After the Transgender Tipping Point

The exclusion and denial of trans lives gets imagined as something we've moved on from, while the everyday struggles that face trans people remain ignored.
By Melissa Gira Grant,
(Photo: Time) 

Visibility is the currency we use to judge how much and whose lives are valued, but it's not everything. "What do we open ourselves, and our communities, up to when we seek out visibility?" activist, writer, and artist Reina Gossett has asked, concerning trangender lives in particular. "I feel it's urgent to think about what we risk losing when the state, and pop culture, seem to be inviting us in." She isn't placing blame; she's speaking of history. Gossett is an activist who works in the archives. With Sasha Wortzel, she's made the film Happy Birthday, Marsha, drawn from her research into what we now think of as the early days (depending who you are talking to) of LGBT rights or the gay liberation movement. It's the story of trans legends Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the bonds of friendship that preceded the night a riot spilled onto the streets around the Stonewall Inn. The protest grew more famous than the two of them, who were at its center. It's a story Gossett and others have fought to restore and is told with affection and undeniable joy.

Happy Birthday, Marsha will land in a moment now crowned "The Transgender Tipping Point," a 2014 Time magazine cover line with a life of its own. If we're looking for a moment, though, we very well could locate it in the rebellion of those two street queens in 1969—or any number of dates on the calendar we have lost or buried. But trying to pin down single moments misses something too. That I am writing "we" here at all is my way of indicating that I am writing from a vision of America where trans lives have always been part of our troubled "we," no matter what politics and pop culture reflected. A burst of magazine covers and talk shows can't restore an erasure that big, but they are something, and easy to point to.

What the backers of these bills have done is simply pivot the target of their mid-century "think of the children" rhetoric: from gay adults they believe pose a threat by virtue of their existence, to transgender and gender non-conforming adults and youth.

The flip side of visibility—especially when it appears to be sudden, and media-driven—is vulnerability. Any mention of a "tipping point" should come paired with the knee-buckling figures on the reported murders of transgender women, very often women of color who either were or assumed to be engaged in sex work. It should be heard also with their names read aloud.

This violence is underlined by what looks like a backlash. Thirty-five anti-trans bills have been introduced across 12 states since 2015, according to the National Center of Transgender Equality. In the last few weeks, legislatures in Washington, Virginia, and South Dakota took up debate on a slate of proposals criminalizing transgender and gender non-conforming people's access to public facilities, a process that has amounted to an open airing of elected officials' anti-trans politics and feelings.

What the backers of these bills have done is simply pivot the target of their mid-century "think of the children" rhetoric: from gay (and lesbian, and maybe bisexual—they are not really so specific) adults they believe pose a threat by virtue of their existence, to transgender and gender non-conforming adults and youth.

They cloak their panic in concern. As South Dakota state senator David Omdahl put it, "I'm sorry if you're so twisted you don't know who you are—a lot of people are—and I'm telling you right now, it's about protecting the kids." They offer their own clinical fantasies. "They're treating the wrong part of the anatomy," Omdahl mused, then jabbed his fingers toward his brow. "They ought to be treating it up here."

Right now, one Virginia bill has failed, and Washington's bills look set to go nowhere too, but that's not exactly a victory. "It is doing very real damage to the trans community, especially to trans youth, to hear this endless testimony that trans people are dangerous and associating us with pedophiles and perpetrators of sexual assault," Danni Askini, executive director of the Gender Justice League, told the Stranger.

This play was already in motion. Last fall, voters rejected Houston's equal rights ordinance (HERO), just one year after its passage by their city council. Here's what they saw on their ballot:

Are you in favor of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, Ord. No. 2014-530, which prohibits discrimination in city employment and city services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment, and housing based on an individual's sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy?

Christian conservatives orchestrated the campaign against HERO—led by a guy who once called LGBT rights legislation a "radical sexual-diversity jihad"—but they could not succeed without bringing in the wider community. Houston-based trans activist Monica Roberts detailed the HERO opposition tactics: They rolled out explicitly anti-trans attack advertisements, targeting black radio stations, and then sat back as local media shorthanded HERO as a "bathroom bill" that "allowed men in women's rooms."

Roberts called the anti-HERO campaign "Prop 8 2.0," a revamp of the method used to get California voters to ban same-sex marriage in 2008, care of big Mormon groups and a barrage of mailers and robocalls using the face and voice of then-candidate Barack Obama (who opposed Prop 8, but did not, at the time, support marriage equality).

Opponents of HERO had finally caught up to the times. Despite much-celebrated gains for LGBT visibility, especially after the Supreme Court's decision in support of marriage equality just months before, anti-trans hatred could be politically useful, especially as anti-gay agendas became a little less easy to push. Playing up fear and panic about trans people could even be used to get those who would otherwise support equal rights protections for themselves—see: how HERO opponents targeted Houston’s black community—to turn against them. This strategy was only aided by how little support trans activists received from the civil rights coalitions that were supposed to be fighting to preserve HERO.

Even among those who may consider themselves to be supportive of trans people, "the tipping point" can tilt quickly into the re-writing of history.

In the glow of visibility, a threat of backlash can move unseen. Conservatives are using what feels to them like sudden and rapid change to organize opposition to trans rights. But backlash isn't so one-dimensional. Even among those who may consider themselves to be supportive of trans people, "the tipping point" can tilt quickly into the re-writing of history. The exclusion and denial of trans lives gets imagined as something we've moved on from, while the everyday struggles that face trans people remain ignored.

Backlash also looks like a re-definition of small steps made toward trans justice as asking for too much, too soon. It can explain why the closure of a "gender identity clinic" reads as high-profile parable of "science vs. trans activism." In a recent New York magazine story framed as an investigation, transgender activists are portrayed as having "howled," accused of pushing "adult agendas" that could harm children. This is because they oppose the clinic's practices, which include, as the clinic's head and his co-authors wrote in a 2012 paper, "If the parents are clear in their desire to have their child feel more comfortable in their own skin, that is, they would like to reduce their child's desire to be of the other gender, the therapeutic approach is organized around this goal." That is, if the parents want their kid not to be trans, the clinic will help and call that "therapy."

Despite the recent date stamped on the "trans tipping point," what these clinicians delicately term a "therapeutic approach" has been regarded critically for some time by experts in trans health, leaving this clinic something of a hold-out. (In 2011, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health stated that "treatment aimed at trying to change a person's gender identity and expression to become more congruent with sex assigned at birth" was "no longer considered ethical.") Julia Serano, author and trans activist, writes that she explained the history behind these kinds of clinics to Jesse Singal, the writer of the story, as well as what this "approach" means to transgender people today. Her comments were not used in the piece. An investigation into the impact and legacy of such "therapy" aimed at suppressing a transgender person's identity went untold here. Left in its place was something that, no matter how objective its aims, represents part of the trans community through the lens of lingering stereotypes: unreliable, manipulative, and demanding. Singal told me he doesn't support any of those stereotypes, that he considers them "slurs," and I told him I agreed with him, and I believed him, but that it's also not the point: Our intentions and our individual values aren’t enough to counteract the cultural messages people have been raised with and that dominate still.

There should be nothing wrong with making demands; it is beyond banal to say that they are the foundation of social change. But demands to live with dignity are what's still held up as going too far, even pathologized in popular narratives and in politics concerning trans lives. The stakes for cisgender people are then made paramount—what politicians are supposed to protect, what clinicians are being asked to abandon—and the greater consequences for trans people are dismissed. A tipping point, for whom? Answering that reveals all that still remains at risk.