The gender wars

Extremists and reactionaries are demanding simplistic, black-and-white answers to complex questions

a chalkboard with a list of gender pronouns.
(Image credit: Gettyimages)

Does gender have a biological basis? Or are "male" and "female" merely socially conditioned "performances"? Or is gender purely a subjective experience of identity that has nothing to do with chromosomes, genitalia, and internal plumbing? Gender has become such a radioactive issue that even asking such questions can be taboo, and trigger condemnation, professional cancellation, and threats of physical harm. As Conor Friedersdorf says this week in The Atlantic, many Americans have become "reluctant and even terrified" to publicly voice opinions on this issue, which trans activists and right-wing culture warriors have turned into a battle of dogmatic extremes.

On one extreme, academics and some progressives now insist that everyday language be policed to avoid offending trans people. "Women" is out. Instead, say "pregnant people" and "people who menstruate." If 14-year-olds announce they are trans, the proper response is "gender-affirming" care in the form of puberty blockers, hormones, and even mastectomies. To question whether such treatments are being prescribed too hastily, or to point out they can cause permanent infertility and sexual dysfunction, is to be "transphobic." On the other extreme, social conservatives have made it a crime in 13 states to help minors transition — even after parental consent and extended periods of psychological assessment. Missouri recently issued an edict banning gender treatments for adults. As is so often the case, most Americans are uncomfortable with the ideological extremes. They don't want government intrusion into parental and personal decisions — but they also recoil from replacing "mothers" with "birthing people," and from opening women's sports and locker rooms to athletes with penises. Reasonable people operating in good faith might find some humane middle ground on these fraught issues. But reasonable voices are in short supply, and drowned out by the loudest, the angriest, and most adamant.

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William Falk

William Falk is editor-in-chief of The Week, and has held that role since the magazine's first issue in 2001. He has previously been a reporter, columnist, and editor at the Gannett Westchester Newspapers and at Newsday, where he was part of two reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes.