About 24 minutes into Monday’s episode of Shepard’s popular podcast “Armchair Expert,” a lighthearted interview got prickly after Van Ness implied that right-wing beliefs stem from a lack of education.
“I reject that,” Shepard said in response. “They are conservative. They don’t like how quickly the country’s changing. I understand that I can sympathize with that. They have different fears than we do — it’s not ’cause they’re dumb or uneducated. They have a difference of opinion.”
The 36-year-old then argued that “misinformation and disinformation play a huge role” in conservative ideologies, “especially when it comes to gender-affirming care and access to abortion.”
When Van Ness tried to point out misinformation on the left, the two began debating whether or not The New York Times was a liberal newspaper. Van Ness, who is nonbinary, trans and uses they/them pronouns, argued that the outlet was far more right because of its “anti-trans” content. “They’re anti-trans. They platform multiple anti-trans people,” they said.
Van Ness has a valid point. In February, more than 850 New York Times contributors signed an open letter condemning the outlet for how it covered issues relating to transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people. GLAAD, the LGBTQ+ advocacy group, also released a press release urging others to sign the open letter, which attracted signatures from dozens of organizations and celebrities, including Judd Apatow, Gabrielle Union, Margaret Cho and Van Ness.
Upon Van Ness pointing out the publication’s history, Shepard pushed back with conservative talking points by saying the outlet was merely “challenging” and asking “questions” about issues, such as teens taking puberty blockers.
“Some people are very uncomfortable about teenagers transitioning. They’re challenging that,” Shepard said. “How do we know that person’s not gonna change their mind? … Well, if they kill themselves? And that’s really fucking permanent — that’s a good counterargument.”
Shepard continued: “This whole notion that to be critical… or to even question it makes you an enemy. I don’t think that’s the way forward.”
The hairstylist and founder of JVN Hair, seeming frustrated, replied, “I feel like I’m talking to my dad.”
The two then went on to talk about the dangers of misinformation regarding transgender people, using athletes as an example. Van Ness argued that despite right-wing beliefs, trans people do not have an advantage in competitive sports. Shepard responded by asking whether including transgender athletes is safe or fair for cis women in sports.
“Do I wish that the trans woman athlete had access and could play and follow her dream? I do,” Shepard said. “Will I elevate her rights over women? We’re pretending that women aren’t the ultimate marginalized class throughout history.”
The two debated this for about 20 minutes, with Van Ness ultimately saying it’s “disappointing” when people claim to be fighting for women — like J.K. Rowling — while excluding trans children from playing sports.
“I’m not calling you a transphobe,” Van Ness said. “You can not be transphobic and still have thoughts that espouse trans misogyny and espouse transphobic ideologies or beliefs and not be transphobic.”
Van Ness, clearly worn out by the discussion, finally told Shepard that they came on his podcast intending to talk about their own podcast, “Getting Curious,” and not to “watch Dax Shepard parrot a lot of the same things” as the right.
In response, Shepard said he did not intend to start a debate and praised Van Ness as an activist.
But soon after their back and forth, Van Ness broke down.
“I could just cry because I’m so tired of having to fight for little kids because they just want to be included,” they told Shepard, getting emotional. “I wish that people were as passionate about little kids being able to be included or grow up as they were about fictitious women’s fairness in sports. I have to tell you, I am very tired.”
Then Van Ness pointed out that participating in cheerleading and gymnastics during high school helped immensely with their mental health. “I didn’t even think it was an option for me to try out for cheer as a trans girl,” they explained.
The television personality then began to cry as they highlighted how important cheerleading was for them, with Van Ness’ family and community wary of their identity, noting that they still wrestle with it.
“I honestly still struggle with my gender expression,” Van Ness said, choking back tears. “I’m scared of the vitriol that trans people face every day. And so like, for people that like [tell me], ‘you’re so authentic, you’re so brave,’ I’m not.”
Towards the end of the episode, Van Ness ultimately called the conversation with Shepard “trigger city.” When Shepard told Van Ness that they must be “disappointed” in him, Van Ness responded:
“I’m not disappointed. I’m just emotionally exhausted.”
Van Ness explained that there is a trickle-down effect occurs from the “casual questioning” of trans rights.
“The result is not trans kids not getting to play sports — although that is a result — it’s also healthcare, it’s also gender-based violence,” Van Ness added. “It’s also just out-and-out violence, and it’s just a really difficult time right now.”