Living through the culture war about trans and queer rights

Wednesday, June 24, 2020 - 5:41pm

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Illustration by Cara Jhang

A common misconception about “coming out” is that it represents a clean break, where there is a definitive moment when you’re in the closet and when you’re fully out in public. Most queer people will tell you that coming out is instead something you have to do over and over — that the people you will meet will most likely assume you’re straight until you inform them otherwise. 

This conception of coming out might be more true for trans people, especially trans women, than anyone else: It’s hard to avoid being “read” as trans. Even if I wanted to go “stealth” — that is, to pass as a cisgender woman 100% of the time — I probably couldn’t. Too much about me gives me away: my broad shoulders, my deep voice, the facial hair that’s difficult to hide without gaudy amounts of makeup. 

Transition is a slower, more tentative process than a lot of people think it is. I experimented for about a year with all sorts of variants on my name, pronouns and dress; even when I had pretty firmly decided on formal transition, I only told a few people about it at first. I wasn’t able to get on hormone replacement therapy and pursue electrolysis until nearly a year after that. For a long time, I was called “sir” by service workers, and acquaintances and friends of friends mostly called me by my deadname. 

There are a lot of potential stories I could extract from this process, but it mostly feels amorphous and tentative, even now. I’m still unsure what being trans is supposed to “mean.” A friend once asked me how I knew that I wanted to be a woman, and I wasn’t sure how to answer, or if I even had a good answer at all. 

Even if I can’t speak to what it might mean to be a woman in some metaphysical way, I can speak more confidently about being treated differently as a woman. A few months after starting hormones, I was walking home at about 2 a.m. from a party, and a man caught up to me. He walked alongside me for a block or so, asking if I would just stop to, “have a conversation.” He wanted to know if he could, “ask me a question.” I was kind of tipsy and kept demurring without saying very much, trying to make it clear from my body language that I wanted him to leave me alone. He eventually did. 

I had never experienced anything remotely like that, and while it wasn’t earth-shattering, something changed for me after. I’ve only had a small handful of things like this happen to me since then, but I still noticed that I felt a little less safe in public, and started to feel more nervous about walking somewhere on my own.

This is normal, probably; it is the sort of harassment cis women are privy to and have experienced for much longer than I have. But I know that among trans women, I’m not even remotely the worst off. My parents didn’t reject me, I didn’t lose my job and I live in a place that is relatively accepting of people like me. I’m reminded of this every day when I log onto Twitter and see people crowdfunding transition expenses, food, housing and emergency medical care. Though I see the names of murdered trans women proliferate on social media, it seems like most cis people are generally unaware of how many of us find ourselves in sudden need of help, how often we find ourselves shut out of society. It seems like most people don’t know how precarious our lives are. 

The way trans people are talked about in public might give you a different idea. The amount of discourse around the issue of our existence in the media seems grotesquely out of proportion given that trans people amount to less than 1% of the U.S. population. We’ve become a sort of sticking point in the culture war, now that it’s becoming increasingly apparent that rights for cis white gays and lesbians have been, for the moment, asserted and accepted in public life. Conservatives who want to win mainstream appeal have found that trans people are an easier target than our gay counterparts. This strategy has been particularly effective in the UK, where the most virulent transphobia is now more or less mainstream. In the U.S., the mainstream media is less saturated with this sort of rhetoric, but we see legislative debates about trans access to bathrooms, locker rooms and school athletics.

It’s frustrating to find oneself on the other end of this, especially given that trans people are not often allowed a seat at the media apparatus or the legislative debates to which we are subject. When we are given a voice, the case for our continued existence is framed as one side of a “debate.” For most of us, the recourse we have is to continually check the news, watching as the specter made of our community is endlessly scrutinized. 

 

* * * 

 

It’s been a weird couple of weeks to be trans. One of the more high-profile celebrities who have revealed themselves to be transphobic is the author J.K. Rowling, who posted a nearly 4,000 word essay on her website on June 10 titled “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues.” The original title of the piece was “TERF Wars,” the acronym standing for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” I’ve always found the label of TERF to be a little dubious, because it allows transphobes to claim the legacy and historical cause of feminism, which J.K. Rowling at least purports to do. 

