Over the past month I've been writing about the crisis facing the American LGBTQ movement as some newer voices, in the name of intersectionality, are beginning to divert the agenda into the realm of Middle East geopolitics colored by anti-Semitism. But as prejudice grows within the grassroots, diverting the movement's energies, there is an even more critical failure - the aimlessness at the top due to a lack of national leadership.
I was listening to some 60s R&B the other night, and Otis Redding appeared in the playlist singing, "A Change is Gonna Come." Yes, it is. Change is always coming. After huge (not yuge, but huge) victories around open LGBT military service and marriage equality, it's no surprise that the movement leadership would take a moment to celebrate and savor the successes before getting back to work. As is often the case, however, after victory comes complacency, and since there is no such thing as total victory in our political system, complacency is simply unacceptable. My colleague, Michaelangelo Signorile, has long called this flaw, "victory blindness," and his analysis is echoed by another colleague, Kerry Eleveld.
Every year at this time state legislatures across the country are in session. The backlash, which had begun even before the June Obergefell marriage decision (one can easily argue it began after Stonewall in 1969, but most certainly after Windsor in 2013), was most evident in Arkansas and Indiana last year. This year there are many dozens of such state bills, 175 at my last count, because, to put it simply, Democrats don't vote in off-year elections, which allows Republicans to gerrymander their states and maintain an ironclad control over their statehouses and the U.S. House of Representatives. Today Republicans control both houses in 30 states to the Democrats 11. There are, of even greater significance, 24 Republican trifectas, where one party controls both chambers and the governorship. There are only 7 Democratic trifectas.
So this is really not a surprise. The extreme right is well organized by their legal organizations, Liberty Counsel and Alliance Defending Freedom, mirroring how ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) pushes through conservative bills across the country on matters of budget and taxation. This year there are 44 anti-transgender bills in the hopper in 16 states, with 23 of them targeting children. Ten of those states have Republican trifectas. Targeting children! We're back to the ancient 70s meme of "the gays are coming for your children," just updated to "trans predators are out to get your children in bathrooms and locker rooms (and on sports teams, while we're at it).
Why is the existence of a trifecta important? Because, to use the most current active state crisis as an example, the South Dakota House and Senate have passed an anti-trans bill (first in the country),which becomes law if the Republican governor either signs it or allows it to become law without his signature. He can veto it, but he will only do that if he's either an educated and decent human being or the business community -in this case, Citibank - applies enough pressure up to and including a threat to relocate from the state in case he allows this stain to become law. Such legislative behavior will be much less likely in those states with a Democratic governor.
This bill is clearly awful with its greatest impact on setting a precedent than on actually impacting many kids (because there are fewer people in South Dakota than my home county in Maryland, which means there may be a few dozen trans high school students in the state). It does highlight, however, the fact that our national advocacy organizations have been AWOL during this debate and the other state legislative sessions. As I said, it's not as if we didn't expect this onslaught, and while we can count on federal support with respect to Title IX protection of trans students and lawsuits to be filed by our superb legal impact organizations, the national advocacy organizations - the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National LGBTQ Task Force, the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), and others - have been absent or maintaining a very low profile.
It's not as if they haven't been busy, as HRC has been sending troops to support Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, for example, and the secretive Freedom for All Americans group, run by a Republican, is apparently active in a number of states, though without any transparency it's hard to tell. After the debacle in Houston on Election Day the community could have licked its wounds, learned from its mistakes, and pivoted to prepare for the 2016 legislative session, getting to work on countering the bathroom predator strategy of the reactionaries. But they did not, leaving many trans persons to admit, once again, that the gay community, for the most part, really doesn't care. Given the way some state LGBT organizations have folded or merged post-marriage it's rather difficult to dissuade trans people from that conclusion.
On the other track towards equality, however, the legal strategy in federal courts, the LGBT community has moved ahead with passion and speed. Lambda Legal, in particular, now has trans cases making up 25% of its docket. The ACLU has stepped up big-time. I've often covered those victories, which become more robust as each one builds on the success of its predecessor. So while we struggle in the states, it's important to remember that we have the power of the federal government behind us. Those legal organizations, including the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and GLAD (GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders) continue to do a superb job, but their general advocacy counterparts are absent without leave.
The questions that face us now are: how do we resist the backlash, and who's going to take the lead? It's not as if we haven't had any experience with these types of attacks. I personally lead the campaign to stave off such attacks, the first in the nation, on the gender identity bill in my county nine years ago. We've won a number of these campaigns, in places from Gainesville, Florida to Kalamazoo, Michigan. The great Twitter campaign out of Minnesota by a trans man taking selfies in the women's bathroom last year was very effective, yet it has not been repeated. A colleague recently suggested a campaign of "No haters in my pants" or "No haters up my skirt." We have really talented communications and graphics experts who can do this, but for some reason they haven't been mobilized to do so.
A secondary problem impacts the trans community at times like this when it feels bereft of support. People who regularly have a difficult enough time getting by tend to get very frightened and even panic, often sounding like the adversaries we're opposing. One fellow blogger wrote, "And then they came for transgender people," as if she's Pastor Niemöller and President Adolf Cruz has already been elected. She went so far to call these bathroom harassment bills "instruments of cultural genocide."
Now that's better than just "genocide," which has been making the rounds as well. As a Jewish woman who lost 80% of her family to actual genocidal murder 74 years ago, I take umbrage at that characterization. Sounding just as extremist as our opponents will not win us any friends. These people have hated us for a long time, and will continue to do so. What's different today is that their actions are a response to our victories, and a sign of their desperation. As I said above, it's also a response to the failure of our side to vote when it counts even when the voting is not sexy, and the failure of our leadership to consider this an important issue for the entire LGBTQ community in 2016. Let's also reiterate that in the real world trans persons have been using, and will continue to use, the appropriate bathrooms, with or without enabling or penalizing legislation. I know many people, even Democrats, are shocked by that fact, but it's because they still don't know very many of us.
The Guardian picked up on this story, and I can only hope that in spite of its panic-stricken headline it helps direct mainstream media attention to the issue. We succeeded in getting Arizona to back down (even being a state with a Republican trifecta), and then Indiana, another trifecta state, and we can stop most of these bills outside the South by mobilizing the support of the business community which increasingly has our backs. We even had a victory yesterday in the heart of Dixie in Charlotte, North Carolina.
We just have to make a commitment to put our resources behind the effort. The Transgender Law Center had a convening last weekend to begin that process.
Our national advocacy organizations can do the work as well. Just imagine the time and money some organizations would have if they didn't need to expend great effort dealing with activists intent on focusing much of their attention on freeing Palestine, and could focus on helping the American trans community instead.