upon us. Some trans activists will frame gender identity ideas as part of a fight against “gender oppression.” 

But another view is that gender identity theory relies on old-fashioned stereotypes about men and women, and that it’s just using these same old stereotypes in a different format. The theory could be seen as restrictive and stifling when compared to a philosophy that denies the idea of gender identity and states that men and women are able to have all sorts of traits and behaviors, and aren’t tied down by any sort of internal gender-related categories. 

It’s possible to see gender identity theory as restrictive and confusing because it theorizes about internal concepts and labels when in fact, as far as we know, there are no such internal concepts and labels at all. 

As a young child, I was sensitive and gentle. I spent a lot of time reading. I found most boys loud and intimidating. Many of my friends were girls and I found hanging out with girls much easier than hanging out with boys. I’ve never had the slightest interest in sports and sports passion has always baffled me. It would sometimes feel natural to cross my legs in a way that was described as feminine on Katie Couric’s TV program. I once was the only kid in my fourth grade class to bring a stuffed animal on an overnight field trip. I’ve never felt internally “masculine” in any meaningful or quantifiable way (although I wouldn’t be surprised if there were various ways testosterone and my physiology have affected my traits in various ways).  

It’s easy to imagine that if I were growing up today, hearing gender identity theory-related ideas around me, I might wonder if my traits, and their mismatch from societal stereotypes, meant that I was transgender. But instead, as it was, I grew up in a very politically progressive home where my attention wasn’t drawn to the idea that my traits and behaviors might not match my physical sex. I didn’t absorb the idea that certain traits were meaningfully associated with male or female. And today, I don’t believe any of those stereotypes are meaningful. Or, if they are meaningful in some ways, those ways are unknown and mysterious—and, even if they exist, I don’t believe such things should influence how people live or define themselves. 

One female friend of mine, as a child, was quite conflicted about her gender-related presentation. She was an overweight tomboy in a small, predominantly conservative town. She felt like the feminine girls and women around her, and the ones she saw on TV and in magazines, were some sort of different species than she was. And she says if she were growing up today, she might also wonder if she were transgender. 

This points to another idea: the more traditional someone’s family and environment are, in terms of how much they think sex-related stereotypes are meaningful, maybe the more likely that person is to have gender dysphoria when they encounter gender identity theory ideas. The more someone has internalized ideas like “these kinds of traits are associated with males and these traits with females,” the more likely they’ll be to perceive their own traits as in conflict with their physical sex. (In my talk with Carrie Callahan, she agreed with this idea: she saw her socially conservative childhood environment as a factor in her perception of herself as transgender.)

The more pressures you face to align with gender stereotypes, and the less you fit those expectations, the more that the concepts of gender identity theory might appeal to you. It gives you an explanation for your alienation, when in fact your alienation might be due to other reasons—like being a sensitive, artistic young man in an area where that’s uncommon, or being an outgoing, tomboyish young woman in an area where that’s uncommon. 

When talking with some liberal people about this, there can be an assumption that there must be some science behind the gender identity theory concept, that there must be some good reasons for why it’s so popular and referenced so often. But gender identity theory is not scientific. It’s not a scientific theory that’s been studied. From what I’ve been able to tell, there seems to be no more evidence for gender identity theory than there is for Freud’s Oedipal Complex theory. They are both simply ideas. And I want to emphasize this because there can be a perception that, because something has a fancy-sounding name with “theory” in it, it can sound more impressive and established than it actually is. 

Some people might say that the evidence for gender identity theory is that many people believe in its concepts and can relate to them. But that could be explained by the fact that these ideas have become popular and have been spread far and wide. Due to the popularity of the idea, it’s not surprising that many people will ascribe to it. That’s not an indicator that there’s any validity to the idea. In a similar way, at the height of the prevalence of Freud’s ideas, many respected psychologists believed in his theories, but that doesn’t tell us anything about how accurate his theories are.

Gender identity theory posits that everyone has an internal gender identity. And yet this is an unrelatable concept to many people. I personally can’t relate to it: I don’t feel I have anything resembling a gender identity inside of me. Nor can many liberals I’ve talked to. This doesn’t disprove the idea, but it at least points to why rational, well meaning people can be instinctually skeptical of it. 

The idea that gender identity theory is contributing to gender dysphoria could easily be scientifically studied. It would simply require surveying people to see if a belief in gender identity theory concepts makes it more likely that they’ll report gender dysphoria, and see if a disbelief in such concepts make gender dysphoria less likely (something along those lines).  

Gender identity theory is simply an idea: it’s a theory of human psychology. And we should be willing to criticize it and study it, just as we’re willing to criticize other theories of mind. And being able to criticize gender identity theory in no way detracts from treating transgender people with respect. And even if gender identity theory is influencing people, that would still be only one factor, and wouldn’t explain everyone who is transgender (for example, it wouldn’t explain Jan Morris’s experiences). 

