Run For Your Life

The Field was Always Uneven

Hello! There have been no Things I Read This Weeks for the last two weeks because I have not read anything for the last two weeks. Or rather, I have read a lot of things, but none of them have been the news. You’ll read all about it in a few weeks in [MAJOR PUBLICATION] if I don’t die first. Let’s just put it this way: I’ve been going through hundreds of documents and hours of interviews and a decade and a half of news coverage in an effort to suss out the real story about something. Think of it as a project to find the truth. A Veritas Project, if you will.

(Don’t feel bad for me. Soap operas could never)

In the meantime, here’s something I wrote back in early January. I don’t remember what weird happening happened that pushed the publication date back, but I’ve been holding onto it for a time like this. It’s a time like this. Here it is:

Every once in a while someone will reach out to tell me that they like my writing and think my analysis is good but why, why must I waste so much time browbeating everyone about trans rights instead of concentrating on issues in my actual wheelhouse?

This is actually a great question, but they’re asking the wrong person

This newsletter is primarily about American conservatism. Shoving trans people back into the closet (at best) is one of the GOP’s only coherent policy positions right now. I cannot talk about conservatism without bringing it up constantly. Even if you don’t think trans rights are the defining civil rights struggle of our time (they are) or that the transphobes aren’t going to go after the L, the G, the B, and anyone who doesn’t conform to gender norms the moment they finish with trans people (they will), you kind of have to pay attention to the issue to understand American politics right now. Don’t get mad at me. Get mad at the GOP.

Republican party operatives aren’t stupid. They understand how fucked they are post-Dobbs, now that casting a vote for a Republican means casting a vote for someone who will have both the power and the desire to force women and girls to give birth against their will. The Republicans have lost suburban white women for the forseeable future. Add this to the party’s failures with the youth and demographic shifts projected to put white people in the minority by 2045 (possibly earlier) and you have a recipe for protracted electoral disaster that gets worse, not better, as boomers die and Gen Z comes of age.

Republicans see the trans issue as their ticket out of this mess. There are large numbers of socially conservative Hispanic and Black voters that could, in theory, be persuaded to go red if they became convinced that blue-haired nonbinary furries are transing Our Children for their own degenerate sexual pleasure and also to destroy America from the inside out on behalf of the CCP because they hate our freedoms and/or are literal demons.

Or, if that’s too extreme, the GOP can start at the shallow end of the pool with arguments that sound far less unhinged: people are transitioning far too young and trans women are taking over women’s sports, thus ensuring that no cis woman will ever win a trophy, ever again.

Sometimes I get pragmatic pushback from leftists on the whole trans thing, usually behind closed doors from people who know I tend towards heterodoxy on performative radlib horseshit. “Why are we spending so much time fighting about trans stuff instead of concentrating on things that actually matter, like social safety nets and universal healthcare? We’re playing right into the conservatives’ hands with our focus on something that grosses most Americans out.”

Sorry, but no. Any public opinion shift towards transphobia helps the Republicans and no one else. This would be true even if Democrats went fully anti-trans tomorrow. Transphobia is a fundamentally conservative attitude and they will always be willing to go farther. Oh, you think gender-affirming care for minors should be banned? Then why do you allow books about trans people into classrooms, why do you allow these trans perverts to teach Our Children. What’s that? You’re against that now too? Well yeah, obviously, but you don’t believe in the biology of gender; you don’t believe that women are more emotional than men and better suited to caretaker roles; you still think men and women are fundamentally the same, that’s the ideology behind trans rights, it all started with the sexual revolution, you degenerates, you perverts, you goddamn pedophiles. I don’t make these arguments up, folks. These ideas are already in circulation.

The Democrats can only ever be the second-best transphobes in the room, kind of like how the various doomed Republican primary candidates can could only ever be the second-best Trump in the room.

So yes, there’s more reason for this newsletter’s occasional focus on trans rights than my firm moral conviction that it’s the right thing to do (though that is a big component). It is also because I think it would be good if Republicans don’t win elections, and because pushing back against gender nonsense is an important component of not letting that happen.

Speaking of which, let’s look at a truly incredible New York Times guest essay—and for once, I mean that sincerely. A stopped clock is right twice a day, and the Grey Lady is right about trans issues maybe twice a decade, so let’s all enjoy this moment together.

The essay, “Running in a Body That’s My Own” is by Caster Semenya, a South African middle-distance runner with two Olympic gold medals and three world championships. This is what she looks like:

Semenya is not trans. She is a woman assigned female at birth and one of the most gifted middle-distance runners alive today. When she was 18, other athletes and coaches raised questions about her gender identity and forced her to undergo a gynecological exam in order to compete. "I learned that I had XY chromosomes, rather than the typically female XX pairing, and high levels of testosterone, produced by undescended testicles I didn’t know I had,” she writes.

