Even as recently as my own time in college, from 2017 to 2020, I can only remember distinctly one time I was asked to share which gender pronouns I preferred. I had just been elected to student government, so this was a more liberal crowd than most, but even there nobody offered pronouns other than the standards, or other than you might have guessed just by appearance. I simply abstained, and after a moment of awkward silence the group moved on to the next he/him. A friend more willing to court disfavor gave a roundabout answer: “I’m Nick, I’m a junior, major, hometown, etc., and I have Y chromosomes.”
This rather ridiculous ritual, which I laughed off at the time, was just then taking hold in academia and elsewhere but has, in the few years intervening, become an almost universal standard practice. In the Washington Post last week, Yale professor Ian Ayres—a white man once honored as the nation’s top African-American student and dishonored by a Princeton interviewer as the “most obnoxious” applicant he had ever come across—informed us of his own preferences for … everybody else’s pronouns: “Until I’m told otherwise, I prefer to call you ‘they.’”
Ayres’ new rule aligns with a broader trend in the institutional left seeking to impose “inclusive” language as the default, eventually rooting out the reactionary social tendencies that develop from such linguistic bugs as gender-specific pronouns. “In the case of personal identity,” Ayres writes, “I am drawn to default pronouns that don’t assume others’ gender.” The implicit assumption is that “they” is a neutral alternative, a sort of harmless placeholder that will do until the individual’s preference is identified. But “neutrality,” as all sensible people know, is a myth concocted by liberals and demons who would like you to believe that, by taking their side, you are actually staying nobly above the fray.
These people love to insist that their new normal is not new at all, pointing to a few, very particular cases in which “they” has been used with a singular antecedent by reputable authors stretching back as far as Geoffrey Chaucer. (Of course, it does not bode well for these people that they turn for historical precedent to the man who ruined English literature.) If they’re really concerned about the historical usage of words, I have some bad news about “gender,” which until the 1950s was understood generally as a grammatical concept and considered improperly used when applied to human beings (see, for example, Fowler’s authoritative Dictionary of Modern English Usage).
But they don’t believe that gender means now what it did a hundred years ago, to say nothing of six hundred. They prefer the understanding of the word developed by a few progressive academics in the ’50s, led by the pervert sexologist (almost entirely a redundant phrase) John Money, who thought among other things that “if the relationship is totally mutual, and the bonding is genuinely totally mutual” then pedophilia is not “pathological in any way.”
As far as Money was concerned, gender was malleable, in large part the sum of learned behaviors and social influences. There was nothing innate about any of it, and thus nothing disordered about shirking the norms. Much of it was tied to physiological differences, but largely in ways no longer relevant in modern society, and just as much of it was apparently arbitrary. Unsurprisingly, Money became a leading advocate for transgenderism and was considered an authoritative expert on it—that is, until his persuasion of two parents to raise their injured son as a girl, and years of continued abuse of both that boy and his twin brother, ended for the latter with a fistful of antidepressants and for the former with a sawed-off shotgun.
But it is fairly obvious that these ideas—of gender not circumscribed by biological reality—are not, and cannot be, limited to the physically hermaphroditic individuals on whose study they were developed, nor even to the minuscule minority of people who feel that they apply to them. Gender ideology is fundamentally imperial: Whenever and wherever abnormal claims are granted credence, they inevitably go on to colonize the cis. Either gender is tied to biology or it is not; it cannot be one way for some people and another for the rest. If we accept it as true that gender can be genuinely divorced from sex, we accept it as true that gender is divorced from sex. Transgender and other “genderqueer” individuals become not mere deviations from physical or mental norms, but evidence of the relativity of those very norms; statements of relativity are always statements of universal truth.
There is, therefore, a straight line to be drawn between John Money and Ian Ayres (and not just because they are both such obviously pleasant gentlemen). This is not an issue on which compromise is sustainable. “This far, but no further,” simply doesn’t work. The centering of nontraditional gender, the eventual default to “they,” the world in which you are queer until proven otherwise, is baked in to the original principle. Relativize their gender and they’ll relativize yours right back. Give them an inch and they’ll take…well, you know.
We can’t fight the Moneyites effectively until we admit their guru had a point: Gender is a social construct distinct from physical sex. Conservatives damage their own cause when they reduce the argument to mere biology. (Sorry, Nick.) Gender is, in the words of one of the great reactionaries of our age, “the sociocultural role of sex,” and the two “can be distinguished but not separated.”
Which is to say that what we call gender is real and actually, in a way, more dignified than sex. It is the way that sex—a fundamental feature of who we are as human animals—affects our higher lives as social and spiritual beings. It is an elevation of bodily facts into tradition, a carefully held and transmitted way to habituate our understanding of who and what we are. Even the intellectual descendants of John Money—though their framing would be dramatically more negative—would be effectively in agreement on this latter point.
But the communal and spiritual dimension goes beyond even that. To understand it more fully, we might turn to a term coined by Money himself, meant to distinguish the feeling and expression from the underlying biology: gender identity. We who believe that words have meaning know he trapped himself on this one. Identity, identitas, from idem (“the same”), means “sameness.” Far from individualistic, identity (including gender identity) is actually profoundly relational; even more than that, given the particular relationship at its root—the substantial sameness between things—the very concept of “identity” presupposes universals.
This is why the thousandfold multiplication of so-called gender identities these last few years, while an inevitable result of our severing gender from the body, is also unsustainable. It is impossible to “identify” except by reference to something beyond yourself. Every ze and xir and other made-up gender identifier, besides being confusing, corrodes the very concept of identity, reducing gender to mere self-expression—independent of both natural law and of its enshrinement in millennia of tradition. (For many this is a feature rather than a bug.)
The antidote to all of this, though the phrase might strike us as strange, is actual gender identity: active celebration of the unifying biological realities that make it possible for humans to exist, and willful embrace of their social and habitual expressions.
This is the choice before us, and there is no middle ground. Will we reassert the old knowledge that our bodily nature guides us to goods and truths higher than the merely physical, tested by time and habit and rooted or expressed in the body itself? Or will we allow the ascendance of the individual, the alienation of each human person from his or her nature as a human person, the fracture of what is universal and manifest in that nature, to continue until all identity disappears in chaos?