You will see people who teach gender identity theory concepts sometimes admit that the theory can be a bit logically circular. One speaker I saw, after summarizing the gist of gender identity theory, looked a little sheepish and said something like, “I realize that may be a bit confusing, because what one person perceives as masculine or feminine might not be what someone else perceives as masculine or feminine.” But any criticism in that regard is typically waved away with a summation like, “But all that matters is how you want to identity, and that’s entirely up to you, and no one can tell you otherwise.” 

And that sounds superficially pleasant and supportive but, for reasons discussed, it seems to be skipping over a lot of conceptual messiness. 

But you may be wondering: Why does that messiness matter? Who cares if the theory is a bit wishy-washy or vague? What’s wrong with people just feeling a certain kinship, however undefined and personal, with a specific gender, however they internally define it, and just rolling with that? 

The reason it matters is that the confusing aspects of gender identity theory may be making people confused about themselves. They may become more likely to have gender dysphoria, and suffer because of that, when they perhaps wouldn’t have suffered in the absence of those ideas. 

And it’s possible to examine how, if people are influenced by these ideas and start to believe they have gender dysphoria and start to transition, some of those people may feel frustrated that the results are not what they had hoped. They’ll perceive that the hormones don’t seem to be doing enough to help them achieve the desire results, and so they have to keep trying. And then perhaps the surgery is also not enough, and so more surgery is needed. And so on. 

In other words, such ideas may set some people up on an arduous and stressful quest for a different identity. And the pertinent question is: is it possible that these ideas are inducing some people to start a painful quest that was never necessary? 

To bring us back to depolarization: seeing the ways in which one can criticize gender identity theory can help us see what it is that bothers some rational, well meaning people about liberal-side stances on this issue. And hopefully you can see how objecting to such things doesn’t mean one is a hateful bigot (though of course some of those objectors are). It’s possible for a rational person to perceive logical flaws in these ideas, and to believe that these ideas are making people suffer, and making children suffer.

If you’re someone who thinks conservatives are bigoted for their transgender stances, is it possible to see that many conservatives may be genuinely worried that these ideas are harmful for children? Is it possible to see that both liberals and conservatives can be genuinely worried about children’s welfare and wellbeing, in different ways? 

Some liberals will make an argument like, “Questioning these ideas are harmful to transgender children; questioning these ideas promotes transphobia and leads to depression and suicide.” But this often seems a way to shut down the conversation: it isn’t an answer; it’s an avoidance. If many of us think this is an important topic, presumably there must be some way to have that conversation.

And for the reasons we’ve examined, it’s possible to believe that gender identity theory itself may be the cause of depression and suicide in many gender dysphoric children, and not the questioning of such ideas. We should try to see how people on both sides of this debate can be motivated by genuine compassion for children. 

Maybe these criticisms and concerns can help you understand why someone would not want their child to be taught gender identity concepts. I’ll be honest and say that I would not want my children to be taught gender identity theory concepts. I’d want my children to be taught to do what they want, regardless of societal expectations: to live how they want, to dress how they want, to love who they want, to not be restrained by what society expects from them based on their genitalia or what they look like or how they act. I wouldn’t want children to be taught what I think are very debatable and confusing ideas about their internal psychology, no more than I’d want them taught that Freud’s Oedipal and Elektra Complex theories were valid ideas—no more than I’d want them taught that any unproven, highly debatable psychological theory was true and that it applied to them. 

I wouldn’t ask children to look inside themselves for categories and boundaries that I don’t believe exist. I’d be afraid such ideas might confuse them and make them confused and anxious, as I think such ideas might’ve made me confused and anxious as a child. I’d even go so far as to say that, if I believed my children were being taught such concepts, that I’d likely try to send them to another school. 

And if you can see how even politically liberal people can have such concerns, you’ll be in a better place to understand what drives conservative anger on this. 

When talking about this idea to liberals, one criticism I’ve heard is something like, “Sure, those are valid intellectual points about gender identity theory, and I agree with some of that, but do you think your average conservative is thinking like that? Don’t you think most of them are just being reflexive bigots and aren’t thinking about it from an intellectual point of view?” 

But I think this is a pessimistic criticism mainly motivated by us-versus-them thinking. What it’s missing is that it doesn’t require much intellectual thought to have an intuitive sense that gender identity ideas are a bit confusing. To use myself as an example: before I’d looked much into gender identity theory, I had some intuitive thoughts like, “This seems overly complicated; why can’t people just be any way they want to be, without the need for labels?” I was also just intuitively skeptical of an idea that purported to cleanly explain such complex and impossible-to-know interior aspects of our psychology. 

In other words, I had several instinctual feelings that there were many things to debate in this area. And I think it’s much the same for many conservative people. Many simply have a sense that there is something confusing here, regardless of if they’ve thought through the specific criticisms I’ve detailed. What also may be adding to conservative-side frustration is that liberals seem unwilling to engage in the debate: many liberals act as if the morally correct answers are obvious, as if there is no debate to be had. Understandable questions and concerns are frequently branded by liberals as bigotry, despite the fact that such questions would have been considered entirely normal by almost everyone, including liberals, just a few years before. 

