No one should be required to express fidelity to academic queer theory. Those of us who care about actual pluralism should resist this form of narcissism-fueled political theater. If unconventional pronouns have any room in our society, they must be uttered in the context of civic friendship based on trust, self-restraint, and mutual respect. Above all, nonbinary pronouns must be strictly voluntary, and there should be no penalties—social or legal—for those who dissent from their underlying ideology.
The Biden administration has announced a series of policy initiatives in support of “transgender, nonbinary, and other gender expansive” Americans. Among these is that Americans will now be able to have “X” as the gender listed on their passports—a benefit for those who self-identify as neither male nor female.
Nearly two dozen states and the District of Columbia have already implemented similar measures for state-issued documents. In 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued a legal guidance that requires employers, landlords, and providers of public accommodations to use a person’s preferred name and pronouns, irrespective of the sex “assigned” to that person at birth. This includes not only “she” for men who identify as women and “he” for women who identify as men, but also honorific titles such as “Mx” and individual pronouns such as “they/them” and “ze/hir.”
According to the Williams Institute, 1.2 million adults in the United States self-identify as nonbinary. For Americans under 18 that figure is likely much higher, given recent data showing that over 20 percent of Generation Z (born after 1997) identify as LGBT, compared with 10 percent of millennials and 4 percent of Generation X.
Progressives tend to believe that this sudden rise in numbers reflects a society more welcoming to people “born that way,” but a more plausible explanation is that young people are responding to new social cues and incentives. Teenagers are now regularly told that being “cisgender” (identifying as male or female according to reproductive traits) means conforming to social expectations, while identifying as anything else reflects nonconformity, authenticity, and courage. Given this messaging—and the fact that, unlike homosexuality, which entails sexual feelings and behaviors, one need only to declare oneself nonbinary to be nonbinary—it is a wonder that merely 20 percent of youth regard themselves as part of the alphabet coalition. In any case, the Biden administration’s actions add further confusion to a conversation already characterized by shallow thinking and badly misunderstood research.
Start with the fact that what makes most transgender people transgender is precisely the fact that they conform to gender conventions—albeit those of the opposite sex. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists conformity to “stereotypes” as a relevant criterion for diagnosing childhood gender dysphoria. Federal courts have ruled that transgender boys really are boys, and thus deserve to use the boys’ restrooms at school because they look and behave like typical boys. If gender is an “identity” wholly independent of reproductive traits (of which there can be only two complementary sets), then there is no logical reason that there should be only two gender identities. Indeed, there would have to be as many gender identities as there are people, since each person’s way of expressing gender is unique and irreplaceable. As one federal judge conceded in a rare moment of candor, restrooms separated by male and female “gender identity” rely no less on stereotypes than does the conventional practice.
This presents a problem for the notion of gender identity used by diversity trainers, academic bureaucrats, federal judges, mainstream progressive and LGBT advocacy groups, and Democratic Party leaders: that gender is a core, immutable, and socially valuable aspect of the human person. According to superstar academic and godmother of queer theory Judith Butler, gender is not an innate property but a system of social oppression that gains legibility through repetitious “performance.” “Gender identity” is a “regulatory fiction,” Butler writes. A girl who seeks hormones and surgeries to make her body conform to social expectations regarding the male sex is not being a brave nonconformist but “submitting to the norm of the knife.” She is perhaps even more conformist than her “cisgender” peers considering the pain she is willing to endure to “pass” within the traditional “gender binary.” Feminists and gay rights advocates have echoed this line of argument.