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The Great Transitioning

How gay men have gone from being outsiders to mascots for queer ideology 

David Moulton
March 10, 2023
Mohamed Lounes/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Act Up protesters in Paris, 1989Mohamed Lounes/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Mohamed Lounes/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Act Up protesters in Paris, 1989Mohamed Lounes/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Last month, GLAAD wrote an open letter to The New York Times protesting the paper’s coverage of trans issues. In particular, the group took issue with the way the paper has covered medical sex changes or “gender affirmation” for minors. Contrary to clinicians and experts quoted in the Times, GLAAD asserted the science behind this practice is “SETTLED.” The letter was co-signed by a wide array of human rights groups as well as celebrities like Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow.

GLAAD is a media watchdog group that was founded in the ’80s to protest what they saw as the media’s homophobic coverage of the AIDS crisis. Their name was originally an acronym for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, but in 2013 they formally dropped the words “gay and lesbian” to reflect their advocacy for transgender people and the broader “LGBTQ community.” This shift in emphasis has been typical of gay rights organizations over the past decade, as what was once a movement focused on securing the rights and safety of gay men and women has transformed into a movement with different goals altogether.

The first time I announced my pronouns, “I’m David, he/him,” I was a freshman in college attending a transgender discussion group. It was 2005. At the time it seemed quite progressive—even for me, an openly gay 18-year-old volunteering at my liberal college’s resource center for gay rights. In the most progressive clique at one of the country’s most progressive schools, being transgender was still mostly a theoretical concept—a new frontier that college kids were just beginning to discover.

My next “trans encounter” happened half a decade later when I was living in San Francisco. My best friend in the city was another gay man, about 15 years older than me. In the late ’80s and ’90s, he had been involved with ACT UP, the confrontational activist group fighting against AIDS stigma, and he served as my guide to both the new city and its politics.

He had studied recondite critical and cultural theories at Berkeley and later in New York at NYU and Columbia. I looked to him as a mentor and a model of what it meant to be gay. His homosexuality was not just a random fact like eye color but rather a vehicle to defy and critique social norms. Put differently, he wasn’t just gay, he was queer. This entailed, among other duties, being the first person to explain the word “cis” to me.

Despite his militancy—or perhaps because of it—my friend had a wicked sense of humor, and could be quite cutting toward the left-wing activist milieu that came to dominate queer and trans spaces. I remember once, when I was a bit under the weather, I complained about being congested and then apologized for whining. My friend deadpanned, “Sounds like a cisgender problem.” I laughed. “Trans people never get a stuffy nose?” I asked. He replied, “No, because they’re too busy snorting drugs to dull the pain of living in a transphobic world.” At the time (this would have been around 2012) it was still practically impossible to imagine these terms—cisgender, queer—being embraced and affirmed by Wall Street and the Pentagon. But my friend traveled in circles that had already moved beyond the mainstream acceptance of gays, and were advocating for new, more radical sexual and gender identities.

If trans was going to be the next civil rights movement (and make no mistake, before it was officially announced by Hollywood and the DEI offices of corporate America there was a vanguard pushing for it), it required not just an oppressed class but also an oppressor class. “Cis” filled this role even though it didn’t really mean anything other than “not trans.” Cis society became a battleground whose rules and norms had to be subverted.

It was in fact my friend who introduced me to the concept of “misgendering” as a personal offense. He told me that someone in his circles had been talking about me behind my back in glowing terms. He said that this person had been referring to me as “they,” so as not to assume my gender. I asked my friend if this person did that when talking about everyone. Not everyone, my friend said, just people who seem like they’re with it. This was deeply flattering. I was seen as cool and edgy enough to have a flashy new gender identity.

If trans was going to be the next civil rights movement, it required not just an oppressed class but also an oppressor class.

I started dating a man and my life became more stable and domestic. I ceased to desire being queer in the radical sense. I just happened to be a homosexual living my life. Meanwhile the public fortunes of gay people kept getting better and better. Obama became the first president in history to endorse gay marriage and it seemed to actually help his reelection campaign. In 2015 the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell, identifying marriage as a fundamental right for all Americans, including gay ones. I had to marvel at the change in attitudes toward gay people in my lifetime. I first came out at 14, in 2001. My family was accepting, but there were still anti-sodomy laws on the books in some states. Homosexuals were not allowed to serve openly in the military. No viable presidential candidate from either party supported gay marriage. By 2015, in just a little over a decade, gay rights had won a total and unequivocal victory.

Today support for gay marriage is at an all-time high, with 71% of Americans backing it, including most Republicans. While left-wing causes like economic justice and equality have stalled, progressives can confidently claim to have won this culture war. If anything the victory was perhaps too sudden and total. In the fight for gay marriage, an activist infrastructure was built up; after Obergefell, the activists needed a new cause and found one in gender ideology.

The embrace of the transgender cause by America’s gay organizations is often presented as a matter of natural allyship between the closely related members of the LGBTQ coalition. In my view this is a misunderstanding. The interests of legacy gay rights organizations have increasingly become divorced from their traditional constituents, gay men and lesbians. For example: By 2016, the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest gay rights organization, was using the word “transgender” more than “gay” and “lesbian” combined in its annual reports.

A number of states now have laws banning the practice of “conversion therapy” and an even broader stigma exists against efforts to medically alter the sexuality of gay people. But the same is not true when it comes to gender, where the situation is roughly reversed. Gender has become the point at which the interests of a professional activist class intersect with those of the pharmaceutical and medical tech industry.