A lot of gender-related regulations in sports attempt to prevent trans women from getting hormone therapy or surgery and then competing in women’s sports, so it’s ironic that Semenya was offered two options if she wished to continue competing: hormones or surgery. She did not want to remove part of herself, and so she chose hormones, which led to awful side effects that she describes in the article. I won’t rehash the entire thing, it’s extremely well-written and I highly recommend reading it for yourself, but here’s the first of two money quotes, in my eyes:

As I prepared to run at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, some said my win in the 800 meters was inevitable — not because I’d been training and running well but because people felt I had an unfair advantage.

Yet they thought nothing of cheering on the seeming inevitability of wins by genetically gifted athletes like the sprinter Usain Bolt, who boasted a stride that was far longer than his peers’. No one suggested Michael Phelps’s dominance in the pool was unfair and he should have to take medication to ensure that he produced just as much lactic acid as his competitors or have surgery to fix his hypermobile joints. The swimmer Katie Ledecky was never accused of being a man because she smashed multiple world records and her ever-improving times in several events would qualify her for the men’s Olympic trials. But they said such things about me because I represented something that was seen as abnormal.

Caster Semeneya

What is a fair playing field, anyway? That’s not rhetorical; I’m really asking. In 1961, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story about a society in which everyone was truly equal. People who were more intelligent wore earpieces that periodically emitted loud noises to disrupt their thoughts. Physically gifted people were required to wear weighted clothing; beautiful people hid their faces with masks. You get the idea. You live in the same world as I do. Things that are effortless for you are hard for people you know, and vice versa.

Where does it end? Where do we draw the line? Still not rhetorical; we do have to draw it somewhere. Steroids are banned from sports for a reason. Men and women compete in different categories for a reason. But what the hell is a woman, anyway? Matt Walsh doesn’t know. I don’t either. Nobody does, just like nobody could tell Socrates what justice or desire or any of that shit meant either. Semeneya’s anatomy isn’t typical for a man. It isn’t typical for a woman either. Like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps and other atypically gifted athletes, she has trained very hard her entire life. So many components go into elite performance. If athletic performance was as simple as testosterone levels, steroid-abusing cops wouldn’t get winded after running half a block in body armor.

But this question of fairness in sports matters for reasons that go well beyond the love of the game. Here are the two most important sentences in this entire article for understanding this particular genre of trans panic, intended to emphasize the stakes of Semeneya’s decision to forego surgery:

Becoming a runner allowed me to support my family financially. My winnings had allowed my mother to purchase our family’s first refrigerator. But even aside from the money, nothing is worth violating what God has given you. No freaking way was I going to agree to their plan.

Caster Semeneya

This is, I suspect, one of the biggest reasons that people get so worked up about trans sports stuff.

For people in impoverished countries, or impoverished areas of rich countries, sports are often the only legal and attainable ticket out of poverty. There are people all over my country, the United States, who played high school sports because it was their best bet for a scholarship and a chance at higher education. There are people in the projects right now who are playing basketball for hours every day on wrecked asphalt because they would like to escape those projects, and our fucked public school system sure as hell isn’t going to help them do it.

Trans people in sports aren’t the real problem, or people with unusual bodies like Semeneya. The problem is material privation. Lack of opportunity. A world where, for a large number of people, outcompeting other people on the court or the track or the field determines whether or not the athlete will spend the rest of their life worrying about where their next meal is coming from.

Pundits like Riley Gaines, the woman who’s made a career out of complaining that the woke mob gave Lia Thomas the swimming trophy that rightfully belonged to her after the two women tied for fifth place at a college swim meet, are playing on parental fears that, if trans women are allowed to compete in women’s sports, their girls’ futures will be fucked in a way that has nothing to do with swimming. But Lia Thomas isn’t the actual problem. The problem is that a lot of girls’ college education depends on how well they can swim.

The right cannot solve this problem, but the problem is solvable.

We have got to stop fighting the culture war on the right’s terms, yelling “Woke!” and “Transphobe!” back and forth forever while well-funded right-wing think tanks push bills through state legislatures to remove access to gender-affirming care and public restrooms and basic human dignity. No one is transphobic, or homophobic, or sexist, or racist in a vacuum. We have these things because problems feel intractable and freaks like Matt Walsh and Michael Knowles and that one weirdo from Brooklyn can make a killing transferring all our extremely sensible anxiety about the way the world is going onto trans people instead of, you know, the people who created the material conditions that make athletic competition so high-stakes.

“Why are we wasting time on trans issues when we should focus on making peoples’ lives better?” Great question: ask the GOP. Ask the Matt Walshes and the Michael Knowleses and all the other uncanny valley freaks who have nothing better to do than think about girldick all day long. They’re the ones making all of us waste our time on trans panic horseshit instead of letting people use the bathroom in peace so we can concentrate on making the world better for everyone.

And I promise, if that happens — if transphobia stops dominating American political debate and becomes as relatively uncontroversial as gay rights still are today — then I promise I’ll stop writing about it and stick to my wheelhouse of manic political commentary and weird, brooding thinkpieces. You have my word.

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