Trans Rights Are More Than a Culture War

As Biden signs new protections into law, anti-trans advocates prepare an onslaught of legislation at the state level

A trans flag outside the Supreme Court. Photo: Erik McGregor/Getty Images

My hormones are prescribed by a doctor at my local Planned Parenthood. Most of my appointments are online, these days, but every so often, I have to come in. When I do, I see the bulletproof glass on the doors, the double and triple security checks that have to be performed before I can enter the building, the legacy of a long history of anti-abortion shootings and clinic bombings. When I walk into the clinic, I think about how many people in this country are just as outraged about gender transition as they are about abortion, and just as willing to hurt people. I wonder whether my local clinic will eventually be attacked, and if so, what the shooter or bomber will be most angry about — me, or the cis women getting abortions in the same building. I have been involved in two political struggles for bodily self-determination in my lifetime, and when I walk through that door both are so deeply entwined that they may as well be the same.

Joe Biden’s administration has made quick progress on transgender rights. Biden has signed an executive order reversing Donald Trump’s ban on transgender military service, and another anti-discrimination order which enforces the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County that “laws that prohibit sex discrimination… prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.” This second order has been called “the biggest expansion of LGBTQ equality in American history,” and prohibits transphobic discrimination by insurance companies, landlords, federally funded schools, and potentially many other institutions. Dr. Rachel Levine, Biden’s nominee for Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services, would be the first openly transgender federal official.

Yet even as things change for the better on a federal level, there has been a flood of anti-trans legislation at the state level. Over 20 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced across the U.S., ranging from legislation in seven states that would ban health care for trans youth to a Florida bill that would require female student-athletes to receive genital inspections. Trans rights have become a wedge issue that conservatives use to rile up their base, a culture war that motivates Republican voters with the promise of punishing gender deviancy, whether the bills are struck down in court — which many will be, thanks to Bostock — or put into practice. Being turned into a symbol of progress run amok rarely works out well for the targeted population.

This situation has a sobering precedent. The core dynamic — a sympathetic executive branch, facing down dozens of extremist and ideologically driven bills on the state level — is the same as the situation that reproductive rights faced in the early 2010s, during the (inaccurately named) “War on Women.” In those years, anti-abortion advocates advanced dozens of bills so extreme that they had seemingly no chance of becoming law: Some would have classified hormonal birth control as a form of abortion, whereas others required rape victims to prove their rapes had been “forcible.” But, though individual bills were defeated, anti-abortion advocates gradually eroded abortion access and shifted the Overton window on abortion so far right that, over time, it became functionally impossible to get an abortion in many areas of the country. Almost 10 years later, with Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh expected to overturn Roe v. Wade, the War on Women is over, and Republicans have won.

Over time, trans existence becomes a war only one side cares about winning.

If it happened with Roe, it can happen with Bostock — particularly given that trans people are a smaller minority, and face substantially higher rates of poverty, discrimination, and violence than most cis women. Yet the drive to eliminate protections for trans people does not reflect the will of the American public. The truth is that a rapidly growing majority supports trans rights, just as most Americans still believe abortion should be legal: In a 2019 survey by PRRE, 62% of Americans say they’ve become more supportive of trans issues over the past 10 years, including 76% of Democrats and 64% of Independents. Biden’s order reinforcing Bostock was the most popular executive action taken in his first week. Yet campaigns like these are alarmingly effective at manufacturing controversy and outrage around formerly uncontroversial subjects, turning bipartisan issues into lost causes through rhetoric alone.

Whether or not Republicans manage to actually pass any of their bizarre and draconian anti-trans laws, the sheer number of these bills can shift the debate by making extreme transphobia look like a commonly held opinion. Just as in the abortion “debate,” ideologues trick us into mistaking the fringes for the center, and thereby allow the fringe to dictate the terms. If the pattern of history holds, Democrats are likely to back off on supporting trans constituents as the issue begins to look riskier, with liberals and leftists alike coming to see an issue with majority support as a divisive quibble, a toxic “sticking point,” or an inevitable compromise. Over time, trans existence becomes a war only one side cares about winning. Democrats lack all conviction, while the TERFs are full of passionate intensity. You get the picture.

This doesn’t have to happen. There is nothing innately divisive about children picking out their own clothes, teenagers joining soccer teams, or adults using the bathroom at the mall. It is not an outrage to suggest that people own their bodies, and are qualified to make decisions about them, nor is it radical to say that people shouldn’t be blacklisted, starved, or murdered because of who they are. The only way to prevent trans rights from becoming an unnavigable morass is for Democrats to take control of the narrative. One might hope that a Democratic Party which has managed to regain the House, the Senate, and the presidency might feel confident enough to actually go on the offense — not just weakly rebuking Republicans’ insistence that trans people are a moral evil, but unapologetically advancing and advocating transgender rights as a moral good.

One major party has already made trans people a legislative priority. During his time in office, Trump single-handedly worked to exclude trans people from public life, signing executive orders allowing doctors to refuse trans patients health care and allowing homeless shelters to kick trans people out onto the street, amongst others. Now, Democrats have the chance to enact an agenda that is just as ambitious and sweeping — and which has the benefit of actually being supported by the American people. The National Center for Trans Equality, among others, has already laid out a pretty reasonable list of first priorities: Democrats can pass the Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination in private businesses as well as public institutions. They can create a VAWA-style allocation of funding and resources to end the epidemic of violence against predominantly Black and Brown transgender women. They can work with trans advocates to create community programs that increase employment.

Those are the moderate, easily attainable milestones. The progressive wing of the party has advanced more ambitious goals: Instead of fighting to keep trans health care legal for minors, we could be a nation that provides puberty blockers and transition care to everyone who needs them, free of charge. Instead of fighting to keep trans people out of poverty or prison, we could overhaul the criminal justice system, decriminalize sex work, and implement a universal basic income, so that incarceration and poverty are less likely for everyone. There is no reason these goals should not be taken seriously, particularly not with one side already advancing far more extreme and ideologically driven legislation. Improving the lot for trans people could improve the circumstances of everyone in this country. Democrats just have to care as much about advancing trans people’s rights and dignity as Republicans do about stripping them away.

I have lost inalienable rights already in my lifetime, and I have seen great causes fail because the people in power were hesitant to take a side. I know what having your body turned into a political football or a lightning rod can do. “Culture war” is only “cultural” if you don’t belong to the group being targeted. If you do, it is a direct attack on your physical well-being and your life. Trans people deserve more because everyone deserves more. Democrats have history, public sentiment, and truth on their side. The only question is whether they care enough to act.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Seen at Elle, In These Times & all across the Internet.

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