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The LGBT Dialectic
Understanding recent conservative victories and the debate over "sexualizing" kids
Interesting things are happening on the LGBT front of the culture war. Conservatives have pulled off what appear to be successful back-to-back boycotts, first against Bud Light and now against Target. As of last week, 16 states have restricted gender-affirming care for minors in 2023 alone.
I think my essay about trans being unable to survive Elon from late last year is holding up pretty well. Ross Douthat says we overestimated Twitter, and the platform changing hands ended up not mattering that much. Of course no one knows the long-term impact yet. We’ll have to wait for years to see if the number of kids identifying as LGBT goes up or down, among other data points. But in the short run, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re finally starting to see successful right-wing boycotts at the exact moment Twitter censorship policies changed.
If anything, my prediction may have been a bit too conservative. It was about trans, but in the case of Target, conservatives have bullied the company into decreasing the visibility of all Pride merchandise.
It’s worth stepping back and reflecting on why this is happening, beyond the recent regime change at Twitter. I think that, over the last three decades, we’ve seen quite an interesting dialectic surrounding LGBT issues. Conservatives ended up in a position where they had backed themselves into a corner rhetorically, which made them unable to effectively debate the issue in the arenas of bureaucratic politics and media think pieces. At the same time, liberal victories had some natural implications that produced audiovisual content that inspired a public backlash. Of course, what LGBT success actually looked like in the real world didn’t matter when audiovisual content was carefully curated by social media censors or a mainstream press that was sympathetic to the cause. But Elon’s takeover has changed the dynamic.
The “liberals read, conservatives watch TV” framework has a lot of explanatory power, which is why I keep coming back to it. We can see the early decades of the LGBT debate as the “reading” stage, where written arguments dominated, as when Andrew Sullivan successfully made what turned out to be his influential case for gay marriage in The New Republic. Now we’re in the TV stage, if we remember to think of “TV” as a shorthand for everything audiovisual, including things like memes and viral TikTok videos. As long as social media censorship policies aren’t tilted in favor of the left, conservatives have a strong natural advantage over LGBT. A lot of arguments for non-conventional identities and orientations can sound plausible when put in essay form, but people recoil from their physical manifestations. This explains the success of LibsofTikTok.
People remember how during Bush’s first term, Republicans worked to get gay marriage on state ballots in 2004 in order to help his reelection chances. What’s easy to forget is that, even around this time, national Republicans were already disinclined to actually say anything negative about homosexuality. Whenever Bush talked about the topic, he would always say something like “My definition of marriage is that it is between a man and a woman.” There was never any reason given for this. I remember a liberal at the time writing about how this wouldn’t make sense for any other issue. You can’t say I support a marginal tax rate of x because that’s my definition of a marginal tax rate.
Unsurprisingly, this method of argumentation wasn’t that effective, and that is why gay rights has been such a successful movement. It’s genuinely difficult to grant homosexuality equal moral status but then deny it legal equality. Conservatives therefore retreated to a new position, which was do whatever you want as adults, but leave children alone.
Yet a moment’s thought shows that this doesn’t make any more sense than their old case against gay marriage. Children are not raised in a vacuum, but are given moral instruction and models that provide options with regards to how to live as adults. We tell a child that he can be a doctor, or a lawyer, or whatever. We don’t say that we can’t have doctors talking to kids about their job, or else they might be improperly influenced, because we don’t see becoming a doctor as a negative outcome.
If that’s true, then on what basis can we hide from kids the fact that some adults are gay or trans? You can only rationally do so if you think the cis-hetero individual should be thought of as the default, idealized form of a human being. We only protect children from models that are bad, which means that conservatives seek to put LGBT issues in the same category as drug use or violence. Otherwise, the “groomer” slur doesn’t make any sense.
But conservatives don’t want to say that there’s anything wrong with being gay or trans, so they’re stuck making nonsensical arguments, like Ben Shapiro does here in the debate over “don’t say gay” bills.
I find it very funny that conservatives have been forced into the position that no adult should ever discuss their spouse in front of children, like it’s some kind of dirty secret whether or not a teacher is married. I guess when a previous generation said “Miss” and “Mrs” instead of “Ms” it was because society was full of groomers! This is a strange principle they’ve fabricated out of thin air because they can’t say that they specifically don’t want homosexuals talking about their spouses.
The debate over “sexualizing children” is similarly disjointed. Nobody objects to putting a little girl in a dress. But conservatives oppose doing the same to a boy. This isn’t because a dress is inherently sexual, but because in the first case, it’s socializing an individual to be a heterosexual, while in the second case it’s encouraging them to be gay or trans. Likewise, as some leftists point out on Twitter, why are conservatives so angry at kids going to drag shows, when nobody gets upset at young boys going to Hooters?
Of course, some drag shows are pretty raunchy by any standard, but conservatives aren’t just upset by those; they’re seeking to stigmatize or criminalize all crossdressing in the presence of children. No one is accusing Drag Queen Story Hour at local libraries of involving male strippers, but these events nonetheless bring out enraged members of the local community who accuse organizers and participants of wanting to rape kids.
Liberals, being on the side that is more intelligent and honest, once again end up with the more intellectually defensible position. Conservatives granted that homosexuality isn’t inherently inferior to heterosexuality. So liberals take that position to its logical conclusion. If it’s ok to discuss your heterosexual spouse in front of kids, it’s also fine to discuss a gay spouse. If kids can go to Hooters, then they can also go to drag shows. And, yes, if little girls can wear dresses, then there’s no reason boys shouldn’t either. This is what high IQ and more intellectually oriented people do, which is to take a principle and apply it in a consistent way.
Yet conservatives aren’t the thinking people. Despite the way they perceive themselves, they’re the feelings crowd. It didn’t feel like that big of a concession to rhetorically grant LGBT equal moral status. Now, however, it feels wrong to teach kindergartners about gender theory or discuss homosexual relationships with them. As it turns out, as their critics allege, conservatives never truly internalized the belief in gay and trans equality.
Luckily for the American right, movements don’t always need intellectual consistency to be politically successful. They can get by on emotions alone. And with Twitter tilting in their direction and, much more importantly, current control over the judiciary, we should expect more conservative victories in the coming years on LGBT issues.
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