Some liberals will treat all conservative-side views on this issue as equivalent to the most bigoted and hateful views. But hopefully you can see how there’s a lot of room here for debate about these ideas. 

Our views of harm being done, and how that relates to democracy

This might be rather evident after the last chapter, but I’ll state it directly: I think liberal-side gender-identity-theory ideas have been very harmful for people, especially young people. 

I wanted to dwell on this for a moment not because I think my specific views are important but because I think it is important to recognize that we all will have our own perceptions of the harms people are doing. We all will have things we look at and think, “That’s very wrong,” or “That’s very dangerous.” And even politically similar people can have vastly different views on such things. 

Even as I think that there is immense harm being done here, and in assorted other areas in society, I believe that how we engage with each other is of the utmost importance. Because we will always have various disagreements about harms being done in society. Some people will look at my views (including my depolarization work) and believe sincerely that I am doing immense harm. 

The fact that it is so easy for us humans to reach hugely different views on morality and harm leads me to believe that I must treat others as I would want them to treat me if they thought I was the bad person. This is the only way a democracy will survive: we must embrace the view that, even when we see each other as dangerous, we must treat each other as fellow citizens: citizens who have, whether we like it or not, political power like our own.

On social influence and “born that way” views 

One liberal-side misunderstanding that seems to muddy the waters and add to animosity is the perception that, when someone proposes that there might be social and environmental influence involved in being transgender, it’s akin to saying that someone is mentally unwell, that “it’s all in their head.” 

But the idea that one's environment—one's friends and the society and the ideas in that society—can play a role in one's psychology and one's idea of self, should in no way be considered disrespectful. We’re all influenced by society, by our environment; we all have adaptable, fluid minds and fluid sexualities that adapt to things around us. It’s just common sense: we influence each other. 

For example, I have no doubt that my own sexuality and gender-associated traits have been influenced by my environment, and it’s possible for me to imagine me being in certain environments that would make it likely that I’d change my outward traits or my sexuality. I wouldn’t find it insulting for people to theorize about such things. That's the nature of being human: none of us exist apart from the ideas around us. And if we act like such a simple idea is insulting or taboo to discuss, we’ll be setting ourselves for more division and animosity. 

A bit related to this: some people will defend gay rights or trans rights stances with, “They’re born that way.” The thinking is: a belief that the environment can influence such things is dangerous, in that it might give credence to a view that being gay or trans is a choice, or that children can be influenced to be gay or trans. And these ideas can be seen by liberals as dangerous because, if true, they’re associated with conservative concerns and stances.

But it’s possible to view a “they’re born that way” stance as un-nuanced, and even unhelpful. What if, for example, science showed that being around gay people made you more likely to be gay? If one were to take a hardline “gay people are born that way” stance, that finding would be offensive and dangerous. But it shouldn’t be surprising to us that one’s environment influences people. 

Perhaps a more mature and helpful stance is: who cares if environment does play a role? Who cares how someone comes to be gay? Who cares, even, if they make a conscious decision to be gay? They are people leading their own lives and, as such, they deserve respect. 

The debate about these topics, though, can be influenced by our fears of what the other side will do with our beliefs and our statements. We can be afraid of giving the other side “points.” But one path to becoming less angry, and being able to have better conversations, is in acknowledging the complexity of these topics. 

Concerns about children

A common liberal-side argument is that we should give people the freedom to be transgender and identify however they want: that it’s cruel to present an obstacle to that. I think most conservatives wouldn’t object to that basic idea and would agree that if an adult wants to consider themselves transgender, or take hormones or undergo sex reassignment surgery, that is that person’s business. But when it comes to children, the debate becomes more contentious: how much should we allow children to decide these things? What is considered a normal choice versus a mentally unwell one? 

Some liberals take the stance that we shouldn’t present any obstacles, or very few obstacles, to children who decide they’re transgender: that this is the caring and compassionate thing to do: the progressive thing to do. 

But it’s also possible to see that as uncaring and a dereliction of duty. For example, when a teenager becomes pregnant and wants to have a baby, most liberals likely wouldn’t think a good response is, “Whatever you want to do is fine.” Most liberals would likely see it as the responsible thing to do to ask some questions and carefully consider all the factors present and all the available options.

In other words: it can be debatable what is caring and compassionate when it comes to young people making life-changing decisions. Is it caring to let them do whatever they want? Is it caring to help them see things from different perspectives? If we want to help them see different perspectives, how far do we go with that? How much do we push back on their ideas? 

A common conservative-side criticism is that liberals want to teach young people gender identity theory ideas, despite those ideas being debatable and potentially harmful. Some liberals think that this concern is exaggerated; that such indoctrination isn’t actually happening at all, or is barely happening. To make the case that it’s happening, we’ll look at some instances of influential people and places promoting gender identity theory ideas to young children. 

