The Kids Aren’t Alright…with Transgender

My Fellow Progressives: What if time isn’t on our side? We tend to think that each new generation will get cooler, more tolerant, more progressive. But what about those stubborn conservative kids who consistently disprove our assumptions? A new student protest in Missouri shows once again that young people are not somehow automatically progressive.

Who is the future here?

Who is the future here?

Academic historians learnt this lesson the hard way. Beginning in the 1930s, liberal academics assumed that the fundamentalists of the 1920s had melted away in the glare of modernity. In their liberal imaginations, historians such as Norman Furniss explained that fundamentalism had died away, a vestige of an older, stupider time.

For many liberal historians, the fact that they no longer saw fundamentalists on their campuses or in the headlines of their newspapers proved their case. It backed up their assumptions that the modern world would squeeze out people who embraced a decidedly old-fashioned way of reading the Bible.

Of course, fundamentalists hadn’t died away after the 1920s. Beginning in the later 1950s, evangelists such as Billy Graham brought the fundamentalist tradition back to America’s headlines and center stage. It took a new generation of historians, many of them raised in fundamentalist families, to explain what had happened. Writers such as Ernest Sandeen, George Marsden, and Joel Carpenter demonstrated the continuing strength and vitality of American fundamentalism.

Protestant fundamentalism, these historians showed, was a thoroughly modern phenomenon. In the face of progressive assumptions that people would naturally become more secular and more morally sophisticated, lots of Americans actually became more religious and more firmly moored in Biblical morality.

Progressives today share a similar short-sighted demographic hangover. Many of us, even those of us too young to have lived through the social movements of the 1960s, remember the vibe of youth power. As Andrew Hartman has argued so eloquently in his new book, the ideas of the 1960s fueled much of the later culture war vitriol. In the face of much evidence to the contrary, it was often assumed by 1960s culture warriors (and their successors) that youth was somehow naturally progressive.

Not your father's GOP...

Not your father’s GOP…

To be fair, my fellow progressives aren’t entirely wrong. We tend to assume that young people will be less anti-gay, less racist, less conservative, and we can point to good poll data to back it up. As Pew reported last year,

in addition to the [Millennial] generation’s Democratic tendency, Millennials who identify with the GOP are also less conservative than Republicans in other generations: Among the roughly one-third of Millennials who affiliate with or lean Republican, just 31% have a mix of political values that are right-of-center, while about half (51%) take a mix of liberal and conservative positions and 18% have consistently or mostly liberal views. Among all Republicans and Republican leaners, 53% have conservative views; in the two oldest generations, Silents and Boomers, about two-thirds are consistently or mostly conservative.

But there’s a big problem embedded in these kids of poll data. Though many young people tend toward more liberal views, there are still enormous percentages of people who buck the trend. The recent protest in Missouri can illustrate the ways young people can and will embrace socially conservative ideas.

In that case, a transgender high-school senior, Lila Perry, had been allowed to use the girls’ bathroom. Students walked out in protest. The students and their parents, supported by outside groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, tend to consider Lila to be still male, in spite of her identification as female. As one activist parent put it, his daughters encountered an “intact male” in the locker room.

In spite of what we might expect, we don’t see in this case progressive young people fighting against the bureaucracy. Instead, the bureaucracy in this case moved quickly to establish a policy protecting the rights of transgender students. In reply, conservative students insisted on the rights of “real” girls to be protected from such students.

If history is any guide, as more young people become progressive, the conservative holdouts will become more firmly attached to their conservative principles. Conservative young people will become more likely to take action. Protests like the one at Hillsboro High School will become more common.

Leave a comment


  1. You are so right. As a former Fundie, I can tell you this with confidence. Fundamentalism came about as a reaction to more liberal Protestantism. Fundies wanted to return to what they perceive as the fundamentals of Christianity. The overwhelming majority of my family remains staunchly Fundie, with their heels dug in. The children & grandchildren are being carefully taught this theology. Just listen to Mike Huckabee–he represents those views in the public square.

