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Why Do I Talk So Much About Trans Stuff?
Because I Have Nothing To Lose
If you’ve followed my coverage of the culture wars over the past several years, you may know that my gateway drug and north star wrapped up in one were the conversations between economist Glenn Loury and linguist John McWhorter on The Glenn Show on Bloggingheads.tv. For more than a decade, the two have been having regular video conversations about culture and politics, especially matters of race. In that time, McWhorter has published best-selling books, continues to teach at Columbia University, and now writes a newsletter for the New York Times. Loury, for his part, has remained at his prestigious position as a professor of social sciences and economics at Brown University. He also has a successful Substack.
Part of the magic of their conversations is the way they don’t let their elite bona fides get in the way of their true thoughts. (Case in point: Loury’s glorious Ibram X. Kendi rant on the November 4, 2022, episode.)
At the end of the December 10 episode, which had included a lengthy discussion about black anti-Semitism, Loury and McWhorter reflected on the highly fraught nature of that topic. Loury remarked that it was “almost as bad as talking about the transgender issue, which John refuses to do on camera for fear of ruination.”
McWhorter, smiling and shaking his head, said only this: “I have a mortgage. I have small children. Uh-uh.”
Here, McWhorter spoke not only for himself but for what I’ve come to believe are the majority of people who have opinions about the new gender battles that they’re not willing to voice. It’s not that they don’t trust their own convictions. It’s not even entirely about fearing censure from their friends (though it’s usually at least a little of that). It’s that they’ve worked hard, often scraped and sacrificed, to build some semblance of a solid foundation for their lives, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to blow up the whole thing by stepping on a land mine they could see from a mile away.
Besides, there are lots of other topics out there to singe your socks on. If you’re a glutton for controversy, you can always talk about how climate change might not be as apocalyptic as advertised, how COVID origins deserve more scrutiny, how #MeToo overreach is setting feminism back, or simply how National Public Radio is now mostly unlistenable. But trans issues are in a class by themselves. Specifically, a class where it is impossible to get anything but a failing grade. Ergo, those looking to protect their GPA avoid that elective altogether.
Not me. I haven’t been on the dean’s list since approximately 2015, which might have been the last year I could attend a literary or media gathering without someone giving me the side-eye because I was known to be problematic. I don’t have a mortgage to pay, kids to support, or a real job to get fired from. I don’t even have a spouse or life partner whose reputation stands to suffer by dint of adjacency.
That means I’m free to talk about trans stuff all the time. I’m living the dream!
Perhaps you’ve heard about the concept of “fuck you” money. This refers to being so wealthy that no amount of professional or reputational ruination will meaningfully affect your bottom line, so you are free to shoot your mouth off at will. You are cancel-proof, so to speak. As I’ve said more than once over the past year, I don’t have fuck-you money, but I have a fuck-you life. I can say what I like because—at the moment, anyway—I have very little to lose.
I’m not just talking about money, though I seem to have less of it with each passing day. I’m talking about being unencumbered by anything or anybody that might be adversely affected by anything I do. Unless the local humane society is going to start doing animal welfare checks on pets whose owners have the wrong opinions (not entirely out of the realm of possibility in California), you could ransack my entire life and not take away much that I’d miss. No children are going to be ostracized on the playground because mom used the term “social contagion” on her podcast. No aging parent is going to be harassed at bridge club because of a daughter who uttered J.K. Rowling’s name without adding a garnish of heaps of invective. And unless my job prospects change overnight and I’m somehow given a university teaching position, no one is going to deny me tenure or otherwise relieve me of my obligations because I threatened students’ safety by interviewing Buck Angel or Corinna Cohn.
This sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. Of all the outspoken, heterodox, contrarian people I know who are willing to talk about pretty much anything, only a handful are willing to talk about the gender identity movement in public. They’ll talk about it in private, believe me. But when it comes to saying their true thoughts out loud, they’re taking the Fifth Amendment all the way to, if not their graves, at least their retirement communities. (Where, I suspect, all those pent-up opinions will unleash themselves on the dinner conversations, and trans stuff will be the only thing they talk about until they die.)
Sounds fun, and hey, I’m already there. When you have nothing to your name other than a fledgling Substack and a deflating SEP-IRA, every night is build-your-own-taco night at the Villa De La Demench Senior Community.
The fact that I’ve followed the issue so closely that its central arguments and data points are practically burned into my retinas is another reason I think it would be a waste to keep mum. But mostly there’s this: When it comes to the gender identity issue, especially as it affects young people, I am fiercely committed to getting it right. That is to say I’m fanatical about talking about it in the most respectful, informed, non-hysterical, and (sorry) nuanced ways possible. As I’ve said more than once, if the smart, thoughtful people don’t speak up, the stupid, thoughtless people are happy to do the job.
Here’s something I’ve noticed: many (not all, but many) of the people speaking up about youth gender issues–think Katie Herzog, Jesse Singal, Andrew Sullivan, and Colin Wright–are not themselves parents. This makes me think that there are others who would speak up, but refrain because they’re worried about the repercussions for their kids–not to mention being alienated by those kids.
Please understand I am not saying there aren’t some people who talk publicly about trans issues—and in some cases have made it the main thing they talk about—who do have kids and mortgages and spouses and any number of reasons they’d rather not be exiled from their nice, lefty community’s Main Street. (Not to mention investigated by child welfare authorities, as was reported by Lisa Selin Davis, who, by the way, has given me permission to say that while she doesn’t have a mortgage, she did lose most of her freelance work after speaking up about gender, and the rent has to be paid.) Plenty of the writers and researchers who were the first to speak out about the recent cohort of young transitioners, for instance Abigail Shrier, Dr. Lisa Marchiano, and Dr. Lisa Littman (who was fired from her university position as a result) are also mothers, and I’m in awe of their courage every day. But I can think of dozens more who, like McWhorter, have chosen to take a pass on this issue even when they’ve proven themselves consistently fearless on so many others.
I get it. And given the important work these folks are doing in other areas, they’re probably right to step back on this one. I’d hate for them to jeopardize that work just for the sake of veering into this lane every once in a while. But that’s all the more reason I’m willing to spend so much time in this lane. It may be riddled with potholes and oil slicks and other hazards that threaten to send you careening off the road. But when you don’t have any passengers, you can afford to take a few more chances. So I’m happy to keep driving. And to keep talking.