A 2019 Washington Post piece by Henry Olsen was about California making it a policy to teach gender identity theory concepts to kindergartners: 

Last week, California decided that [public kindergartens] would include instruction on gender identity. The mind reels.

It would be a mild understatement to say this is controversial. Religious conservatives fought this, as one might expect. But one doesn’t have to be a religious conservative to wonder if this isn’t a misplaced policy that says more about adults’ ideology than children’s needs.

The California guidelines are quite clear about what is to be taught and why. Page 45 of the K-3 guidelines states: “While students may not fully understand the concepts of gender expression and identity, some children in kindergarten and even younger have identified as transgender or understand they have a gender identity that is different from their sex assigned at birth.” The idea that 5-year-old children can be trusted to “know” their gender identity is unbelievable; 4 year olds still exhibit firm beliefs in magic.

In Douglas Murray’s book The Madness of Crowds, he describes a 2017 conference in Los Angeles called the Inaugural United States Professional Association for Transgender Health Scientific Conference: 

One part of the symposium was called ‘Outside the binary - care for non-binary adolescents and young adults’. Dr. Olson-Kennedy addressed a room full of people who clearly already agreed with her. But as well as some of her presumptions that they obviously agreed with, it also became clear just how young the ‘adolescents and young adults’ of the title actually were.

For example, Olson-Kennedy described how she once had to deal with an eight-year-old child who had (clearly laughably to her) been ‘assigned female at birth’. As Olson-Kennedy describes it, ‘So this kid comes into my practice,’ and her parents were confused. Their daughter was ‘completely presenting male,’ which means, ‘short haircut, boy’s clothes. But what was happening is this kid went to a very religious school. And in the girls’ bathroom - which was where this kid was going - people were like “Why is there a boy in the girls’ bathroom, that’s a real problem.” So this kid was like “So that’s not super working for me, so I want to figure out like, I think I wanna enroll in school as a boy.” Olson-Kennedy rattles on with this story in the style of a hilarious anecdote, including impressions of the confused parents and the crazy attitudes of those around them, who clearly don’t understand what the doctor and her audience on this occasion see as the bleeding obvious. 

Some ‘kids’ who come to her apparently have great ‘clarity’ and ‘great articulation’ about their gender and are just ‘endorsing it’. This ‘kid’ had apparently not ‘really organized or thought about all these different possibilities’. Although Olson-Kennedy tells the story of a three-year-old girl apparently telling her mother how she felt like a boy, which the doctor now says the child didn’t say, the crowd all laughs along knowingly. At one point Olson-Kennedy recounts how when she asked the ‘kid’ (from the previous example) whether she was a boy or a girl and saw ‘confusion’ on the kid’s face, the kid replied, ‘I’m a girl [because] I have this body.’ To which Olson-Kennedy adds, ‘This is how this kid had learned to talk about their gender, based on their body.’ She then recounts a brilliant idea, ‘completely made this up on the spot, by the way.’ She asks the child whether she likes pop tarts. The eight-year-old says yes. And so Olson-Kennedy recounts that she asked the child what she would do if she came across a strawberry pop tart in a foil packet in a box that contained ‘cinnamon pop tarts’. Is it a strawberry pop tart or a cinnamon pop tart? ‘The kid’s like “Duh, it’s a strawberry pop tart.” And I was like, sooooo…’. At which point the audience all laugh knowingly and begin to clap. Olson-Kennedy continues, ‘And the kid turned to the mom and said “I think I’m a boy and the girl’s covering me up.” At this the audience all ‘coo’ and ‘aww’ with appreciation for the moment. As Olson-Kennedy concludes, ‘The best thing was that the mum was like “Awww” and just got up and gave the kid this big hug. It was an amazing experience.’ Before other members of the audience can get up and recount their own heart-warming stories, she goes on: ‘I worry about when we say things like “I am a” versus “I wish I were a” because I think there’s so many things that contextually happen for people around the way they understand and language gender. So, I don’t think I made this kid a boy.’ At which the audience laugh appreciatively at the very idea of such a thing. ‘I think that giving this kid the language to talk about his gender was really important.’

Just one of the strange things about all of this, from the audience reaction at the USPATH conference, is that Olson-Kennedy is not speaking at a meeting of ‘professionals’ but to a congregation. A fixed set of ideas are being discussed. A fixed set of virtues are being celebrated. And a fixed set of propositions are being set up, laughed at and dismissed. The audience does not sit, listen and then ask questions as at an academic or professional conference. They cheer, laugh, snort and applaud in a manner which more than anything else resembles a Christian revival meeting. 

Clearly it’s true that some people are teaching gender identity theory ideas to children, and are trying to make that a common thing. And if you’re liberal, this can help you understand conservative-side concern and anger on these issues. That concern is based on a belief that liberals, in uncritically embracing these ideas, have failed children and put them at risk of more anxiety and unhappiness. 

