Protecting Transgender People Is Not A Political Choice
Transgender rights are made into a political issue by the people who attack trans safety, not by trans people fighting to survive
The constant cries coming from both liberals and conservatives about “identity politics” are nothing more than a thinly-veiled way to silence the voices of oppressed people, blame the victims of bigotry for their own suffering, and further erode the rights of marginalized people. By making the basic survival of these groups seem like a political issue that you can either choose to support or oppose, these politicians and pundits paint community activists as selfish, short-sighted, and enemies of free speech.
Transgender people aren’t “playing identity politics” when we talk about how cisgender society harms us. Instead, we are forced to defend ourselves in every way possible when our constitutional rights and access to basic needs are threatened, including by organizing for political action. Political movements become personal movements when they affect your ability to live your everyday life, access basic survival needs, and maintain your physical safety. The very desperation created by pervasive anti-transgender attitudes then becomes a justification for dismissing us as self-centered or immature.
Transgender people are not inherently political, however we also don’t have the privilege of waiting until the political climate is better to advocate for our safety. We don’t get to step away from an issue because it’s seen as “too political” or “too controversial” by politicians, media pundits, journalists, and political consultants who have nothing to lose if we die. These stakes are even higher for members of the trans community who also share other marginalized identities like a disability, surviving this racist country as a person of color, and living in poverty.
The trans community is being intentionally pushed to the edges of society and more into poverty every day. Violence against trans people, especially trans women of color, is happening regularly whether you acknowledge it or not. Transgender people face dehumanization every day, right under the nose of our liberal friends who insist we should give our oppressors more time to adapt. We are being endangered by our progressive friends who call for “civility” as a way to silence us.
Most trans people endure some level of physical, emotional, or relationship violence against us in our lives, potentially from parents who deny us, from partners who control our transition, or from a workplace that sees our personal freedom as unprofessional and our medical transitions as an “option” instead of as life-saving healthcare. And sadly, many trans people choose to commit violence against ourselves in a moment of hopelessness born from that suffering.
Any negative mental health effects that are disproportionately observed in the trans community come from trans people having to navigate a society that undermines our rights while it denies us housing, healthcare, education, and safety. We didn’t choose to be stuck in a society which actively enforces an arbitrary and outdated system of sex assignment, and enforces it with violence if necessary.
I need you to understand something very scary, something that will probably sound like I’m being “too alarmist” for most people. Transgender people are in a uniquely dangerous position to be targeted by individual violence and state violence right now, and that danger is only rising. We need to be vigilant and aware of how our society is aligning itself against transgender people from the left and the right of the political spectrum.
No matter what you believe about transgender identities personally, you must realize that the only way we will truly protect trans people is to fully understand that transgender women are women, transgender men are men, and that non-binary people are real and valid genders outside of the current binary sex and gender system. It doesn’t matter how much you feel like there can only be two genders based on two sexes, every living and dead trans person is a refusal of your limited worldview.
Cisgender allies: we need you to vocally, regularly, and consistently protect transgender lives. Trans people can’t do this alone. When conservatives attack us because they think it’ll turn out their base and at the same time, liberals won’t touch us because they think we’re political poison by “playing identity politics,” we are in a deeply troubling place that has historically resulted in very dire outcomes for small, powerless targeted groups.
Either Everything Is Identity Politics, Or Nothing Is Identity Politics
Conservatives, reactionaries, and pearl-clutching centrists are invested in branding marginalized communities as “playing identity politics” while the leadership of the Republican Party consists almost exclusively of rich, white men serving the interests of Christian fundamentalists, corporate deregulation, and tax cuts for the obscenely wealthy. This hypocrisy would be funny, if it wasn’t so deeply harmful.
If we’re gonna talk about “transgender identity politics” as something dangerous to free speech and the democratic process, then we need to go all the way with it. Let’s talk about rich identity politics, white identity politics, military identity politics, Christian identity politics, or police identity politics. Let’s talk about how all of those powerful lobbies actually use their political power and money to distort our political process, certainly more than any transgender activists ever have.
