Andrew Sullivan is the gay male Ann Coulter — dumb as a post, but a celebrity in the pseudo-intellectual set because he is a “conservative.” Both are testaments to the pernicious effect the ugly fashion of “conservatism” has on our politics and culture. Anyone pays attention to them only because they more or less covertly advocate mindless conformity. Good, faux, U.S. “conservatives” love to claim the likes of Coulter — she’s a girl! — and Sullivan — he’s a gay man! — because they help conceal the undying commitment to prejudice that is the defining feature of conservatism as a political philosophy.

Sullivan is out with a piece valiantly! defending the “courage” of a group of trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). This is a debate most of the general public likely has no idea even exists, but for anyone who pays much attention to the realm of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) civil rights and demands for equality, it is an important and difficult debate.

For more about radical feminists generally, see Alice Echols’ estimable book Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–1975, which is a bit dated by now, and other, newer studies may be as useful, but this a worthwhile starting point. LGBT civil rights activists need to start out respecting radical feminists because they helped create space for lesbian/gay (as the movement started) organizing in the 1970s. The people who founded what started as the National Gay Task Force (now just The Task Force, after the acronym became impossibly unwieldy) in 1973 were as concerned about sex and gender discrimination as they were about discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The organization originally had both a woman and a man as its chief executives in partnership. The first NGTF representative to lead a delegation to the White House in 1977 was a lesbian, Jean O’Leary.

So the relationship between sex, gender, and sexual orientation is a complicated one, and the larger political and philosophical backdrop against which Sullivan wrote his characteristically politically and philosophically incompetent little essay.

One of the ugly habits “conservatives” have introduced into our national politics is the impulse to turn important policy and political debates into cheap, tit for tat fests of playing gotcha, where the point seems to be less to arrive at intelligent, rational policy solutions than to score cheap debating points against “the enemy.” One doubts Sullivan sports a MAGA cap or a t shirt that reads, “Fuck your Feelings,” but one can easily imagine him smirking at his computer monitor for what he no doubt thinks is a too, too terribly clever intervention on behalf of a group of feminists who pose a political and intellectual dilemma for the social movement that made Sullivan’s current life possible, whether he is willing to admit it or not.

It is impossible to believe that Sullivan really has any genuine sympathy for the feminist perspective. He’s just using them to score points.

TERFs take the position that the push for equal opportunity and inclusion of transgender persons — mostly male to female (MTF) transgender persons — poses a serious difficulty to feminists in general and to women because it has the effect of intruding persons who cannot fully abandon their acculturation or physiology as men into spaces that should allow only women. Out of respect for radical feminists, we should consider this argument carefully. Sullivan brings it up apparently more to score cheap debating points. It is hard to imagine how or why any “conservative” would much respect radical feminists.

Sullivan bizzarely, and inappropriately, points to Caitlyn Jenner, who competed in the Olympics as a man long before coming out as a transgender woman and who therefore is not at all relevant to this debate, which often does include pointing to specific examples in which MTF persons compete in women’s athletics and win too easily because, even after hormone therapy and surgical reassignment, they remain physiologically male enough that they can win easily.

No points for saying that this seems unfair. Sullivan follows the organizers of the event he writes about by pointing to the Equality Act (readily available here, but Sullivan won’t tell you that), a bill in Congress that is the most recent manifestation of an idea that began in the mid 1970s when Bella Abzug, a member of the House of Representatives from New York City, first proposed to add “sexual orientation” as a protected category to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, an idea that nicely illustrates the dependence of LGBT civil rights for its political and policy logic on the African American civil rights movement. It was an idea that was conceptually elegant, but politically impossible as even African Americans who were sympathetic to lesbian/gay rights (as they said then) were reluctant to support any modifications to the core statute that prohibits racial discrimination for fear of what else might happen.

Sullivan writes about this bill that:

What the radical feminists are arguing is that the act doesn’t only blur the distinction between men and women (thereby minimizing what they see as the oppression of patriarchy and misogyny), but that its definition of gender identity must rely on stereotypical ideas of what gender expression means. What, after all, is a “gender-related characteristic”? It implies that a tomboy who loves sports is not a girl interested in stereotypically boyish things, but possibly a boy trapped in a female body. And a boy with a penchant for Barbies and Kens is possibly a trans girl — because, according to stereotypes, he’s behaving as a girl would. So instead of enlarging our understanding of gender expression — and allowing maximal freedom and variety within both sexes — the concept of “gender identity” actually narrows it, in more traditional and even regressive ways. What does “gender-related mannerisms” mean, if not stereotypes?

Start with the weasel word, “possibly.” Why are we talking about boyish girls and girlish boys? It is true that parents are dealing with manifestations of gender atypical behavior and expression in children at an ever earlier age. This is a topic that merits extended, careful discussion, none of which Sullivan even pretends to contribute to. It does seem to make sense to let children get at least close to puberty, if not past it, before making any drastic decisions about their gender identity or sexual orientation. Different parents will make different decisions. Unhappily, “conservative” parents are highly likely to make decisions that add to the misery of their queer children. Sullivan offers no help there.

