When I was in college, an art history professor at my school transitioned. This was in the late 1970s, so one might think that this was a big deal for everyone on campus. It turned out not to be. The professor in no way concealed their journey, and we gave them their space.
I now deeply respect the unassuming dignity of this professor and the absence of any off-putting responses from members of the college community, who merely circled between indifference and quiet curiosity. There was nothing political about the act or the reaction, which is a deeply poignant reflection on our own time.
Today, transgender people are squarely in the crosshairs of conservative Catholic scholars and activists, whose weapon in this battle at the center of the culture wars is “natural law” moral philosophy.
The Catholic Church teaches that gender is part of God’s design of the human person and that every person must “accept his sexual identity” as biologically determined at birth. The church catechism rejects theories that view gender identity as flexible or as merely a social construct rather than innate from birth. It sees protecting binary complementarity of man and woman as a core goal.
Accordingly, the Catholic Church does not accept a transgender identity as valid, instead viewing transgender individuals as announcing a sexual identity not corresponding to his or her biological sex. Sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapies to alter one’s sexual characteristics are therefore a violation of divine design and so morally unacceptable.
Pope Francis has referred to “the ideology of gender,” in which “children are taught in school that everyone can choose his or her sex,” as “ideological colonization.” In his 2016 apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia,” Francis writes that “an appreciation of our body as male or female is also necessary for our own self-awareness in an encounter with others different from ourselves.”
One of the people who has most firmly leveled his sights on the transgender community is Ryan T. Anderson, a natural law political philosopher who trained under Robert P. George at Princeton University and Patrick Deneen at the University of Notre Dame. Anderson is the president of the very right-wing Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. He is a political animal who has largely built his reputation and influence by skillfully surfing the tidal wave of ignorance and misinformation on transgender realities.
There was enormous hullabaloo when Amazon pulled Anderson’s 2018 book, “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment,” from its online store — it’s still not available for purchase there. Anderson leveraged this instance of censorship to further elevate his reputation on the right.
The book applies Anderson’s natural law philosophy — his skepticism of gender identity fluidity and his concerns about rapid cultural change regarding gender norms — to build an argument against the transgender movement’s goals. The premise of the book is that sex is immutable, binary and determined by observable biological factors, not subjective identity.
According to Anderson, gender identity that diverges from biological sex is a psychological disorder, not an innate identity. Mental health therapy, not transition, is the compassionate and ethical response to this “identity crisis,” in his view. Treating gender dysphoria with hormones, surgery and identity affirmation is experimental, not evidence-based, and does more long-term harm than good.
For these reasons, Anderson concludes transgender identities should not be legally protected classes. According to Anderson, nondiscrimination policies on gender identity are misguided; parental consent and involvement should always be required for any identity questioning or medical steps in minors; and public culture and policies should avoid any affirmation of transgender identities.
The conservative hysteria surrounding transgender identity is almost entirely manufactured. Anderson and others such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis cynically manipulate the emotions of the many Americans whose minds are filled with fears and empty of facts.
When queried, Americans misestimate almost every conceivable population reality in our nation, according to 2022 polling by the research data group YouthGov. Wonder why the “great replacement” theory, which posits that liberal elites want to replace white citizens with nonwhite citizens, has taken hold? When asked to describe the demographic makeup of the United States, Americans have said that 41% of the population is Black, 39% is Hispanic and 29% is Asian. That’s 109% of the American population! No wonder white Americans feel they face extinction. The true percentages, per census and other government and polling data, are 12% Black, 17% Hispanic and 6% Asian.
Do you worry that America will soon cease to be a Christian nation? Why wouldn’t you, when you believe that 27% of the population is Muslim, 30% is Jewish and 33% is atheist. Holy moly, that’s 90% of the nation! In reality, the actual percentages are 1% Muslim, 2% Jewish and 3% atheistic.
But nowhere is misinformation more rife than on estimates of the population of those who deviate from binary sexual norms. Americans believe that 30% of the population is gay or lesbian, 29% is bisexual and 21% is transgender, amounting to 80% of the national population. In fact, only 3% of the population is estimated to be gay or lesbian, 4% bisexual and 1% transgender.
The reality in our political environment is that people just make up stuff. They believe what they want and will go to the darkest places, given the opportunity and regardless of the facts, because that frisson of fear and panic makes them feel alive.
For political animals of the Anderson and DeSantis sort, it is their instinct to exploit these instincts — to agitate the masses and punch down on the vulnerable. Arguments from natural law provide convenient cover. Who can argue with God’s morality? Why use it as a shield when it can serve so much more effectively as a sword?
(Peter Schwartz has a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley and writes at the broad intersection of philosophy, politics, history and religion)
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