Human*: Why The Struggle For Trans Rights Matters Now More Than Ever

The other day, a friend forwarded me a link to an interview with novelist Laurie Frankel that had recently aired on NPR’s Morning Edition. Frankel was discussing her new novel, This Is How It Always Is, which the text accompanying the link describes as being “about a family with five boys in which the youngest feels he’s something entirely different — a girl.” The novel draws on her own experiences raising a trans daughter.

The clumsy, mildly sensationalistic gendering of the boy who “feels he’s…a girl,” which persists through the first part of the interview, provoked me to share the link on Facebook along with some observations. The gist of my comments was that while I liked a lot of what Frankel had to say, notably her “embracing the ‘complication’ surrounding the trans condition as ‘wonderful’” and her summation of her novel’s “thesis” as “Yeah, but…,” I was bothered by how gender was handled. In “embracing someone’s transness,” I said, “you confirm that the gender they identify as — male, female, or non-binary — is what they have always been.”

When I was out on my daily walk soon after, my thoughts returned to the interview and my response to it, and I decided

(1) My post could itself have been more nuanced, in particular by acknowledging that trans kids’ sense of their gender identity is often very much in process, so

(2) Maybe I could expand the post into an article, but (on further reflection)

(3) If I did, I should shift my focus to another detail from the interview — one that had significant implications not just for the struggle for trans rights, but also for the broader battles being fought over the future of our nation. The detail in question was Frankel’s remark, “One of the things that I hope is that people who read this book will read it and forget about the transgender issues and just be in the embrace of this family and realize that this family is like all families.”

As a writer, I get why Frankel would be concerned about her novel being pigeonholed as something it’s not (she denies with emphatic good humor that it can be read as a parental how-to manual, for example). I also get that the purpose of her observation was well-intentioned: to help potential readers who fear and loathe us get over those feelings by assuring them that being trans really isn’t a big deal. “These little kids are just kids,” she says at one point, “they are the least scary people you can imagine.”

Yeah. But.

Frankel’s encouragement to readers to see that “this family is like all families” invokes the old humanist ideal of our species as one big family. See? Deep down we’re all the same! The problem with invoking that ideal in this context, ironically, is that it sidesteps the question of trans folks’ full humanity. It gives reticent readers permission to feel that we can only be accepted as members of the human family if our transness is “forgotten” (ignored, erased). For those of us who are all grown up, acceptance on those terms typically assumes the following forms:

  • Those who “pass” are accepted as honorary members of the cis majority on condition that we keep our transness more or less to ourselves.
  • Those who don’t “pass” (well) are treated with a sort of amused, pitying, and self-congratulatory condescension (cf. Julia Serano’s “pathetic transsexual,” Whipping Girl pp. 38-40).

In either case, our membership in the family is granted with an asterisk: human* (though trans).

There’s really no need for this escape clause. Why can’t the novel be touted as a book about a family with a trans kid that also resonates more broadly — X and Y rather than X or Y? I acknowledge that encouraging squeamish readers to try to look past the child’s transness should at least gain our plight more exposure, and that a sympathetic and informed ally has penned the exposé. At the same time, coddling the cis majority as they struggle to feel comfortable around us effectively renders our struggles for basic rights and dignity at best secondary, and at worst irrelevant.

It’s this too ready willingness of even a close ally to apologize for us, to (in effect) give us up for less-than, that I find particularly troubling. My immediate concern is that such equivocating doesn’t bode well for us in the current political climate. Since we represent a rather small minority of the population, it seems likely that many in the cis majority without Frankel’s personal connection will point to the blitzkrieg of damaging EOs from the new POTUS’s fat, stubby pen and be tempted to dismiss our struggles, as Bill Maher and others did in the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of last November’s election, as a “boutique issue.” I acknowledge the appeal of the argument that people should be focusing their time and energy on threats directly affecting proportionally more people (the Muslim ban, the new régime’s early assaults on the structural and legal underpinnings of our democracy, etc.).