  2. Agellius

     /  September 4, 2015

    I agree, it’s certainly not automatic. I think it is more-or-less automatic in families where the parents are lax in imparting values to their kids. In that case the default will be for the kids to become lax in their own values. But when parents are clear on their own conservative values, and seem to have good reasons for them, and are good parents, there’s no reason to think kids will automatically reject those in favor of liberalism.

    • Agellius

       /  September 4, 2015

      This, by the way — being clear on your conservative values, seeming to have good reasons for them, and being good parents, resulting in your kids growing up to share those values — is what liberals refer to as conservatives brainwashing their kids into conservatism. : )

  3. I don’t think this case makes any sense as a litmus test for political views or “values.” Few people get upset about adults who are fully transitioned regardless of their views and values. The controversies focus on people who are young and/or not able to pass very well as the gender they identify with. If Lila looked more female and did not have a penis, it would not be such a big deal. But it is still really just an issue about bathrooms that likely has a simple solution. The people who scream and yell that there can be no solution except to exclude someone like Lila from the school or force her to use the boys facilities are not “conservatives,” they are just very uptight homo sapiens whose herd instincts have gotten the better of them. If others just assume there’s no problem with any teenager who wants to change their gender doing so in high school, that’s not liberality — it’s naive and foolish. But that’s not something anyone but the trans student and their family gets to decide, so the community really does have to accept the fact that they may have kids outside the usual two gender categories, and these kids need to us a bathroom and be part of the community without a big, damaging conflict.

    • But Dan, I think you’re sidestepping the most important issue here. I agree entirely that there is no logical reason why this is a conservative/liberal issue. As you say, LOGICALLY it seems to me like an uptight/relaxed divide. The most interesting part to me, though, is that we are standing in a moment in which these positions are congealing along conservative/liberal lines. Things are changing fast, but it is now pretty clear that liberal folks are not supposed to be uptight about individuals who identify as transgender. In general, the liberal position is becoming clear: gender is something people can identify for themselves. At the same time, it is becoming a conservative idea to say that gender is somehow something that transcends personal identification. That is, it is quickly becoming a conservative marker to say that gender is something real, something we are born with. In this case, to say that Lila is “really” a boy is something that would not have been very controversial thirty years ago. Today, it is becoming a statement that aligns the speaker with the conservative side of our culture-war divides.

      • How do you know conservatives were not binary essentialists 30 years ago? That sounds consistent with other trends, but I’ve not seen this claimed before.

        It sounds like you’re saying liberals and conservatives are two kinds of realists and essentialists. Is that right? Conservatives acknowledge only two gender categories and sometimes only two orientations, while liberals say people are whatever they say they are while avoiding the really far out or highly stigmatized categories. They like to add new categories (as Facebook did) but not the ones conservatives imagine as the monsters waiting for us at the bottom of a slippery slope.

        Both positions seem conservative from an anti-essentialist position which became, as I recall, the dominant theory in the LGBTQ community in the 1980s. Anti-essentialism is not effective legally or politically so essentialism is embraced for pragmatic reasons the same way racial identities are simplified in public while internally there is awareness of the range of possible (and contested) African, Asian, Latin, Aboriginal (etc.) identities. LGBTQ people will admit privately (unless they are Camille Paglia who openly discusses this) that someone can just decide to be a certain gender or orientation. You can’t do that with race or ethnicity without some verifiable historical, biological reason, so this is a problem for LGBTQ rights advocates.

        There is also a private admission that some people are “sick puppies” — that there is such a thing as disordered sexuality that may be innate in some cases, acquired in others, or some of both. Out of legitimate fear of what conservatives do with the outliers they tend to be denied in public where we have a very dishonest, ignorant discussion about sexuality and gender as a result. I wonder how much scientific research is inhibited by this because it may be the way forward in a way it can’t be for race categories. On the other hand, maybe it is a Pandora’s box. On race there is a similar anxiety that research into group biology and sociology will enable more bigotry and prejudice. On that issue it became an official Conservative plank to deny and repress The Bell Curve and anything like it, because the racist fringe loves it. Same deal with LGBTQ anti-essentialists who play along with essentialism. The total picture is one of denial across the political perspective that humans can differ greatly in their innate, inborn qualities and through their socialization as well as their own free will. All prior narratives about what it is to be human are inadequate to account for all the facts, but people cling to the old metaphysics and even secularists doing science are smuggling it in an doing onto-theology by another name.

