The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of UVa’s Transgender Movement

by James A. Bacon

I learned a lot about transgender activists and advocates at the Abigail Shrier event at the University of Virginia last night. Some are bitter, angry people who hurl non-stop invective. Some are close-minded but willing to engage in rational conversation. But at least one is courteous, friendly and willing to engage in a thoughtful, one-on-one exchange. I look forward to having lunch with her next week.

Shrier, the author of “”Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” was herself polite, charming and attentive. Even as more than 100 protesters were chanting and demonstrating outside Minor Hall, she remained unflappable inside the auditorium under questioning that ranged from skeptical to hostile.

Shrier is the object of venom in the transgender community because her book dared to ask questions that many do not want to be asked. While acknowledging the gender dysphoria is real and those who suffer from it deserve compassion, she argues that much of the transgender “craze” is a social contagion mainly affecting teenage girls, that “affirmative” treatment such as testosterone shots and top surgery are fraught with ill-understood risks and dangers, and that a legion of affirming educators, counselors, and even medical doctors have abandoned science in favor of ideology. She elaborated on those themes in a Q&A session hosted by the Jefferson Council in partnership with the Young Americans for Freedom and the Common Sense Society.

The mission of the Jefferson Council is to encourage civil dialogue and debate, so we were happy to let the audience participate. Interlocutors raised legitimate questions about Shrier’s methodology as a journalist and her ability as a non-scientist to interpret scientific studies. They cited academic studies supporting their positions and asked her to respond. She answered every question forthrightly, citing her own sources and studies. If you were inclined to oppose her to begin with, you likely would not have found her persuasive. If you were inclined to agree with her — as most of the audience was — you likely would have been impressed. No minds were changed, but at least the exchange was civil and the underlying supposition was that facts matter.

The demonstrators outside were a different story. They had no interest in the facts. Without benefit of knowing anything about Shrier other than what they had heard from their own tendentious sources, they described her as a bigot and hater, and they engaged in fact-free, intellect-free chants. The demonstrators live in a bubble in which no one has ever de-transitioned, in which no one has ever regretted life-altering hormone treatment and surgery, and in which ideology has never infected scientific inquiry. They live in a world in which the only conceivable reason that anyone would question their orthodoxy is that they are consumed with hatred.

Ironically, the evidence would suggest that many of the demonstrators are themselves consumed with anger and hate. They taunted and castigated anyone who had the temerity to run the gauntlet past the demonstration to attend the event.

A few demonstrators lingered by the entrance after the main rally had dissipated. As two companions and I walked from Minor Hall to the parking deck, a bedraggled group of seven or eight followed us, crying shame, shame! How could we live with ourselves? We were terrible people — our grandchildren would disown us! We were not welcome on the Grounds, we should go home, and we never come back! Quickly perceiving that there was nothing to be gained by responding to their invective, we did our best not to engage them. The demonstrators had other ideas. A couple of them had their smart phones out as they tagged behind us all the way to the parking deck, presumably ready to record any interactions. One protester accused one of us of brushing against him (forgive me for not knowing the proper pronoun) and cried out, “That’s assault!”

Although they knew nothing about what we think or why we think it, the band of transgenders made no effort to conceal their hatred of us. By their appearance and manner, they struck me as pathetic, inadequate people who undoubtedly had encountered rejection in their lives. I was tempted to say, “Yes, society probably is biased against you — but not because you’re transgender. They’re biased because you are angry, confrontational jerks. No one wants to be around you.” But I held my tongue.

The most uplifting encounter of the evening occurred when a faculty member, with whom I had exchanged emails the day before, introduced herself. I do not reveal her identity because she has not given me permission to do so and I don’t wish her to encounter blowback from “consorting with the enemy,” but I do want to quote some of her words because I agree with them:

While “constructive disagreement” is a key aspect of open inquiry, in my experience it’s most constructive when it’s part of a meaningful dialogue between two individuals who seek to understand one another’s perspectives. A public talk isn’t the best venue for deeper conversations to take place – all too often, Q&A sessions look more like fencing bouts than attempts to understand one another. While I think Shrier’s research methods lack the rigor needed to support her conclusions, I support her right to share her work tomorrow night without disruption.

I do think it’s important to invite speakers like Shrier to UVa to expose students and members of the Charlottesville community perspectives they would never hear otherwise. The Q&A fulfilled that goal. But the interaction with the audience did not lead to much mutual understanding. I look forward to engaging in a meaningful dialogue with someone who is willing to do the same.

James A. Bacon is executive director of The Jefferson Council.