A Separate Struggle
Trump-era attacks on transgender rights renew old schisms in the LGBT movement.
Three years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the landmark case Obergefell v Hodges, public support for extending marriage rights to same-sex couples hit a record high of 60 percent. This, along with two previous rulings gutting Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, left little doubt that the court’s decision in Hodges would align with where the public had already moved on the subject of gay equality.
But today, the Trump administration’s attacks on the transgender community— first with a ban on trans military service and most recently a proposal to bar federal legal recognition of trans identities — show there has been far less institutional progress on the subject of trans equality. The lack of support for trans people at the federal level seems to track with public opinion, where a slim majority of Americans say that gender is determined by a person’s genitalia at birth, not by a person’s chosen identity later in life.
The disparate trajectories of the gay and trans struggles for equality don't make a lot of sense in the context of contemporary LGBT activism, which challenges rigid categories of sexuality and gender while also defending space for an ever-expanding acronym of sexual and gender identities.
But a closer look at LGBT legislative efforts over the past decade shows that LGBT activists don’t really have a cohesive group structure. Race, class, and gender have long decided — and stoked division over — which issues were prioritized and whose bodies got to be the face of them. And usually, trans people came out on on the losing end.
The Big Tent Breaks
Most famously, LGBT groups became fractured in 2007 when the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LGBT organizations in the country, endorsed a version of the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that did not include protections for people who are discriminated against based on their gender identity.
The primary argument in support of the trans-exclusive ENDA was that only incremental steps toward equality would ensure gay and trans activists both got what they wanted from Congress — as was the case in virtually every civil rights struggle. But this didn’t explain why a ban on employment discrimination against gay people was thought to be more palatable to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle than a ban on employment discrimination against trans people.
After all, the 2000s were a contentious time for gay rights activism. While a large majority of Americans indicated support for gay equality in the workplace, they remained bitterly divided over social acceptance of same-sex relationships. Democrats leading the field for the 2008 presidential election would not even endorse nation-wide marriage equality. So what exactly made the trans-exclusive ENDA seem more politically viable?
I suspect that support for this version of ENDA took root in assumptions about the kinds of LGBT people who could garner sympathy from conservatives. Even though gay equality remained a polarizing subject in the aughts, the complexion (white, middle class, masculine, monogamous) and conciliatory aims of many LGBT groups at the time made it easier for lawmakers to latch on to the cause.
But eventually ENDA was tabled in the House, and mainstream LGBT groups turned their focus toward same-sex marriage and adoption, two issues that not only centered gay couples over other members of the LGBT community but aligned them with financially well-heeled heterosexual couples. The assimilationist turn in gay activism also involved the search for a biological cause for same-sex attraction (i.e. a gay gene), in order to give the legal case for gay equality a solid scientific foundation.
But in a sharp break from past LGBT activism, today’s trans rights activists reject the notion of equality through assimilation into heterosexual society. And, they reject the logic of biological determinism. To many of the activists, sex and gender are socially mediated (as opposed to naturally occurring) concepts, and trans identities reject the prevailing gender binary. Even for those who continue to ground their trans identities in biology, the ability to ‘correct’ or affirm their true identities with medical care is fundamental to trans people’s well-being.
Trans opponents take direct aim at trans people for rejecting the “primacy of science” — which by the way is not science so much as it is men relaying the social benefits of patriarchal gender roles and stereotypes. Still, trans opponents seem to be having luck. Americans remain divided over trans rights issues, and conservatives have found success recruiting moderate and left-leaning figures to their platforms to voice their shared opposition to current trans activism. This ‘bipartisan’ approach helps insulate trans opponents from accusations of transphobia, and allows them to paint trans activists who don’t want to debate them as anti-science.
No Sanctuary In Science
As a queer black cisgender woman who supports transgender equality, I have encountered a number of science-backed defenses of trans identities. But beyond debating Jordan Peterson fans, I don’t find them terribly useful to the trans cause. And it’s probably for the same reason that talk of a ‘gay gene’ eventually lost its luster in gay activism: Ultimately, trans people are fighting for a world in which they have the creative capacity to decide what is best for them and are still entitled to the most basic human needs, including food, housing, and medical care.
The truth of the matter is that genitalia have never stopped society from questioning or disputing someone’s gender. And genitalia have never ensured equal treatment under the law for people of color, gays, the disabled, or the poor.
As such, while sex and gender are understood to be distinct concepts in popular discourse, I agree with trans writer and advocate Parker Molloy that separating out the two isn’t really useful in the defense of trans people. Trans women are women and female because, like woman, our understanding of what makes someone female is shaped by the culture we live in and the power we have in relation to her.
Ultimately, in the face of all the attacks on the trans community, the best way to defend trans people is to defend their capacity to decide the kind of person they want to be, one who is also deserving of good health, common decency, and a life free from violence. It fits into the social-democratic vision of society, the sort that progressive Democratic candidates from Ayanna Pressley to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have found success championing on the campaign trail.