How Trans Identity Politics Imprisons Us All

The quest for ‘authenticity’ has turned into a narcissistic demand for recognition.

The ideal of authenticity – of being true to one’s self – is one of the governing ethics of modern social and political life.

Public figures, from politicians to reality-TV stars, aspire to be authentic. Producers of goods promise ‘the real thing’. And, above all, authenticity provides identity politics with its moral propulsion. It’s what justifies individuals and groups in their quest to express their true identities, hitherto suppressed, effaced or simply ignored by mainstream society.

Nowhere is this ethic more pronounced right now than in trans identity politics. For this is a cause explicitly motivated by the desire for people to be true to some inner, gendered sense of themselves – their so-called gender identity. This, as trans-activist charity Stonewall defines it, refers to individuals’ ‘innate sense of their own gender, whether male, female or something else… which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth’. Indeed, this supposed conflict between an individual’s authentic inner feeling of gender and the inauthentic gender roles they are expected to play is at the heart of the trans cause. As one author puts it, it is a ‘collision between who we are, how we should be, how we need to express ourselves and live our lives, and the gendered straitjackets others would force us into. It is the misery, the wrongness, of being forced to live a lie. The pain of being called fakes for our authenticity.’

Critics of trans ideology tend to interpret it on its own terms. They try to understand its development and insurgence through the ideology’s own internal history. Some look at the work of clinicians John Money and Robert Stoller on intersex, gender roles and identity in the Sixties. Others wade through the verbal thickets of Judith Butler and the subversive games of queer theory. And they do so in order to explain how trans ideology came to deny biological reality.

This is certainly useful. But the resonance of trans identity politics among a significant minority has less to do with the reality-defying genius or otherwise of its proponents, than the fact it expresses, in arguably its purest form yet, this simple but pervasive cultural ideal – be true to yourself. This certainly has the ring of virtue, which is part of its appeal. But identitarians have warped this ideal, turning it from a call for individual freedom into a narcissistic demand for recognition.

The rise of authenticity

The ascendancy of authenticity as a cultural ideal has been a long time coming. In his remarkable 1970 lecture series, published in 1972 as Sincerity and Authenticity, critic Lionel Trilling noted that authenticity had become part of ‘the moral slang’ of the era. Which made sense. From the 1950s onwards, beatniks, hipsters and numerous other rebels without causes were openly signalling their rejection of the social mainstream. They railed against the social roles they were expected to play, mocked the tightly ordered, picket-fenced nightmare of the supposedly affluent society, and chafed against the prospect of becoming an Organisation Man. They damned it all as, in a word, inauthentic – a social existence that stunted and denied their very being.

Instead, this burgeoning counterculture spoke of getting in touch with one’s feelings, of finding one’s inner child, of ‘goofing’ around or seeking out some pharmaceutically aided mode of spontaneous self-revelation. It seemed of a piece with what the social theorist Theodore Roszak, in his 1968 article ‘Youth and the Great Refusal’, called the effort to forge ‘new personal identities on the far side of power politics, the bourgeois home, and the Protestant Work Ethic’. To be oneself was not a tautology here; it was a personal project of self-cultivation. And it was intrinsically political, a challenge to the prevailing social order in which one’s true self was stifled and suffocated.

Of course, the roots of this newly emergent ethic, this protest, indeed this ‘moral slang’, reached back further. They can be found in the existentialist currents coursing through the New Left and the counterculture more broadly, with Sartre’s attack on living in ‘bad faith’ and Camus’s figure of ‘l’étranger’ particularly resonant. And in this debt to the French Left Bank, the roots of this ideal stretch further back still, to Martin Heidegger (whose lectures Sarte attended) and his 1927 opus, Being and Time, which was explicitly premised on the distinction between ‘inauthentic’ and ‘authentic’ ways of being. To be authentic, for Heidegger, was to cast off the inauthentic modes of life prescribed by society, and assume responsibility for one’s own life. Or at least that was one reading.

And it was not just the thought of Heidegger that, having emerged from the ravaged Europe of the 1920s, now resonated with the affluent society of the postwar West. Sigmund Freud played a key role here, too. For many in the counterculture, his work struck a nerve, albeit against the grain of his own project. According to this later therapeutic reading of Freud, influenced by the likes of Wilhelm Reich, the truth of one’s self lay less in one’s conscious sense of what one ought to be – the respectable husband or dutiful wife – than in that great reservoir of feelings and impulses that had been repressed and distorted beneath by the social pressure of the ego and superego. The trick was to get in touch with these feelings. Be true to them. Maybe even set them free.

In fact, the roots of authenticity as an ideal, and as a critique of the stifling inauthenticity of social life, stretch even further back to the Enlightenment – where Jean-Jacques Rousseau sought to escape a life lived according to the opinions of others – and to the later Romantic rebellion against aspects of the Enlightenment inspired, in part, by Rousseau himself.

But it is during the Sixties that this long-running, ever-mutating theme moved from the margins of Western high-cultural life to its political centre. And it did so as a radical promise, a dream of a freedom, in which individuality would flourish as people started trying to be true to themselves. As the Students for a Democratic Society’s 1962 Port Huron Statement had it, this was now a political project, an attempt to realise ‘men’s unrealised potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding and creativity’. The statement added: ‘The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with image of popularity, but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic.’

As American Marxist Marshall Berman pointed out in The Politics of Authenticity, published in 1971, the promotion and politicisation of the idea of authenticity was likely to be the New Left’s ‘lasting cultural achievement’. For good or ill, Berman may have been right.

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