But:

This too needn’t be an X or Y issue. Moreover, the above rationale doesn’t tell the whole story, for the smallish size of the trans community belies the broader significance of our struggles. Indeed, I would argue that our push for civil rights matters now more than ever.

In the first place, one gauge of the health of any nation is how well it looks after its most vulnerable citizens, and the trans community is among this nation’s most vulnerable minorities. The numbers documenting our less-than status remain staggering. An oft-cited 2014 joint study by the American Society for Suicide Prevention and UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute estimated that over 40 percent of us have attempted suicide at least once. The study linked this tragic rate to our being disproportionately at risk for several things: over 50% of respondents surveyed said they’d experienced some form of verbal harassment or bullying, physical violence (including sexual assault), homelessness, and/or discrimination from healthcare providers, members of law enforcement, and/or family members. Another recent study reported that we’re four times more likely to live in poverty (have a household income under $10K) than members of the cis majority.

That the need exists for legal protections and even basic humanitarian relief for America’s trans community is undeniable. And with the sweeping, hateful “religious freedom” EO rumored to be pending and the looming passage of the equally heinous First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), which POTUS has promised to sign, our situation promises only to get worse in the near future. To concede the fight for our rights to the thinly veneered bigotry of the far right, even for tactical purposes, is to accept that the body politic has become gangrenous, and it’s time to start lopping off its fingers and toes.

Then there’s the practical upshot of this old metaphor: When to stop chopping? How many must be surrendered to the biohazard bin? Abandoning the trans community (and other vulnerable groups) sets a dangerous precedent by acclimating the rest of the public to the principle, and not simply the reality, of unequal rights. Once it’s allowed as a tactical measure that not all groups need equal protection right now, in other words, one doesn’t have to proceed too many steps down an Orwellian line of reasoning to the conclusion that not all groups deserve equal rights as a matter of sound policy, period. The justification for this conclusion runs more or less as follows: Pluralism simply doesn’t work. There are too many irreconcilable differences among us to try to balance them all. The only way the nation can function is if it focuses its resources and energies to further the values of a certain (presumed majority) segment of the people living within its borders.

There are two huge problems with this argument. First, it’s based on a view of government (embraced by many on the right) as a sort of uber-corporation whose proper functioning is defined in terms of efficient operations and balanced budgets. Businesses, however, aren’t designed to place their customers’ needs above all others’: they’re beholden first and foremost to their stockholders. Thus, second, the values a nation-as-corporation will be focused on furthering are necessarily those of a small minority. All this is amply in evidence in the initial acts of the businessman-POTUS whom less than half the nation decided we needed in the White House. Trump’s MAGA is the brand of fantasy nostalgia he’s selling, but his multiple autocratic EOs, the draconian cuts he has proposed making to the federal budget, and the preponderance of CEOs and other bigtime financial players among his cabinet nominees suggest pretty clearly who stands to profit from the new régime’s products.

Far from being a “boutique issue,” then, the struggle for trans rights is an early bellwether of the near (and maybe long-term) future of our nation. What will “we, the people” mean? A democracy that accepts the existence of less-than citizens is a less-than democracy. Indeed, will we reach a point — many years in the future, perhaps sooner — where our divided nation has been fully reconsolidated as an oligarchy of financiers, and ceased to be a democracy in any meaningful sense?

That outcome is far from inevitable, obviously, and as the vigorous pushback the Tweeter in Chief and his horde of deplorables are meeting with suggests, maybe not even likely. It’s true that resisting this onslaught will probably be the work of years, not weeks. But the payout we risk receiving if we don’t invest our time and energies to that end is our pink slips: human* though trans, or gay, or Muslim, or black, or Latino/a, or disabled, or sick. Or stupid or fat or ugly.

Or a woman, or a child.

Or the 99 percent.

Revised February 8, 2017: New link associated with the word “homelessness.”

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