  4. Susan

     /  February 28, 2017

    Okay, you posted this entry a year and a half ago, but I only just came upon it. My question: why is the pro-Lila Perry position the “progressive” one?

    Lila Perry is a juvenile (almost adult) male of the human species. That makes Lila a boy, almost a man. At least that’s how much of the English-speaking world defines the term. Lila has a penis and testes. Lila does not have a vulva, clitoris, ovaries, or vagina, nor does Lila menstruate. Lila displays a prominent adam’s apple, and under his skirt in some of the video’s of the protest is a visibly semi-erect penis. Lila is male.

    I’m a lefty, and there are many like me, who reject the subjectivism of transgender ideology, because we recognize the centrality of lived, bodily experience to sex and gender. Women have not been oppressed historically because they “identified” as female, as feminine, or as women. They have been oppressed as members of the reproductive sex class women. We don’t “identify” as women, we “are” women. Our goal is not to be “accepted” or “recognized” as women, it is to be treated as full human beings.

    It’s quite ironic that you assume those of us who acknowledge material reality are probably bigoted fundies, since transgenderism is more than a little similar to the evangelical experience of conversion. For transgender people, as with born-again Christians, subjective feelings/ internal mental-emotional states are held up as the sole criterion of truth, and the route to salvation. The conversion experience of realizing one is “really” a boy (if born female) or a girl (if born male) is one of salvation, the answer that in theory resolves the very real anguish experienced by those forced to perform gender in ways that violates their sense of what is right for them. There’s more than a little Descartes in the mix as well: I think I don’t want to live as a man with all the burdens that masculinity brings, therefore I’m really a woman. However, rejecting “assigned” gender doesn’t make one into the opposite sex.

    Your post and the others’ responses utterly disregard the agency and legitimate concerns of the 200 young women who walked out in protest of Lila’s efforts to invade intimate spaces where they are vulnerable. You deride them as uptight, bigoted fundies following the herd. This is the height of male privilege. Are you a Mens’ Rights Activist? Regardless, your silencing of those 200 girls, your refusal to consider the matter from their perspective, is of a piece with what is basically an MRA agenda aimed at colonizing the bodies and spaces of women.

    • From Canada now (since August) I just want to say “I told you so.” (Time is not on your side Adam. If anything, time is against your side. Progressivism as a historical destiny is a major, major delusion.)

      @Susan – maybe pick your battles wisely… first they come for the Muslims, then the Latinos and the Ts, then the LGBs, and finally you’ll have state funded religious schools where all of these groups are absent or denounced and young women are described as quasi-chattel whose value lies in “purity” and a “complementarian” homemaker. This is already the reality in more communities than anyone may realize. Who is to say there’s anything wrong with this? It’s all based on essentialist arguments as well. On Tue, Feb 28, 2017 at 5:14 PM I Love You but You’re Going to Hell wrote:

      > Susan commented: “Okay, you posted this entry a year and a half ago, but I > only just came upon it. My question: why is the pro-Lila Perry position the > “progressive” one? Lila Perry is a juvenile (almost adult) male of the > human species. That makes Lila a boy, almost a m” >

      • Agellius

         /  February 28, 2017


        Cool! One less liberal vote down here! I hope you took all your liberal friends and family with you too! ; )

      • Really? You don’t understand citizenship at all do you.

        It means we get to vote in two countries now buddy. But thanks for the vicious idiocratic nationalist display of pure beetlebrained bigotry. On Tue, Feb 28, 2017 at 5:55 PM I Love You but You’re Going to Hell wrote:

        > Agellius commented: “Dan: Cool! One less liberal vote down here! I hope > you took all your liberal friends and family with you too! ; )” >

      • Agellius

         /  March 1, 2017

        Wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, Dan?