Most importantly, let’s talk about how everything political that we discuss on stolen land in a country built by people stolen from their home is informed by the power of identity to create an “us” and a “them” which can be used to justify violence and theft.
Conservatives and liberals have spent the last 60 years trying to force transgender political power back into the closet after the Compton Cafeteria Riot, the Stonewall Rebellion, and many lesser documented uprisings against an oppressive, anti-transgender, anti-queer police state.
And while Republican lawmakers and their constituencies are the primary instigators of anti-transgender legislation, Democratic inaction allows anti-trans bills to become anti-trans laws. Similarly, lukewarm attitudes about protecting transgender people in progressive schools, social spaces, and professional circles create an environment where trans safety is constructed as an expensive, meaningless frivolity and where discussing trans suffering or trans history is seen as an unnecessarily divisive and political choice.
We are quickly moving to a future where the Republican Party can only win electoral victories by increasingly anti-democratic means. Voting rights are already being continually eroded without the protection of the Voting Rights Act. We are not far from a future where Republicans, who control many key state congressional branches right now, will likely still be in power for the next census in 2020 and be able to sign off on another round of gerrymandering that would cement their voting bloc advantage even more.
I need you to understand, well-meaning centrist liberal friends, that the dynamics currently emerging in our political system regarding the trans community are part of a larger anti-democratic, neo-fascist, white nationalist movement that we must confront now and cannot leave to deal with later, as there may not be a future where we can easily change things to be better.
Embracing what looks like “identity politics” might feel scary to the Democratic establishment now, but frankly, if the Democratic party wants to survive the next 30 years, it must shift away from white neoliberalism. Democrats need to prepare for a future where a demographic shift of white liberals (like the one that elected Trump) is a continued reality.
We are likely moving to a future where the Democrats will not be able to win back the white vote, but may also fail to energize the votes of the marginalized majority. Current Democrats are in the complicated, unsustainable position of both advocating for marginalized groups enough so that marginalized people remain active voters, but also not doing too much, for fear that completely focusing on minority issues would drive away the cisgender white straight Democrats who feel like “identity politics” is a waste of time and who are tired of “political correctness”.
After decades of the same excuse that socially progressive policies are too risky, we have to ask ourselves: “Too risky for whom?” Too risky for our marginalized communities? Or rather: too risky for the rich, corporate leaders, hedge funds, and corporate non-profits who rely on a perpetual identity conflict narrative to stay funded?
The urge for cisgender white straight liberals feeling under threat in the Trump era is to retreat into white privilege, class privilege and straight privilege. They feel safer not supporting #blacklivesmatter, undocumented communities, trans people, or anything else deemed “controversial” or “risky” political causes until the political situation swings back their way.
We must ask our political leaders: “If not now, when?” These so-called identity issues won’t ever magically become “less controversial” to the people invested in keeping social classes, racial groups, and LGBTQ people divided from each other.
What privileged Democratic voters fail to realize is that choosing inaction is just as political, if not more political, than choosing to act in solidarity with marginalized communities.
Every action we do and every choice we make as citizens of a political society is a political choice on some level. We are always choosing to uphold or challenge some dominant narrative or cultural beliefs with every choice we make. There is no such thing as staying neutral, there is only choosing not to act or choosing to act. Inaction isn’t being neutral, it simply allows others to act for you.
Choosing inaction right now will give a Republican federal government and Republican state majorities free license to do whatever they want to destroy our rights and our freedoms. We cannot let fear drive us into further delusion about how protecting the basic safety of marginalized groups must somehow “take something away” from a dominant group, who has enjoyed such protections for so long, they don’t even realize those things are a right and not a privilege.
