Best 2023 Read: Christopher Rufo

In my last dispatch of the year, I’m sharing with you the best thing I read in 2023. I took in many great works in the past twelve months, but there is one very short piece to share with you because I’m still chewing on it.

I’m still forming an opinion on transgender issues. I continue to ponder the topic because I’ve never been a person to just jump into a predesignated tribal talking point.

I see a lot of poor thinking on this issue. Many conservatives jump in opposition to the rights of transgendered people in a similar way in which a misguided opposition to gay marriage was formed. Similarly, I see progressives behave like the civil rights struggle junkies that they are and assume this is similar to gay rights, acting accordingly. I’ve long been a supporter of gay rights, but I see serious problems with the newly fashionable ideological embrace of gender confusion.

For this reason, I have found Christopher Rufo’s September 12th speech at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship to be the most thoughtfully lucid conservative take on this fraught policy area. Titled Inside the Transgender Empire, you can read a transcript of it here.

An interesting fact in there is that, according to Oregon Health and Science University, Oregon’s only medical school performs the highest volume of genital surgeries on the West Coast. Rufo spends some time conveying the medical complications that come from getting a vaginoplasty, essentially castrating a man in a way that tries to construct a man-made vagina. That elective procedure leads to a life of guaranteed health problems that call forth upon the central tenet of the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.”

Rufo shares this medical science within the context of the humanities. As you may know, academia has created a whole field of study around sexual minorities. This body of knowledge is one of many “studies” departments, that, as I’ve written before, are basically applied Foucault, and at elite institutions of higher education in America, one can publish research in a field called “transgender studies.” Rufo lists the leading writers in this field as Judith Butler, Gayle Rubin, Sandy Stone, and Susan Stryker.

Susan Stryker has written a particularly influential paper published in the June 1, 1994 issue of Lesbian and Gay Studies titled My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage. Stryker argued the “transsexual body” is a “technological construction” that represents a war against Western society. “I am a transsexual, and therefore I am a monster.” This monster, Stryker concludes, must channel its “rage and revenge” against the “naturalized heterosexual order”; “traditional family values”; and the “hegemonic oppression” of nature itself.

While Stryker was trying to be provocative, Rufo takes the analogy to its obvious end.

In 1818, Mary Shelley wrote the famous novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The premise of the book is that modern science, stripped from the constraints of ethics and nature, will end up creating monsters. “Trans-affirming” doctors are the post-modern version of the book’s protagonist, Doctor Frankenstein.

According to survey data, up to 80 percent of trans individuals suffer from serious psychopathologies and one-quarter of black trans youth attempt suicide each year. “Gender-affirming care” largely fails to solve these problems, yet the doctors use these failures to justify even more extreme interventions up to the final one: genital reconstruction.

Is this something that polite society should be egging on? I certainly support the right of any adult to willingly choose this for himself, but how gender fluxation has become such a cause celebre and gets poured upon young people who are inherently confused about life appears at risk of misleading vulnerable people into harming themselves.

And here is the great irony I see. Long after homosexuality stopped being considered a mental illness, progressives may be restoring it to that status. In a time when conservatives have largely given up on gay bashing, progressives appear to be engaged in a pressure campaign to cure gay people by making them strait. Suddenly, people attracted to the same sex have a condition called “Gender Dysphoria.” Decades after such people were subjected to shock therapy and efforts to pray away the gay, the opposite end of the ideological spectrum wants to give children drugs that inhibit puberty and eventually perform genital mutilation on people with this condition.

I’m still trying to work all these philosophical questions out. I’m also taking in the empirical literature on the degree to which efforts to promote transgender norms in schools help people who have inherited a congenital condition. That’s why I haven’t written much on this interesting topic and didn’t write about Rufo’s speech soon after Hillsdale published it in Imprimus. Surely we can take a step back and ask questions about who is being helped by pretending that sex and gender are arbitrary, ambiguous, and in flux without mistreating those who are inherently different. We need that conversation, because the fashionable gender ideology of the day may be imposing more harm than good. We need to consider the possibility that the gender services offered at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland can harm their patients.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.