The Constitutional Conflationists: On Abigail Shrier’s “Irreversible Damage” and the Dangerous Absurdity of Anti-Trans Trolls

January 17, 2021   •   By Sarah Fonseca

Irreversible Damage

Abigail Shrier

IN THE INTRODUCTION to Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, Abigail Shrier’s performatively alarmed polemic about the purported increase in transmasculine-identifying teens and young adults, the author explains that her affinity for stripping trans people of agency is informed, perplexingly, by her unwavering reverence for the First Amendment. Freedom of speech is of immense concern to her, as it should be for the dwindling number of us who are still capable of identifying as American in good conscience.


Yet the assertion that Shrier’s screed was inspired by constitutional loyalty is little more than a clarion call to those who, for varied political and personal reasons, actively seek to subdue trans voices, trans self-determination, and trans people. Shrier’s greatest admirers will not be those who value our democratic dignity, but those who wish to make gender a divisive experience rather than a unifying one. The author’s incantation of the First Amendment does not sufficiently emphasize her red-blooded passion for true democracy, but for the seductive image of a hermetically sealed and patriarchally sound America, one regressively nostalgic for midcentury convention, order, and heroism. Irreversible Damage is Shrier’s own simpering cry to Make America Great Again. And as far as she is concerned, the beneficiaries of free speech’s historic privileges — shabbily enforced where trans voices have been concerned — can only be cisgender. In this dismal and limiting cognitive space where the First Amendment matters — but Shrier’s access to it matters most — the author can write as she pleases: baselessly and brutishly.


And she does.


As expected and dreaded, Shrier gleefully recruits the language of pathology (the first chapter is tellingly titled “The Contagion,” another, “Carving Up Girlhood”) and pedophilia (the concept of “trans seduction” permeates the work despite primarily dealing with adults) with impunity. Still, the author falls into foxholes potentially indicative of her own misgivings about contemporary Western womanhood. The expectation that we organize ourselves into two rigid categories to experience society is finally abating, in large part due to ongoing trans activism. It is no wonder that Shrier, like many a trans adolescent, feels a bit adrift — though their approaches to identity are far more conducive to autonomy and identity than hers is. Shrier’s speculation on the origins of the “transgender craze” on which she has staked her claim is inconsistent: Do trans boys become trans boys because of social media or their peers, she wonders. Do trans boys want or not want to be men? Do helicopter parents serve as an antidote to fledgling trans identity, or as an exacerbating factor?


Shrier peppers these grotesque misperceptions of trans identity with apple pie imagery and reminiscences on the way things were in place of fact. Staggeringly few of the scholars and medical professionals with which Shrier textually converses have studied trans people firsthand: they’ve only inventoried the grievances and impressions of cisgender parents. Shrier’s most vulnerable subjects — adolescents — are outed through the author’s emotionally predatory interviews with concerned, naïve, or bluntly transphobic parents, and it is unclear whether any of her subjects were given permission to opt out of partaking in Shrier’s opus. It is in this very same introductory text where the author, staging a peppy cishet pageant for free speech rivaling Elle Woods’s commencement address in Legally Blonde, spinelessly acknowledges that she has stripped others of their own voices in her own quest for liberation:


I take it for granted that teenagers are not quite adults. For the sake of clarity and honesty, I refer to biologically female teens caught up in this transgender craze as “she” and “her.”


Transgender adults are a different matter. I refer to them by the names and pronouns they prefer wherever I can do so without causing confusion.


Finally, I have changed the names and certain minor details of transgender-identifying adolescents (and their parents) to ensure that none is able to recognize herself and accuse her battle-worn parents of treachery. Because the stories of those vulnerable to this contagion are strikingly similar, some readers may believe they have recognized themselves — only to be wrong.


In this taunting caveat, Shrier does several insidious things apart from betraying her love of the United States Constitution: she prioritizes the convictions of cisgender parents over queer and trans teens, many of whom have since entered legal adulthood; she denies these same young adults acknowledgment of their likeness on the page, or their ability to polish or rebuff that representation; all the while, she protects herself and Regnery Publishing from the legal retribiton of her victims — assuming they could afford it — by not disclosing identifying information. Collectively, these rhetorical tactics define the contemporary transphobia that Shrier continually writes off as an accusation that the dysphoric child weaponizes against their parents when they “disagree[] with the child about the child’s self-assessment of being transgender,” tell “their child that hormones or surgeries were unlikely to help,” and recommend “that the child work on other underlying mental health issues.” In short, to Shrier, the parent who denies their gender variant child autonomy — and heaven forbid, love — is the primary victim.


