While aimlessly scrolling through Instagram recently, I found myself pausing to watch a snippet of a video from a clearly right-wing account. Generally, I avoid such clips as they tend to parrot the same tired ideas and worn-out theories, but this particular one piqued my interest in a way most others do not. The clip featured a speaker (Michael Knowles) at the University of Missouri – Kansas City from, as I later found out, an encounter in 2019. In essence, Knowles asked if it is anti-feminist to open female spaces (e.g. athletics and public restrooms) to ‘biological men’ identifying as transgendered. The claim was that it should be up to cisgender women to define and enforce the boundaries of femininity and that efforts from the political left to broaden those boundaries is actually anti-feminist and anti-woman.
Now, this clip’s reappearance was undoubtedly a response to recent outrages such as transgender swimmer Lia Thomas winning the NCAA women’s swimming championship and Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson refusing to jump on a political hand grenade lobbed by Tennessee’s Senator Marsha Blackburn. As public attitudes surrounding gender identity have slowly turned more towards acceptance, this has become a new front in the ongoing ‘culture wars’ playing out in American communities and across social media platforms. Ever since the first ‘bathroom bills‘ appeared, there has been an increased interest among red states to enact legislation supposedly protecting the safety and integrity of female spaces from perverted and deviant men who claim to be transgendered in order to victimize women or, as in the case of athletics, gain unfair advantage over biological females.
There is, of course, a lack of any statistically meaningful evidence that these kinds of transgressions have occurred. As with many of the legislative crusades undertaken by the political right, there is a definite sense that their solutions are aimed at nonexistent problems. Still, there could be an argument for preserving female athletics for biological females, although it would be useful to see some evidence that men have been infiltrating female sports under the guise of being transgender or that female athletes are in fact at a significant disadvantage when truly transgender people compete against them. I am certainly willing to entertain the notion, but there needs to be more than just righteous indignation and a pretended interest in the integrity of female athletics.
The political right has an extensive history of targeting transgendered individuals, so demonstrating that this latest cause is more than simply a continuation of that persecution is a pretty high bar. It’s odd that a party so vehemently supportive of abolishing abortion and seeing Planned Parenthood defunded would be so invested in this aspect of women’s wellbeing. As usual, the culture warriors of the right are long on demands and short on evidence, not that such formalities mean anything in an environment when their political lackeys in the executive and legislative branches nominated and appointed three Supreme Court justices in four years. So, while Michael Knowles presents an interesting topic for discussion, it’s far less clear whether this represents a legitimate philosophical point to ponder or if it is just an effort to cover brazen anti-trans sentiment behind a veil of academic credibility. Based upon the evidence from Republican controlled states, the latter seems much more likely.