Some people are also concerned that it’s too easy for children to be prescribed hormones and surgery. In 2022, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health lowered its recommended minimum ages: it said that hormone therapy can be started at age 14 and some surgeries (including breast removal) can be done at age 15. But even within that organization, there’s concern that there are too few barriers for these things. To quote from a 2022 article:

Critics, including some from within the transgender treatment community, say some clinics are too quick to offer irreversible treatment to kids who would otherwise outgrow their gender-questioning.

[Transgender psychologist] Erica Anderson resigned her post as a board member of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health last year after voicing concerns about "sloppy" treatment given to kids without adequate counseling.

She is still a group member and supports the updated guidelines, which emphasize comprehensive assessments before treatment. But she says dozens of families have told her that doesn't always happen.

“They tell me horror stories. They tell me, ‘Our child had 20 minutes with the doctor’” before being offered hormones, she said. “The parents leave with their hair on fire.”

Even within the trans-positive psychology community, there can be disagreements over this, and concerns that children are being harmed. And seeing this can help us better understand perspectives critical of liberal-side stances.

There’s been a lot of liberal-side anger about a Florida law that was branded the “Don’t Say Gay” law by liberal-side activists. The law prohibited “classroom instruction” on “sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten through the third grade. The liberal-leaning mainstream narrative about the law was that it was horribly oppressive and would prevent young people and teachers from talking about sexual orientation and gender topics. 

But if you’re able to understand some of the concerns discussed thus far, it becomes easy to understand what motivates such legislation, and see it as representing genuine and rational concerns. 

And even many liberals agree with such concerns. A 2022 survey by Public Opinion Strategies found that a majority of Americans, even a majority of Democrats, supported the language in Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill. This is from a Wall Street Journal article about that survey: 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this week signed the education legislation that opponents have dubbed the “don’t say gay” law. It prohibits “classroom instruction” on “sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten through the third grade. Polite opinion is almost unanimously against, but open your ears to the vox populi.

“When Americans are presented with the actual language of the new Florida law, it wins support by more than a two-to-one margin.” That’s from a new poll by Public Opinion Strategies. Overall, 61% of people said they supported the “don’t say gay” law, with 26% opposed.

Even more notable is the breadth of that sentiment. Democratic voters in the poll support the law 55% to 29%. Among suburban voters, which could be a decisive group for the midterm elections, it’s 60% to 30%. Parents: 67% to 24%. Biden voters: 53% to 30%. Respondents who “know someone LGBTQ”: 61% to 28%. Those figures might come as a shock to Florida’s progressive activists [...]  [emphasis added]

(And to be clear: this isn’t to say there aren’t valid criticisms one might make of that Florida law.)

Some liberal people reading this may still have an objection like, “But clearly Republican leaders have been exaggerating this concern for cynical political reasons.” 

And yes, that is possible, and certainly true for some people. But we should be skeptical when we are certain that is a big factor. Our doubt that the other side’s views are genuine is the same doubt that they’ll often have about us. (For example: some conservatives can proclaim that Democrat politicians are exaggerating concerns about racism as a way to win votes.) For the reasons so far examined, it’s easy for me to believe that many Republican leaders have genuine concerns about these issues, or at least I think many are attempting to represent the concern they see on their side.  

The banning of trans-related books and other books

On the liberal side, there’s been a focus on attempts by conservatives to remove transgender- and LGBTQ-related books from school districts, as well as books related to liberal-side framings on racism. This is from a 2022 NPR article

Bans on books about race and LGBTQ+ identities are common. Last year, stories about Black American history and diversity were among the most banned or protested books in schools and libraries, according to the American Library Association. And in 2020, eight of the 10 most challenged books covered the LGBTQ+ community.

For some liberals, these “book banning” attempts by conservatives represent an authoritarian, dystopian overreach. To quote from a 2022 article in Brown Political Review

Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 describes a dystopian future in which books are outlawed and burned. [...] Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in response to McCarthysim and the burning of books by Nazi soldiers. The dystopian novel has become relevant once again as book banning has re-emerged as a popular tactic in American politics. The American Library Association received 330 reports of books being challenged last fall, a number they described as “unprecedented.” 

But if we can understand some of people’s concerns about transgender-related ideas being taught to kids, we can also understand what drives the desire to remove some of these books from schools. Of course some people will over-react: even some conservatives have pointed out how unnecessary and unconstitutional some of the bans are. And it’s not surprising that when we have a lot of angry people, some of them will over-react. But for many of these attempts to remove books, it’s possible to understand why rational and well meaning people might have the concerns they do. They do it for the same reason some liberal parents want certain books removed that they find harmful for kids: they do it for the sake of the kids. 