I’m reluctant to close-read the essay and pick it apart piece-by-piece. Other people have done it better, and moreover there’s nothing new in it. If you’ve spent any amount of time reading transphobic writing — which I have, probably to the detriment of my mental health — you’ve seen all these talking points before. Generally, the transphobic media landscape operates like this: No matter how banal or easily refuted their points are, you keep seeing them crop up in another article, another forum post, another tweet thread. Sometimes it feels like these points are repeated so endlessly with the hope that people will be convinced by them, and more to saturate the public narrative around trans people’s existence. The more time trans people and our allies spend refuting these points, the more public airtime they get, and the more these same talking points filter into public consciousness in the form of truisms and “common sense.” 

And so, in summary: Rowling sees trans women as predatory men seeking access to “single sex spaces,” particularly bathrooms and locker rooms designated for women. Her appraisal of trans men is essentially that they are women, and therefore passive victims of patriarchy whose transitions represent false solutions to the ordinary kinds of alienation women suffer from in adolescence and early adulthood. Her deterministic, essentially binary thinking is apparent, even though she assures us that she doesn’t categorically hate trans people. She’s just against what she calls a “theory of gender identity” or “the current trans activism” that persuades people to transition when they should be doing something else. To back this up, she points to an (unsourced) statistic that “between 60-90% of gender dysphoric teens will grow out of their dysphoria.” 

Her writing is couched in a peculiar appropriation of the language of concern. Of course, we are led to believe, Rowling is simply concerned about trans activism going too far, overstepping its rightful place. To give some idea of what she sees as the rightful place of trans activism, she at one point describes a trans woman friend whose transition she deems appropriate, and contrasts it with the current trans activism:

“She went through a long and rigorous process of evaluation, psychotherapy and staged transformation. The current explosion of trans activism is urging a removal of almost all the robust systems through which candidates for sex reassignment were once required to pass.” 

There’s a term that trans people used to use in the ‘70s and ‘80s known as “crash landing.” This referred to rejection from a gender identity clinic after this “rigorous process of evaluation.” The medical establishment basically told these trans people that they were out of luck, that they couldn’t live normal lives as women or men, and so they should just try to live with the gender they were born with. One wonders, in this light, how many fewer trans people would exist if Rowling’s “rigorous process” was the norm — if clinicians once again were the final arbiter of who could transition or not. The important thing here is that someone else is deciding for us. Generally, I don’t like those odds.

I could go on and on but I’ve already given Rowling too much space. I’ve encountered these same ideas so many times that my reaction to her essay wasn’t even really one of anger. I just felt my heart sink a little bit at the sight of someone in such a position of influence making these kinds of statements. 

I’ve been feeling this sinking feeling for a while now. The sinking feeling is what you feel when politicians publicly question whether letting a few trans women use the bathroom that matches their gender might set some kind of vaguely defined precedent. The hypothetical incursion of men — which trans women are resolutely not — into women’s spaces is the terms of the debate, something entirely separate from us. Cis people persist in seeing trans people as sporadically and suddenly “identifying” as one gender or another, rather than as people who have forged our identities over a long period of time, through several difficult personal, medical and legal barriers. 

The minute I feel myself trying to insist on this, I’m arguing for my right to exist. Something about the terms of this debate feels inherently undignified — what am I really arguing for? Is anyone listening? 

 

* * *

 

Two days after Rowling posted her essay, the US Department of Health and Human Services finalized a rollback on an Obama-era rule that prohibits medical discrimination against trans people. The press release states that the new rule “return[s] to the government’s interpretation of sex discrimination according to the plain meaning of the word “sex” as male or female and as determined by biology.” 

This amounts to being abandoned by the government as a protected category in terms of healthcare. Trans people, who are disproportionately affected by healthcare discrimination (this study suggests that about 70% of us have at some point been treated badly by a doctor) no longer have legal protections to that end. One could, hypothetically, be denied care for a medical problem totally unrelated to being trans, and it would be legal to do so. One could be turned away for a broken arm, or one of the life-threatening blood clots that trans women on estrogen are at greater risk of. Needless to say, this is compounded by already-rampant medical racism in the US in the cases of Black and brown trans women. 

The press release for the rule eschewed even the measured kind of feigned concern Rowling managed in her essay. Besides the blatant dog-whistle to providers, the “plain meaning of sex” in this language is one that doesn’t accommodate intersex people and trans people who have medically transitioned to various degrees. Post-op trans women who need gynecological care come to mind. Suddenly, it seemed like we didn’t exist in the eyes of federal law.  

Then, three days after that decision came out, the Supreme Court ruled that LGBTQ people are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, asserting that trans and gay people are a protected category under the rubric of sex discrimination. 