But the Equality Act, like Abzug’s proposal from forty years ago, amends the Civil Rights Act, which addresses mostly discrimination in employment and public accommodations, which are mostly issues for adults. It is certainly possible for a queer teen to suffer employment discrimination, which should be unlawful — it is not now, for queer teens, at the federal level. Some states prohibit it, but far from all. The more “conservative” states are, if anything, headed in the opposite direction.

It is telling that, in the face of a bill with the purpose of discrimination in employment and public accommodations, Sullivan tries to trivialize the issue by pointing to an aging former Olympic athlete who only came out as transgender after a fading star turn with America’s favorite “reality TV” family and is entirely irrelevant to the debate. He has no idea what matters here.

In his zeal to try to fashion an argument from the pig’s ear he has selected for his latest foray into pseudo intellectual flatulence, Sullivan introduces another irrelevant element and entirely overlooks the key point — the Equality Act would prohibit discrimination on the basis of “gender-related mannerisms,” stereotypical or not. One thing Sullivan seems not to realize is that, in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins 490 U.S. 228 (1989), the Supreme Court has arguably already interpreted the prohibition on sex discrimination in the existing Civil Rights Act to have precisely this effect, so the Equality Act, while still necessary, is slightly redundant on this point. But good “conservatives” never let a little thing like information get in their way.

What Sullivan, in good “conservative” fashion, cannot comprehend is that context is everything. “Gender identity” narrows the range of gender expression only from a “conservative” perspective. Actually, as even a casual glance at the recent history of the United States easily reveals, the increasing prominence of gender identity as an issue, with transgender persons leading the way in forcing it onto the national political agenda, has coincided with a growing, wondrous profusion of options in the realm of gender expression.

It was the result of an intersexed, not a transgender, activists who forced the issue of a gender neutral passport to a favorable decision by the government of the Netherlands. Intersexed persons are born with ambiguous genitalia and may not know their gender identity reliably at all until puberty. They protest now against the too common impulse among doctors, in the presence of a newborn with ambiguous genitalia, to assign sex, in part by performing surgery that, as adults now point out, typically involves removing highly sensitive tissue that will not grow back, with lifelong consequences. The fact of intersexed persons alone presents an impossibly hard case for Sullivan’s cheap, “conservative” attempt to ground his argument in “nature,” whatever that is. His title is “The Nature of Sex.” Sullivan is more sure than “Nature” is that he knows what “sex” is.

But what Sullivan entirely fails to appreciate is that it is the social movement, initially of lesbians and gay men, then bisexual and transgender persons, who offered a public space for intersexed persons to articulate their position on a very difficult issue that they, understandably, have very strong feelings about. And we should be glad of that. Where else but an LGBTIQ event will one hear intersexed persons speak publicly and openly about what they have faced, and continue to face, as intersexed persons?

On its face, it is hard, if not impossible, to determine where TERFs would fall out on the issue of what to do about intersexed persons. One can see persons whom doctors decided to make female at birth who later in life sport facial hair because their gonadal and hormonal lives did not follow the surgery that fashioned a vagina for them at birth. This is a hard case. In some ways, it is not very different, to take the hard case of sports competitions, to see much difference between an MTF person and an intersexed person who got “wrongly” designated female at birth, except for the key distinction that one can only become MTF as the result of a set of very deliberate choices by the person in question, usually as an adult, while the intersexed person finds her/himself in that plight as the result of choices they had zero control over because doctors made those choices while the person was days old.

These are difficult issues, but one would never know that from reading Sullivan’s stunningly superficial, smug, facile little essay. One rule of thumb is to think carefully about whom one associates with. Sullivan applauds the “courage” of radical feminists who spoke at the Heritage Foundation, the “conservative” “think tank” (!) — “the most influential conservative group in America,” which is actively hostile to both feminist and LGBT goals. Sullivan paraphrases the moderator to the effect that no leftist or progressive organization would let them speak their piece.

Sullivan, in good “conservative,” gotcha fashion, gets his dig in, that sly devil:

And it’s true that trans-exclusionary radical feminists or TERFs, as they are known, are one minority that is actively not tolerated by the LGBTQ establishment, and often demonized by the gay community. It’s also true that they can be inflammatory, offensive, and obsessive. But what interests me is their underlying argument, which deserves to be thought through, regardless of our political allegiances, sexual identities, or tribal attachments. Because it’s an argument that seems to me to contain a seed of truth. Hence, I suspect, the intensity of the urge to suppress it.

Again, we should certainly examine and think carefully about the TERF position, and explicitly include the perspectives and voices of transgender persons in the discussion, which apparently neither the TERF speaking on “conservative” turf, nor Sullivan, bothers to do. It’s a bit rich to whine about anyone “suppress[ing]” anything when a group entirely fails even to invite a spokesperson from a group one is discussing. Trans exclusionary indeed.

Insofar as any benefit comes from Sullivan’s typically half baked nonsense, may it help spur open, honest debate about these difficult issues. We can agree to let Sullivan sit in a corner and take notes, as long as he promises not to write about the event in his typical, superficial, smug, facile way.

If he can.

Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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