Talking Points

Why conservatives think trans issues won't share the same trajectory as same-sex marriage

The second biggest bombshell of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation hearings — assuming Sen. Josh Hawley's (R-Mo.) was the first — was her statement that she was not qualified to define "woman" because she is not a biologist. Her response seemed incongruous for a nominee selected and celebrated in part because she is the first Black woman with an opportunity to sit on the Supreme Court. Conservatives, in today's lingo, pounced.

It's not just a Beltway controversy but the cutting-edge social issue of our time. Republican governors are divided over so-called transgender sports bills requiring athletes to play on teams that correspond to their biologically-assigned sex at birth, with some vetoing them while others champion such legislation. The contours of the debate are similar to the earlier one over gay rights. One side argues that the basic rules and assumptions of society should not be rewritten because of a small minority; the other side maintains that ignorance and cruelty are causing harm to people because of who they are, in ways society should remedy.

Liberals hope this debate will also follow the same trajectory. Same-sex marriage was almost unthinkable in 1996, when Gallup found only 27 percent of Americans supported it and a large majority of Democrats voted to ban it via the Defense of Marriage Act (including the current president). Now, outside of some significant religious subcultures, gay marriage is conventional wisdom.

Conservatives think this time will be different. Now when activists ask "Who does this hurt?," up to half the population may feel the answer is "Me." The transgender sports bills are premised on the idea that competing with biological males disadvantages girls. Others say that the broader argument over woke language about "birthing people," "menstruating people," "gestators," and "chest feeders" is that it dehumanizes cisgender women. Some who had no problem with the first three letters of "LGBT" are stumbling over the fourth, at least when the logic is taken this far.

A version of this argument upended the Equal Rights Amendment when conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly contended its underlying ideology would actually be detrimental to women. Other working moms are following in Schlafly's footsteps, and the latest controversies touch on the sexualization of children. But the future is murky. Culture wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please.