Woke Gender


Woke Gender

Jul 7, 2021 13 min read

Former Visiting Fellow, DeVos Center

Emilie Kao was a Visiting Fellow for Heritage’s DeVos Center for Life, Religion, and Family.
This latest iteration of the sexual revolution is profoundly destructive to children and threatens the rights of parents to determine the upbringing of their children. CaraMaria / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Like CRT, Gender Theory (and Queer Theory) emerged from universities and have been propelled into the mainstream by identity politics.

Because Gender Theory asserts that the body can be amended to match self-perception, doctors treat gender dysphoria unlike other disorders related to body image.

Gender ideology has so permeated American culture and law that parents who question it now risk challenges from the government.

A tale of two families.

In February 2021, noted exponent of critical race theory (CRT) and author of How to be an Anti-Racist Ibram X. Kendi announced on a podcast that his kindergarten-age daughter told him and his wife that she wanted to become a boy. Kendi and his wife were “horrified” and wondered what sort of messages she had been hearing about “girlhood” that would cause her to shun her sex. This reaction went viral, and many decried his reaction as hypocritical and “un-woke.” In his unguarded moment, Kendi sounded less like a revolutionary and more like a father wanting to protect his daughter. 

Growing numbers of fathers and mothers across the country are experiencing the same shock when their daughters say they no longer want to be girls. But unlike Kendi, they have not become rich and famous promoting “critical theory.” Their daughters, and Kendi’s, are all experiencing the downstream impact of gender theory. Like CRT, gender theory (and queer theory) emerged from universities and have been propelled into the mainstream by identity politics. Gender theory rejects any relationship between biology and gender as “biological essentialism.” According to Judith Butler, one of the most prominent voices in gender theory, both the biological reality of sex and gender (the way one expresses being male or female) are social constructs. Male and female are roles that are “performed.” Therefore, gender (and the body itself) can be reconstructed otherwise

That can has become a dogma that progressives insist others must accept. This latest iteration of the sexual revolution is profoundly destructive to children and threatens the rights of parents to determine the upbringing of their children. But unbeknownst to most parents, political lobbying organizations and “woke capital” are transforming medicine and education into fields for transgender activism. 

One mother, who speaks under the pseudonym “Elaine,” described what happened when her 15-year-old daughter wanted to “transition.” She recounted how experts treated her daughter’s distress with “a one size fits-all narrative that has no basis in science, common sense, or compassion.” The narrative is known as “affirmative care,” (hormonal and surgical interventions on minors to affirm gender identity). It limits counselors and doctors to “affirming” that boys are trapped in girls’ bodies, and vice-versa, even in children as young as 4 years old.  

Calling it “a lie that is tearing families apart,” Elaine described being powerless in the face of doctors who encouraged her daughter to undergo irreversible intervention on her body. In states like Oregon, 15 year-olds don’t need parental approval to consent to sex-change surgery. Twenty states also ban talk therapy for gender dysphoria, meaning that counselors are forbidden from questioning a child as to whether he or she is actually “trapped in the wrong body.” LGBTQ advocates mischaracterize discussions of feelings about gender and sexuality as akin to “conversion therapy,” which employs high pressure techniques to convince homosexuals that they are not gay. As a result, counselors and therapists who treat gender dysphoria are refusing patients out of a fear of being sued or even prosecuted.

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Elaine asks why doctors are allowed to mutilate healthy reproductive organs. Transgender activists have influenced the nation’s leading educational and medical organizations into accepting a warped understanding of the relation of mind and body. As at an amusement park, where funhouse mirrors disorient children by distorting their reality, transgender activists present exaggerated images of femininity and masculinity to children. They teach that preferences for the outward signals of gender—such as dresses or short haircuts—indicate a child’s “true” gender identity associated with the respective style. Drag queens are invited to read stories in schools and libraries. The Barbie doll physical ideal has been held up to scrutiny and criticism from feminists for decades, but now adult men emulate its appearance in their performances. Ironically, gender theory now reinforces hyper-feminine and masculine physiques, costumes, makeup, and mannerisms. Like traditional stereotypes, these false images distort boys’ and girls’ expectations of themselves, but with far more serious consequences.

Because gender theory asserts that the body can be amended to match self-perception, doctors treat gender dysphoria unlike other disorders related to body image (such as anorexia nervosa, which has clear diagnostic criteria related to body image). With other mental disorders, doctors seek to address the underlying problems that have led to an inaccurate or harmful self-image. Normally, doctors and counselors don’t affirm the distorted self-images of their patients. Rather than telling girls who like sports and the outdoors to undergo permanent disfiguration, counselors and doctors could expand the parameters of girlhood beyond dresses and baking. And boys who like the arts and fashion could be accepted as they are, not told that they are girls trapped in the wrong body. 

In Europe, the tide is turning. Recently, the United Kingdom’s High Court heard a lawsuit from Keira Bell, a 24-year-old woman who regrets following the advice of doctors at the Tavistock Clinic to take puberty blockers and have a double mastectomy. Bell recalls being socially isolated, identifying as a “butch lesbian,” and being introduced to transsexualism through social media. She laments that doctors did not address her underlying mental health issues and challenge her belief that life would improve through gender transition. 