Instead of acknowledging that America’s antiquated gender binary might be the root of the problem, Shrier shoves it down our throats. We are privy to details of the first-time author’s own ultra-normal heterosexual coming-of-age — all adding insult to injury, nevermind nausea. In the effort to cover her bases with half-truths, Shrier hastily rattles off two paltry sentences regarding the trans-inclusive policies she considers unconstitutional: The Transgender Respect, Agency, and Dignity Act, recently enacted in California, the state Shrier calls home; and New York City’s Commission on Human Rights Legal Enforcement Guidance on Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Expression, enacted in my own hood. The latter piece of public policy has been amended several times for the sake of increased trans inclusivity for nearly 20 years, though it is only now of interest to those shamefully dissecting trans existence because the most basic of LGBTQ rights can be usefully (and, as is often the case, disingenuously) deployed as partisan wedges.


Part of what makes Irreparable Damage so concerning is its role in a much greater history. Queers and trans people have historically witnessed our bodies be weaponized in pursuit of the same old Cis American Dream by those on both sides of the political divide. In the sensational Women’s Lib text The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan was quick to distance herself and her movement from lesbians, writing them off as “disruptors” and members of “extreme left groups.” She would famously stage this panicked performance piece in 1969 as the president and co-founder of the National Organization for Women. Unsympathetic to lesbian concerns about child custody and sexual liberation, she referred to the burgeoning group of dykes seeking representation in the larger women’s movement “the lavender menace.” Likewise, Friedan’s core adversary Phyllis Schlafly employed similar tools of queer and trans disenfanchisement. Schlafly’s campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s was so successful because it pioneered the “perverts in the women’s bathroom” talking point still used to this day to argue against gender-inclusive lavatories. That cis women on the left and right have once more united under this banner of so-called “gender criticality” should be cause for much alarm. While Shrier will never share Schlafly’s sense of decorum or horrifying charm, she should serve as a wake-up call for those of us who do not subscribe to anti-trans principles. The time for standing up for trans people in the United States was yesterday.


Meanwhile, Shrier’s panic-stricken argument that both the California and New York City laws are “facially and thoroughly unconstitutional” will certainly be successful in mobilizing some readers by describing the First Amendment in quaint terms legible to most second graders. “The First Amendment has long protected the right to say unpopular things without government interference. It also guarantees our right to refuse to say things the government wants said,” Shrier rhapsodizes. She goes on to compare these existing, widely embraced state and municipal policies with the ruling in the 1943’s West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court case that affirmed students’ right not to salute an American flag. To those not preoccupied with weaponizing the Constitution, the right to remain seated is a far cry from the reasonable suggestions of New York City’s discrimination ordinance: all people “have the right to use and have others use their name and pronouns regardless of whether they have identification in that name or have obtained a court-ordered name change, except in very limited circumstances where certain federal, state, or local laws require otherwise.” If anything, this attention to nomenclature residing outside of legality gives everyone — regardless of gender — more agency in their own lives.


Well before one arrives at the book’s “case studies,” the issues with Irreversible Damage’s analysis are abundantly clear. Before we can even begin to experience angst at the book’s heartless dissection of delicate trans experiences, the damage has already been done. Shrier’s propaganda, couched in the language of independence and freedom, has reached its intended audience. It is unlikely that any reader, be they devoted MAGA hatter or benign suburban housewife, will pause to probe Irreversible Damage’s sources. If they did, they might realize that they originate, not from the peer-reviewed realms of medicine, science, and law, but from the partisan op-ed sections of Fox News and The Washington Post. It is even less likely that the parent of a transgender boy or gender outlaw daughter residing in a non-coastal community will make time to sufficiently research these laws and discover that they do not force anyone to speak on the governments’ terms — in fact, they champion the autonomy of the people, all people.


