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Bad advice has made life a living hell for trans people
Turns out that telling Democrats to avoid talking about transgender-related topics didn't help. Go figure!
After the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, which found that same-sex couples’ right to marry is protected by the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the same right-wing groups that had been sinking massive amounts of cash into fighting that battle decided to find another, easier target: transgender rights.
On March 23, 2016, the North Carolina legislature met as part of a single-day special session. Over the course of 11 hours, Republican lawmakers took furious action against LGBTQ people (but mostly aimed at trans people), sending HB2, “The Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act,” to then-Gov. Pat McCrory (R-NC) for his signature. The bill preempted local anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people and forced government buildings (including schools) to ban trans people from using public restrooms that correspond with their gender identity.1
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It was a brutal bill, and McCrory staked his reelection hopes on its success. He lost that November. Yes, he lost. While Donald Trump won North Carolina, voters in the state rejected the Republican governor who made an anti-trans law his big selling point, losing to a Democrat who ran on repealing it. That should have been it, right? All the evidence you needed to see that directly fighting against anti-trans bills was a worthwhile action for Democrats was right there… and yet… they took the wrong lesson from it.
After Trump’s victory, pundits and Democratic consultants searched for a scapegoat. In trans people, they found it.
A Washington Post column blamed Hillary Clinton’s loss on trans people.
The piece started by telling the story of an Ohio county Democratic chairman warning Clinton that her message on trade and the economy wasn’t connecting with voters. Okay, okay.
“I don’t have to make the case that blue collar voters are, to put it mildly, less than enthusiastic about HRC’s positions on trade and the economy,” David Betras wrote in his 1,300 word missive, citing her struggles in recent primaries.
So what does this have to do with bathrooms? Well…
The local chairman feels very strongly now that Clinton could have won Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan if she had just kept her eye on economic issues and not gotten distracted by the culture wars.
“Look, I’m as progressive as anybody, okay? But people in the heartland thought the Democratic Party cared more about where someone else went to the restroom than whether they had a good-paying job,” he complained. “‘Stronger together’ doesn’t get anyone a job.”
So… to recap: Clinton lost these voters because she had unpopular policies on trade, and the blame should go to… trans people? It really should not be necessary to say this, but Clinton did not spend any significant amount of time on LGBTQ issues during her campaign. Yes, she had a policy page with (pretty decent) LGBTQ policy positions (certainly much, much, much better than Trump, who spent four years attacking LGBTQ rights after being elected), but as this analysis of what she actually said during the campaign illustrates, Clinton barely mentioned words like “gay” or “LGBTQ” at all in her campaign speeches.
Still, this criticism persisted. At the New York Times, Mark Lilla wrote an op-ed about “the end of identity liberalism.” Lilla accused liberals of slipping “into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.” Excuse me? The “moral panic” about “racial, gender and sexual identity” was a creation of liberals? North Carolina Republicans making it damn near illegal for trans people to safely exist within the state was what, then? And is the answer that Democrats should have just ceded that battle entirely? Not even offering an objection? Maybe even joining the anti-trans crusade?
Lilla’s piece received backlash from those of us who actually followed the presidential election, watched candidate stump speeches, and paid attention to what was (and wasn’t) said by politicians. There was no evidence to suggest that Clinton lost because she talked too much about “identity” issues — because she really didn’t.
One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end. Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.
The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. Hollywood’s efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American families and public life.
But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)
Lilla rode his Times op-ed all the way to a book deal. The Times reviewed it; The New Yorker, Guardian, and NPR all gave him prominent profiles to promote it. Lilla and his team knew that it was the “controversy” surrounding the piece that helped land him that book deal, as the Times review noted:
In order to stop losing elections to the likes of Donald Trump, Lilla proposed, “the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.” As the book’s promotional material proudly notes, the piece set off “a firestorm of controversy.”
At every turn, you had “very smart” pundit types telling Democrats that they were talking too much about transgender rights, which I again feel obligated to note that Democrats didn’t actually talk much about. It continued long after the 2016 election, too.
In December 2019, Times writer Thomas Edsall acknowledged that Trump “has been aggressively moving since his inauguration to attack the rights of transgender men and women,” and yet still found himself making the case that maybe Democrats should throw trans people under the bus.
Trump has barred transgender individuals from serving in the military. He has withdrawn an Obama administration regulation granting transgender students the right to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity. He has expanded a “conscience rule” that protects doctors and other health care workers who, on religious grounds, decline to provide care and who refuse to refer patients to personnel who will provide it. The administration has also proposed the elimination of Obama-era rules banning discrimination against transgender medical patients by eliminating provisions that define discrimination “on the basis of sex” to include gender identity.
