One take-away from the transgender-bathroom wars is that the public ignores arcane academic theory at its peril. For two decades, a growing constellation of gender-studies, queer-studies, and women’s-studies departments have beenbeavering away at propositions that would strike many people outside academia as surprising — such as that biological sex and “gender” are mere ideological constructs imposed by a Eurocentric, heteronormative power structure. Even though skeptical journalists have regularly dived into the murky swamp of academic theory and returned bearing nuggets of impenetrable jargon and even stranger ideas, the public and most politicians have shrugged off such academic abominations, if they have taken note at all. (Senator Marco Rubio’s deplorable jab at “philosophy majors” during his presidential run demonstrated how clueless your typical politician is about the real problems in academia.)
An issue that didn’t even exist a year ago is now completely settled in the minds of the cultural elite; anyone who opposes the new regime is simply an atavistic, benighted bigot.
Now gender theory has leapt from the academy to the real world with the demand by the Obama administration that public schools allow biological boys, bearing their full complement of male genitals, to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms if those boys declare themselves female. How did this happen? A pipeline now channels left-wing academic theorizing into the highest reaches of government and the media. The products of the narcissistic academy graduate and bring their high theory indoctrination with them into the federal and state bureaucracies and into newsrooms. Even the judiciary is affected. The opinion of the federal district court striking down California’s Proposition 8 (declaring that marriage was an institution uniting men and women), for example, was steeped in the women’s-studies notion that marriage originated as a way to impose a subordinate “gender” role on females.
The most notable aspect of this latest public eruption of academic theory is how quickly the new academically driven moral consensus was formed. The current wave of non-academic transgender activism began last summer, when the New York Times ran a full-page editorial declaring that the oppression of the transgendered by the biologically obsessed heteronormative majority was our most pressing civil-rights struggle. The Times then followed up with a series of news stories documenting the alleged oppression and plight of the “trans community.” Now, less than a year later, any parent with qualms about having his twelve-year-old daughter share a locker room with a 14-year-old boy is branded as the equivalent of someone advocating a return to whites-only water fountains. An issue that didn’t even exist a year ago is now completely settled in the minds of the cultural elite; anyone who opposes the new regime is simply an atavistic, benighted bigot.
How short are the memories of the politically righteous! In the 1970s, Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg pooh-poohed as sheer demagoguery the idea that the Equal Rights Amendment would require co-ed bathrooms, her implicit assumption being that such an arrangement would of course be preposterous. In 1991, the Michigan Women’s Festival expelled a transsexual woman on the ground that she was in biological fact a male. The First International Conference on Crossdressing, Sex, and Gender at California State University, Northridge, in 1995 maintained separate bathroom facilities for males and females, causing a protest by trans activists. Gay-rights activist and historian Martin Duberman stormed out of a gender-theory presentation. Now those early advocates for gay and women’s rights would be lumped into the same category as segregationists.
There are several corollary take-aways to the present moment. First, we have learned that the trans movement trumps feminism, just as Europe’s reaction to the mass Muslim sexual assaults this New Year’s Eve revealed that multiculturalism trumps feminism. Given the constant caterwauling about “rape culture” by campus feminists, one would have thought that feminists would have opposed allowing males’ use of facilities frequented by unclothed or otherwise vulnerable females. But apparently the claim that college campuses are awash in serial “rapists” waxes and wanes in salience depending on context. It now becomes merely another sign of redneck bigotry to suggest that a heterosexual male (i.e., a rapist in waiting) or a sexual pervert may take advantage of the new trans rules. Wellesley and Smith colleges have twisted themselves into knots deciding whether the “trans” category trumps the favored status of females. They concluded that being trans cancels the disability of being male and in fact elevates the trans “female” to the highest rank on the victim totem pole.
Second, we have learned that all academic High Theory bears watching. The conceptual roots of gender theory lie in 1970s-era deconstruction and post-structuralism, with their pretense to having obliterated the traditional categories of Western epistemology and metaphysics. From Jacques Derrida’s purported “deconstruction” of the privileging of the spoken word over the written sign, and of presence over absence, it turned out to be not so big a step to the alleged dismantling of the biological difference between male and female.
Third, we notice that all colleges matter when it comes to the generation of corrosive High Theory — not just the Ivy League. The University of Iowa, for example, jump-started the field of queer studies in 1994 with a conference on queerness.
Finally, we see that narcissistic students are now co-equal drivers with their professors when it comes to rapidly evolving victim theory. By one count, there are now some 60 categories of gender identity, many of those developed by students desperate to find some last way to be transgressive in an environment where their every self-involved claim of victimhood is met by fawning attention and apologies from the campus diversity bureaucracy. How those 60 categories will play out for public policy remains to be seen.
The ultimate agenda here, however, is to destroy any last shred of female modesty that might stand in the way of the total normalization of casual promiscuity, in obedience to the sexual-liberation movement of the 1960s. Many girls are embarrassed to be seen naked by other girls. Now, however, they are being told to swallow their inhibitions if a boy is in their bathroom or locker room. This can be achieved only by adopting a stance of utter indifference to the powerful, primal taboos around nakedness and sex — in other words, to adopt the sad sexual crudeness of the stars of Sex and the City or of Lena Dunham. And according to the Obama administration, any parent or school official who disagrees is standing in the way of moral progress. One shrinks to contemplate what the academy is cooking up next.
This piece originally appeared at National Review Online