Would You Buy Cookies from a Girl with a Penis?

It is difficult to ask that kind of question, because we don’t like to think about children and sexuality at the same time. It’s even more awkward, since we don’t seem quite sure what we mean when we say “boy” and “girl.” Recently the Girl Scouts announced their continuing policy to allow transgender girls to participate in scouting. Today in the Christian Post we see some explanation of why religious conservatives dislike it.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, ideas about gender are among the most contentious in today’s culture wars. We’ve recently seen in these pages a productive interchange across the culture-war trenches.

...can we talk?

…can we talk?

In general—and I’m painting with a broad brush here—conservatives tend to see gender as a God-given and immutable part of human identity. People are born male or female, just as God created them. On a more sophisticated level, conservative intellectuals might look askance at gender-bending ideas as merely the latest efflorescence of cultural degeneration. When Rome rotted, for example, sophisticated Romans scoffed at old ideas about divinity and sexuality. The moral thing to do, with this mindset, is to fight all attempts to blur the bright line between boys and girls.

On the other side, progressives—including your humble editor—tend to see gender as more fluid. People are born with a wide spectrum of biological parts. Babies are assigned one gender at birth, based usually on their dominant physical sex characteristics. That assigned gender does not always match a person’s true gender, or a person may not identify with any particular gender at all. In this mindset, the moral thing to do is to recognize and value the ways people discover and identify their own genders.

The Girl Scouts now officially agree with this position. As their “Chief Girl Expert” explained recently, they have decided to recognize girls as those young people who identify as girls, regardless of external biological characteristics and regardless of the gender they were assigned at birth. As she put it,

If a girl is recognized by her family, school and community as a girl and lives culturally as a girl, Girl Scouts is an organization that can serve her in a setting that is both emotionally and physically safe.  Inclusion of transgender girls is handled at a council level on a case by case basis, with the welfare and best interests of all members as a top priority.

What’s wrong with that? The socially conservative American Family Association started a petition to encourage the Girl Scouts to change their minds. As the AFA explained,

This means girls in the organization will be forced to recognize and accept transgenderism as a normal lifestyle. Boys in skirts, boys in make-up and boys in tents will become a part of the program. This change will put young innocent girls at risk.

Adults are willing to experiment on our kids – both the boys who are confused and the girls who will wonder why a boy in a dress is in the bathroom with them.

The Girl Scouts of America has lost its moral compass and needs your encouragement to rescind this new policy. Since 2003, bad policies like this have resulted in GSA’s enrollment dropping by over one million girls, almost 27% of its membership.

In this statement we can see what some conservatives object to in the Girl Scouts’ decision. First, the AFA says that this decision will normalize transgenderism. Fair enough, I think. But to folks like me, that seems like a good goal. To some conservatives, it does not. To the AFA, transgender girls are not brave people who have worked hard to wrestle with fundamental questions about their true selves. Rather, they are “boys in skirts. . . . boys who are confused.” For many conservatives, this notion that transgender girls are really boys seems enormously powerful.

Also, the AFA charges that these masquerading boys will be put in intimate and potentially sexual contact (“boys in tents”) with “real” girls. Just as we’ve seen elsewhere when the question of transgender youth comes up, there is worry among conservatives that the inherent aggressive sexuality of males will put “young innocent girls at risk.”

Moreover, these sinister changes are not merely accidental. According to the AFA, they are the calculated efforts of wrong-headed progressive adults. As I argue in my new book, this accusation against progressives’ proclivity to engage in dangerous experimentation on kids has a long history. In this conservative mindset, progressivism isn’t just wrong, it is dangerous to children.

Finally, in this AFA petition we see an appeal to a bedrock conservative notion. The AFA accuses the Girl Scouts of having lost their “moral compass.” Just as with our cultural disagreements over the notion of gender itself, conservatives and progressives tend to disagree over the idea of a moral compass. For many conservatives, we know—and have always known—the distinction between right and wrong. The rules have been laid out for millennia. When organizations change or challenge those rules, some conservatives think, they have willfully abandoned those God-given rules.

