I realize what follows may be a bit scorching. Forgive me. I really hate to lose.
The Left is winning the war over gender ideology because it follows a simple precept: Don’t play the odds, play the man. And so, it plays conservatives. To a caffeinated Right, a high school student named Gavin Grimm provided irresistible distraction.
Indeed, no sooner had the ACLU filed its “transgender bathroom case” in 2015 than conservatives answered the call of duty. One leg into armor, conservatives lurched forth from the trench, pea shooter in hand, never clear what we were fighting for or whether anyone was behind us. It turned out, no one was: A flurry of bathroom bills sunk to the bottom of the ocean, except North Carolina’s, which died in repeal. All for what? To keep an unhappy biological girl with a five o'clock shadow out of the boys’ room?
In any case, conservatives lost — and not just politically. The Fourth Circuit recently decided that a separate, unisex bathroom provided to Grimm stigmatized the child, effectively punishing “transgender status” in violation of Title IX. The Supreme Court denied certiorari, refusing to revisit this mess.
Whatever your views on sex-based rights (and mine are probably as strong as anyone’s), it was hard to see this particular battle as anything other than picking on a child. Grimm had extended absences from school and seems to have suffered greatly through the embarrassing ordeal of public hand-wringing about where one transgender-identified teenager could use the bathroom. It isn’t hard to see that any child would have suffered in Grimm’s position.
Top lawyers for the ACLU argued the case, and while they held judges spellbound with the promise of another civil rights verdict, they sent Republicans into apoplexy. While Republicans ranted, the Left won conquest after conquest.
Here, specifically, is what the Left achieved in the intervening six years: 22 states enacted conversion therapy bans, making it impossible for therapists to offer trans-identified youth any alternative to transition; nearly every medical accrediting organization adopted “affirmative care,” solemnly promising to suspend all medical judgment and rubber-stamp transitions, even by minors; gender ideology wormed its way into public school, laid eggs, and hatched endless confusion; schools across the country, with the explicit approval of the Obama administration, began conspiring to conceal minors’ declared gender identities from their parents; and hundreds of pediatric gender clinics cropped up to meet a sudden demand, heedless of the dangers, peddling phony mental health benefits and dismissing international warnings.
In other words, while conservatives pounded lecterns over school bathrooms, they lost five winnable battles to a radical and unpopular ideology. They painted themselves once again into American Gothic, which might have made them sympathetic, had they not hired the portrait artist and grasped for a pitchfork.
Did anyone consider showing sympathy for Gavin Grimm? The school board created a separate bathroom for Grimm, which Grimm felt reluctant to use. Grimm claimed that the stress and the stigma associated with having to use a separate bathroom from the other students led to “holding it,” causing frequent urinary tract infections and suicidal thoughts.
I spoke to three doctors about Grimm’s urinary tract infections. Each physician admitted that urinary retention might cause such infections. But besides suffering embarrassment, Grimm began a course of testosterone that year. Both an endocrinologist and the pediatrician I spoke to said it was at least as likely, and probably more likely, that the testosterone had caused Grimm’s infections.
Testosterone can make a girl’s urethra “friable,” meaning the urethra begins to crumble or break down. And so, while Grimm and the ACLU blamed Republicans for Grimm’s pain, the actual source may have been the risky, experimental treatment provided by doctors too busy self-celebrating to take seriously these risks.
Conservatives might have said: Here is one more distraught American teenager, handed dangerous drugs in place of a solution. The long-term risks of testosterone to a woman’s body include infertility, sexual dysfunction, a cardiac event, endometrial cancer, vaginal and uterine atrophy, and, yes, frequent urinary tract infections. Republicans might have gone after Grimm’s reckless doctors and an activist medical system that has all but abandoned its Hippocratic oath when it comes to gender medicine.
Conservatives might have trained their sights on social media, which spreads self-harm like a flu, and the Big Tech firms that push this harmful drug on other people’s children. They might have opposed the schools that peddle gender confusion to preschoolers and help middle school children “transition” in secret. They might have fought those laws in several states that allow minors to begin transitioning treatment without parental consent. They are, at last, confronting the mass experiment on children in the form of puberty blockers, which place bone density, brain development, and sexual function at risk, and, for good measure, jeopardize fertility. Doctors who took a Hippocratic oath and promised only to heal began removing healthy breasts of girls as young as 13.
Here, then, is what winning might look like. Conservatives ought to spend the next decade championing one of the most aggrieved constituencies: America’s parents. We might fight for decent, evidence-based medicine or responsible therapeutic practices. We ought to show compassion for those children with gender dysphoria while taking note that the activists are exploiting them to advance a cynical, dangerous agenda. We ought to oppose gender ideology in the schools, which is both harmful and broadly unpopular. We ought to defend the rights of women and girls where they are threatened because an America that is no longer safe or fair for them is hardly worth saving at all.
And no, Gavin Grimm is not an example of the last issue. As a biological female, Grimm posed no threat to the boys in the bathroom. This is not standing on principle. This is turtling: Withdrawing into a shell to declare, Not in my bathroom. Batten down the hatches and wait for the floodwaters to wash away the wicked. Just don’t breach my threshold, my town, my state, my church.
