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The Rush to Re-Write Transgender Politics

Conservatives are already in backlash mode after the defeat of anti-trans laws. But it’s not over yet.
(Photo: stenz/Flickr)

(Photo: stenz/Flickr)

Remember last Wednesday? The Department of Justice (DOJ) warned North Carolina its now-infamous law HB2 violates residents’ civil rights — in denying transgender and gender non-conforming people access to public accommodations (including bathrooms). The DOJ letter dropped at the same point in the midday news cycle as the announcement of a new lawsuit from the conservative Alliance for Defending Freedom, claiming an Illinois school district, in recognizing a trans girl’s right to those same accommodations, had violated the civil rights of cisgender girls.

Remember February? When these so-called “bathroom bills” got comparatively little attention? North Carolina and HB2 changed all that. Almost immediately, the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, and Equality North Carolina filed suit against HB2. Then 54 activists were arrested as part of an anti-HB2 day of action at the state house in Raleigh. Another large-scale protest is planned for May 16. In the span of weeks, the fight over HB2 has racked up unprecedented headlines, culminating in celebrities and corporations declaring their opposition and boycotting the state.

Same-sex marriage, straight sex outside marriage, and trans people — conservatives see sexual politics linking all these issues, a kind of intersectionality liberals still struggle over.

“So much is changing so quickly,” that’s the prevailing vibe — with anti-trans bills now withdrawn or dead in Tennessee; Kansas; South Carolina; Oxford, Alabama; and in the conservative Dallas suburb of Rockwall, Texas. And that was all before this week’s historic comments from Attorney General Loretta Lynch, offered along with the announcement of a federal suit against North Carolina to prohibit the enforcement of HB2. “Let me also speak directly to the transgender community itself,” Lynch said. “[W]e see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward. Please know that history is on your side.” This is the most clear defense of trans rights yet stated by the United States government.

All this has left the anti-trans rights contingent scrambling, defending their now untenable legal position by claiming it is trans activists and allies who are tormenting them — just an adjustment, really, from their signature tactic of claiming trans people are themselves predators for daring to live in public.

This is why the Alliance for Defending Freedom suit, as apparently meritless as it is, still signals something to watch, in its allegations that trans students are the ones causing “embarrassment, humiliation, anxiety, fear, apprehension, stress, degradation, and loss of dignity.” (If you want to read their long legal filing detailing girls, puberty, and showering (?), here you go.)

The “bullying” pose is also struck by elected officials faced with legal threats to their anti-trans policies. North Carolina Governor Pat McCory “already stared down billionaire CEOs, the liberal media, and the LGBT activist bullies,” Tony Perkins, head of the conservative think tank Family Research Council, wrote last Friday in the governor’s defense. North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore also told reporters on Friday, “we’re not going to get bullied by the Obama administration.”

Perkins-type opposition (the kind which has no problem just coming out and saying, as he has, that LGBT people are “pawns of the devil”), wrapped up as it is in outsized claims of trans people’s all-powerful political might, doesn’t take much thought to dismiss. Or, as Slatecontributor Michelle Goldberg wrote this week, “It’s easy enough to write these groups off as anachronism, but” — now, strap in — “backlash politics flourish in an environment in which deeply held beliefs suddenly become taboo.”

It’s not entirely accurate to cast what’s happening as a backlash: After all, the religious right has a history of holding up gender non-conformity as a boogeyman, one far longer than the span of this recent spotlight cast on trans rights. That conservatives are able to use trans people and gender non-conformity as a prop in their culture war is more truthfully a sign of the persistent marginality of trans lives. This is a condition even liberals like Goldberg have done their part to reinforce, though they may now be pressed to report that anti-trans bigotry is “suddenly” socially unacceptable.

Not long ago, Goldberg positioned trans activists’ demands — if not trans identity itself — as somehow counter to those of (cisgender) women, in her New Yorker story “What Is a Woman?” She posited a battle between “radical feminism” (trans-exclusionary feminists, because “not all radical feminists”) and “transgenderism,” presenting them as “both sides” equally matched in a debate. It’s not that kind of obvious Perkins territory, but, as Feministing editor Jos Truitt wrote at the time, “Just as the anti-gay Family Research Council is not considered a valid voice on gay rights, trans-exclusionary feminists should not be considered a valid voice on trans rights.” Religious right groups are making the same kinds of arguments trans-exclusionary feminists have been making since the 1970s: Trans people are the ones who pose the real threat of violence.

