Campaigning for Trans Rights Under the Liberal Social Contract
Welcome back to Trans Realist, a project where I have a conversation with my fellow trans people, about what could be done to make our lives better in the real world.
Today, I want to respond to the accusation from some people, that I am unwilling to upset conservatives, and recognize the religious right as the enemy of trans rights, for example. I want to start by saying that these accusations are totally groundless. I helped campaign for gay marriage for many years, and I have certainly done more than my fair share of upsetting conservatives. Even today, I continue to have very heated debates with conservatives, including those who insist that gay parenting is morally wrong, or that Caitlyn Jenner shouldn’t be allowed to run for governor because she’s trans. I don’t shy away from taking a strong position against these frankly unreasonable stances. And I have always been highly skeptical of the religious right, ever since they supported the Iraq War in 2003, and whipped up hysteria over gay marriage the next year to save President Bush.
I guess the problem some have with my approach is not that I am unwilling to upset conservatives per se, but that I am unwilling to disrespect the social contract of liberal democracy in the way I campaign for trans rights. This social contract is the long-standing foundation of the Western world. It is widely upheld by people across the Western world, and is rightly the standard by which people will judge us to be reasonable participants in society or not. I also believe the fundamental pillars of this social contract, including free speech, freedom of conscience, free debate in the marketplace of ideas and so on, is a good structure on which to make the case for minority rights in general, and trans rights in particular. Besides, it is clear to me that respecting and working within the system we have still represents the quickest and least painful way to get trans rights done. Marriage equality was done this way, and there is no reason why trans rights can’t be done this way.
To understand this debate better, I think we should look at the broader context. In recent years, there has been a faction of the far-left that is intent on challenging, and tearing down, the long-standing social contract of Western liberal democracies, via the promotion of alternative worldviews rooted in critical theory and postmodernism. Instead of respecting free speech and the democratic process, this movement aims to convert people to the view that all this is an exercise of oppressive power, and the solution is not to participate, but to ‘tear the system down’ in various ways. This movement has attempted to attach itself to the LGBT community and LGBT causes, causing a shift in the Overton Window of LGBT activism. Hence, radical alterations of mainstream culture and habits became commonly accepted demands within the world of LGBT activism, and deplatforming people who disagree came to be seen as OK by more and more people.
Meanwhile, the fact is that, we still live within a system of representative democracy, where any policy changes, including trans rights, need to win over a majority of the public. Demands and actions that are widely seen as unreasonable will generate backlash, which makes winning over majority support much harder. It is therefore a fact of life that unreasonable demands move us further away from trans rights, and makes trans people’s lives more difficult in the real world. Hence, caring about how we are perceived as a community is a logical part of any constructive campaign for trans rights, it is not ‘respectability politics’. Dealing with arguments from all sides in good faith, even if it might not be what we want to hear, is part of being a reasonable participant in the discourse. It is not giving in to the enemy, or ‘repeating their talking points’.
Of course, compromises are often not satisfying, and can sometimes be painful. Hence radical activism’s suggestion that we need not compromise on anything, that we need not work to look reasonable in the eyes of the public, are naturally going to be attractive to some people. However, this approach defies the reality that we live in, and is only going to lead us over a cliff as a community. And this should be the last thing that we want.