What follows this moment of duplicitous soapbox oration is the full-fledged gender panic of the book itself, so ugly and corporeally invasive of trans men and even cis women. In my feminist naïveté, I was shocked to observe this self-identified woman writer choosing to maim rather than bask in what the policies that protect trans people stand to offer her in the way of gender breathing room: a world where one’s totality is affirmed, no matter one’s appearance; a world where her body’s medical needs can be met, even if she is incarcerated. Instead, Shrier chooses to double-down on her black-and-white political beliefs and even on her own gender throughout. Gender, that complex amalgam that the late trans historian Jan Morris once described so tenderly: “It is soul, perhaps, it is talent, it is taste, it is environment, it is how one feels, it is light and shade, it is inner music, […] it is the essentialness of oneself.” But all Shrier can see is her own eminent extinction as a white conservative cisgender woman in this nation under overdue strain:


[P]arents are undermined; experts are over-relied upon; dissenters in science and medicine are intimidated; free speech truckles under renewed attack; government healthcare laws harbor hidden consequences; and an intersectional era has arisen in which the desire to escape a dominant identity encourages individuals to take cover in victim groups.


As Shrier’s worst fears are articulated, it becomes clear that this new wave of anti-trans activism is largely made up of cisgender women whose chokehold on victim identity exceeds anything ever seen in queer and trans community.


When the critically revered feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie rises to the defense of J. K. Rowling’s eerily similar attack on trans people, namely on trans boys, it is evident just whose freedom of speech is being elevated and whose is being stifled through the thinly veiled malice of willfully misinformed opinion. This is something that Grace Lavery, an English professor of English at UC Berkeley known for her critiques of the burgeoning anti-trans movement in the United Kingdom, has learned firsthand. Upon taking a humorous jab at Irreversible Damage to guise the pain of yet another gender critical screed that will assuredly cause harm to queer and trans children, Lavery received a flurry of undeniably transphobic emails, nevermind dozens to her chair and dean calling for the educator’s removal. “This is all small potatoes,” Lavery observed, “but it is a useful illustration of the paradoxical position that so-called ‘free speech’ activists find themselves in: attempting to get one free-speaker fired, while claiming that another is being silenced.”


That Target, a publicly traded corporation with over 11,000 retail locations in 27 countries, elected to pull Irreversible Damage’s fallacy-riddled text from its shelves seemed like a tame and benevolent move by a company that still cleaves to most of postwar American orthodoxy: heavily gendered clothing departments and changing rooms, the least among them. In the architecture of one of the world’s largest consumer retailers, the gender binary is alive and well. We were reminded of that when the company, caught in the crosshairs of Shrier’s war for selectively free speech, returned the book to its aisles several weeks later. This backtracking should not be seen as a loss, but as a firm reminder that the war for queer and trans liberation will never be one won on the battleground of capitalist morality.


Irreversible Damage cannot sufficiently cite sources enough to warrant its existence beyond the Barnes & Noble’s bargain bin of popular literature; it holds little value to American thought, didactic or theoretical, in the way that vetted and comparably humane books like Diane Ehrensaft’s The Gender Creative Child or Stephanie A. Brill’s Transgender Teen do. Still, this otherwise reasonable move by Target allowed space for individuals aligned with Shrier to decry queer desecration of the First Amendment. In all probability, anticipating backlash — no matter how meager — was a core consideration around which Shrier’s public relations strategy has been assembled. Here, the freedom of speech conflationist’s modus operandi is to point the general public in the direction of the alleged ideological conflict, not to the anti-intellectual tome that manufactured it. It is trolling at its most transparent. Mere days after Target washed its hands of Irreparable Damage, Shrier penned an op-ed for Quillette, a “platform for free thought” that has, over the past five years, built a self-sustaining audience at the expense of such thinly guised takes on trans humanity. There, she accused Big Tech of precipitating her downfall.


In our era of perpetual online discourse, the strategy — unfortunately — works.


“The efforts to smear my friend @AbigailShrier and to disappear her book (hi, @Target) is despicable — and a sign of what’s to come,” tweeted Bari Weiss, the former New York Times op-ed writer who earned a committed readership not through earnest reportage, but through a similar rhetorical strategy of conflation — in Weiss’s case, the conflation of BDS student activism with terrorism, mythological millennial social justice warriors with Soviet Russia, so on and so forth. With so many Americans falling under her battle axe swings, the greater good that Weiss purportedly seeks in (spuriously) defending the First Amendment is nowhere to be found. That Weiss and Shrier are “friendly” should come as no surprise; their analytic tactics and willingness to destabilize domestic faith in lawmaking to perpetuate arguments against vulnerable populations already renders them blood sisters. “I regret that I didn’t speak up earlier on her behalf,” Weiss continued. “I also thought to myself: is this the hill I want to die on?”