The phrase “book banning” can conjure images of a widespread societal ban on books: this is aided by comparisons to book burning in Nazi Germany, or Fahrenheit 451. For the purposes of reducing anger, it will help to keep in mind the context in which this debate takes place. The “book banning” we’re talking about refers to a book being banned from a school’s library; sometimes it may be more loosely used to refer to being banned from assigned reading while the book is still allowed in a school’s library. But no matter how a school district removes a book, of course anyone can still purchase that book anywhere that book is sold. If a parent wants their kid to read a certain book, they can obviously purchase it for them. Keeping in mind the limited context of this debate can help reduce anger. It can also help us understand why people on both sides can have a motivation to use the incendiary term “book banning” to describe what the other side is doing, as opposed to a more neutral and less scary phrasing. 

We should also keep in mind that it’s not only conservatives who can find books offensive and want to remove them from schools. To quote from a 2022 Newsweek piece by Adam Szetela: 

But conservatives are not the only censors. Governor of California Gavin Newsom inadvertently if rather hilariously made this point when he posted a picture of himself "reading some banned books to figure out" what Republican states "are so afraid of." Apparently no one told him that the stack of books in the photo included one banned in the state he leads, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was banned from California schools on the grounds that it contained racism. 

Here’s an excerpt from a 2021 CNN article by Jay Parini: 

But banning books is not just the product of right-wing intolerance. Many liberal parents don't want their children to encounter the N-word anywhere, not even in what is in my view the greatest American novel, "Huckleberry Finn," by Mark Twain. And so they fight to ban a novel that eloquently and passionately attacks racism in 19th-century America.

"Of Mice and Men," an important short novel by John Steinbeck, is also frequently challenged because of its supposed racial stereotyping, even though it's a profound and humane book that raises issues every teenager should be asked to consider.

The popular SkippyJon Jones books by Judy Schachner -- a whimsical series about a flamboyant cat who dresses up as a chihuahua -- has also been on the condemned list. SkippyJon calls himself a "bandito" and sometimes puts an "o" at the end of English words to sound Mexican. Some liberal book banners call this stereotyping, and because Schachner isn't Mexican, they accuse her of "appropriating" things from a culture that isn't hers.

Book banning is a bipartisan game, a point nicely made by Jonathan Zimmerman, a self-described liberal who wrote in The Dallas Morning News: "When conservatives try to ban a book, we liberals get up in arms. But when the threat comes from our own side, we often sit on our hands."

A 2016 Guardian article was titled Free-speech group slams Portland schools’ ban on books that question climate change. Here’s an excerpt from that article: 

The decision to drop textbooks that question the severity of climate change from schools in Portland, Oregon, has drawn heavy criticism from the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), which is warning that it will “undermine public education”.

Following lobbying from environmental groups, which had criticised science textbooks expressing doubt about “the human causes and urgency of the crisis”, and which use words such as “might”, “may” and “could” when referring to climate change, last month the Portland Public Schools board voted to “abandon the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its root in human activities”. [...]

The move has now raised “serious concerns” at free-speech organisation NCAC, which released a statement condemning the decision “for all its good intentions”.

“Social studies texts accurately describing the political debate around fossil fuels and climate change, for instance, would presumably contain comments from individuals who ‘express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis’. If such material is excised from the curriculum, will students be prepared to face—and argue with—climate-change denial when they encounter it in the world outside school?” asked the NCAC.

“Purging the curriculum of this kind of material will undermine public education, which should equip students for critical and informed consideration of important matters of public policy and controversy,” the statement continues. “Even if some scientists questioning the human causes of climate change do so apparently at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, it is still a fact that environmental policy is a subject of ongoing debate. Students should be conversant with, and equipped to address, the various questions and issues that are the subject of public discussion.”

Parents and activists wanting to remove books from school, on its own, is not dystopian: it’s entirely expected in any society, but especially in a polarized one. People on both sides can want to protect children from content they view as harmful. And as a society grows more polarized, there will be more things capable of producing such concern.

Apart from the transgender debate, it’s also possible to see why it is that people can be bothered by children being exposed to sex-related content, in general. It’s rational to wonder the degree to which sex-related content affects children, and if it might be affecting them in negative ways. Is sex-related media sexualizing them too early? Might sex-related content cause anxiety in some children at an early age and make them less likely to have healthy social and romantic interactions later? There are all sorts of questions a well meaning person might ask. 

To get a better sense of this from a conservative point of view, here’s an excerpt from a 2014 piece from Mark Hemingway, who is conservative: 

This is not to suggest that controversial topics should be avoided by those who write books for kids. But far too often the explicit nature of the work is the selling point. As a colleague of mine has noted, ABC Family is pretty much the go-to network if you’re looking for shows marketed to teenagers about oral sex and silly portrayals of lesbian experimentation. We’ve long been coming to terms with a popular culture that exposes children to explicit content, but marketing it as family friendly is an especially brazen new trend. [...]