The Democrats have taken for granted that marginalized groups will continue to vote for them because “at least it’s better than the Republicans,” but we saw in 2016 that the failure point of such a strategy is when people decide to not vote at all or vote for a third party because they feel left behind by both Democrats and Republicans. Most people who feel they have been let down by both parties will say that the Democrats and the Republicans are basically the same thing. This fusion has just gotten stronger since the Reagan Era and the 1990s Clinton neoliberal realignment of the Democratic Party. Many marginalized people don’t vote or participate in politics because they rightfully realize that it hasn’t really done much to improve their daily life. You can keep voting for the lesser of two evils forever, but you still end up with evil every time.
I am terrified that the Democrats will choose to “learn” from the 2016 presidential election that identity politics and protecting the rights of marginalized people “lost them the election” and that in order to regain power, they must deny marginalized people even more space, leadership roles, and actionable legislation on a national and state level. If the mainstream take away from the 2016 presidential election is that “identity politics” and vocally advocating for marginalized groups is what lost Hillary Clinton the election, and not her corporate pandering, her hawkish military policy, her defense of predatory financial institutions, and her history of supporting racist policies on crime, we are in danger for 2020 and beyond.
Our current economic system leaves the vast majority of us resigned to a life stuck in a low-paying hourly service job (or three hourly service jobs, all without healthcare, dental, or a 401k). Capitalist bosses and corporate power rely on the existence of perpetually underfunded non-profits and are invested in dodging taxes by hoarding their wealth in multi-million dollar “foundations” as an excuse to cut government services deemed non-essential.
Cisgender people in government, progressive non-profits, and even our own families tell us that after decades of Democrats winning power by ignoring us, (or worse outright harming us) while conservatives continually undermine our rights, that somehow the tide will magically turn sometime in the future.
We’re supposed to believe that “it will get better” for us without vocal support or financial investment into systematically disenfranchised trans communities. This logic is coming from the very same people who are poised to benefit from our repression and public silence while we are disproportionately more likely to die from lack of healthcare, lack of housing, police violence, family rejection, addiction, suicidality, and murder.
What You Call Identity Politics, I Call Fighting For Survival
One of the most dehumanizing things I’ve had to do as a trans woman has been engaging people in a so-called “debate about transgender rights” which is actually just a debate about whether transgender people even deserve to exist. I’m frequently expected to defend my basic humanity, propose policy solutions that minimize how much it would cost for me to be safe from violence, and entertain arguments about whether I even exist at all or if my womanhood is a lie.
I’ve always been good at stating my position, hearing other opinions, and adjusting my own opinion based on nuanced debate. I’ve always felt resolved in defending my opinions when I don’t agree. I’ve always been good at discussing political issues; however, these debates feel very different. It’s impossible for people with cisgender privilege to imagine how exhausted I am by arguing for my own right to live.
After seeing some particularly hateful comments on an article about trans people, a cisgender friend recently asked me: “Why are people like that? What drives them to spend so much time and energy on hating trans people they don’t even know?”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I hadn’t really thought about it before. As a public transgender person, hateful comments and transphobia had become the water I swam in, the air I breathed, and the fog that engulfed me every day. Transphobia seemed like such a normal part of life as to almost be mundane, if not still deeply painful. I expected to see daily abuse on social media, hateful lies in response to any trans article on a website, and endure evergreen trans 101 education for people with well-intentioned, but still hurtful, ignorance in my own comment sections.
As a public transgender person, I am frequently subjected to the complaints of both liberal and conservative people obsessed with what they call my “identity politics” and my focus on “political correctness”.
I’m called a snowflake when I ask people to use my correct name and pronoun. I’m called a predator when I want to educate children about people like me. I’m called a threat to public safety when I ask for a safe place to pee, and I’m called weak for not being able to protect myself from violence. I’m called lazy for not being able to find a traditional job, but in traditional workplaces, I’m called a liability or a nuisance. I’m called a deviant when I dare to publicly share my relationships or talk about my sexuality.
I’m also called divisive in liberal circles when I bring up how progressive policies, our police surveillance state, and short-sighted political bargains harm transgender people. Each time, I’m told that I should “go along” with transphobia and transgender erasure under the hopeful promise that some magical day in the future, trans and non-binary people will stop being controversial.