Title VII most likely sets a strong enough precedent to overturn the HHS rule, but for a moment, I was confused about the seeming contradiction. I was getting mixed messages: Does this mean that we are protected from workplace discrimination but not from medical discrimination? Will I be allowed to work at my job but might be turned away from a hospital? Are trans people now legally protected more as workers than as living bodies? 

I downloaded the opinion of the court, something I hadn’t done before. Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first nominee to the court, delivered the majority opinion (which I was surprised by). The essence of his argument is that firing a gay or trans person for the sole fact of their being gay or trans hinges on a certain notion of what is acceptable behavior for either sex. In other words, firing a trans woman for being trans is firing her for not acting like a cis man, whereas this behavior would be entirely acceptable in a cis woman. He makes similar arguments with regard to sexuality. 

Gorsuch’s arguments are indeed very close to the text of the law. One gets the sense that he sees himself as bound to his decision, that he arrived on it purely on its own merit. Still, implicit in his writing is the basic recognition that queer and trans people have the right to be who we want to be in public. It could so easily have been otherwise; Gorsuch could have made similar arguments in opposition to our self-definition had he started from a different set of assumptions about what trans people are, what we “mean.” 

I didn’t look at the dissenting opinions by Justices Kavanaugh and Alito. Together they were both double the length of Gorsuch’s and I felt like I had seen enough. 

The feeling of legislature changing this suddenly and abruptly around you is unnerving. It’s like feeling something loud and heavy slam shut over your head. I tried to put this feeling out of my mind. We won, for the moment. I tried to feel good about that. 

I’m still trying. 

 

* * *

 

Maybe I’m being cynical or pedantic, but there’s something depressing about all of this. I’m certainly happy about the precedent the Supreme Court decision offers, but I have the feeling that this isn’t the end. Moreover, I dislike the terms of the debate. We watch politicians, celebrities and pundits debate our right to continue existing, and the collective voice of trans activism is ignored or chalked up to a conspiracy. Even the coverage of the Supreme Court decision fell into this trap — the writer and journalist Gillian Bransetter did a Twitter thread listing articles that covered the decision and failed to quote or cite a single  trans person.

No matter how comforting it is that certain protections apply to trans people (it’s worth noting that you can still get fired for being queer or trans if an employer simply gives another excuse), the feeling of our rights being granted to us by a state apparatus essentially hostile to us will never feel good. It will never feel right. 

Aimee Stephens, a plaintiff in the case that made it to the court, didn’t live to see the decision. So many other trans women didn’t live to see the decision, either. In the space of a couple days in the beginning of June, two Black trans women were killed: Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells. The Human Rights Campaign reported that they were the 13th and 14th trans women to be killed this year. A few days after that, video surfaced of the death of Layleen Polanco, a Black trans woman who died of a seizure in Rikers in June. The video shows her prison guards laughing at her. 

Amidst calls for police abolition and the large-scale restructuring of justice in America, and in response to these murders, organizers in New York held a march for Black trans lives attended by thousands of people. Alone in my bedroom, I watched an enormous crowd shout “I believe in your power. I believe in our power. I believe in Black trans power.” 

The protest was more than a symbolic gesture: the speakers addressed the material problems that trans women face, discussing housing discrimination, incarceration, food insecurity and so on. Two of the organizations that contributed to organizing address just that: The organization Gays and Lesbians Living In A Transgender Society (GLITS) addresses housing and health care insecurity for trans sex workers, and the Okra Project provides free meals to trans women in need in New York. Both of these organizations go beyond legislative recognition into the realm of mutual aid, as their goal is to help people meet their material needs. 

The sudden visibility of organizations like this is what gives me hope — more than the Supreme Court ruling — that the next generation of trans people might live in a substantially different world than the one we have inherited. Watching videos of the speeches and reading an account of the protest from GLITS founder Ceyenne Doroshow gave me something like hope. Hope that we can band together and form something more powerful than what we’re up against, that we can stand against the capriciousness of a society that only tentatively accepts us. I’ll leave you with Doroshow’s words:

“This work is about all of us, the sustainability of Black trans women, of lesbian, queer, whatever — the whole alphabet! I want other trans women to not only live in their truth but to live in their excellence, every single day. I want our trans brothers to find their footing and feel supported. I want all my trans family to dream, to dream as big as they can, and then live to see their dreams realized… They aren’t taking care of us, so we have to take care of us. We are all that we have.”