What we are witnessing in today’s transgender mania is the next step of “progress”: securing our freedom, not from inherited inhibitions and social censure, but from nature, and, indeed, from reality, which is why so much energy goes into controlling what people can and cannot say. This ambition to transcend the constraints imposed by nature sends transgenderism down the same spiritual grooves as transhumanism and doctor-assisted suicide. Both are body-freedom projects. If we see this connection, I believe we can better understand why transgenderism has gained so much influence so quickly.
The progressive imagination envisions a limitless future. Karl Marx thought that modern industrial production marked a new epoch in human history. Amid explosive growth during the industrial revolution, he thought we were on the cusp of material abundance. Marx argued that if we rejected the artificial scarcity of competitive capitalism (revolution!), then the curse of Adam, the necessity of hard labor to ensure survival, could be overcome. In a world of limitless plenty, each would be free to develop every aspect of his personality without limits. In the communist utopia we could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening,” while adopting the critical pose of the philosopher after dinner.
In 2022, our societies produce more wealth than Marx ever imagined. But few still believe the promise of communism and its dream of freedom from material limits. Aside, perhaps, from proponents of Modern Monetary Theory, most of us accept the enduring role of scarcity in economic life. Yet the dream of a limitless future has not gone away. By my reading of the last half century or more, it has migrated out of economics and class politics into dreams of a cultural revolution. Put simply, having given up on class war as a way to achieve a classless society, progressives now devote themselves to a bio-cultural war on the limits imposed by our bodies.
The 1960s were a key moment in this pivot from what was then called “the Social Question” to concerns about our bodies. For millennia, sex was bound up with marriage and children. This cultural link is rooted in biological reality: the intrinsic fertility of sexual intercourse. But the Pill and new moral norms in the Sixties severed the connection between sex and reproduction. Why, our cultural revolutionaries asked, should sex be limited by fertility? Second-wave feminism reinforced this trend, as did gay liberation. The first insisted that a woman’s body must not limit her professional and personal choices. The latter insisted that the biological reality of our sexual organs should not limit our choice of sexual partners.
In traditional cultures, society justifies itself by appealing to memory. Leaders claim to remain true to ancestors, origins, and divine laws. Modern culture is different. “Progress” is central to the story we tell about ourselves. And in this story progress means overcoming limits. For this reason, the power of the Pill to free women from fertility was widely embraced, and it served as the technological foundation for women’s liberation. The expansion of options for women, along with changes that freed homosexuals from censure, was welcomed as an extension of our long tradition of promoting political freedom from arbitrary power.
But overcoming our bodies is not the same as rebelling against kings or protesting against racial discrimination. In its essence, the American Revolution was a political act, as was the Civil Rights Movement. Neither one redefined marriage, altered what it means to be a parent, or rethought the natural family. By contrast, the sexual revolution, which is still unfolding, is metaphysical in character. As a rebellion against nature’s constraints, it touches on every aspect of what it means to be human.
Some people wonder why transgender issues got added to the agenda of gay liberation. Not a few feminists, and some outspoken lesbians, raised their voices in protest. I think they are naive. “Progress” is a wheel that must keep turning. John Dewey was perhaps the most influential progressive American intellectual of the twentieth century. At every step, he championed “boundless possibility.” Dewey recognized that progress must be open-ended. It seeks ever to overcome “fixed limits.”
Unlike earlier stages of the sexual revolution, which can be framed as liberations from traditional cultural constraints rather than as metaphysical rebellions, transgenderism concerns our bodies in an open and direct way. The hormones at work in the Pill operate invisibly. The hormones used to block puberty effect changes that all can see, and gender-reassignment surgeries even more so. For this reason, transgenderism has tremendous metaphysical significance as a symbol of successful rebellion. Its open warfare on the body promises final victory.
This fact explains why progressives are so fiercely loyal to transgender ideology. By forthrightly and blatantly denying that our bodies can and should limit our sentiments, feelings, and choices, transgenderism puts an exclamation mark on the sexual revolution. It also brings into the open the theological ambition of progressive cultural politics. At Woodstock and Stonewall, the push to revise moral norms aimed to achieve sexual freedom. But hormonal therapies applied to children have nothing to do with sexual desire, and subsequent surgical interventions mutilate the organs that are capable of sexual stimulation. Except in the case of middle-aged men who “transition,” the transgender phenomenon is not about sex (and I argue below that even for the middle-aged men it’s not, finally, about sex). Instead, what we are witnessing in today’s transgender mania is the next step of “progress”: securing our freedom, not from inherited inhibitions and social censure, but from nature, and, indeed, from reality, which is why so much energy goes into controlling what people can and cannot say.
