Yet another round of social commentary has been unleashed in the aftermath of Lia Thomas’ recent victory at the NCAA swimming nationals. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Lia is a biological male, who, until last year, swam on the men’s team at Penn. But this year, swimming in the female category as a transwoman, Thomas is a national champion in the 500M. To the surprise of none, the response has been swift and for the most part has fallen into predictable patterns on either side. For progressives, Thomas is bold and brave for living her truth, and her rights deserve to be protected—who are we to question her personal identity? For conservatives, Thomas is infringing upon the rights and opportunities of biologically female competitors—how can we ignore them? But the heart of the issue goes much deeper than the instrumentalization of Thomas as hero or villain, or as the latest opportunity for partisan political posturing. The ideology of transgenderism which lies at the root of the Thomas story frequently remains immune from critique, as does the “rights talk” which accompanies it. There is an inherent conundrum in the “my rights versus their rights” construction, and there lies within transgenderism a paradoxical re-instantiation of patriarchy—one of the very things it claims to deconstruct.
The Conundrum of My Rights Versus Their Rights
As I’ve argued elsewhere, transgender controversies usually end in a stalemate between progressives and conservatives stuck in a war of wills over individual rights. This is yet another manifestation of what Mary Ann Glendon called “rights talk” in her book Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse. “The law talk that percolates through American society today…has been through the fiery furnace of critical theory,” Glendon perceptively wrote in 1991, and “there is no more telling indicator of the extent to which legal notions have penetrated both popular and political discourse that our increasing tendency to speak of what is most important to us in terms or rights, and to frame nearly every social controversy as a clash of rights” (3-4). This is exactly how much of the Thomas controversy has taken shape.
Consider Thomas’ own response to questions about her swimming in women’s races: “The very simple answer is that I’m not a man…I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team.” Sports Illustrated writer Robert Sanchez explains further that Thomas “wanted people to know what it was like to finally live an authentic life” and “what it meant to her to stand on a podium with other women and be counted as an equal.”
Consider likewise the content of arguments of those opposed to trans-athlete participation. One Penn parent notes, “We support Lia as a trans woman and hope she leads a happy and productive life, because that’s what she deserves,” but also states that we can’t “stand by while she rewrites records and eliminates biological women from this sport. If we don’t speak up here, it’s going to happen in college after college. And then women’s sports, as we know it, will no longer exist in this country.” A letter signed by some of Thomas’ teammates, and organized by former Olympic swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, states that “Lia has every right to live her life authentically…. However, we also recognize that when it comes to sports competition, that the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity.” The letter signatories continue that some female athletes have “lost competitive opportunities” and conclude that “we support Lia’s mental health, and we ask Penn and the Ivy League to support ours as well.”
We find ourselves yet again with competing claims of rights, with very little challenge actually made to the underlying ideology of transgenderism. It seems to me that complaining of how girls are losing out on athletic victories or college scholarships, and are faced with emotional hardship or mental trauma by competing against trans-athletes like Thomas, falls prey to the same therapeutic and constructivist assumptions that allow progressives to make the case for Thomas. The propped-up fences around sports and bathrooms can’t hold for long when both sides acknowledge the same faulty presuppositions about constructed identity and living one’s authentic life. There has to be a competing vision put forward of the beautiful given-ness of ontological manhood and womanhood, and it has to be lived out—within families, churches, and communities. Protecting women’s sports makes the most sense when it situated in this larger picture of the nature of male and female itself. Furthermore, ideological complicity with transgenderism overlooks its negative effects, one of which is the distorted patriarchy which accompanies it, thus demoting women and demeaning womanhood in the process.
The Twisted Patriarchy of Transgenderism
Transgender ideology demotes women by creating new opportunities for biological males who identify as transwomen to leverage their physical prowess over females in sports, or by infringing upon what were designed specifically as safe places for females. In both scenarios, male-to-female transitioners can exercise power over biological females in new ways. The sanctified spaces women have fought so hard to create and maintain are at the mercy of the newest iteration of the patriarchy—trans-style. Similar to how the Sexual Revolution’s purported liberation of women actually granted more recreational sex to the men so inclined, we see something comparable with the Revolution’s transgender wave. Transgenderism claims to empower marginalized sexualities and lived experiences, but actually cedes power to men, who now are given a new way to domineer both male and female spaces to their own wills. Yet again, men win. Furthermore, biological men who transition also end up as winners over women insofar as their transgender status grants them an intersectionality badge to wear—a way to claim oppressed status even as a biological male. In an era where masculinity itself is frequently considered toxic and men are blamed for all sorts of evils, is it such a shock that going trans has some appeal?
Transgenderism also demeans womanhood’s unique generative potential for new life. A woman’s body biologically speaks of the other, with a place within her body specifically designed to hold and nurture new human life. Granted, this unique aspect of womanhood comes with costs and burdens—physical and otherwise—costs that I, as a male, can never fully grasp. Yet within that sacrifice and self-giving, comes the inimitable and blessed gift of childbearing which brings new life into the world. This is not a woman’s weakness that needs treatment, or condition that needs curing. It is a superpower to be celebrated and treasured. Yet with female-to-male transitioners, this fecundity is surgically altered or hormonally destroyed, which does, as Abigail Shrier documents, Irreversible Damage. Behind the glamorous portrayal of coming out trans there lurks a darker side of pain and, for those who detransition, remorse and regret.
When young girls enter the tumultuous time of puberty with no grounding in the given-ness of womanhood and beauty of motherhood by means of example or argument, it can seem easier to scrap the whole thing, and try and become a man. As Shrier writes, “for so many girls, puberty strikes like a tornado—violently and without warning. A girl’s halfway through a social studies exam when she’s overtaken by the horror that she may have leaked through her jeans. Or she’s in chemistry lab when cramps hit, doubling her over, sending her stumbling to the nurse” (209). Who wants to go through awkward and uncomfortable bodily changes and have monthly encounters with pain and blood and much more for the majority of your life, all in order to make oneself the object of the disturbing fantasies of males whose sexual tastes have been corrupted and perverted by an unending stream of exploitative and abusive porn? If what happens to women in internet porn is what teen girls can expect from sex, is it any surprise that some of them bow-out of womanhood? Shrier wonders the same: “perhaps these girls are protecting themselves from the endless assault of violent porn, or the hyper-glamorized internet images to which they believe they’ll never measure up” (208).
When transgender ideology reigns, not only are women demoted and womanhood demeaned, but in the long run we all lose. Without a foundation in something more than personal choice, internal identity, or individual rights and without a compelling vision of womanhood and manhood, being male or female has no meaning. We lose our most basic categories for understanding ourselves and other human beings. We lose out on the gifts of true masculinity and femininity. For a theory that claims to move beyond the binary and to deconstruct the cis-hetero-patriarchy, it actually ends up doubling down on unhealthy gender stereotypes and reinstituting a twisted form of patriarchy based on the constructed identity of those with the power to try and bend reality to their will. But reality bites back—it’s just a matter of how long it will take for it to do so. And if no alternatives are offered or practiced, it may not bite back for a very long time.
Joshua Pauling taught high school history for thirteen years and is now a classical educator and furniture-maker. He is head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Modern Reformation, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, Salvo, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.