While in high school, a couple of my cousins discovered that holding up the middle finger means “little brother” in Japanese sign language. They soon began flashing each other the middle finger in the school hallways, assuring shocked observers they were “only signing little brother in Japanese.”

In my young cousins’ view, the middle finger was just a middle finger and didn’t inherently mean anything good or bad. What they didn’t realize is if this gesture is offensive in America—and this one is—then one cannot make the gesture without causing offense. It doesn’t matter what the gesture means in Japan when one is not in Japan. The culture one inhabits sets the framework for meaning.

Advocates of the gender ideology currently popular in the academy claim that cross-dressing and drag queens are something we ought to embrace as a society because what we think of as “feminine” is assigned by culture—and therefore, somewhat arbitrary and “up to us” to define and perform. In this view, saying a man shouldn’t wear makeup and a skirt is like saying women shouldn’t vote. It’s an outdated notion.

Drag queens and males identifying as transgender women are taking what our culture has allotted for feminine expression and appropriating it.

What these advocates fail to realize is that some of what culture assigns to gender matters precisely because it provides a framework for what gender means for a given group of people. Although it’s not a universally inherent part of womanhood to wear certain clothes, in western culture, wearing dresses and makeup is an expression of femininity. Is it fair to say then that drag queens and males identifying as transgender women are taking what our culture has allotted for feminine expression and appropriating it?

Some argue that because expressions of femininity are socially constructed, they are arbitrary and fair game. Yet, as Edmund Burke has pointed out, cultural practices can reflect truth—about values, about human nature, about gender. One of those truths, from a Latter-day Saint perspective, is that gender is a fundamental characteristic of “individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” Therefore, femininity is something women are intrinsically born with. Yet when men appropriate expressions of this divine attribute and “essential characteristic,” they treat it more like a costume. Whatever other motives may exist for participating individuals, it feels to many of us like a mockery of something sacred. 

This kind of gender appropriation is arguably distinct from “cultural appropriation.” After all, people can choose to engage in specific cultural practices all over the world. Asians thrive in the western music landscape, Studio Ghibli movies are enjoyed worldwide, and most Americans love tacos. Likewise, people can choose to opt out of certain practices beloved by their communities. Not all Japanese people like anime, not all Russians drink vodka, and not all French people dance ballet. In college, I didn’t participate in the NCMO (“non-committal make-out” sessions), which are culturally rampant at my university. Our engagement in various cultural practices is clearly a choice. Gender, on the other hand,  because it is inextricably connected to biological sex, is not something we choose; it is something intrinsic and fundamental. A man may elect to have major surgery or take hormones, but he will never become a woman (even if we try to change the definition of the word). This isn’t merely a practice he can choose to engage in or align himself with—it is an essential and immutable part of identity. 

It’s also worth noting that if culture provides a framework for meaning, it’s when the meaning attributed to a practice is misused that appropriation becomes problematic or even offensive. A non-Hispanic person singing a mariachi song is different from a non-Jewish person wearing a skull cap outside of synagogue. The former expresses appreciation for an art form; the latter appropriates a garment meant for religious expression that the wearer does not subscribe to. 

If someone participates in a practice of a culture they weren’t born into, such as a non-Pacific Islander hula dancing or a non-Japanese person drawing manga, they are not pretending to be a different identity. As long as they are being respectful and not derogatory, they are complimenting the culture, adhering to the old adage “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” (It’s worth noting that some wouldn’t accept the adoption of cultural practices even when it is based on appreciation). 

While someone may respectfully participate in a dance or art form of another culture, drag queens are not respectful of womanhood because they are hypersexualized and vulgar. They’re a caricature that demeans and objectifies women. And males identifying as transgender women are not merely participating in a cultural practice—they are claiming to be women. A skilled violinist could eventually learn to be a part of a mariachi band, no matter his or her ethnicity. But once again, no matter how much he tries to conform his clothing or body, that man will never become a woman.  

Furthermore, drag queens and men identifying as transgender women aren’t claiming that things like makeup and dresses no longer reflect femininity. Instead, they are taking these symbols to claim an attribute they don’t have. They’re cheapening the symbols women use to express an attribute that means something important to them. In this way, womanhood becomes something to be demeaned and imitated in sometimes debasing and ludicrous ways. Feminist Julie Bindel commented that drag, in particular, “perpetuate(s) the cheap myth that what women really want is to be debased and humiliated for laughs.”

It is glaringly ironic that the current liberal feminist movement turns a blind eye to some of the messages sent to women by these drag queens and some of the transgender trends. After years of telling girls to suppress their femininity, these advocates increasingly champion men superficially taking certain grotesque, exaggerated expressions of it. It seems to many of us a betrayal of women and much of which feminists claim to be fighting for. (Radical feminists have been very outspoken about this, but they are fewer in number).

Being a woman is not a mere practice or even a choice—it is a sacred part of how God made us.

In her remarks from 2000 entitled “The Joy of Womanhood,” Sister Margaret Nadauld reminds us of how the world’s cheap, sexualized depiction of femininity compares to the divine attributes and gifts of women and God’s ennobling plan for them. She states that Heavenly Father “has sent [women] to earth for such a time as this to perform a grand and glorious mission.” For people of faith all over the world, femininity is more than a show or appearance—womanhood is endowed by God with divine characteristics and a noble mission and purpose far higher, more transcendent, and more powerful than a glammed-up caricature to be mocked on stage. 

By their sordidly sexual nature, I’m among those who believe that drag queens mock womanhood. Being a woman is not a mere practice or even a choice—it is a sacred part of how God made us, and seeing men treat it as a hobby is hurtful and demeaning.

As members of the Church, we are accustomed to getting along and avoiding contention. But when a practice is harmful, we have an obligation not only not to accept it but to reject it. The Lord expects us to defend His doctrine. And womanhood is worth defending.

So yes, we can love and accept individuals, but we must reject lies and offensive behaviors. For all who care about preserving what is precious and sacred about gender in society, may we find ways to open our hearts to individuals while opposing practices that appropriate so much of what is beautiful and good about women and femininity.

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