This ambition to transcend the constraints imposed by nature sends transgenderism down the same spiritual grooves as transhumanism and doctor-assisted suicide. Both are body-freedom projects. If we see this connection, I believe we can better understand why transgenderism has gained so much influence so quickly.
Death is the greatest limit. And by this I do not mean simply our final moment. Rather, I take “death” to mean the downward spiral of life toward lifelessness. As someone on the far side of sixty, I’m aware that my body’s vitality is waning. Given my own experience, I’m rather confident that Bruce Jenner and other aging men embrace transgenderism as a therapy. Like Viagra, getting breasts is a technological way of revitalizing the body. Like Botox and cosmetic surgeries, it seeks to hit the pause button on aging. Very few progressive men or women want to mutilate themselves. But they are enchanted by the symbolism of transgenderism. This is especially true of Baby Boomers, for whom agelessness has become a singular preoccupation.
Boys can become girls and girls can become boys! This claim is now obligatory, and contradicting it brings opprobrium. As an assertion, it promises to liberate us from our bodies, allowing us to wiggle free of nature’s limits, of which death is the most dire. Transgender ideology says that gender is not our bodily sex—it is merely “assigned at birth.” This conceit encourages us to imagine that our bodily demise, too, is “assigned” rather than a given, and thus death can be “reassigned” rather than suffered. Doctor-assisted suicide should be understood as mortality reassignment. Our bodies do not determine when we die—we choose, just as a man can determine that he is a woman. Although transhumanism remains a techno-utopian dream, it promises more than “reassignment.” The ambition is to secure the indefinite deferral of death.
The promise of immortality is alluring, especially to educated, rich, and progressive Americans who imagine that they deserve every advantage in life, including the freedom to manage their mortality, if not escape it altogether. To my mind, this allure explains why activists, doctors, mental health protfessionals, politicians, and other adults countenance the mutilation of young people. Like Aztec elites, they sacrifice others to keep alive their theological ambition of overcoming all limits, even and especially those imposed by their own bodies, which are doomed to wear out.
I have emphasized the modern belief in “progress,” which underwrites never-ending efforts to overcome limits. Yet, the collective imagination of the West is shifting. Today’s watchword is “sustainability,” not progress. This preoccupation concerns more than the climate. Lots of responsible people anguish over populist and authoritarian threats. They establish websites and write endlessly, urging us to commit ourselves to the singular task of sustaining liberal democracy and the “rules-based international order.” This decidedly non-progressive call to conserve seems merited, given shifting public opinion. Polling suggests that young people believe their lives will be worse than their parents’ have been. Some are convinced that environmental catastrophe is around the corner.
The upshot is paradoxical. On the one hand, our collective mood is sour. The most we seem able to hope for is that tomorrow won’t be worse than today. That’s the spiritual meaning of “sustainability.” On the other hand, progressivism cultivates explicitly metaphysical and theological ambitions. Yes, liberals press for increases in the minimum wage and other traditional goals. But the lawn signs in university towns announce, “Hate has no home here.” This sentiment amounts to reversing the fall of man and proclaiming the kingdom of God. And as I have argued, today’s progressive cultural politics seeks to overturn the authority of nature. Thus we have at once widespread resignation—and God-like ambition.
It’s really very strange. One hundred thousand people die of opioid overdoses in a single year, and elites throw up their hands and do nothing. Meanwhile, they put untold millions into transgender activism and insist that the fullest resources of the medical-industrial complex must be employed to attain its goals.
I could go on with other strange paradoxes. But to my mind, the weird way in which American progressivism has been swallowed by a cultural politics that now revolves around transgender ideology is revealing. It makes evident that powerful elements of our society are engaged in an open war on reality. Ze and Zir are easy to mock and ridicule. But the now-ubiquitous use of “them” as a singular pronoun shows how deeply all of us are now implicated in the rebellion against bodily reality.