According to GLAAD, gender identity is “one’s own internal sense of self and their gender,” and is separate from biological sex. This emphasis on the immaterial over the physical can lead to the body becoming fungible material for medical experiments. Physically healthy people can be turned into lifelong medical patients for profit. In the business press, trans tech is touted as a budding industry. One savvy entrepreneur has estimated the transition market as “in excess of $200B.”

The executive branch of the U.S. government actively supports pediatric gender transition. Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine is a vocal proponent of medical transition as the appropriate treatment for youth with dysphoria; furthermore, the administration supports the right of K-12 public schools to socially transition students with or without their parents’ consent. Social transition is the practice of treating a prepubescent child as if they were literally a member of the opposite sex. While it does not involve any direct medical intervention, social transition has been shown to make it less likely for the child to resolve their dysphoria on their own. This can in turn lock them into a lifelong path of medicalization involving the off-label use of cancer drugs to block puberty as well as cross sex hormones and surgeries.

Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford, has said: “Given paucity of evidence, the off-label use of drugs … in gender dysphoria treatment largely means an unregulated live experiment on children.”

Gender has become the point at which the professional activist class intersects with the pharmaceutical and medical tech industries.

Gender is big business, but it would be a mistake to say this is all about the money. The ideology also provides a framework for young people coming of age in an increasingly disembodied culture. As a millennial born in the second half of the ’80s, I can remember adults warning me and my peers against spending too much time on the screen. Video games, TV, the early internet—the responsible adult world tried to ration our access to these things. They were united in their message that the real, physical world was superior. With the ubiquity of smartphones this became harder to maintain, and then in 2020 there was a normative shift with the pandemic response. Social distancing became the virtuous thing to do. The physical world was dangerous.

It should not be a surprise that a generation raised to think of physical reality as secondary to the personalized experience of digital reality would latch onto gender. According to one poll, 21% of Gen Z identifies as LGBTQ+. This is an astonishingly high figure, but it makes sense when you consider that in its current use identity is conceived as an inner essence that has very little to do with sex or the body. The figure is consistent with other research showing teenagers today have much less sex than previous generations. In place of embodied experience, young people increasingly have incorporeal “identities.”

I can relate. I was as confused as anyone when COVID hit and San Francisco suddenly shut down in late March 2020. At first, I believed that I was just following the science, and was unaware of existing pandemic preparation guides that stressed the importance of maintaining a normal life as much as possible during an emergency. The new lockdown paradigm was to act as if it were possible to simply freeze society and move life online. This may have worked for some people but not everyone could see lockdowns that way. I had been working in the tourism industry and almost immediately lost my job. My boyfriend and I got into screaming fights that summer. Living in a cramped apartment I had always needed other places—cafes and bars—I could escape to. Without that our relationship unraveled.

I needed a vibrant city, and it was gone. San Francisco had been turned off like a light switch, and transformed into a faceless place. The life I’d built for myself after 10 years in San Francisco, humble as it was, had ended. By the end of the year I’d moved to Minneapolis where my family lived.

In summer 2020, before leaving the city, I would occasionally take to Facebook to voice doubts about the official COVID response. I was startled by the vehemence with which people I knew defended the lockdown model. I was accused of spreading Koch brother propaganda when I shared an article on herd immunity by Harvard epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff.

Virtually all the leftists I knew were strongly in favor of closing schools—and keeping them closed indefinitely. I found this hard to square with their supposed belief in public education as a human right. Any questioning of the official narrative, however, was caricatured as eugenics, science denial, or simply wanting people to die. The world came to be divided between the good people who “followed the science” and locked down and the bad ones who didn’t. I was on one side of that divide and the majority of the people in my life were on the other.

Seeing a pseudoscientific consensus manufactured in real time, I began to question everything else I thought I knew. Inevitably this brought me back to gender. Even before COVID I’d noticed that it was becoming more and more common to introduce your third person pronouns at the start of a meeting. The eccentric practice I’d first encountered as a teenager was widespread—sometimes even mandatory—by 2019. Now it was no longer just a select few; seemingly everyone had a gender identity.

As with COVID lockdowns, this is a radical new experiment being passed off as firmly established consensus. Researchers and clinicians who dissent are targeted by activists. Borderline fraudulent studies are trotted out as definitive proof. Just as it was for COVID, the manufactured consensus on gender gets enforced politically by the progressive left. It’s as if my old comrades on the left have given up on any optimistic vision of democratic social transformation. In lieu of that, they make do with technocratic social engineering.

I could choose to stop being a leftist but can’t stop being gay. It’s still the most fundamental part of who I am. I have to face the sickening fact that much of this medical abuse is being carried out in my name. All the major gay rights organizations support an affirmative model for transitioning minors. They could have closed shop after achieving full equality, but no. “Gay rights” became institutionalized and morphed into a permanent LGBTQ+ industry. The public goodwill built up for gays and lesbians over the past generation is now being channeled into an entirely different cause.

I think back to my old friend and mentor in San Francisco, always on the cutting edge of every social movement. In my 20s I wanted to emulate his wisdom and radical disposition. I could not foresee the ways this disposition would be coopted in less than a generation. These days, seemingly all of society is becoming “queer,” and Pride is now something that everyone is expected to celebrate, even NASCAR. This new regime is appallingly humorless and literal-minded, lacking my old friend’s intensity, creativity, and wit. Yet it uses a lot of the vocabulary I first learned from him—“cis” and “trans” as well as “misgendering,” and coopts this former vanguard’s moral courage.

We, as gay men, have gone from being outsiders to mascots of an ideology that’s pushing hideous medical experiments on children—the wedge, it almost seems, to a new medical dystopia. If I now feel the need to once again make my sexuality a political issue, to speak “as a gay man,” it’s for the sake of disavowing this turn of events.

David Moulton is a writer living in the Midwest.