If you want to understand how far transgender rights have advanced in recent years, you don’t have to study Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair profile. Just read the Family Research Council’s new lengthy policy paper on the matter, a document that, while aiming to attack the transgender movement, actually undercuts its own cause even more significantly. In its incoherent reliance on leftist concepts and categories, this document reveals that the far right no longer controls the conversation on gender and sexuality issues. Its most ardent spokespeople have instead ceded the terms of the debate to their political opponents.
A conservative Christian think tank, the Family Research Council has long traded in dubious claims and hateful rhetoric. This new document, “Understanding and Responding to the Transgender Movement,” is no exception: Its authors, Dale O’Leary and Peter Sprigg, fall back on the usual appeals to discredited pseudoscience and decades-old scholarship. (For example, they name a physician born in 1910 as an authority on sex reassignment surgery, conveniently failing to mention that he hasn’t seen the inside of an operating theater since his death in 1987.) But they also embrace a far more surprising referent, the language of the feminist and queer activists they’ve spent decades fighting, even as they back away from their own conceptual and intellectual vocabularies.
While the Family Research Council pitches itself as a defender of a “Christian worldview,” O’Leary and Sprigg claim to be protecting a far more nebulous concept. “In recent decades,” they write in their introduction, “there has been an assault on the sexes.” The idea that “the sexes” as such are under attack is peculiar, not least because one would normally expect to find something like “traditional values” in its place. It suggests that O’Leary and Sprigg recognize that they can no longer assume the readers they hope to convince share those values with them. From the start, then, this paper positions itself as a rearguard action, an attempt to regain lost ground, not to invade new territory.
In what follows, O’Leary and Sprigg offer a brief account of this “assault,” and here, too, their language keeps slipping away from them. There have been, they explain, three “waves” to the attack—the first from “modern feminism,” the second from “the homosexual movement,” and the third from transgender activism. Their vocabulary here corresponds strangely with a common narrative of feminist history, one that similarly divides it into three distinct, but overlapping, waves. With its revisionist account, however, the FRC sloughs off all that complexity, reducing feminism to a mere antecedent of more recent LGBT struggles.
Nevertheless, O’Leary and Sprigg are clearly conscious of the history they elide, and in appropriating its language, they internalize some of its premises. Most tellingly, they both discuss and rely on the contrast between sex and gender, a development typically associated with second-wave feminism. Describing this distinction as the product of a “new gender ideology,” they explain that under its rubric, “ ‘sex’ is restricted to the biological, while ‘gender’ describes the social and cultural manifestations of sex.” And where they propose that the transgender movement has taken things too far, they accept the basic truth of the idea, allowing that “cultural stereotypes [about gender] can unduly restrict individual freedom.” Those earlier waves of the “assault on the sexes,” they seem to be proposing, are effectively faits accomplis.
O’Leary and Sprigg’s grudging acknowledgement of earlier leftist thought lands them in bed with some surprising partners. At one point they admiringly cite seemingly transphobic remarks by “the homosexual Congressman” Barney Frank, as if the mere evocation of his name should be enough to persuade. Elsewhere, they draw extensively on the words of lesbian feminist activist Janice Raymond, which would surely give Raymond pause. They accept, more or less without question, Raymond’s objection to trans advocacy, that it reinforces troubling gender stereotypes. And while, sure, Raymond has been a vocal critic of some elements of transgender advocacy, she’s exactly the kind of person the Family Research Council has spent decades fighting. When O’Leary and Sprigg offer her as an authority, they don’t really support their cause; they just reveal that they’ve been backed into a corner.
There are, of course, concepts that O’Leary and Sprigg refuse to countenance. They take a stand against the idea that sex is “assigned at birth,” a turn of phrase important to many trans activists, calling it an “ideological abuse of language” and insisting that an infant’s sex is instead merely “identified.” Here they are implicitly objecting to queer thinkers such as Judith Butler, who helped lay the intellectual foundations for these ideas in Gender Trouble, Bodies That Matter, and other works. However incoherent O’Leary and Sprigg’s thinking may be, it’s no surprise to find them rejecting Butler, whose work raises hackles on the left as surely as it does on the right.
And yet the Family Research Council itself shows a baffling affinity for Butler’s own theoretical antecedents. Consider a recent lecture sponsored by the FRC and prominently featured on its Web site, in which John Eastman castigates the Obama administration for its “cultural imperialism.” This is a term drawn directly—and seemingly without question—from leftist political discourse. What’s more, it’s one that was developed from the work of post-structuralist philosophers and theorists like Michel Foucault, whose observations on gay liberation would probably make O’Leary and Sprigg break out in hives. These are the kind of thinkers who inspired Butler and her ilk, and the presence of their ideas in the FRC’s discourse plainly demonstrates the organization’s compromised position.
Leftist identity politics appear here as if seen through a prism—all the pieces are there, but they’ve been fragmented and turned back against themselves. On a generous reading, one might suggest that the FRC’s representatives employ these terms and concepts rhetorically, using them to persuade those who might otherwise ignore their message. But if so, they’re still left with little to no intellectual foundation of their own. The FRC’s reliance on feminist and LGBTQ language doesn’t mean they’re beaten any more than it indicates that the struggle for trans equality is over. It does, however, indicate just how weak their position is.
Want to hang out with Outward? If you’ll be in or near New York City on Monday, July 13, join June Thomas, J. Bryan Lowder, and Mark Joseph Stern—and special guests Ted Allen, of Queer Eye and Chopped fame, and marriage equality campaigner extraordinaire Evan Wolfson—for a queer kiki at an Outward LIVE show, hosted by City Winery. Details and tickets can be found here.