The U.S. has been a battlefield over cultural values for nearly half-a-century. Today’s campaign being promoted by the religious right and Republicans focuses on, following the Dobbs decision, further restrictions of a woman’s privacy right to terminate her unwanted pregnancy; “anti-porn” censorship of books about sex and LGBTQ issues in schools and libraries; and gender nonconforming youth.
The campaign against transgender youth began in 2016 when North Carolina adopted the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act – what became known as the “bathroom bill” — that required transgender people in state-run buildings to use the bathrooms, changing rooms and showers that corresponded to the sex on their birth certificates.
However, in 2017, under a legal challenge from the ACLU and the Obama administration, the state removed the restrictions on restroom use. Since North Carolina’s bathroom bill, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) identifies 15 states that have considered bathroom bills as of 2019.
The scope of the challenge to the rights of gender nonconforming people have expanded including restrictions on the medical treatment of transgender youth. For example, Florida adopted the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and Gov. Ron DeSantis moved to block medical treatment for trans children. In South Dakota, the House passed legislation that bans state doctors from treating transgender children with hormones and sex reassignment surgery. Similar legislation has been advanced in Colorado, Missouri and Oklahoma.
Other initiatives involve limiting transgender students’ rights at school and, in Texas, a bill would allow the court to disregard whether a parent or guardian acknowledges (or declines to acknowledge) a child’s gender identity in decisions regarding custody. As of July 2021, 22 state legislatures have introduced legislation to ban or criminalize gender affirming healthcare for trans youth.
As psychiatrist Jack Drescher, MD, clinical professor, psychiatry, Columbia University, explained, young people “serve as proxies for the competing value systems of adults.” And the gravest competing battle involves patriarchy, the tyranny of heterosexual masculinity.
“Gender nonconformity” is a popular, if imprecise, category that has an underlying common definition – people who do not conform to the traditional patriarchal model of binary – i.e., male/female — heterosexuality. Various organizations define it somewhat differently. For example, the National Geographic defined it in the following terms:
A person whose gender expression is perceived as being inconsistent with cultural norms expected for that gender. Specifically, boys or men are not “masculine enough” or are feminine, while girls or women are not “feminine enough” or are masculine. … Gender nonconformity is often inaccurately confused with sexual orientation.
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) defines gender nonconforming as “a broad term referring to people who do not behave in a way that conforms to the traditional expectations of their gender, or whose gender expression does not fit neatly into a category.”
The HRC identifies more than two dozen terms defining sexual identity, ranging from “androgynous” to “transgender.” GLAAD identifies more than a dozen acceptable terms and includes a list of “terms to avoid.” Slate reported in 2015 that Facebook offered users 50 custom gender identifiers. And even USA Today published a list of “LGBTQ definitions every good ally should know.”
Nonbinary identities include transgender and transsexual people as well as those B. Lee Aultman includes from the following glossary:
androgyne, cross-dresser, genderbender, genderf*cking, gender neutral, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, gender-variant, masculine of center, neutrois, pangender, queer, translatin@, and Two-Spirit (culturally specific) androgyne, cross-dresser, genderbender, genderf*cking, gender neutral, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, gender-variant, masculine of center, neutrois, pangender, queer, translatin@, and Two-Spirit (culturally specific).
Gender nonconforming people have been part of America since before the country was a nation. Genny Beemyn, in “Transgender History in The United States,” notes that in the 1620s Thomas/Thomasine Hall, an English servant in colonial Virginia, “claimed to be both a man and a woman and, at different times, adopted the traditional roles and clothing of men and women.” At trial in 1629 concerning her/his scandalous behavior, the court ordered Hall to wear both a man’s breeches and a woman’s apron. Beemyn also notes that in Middlesex County, MA, in 1692, charges were filed against an individual named Mary Henly for wearing “men’s clothing” because such behavior was “seeming to confound the course of nature.”
The individual cases that Beemyn considers are part of the larger struggle fought since the colonial era over the boundaries of acceptable sexual identity and practice. These struggles concerned nearly all aspects of sexual life, including premarital sex (fornication), extramarital sex (adultery), sodomy (homosexuality) and interracial sex (amalgamation or miscegenation). They also involve sexual identity, the role of each participant as male or female, top or bottom, or other, and the age of consent.
