“quietly, sensitively, and with a proper sense of scale”: post-election transphobia on the left
Today’s most popular New York Times opinion piece is “The End of Identity Liberalism.” It’s mostly a familiar argument against identity politics, given new strength by Trump’s election: the American left, by focusing on the oppressions of minorities, left behind its concern with class differences. By casting oppression of minorities as its political currency for decades, American liberalism didn’t speak to the economic struggles faced by working- and middle-class whites, and lost the last election as a result.
It’s not a new argument. And neither is the author innovating when he heaps blame on trans advocacy as the excesses of identity politics, but it was still shocking to read.
The author’s Mark Lilla, an intellectual historian at Colombia, and he casts identity politics in a particular way: he’s upset with our “fixation on diversity,” on our campuses, in our media, and in our politics. Here’s some of the particular cases he cites for this overbearing focus on diversity. See if you can notice a trend:
How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters about the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty?
However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own
We need a post-identity liberalism… Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them… As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively, and with a proper sense of scale (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms)
Yes, of course. How can we not laugh at this joke, in a state where completed sex reassignment/gender confirmation surgery is required to change your legally-recognized gender? And why should American students be educated on the “interesting” treatment of trans people in Egypt? LGBTI people in general are facing a crackdown in Egypt, but apparently it’s the treatment of trans people in particular that’s irrelevant, and why should young Americans want that information when evaluating the billions of dollars of military aid we send Egypt? And surely we can agree that on issues which are “highly charged symbolically,” the left really ought to be working more quietly, more locally, with a proper sense of scale. Here’s a great place to start: let’s join with the right in telling the Supreme Court to toss Gavin Grimm’s case back to the lower courts! Wouldn’t want our potential allies to hear anymore about “damn bathrooms.”
I wrote election night about the tendency to perceive transgender rights as “the next civil rights frontier,” as TIME magazine put it. I argued this analogy was flawed in two respects, because it depicts the struggles behind the frontier as already solved, and because it depicts pursuing rights and protections for trans people as more radical than those for blacks, for women, for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. This is a narrative that’s often endemic to a non-intersectional understanding of identity politics.
And here in this op-ed we see where this narrative is leading during the left’s post-election self-flagellation: the struggle against trans oppression caricatured as the ludicrous excesses of a misguided liberalism. Want to start curtailing identity politics, start with quieting down the trans people and all that hubub about our funny, irrelevant, symbolic, struggles. Never mention the violence against us, just focus on how much merely hearing about us turns off those centrist Americans upon whose vote the rule of the country depends.
I agree the American left has failed to attend sufficiently to economic inequality, especially in its message this election. But making a louder economic critique shouldn’t mean we quiet down about rights for minority groups, and especially not for trans people. Our sparing and ripe-to-be-undone victories and protections all too easily singled out, even on the left, as liberalism gone too far.
Lilla doesn’t cite anything to do with other oppressed groups as going too far. He compliments Black Lives Matter, champions affirmative action, and loves “Hollywood’s efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture.” No, when he wants to get specific, to make his point to his NYT-reading audience as obviously as he thinks he can, he aims at us.
He wraps up his article citing FDR for “the real foundations of modern American liberalism:” “the freedom to worship, the freedom to want and the freedom from fear.” Sounds great. After November 9th, I’ve felt afraid. We were afraid before the election, of course; that comes with the territory when you’re trans. Our struggles aren’t merely “highly symbolic,” they’re material. They’re desperate, and now even moreso. And frankly, in this election cycle I don’t recall trans rights being all that loudly advocated in the first place. Now, in left post-mortems like Lilla’s, that relative silence is being translated into actively-voiced disdain. That makes me afraid.
But how much should it make me afraid, compared to Pence becoming VP, Sessions becoming attorney general, or a trans woman’s car in my hometown being defaced with swastikas and slurs? How much should it worry us that, at a time when trans people face an even greater likelihood of actual violence from the right, we are also becoming even more the rhetorical punching bags for the left? I’m not sure.
But neither seems to worry Lilla much at all.