While civil-rights movements of decades past were met with fierce resistance, the current effort to promote tolerance of wide-ranging sexual and gender identities faces unique challenges.
Numerous advocacy groups have dedicated a large part, if not all, of their resources to LGBT issues; meanwhile, even some of those who marched alongside these activists in previous movements believe the current push is a bridge too far.
The only consensus, it seems, is that the topic of sexuality and gender identity in America is one fraught with polarizing points of view.
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A generational shift
Studies continue to show younger Americans are more likely to identify as something other than strictly heterosexual. Even between the young adults of the Millennial generation and their mostly teenage counterparts in Generation Z, there exists a significant gap in sentiment regarding gender roles in general.
While nearly 7 in 10 Millennials, broadly defined as those in their early 20s to mid-30s, are comfortable describing themselves as heterosexual, less than half of those in the younger generation are willing to make such a distinction.
Teens are also far more likely to identify as transgender, research indicates. According to one study, almost 150,000 teenagers living in the U.S. would describe themselves as something other than their gender at birth. In some states, that number is believed to be about 1 in 100. Last year, analysts determined the number of transgender Americans to be about twice as high as previously estimated at approximately 1.4 million adults. That study found young adults — between the ages of 18 and 24 — were more likely than older adults to identify as transgender.
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As with many aspects of the topic, there is plenty of debate among experts and academics regarding the cause of this generational shift.
Artist and designer Pablo Solomon is a longtime civil-rights activist who said he and his wife “were active in gay rights in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before it was either hip or safe to do so.”
He told Western Journalism, however, that he believes the current incarnation of the movement has been influenced heavily by “several generations in which sex requires no boundaries, no responsibilities, no feelings — only immediate pleasure.”
That hedonistic lifestyle, he posited, has led each passing generation to see less behavior as off limits.
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Others, including social worker and LGBT-rights advocate Brieanna Scolaro, believe the gender identities being expressed today have been felt all along by generations of people with no mechanism to process them.
“Before recent times,” she told Western Journalism, “we didn’t have these ways to think about gender identity and expression, nor did society allow for it.”
She went on to suggest people generally identify “on a spectrum, somewhere between straight and gay as well as somewhere between male and female.”
As society has become more accepting, Scolaro concluded, “it makes complete sense that an increasing number of Americans choose to express somewhere in between.”
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While advocates in academia, politics and pop culture have aided in ushering in a society more tolerant of gender issues, those on the other side of the debate often describe a growing intolerance aimed at their viewpoints.
Reports last year, for example, indicated landlords and employers in New York were at risk of incurring fines up to $250,000 for failing to use an individual’s preferred pronoun. Furthermore, business owners have been hit with huge fines for refusing service to individuals based on a personal objection to their lifestyle.
A growing sector of the American population has begun advocating for laws and policies that dictate individual behavior related to the LGBT community. A vocal group of detractors, however, continues to insist such compulsory rules run afoul of the First Amendment.
Peter Sprigg, Family Research Council’s senior fellow for policy studies, told Western Journalism he does not believe “anyone should be fired or disciplined for declining to use a transgender person’s preferred pronouns.”
Furthermore, he said his organization’s position is that sexual orientation and gender identity should not qualify as protected classes for the purpose of non-discrimination laws.
“Sexual orientation and gender identity involve behavior factors which — unlike race or sex — are not inborn, involuntary, immutable, innocuous or in the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “However, even in states which have included these as protected categories, we do not believe that declining to participate in the celebration of a same-sex wedding, for example, constitutes sexual-orientation discrimination.”
Allowing Americans to freely express their opinion on the subject, Sprigg said, clearly falls under the umbrella of constitutional liberty.
“For someone who sincerely believes that maleness and femaleness are biological characteristics that are immutable from birth, being forced to use the pronouns of the opposite sex for someone amounts to being forced to lie,” he said. “no one should be put in that position.”
Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Gary McCaleb generally agrees with Sprigg’s assessment, telling Western Journalism it is “problematic” to enact such laws.
“If the use of pronouns is simply reflecting the reality of a person’s sex, without intent to harass or otherwise harm the other, it should not be punished,” he told Western Journalism. “Importantly, Title IX [of the Education Amendments Act of 1972] does not regulate the content of speech, and the First Amendment is hostile to compelled speech.”
McCaleb asserted the Constitution also “forbids the government from forcing creative professionals to promote messages, produce art, or celebrate events against their will.”
Where Scolaro wants to see “federal and state law [mandating] the provision of services, which would tell these business owners how they should behave when faced with a question of morality,” Solomon wants to see laws protecting those on the other side of the debate.
“Any group from Black Lives Matter to gay rights to KKK who threaten any business with boycotts or anything else for not supporting their events should be liable for resultant damages and possibly face criminal charges,” he said.
Identity vs. biology
A primary source of disagreement within this societal debate relates to whether gender is determined by biology or a person’s individual identity. This fundamental disagreement has been on full display as governments and businesses wrestle with whether to allow individuals to use restrooms corresponding with the gender of their choice.
Another realm in which this debate frequently rages is organized sports. Where many LGBT-rights activists insist transgender athletes should be allowed to compete according to their gender identity, many others believe biological differences between the genders works to the obvious disadvantage of female competitors.
“If biological males compete against biological females,” Sprigg said, “in the vast majority of sports females will be the losers.”
He went on to assert the “fundamental reality of human nature that the average biological males is taller, heavier, stronger and faster than the average biological female.”
These differences, Sprigg said, were behind the creation of gender-specific sports.
McCaleb agreed, pointing to “well-established physical characteristics, which reflect real differences between male and female skeletal development, musculature, endocrine systems and so on” as reason to maintain separate leagues based on gender.
Scolaro represents the competing view that the issue “isn’t about biological males or females” but “how a person chooses to identify.”
She said transgender athletes should be allowed to compete on the teams of their choice, calling the “psychological harm” of excluding them “far worse than the potential harm of inclusion.”
This issue is being hashed out across the nation with a few states, including Oregon, issuing guidelines to allow transgender students on sports teams corresponding with their identity.
Cyd Ziegler wrote this week on Outsports about a higher-stakes platform on which the transgender athlete issues is being debated.
New Zealand weightlifter Larel Hubbard, who was born male and competed in the sport as a man before transitioning, recently broke a national record while competing as a woman. Hubbard also has dreams of entering the 2020 Summer Olympics, which is already sparking controversy among those who believe such an appearance would be inherently unfair to rivals who were born female.
The spike in gender fluidity and sexual nonconformity among younger generations has corresponded with a notable increase in references to these lifestyles across much of the cultural landscape.
Some believe the entertainment industry is simply acting as a reflection of changing societal norms while more cynical observers believe there is a deliberate effort to introduce and normalize lifestyles many Americans believe to be immoral.
“I think the producers of popular entertainment have been promoting an agenda more than they have been responding to any change in consumer tastes,” Sprigg said.
Solomon took the thought a step further, declaring the entertainment industry has already “achieved the goals of their leftist agenda,” noting it has “destroyed the family, any sort of morality and any sort of responsibilities connected to sex.”
According to Scolaro, the increased sexual and gender diversity on television and elsewhere is a result of America’s changing culture.
“As society has grown, so has our portrayal of stories and the characters involved,” she said.
She later noted advancements in broadcasting, such as popular content-streaming services, have also led to a wider representation of LGBT groups.
“Networks such as Netflix and Amazon are not bound by as many restrictions as ABC, NBC and so on,” Scolaro explained. “With shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent, viewers across all gender identity and sexual orientation spectrums are finding characters like themselves on television.”
Still, she sees a need for even more on-screen depictions of minority groups.
