Where did transgenderism come from?

Mark Regnerus
June 03, 2016
Reproduced with Permission

Before the year 2000, no US state recognized same-sex marriage. By 2015, it was legal throughout the US and most of Western Europe. Before 2015 most Americans knew nothing about transgender issues. Within a year transgender issues are on the front pages of newspapers every day and schools may be forced to provide special bathrooms for trans students. The pace of change in the sexual revolution is not just rapid. It's accelerating around the world. Why?

MercatorNet invited several scholars to answer this question, and today we begin publishing their answers.

MARK REGNERUS: It's been a feat not of reason but of marketing

Although I'm a scholar quite familiar with the battles over "what the science says," I'm convinced the credit here belongs to marketing. Social conservatives have been outmanned and outgunned, but perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in messaging about marriage. Now the messaging has shifted directions a few degrees. One could ask why it is conservatives continue to be so outmaneuvered, which may seem unlikely given the tiny population of persons who self-identify as transgendered. The answer is not to be found in science or in history - that is, in being on the right or wrong side of it - but in the contemporary wedding of marketing in the service of matters of sexuality. The key to shifting sentiments about sexuality is in "framing."

Framing is about the social construction of a phenomenon, and concerns how effectively a matter comes to be perceived by a group of people. Lots of concerns in numerous domains of our lives are affected by framing. In this particular case, however, bathroom or locker room access and "comfort" for the three-in-1000 persons who self-identify as transgender appears to be increasingly framed as a compelling issue that the population at large - and educators everywhere in particular - should care about. And not just as one of many issues people should care about, but rather a uniquely pressing matter that requires solutions now, not after years of reflection, observation, discernment, and even experimentation. This is evidence of successful framing.

While same-sex marriage may seem like a long way away from transgender bathrooms, they aren't in that a successful public relations campaign to promote the former has been utilized to tag (and criticize) opposition to the latter. Hence people who have qualms about any of the many reasonable questions regarding transgender bathroom and locker room access - and there are a lot of them - are being lumped in with those (fewer) who dispute the structural alteration to legal marriage in the West. And they don't like it. But the "framers" hope the tags stick, and that the many Americans who have reasonable concerns about "locker room sex education" will keep their anxieties to themselves, or better yet change their minds. But minds, marketers know, are more quickly changed by compelling narratives and images than by Socratic dialogue.

Social conservatives, meanwhile, have been pretty poor at framing. The 2015 effort to characterize the Houston city council's wide-ranging LGBT nondiscrimination law as a noxious "bathroom bill" was a rare success in framing for those unhappy with the socio-sexual shifts of late. Look at how the cultural Left framed it: the bill - which failed in a popular vote - was dubbed the "HERO" bill, which stood for Human Rights Ordinance. It's hard to be against human rights and heroes; language and acronyms have long cost social conservatives plenty. Moreover, legislators and chambers of commerce have often found themselves paralyzed in the face of corporate threats to withdraw business. The Houston "incident," however, seems to have come and gone without economic repercussions. Star power in the form of a beloved pro athlete - former baseball great Lance Berkman - lending his name, voice, and popularity (as well as a sense of traditional masculinity) to the cause helped. Berkman's narrative may have made all the difference. (Current pro athletes would've been fined by their leagues quicker than you can say "ESPN.") North Carolina legislators will see whether they can replicate Houston's success. It is an unsure thing, but it can be done. Patience, even stalling, typically pays off, since the contemporary media cycle is remarkably short.

Effective framing doesn't just happen. In today's media-saturated world, it costs money. A hidden variable in all the disputes of late is the monumental investment in the framing business by LGBT organizations, whose number and overall access to financial resources dwarfs that of socially conservative organizations that promote marriage and family. Successful efforts to access federal funding, especially in the form of foreign aid, now boost the cultural Left's framing efforts with consistent infusions of cash.

Hence framing, and the money to pay to put it to effective use, appear to be a key reason (if not the pivotal reason) for the swift shift from legal discourse around same-sex marriage to that of transgender kids and bathroom access - and with it, a more privileged place for nonheterosexuality and its expressions in the American (and eventually foreign) educational systems. Without effective framing, we would not be seeing the continued rapid pace of change in the domain of sex and sexuality. Dominance in the domain of narrative, far more than in science, has dogged conservatives. It's been a feat not of reason but of marketing.