      • Your reflexive glee at the idea that a geographic move equates to a loss of citizenship is more than disturbing; it is disgusting.

      • Agellius

         /  March 1, 2017

        Did you not notice the winking smiley at the end of my comment? Truly you’re wound way too tight.

      • A mature person would apologize or never say such a thing in the first place. It’s not joking material. No smiley negates the literal meaning and intent of your personal vitriol that you chose to extend to my family and friends while hiding behind anonymity. Your drive-by internet hate showcases your Catholic “virtues” perfectly.

      • Agellius

         /  March 1, 2017

        Welllll, OK then. Gotta walk on eggshells around Dan, I guess.

    • Agellius

       /  February 28, 2017


      I like your analogy to the “subjective feelings/ internal mental-emotional states” of fundamentalist Christians. Coincidentally, this very idea struck me just yesterday.

      If subjective religious beliefs should be kept private and not used as the basis for public policy, then why shouldn’t subjective beliefs about one’s gender be relegated to the private sphere as well? Those who identify as Christians don’t get to force the rest of society to conform to their beliefs — e.g. they don’t get to insist that others refer to them as ” the saved”, even though they really, really believe that they are, and it may be argued that their entire psychological makeup and sense of well-being are structured around that belief.

      Instead, Christians are expected to accept the fact that other people don’t believe as they do, and tolerate those differences of belief. You can find others with whom to associate, who share your beliefs, if you choose, but you can’t make people share your beliefs and publicly acknowledge their validity.

      • Yes that is what it’s coming down to. Power. Dominionist Fundamentslists vs. people who don’t take their biology from the Bible, which includes a lot of Christians.

        If Aegellius agrees with you Susan, you’re doing Lefty wrong. On Tue, Feb 28, 2017 at 5:47 PM I Love You but You’re Going to Hell wrote:

        > Agellius commented: “Susan: I like your analogy to the “subjective > feelings/ internal mental-emotional states” of fundamentalist Christians. > Coincidentally, this very idea struck me just yesterday. If subjective > religious beliefs should be kept private and not used as” >

  5. Susan

     /  February 28, 2017

    If Argellius agrees with me I’m doing lefty wrong? What kind of argument is that? Oh, never mind, it’s not one.

    I don’t know what the policy on links is here at this blog, but I’d like to encourage you all to read about how the transgender bathroom issue is playing out in a Ft. Worth prison. The usual arguments about trans being the most oppressedest of the oppressed don’t really work in this situation, given the systemic deprivations experienced by the vast majority of women who end up incarcerated. Though I’m sure the trans lobby will say these female inmates need to check their cishet privilege and just accept bepenised ladies in their quarters.

    “Transgender bathroom battle smolders in Ft. Worth federal prison,” _The Star-Telegram_

    As that inane meme going around says, it’s not just about the bathrooms…it’s about showers, saunas, locker rooms, dormitory assignments, nursing homes, hospital room assignments, sports teams, and yes, prisons.

    • You can see what the argument is — Don’t panic and support reactionary theofascists because you find non-binary categories difficult to process. I was also challenging you to rethink your essentialist notions of gender/identity/sexuality — and maybe there are alternatives to ponder other than a purely subjectivist anti-essentialism? If your reaction is mainly to cisgender female feminists’ identity politics territory being encroached on by some ideas of transgender people you think are really men who think they are women (intersex adds more complexity) then maybe another way you resemble Agellius and the Fundamentalist side is in the reduction to power and identity politics. That showdown is probably inevitable as a dying imperial nation proves itself too damaged from self-inflicted to solve basic, simple problems without increasing division, conflict and recrimination.