As a cisgender woman braggadociously tethered to suburban Pennsylvania, Weiss will likely not perish at the hands of some imaginary mob of queers furious with her friend’s descriptions of gender dysphoria as “fashionable.” Of course, that is certainly quite a revenge fantasy for 2020, a year in which 37 gender nonconforming people were violently killed in the United States — more than any year since the Human Rights Campaign first began intentionally tracking these grim figures in 2013. Of far less priority to any self-respecting American should be the synthetic concern of literary freedom espoused by Shrier, Weiss, and their ilk. It has been almost 50 years since a single state in the union — Georgia — last arbitrarily sorted through incoming literature for anything it deemed untoward. States can still decide which literary efforts permeate their borders; that’s one of the many purposes that our 10th Amendment serves. And as others have wisely noted, Irreversible Damage can always be purchased from many a capitalist staple, including Amazon (where it is, horrifyingly, a #1 best seller in Transgender Studies) and Barnes & Noble. Still, the conflationist cries persist, to the tune of 2,200 likes.


While researching the external circumstances of Irreversible Damage, several questions lost to the messy culture war discourse found their way back to me: Has Bari Weiss even read her friend’s book? Could she, in good faith, actually deem its bevy of suspiciously secondhand case studies of gender variant adolescents helpful to the Western values to which many of her acolytes indiscriminately bow? Do the most aggressive proponents of this selective free speech ever actually make fruitful use of the constitutional right they purport to champion?


While I can’t resolve these questions about Weiss, what I learned, rather swiftly, was this: I am uncertain that Abigail Shrier believes in anything other than her power to inflame existing cultural wounds; she leverages her own status quo, so certain and static — cisgender, woman, emboldened by whiteness — to debase others. While identity is a wonderfully malleable thing, self-efficacy alone is not enough to will a respected gender theorist into being. If Shrier and her equally belligerent and ugly champions are truly terrified by this frequently debunked “transgender craze,” they should perhaps consider divorcing the rigid nationalist posture that seems to not fit 2020, let alone the kids who are trying to survive it.


In a much-circulated essay scrutinizing trans identity, J. K. Rowling posed a hypothetical question: Would the author identify as a trans man had she came of age today? This disingenuous rhetorical gambit has become a core asset to gender critical meddlers and First Amendment trolls alike: they illustrate that their own identities could be gender variant in an effort to eclipse the first-person narratives of those who actually are gender variant. Of course, given the time travel necessary to confirm such a hypothesis, a thought experiment that continues to treat gender variance as a kind of trend or chic identity fad — lesbians are still licking our wounds from our own mid-’90s dissection under the auspices of “lesbian chic” — the answer is far more complex than the ones Rowling and her ilk fabricate in search of justification for their anti-trans epistles. This doesn’t stop Shrier from echoing its refrain; a zebra can’t change its stripes, after all.


After designating herself a tomboy — a cis girl who possesses boyish attributes in youth — Shrier observes the contemporary famine of androgyny-inclined women today. “But there is no such thing as a tomboy anymore, as any teenage girl will tell you,” she laments, as if the tomboy were not a category of being that teenage girls have historically been forced out of by the cultural pressures of normative feminization. As with Friedan and Schlafly all those years before with 1970s gender transgression, Shrier joins a rarefied alliance with Julia D. Robertson, a gender critical AfterEllen contributor whose status Shrier perhaps overstates by terming the scribe a “prominent gay writer.” Robertson, in a gripping act of lesbian betrayal, is pleased as pie to do Shrier’s dirty work for her. “You’ve got a situation where young lesbians are being pressured if they don’t give into this new idea of what it is to be a lesbian,” she tells the author. Instead, in the tomboy and the butch lesbian’s place are “an endless litany of sexual and gender identities — public, rigid, and confining,” Shrier concludes victoriously. Yet it is here where the author shows the theoretical bind into which she’s trapped herself. She has submitted to the status quo so mightily that a liberating alternative instead becomes the site of an artificial attack on free speech.


¤


Sarah Fonseca is a publicly educated film writer and essayist from the Georgia foothills who lives in New York City. Her work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, cléo: a journal of film and feminism, IndieWire, and the Lambda Literary Review, among others.