These days it’s remarkable to think that the bobbed coiffures of 1920s flappers and the shaggy hair of 1960s rock ‘n’ rollers, in their eras, were each considered unnatural markers of androgyny or deviance. All the same old clichés: Is that a woman or a man? a hirsute Bob Seger sang of onlookers’ whispers in his classic road anthem, “Turn the Page.” By now such styles aren’t hard to distinguish as either masculine or feminine, but at the time they were lamented by some as foreshadows of a society becoming irrevocably bisexual.
Which brings us to the transgender vogue of the present. For all the visibility of the trans cause and trans advocates, there remains a very murky understanding of what transgenderism is. In the first place, a lot of non-transgender men and women are more in touch with their male or female sides than their grandparents ever would have thought to be – employed women who wear pants and operate machinery, and stay-at-home dads who cook meals and care for children. The Kinks’ kinky “Lola” and Lou Reed’s epicene “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” are played on oldies radio. And of course men and women who happen to be gay are commonly indistinguishable from their straight peers (I had a colleague who mused that she was a gay man trapped in a woman’s body, which neither she nor her co-workers could quite fathom, but we all had a chuckle at the thought). Few of us in 2020 bat an eye at same-sex couples, sensitive guys, or lady truckers. Next to such a generous spectrum of possibilities, contemporary transgenderism – whereby congenital males present themselves in rigid stereotypes of femaleness, and vice-versa – actually seems kind of restrictive.
It’s this strident defiance of “norms” which are in fact no longer very normal that puzzles many outside the trans community. Altering your appearance, your name, or your pronoun to proclaim your identification with the sex not entered on your birth certificate are pretty extreme responses to pretty tolerant cultural standards. You can already be whatever you want to be – sexually, socially, personally – in modern pluralistic democracies, so declaring yourself transgender is less like asserting a fundamental biological quality and more like affecting a voluntary lifestyle option: perfectly harmless, sure, but hardly the exercise of a basic human right. Wear or call yourself whatever you want, just don’t pretend you’re somehow liberated by doing so. Transgenderism is really a sort of willed innateness, an invented category that can include the hip and the edgy, as well as the immature, the bored, and the genuinely troubled.
And the self-conscious. In contrast to other movements, there are no transgender apostates or heretics, no Phyllis Schlaflys or Uncle Toms; the trans lobby and the trans public are one and the same. Yet by politicizing themselves so uniformly, transgender people forfeit sympathy from an external majority, who see only another single-issue party or interest group seeking no advances but its own. Activism isn’t very inspirational when it serves to benefit only the activists themselves – when the cause feels like only a contrived excuse for the rebellion – and an activism premised largely on matters of dress, title, and bathrooms can seem indistinct from mere vanity. Second-wave feminism once promised empowerment for beauty pageant contestants and complacent housewives as much as for dedicated demonstrators, but no such inclusion is offered by transgender campaigns: either you’re making a stand, or you’re ineligible to be stood for.
Will the trans classification even be around in another decade or two? Like bobbed hair and Bob Seger’s flowing locks, transgenderism may prove to be more about political and cultural fashions than any underlying societal shifts. A few individuals may finally enjoy special recognition once inaccessible to them, but most trans people may drift back to a more settled identity that’s easier for them to express, easier for others to recognize, and easier for everyone to not make such a fuss over. Acceptance is a wonderful thing, and there’s really more of it out there than some of its requesters want to admit.