It’s a defensive posture and a losing strategy. It strikes this deal with the broader culture: We will not attempt to alter or influence you, so long as you do not invade our space. The majority culture is now held hostage by illiberal social-justice warriors who care little about individual liberties. In the end, the authoritarians always liquidate the ghetto.
But there is something else, too: When you stop contributing to the broader culture, you forfeit all right to influence its direction. What then is our next move? Roll the dice on which way Chief Justice Roberts will vote? It’s little wonder he’s refused to hold the line. He calls this buckling upholding the “institutional integrity” of the court. But he might as well say: Fight your own damn battles.
Conservatives’ chief asset is also our chief liability: We are willing to fight unpopular battles because we’ve never been popular. We are less easily seduced by the good opinion of those who’ve always withheld it. But we often lack strategy for this reason, too. We seem to have no idea what would appeal to other humans. Putting conservatives in charge of political strategy is like putting the debate team in charge of prom; the only guarantee is that no one else will show up. Opposing a high school child, one who’s had to miss long stretches of school for mental health issues, offers no lasting victory.
In the battle against gender ideology, conservatives have already demonstrated both reluctance and ineptitude. They believe they raise barriers to the Left, but more often, their tight-lipped unlikability serves as a trampoline, propelling the Left to even greater heights.
Conservatives do not think of themselves as defenders of “women’s rights” and adopt that mantle clumsily. Conservatives prefer to fight for faith and babies, and defending women sounds too much like supporting abortion. Or, perhaps, conservatives have unwittingly swallowed the Left’s propaganda that unrestricted abortion and women’s rights are synonymous. And so, conservatives trip over their own feet, rushing to make abortion and religious liberty the point of every argument, making themselves the punchline of every joke.
But there is also good news: We cannot afford to lose. There is no more important battle. That ought to suffice to provide clarity of purpose.
At stake are the rights of parents to safeguard their children from the activists who have given them alarming powers to alter their own bodies. At stake are the rights of women, who spent generations fighting for a fair and safe America and now stand on the verge of losing both. We ought to fight unhesitatingly for lesbians, a sexual minority that simply wants to raise stable families, and instead finds its spaces invaded by biological men who demand to be treated as women. We might fight for the girls and women who are about to lose every prize, scholarship, title, and trophy once reserved for female athletes. We might show some self-respect and toss out of office allegedly conservative politicians who sell out our young women.
Biological sex matters because truth matters. Any society that abandons sex-based protections for women and girls plunges into demoralization and darkness. Young women’s bodies literally cradle our future. We cannot allow activists and their shoddy science to wreck them.
Female athletes make America proud. Our nation, so often maligned as a “patriarchy,” has for years invested in the development of female excellence and achievement. Don’t allow woke marauders to junk female achievement as if it were a Columbus statue.
Others may shirk the cause of female prisoners because they lack even a smidgen of political clout. Conservatives ought to take up their cause because allowing any trapped woman to be raped and beaten is cruel and unconscionable. Because any society that allows a male sex offender into a locked cell with a woman is as beastly and inhumane as the Left has for so long claimed.
If the chuckleheads who seem to guide strategy for most Republicans and conservatives continue to allow the looting of women’s rights, we ought to give up the cause of conservatism. The Left doesn’t require our help. And there are better uses of our time than serving as its clumsy foil.
This article first appeared in the Washington Examiner. It is reprinted here with permission.
I very much appreciate the substance of the piece, and understand you were writing for a certain audience, but I have to mirror some of the other comments and say that I REALLY hate for this to be framed as a "conservative" issue. It is not. 90% of people agree with you. It should have nothing whatsoever to do with right versus left or democrat versus republican. It is science and common sense versus fantasy.
My fear is that there are MANY liberals and democrats who hate this stuff, but they also do NOT want to be associated in any manner with conservatives or Republicans. They are already terrified to speak up -- if this gets painted as an issue solely for right-wing religious fundamentalist crazies, they will become even more cowed. I appreciate you teaching conservatives how to tell themselves come off as common sense rather than like right-wing religious fundamentalist crazies, but we need this issue to simply be framed as NOT at all about right versus left and rather as something that unites all practical people. This country is far too polarized to allow one party to capture the issue, and the more people think of it as a conservative position, the more it will send liberals who are truly concerned about medical exploitation and trans madness into hiding.
I appreciate your intentions here, but disagree that the radical trans-activist agenda is the province of "the Left" and that those opposing it are "conservatives," which you identify with by using "we" throughout this essay. There are some of us on the Left -- the real Left, genuine socialists and feminists -- who are fighting this nonsense too. The Georgia Green Party was recently disaffiliated from the Green Party of the United States for standing up for women's sex-based rights. I resigned from the Illinois Green Party in protest and others are fighting back in various ways and are in the process of building a new Green Alliance for Sex-Based Rights. There are various feminist groups that are furiously resisting this agenda as well that would hardly identify as conservative. I realize that you are writing for the Washington Examiner here but please do not tar "the" Left with the same broad brush. Genuine Leftists are materialists and recognize biological reality. The "Left" that supports the trans-activist agenda consists of liberals, neo-liberals and faux "Leftists" who are simply posturing as "radical" without grasping what is really needed to build social progress.