Trans demands are made the problem in this kind of talk. You can see it clearly when couched in overtly transphobic language. But you can also see it in some arguments offered by those who appear to be trans allies, offering the mistaken notion that, since trans people are winning some support on this one policy battle, their fight is fully mainstream. Take a story in Bustle, also last week, titled “The Pivotal Issue That Pro-Trans Rights Celebrities Remain Oddly Silent About” — that issue being reproductive rights. Writers and activists are asked why they think abortion rights aren’t getting the same kind of attention as LGBT rights, or, at least, why they don’t feel like they’re getting the same kind of attention.

“I think the bottom line is same-sex marriage and LGBT rights generally are more popular than women’s rights because the former are less threatening to the current social order and also are partly about men’s rights,” Nation columnist Katha Pollitt tells Bustle. Pollitt and others (like Kaylie Hanson, NARAL Pro-Choice America’s communications director) go on to speculate that the stigma surrounding abortion is greater than the stigma surrounding LGBT identity.

“It’s easy enough to write these groups off as anachronism, but” — now, strap in — “backlash politics flourish in an environment in which deeply held beliefs suddenly become taboo.”

This all begs a very reasonable question: Where exactly is the abortion rights movement on trans rights? Even on basic questions of trans inclusion, they are still grappling. Pollitt herself wrote a column last year claiming that expanding even the language of reproductive rights to include trans people — who, yes, also have abortions — was “a mistake,” amounting to “rendering invisible” cisgender women.

Rather than measuring support for trans rights against abortion rights, why can’t abortion rights advocates consider the interdependence of these fights? Emi Koyama has written eloquently about the connections between reproductive justice and trans justice in the pivotal Transfeminist Manifesto. “Hysteria over our personal choices is fueled in part by society’s taboo against self-determination of our reproductive organs: like women seeking an abortion, our bodies have become an open territory, a battleground,” Koyama wrote — back in the year 2000 (and has since re-visited and expanded upon the idea). “Trans and non-trans women need to be united against the right-wing tactics aimed at making means and information to control our bodies unavailable, if not illegal.”

The right wing senses the interdependence of all these issues, if only as their common enemy. Mississippi’s HB 1523, or the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act,” was mostly identified as an anti-LGBT bill, and it is: It’s a very dangerous one. But give it a read, and you’ll see it’s about protecting three beliefs it claims are under attack. Those are: “Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.” Same-sex marriage, straight sex outside marriage, and trans people — they see the sexual politics linking all these issues, a kind of conservative intersectionality liberals still struggle over.

Let’s also not forget: Celebrity boycotts and a round in the news cycle do not mean a marginalized community has now reached acceptance, or even safety. Last week also marks the murder of 16-year-old Reese Walker of Wichita, Kansas, the 10th murder of a trans or gender non-conforming person in 2016. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reports:

Along with Reese Walker, we have lost Keyonna Blakeney, a Black transgender woman (Rockville, MD), Shante Thompson, a Black transgender woman (Houston, TX), Jasmine Sierra, a Latin@ transgender woman (Bakersfield, CA), Monica Loera, a Latina transgender woman (Austin, TX), Kayden Clarke, a white transgender man (Mesa, AZ), Maya Young, a Black transgender woman (Philadelphia, PA), Demarkis Stamsberry, a Black transgender man (Baton Rouge, LA), and Kedarie/Kandicee Johnson, a Black, gender-fluid 16-year-old (Burlington, IA) and Quartney Davia Dawsonn-Yochum, a Black transgender woman (Los Angeles, CA).

The DOJ and Department of Education must still fight for the young woman in that Illinois school district, where parents have sued the federal government to deny her identity. This is the climate she has to report to each day — alongside those parents’ children — to get her education. Her mother wrote in 2015, of an earlier action by the district to exclude trans students, “The fact that Superintendent Cates has the nerve to state he’s being ‘bullied’ into complying with the law shows he has absolutely no sensitivity or compassion for what my daughter or any other transgender youth in the District has suffered under his policies.”

And on Tuesday in North Carolina, a school board voted to permit students to carry pepper spray. “Depending on how the courts rule on the bathroom issues,” Board Member Chuck Hughes said, “it may be a pretty valuable tool to have on the female students if they go to the bathroom, not knowing who may come in.”

It is difficult to see the utility in still claiming there are equally matched sides here, or debating which movement is winning most and most quickly, when so many lives are lost, and when there are still so many more at stake.