The High Court held that children under 16 lack the capacity to give informed consent to puberty blockers for treatment of gender dysphoria because they are too young to understand the side effects. The leading hospital in Sweden has ended the use of puberty blockers and hormones to treat gender dysphoria for anyone under 18. Similarly, Finland’s guidelines for treatment of gender dysphoria now support psychological therapy to treat the underlying disorder over interventions on the body. But doctors in America, including those suing to overturn the nation’s first puberty blocker ban, persist in telling families that children are at greater risk if they undergo “watchful waiting” than if they receive injections of hormones or have surgeries to remove their reproductive organs. 

The burden of proof should rest with those who want to try experimental therapies, especially on children. Yet the advice of American doctors (including new U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health, Rachel (formerly Richard) Levine) rests on two unproven assertions: that puberty suppression is reversible, and there are mental health benefits to gender affirmation. But there is no supporting evidence for these claims.

How Woke Gender Captured Medical Standards of Care

In a groundbreaking article in The New Atlantis entitled “Growing Pains,” Paul W. Hruz, Lawrence S. Mayer, and Paul R. McHugh, experts in endocrinology, psychiatry, and epidemiology, described how the largest LGBT lobbying organization, the Human Rights Campaign and World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) influenced medical organizations like the Endocrine Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics to embrace gender affirmation over the last two decades. Jason Pierceson, author of Sexual Minorities and Politics, explains that “political activism and consciousness raising has also changed the way in which the medical community views transgender persons.” He describes how this activism led the American Psychiatric Association to “abandon the mental illness paradigm of transgenderism” by changing the description in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to treat only the stress associated with gender dysphoria as a mental disorder. No breakthroughs in science or medicine led to the change, which was accomplished just by political activism. 

Hruz and his coauthors explains that longstanding practices that are employed to protect patients from the harms of experimental medicine (including human subjects protections, the use of institutional review boards, and carefully controlled clinical trials, and long-term follow-up studies) are almost entirely absent from the use of puberty-blocking treatments for gender dysphoria. A recent Economist article also reported the absence of a single large study of the effectiveness of puberty blockers.

The assertion that puberty suppression is reversible is unproven. And, as the New Atlantis authors point out, a course of puberty blockers followed by cross-sex hormones circumvents the maturation of reproductive organs, rendering children permanently sterile. Although 88 percent to 98 percent of gender dysphoric children who naturally go through puberty become reconciled to their bodies, according to the DSM-5, Hruz, Mayer, and McHugh explain that gender-affirming treatments “may drive some children to persist in identifying as transgender when they might otherwise have…found their gender to be aligned with their sex.” They question whether the persistence of gender dysphoria in 100 percent of children who were treated at a well-known Dutch clinic with puberty blockers (at age 12) and continuing with cross-sex hormones (at age 16) may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

If 100 percent of patients at a clinic for eating disorders went on to have surgical interventions, one would expect intense scrutiny from the medical establishment. But there are no political lobbying organizations calling for the affirmation of disordered eating.

Transgender advocates also fail to provide evidence of improved mental health from affirmative care. The American Journal of Psychiatry recently issued a correction to an earlier study that admitted that the largest dataset on transgender-identifying patients demonstrated no advantage of surgery in relation to subsequent mood or anxiety disorder-related health care. 

The adoption of the affirmative care model by the American Academy of Pediatrics and Endocrine Society occurred simultaneously with dramatic increases in the number of children identifying as transgender. The confluence of these events has caused observers to question whether the sudden increase is the result of social contagion. In the UK, there was a 4,400 percent increase in young women identifying as gender dysphoric between 2008 and 2018. A 2016 survey found that as many as 3 percent of American high schoolers may believe that their gender identity is different than their sex, remarkably higher than the 0.6 percent of adults who identify as transgender. And the number of American girls seeking transition surgery quadrupled from 2016 to 2017. 

This sudden rise in girls identifying as transgender was identified as Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD) in a 2018 article in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Brown University physician and medical researcher Lisa Littman found that girls were especially vulnerable to social contagion from friends and teachers who are heroized for transgender identities. Under intense criticism from the transgender community, the editor of the journal issued an apology and correction even there were no substantive challenges to the results of Littman’s research. 

Similarly, other medical professionals have been “cancelled” for raising concerns about dangers to children. Allan Josephson, the former head of the University of Louisville’s Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychology, was demoted from his position after activists in the university protested his questioning of affirmative care for children at a Heritage Foundation event. In England, the Tavistock Clinic fired David Bell (no relation to Keira) after he wrote an internal report finding that “children’s needs are being met in a woeful, inadequate manner and some will live on with the damaging consequences.” 

The power of the transgender lobby is magnified by the willingness of major corporations to silence critics of affirmative care. Target banned Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage, the Transgender Craze Seducing our Girls,” Amazon banned Ryan T. Anderson’s book When Harry Became Sally. Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook have all removed content that challenges the narrative of the transgender movement. 

