Earlier this month, activists and thought leaders from across the country met in Maryland for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, commonly called CPAC. Speakers and presenters from all walks of conservative life, including former President Donald Trump, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, and former Brazillian President Jair Bolsonaro, met across several days and spoke on a multitude of issues impacting conservatism today.
One of them, a commentator and host with The Daily Wire named Michael Knowles, plunged the audience head-first into the culture war. Speaking to a crowd, he said, “for the good of society […] transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely — the whole preposterous ideology, at every level.”
Shortly after Knowles’ speech, social media lit up, and prominent advocates for the trans community and several media outlets criticized him for wanting to eradicate the transgender community. Knowles denies these claims and has called on media outlets to retract articles stating as such. Meanwhile, conservatives supportive of Knowles and transgender individuals have fought over the overarching meaning of eradicating “transgenderism” from public life.
So what is “transgenderism,” and does it truthfully differ from transgender people? Above all else, why does this language matter so intensely?
The term “transgenderism” is not a formal medical category or classification. The phrase for transgender people has evolved over the years to include such words as transsexual and gender dysphoria, but never “transgenderism.”
It’s also not a social term actively embraced by most—if virtually any—recent transgender individuals due to its implicit politicization. Transgender history is full of stories detailing identity and self-discovery, many erratically spread across books, zines, and personal stories. For those instances where the term “transgenderism” does appear, it is significantly more descriptive. For example, in the 1994 text “Transgender Nation” by Gordene Olga MacKenzie, “transgenderism” acts as a term similar to how homosexuality is applied to the gay and lesbian community and encompasses the general state of being a person who is transgender.
Meanwhile, a simple Google Books search from the past several years using the phrase yields a plethora of charged texts, many of them highly critical of legal and social advancements made by the trans community — and occasionally critical of transgender individuals themselves. Often, these texts portray “transgenderism” as a deliberate ideology akin to how one voluntarily upholds conservatism or libertarianism. In another literary example, the 2020 text 2+2=5: How Transgenderism is Redefining Reality by Katie Roche, the term is frequently used as a broad catch-all, including pursuing affirming medical care, publically expressing your identity, and even accessing other transgender individuals in the broader world for the sake of a sense of community.
So when Knowles says he wants the eradication of “transgenderism” yet bristles when people say that means transgender people, he is making a distinction without a difference.
Since 2015, the phrase has slowly grown in popularity, with Google Trends showing an increase in its overall consistency—incidentally coinciding with the Obergefell v. Hodges decision and the beginning of the “bathroom bill” discourse. For social conservatives, the phrase has gradually taken life to strike at the heart of identity itself. From changing your legal name and amending your birth certificate to openly respecting and honoring the individuality of others, it seeks to subsume any action or concept seemingly legitimizing transgender identities in public life.
Simply stated, everything that validates the dignity and conceptual existence of a trans person is inherent in so-called “transgenderism.” It’s irresponsible not to acknowledge the colloquial use of the phrase in conservative circles. Those concerned are rightfully alarmed when used at a platform such as the CPAC mainstage during a national culture war.
On a recent episode of his show hosted by The Daily Wire, Michael Knowles justified his thinking by stating that the transgender community does not exist. “[W]e ought not to indulge the transgender false anthropology, you know, that, one is a little bit different in that transgender people is not a real ontological category,” he stated, “it’s a euphemism to describe deeply confused men and women who ought to have psychological and spiritual help.”
While everyone should take notice of these words, conservatives and proponents of a smaller government should particularly be alarmed by this way of thinking and specific use of language. Such reasoning relies on the concept that transgender people are not a real group of people—something transgender people and their families would find disagreeable—therefore, it’s not an identity to suppress but rather a social and mental deviancy to fix. To that end, all cultural development and social actions openly validating a trans person in any form encourage that deviancy and are part of the broader scope of “transgenderism” seen in public life.
When juxtaposed with his overarching philosophy, his statement should perturb those who value the principles of tolerance and uphold the principles of limited government as it applies to government intrusion into individual identities. Moreover, it would require a degree of regression beyond the scope of the push for basic LGBTQ tolerance from several decades ago, let alone the acceptance earned in the past ten years. Such a regression would imply a society that has removed or withdrawn from all forms of social recognition, medical advancements, and institutional pathways that allow someone to transition and be what is regarded in modern culture as a transgender person.
And suppose you are someone who has gender dysphoria or otherwise feels your gender identity is incongruent with what was understood at the time of your birth. In such a society, your neighbor should not respect or acknowledge you as you are but rather pity you for being mentally unwell until you one day believe with as much sincerity as them that your concept of self is wrong.
What exactly happens when minds don’t change, or individuals inevitably refuse to hold malice against their neighbors in this hypothetical society, has yet to be examined. What is known, however, is that efforts to force someone out of their identity are not well received. For example, a 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that “lifetime exposure to [gender identity change efforts] was significantly associated with multiple adverse outcomes, including severe psychological distress during the previous month and lifetime suicide attempts.”
With political conservatives straining under the weight of a national culture war, allowing this form of speech to reverberate without context is a reckless pathway to a more authoritarian government. It denies the antagonistic usage of the phrase and perpetuates a misnomer. Moreover, it denigrates transgender individuals in alarming words and betrays the values of conservatives and libertarians who preach tolerance and freedom from state suppression.
Jordan Willow Evans is a policy analyst and writer living in Goffstown, N.H. She is chair of the Libertarian Policy Foundation and treasurer of MassEquality, the leading Massachusetts statewide queer organization.