Culture Con: Madison school district assumes it knows best

The district adopts a policy that keeps parents in the dark about their gender-transitioning children

By RICHARD ESENBERG | October 2019

T.H. White’s 1958 novel, “The Once and Future King,” tells the story of a mythical ant colony governed by a single aphorism: “Everything which is not forbidden is compulsory.” He might have been speaking of the 21st-century social-justice left.  

A movement that initially called for greater tolerance for diverse identities and lifestyles increasingly has insisted on conformity to a narrow orthodoxy. A recent example can be found — where else? — in Madison, Wisconsin.

The Madison school district adopted this 35-page policy addressing the treatment of transgender students. In April 2018, the Madison Metropolitan School District adopted a 35-page policy addressing the treatment of transgender students. It provides that any student of any age may change gender identity at school by selecting a new “affirmed name and pronouns” to be used at school “regardless of parent/guardian permission” and without medical or psychiatric confirmation of the student’s gender dysphoria.

Not only must all teachers and district staff refer to students by their “affirmed” name, district staff is forbidden from revealing “a student’s gender identity to … parents or guardians … unless the student has authorized such disclosure.” Not only must parents not be informed, they apparently must be deceived: The policy directs teachers to use “the student’s affirmed name and pronouns in the school setting” and to switch back to the student’s “legal name and pronouns with family.”

It is not my purpose here to litigate the notion of “gender identity” as something divorced from biological gender. My concern is the absolutism with which the district has approached the matter.

Exhibiting the intransigent close-mindedness that increasingly characterizes the cultural left, it assumes that affirmation is the only proper response to any claim of any child to “be” something other than his or her biological gender. Nothing else — not the child’s age or the possibility that this claim may be arise from unrelated emotional issues — matters. The involvement of a child’s parents is not only unnecessary but presumptively harmful.

This is, to put it bluntly, a form of fundamentalism. What the district calls a “student-centered” approach is more about ideology than any thoughtful consideration of the particular children charged to its care. It is a matter of doctrine.

‘Divergent views’

Here are some facts. The vast majority of children who experience gender dysphoria (some estimates are as high as 80% to 90%) ultimately resolve it in favor of their biological sex. This has led many medical and psychological professionals to support treatment designed to first help gender-dysphoric children learn to embrace their biological sex. They argue that automatically “affirming” an alternate gender identity too early can become self-reinforcing.

Put differently, the choice of treatment can determine the outcome. If you believe that transitioning to another gender can be a difficult path accompanied by bad outcomes, “false positives” are worth worrying about.

Other health professionals believe, as with the Madison schools, that the appropriate response is to “affirm” a child’s perceived gender identity. But even in this “affirming” camp, there is no consensus on whether young children should transition socially to a different gender.

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), a transgender advocacy organization, acknowledges that “social transitions in early childhood” are a controversial issue about which health professionals have “divergent views” and that existing evidence at this point “is insufficient to predict the long-term outcomes of completing a gender role transition during early childhood.”

Consequently, WPATH advises health professionals to “counsel and support” parents even if the parents ultimately decide “not (to) allow their young child to make a gender-role transition.”

In light of this, you’d think the Madison district would want to involve a child’s parents. We normally — and rightly — presume that parents have their child’s best interest at heart. We understand that they know their child better than anyone else. We recognize that parents ought to be the principal decision-makers with respect to a child’s health care, education and socialization.

We generally acknowledge the primacy of the family and permit the state to intervene in parental decision-making only when there is a particular reason to suspect that harm will occur in the absence of such intervention.

But not in Madison. And not when an 8-year-old boy claims to be a girl. The Madison school district has turned our normal presumptions inside out.

Even as it seeks to displace traditional religious perspectives — perhaps because it seeks to displace them — the social-justice left has taken on a Messianic character. Madison’s transgender policy assumes that district bureaucrats are in possession of a revealed wisdom that is not shared by the families it purportedly serves.

The parents of children who seek to transition are presumed to be in error, and the district, echoing the 19th-century Pope Pius IX, has declared that error has no rights. What was once to be tolerated has become the new orthodoxy. Everyone in the colony must conform.

Richard Esenberg is president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which is asking the Madison district to repeal the policy before WILL considers a legal challenge. UPDATE: On Dec. 18, WILL sent a letter to the district saying it will sue the district unless the policy is changed within 45 days.