December 16, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Anti-trans laws and the collapse of the American imagination

Liberals don’t need to chase after every fact.


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Liberals understand the dangers facing trans people. If there were any doubt beforehand, there was none after the Club Q massacre last month in Colorado Springs. As if to sharpen the horror, the gunman’s dad told a local TV news crew that when he heard about his son’s butchery, he worried he might be gay. Phew! He’s not! Praise God!

These dangers stem directly from the demonization of trans people by rightwing sadists and propagandists. They libel and malign trans people’s intentions. They accuse them of “grooming” innocent children for later sexual predation, or of worse (for instance, playing key roles in the QAnon conspiracy narrative about Democratic “cabalists” conducting kid-rape rituals before drinking their pure sinless blood.) They accuse allies of normalizing pedophilia. Theirs is a gothic discourse bent on making trans people seem subhuman.

Liberals respond more often than not by appealing to empirical knowledge, especially medical science. In fact, they say, children can be confused about the gender (or non-) they feel they are, internally. They can be so confused, and so pained by that confusion, that they seek relief by suicide. Medical science has fortunately come up with ways of dealing with this. It’s a process called gender-affirming care.

The sadist and propagandists agitating ignorance and hate don’t care about trans people. Trans people are mere tools of convenience by which to achieve a perennial goal of closing the mind. Demonizing them is just another means of doing that. I fear that liberals are fighting battles, in good faith, but without appreciating fully the enemy’s primal desire to dominate the American imagination.

This appeal is in keeping with the history of liberalism and its ancient enemy, religious superstition. While one faction of liberalism has always preferred separating and elevating morality from and over science, another faction has always felt that fighting ignorance and hate demands a united front armed with facts and evidence. Given that the assault on trans people stems from religious superstition, it’s natural for some liberals to reach for that trusty arsenal of reason.

But I wonder if these liberals are making things worse even as they strive to make things better. I do not suggest that liberals stop defending trans people. I do suggest, however, that the sadist and propagandists agitating ignorance and hate don’t care about trans people. To them, trans people are mere tools of convenience by which to achieve a perennial goal of closing the human mind. Demonizing them is just another means of doing that. I fear that liberals are fighting battles, in good faith, but without appreciating fully the enemy’s primal desire to dominate the American imagination.

Truly, the American way
When you think about it, trans people, by merely existing, challenge the imaginations of those of us who are not trans. Think about it some more and realize, I hope, that that’s the first impact – not whether they are real, not whether they are good or bad, and certainly not whether they are a social ill worthy of outlawing.

The first impact is challenging us to respect trans people to know what they are feeling and then imagine what they must feel beyond two sexes/genders that we believe to be true and immutable on account of no one ever challenging our imaginations. (Homosexuals challenged heterosexuals in the same way, historically, but trans people transgress something in non-trans people beyond that.)

The first question to arise from that impact should be whether one’s mind is open to the possibilities of something new or whether it’s closed to them. There shouldn’t be a debate over the humanity of trans people, but since there is, the debate should start with this first question. Is your mind open or closed? If it’s closed, you’re wrong – full stop. If your mind is open, however, you might be wrong. The process of knowing whether you are starts with an open mind.

The trans debate is closed. The public framing is almost always from the anti-trans point of view. We have seen cascades of “questions” about whether it’s fair for a trans girl to compete in girls sports; whether talking about trans rights is the same as encouraging kids to transition; whether kids are mature enough to know whether gender-affirming care is the right thing for them; and on and on.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t know of anyone saying that these “questions” start from a closed position. Instead of beginning with the human imagination, the challenges to it and the possible profit that comes from being challenged, the debate begins with doubt about imagining anything beyond what’s already believed to be true. 

The defenders of the status quo – the sadists and propagandists who agitate ignorance and hate – will always have a political advantage, because our instinct, when encountering something new that challenges what we believe to be true, is to affirm what we believe to be true. As Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen has reminded us, this bias for the status quo recurs throughout American intellectual history. 

It’s truly the American way.

Masked in ideology
That the debate over trans rights is closed should be where liberals begin. They don’t, though. Instead, they chase after every fact, study and scrap of evidence to prove what does not need proving when participating in good faith in an open democratic culture. 

If defenders of the status quo don’t want to participate in that milieu, that’s on them, not trans people. But, alas, they don’t have to, because, in the fight for trans people and their rights, liberals rarely if ever raise the social importance of nurturing an open democratic culture. For this reason, the fight for trans rights is a narrow one. 

Liberals should expand the “scope of conflict” by pointing to the closed position of the trans debate itself. Closed-ness is itself evidence of a society that is potentially, to use Lionel Trilling’s phrase, “bankrupt of ideas.” A closed debate over trans rights, in other words, hints at a collapse of the American imagination.

So the question is no longer whether trans people should have rights. It’s whether the imagination can accommodate new information — trans people – and whether democratic politics can serve their needs. 

Trilling was not talking about trans rights in his magnum opus, The Liberal Imagination, published in 1950. He was talking about how Europe, which had been a vibrant democratic culture, which is still called the seat of “Western civilization,” found itself ensnared in a death match between fascism and “totalitarian communism.”

Trilling believed that the ease with which European society fell in on itself “revealed the dangers of a society that puts limits on the free play of the intellect,” wrote Ratner-Rosenhagen. She said Trilling said: “for in the modern situation, it is just when a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology.”

Don’t want to know
The goals of democratic politics include creating conditions in which individuals are free to think for themselves. In its ideal form, democratic politics is the movement of democratic culture. Together they stretch our imaginations. They take us beyond the known world.

The goal of authoritarian politics is the diametric opposite. It’s to subordinate or, ideally, replace independent thinking, “the free play of the intellect,” with ideological certainty. In its ideal form, it sucks all doubt out of the individual’s head to facilitate greater obedience.

A democratic culture should be home to a menagerie of vibrant ideas arising from the American imagination that compete with each other. Authoritarian culture has just one idea. When it faces democratic politics, however, it ends up “bankrupt,” as Trilling might say. To get what it wants, it must resort to using force “masked in ideology.”

The use of force is gathering strength. 

A new ACLU report found that 2022 saw over 200 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in GOP-controlled state legislatures. “The wave of legislation most significantly affects young people, who identify as LGBTQ at the highest rates generationally,” wrote Cady Stanton for USA Today. What about young people is important to rightwingers? 


Liberals are right to fight for trans people and trans rights. Make no mistake. But they can and should broaden the “scope of conflict” to gain an advantage over the defenders of the status quo. The debate over trans rights is not curious and open to new, and perhaps strange, possible expansions of the human experience. It’s closed. 

It doesn’t want to know. 

Liberals should say so.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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