Progressives, for their part, tend to value the ability to adapt to changing and unique circumstances.  What is the morally correct thing to do?  In general, we should value all persons, regardless of their differences.  In this case, that means welcoming transgender girls into the Girl Scouts.  To do otherwise would be cruel and immorally rigid.

Predictably, it will be very difficult to communicate when we have such fundamental disagreements.  Predictably, progressives will accuse conservatives of hatred and bigotry. Conservatives will accuse progressives of encouraging sexual license among children. Both accusations are intensely hurtful. Who wants to be a bigot? Who wants to be a pimp?

Isn’t there any better way to have this discussion?

Leave a comment


  1. Unfortunately, I simply don’t think I can have very many better discussions on this topic. It has happened before, but it requires conversation partners who are interested in being respectful to me and treating me like a human being. That happens rather rarely and, since the topic is rather emotionally fraught for me, I have very little patience with people telling me I’m mentally ill, I’m perverted, or “you know the truth and just aren’t willing to admit it.” I have very little patience with conservatives who wring their hands about theoretical, unmeasured, unsubstantiated, unquantifiable moral harm while I keep busy counseling more LGBT youth than I can count in how to stay safe, keep a roof over their heads, avoid abuse, and not kill themselves. I have REAL problems to concern myself with, thanks to anti-trans conservatives (which are not all conservatives, thank goodness). I cannot spare the energy and emotional investment to try to politely explain to them that I expect the same respect from them that I already give.

  2. Agellius

     /  May 21, 2015

    I think one thing that needs to happen to facilitate fruitful dialogue is to stop with the “error has no rights” mentality, on both sides. Obviously there are the “God Hates Fags” types on the conservative side, who feel that bluntness is called for in order to bring people to their senses. But more than once I have also encountered the liberal version of Westboro Baptist, the attitude that my opinions deserve no respect, not even a respectful hearing, since they’re unquestionably wrong.

    • Thanks, Agellius. I agree with your sentiment. I think the problem is compounded when the issue becomes intensely personal. For me, my personal history puts me on the side of GE, as she commented above. Though I can’t say I have her same level of intimacy with the issue, I have worked with teens who have had to suffer real agony, real anguish over the issue of gender identity. In many cases it can literally be a case of life and death. So it’s difficult for me NOT to treat this as a case of error having no rights. It’s hard for me not to jump to a no-hold-barred defense of those kids. But I recognize that there must be feelings just as deeply personal on both sides. What might it mean–and here I can only speculate–for a parent to think his or her child has chosen a “lifestyle” that will send her to eternal damnation? I can only guess, but I imagine it would be difficult to feel such things, and then it would be intensely, violently horrifying to be accused of not really loving my child. How can we talk to one another–how can we talk at all–when we are driven by such intense emotions? If we really believe we are defending children, how can either side agree to give up that defense? How can either side agree to speak politely to people they see as child abusers of the rankest hue?

      • Agellius

         /  May 21, 2015

        “How can either side agree to speak politely to people they see as child abusers of the rankest hue?”

        And yet you and I do it.

      • Not just us, either. Folks such as Trey Kay with his Us and Them project try to put together people from different sides of these culture-war trenches.

  3. Maybe discussion is overrated. You can have it with people who can have it. It’s bound to be very individual, even private. The public arena is political. It will change quietly as older generations age out. People who grew up with a very proscribed and limited zone of experience, literacy and conversation about all things sexual were once the majority and the norm. That is over, and it won’t mean the death of religion, conservatism, family values, etc. It won’t mean the victory of anything else, either. it will just mean growth and moving on.

    I ran across this aphorism today: “War: first, one hopes to win; then one expects the enemy to lose; then, one is satisfied that the enemy too is suffering; in the end, one is surprised that everyone has lost.” Reaching that point means a gain in peace and wisdom, at least.


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