There is a frightening new version of homophobia pervading the U.S., disguised as, of all things, “LGBTQ” activism. For adult gay people like me, it’s clear that this activism does not advance our equality, but in fact compromises our ability to live peacefully in society. In fact, it is threatening our very existence.
I first became aware of this new homophobia in the summer of 2017, when I interned at a major LGBTQ-rights organization. That January, I had enrolled at Columbia University to complete my undergraduate degree, a goal I had been postponing for over a decade. After volunteering for Maryland’s marriage equality campaign and a subsequent transgender rights legislation campaign, my aspiration was to become a social justice writer and activist.
My excitement about the internship quickly gave way to a nauseating mixture of fear and shame. I was, I quickly learned, not the right kind of “queer.” I was just another “cis” (short for “cisgender,” a word I had never even heard until it was assigned to me, typically as a slur) gay male—in other words, a privileged and unevolved relic of the past. After all, I had my rights—the right to marry, the right to serve openly in the military, the right to assimilate into this oppressive, “cisheteronormative,” patriarchal society. It was time to make way for a new generation of “queer,” one that had very little to do with sex-based rights and more to do with abolishing the concepts of sex and sexuality altogether.
At the time, I was exhausting so much mental energy memorizing my coworkers’ pronouns and all of the new progressive dogmas out of fear that I would be fiercely condemned if I slipped up, I had none left to think critically or to question where any of these dogmas had even come from. Thankfully, and somewhat serendipitously, the following semester I enrolled in a class called U.S. Lesbian and Gay History, led by the prominent gay historian George Chauncey. It was there that the culture I had encountered at my internship—and, of course, on Columbia’s uber-progressive and exceedingly “queer” campus—began to make sense.
In that class, I learned about queer theory, an obscure academic discipline based largely on the writing of the late French intellectual Michel Foucault, who believed that society categorizes people—male or female, heterosexual or homosexual—in order to oppress them. The solution is to intentionally blur—or “queer”—the boundaries of these categories. Soon this “queering” became the predominant method of discussing and analyzing gender and sexuality in universities.
With the proliferation of social media, which disseminates ideological dogma faster than any religious institution in history, academics-cum-activists can reduce these theories into palatable, easy-to-digest-and-regurgitate maxims, especially on platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and now TikTok. Which is how, suddenly, we have a massive uptick in trans- and “non-binary”-identifying youth. Queer theorists insist that subverting the categorizations which have been imposed upon young people—for example, the sex they were “assigned” at birth—is the ultimate expression of autonomy, and further, the key to liberating society from a system devised largely, so they claim, by cisgender white men. (Never mind the scientific and cultural achievements of women and racial minorities.)
This might not be a concern if, by adopting these new identities, young people were merely playing with the boundaries of normative gender expression—something that gays, lesbians, feminists, most liberals and even many conservatives would welcome two decades into the 21st century. But many young boys do not stop at simply painting their fingernails and wearing dresses, and young girls do more than cut their hair short and play football. With increasing frequency, these children are given drugs to block their puberty, cross-sex hormones and irreversible surgeries, all the while cheered on first by online communities, then the mainstream media and now the current presidential administration.
In rare instances, medicalization is the proper path for gender-nonconforming youth, in particular those whose gender dysphoria—a “marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and their assigned gender, lasting at least 6 months,” as the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 defines it—originated very early in life, causes acute mental distress and shows no signs of ceasing without medical intervention. But according to the 10 major follow-up studies on youth gender dysphoria to date, the vast majority (as much as 85 percent) end up desisting during or after puberty—that is, they become comfortable with their biological sex and no longer wish to identify as the opposite sex.
And what else did these studies find? That the vast majority identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual in adulthood.
Even without these studies, most gays and lesbians could have told you as much. Gender-nonconformity, after all, is a very common experience for most of us during childhood. I, for one, was relentlessly bullied in grade school for my femininity. “Are you a boy or a girl?” the kids would taunt, when they hadn’t already flung that oh-so-effective six-letter F-word at me. As a child, spinning around in my older sisters’ flowery skirts, I often imagined myself as a girl, too. Even in adulthood, I occasionally, though not often, think of myself as the opposite sex, an experience I speculate is common for gay men. After all, our inherent disposition gives us the benefit of perceiving life through a dual-gendered lens. But I have grown up to be a well-adjusted, successful, even masculine man, comfortable in his sex and, at long last—and despite the long-term effects of bullying and of a childhood spent in anti-gay religious fundamentalism—with my homosexuality.
Sure, the religious far right remains something of a threat, and I, like any other gay person, can still be stung by anti-gay slurs and can fear the threat of violence in less-accepting spaces. But today I am equally fearful of the radical activists I once longed to emulate, activists who push a regressive, anti-liberal agenda that reifies gender stereotypes, downplays the seriousness of long-term medicalization and ultimately seeks to abolish my identity—for without biological sex, there is no homosexuality. Today, the least-accepting spaces for people like me are, of all places, the halls of LGBT rights organizations, where the threat might not be violence but is nevertheless terrible stigmatization and shame.
Speaking recently about these issues with a LGBT mental health specialist—one among many who have serious concerns about the hastiness of medical transition for youth in the U.S.—it struck me that, if radical activists can convince enough people that biological sex is a farce, that “trans women are women” and “trans men are men,” then the path to the full erasure of gender-role-nonconforming gay people will be fully paved.
You may have heard stories of distressed parents whose children have suddenly announced trans identification. Perhaps you are one of them. Activists who favor medical intervention often ask these parents a morbid question: “Would you rather have a trans daughter or a dead son?” But the real question should be, “Would you rather have a trans daughter or an effeminate gay son?” I fear that for many, if they were honest, the answer would be the former.
It’s time that LGBT rights organizations answer to the growing number of gays, lesbians and trans people sounding the alarm on the medicalization of homosexuality by radical queer activists. And it’s time Americans ask themselves, despite all the progress gays and lesbians have made in this country in recent years, how comfortable they really are with the idea of raising effeminate gay sons and masculine lesbian daughters. Our very existence depends on it.
Ben Appel is a writer based in New York. His memoir, Cis White Gay, for Post Hill Press, is forthcoming.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.