In 2005, Simon and Schuster published a book called “Rainbow Party” that, according to Publishers Weekly, is appropriate for ages 14 and up. Before I explain what a rainbow party is, let me preemptively apologize. A rainbow party is a party where teenagers get together and all the girls put on different shades of bright lipstick. Once all the different guys and girls at the party are done living gland to mouth, the various colors left on the males’ members are said to resemble… well, you get the idea. You’d be forgiven for believing this absurdity is the result of an editor at one of New York’s biggest publishing houses trying to win a bet about what he could get away with marketing to kids. But no, we’re told this is really an educational and cautionary tale about a gonorrhea outbreak among the sophomore class.

“We knew it would be controversial,” the author Paul Ruditis told the New York Times. “But everyone involved felt it was an issue worth exploring in a fictional setting. And I don’t think anyone who reads the book could come out wanting to have a rainbow party.” 

That’s good to know the author thinks no one who reads the book would want to have a rainbow party, because there’s no documented evidence of any teenagers anywhere having a rainbow party despite Ruditis’ suggestion. “One day we have never heard of rainbow parties and then suddenly they are everywhere, feeding on adults’ fears that morally bankrupt sexuality among younger teens is rampant, despite any actual evidence, as well as evidence to the contrary,” observed Dr. Deborah Tolman, director of the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality at San Francisco State University. 

That’s right. Someone who studies sexual behavior in San Francisco thinks that this book is needlessly provocative. Alas, we can safely assume the article about the ginned-up controversy in the New York Times sold a few copies nonetheless.

Maybe this is crazy, but I’m beginning to suspect young adult fiction authors don’t always have the best interests of your kids at heart. 

A 2023 piece by Aymann Ismail in Slate had the subtitle “I watched ‘book bans’ happen in real time. I thought they were all hysteria. Then I opened one of the most-challenged titles.” He writes about his experiences examining the children’s book It’s Perfectly Normal

I felt sure that as a 34-year-old father of two there would be nothing in there that would offend my sensibilities. I’d heard nothing but glowing reviews from sex-ed pros about the child-friendly language in the book. But flipping through the book’s pages finally, I was a little shocked. [...]

There are three graphic images that show adult bodies having sex. There is no visible penetration, but it’s still eye-popping. I was sure I wouldn’t hand this book to my kids when they are 10. And I began to wonder if in my own allergy to the book-burning fervor, I had been a little too dismissive of the parents at the root of this fight.

To paraphrase one conservative I talked to: “Liberals focus on conservatives wanting to get rid of gay or trans sexual content in kids’ books and TV, but it’s missing the bigger point. I don’t want my kids seeing any sexual content yet, whether it’s straight or gay or whatever. I think it’s confusing to them.” We can see how there can be a conservative-side perception that the focus on LGBTQ content is misplaced, or that it’s even being used as a cudgel to paint conservatives as bigoted. 

A common liberal-side response to such concerns is that it’s silly to think that books and media might influence kids’ sexuality, or harm them. As the politically liberal children’s book author Lauren Myracle was quoted as saying in defense of letting kids have access to a wide range of books: “Knowledge never hurts.” But such a view seems to conflict with basic common sense: clearly the ideas around us can influence us, and some ideas can influence us negatively. And the idea that ideas can hurt us negatively is actually a view that many liberals hold: hence their belief that some types of content is dangerous and should be off-limits. 

To quote again from Mark Hemingway’s 2014 piece: 

To say that knowledge never hurts is to deny that books have any power to influence people at all. And if you’re not trying to influence people, why write? Clearly, [Lauren] Myracle and many of her controversial peers do think they’re influencing kids for the better, so they want to have it both ways. By claiming they are victims of “book banning” in the broadest, most meaningless sense, they are delegitimizing value-based critics of their work by stigmatizing them as ignorant and anti-democratic. Yet, it’s these parents and educators who actually bear the responsibility of determining what’s appropriate for their specific children, not to mention suffer the consequences of screwing up here. 

Certainly, other authors think it’s not crazy to suggest it can be harmful when undeveloped minds are exposed to the wrong books. Stephen King pulled his story “Rage,” about a kid who shoots his algebra teacher and holds his class hostage, from publication after it was connected to four different teenage shootings. “My book did not break [these teenagers] or turn them into killers; they found something in my book that spoke to them, because they were already broken,” he said. “Yet I did see ‘Rage’ as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.” [...] 

In the age of Google and celebrity sex tapes, whatever America’s problems are, an abundance of repressive attitudes and ignorance of popular culture are not among them. Kids have access to more books and information than ever, and try as we might, Pandora’s not closing the box. We need more involved parents and authority figures acting as responsible gatekeepers, and we need to be having more conversations about what constitutes an appropriate cultural climate for children in an era of information overload. To preempt any dialogue about this by claiming it puts us on a slippery slope to heaving Tolstoy on the bonfire is fundamentally dishonest. And if this is the kind of sophistry necessary to accuse me of banning books, it turns out that I will have no trouble learning to live with myself.

If you’re someone who’s angry about school book banning by the other side, is it possible to see that it’s inevitable that our divides will partially play out in schools? Is it possible to see that it’s completely expected that parents have strong feelings of all sorts about what’s appropriate for their children to read? 