      If anyone would actually like to try reason and charity, here’s a calm expert:

  6. Susan

     /  February 28, 2017

    Dan, one other thing. You claim “it’s all based on essentialist arguments anyhow.” Utter cop out and bull crap. There are two sexes. A very small percentage of people possess chromosomal abnormalities that lead them to have ambiguous genitalia, but they are not an “other” sex. Humans are placental mammals, and human reproduction is sexually dimorphic. Analogy: humans are bipedal. Is that an essentialist notion? Note too that just because a person loses a leg they don’t cease to be human. Similarly, a man who gets silicone facsimiles of breasts attached to his chest does not cease to be male. Regardless of what Caitlyn Jenner or Lila Perry think, they are male, because they possess male reproductive organs along with secondary sex characteristics particular to the male sex. They may engage in speech acts that communicate to themselves and others that they are ladies, but a great many more of their non-speech acts–getting a prostate exam, ejaculating sperm, taking viagra–communicate loud and clear that they are male. The material reality of bodily existence undermines their identity based claims.

    • What would I be copping out on? The bigotry you are talking yourself into as some kind of realist-materialist view?

      The essentialist notion is that sex defined by chromosomes in the general cases *should* define gender as a social construct. Clearly it never has absolutely defined it as binary, and in many cultures, including the classical world there have been more than two genders. Who has what parts or chromosomes is not essential or definitive, though it obviously plays a role.

      Likewise you essentialize standing upright and walking as definitive of “human” as if one species suddenly all stood up and never looked back, become at that moment, truly human. For all intents and purposes, being bipedal is the norm now (it could have gone otherwise, and then we’d denigrated bipeds as subhuman), but to emphasize any norm to excess ignores the outliers, which are real and in these cases *people* too. In the case of people who developed differently or became different, if we essentialize the general we are creating a culture where there is an implicit lower value and inevitably a stigma on the outliers.

      All you are saying is that a trans person like Jenner is sexed as male by the general physical traits — a fact they wouldn’t deny — while they are saying gender in not sex but substantially a social-psychological concept.

      Just hear this today; you may find it interesting too Agellius.

      On Tue, Feb 28, 2017 at 7:44 PM I Love You but You’re Going to Hell wrote:

      > Susan commented: “Dan, one other thing. You claim “it’s all based on > essentialist arguments anyhow.” Utter cop out and bull crap. There are two > sexes. A very small percentage of people possess chromosomal abnormalities > that lead them to have ambiguous genitalia, but they a” >

  7. Susan

     /  February 28, 2017

    Paisley almost gets it.

    “What are the consequences of this shift away from the gender binary and toward gender pluralism? For one thing, misogyny begins to disappear from our political lexicon. As I wrote in a post on “disappearing women” last year, while it’s certainly right to demand that providers of reproductive health services use trans-inclusive language, we lose important historical and analytical frameworks for understanding the restriction and possible ending of abortion as part of a war against women.

    With the rejection of a binary organized around sexual difference, and the concomitant inability to acknowledge asymmetrical gendered power relations, we no longer have the ability to examine how gender still matters in the unjust distribution of resources, how one’s position toward the feminine end of the continuum (if not the binary) still has effects. Instead, the agenda becomes the demand that all forms of gender difference be included and recognized….”

    • Why “almost?” The way I understand her point is not that the binary is real in some essential way (as you seem to be arguing) but that it is a useful, even necessary construct.

      • Susan

         /  March 1, 2017

        I agree with you regarding Currah’s point on the usefulness of the sex binary and the necessity of treating it as real (or as “real”), at least in certain circumstances. However, when I use the term “real” I do not imply anything “essential.” I’m having my morning coffee right now. I treat the coffee cup as “real” when I pour my coffee and then milk into it. The cup/not-cup binary is an extremely useful, necessary construct. Otherwise I might be more cranky than I am usually in the a.m. But I am not suggesting that there is anything “essential” about the nature of coffee-cup-ness.

      • I guess that’s the key problem — many, maybe most people think through (without any critical self-questioning) the background legacy of a quasi medieval or premodern conception of the real. What is real to them has to do with some (maybe divinely imbued) essence that is usually treated as universal and tied to the beautiful and the true. Invariably what one finds in this category is what one experiences as “normal,” which is then moralized as “right” if not ideal, and the outlier cases are deviant, wrong, ugly, unjust, and a threat to the whole system. That sort of application is the main problem with the thinking. I doubt anyone with any kind of western cultural formation is free of these tendencies, but liberalism has tended to deny or overlook the implications of its origins in theologies of universal rights grounded in nature by nature’s god, etc. — or the implications of early modern democracies emerging from a newly literate population of mostly agricultural workers whose intellectual formation was and continues to be shaped by anti-historicist, highly literalist, supernaturalist interpretative strategies for dealing with their obsessively revered, Bronze Age master texts.

