U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House on April 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)
A member of President Joe Biden’s new commission to evaluate whether to expand the Supreme Court has a history of tweets undermining transgender people and their rights, with a particular fixation on famous trans women.
Between 2015 and 2017, Adam White, an assistant professor of law at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, fired off multiple tweets suggesting that Chelsea Manning and Caitlyn Jenner are not women. He also repeatedly expressed skepticism of trans rights, labeling the issue “ideology”—a dog whistle used by opponents of LGBTQ+ rights to suggest that the existence of trans people is a recent trend that’s dangerous, maybe a little disingenuous, and definitely up for debate.
“I would love to see someone ‘fact-check’ Jenner’s claim to be a woman,” White tweeted in June 2015, weeks after Jenner first came out as trans. In another tweet from the same day, White said he’d like to know how someone could fact-check Jenner’s gender identity, adding that his plea was a “genuine question”—as if Jenner herself couldn’t prove it. This time, White tagged PolitiFact and a well-known fact-checker at the Washington automate your posting.
That same year, White tweeted a link to a New York Times story about Manning’s experience being incarcerated in a men’s prison. He wrote, “‘She’—it’s amazing how quickly the left’s newfound gender ideology has been adopted by NYT as style in news stories.”
Biden announced Friday that he was creating a commission to study if and how to reform the Supreme Court. The order fulfilled a campaign promise to re-examine the nation’s highest court after President Donald Trump added three conservative justices to the bench—likely tilting it to the right for a generation. The White House named 36 experts to the commission, including White and several other conservative legal thinkers.
White’s tweets come to light as trans people prepare for the possibility that the majority-conservative Supreme Court could curtail their rights. Dozens of states have introduced bills that would block trans children from gender-affirming health care or kick them off of sports teams that match their gender identity. A lawsuit over any of that legislation could plausibly land at the Supreme Court’s door within a few years.
In a Thursday email to VICE News, White acknowledged having sent the tweets. He expressed regret for his tone and said that he’s now stopped tweeting as much because Twitter “rewards glib quips and personal attacks, at the cost of dignity, charity, and thoughtfulness.”
White says he’s trying to be more deliberate and to contribute to bipartisanship, rather than launch divisive and personal attacks—hence his rationale for joining Biden’s commission. He now uses what he called people’s “chosen pronouns.” (People’s pronouns aren’t “chosen” or “preferred”; they’re just their pronouns.)
But White is still convinced that “gender is best understood as a matter of biological sex,” as he put it in his email.
“My views of gender identity remain largely unchanged, consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. But my view of how people should relate to one another in discussing this subject has changed,” White said. “My change is itself inspired by the Church’s teachings on treating all people with grace, mercy, and kindness; and it also has been inspired by the sheer awfulness of the last few years’ political and cultural discourse in general.”
Shortly after VICE News reached out about his tweets, White posted significant portions of his email to VICE News on Medium, with an in-depth explanation of his views.
After White tweeted about Manning and the New York Times in 2017, Mike Sacks, a reporter at a news station in New York, retweeted White with a simple command: “Stop.”
“Nope. It’s really incredible,” White shot back. “Just out of curiosity, when did you adopt the new terminology? More than five years ago? Ten?”
When Sacks said it was when he’d first met a trans person, more than 17 years ago, White was undeterred. “I still disagree,” he wrote, adding, “Meeting a woman who concludes she’s a man (or vice versa) wouldn’t change the meaning of either word.”
Now, White says he was “glib and uncharitable” in his exchange with Sacks. Shortly after it occurred, he said he came to the conclusion that, “Whatever one’s views of the subject, it is important to treat all people with kindness and charity.”
In another 2017 tweet, White said that “the Manning story” was “imbued with left-wing cultural ideology.” (White said Thursday that this tweet was “a criticism of the politicization of a criminal case involving major national security issues.”) White also referenced trans people’s apparent “ideology” in 2016, tweeting, “Transgender activists deny the existence of most Americans’ well-rooted rejection of their ideology.”
On its face, portraying trans people’s fight for rights as an “ideology” is a dismissive rhetorical flourish, downgrading someone’s identity into a belief and then casting that belief’s validity into doubt. But that framing also evokes a fraught history, because the term “gender ideology” has long been weaponized by opponents of LGBTQ+ rights.
Adopted by the Vatican decades ago as a shorthand for feminists and reproductive rights advocates’ fight to redefine gender roles, “gender ideology” has now become a common target among American conservatives. Just last month, the conservative Heritage Foundation warned that the Equality Act—a federal piece of legislation to bolster LGBTQ+ rights—would “endanger parents’ ability to protect their children from the harms and confusion of indoctrination into gender ideology in school.”
“At its root, the practice of raising the specter of undefined ‘gender ideology’ aims to curtail sexual and reproductive rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equality by playing on people’s fear of social change and claiming a global conspiracy of great influence and scale,” Graeme Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program for Human Rights Watch, wrote in a 2018 commentary on the term.
On Thursday, White told VICE News that he didn’t recall what he meant when he used the term “gender ideology” in his 2017 tweet about Chelsea Manning and the New York Times.
“Surely I was referring in some way to the quickly intensifying debates about gender identity as a political issue, debates that originally emerged largely among familiar partisan or ideological lines,” he said.
He added that it was “highly controversial” at the time to use the correct pronouns for Manning, who had publicly come out as a trans woman four years earlier.
Now, White says that, although he believes the Supreme Court case that eventually legalized same-sex marriage nationwide was wrongly decided, he doesn’t want the justices to revisit it because that would massively disrupt people’s lives. But White’s past Twitter skepticism towards advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights wasn’t just limited to trans people.
In October 2014, the same day that the Supreme Court declined to review a handful of same-sex marriage cases, White tweeted, “So I guess that’s how the defense of traditional marriage ends: ‘not with a bang but with a whimper.’” Two years later, in response to one now-deleted tweet, White asked, “Wait, ‘LGBT inequality’ is a thing now, too?”
The White House declined to comment on White’s tweets.