John Leo
A media boom is under way on behalf of transgendered men and women. Last week, for instance, A&E's "Investigative Reports" ran a segment, "The Transgender Revolution," quoting an activist who called it the fourth great rights movement of our era. The Los Angeles Times weighed in with two days' worth of long, sympathetic reports. One account featured an enormous bald man with a long beard who had been born a woman, and a husband and wife who are both undergoing sex-change operations. They will stay married, but the husband will become the wife and vice versa.

Some of the current publicity has been triggered by San Francisco's decision to pay medical expenses of city employees who want sex-change operations. Like most homosexual groups, the city's large gay population is basically committed to the transgendered cause. Gay empathy and power in Hollywood help explain the surge of cross-dressing and changed-sex characters appearing in movies and on television. Gay activist Nick Adams, a former female, told the L.A. Times that transgender characters are following the earlier TV pattern of blacks, feminists and homosexuals -- appearing in sympathetic roles in comedies and as characters in crisis on dramas.

In general, the media have depicted transgender issues as an extension of the rights revolution. It's a matter of "fighting bigotry" and "taking America to the edge of a gender revolution," as A&E's announcer tells us. Transgender complaints and activism are now bathed in liberation rhetoric, with the customary stress on anti-discrimination laws, hate crimes, and even the mandatory new word of indignant accusation, "transphobia."

Is there anything wrong with this? Well, yes. Reducing cruelty and acknowledging the humanity of all our neighbors are obvious social goods. But framing the trangendered and their problems as essentially another victim movement skews the discussion. It locates the source of the problem in society, when the focus should surely be on the hormonal or psychiatric factors that cause some people to hate their own bodies and reject their own sex.

Here's an interesting argument from Dr. Paul McHugh, director of psychiatry of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine: A patient's feeling that he is a woman trapped in a man's body is not obviously different from an anorectic woman's feeling that she is drastically overweight. In 1992, writing on sex-change operations, he said: "We don't do liposuction on anorectics. Why amputate the genitals of these poor men? Surely the fault is in the mind, not the member."

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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