  8. Back to the OP — I don’t agree with Adam’s premise, that conservatives have become essentialists on gender and sexuality while liberals have become anti-essentialists, even pure subjectivists. Conservatives have always been essentialists on this and much else; the “moderates” simply emphasize it less or admit some degree of doubt, mostly to avoid seeming gauche and because it doesn’t touch them personally. Liberals have definitely drifted into every more inclusive positions that are not well thought out for their best justifications until conflict compels clear defenses. Maybe we are in agreement on that.

    Liberals have always included many essentialists as well, and many liberals are essentially conservatives with cosmetic differences. Look at Hillary Clinton’s record on same sex marriage. Shifting with the times, Trans people with no major financial-political backing, no respected figureheads may get thrown under the bus by Democrats, i.e. American so-called “liberals.” Not because Transgender is a highly problematic concept and vexing reality but because it’s not politically savvy to go to the mat for kids like Lila and bathroom policies. Let the people sort it out, like they did in the great old days, like they still do with trans people being attacked and killed at exceptional rates.

    Neoliberalism is nothing if not elitist, inegalitarian, and deeply conservative in its economics, which serve as a master moral ideology. Scratch a white liberal and you find privilege that feeds on the blood of others, invariably those who are not white liberals. Whereas the conservative is happy to say “better to be the hammer than the nail” (in more and less bigoted or generous accents, it makes little difference) liberals have a lot of silence to mark their bad faith. This was always Liberalism’s predicted undoing — now well underway — its inability to justify the violence and inequalities liberal states create, manage, and appear to require for their legitimacy and very existence. Among polite white liberals of course the pretense is always to treat every approved oppressed minority as worthy and in need of their assistance to realize full equality and enfranchisement. This can drive progress against inequality and injustice, but is it coming from a commitment to the idea of an egalitarian, non-authoritarian society? Generally the answer is no.

    Those on the right who are now in power are also the most motivated to undo the way “sex” has been interpreted in civil rights law since 1968 to include gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. The US Department of Education under Obama affirmed all three, as this was simultaneously under attack (and still is) by powerful right wing religious legal-legislative activists. Any ground lost for trans people (regardless of the merits of any particular policy) will be a threat to gay people and women as well.

    The right that wishes to impose uniform, binary gender and sexuality norms is motivated precisely by the historical and demographic data and trends that gave Adam such confidence that young people will remain increasingly “progressive” so that one day anti-LGBT conservatism will be buried with the Boomers. The goal on the right now is to seize the present as their last chance to reverse course. The key to winning and holding power is to continue to hammer away at the bad faith of liberalism in an age that believes there is not enough to go around — wealth, food, air, water, lifeboats, time. By driving the wedges of illegal immigrant felons, Muslim terrorists, and Caitlin Jenners into an overspent, forever-war imperialist corporate state, odds are good that most liberals will lose their nerve and continue to abandon equality, fraternity, and liberty by degrees. For the millennials and their kids, what they know as normal makes it especially hard to imagine radical alnernatives.

  9. Agellius

     /  March 1, 2017

    The very notion of “gender” is meaningless without the concepts of male and female. Aside from that, what could gender possibly mean?

    So-called “third genders” are either a supposed neutral ground between male and female, or a boy raised as a girl or vice versa. But the notion of raising a boy as a girl depends on there being an objective concept of femaleness to conform to, either innate femaleness or socially-constructed femaleness.

    If one who is biologically male identifies as a female, which femaleness is he identifying with? Innate, objectively existing femaleness, or socially constructed femaleness? If the former, where does it objectively exist? If only in his mind, then it’s subjective, not objective, by definition. If not only in his mind, and not in his body either, but existing objectively nevertheless, then where is it?


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