Regulate Now, Explain Later
In what seems like the blink of an eye, transgender rights has catapulted from a nonissue in American politics to the peak of the culture wars. Scholarship on the transgender rights movement has proliferated rapidly in recent years, most of it sympathetic to the cause but some of it critical. Missing from this literature, however, is a serious examination of how courts and agencies have justified their efforts to advance what Vice President Joe Biden in 2012 called “the civil rights issue of our time.” This dissertation tries to fill that gap. Through an in-depth analysis of court precedents and agency pronouncements, and an examination of the assumptions behind regulators’ redefinition of male and female, it suggests that noble intentions have led civil rights institutions into a thicket of interpretive difficulties and regulatory dilemmas. First, judges and administrators have declared biological sex a “stereotype,” but have offered virtually no explanation for why this is so. This has resulted in regulatory peculiarities, including: courts relying on “stereotypes” when invalidating policies that they deem stereotypical; agencies instructing schools to adopt conflicting definitions of male and female; and government officials unable or unwilling to explain why separating restrooms and athletic teams by a non-physical understanding of sex is necessary in the first place. The deeper reason for these peculiarities, I argue, is a failure to articulate a coherent account of what makes us sexed beings. Second, civil rights officials have argued that their interpretation of federal law finds unambiguous support in a body of court rulings that condemn stereotyping. The problem with this argument, I suggest, is that the precedents that are cited actually say the opposite of what they are made out to say. They say that sex is biological, and that transgender women are biological men who fail to live up to social expectations about maleness. By invoking the abstract notion “stereotype,” regulators hide their break with precedent from citizens and perhaps also from themselves. Transgender regulation thus raises important questions about legal interpretation in relation to constitutional government, and about the role of the legal profession within liberal democracy. This dissertation challenges two dominant narratives about transgender rights. According to one, transgender rights is part and parcel of a broader postmodernism that is tearing through American institutions and weakening the foundations of Western societies. According to the other, transgender rights is a logical extension of the original civil rights revolution and a fulfillment of liberalism’s deeper humanitarian impulses. I argue that transgender regulations are more “conservative” than those who decry (or hope for) postmodernism believe, but more postmodern than those who appeal to liberal equality seem willing to acknowledge.