Fake Feminists Fight the Equality Act

The woman-respecter. Photo: Demetrius Freeman-Pool/Getty Images

Everyone pretends to care about women when it’s convenient. Take Senator Josh Hawley, who has a point to prove and along with it, a newfound respect for the ladies. Hawley, like the rest of his party, opposes the Equality Act, which would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That would protect queer and trans women, but they are women Hawley hates, and so the Equality Act must fall. But even in today’s GOP, that truth is a little gauche. Hawley needs a different justification. Fortunately, journalist Abigail Shrier has given him one.

When Shrier testified in the Senate against the Equality Act on Wednesday, she did so on the basis that its protections for trans people would harm women and girls. Imagine your daughter or granddaughter was a top high school athlete, she said, and then “five biological boys suddenly decided at the age of 17 to identify as female.” Should the girl lose rank, Shrier asked? Hawley fawned: “Tell us, why it is that women’s sports, the opportunities of young girls to compete on a fair and equal basis, will be so severely impacted by this law?” Boys are just bigger, Shrier said, and faster. “We would never know the names Venus and Serena Williams,” she warned.

Hawley and Shrier perform a familiar two-step. They don’t share a religious affiliation; Hawley is a conservative Christian and Shrier is not, though she’s said she believes “bona fide American greatness required Christianity.” But they are crucial allies to one another, and they are equally committed to the same fight. Shrier and Hawley are mimicking progressive language, but their cause is regressive. The war on the Equality Act is a grandiose display of woman-hatred, because it would protect millions of women and girls who now lack legal protection from discrimination.

But the arguments against the act bear examination, too. They’re based on pernicious beliefs about trans people and the inferiority of femininity, and Shrier, a non-Christian, is as complicit as the far-right Hawley. What unites someone like Shrier with the Christian right is the conviction, first, that trans women are not truly women but men; and second, that women are weak and must be protected from them.

Hawley professes concern for women and girls now, but his anti-abortion stance means their right to bodily autonomy does not rate. On the subject of trans rights, their value to the culture war is too high to be ignored. He isn’t motivated by feminism, or even to a more rudimentary interest in the empowerment of women — it’s much more cynical. To the Christian right where Hawley resides, femininity is a weakness. In Hawley and other Republicans such as Ted Cruz, anti-feminism is no surprise. Cruz can call the Equality Act “a war on women” as many times as he likes and convince no one but his own supporters.

Anti-feminism can be more difficult to detect in the secularized arguments of people like Shrier. It’s less overt and less concerned with dogma. The specifics vary, too. A person can be bigoted toward trans women while supporting abortion rights or marriage rights for lesbians and gays. They may even consider themselves feminist. But they delude themselves. Whether a person is a conservative Christian, or a trans-exclusive radical feminist, arguments against rights for trans women resemble each other. They’re similarly faulty, based on scientific misinformation and cruelty.

Trans athletes are rare, after all. Shrier’s scenario — that five children would decide at the same time that they are all trans and all want to compete in the same high school sport — is vanishingly unlikely. There’s also no extant scientific evidence to support the existence of so-called “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” the essential scenario Shrier posed in her Senate testimony, and experts criticized her book, Irreversible Damage, for promoting misinformation on that subject and others. Biological sex also isn’t the athletic determinant that Shrier suggests; trans people are human beings, with a range of physical gifts or limitations. A trans girl might be a good or mediocre athlete for reasons that have nothing to do with her sex as assigned at birth.

Why, then, would Shrier believe otherwise? The answer is bigotry, and it’s obvious in the way she writes about trans people. In her book, Shrier refuses to use the correct pronouns for adolescent trans girls. As she tells it, they suffer from something resembling hysteria. “Today’s diagnostic craze isn’t demon possession, it’s ‘gender dysphoria,’” she asserts in her book, “and its cure is not exorcism, laxatives, or purging. It’s ‘top surgery.’”

Hysteria, of course, is not a real syndrome. Neither is rapid-onset gender dysphoria, to the best of our knowledge. As trans journalists Julia Serano and Zinnia Jones have both observed, the term originated on a handful of anti-trans blogs, and academic literature is lacking. It’s not surprising, though, that the concept would appeal to the Christian right. The movement has always loved its fake syndromes. The pro-life lobby invented “post-abortion syndrome” to describe a cluster of psychological symptoms that supposedly afflict women who’ve had abortions. Christian writers like James Dobson popularized the notion of porn or sex addiction, connecting the condition to violence against women. On the Christian right, to be gay or lesbian or bisexual is to suffer from “same-sex attraction,” or SSA, which must be cured by conversion therapy.

Over time, all three concepts fared poorly in the secular world. Researchers have found no proof that anything called “post-abortion syndrome” exists. Porn and sex addiction suffer from a similar lack of evidence. The American Psychiatric Association stopped classifying homosexuality as a disorder in 1973, four years after Stonewall. Lately, most proponents of conversion therapy are religious. With the exception of post-abortion syndrome, which never gained much traction outside the pro-life movement, and the pathologization of homosexuality, most of these so-called “medical conditions” owe their longevity in part to secular allies. In the 1970s and 1980s, feminists themselves joined the anti-porn crusades. And homophobia was never solely the province of the religious. Long after homosexuality disappeared from the DSM, homophobia pervades the secular world, and now it threatens the Equality Act.

Writers like Shrier are, in the end, pawns in a war they didn’t start and don’t seem to fully comprehend. Hawley, however, knows exactly what’s going on, and so does Cruz, and so does their base. Behind the progressive language lurks the same old culture war. Nothing really changed. The war on the Equal Rights Amendment was supposed to be good for women, too, and so was the war on porn, and even the war on homosexuality, which was a war to enforce the traditional family and also woman’s inferior role within it. The war on trans rights contains the same old disdain for the feminine, the belief that womanhood is weakness and that to behave like a woman is to behave like a wimp. No one would choose womanhood — because that is how these culture warriors view trans identity, as a simple choice — unless they were deviant, even dangerous. To dismiss and invalidate trans women, to demonize them and hold them up as enemies, outliers, and predators is misogyny. The Equality Act is pro-woman. Its opponents are not.

The Fake Feminists Fighting the Equality Act