11/21/2013 01:37 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Holding the Line on Transgender Student Protections


"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
--George Santayana

During the 1990s and 2000s the two biggest LGBT issues that the religious right flogged their faithful with were gay marriage and gays in the military. From 1998 until now, the religious right has used marriage as a wedge issue to put anti-LGBT laws and state constitutional amendments on the ballot. But with the demise of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the end of "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT), and the more or less inevitable end of Section 2 of DOMA, even the hard right has come to realize that they've lost on these issues. This doesn't mean that they have given up and gone home, though. Not by a long shot.

They have effectively pivoted to two new arguments. The first is "religious freedom," by which they really mean, "I don't want anyone holding me accountable for being awful." The second issue they have pivoted to is transgender people in public spaces. The attempt to repeal A.B. 1266 (a law ensuring equal access to activities and facilities for transgender students in California) has drawn a mob of hate groups, plus the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). Given the staggering defeats that NOM has suffered in the past year, a search for a new raison d'être is imperative for their organization to survive.

As a result, I believe that the transgender community is facing an imminent wave of anti-transgender laws and amendments. Just as the religious right began learning in 1998 that legislating against marriage equality was a winning issue for them, the current attempt to repeal A.B. 1266 is effectively a test marketing of a new brand of anti-LGBT hate. If they win, you can expect a wave of bills targeting transgender people's access to public accommodations, just like with marriage. The nature of the anti-transgender bills is bounded only by what few constitutional protections transgender people have (read: nearly zero) and the fertile imaginations of people like Tony Perkins.

The only way to stem this tsunami of anti-transgender legislation is a vigorous offense. The counteroffensive needs to hit fast, hit hard, and hit often. The problem within the LGBT community is that there is a tendency to want to go for defensive messages designed to stir empathy. These play well with progressives and other LGBT people, but not with wider audiences. We need to acknowledge upfront that these types of ads preach to an echo chamber and lack effectiveness. Marriage campaigns eventually got this. Supporters of A.B. 1266 and the transgender community as a whole must acknowledge it upfront.

We can't afford a long learning curve. This has to be stopped now, or the next decade is going to see us going steadily backwards. Doing so requires the philosophy that the best defense is a good offense. Here are the messaging rules that I would use if it were up to me:

1. People can't empathize with being transgender. Gender dysphoria is just too alien a concept. They can, however, empathize with the terror of being burned alive or beaten by mobs for being different. Parents can imagine what it would be like if it were their child in a burn ward or bullied to death. Hit that point over and over again: Transgender kids are being burned alive, bullied, and beaten by mobs, yet opponents of A.B. 1266 are against laws intended to protect these children.

2. Bullying is really out right now. Gear your ads and messaging toward pointing out how opponents of A.B. 1266 abused their power to lie about a transgender child. As a result of their lies, the child and her family have received a steady barrage of death threats, and the girl is under suicide watch. People can easily grasp that powerful adults bullying a defenseless child is reprehensible.

3. Keep pointing out that Los Angeles and even cities in very conservative places have had similar laws in place for years, and without negative consequences.

4. Emphasize how radical the opponents of A.B. 1266 are. Their belief that no one should have access to birth control. Their belief in creating a Christian theocracy (Dominionism). Their designations as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Their sketchy records with campaign finance laws. The hideous things that they have said about gay people in the past. Most people would have a hard time voting for a bill explicitly supported by the KKK. The same logic needs to be applied here.

5. Opponents of integration used many of the same arguments being used today against transgender people. ("Think of the women and children!") Showing people that the racists of yesterday are still with us, just with a different target, should get the message across loud and clear.

Messages of fairness and equality will likely get us a whole lot of nowhere. When it came to marriage, those sorts of messages didn't resonate well outside progressive circles, and they will fall even flatter here when it comes to transgender children. Getting people to vote against bullying is much easier. Getting people to mistrust the real motives of the organizations that are opposing A.B. 1266 is also easy given their long, loud radical history. Shooting down their hyperbolic assertions of what will happen if A.B. 1266 stays in place can easily be done in a 10-second sound bite. Getting people to stand up against hate crimes perpetrated against children is a no-brainer.

We have to hit this, and hit it hard from the start. Failure to respond fully and effectively to this is likely to result in 10 to 20 years worth of losses for the transgender community on ballots, and a similar number of wins for the anti-LGBT right.

This must be our line in the sand. We only have one shot to hold it.

Let's make sure it counts.