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A rift in the rainbow alliance

A man waves a rainbow flag while observing a gay pride parade in San Francisco, California June 28, 2015. | Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage

With media outlets in the U.K. devoting most of their attention to the death of Queen Elizabeth II, American observers of all things British may have missed a significant legal case currently before the English courts. A group called Mermaids is appealing a 2021 ruling by the U.K. Charities Commission that granted charitable status to an organization named the LGB Alliance.

The case is fascinating for a number of reasons. First, there are the rival parties. Mermaids is an organization that advocates for trans rights, particularly those of young people. The LGB Alliance advocates for the rights of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. The absence of the T in the group’s name is significant: The LGB Alliance rejects the idea that biological men can be women and vice versa, and strongly opposes trans treatment for minors. Therein lies the point of conflict. For the U.K. government to grant charitable status to such a group is to recognize that such a stance serves the common good. The trans activists reject this; to them, the government's decision reeks of TERFs, the feminists critical of transgenderism who now occupy a place in the trans pantheon of evil only slightly above that of straight white males.

This is an instructive moment for a number of reasons. First, it indicates one way in which current cultural conflicts in the West are likely to be pursued: with legal battles designed to define the limits of charitable status along lines established by progressive sexual and gender orthodoxy. The boundaries of charitable status do reflect the deepest commitments of our societies. Which groups are granted this status and which are denied reveals how society as a whole conceives of what serves the common interest. That the so-called gender binary is being contested in this way indicates that a small group of committed activists are quite willing to make their narrow ideological claims central to the common good and that any notion of this common good is now merely rhetoric, with ownership going to the most effective legal strategists.

Second, the case also points to the obvious fault line that has existed since the moment the T and Q joined the rainbow alliance. The L, the G, and the B all assume the importance of biological sex for identity. The T and the Q deny that. Perhaps it was the common foe — the dreaded white male heteronormativity — that kept the alliance publicly intact for so long. But now that the enemy looks to be in retreat, the internal contradictions of the alliance are coming to the surface. Gay men who are not sexually attracted to men identifying as women are decried as transphobic. Lesbians who resent men invading women’s private space are demonized as TERFs. And both are emerging as unusual practical allies for social conservatives.

So this situation also raises a serious question for traditional social conservatives. With the advent of the trans issue and the progressive left’s increasing embrace of the more exotic realms of identity, Christians worried about their children and the moral liquefaction of the world have found some unusual allies. One might think of J. K. Rowling, Bari Weiss, John McWhorter, and Jordan Peterson, among others. We should be grateful for their fortitude and courage. All of them in different ways have demonstrated exemplary courage in our current moment. The same applies to the LGB Alliance. We should be thankful for those willing to stand against the trans movement and its demands for hormone treatment and genital mutilation of children too young to legally obtain tattoos, let alone make decisions about whether they wish to have children in 10 or 20 years. When children’s lives are at stake, co-belligerence with all and any allies seems appropriate.

Yet the sheer wit and brilliance of many of the critics of progressive ideologies, whether critical race theory, queer theory, or transgenderism, can be seductive. The danger is that “triggering the libs” becomes the overriding concern, while other important issues — e.g., marriage and family — are relegated to the status of matters upon which conservatives can agree to differ. The exigencies of today’s immediate crises come to reshape the nature of conservative taste. The Overton window is thereby shifted in a way that evacuates conservatism of any truly conservative content.

The struggle between Mermaids and the LBG Alliance is therefore instructive on two levels. It is a useful reminder that trans ideology is not (as yet) carrying all before it, even among the sexual revolutionaries of our day. But it is also a reminder that alliances forged to defeat a common foe do not provide a solid basis for a positive vision. Rather, they end either in sell-outs or civil war. There is a lesson there for traditional social conservatives.

Originally published at First Things. 

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Rise and Triumpth of the Modern SelfThe Creedal Imperative, Luther on the Christian Life, and Histories and Fallacies.

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