It’s also important to remember that what some people on the “other side” do does not represent the entire other side. If you think that some book removals from schools are unreasonable and extreme, it’s important to keep in mind that that’s only happening in some areas, and that some people on the other side don’t agree with everything their side does (just as you’d probably hope the “other side” would keep such things in mind about your side).  

Sports and athletics 

Besides how transgender and gender ideas can impact children, another concern people can have is around how these ideas negatively impact their own group. 

One major area where this is a concern is sports competitions. Some people are upset that biologically male athletes would be allowed to compete with biological females. There have been several high-profile stories of transgender women dominating sports competitions. It seems intuitive to many people that starting with a biologically male body is a big advantage, regardless of what hormones or treatments are taken later. 

An NPR poll from 2022 found that: 

[...] nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) are opposed to allowing transgender women and girls to compete on teams that align with their gender identity, while 24% overall support that.

Among Democrats, opinion is fairly split: a plurality, 46%, support trans female athletes' right to compete on women's and girls sports teams, while 41% oppose it.

Being opposed to transgender women competing with biological women doesn’t require bigotry. Even transgender people are capable of acknowledging there are legitimate concerns here. In a 2021 BBC interview with the Italian track athlete Valentina Petrillo, who is a transgender woman, Petrillo said: 

“I asked myself, 'Valentina, if you were a biological woman and had a Valentina, a trans, racing against you, how would you feel?' And I gave myself answers—astonishment, confusion and doubt. I would have those things as a woman. So I believe these doubts and questions are legitimate.” 

If you’re someone who views conservative stances on this topic as hateful or bigoted, do you feel the same about liberal people who have such concerns? Is it possible to see how there can be well meaning and rational concerns here? 

When talking to some liberals about this topic, I’ve had some people reply with something like, “Well, yes, I agree having a male physique helps trans women in sports, but when you get down to it, sports are so random and unfair to begin with, because there are always people who are so much better than everyone else, so what’s it matter anyway?” 

And that’s true: what do sports matter really? There is so much luck of the genetic draw involved in who dominates at sports. It can all seem pretty random to begin with. 

But still, it should be easy to see that sports play a big role in our society. Sports activities play a big role in how young people relate to other people, and in how they learn about the world. We shouldn’t pretend that such big shifts to culturally important institutions are not disorienting, especially for the more traditionally minded people amongst us. We shouldn’t pretend that it indicates bigotry to be shocked by such ideas and find them strange, or even deranged. Such big shifts to long-established and embedded ways of thinking can be disorienting and scary, and when we pretend they’re not, that there’s “nothing to see here,” we’ll be perceived by the people who have concerns as engaging in a kind of gaslighting. 

And it’s possible to see how these views of liberals fit into the wider conservative view that liberals, in their quest to right every perceived oppression, may sometimes too quickly try to deconstruct traditions and meaning that either aren’t faulty, or not as faulty as are perceived. 

Both sides have their preferred data sources

As we’d expect for a polarizing issue, both sides will seek out the ideas and studies that support their own preferred narratives. There are studies that people on both sides will cite and promote to support their own views. 

For example, some studies that have examined “rapid onset gender dysphoria” have found that social contagion plays a role in the increase in gender dysphoria. This work is embraced by people critical of liberal-side transgender stances and criticized by pro-transgender activists. 

On the other hand, some studies have found there is little regret by people who transition and that transitioning seems to make a large percentage of gender dysphoric people happier. Studies like this are promoted by pro-transgender activists and criticized by those critical of these ideas. (One major criticism is that it’s far too early in this trend for us to understand what’s going on.)

All these studies, and the various interpretations it’s possible to have of them, can help us see why it’s so easy for people to come to such different conclusions. These studies can help us see the complexity of this issue. Seeing things in this way can be anger-reducing. 

Hateful conservative-side rhetoric 

If you’re someone concerned that transgender ideas are harming children, hopefully you can see that mean, hateful conservative-side language is a key piece of what drives the polarized conflict over this issue. The more that hateful rhetoric is aimed at nonbinary and transgender people, the more liberals will perceive this issue as analogous to the Civil Rights Movement and the more people will fight on behalf of the people they see as oppressed and victimized. 

For people who strongly disagree with liberal-side stances on this issue, you should see it as important to your cause to distance yourself from hateful rhetoric. 

And if you’re concerned that transgender ideas harm children, you should speak compassionately and respectfully on that topic. The angrier you seem, the harder it is to believe that your stance is motivated by compassion. You should remember that the transgender activists who think you are wrong are the same people you profess to care about: they are the children you’re trying to help, in a different form. And this means you should take the high road and try to be as compassionate and persuasive as possible, and not use other people’s anger and abuse as a justification for your own. 

Remembering the humanity of your political opponents is how you get more liberals to think about your ideas. And it’s also the path to lowering our anger and healing our divides.

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