“As a cisgender gay woman, I see far more characters that look and feel like me than a transgender person of color,” she said. “But overall what we see is that of a white, straight, cisgender world.”
How young is too young?
With an increasing number of children, including some as young as preschool age, expressing a desire to transition to the opposite gender, activists and members of the medical community are left to determine which responses they believe are appropriate. Even among those who believe minors should be allowed to undergo some level of gender reassignment or transitioning, there is clearly no consensus on an appropriate age to begin considering such options.
Dr. Sherman Leis, who founded The Philadelphia Center for Transgender Surgery, told Western Journalism his practice generally only operates on individuals 16 year old or older.
“Parents and medical practitioners must take care before approving gender confirmation surgery, or transgender surgery, at an age that is too young,” he advised.
Scolaro, on the other hand, made the case for introducing hormones prior to puberty in some cases to avoid physiological changes that might make an individual more closely resemble his or her birth gender.
“Increased gender-based violence is seen when someone doesn’t pass for their desired gender expression,” she said. “When young males transition to female after puberty, they will have had their growth spurt, have their Adam’s apple, larger features, which can often put them at greater risk of violence and verbal assault.”
She suggested any “decision made involving a child should be considered carefully, and no overall age should be articulated that one should start transitioning.”
In Sprigg’s assessment, introducing hormones to pre-pubescent children is “fundamentally unethical” becasue of the lifelong effects such procedures have on young patients.
“Even a social transition to a new gender identity is unwise, in my opinion, for a minor,” he concluded. “I would recommend that young people wrestling with their gender or sexuality should wait until at least age 18 before making such a decision. Unfortunately, many parents have been influenced by the cultural messages of the LGBT movement on this subject, and are thus supporting their children in these unwise decisions.”
McCaleb also pointed to the permanence of certain gender-altering procedures performed on pre-pubescent children, noting “virtually all such children, left untreated, revert to their natal sex following puberty.”
The next frontier
The LGBT-rights movement saw significant achievements during the Obama era, most notably in a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide.
While Leis pointed to “the changing political climate” as the cause for “uncertainty among the transgender community and its advocates about the continuity and pace of this progression,” he said he believes activists will continue to advance their cause under a new administration. He cited a desire to see more specialized training in the field of transgender medicine as an area he would like to see progress in coming years.
As for what the future holds, Scolaro said activists “still have many other fronts, including workplace discrimination and provision of services to overcome.”
Sprigg offered his take on the viability of the transgender-rights movement in particular, predicting it will not gain widespread acceptance in America as quickly as prior efforts — including gay rights.
“Homosexuals were able to make a more libertarian argument that others should not care about what they do in the privacy of their own bedroom,” he said. “But the transgender movement is inherently about what people do in public, not just in private. I think there is much greater resistance to being forced to use certain pronouns, being forced to share locker rooms and showers with the opposite biological sex, and so forth.”
With a wave of college students choosing a major in gender studies or a related field, Scalaro envisions these “leaders of tomorrow” will influence further change in the nation’s opinions on gender and sexuality.
Solomon dismissed the idea with his assertion that graduates of gender-studies programs will be qualified to “teach gender education” — and little else. Sprigg echoed his sentiment, suggesting professors in the field are not providing graduates with a well-rounded education or a firm professional foundation.
“My impression is that while other academic fields such as political science or economics are capable of looking at contemporary issues from a range of perspectives,” he said, “it is difficult for any one in gender studies to take any view other than a strict pro-feminist, pro-LGBT approach. This limits its ability to be taken seriously as a truly academic discipline, rather than merely an activist one.”
While only time will tell what shape the LGBT-rights effort will take in the future, one thing seems clear: As Zeigler concluded in his report about Hubbard, “this issue isn’t going away anytime soon.”
Western Journalism reached out to Lambda Legal, a nonprofit organization advocating on behalf of gay and transgender individuals, for comment. Representatives did not respond to our request.