As a repository of anthropological wisdom—wisdom, that is, about the species homo sapiens sapiens—it is hard to beat the Book of Genesis. It just gets so much right about who we are, what makes us tick, what are our besetting strengths, weaknesses, and temptations. Take, for example, this famous passage from Chapter One of that stupendous work:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
Until quite recently, that observation might be a goad to commentary—think of what the idea of man as created imago dei requires of us!—but its truth was never much in doubt, especially the truth of the second part of the sentence, the evidence for which is all around, and, indeed, deep within, us.
It is true that there have always been odd outliers who do not so much dispute the truth of the Genesis account of our incarnation as underscore, by contrast, its overwhelming normality. We happen to write on the anniversary of the death of the Roman Emperor Elagabalus (ca. 204–222), one of the most bizarre and decadent of rulers, and one who, by all accounts, did test the limits of the distinction between male and female.
History provides other, but not many, examples. The commentator Irving Kristol was undoubtedly correct when he observed, in 1994, that “ ‘Sexual liberation’ is always near the top of a countercultural agenda—though just what form the liberation takes can and does vary, sometimes quite wildly.” In our day—a day that lingers still in the fantastic twilight of the countercultural revolution of the 1960s—the proffered forms of “liberation” test the limits of credulity. It turns out that Herbert Marcuse, the Frankfurt School Marxist who attempted to realize the coincidence of opposites by making the puritanical Karl Marx appear as a disciple of radical Freudianism, foresaw the tenor of our deformation. For Marcuse, the engine of liberation, political as well as personal, is the embrace of “primary narcissism,” the repudiation of the “repressive order of procreative sexuality,” and the triumph of “polymorphous perversity.” Eros and Civilization, the curious book in which Marcuse formulated this gospel of apocalyptic infantilization, was published in 1955. It could have been published yesterday.
What brought all of this to mind was one of those little spats that, for some, enlivens the channels of social media. The novelist E. J. Levy, celebrated author of Love, In Theory and Tasting Life Twice, an anthology of lesbian fiction, has also written a forthcoming historical novel called The Cape Doctor about James Barry, née Margaret Ann Bulkley, the nineteenth-century Irish-born army surgeon who practiced in Cape Town and lived as a man. It’s that last fact, of course, that gives Barry’s story its dash of hot sauce. As one news report tells it—and note, please, the use of the participle “assigned”—“Barry was assigned female at birth but lived his entire adult life as a man. In the past, he was seen as a woman who donned men’s clothing so he could become a doctor, but lgbtq historians now regard him to be a transgender man.”
And since “lgbtq historians” so regard him, you had better, too. What we have here is a sort of back-parlor version of the conflagration that has consumed the tennis great Martina Navratilova these past weeks. Navratilova, trailblazing lesbian though she is, had the temerity to challenge the new popularity of “transgender” athletes in women’s sports. The “trans” Twitter mob came for her (ironically, given that her coach was Renée Richards, né Richard Raskind). Just as E. J. Levy sparked the yapping ire of that “community” by referring to Barry née Bulkley as “she” in her novel.
News of this outrage has precipitated a frantic response in the Twittersphere as hundreds upon hundreds of triggered crybullies have besieged Levy’s publisher, Little, Brown. “Please understand the anguish you are causing,” wrote one wounded soul. “This may be a fun, imaginative romp for the author but it amounts to theft of one of our very few well-documented transgender ancestors. Do not steal our history.” No cri de coeur is complete today without the ritual invocations of “privilege” and “marginalization,” and the Twitter feed was also full of anathemata such as this: “This is cowardly and aggressively insensitive to the community this book would be written for. Callous, awful and of course, as per publishing, a way to keep those with privilege a step above marginalized folks.”
Little, Brown fretted, issuing one hand-wringing response, and then “revised” nostrae culpae assuring the book-buying public that they were working with Levy to “publish her novel with sensitivity to the issues that have been raised, including the use of the proper pronouns to describe Dr. Barry’s embodiment.” The proper pronouns, eh?
For her part, Levy dismissed her critics as “policing gender” and said that “there’s no evidence Barry considered herself trans.” She also described the outcry as the work of a “troll mob,” which seems about right to us. Reporting the story under the headline “Writers want this book canceled for misgendering its protagonist,” a website called the dailydot.com seemed to chastise Levy for abetting “some recurring themes in anti-trans rhetoric online.” “Trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” the staff writer Gavia Baker-Whitelaw explains,
often theorize that trans and nonbinary people are just rebelling against gender norms, and that their gender identity is not valid. This plays into conspiracy theories that trans men are actually lesbians or gender-nonconforming women who have somehow been pressured by society to identify as men. Given the recent rise in transphobic bigotry, people are concerned about the possibility that Barry might be viewed through this lens. The initial response to The Cape Doctor suggests an impasse: Levy is determined to characterize Barry as a misunderstood woman, while trans people and their allies see this as historical erasure.
Deep waters! We won’t wade into them, other than to advise Levy to ignore this sudden access of online fury. It is in the nature of Twitter storms to be as ephemeral as they are vicious and indiscriminate. Have a glass of wine. Go away for the weekend. The incontinent online mob will be fabricating some other offense in a few days.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 8, on page 1
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