We learn our culture as we learn our first language, by immersion. Yet the fullness of human experience surely isn’t captured by any one culture or language. An honest view recognizes the best way to live may emerge at the intersection of many kinds of people.

Transgender Athletes

People attend a rally by the U.S. Capitol as part of Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31. Anti-transgender bills have been introduced in legislatures in 47 states, including Maine, in 2023. Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

A clear view of the so-called “culture war” shows a staggering chunk of us are dedicated to the opposite idea. Though there may exist infinite ways to be, in service of belonging in this culture, the immersion pool is being drained ever shallower.

Legislatures in more than 40 states are championing a new old vision of America that is so shrunken and illiberal that our culture appears not just to be regressing, but also marching into some dystopian fantasy past. Our nation’s current anti-trans obsession is tied up with notions of morality so bankrupt as to have no connection to reality. Cloaked in the language of “freedom” and “protection,” laws criminalizing bathroom use, clothing choice and medical care effect inverse outcomes.

We are making cultural ties into garrotes. The onus put upon individuals to stay in line with society’s preference becomes more dangerous and nonsensical by the day. But homogeneity as a proxy for safety is an old, debunked illusion – a story we know by heart. Keep the different ones in the shadows, fringes and closets, and we can continue to label them demons. Behold our scrubbed society of elites: If you are not like us, you are the problem. The lucky few who are left can pretend to be served by the weight of repression we have chosen.

Such repression is a recipe for anxiety, despair and self-harm, and serves none of us. Doubt it? Read the words of real trans folks and their communities. Rather than evil minds plotting to erase other’s identities, wreck families or assault children, one finds the spectrum of humanity: Loving, giving human beings of all ages. Offers of hope, support and advice. Cheers for each other’s wins, and shoulders willing to lighten heavy burdens. Victory revels and cries for help chronicling fear, loss and the cruelty of discrimination. Pleas from parents desperate to support their trans teen who has become too afraid to leave the house. Their “agenda”? Survival.

Trans people are real, always have been, and always will be. In many cultures past and present, trans identities are accepted and respected as a part of the natural order instead of seen as a wrong to be righted. Like a world full of languages, being trans is simply not a moral issue. “Transgenderism,” a new term of hate, frames it as a choice. (Remember the gay “lifestyle”?) It’s not a choice, nor a modern invention: Our culture’s binary concept is both. Yet rather than diversify our perception of gender and humanity to match reality, we ridicule and attack people, tie them to unrelated evils, and target their means of survival. The audacity of trans folks daring to claim their identity from the shadows is greeted with nationwide attempts to legislate them out of existence.

The burning question is: why the defensive pose, America? Culturally we are still in a dark age of false associations, assigning moral significance to benign things, conflating nature with infallibility, uniformity with safety, gender with sexuality, and maybe the most deeply felt of all, sexuality with immorality. Nature, uniformity, gender and sexuality are, on their own, neutral. No inherent good or evil, safety or danger exists in them. A moment’s examination of these assumptions bears out this point – but so many of us are more interested in cultivating ignorance and throwing books in the trash.

Until we decide to ask more of our culture, we won’t reap the benefits of diversity. Until we uncouple the ideas of “traditional” and “righteous,” we’ll remain in the grip of outdated, superstitious and repressive cycles of shame, pain and harm.

A wise man once wrote: “The good ol’ days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”

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