America has come a long way since the British settlers first colonized the New World. In Puritan New England, two offenses were most upsetting: bestiality involving young men and sex with the devil among older women. Among Puritans, as John Murrin points out, “Bestiality discredited men in the way that witchcraft discredited women.” However, in New England, sex with the devil was the gravest of all sins! At least ten Puritan women were accused of having sex with Satan, tried, convicted and hung for their reputed indulgences.
The limits to acceptable sex are based on “consent” among adults or comparable-aged adolescents over 16-years. Strong prohibitions, both legal and ethical, attempt to halt nonconsensual sexual acts like rape, pedophilia, incest, trafficking and bestiality.
The growing public visibility of gender nonconforming people is historically unprecedented, yet one rooted in centuries of social struggle over the boundaries of acceptable sexual culture. Today’s struggle challenges the widely shared notion that gender is “assigned,” established and fixed at birth.
“Sex is a biological categorization based primarily on reproductive potential, whereas gender is the social elaboration of biological sex,” argue Penelope Eckert (Stanford) and Sally Penelope McConnell-Ginet (Cornell). They insist, “there is no single objective biological criterion for male or female sex.” Going further, they note: “Sex is based in a combination of anatomical, endocrinal and chromosomal features, and the selection among these criteria for sex assignment is based very much on cultural beliefs about what actually makes someone male or female.”
Eckert and McConnell-Ginet adhere to an analysis shared by others that “an individual may develop a gender identity different from the one initially assigned on the basis of anatomical criteria.” By “assigned on the basis of anatomical criteria” they mean a new-born child’s external genitalia.
Kristen Schilt (Chicago) and Laurel Westbrook (Grand Valley) clarify this assumption, arguing that gender is based on “cultural schemas about the naturalness of a binary gender system in which there are two, and only two, genders that derive from biological (chromosomes and genitalia).” As they argue, “heterosexuality – like masculinity and femininity – is taken for granted as a natural occurrence derived from biological sex.” Going further, the authors note that “gender order is hierarchal, which means there is consistently a higher value on masculinity than on femininity.”
Aultman notes that “nonbinary people may transition and do so in various ways … that include social and physical changes or a combination of the two.” Among these processes identified are: hormone therapy, vaginoplasty, phalloplasty, mastectomies, full hysterectomies, cheek/chin/forehead shaving and other facial alterations, chest binding, shirt and pants “stuffing,” standing-to-pee devices, complete wardrobe change, makeup, or a new wardrobe that extends a person’s gender expression into the public.”
The erosion of patriarchy is perhaps most evident in the increasing visibility and active role of women in social life, politics, business, sports and other aspects of American life.
Other factors that have contributed to this process. For example, a host of once-prohibited sexual practices that have become “acceptable,” i.e., no longer neither immoral nor (mostly) criminal offenses. They include masturbation, premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, interracial sex and trans-sexuality. Once considered sins, they are today engaged in by a significant proportion of the public.
Equally important, the culture of sexual practice has changed. Four changes are illustrative: old-fashioned sex toys – fetishisms — have been “rebranded” sex-wellness products; adult prostitution (i.e., excluding sex trafficking) has been rebranded sex work and – while formally legal in only a handful of Nevada counties — has become a multi-billion-dollar business; pornography – facilitated by the Internet — is ubiquitous; and sex-enhancement medical treatments — procedures and drugs — are easily available.
Similarly, changes in the nation’s sexual culture are evident in the decline in the rates of sexually transmitted deceases (e.g., syphilis) and AIDS/HIV among women and men. In addition, teen pregnancy has declined.
The current battle over gender nonconforming young people is but the latest front of the culture wars, one which the Christian right and Republicans have chosen to contest. American society is changing and, in many ways, more accepting of the once unacceptable, of those who challenged conventional norms. However effective will the current campaign against gender nonconforming people will be remains to be seen – and much dependent, at least in the near term, on the outcomes of the 2022 and 2024 election.