This year, Arkansas legislators passed a ban on the experimental use of puberty blockers, cross sex-hormones, and surgeries on children to treat gender dysphoria despite opposition from the Walton Family Foundation (Walmart’s philanthropic arm). The legislature overrode Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson’s veto of the Save Adolescents from Experimentation (SAFE Act). Citing Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley Jr., Hutchison inappositely defended his veto on the grounds that the government should not legislate on matters involving parents and children. Yet, the government’s compelling interest in the health and safety of minors is why it is unlawful for parents to consent to children undergoing genital mutilation, receiving piercings or tattoos, driving, or consuming alcohol. Republican and Democratic lawmakers in 15 states and the U.S. Congress are also seeking to protect children with similar bills. 

From Safe Spaces to Woke Schools

Maria Keffler, co-founder of Partners for Ethical Care, a grassroots group that publicizes the dangers of gender ideology, points to the LGBT activist group Gender Spectrum’s four “entry points” for getting gender policy into schools: Internal (challenging binary thinking about sex); Interpersonal (creating a “counternarrative” to the sex binary using gender-neutral pronouns and challenge any association between being a girl or a boy and a child’s interests); Instructional (using books, media, lesson plans, curriculum and posters that challenge heterosexuality and cisgender norms; and Institutional (adopting transgender policies in private spaces like bathrooms and locker rooms). 

As Keffler points out, the infusion of gender ideology into schools is insidious because “kids trust trusted adults.” But schools aren’t merely telling students to trust gender ideology. They are also telling children not to trust their parents if they won’t affirm the new gender narrative. Educators may encourage students to “socially transition” at school by dressing in clothes of the opposite sex. Schools may keep a separate file hidden from parents that uses the child’s preferred pronoun and a name that differs from their legal name. In the Madison, Wisconsin school district, concerned parents filed a lawsuit on the grounds that this policy violates their parental rights. 

In addition, the Human Rights Campaign and GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network) infuse instruction on gender with the framework of critical theory and its narratives of “structural oppression” and “power and privilege.” Students are taught that if they are comfortable being a boy or girl they are members of an “oppressor group” (the cisgendered) and that belief in the sex binary is a form of bigotry and bullying. Lesson plans in the Human Rights Campaign’s “Welcoming Schools” program teach elementary students to identify each other by their gender identity, defined as “How you feel. Girl, boy, both or neither.” A video in the program characterizes a parent as a “troll” for voicing concerns about the book “I Am Jazz” (about a boy who seeks to transition to being a girl). 

The infusion of gender ideology into all aspects of education from the classroom to the cafeteria, from the locker room to the gymnasium puts pressure on children to conform. As Mary Hasson of the Ethics and Public Policy Center suggests that a school environment that makes a student feel that his or her views about biological sex are wrong or “bigoted” effectively denies that child the right to an education.

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As in medicine, the Human Rights Campaign has the full support of gatekeeping organizations, including the National Education Association and the American Library Association. Other major political organizations, like Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Southern Poverty Law Center, also promote the adoption of gender identity curricula in schools. Human Rights Campaign’s efforts to “queer” schools is bolstered by its ability to create LGBTQ “standards” in every area of life. Through its rankings in a wide variety of industries, it has enlisted corporations like Wells Fargo to support the Welcoming Schools plan. 

The Human Rights Campaign also boasts of its Business Coalition for the Equality Act with 394 corporate members representing a combined $6.5 trillion in revenue. By amending the 1964 Civil Rights Act to add protected classes for gender identity, the Equality Act would codify gender theory in medicine and education. Under similar state laws, transgender activists have sued hospitals for declining to perform hysterectomies on healthy women to affirm their gender identities. Passage of the Equality Act would not only have a chilling effect on doctors and counselors, it would impose gender ideology in public schools and private schools that receive federal funds, including faith-based schools. The Equality Act could also lead courts to impose gender identity curricula, even though a recent survey of parents and schoolboard members by Braun Research (commissioned by the Heritage Foundation) showed that 66 percent of parents oppose it. In addition, 10 states have explicitly prohibited curricula on gender identity.

How Woke Gender Undoes the Family

Ultimately, gender ideology drives wedges between children and their parents. As Prof. Melissa Moschella has explained, disagreements over treatment for gender dysphoria have led judges to remove children from the custody of parents who opposed hormonal interventions. The Supreme Court has affirmed that parents have a fundamental and pre-political right to direct the education and upbringing of their children in Meyer v. Nebraska and Pierce v. Society of Sisters. This is rooted in their biological connection and the responsibility that it creates. Yet, gender ideology has so permeated American culture and law that parents who question it now risk challenges from the government.

For parents to succeed in protecting children from “woke” gender ideology, they will need to do political battle. Like critical race theory, gender theory has entered pediatricians’ offices and classrooms through the work of political activists. Doctors, teachers, and lawmakers who want to protect children will continue to be trampled by the transgender lobby and “woke capital” until parents provide reinforcements. By vanquishing the threats of legal punishment and “cancel culture,” parents can stop schools and hospitals from luring more confused children into the horrors of the gender industry.

This piece originally appeared in The American Mind

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