For example, bosses often tell transgender people and our cisgender allies asking for workplace training on trans people that once the business or non-profit has made enough money for themselves to feel comfortable first, then maybe they’ll finally find time in an overworked schedule to contact the right LGBTQ trainer and make transgender education for their employees the “cherry on top” of a successful fiscal year.
What should be thought of as a basic part of any workplace or classroom education on how to best respect transgender people instead becomes a one-time, optional training on a Friday night during a busy time of the year, complete with the audacity to expect trans people to be grateful, because at least they’re trying to do something.
Even worse, many friends of mine have been forced as the only out trans employee in an office, classroom, or internship, to provide training and resources for free, just to have basic respect like being called the right name and pronoun. This dynamic forces people to complicate their office relationships and open themselves as a target for harassment by forcing the person most affected by an issue to give free training to a staff that might be resentful about being “punished” with extra work or who say harmful and aggressive things couched as “questions” that the trans person is forced to answer on the spot.
Basic respect and transgender competency are not something that you can refuse to provide and still call yourself an ethical business owner, healthcare provider, non-profit, or government service.
Transgender people are (very conservatively) between 1% and 2% of the US population. That’s about the same as natural redheads, so if you’ve met a redhead, you’ve likely met a trans person too. There are millions of us now, and there are even more young people growing up who feel safer coming out early as trans and non-binary. We don’t know for sure how many of us there are, because no one will include trans people in the census. Even if they did, many trans people likely wouldn’t feel safe marking “transgender” or “non-binary” for a government that constantly threatens to strip us of our basic rights.
Every single doctor, store clerk, insurance agent, government employee, or private citizen in the United States will eventually interact with a trans person, yet as a society, we’d rather just pretend like trans people are so invisible, we may as well not exist.
Transgender Survival Depends On Cisgender Action
Dear well-meaning cisgender allies:
When you say things like “I want to support trans people, but identity politics aren’t polling well for 2020,” you are harming trans people.
When you say things like “I support trans people, but we can’t hire a trans person for this position because it might drive away our customers,” you are harming trans people.
When you say things like “You’re too young to know if you’re trans” to our children and “You would have come out earlier if you were really trans” to our adults, you are harming trans people.
When you say things like “I‘d like to change the paperwork/intake/hiring process/nametags at work, but I don’t want to stir up any trouble,” you are harming trans people.
When you’re making fun of gender identities that you don’t understand and laughing when unoriginal people make cheap jokes about how transgender folks are “too sensitive” for wanting to be respected and believed, you are harming trans people.
When you blame the rare Democrats who do protect us as the reason that Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, you are harming trans people.
When you say things like “I want to support trans people, but I also don’t want rapists pretending to be women to have a free pass to the women’s bathroom,” you’re harming trans people. What you’re really saying is: “My peace of mind about something scary that has never happened before matters more than your physical safety when I force trans women into the men’s room. And if you do use the women’s room for safety from sexual assault and male violence, I’ll report you to the police and you’ll go to men’s prison where you can be the target of assault there instead.”
Transgender people are in a uniquely vulnerable position right now, but it comes with the historical context that we have always been under attack as deviant, dangerous, and disturbed. After all, is a coordinated strategy of genocide really that different in its effect on the trans community than a disproportionately high rate of death from preventable medical conditions, suicide, and murder over many decades? Is formalized genocide necessary when years of subjugation can make you feel so hopeless, disconnected, abnormal, and deviant that you consider dying would be better than struggling to swim upstream anymore?
Sara is the host of the Queer Sex Ed Podcast. You can learn more about her work and listen to the show at www.queersexed.org or on any podcast app. You can also follow QSE on Facebook at www.facebook.com/QueerS3xEd and on Twitter @QSEpodcast. If this article has enriched your life, and you would like to support the continuing work of QSE to educate and create queer, intersectional spaces for conversations about sex and sexuality, please consider joining our Patreon community at www.patreon.com/QueerSexEd.