Again, Edsall here acknowledges that Trump banned trans people from the military, implemented policies allowing schools to discriminate against trans people, created a carve-out that would allow doctors (in all situations, not just related to transition-related care) to refuse to treat trans people, and defended policies allowing discrimination against trans people in employment, housing, and public accommodations in court.
For a moment, imagine that you’re a trans person (if you’re not). What does it mean to have a government that goes out of its way to explicitly promote discrimination against you in every facet of your life?
Can’t find a job because no one will hire you when they find out you’re trans? Tough. Can’t find an apartment because landlords are grossed out by your mere existence? Sorry, at least there’s still public housi— oh, never mind. Well, at least there’s always the military, which has always functioned as a sort of employer of last resort. There, you’ll have food, housing, income — ah, right, the whole trans military ban, whoops! These aren’t just minor inconveniences. These are exterminationist policies, yet, rather than arguing that these are horrific attacks that are unacceptable on any group of Americans, Edsall does his best to tell readers to steer clear.
The day after the 2020 election, former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who lost her seat in 2018 despite Democrats having a wave election year, took to her highly-paid post on MSNBC to complain that… well, you just watch:
Around cultural issues, the Republican Party, I think, very adroitly adopted cultural issues as part of their main theme. Whether you’re talking guns or issues surrounding the right to abortion in this country or things like gay marriage and rights for transsexuals and other people who we as a party have tried to look after and make sure that they’re treated fairly.
As we circle those issues, we’ve left some voters behind, and Republicans dove in with a vengeance and grabbed those voters. You’ve seen this shift. You see it in the South. I see it in the rural areas of my state. So we’ve gotta get back to the meat-and-potatoes issues. We’ve gotta get back to the issues where we are taking care of their families, and we’ve gotta stop acting like we’re smarter than everybody else. Because we’re not.
You hear that? It’s the focus on “things like gay marriage and rights for transsexuals” that hurt Democrats. Now, again, it’s not that Democrats spent the 2020 campaign talking all that much about “rights for transsexuals.” They didn’t. Biden sidestepped it at every possible moment. Talking even less about trans rights wouldn’t have changed a damn thing, but McCaskill, who won election to the senate in 2006 despite getting less than 50% of the vote and won re-election in 2012 because she had the unbelievably good fortune of running against human disaster Todd Akin (you may remember him as the guy who said abortion restrictions didn’t need rape and incest exceptions because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”), was determined to blame trans people for Dems’ losses (they picked up seats in the Senate, lost seats in the House, and won the presidency; in 2016, Republicans lost seats in the Senate, lost seats in the House, and won the presidency, but that was considered a big success for them).
And, again, mind you, this was after Republicans had been waging an all-out assault on LGBTQ (particularly trans) rights for years. The most Democrats did during the 2020 campaign to fight back against the GOP-led attacks on trans rights was to promise to undo some of the Trump-enacted policies (like the one that gave doctors the all-clear to let you bleed out in the emergency room if they realized you were trans and thought you were icky) and push to pass the Equality Act.
Meanwhile, Republicans were going all-in on this. You suddenly had groups like the American Principles Project dumping millions of dollars into anti-trans propaganda campaigns and getting flashy Politico profiles promoting their work.
For the most part, Democrats have heeded these calls to talk even less about trans issues. And here’s where it got them.
Every few days, I check out Freedom for All Americans’ anti-transgender legislation tracker. As its name suggests, it’s just an ongoing list of anti-trans bills being introduced in states. You’ve got states that have explicitly tried to remove gender identity as a protected class (Iowa), a whole bunch of them that have tried (and some have succeeded) in making it illegal for trans girls to participate in school sports, some that have tried to make gender-affirming healthcare for minors illegal, others that have tried to pass a 2022 version of North Carolina’s HB2 law, and well, you get the idea.
This is a gigantic issue that is being talked about constantly. By Republicans. And they’re making life hell for us trans people.
Democrats are obviously the better of the two major parties, and we live in a country where third-party bids at the presidential level aren’t viable. And yes, most Democrats do want to pass the Equality Act, which would provide federal protections to LGBTQ people and make it more difficult for Republicans to successfully weaponize this at the state level.
Did Democrats’ efforts to ignore this issue make it go away? No. In fact, knowing that the Democratic Party can be hesitant to tackle this topic (thanks to years of pundits telling them that it’s toxic), Republicans have gotten more extreme in their actions.
But that… is a story for tomorrow’s newsletter.
As I’ve written about previously, the reason these types of bills are so harmful is that they make it so trans people can only leave the house for however long their bladders can handle it. That, or having to use the wrong restroom, effectively outing themselves to everyone around them (and putting themselves at risk of physical danger that comes with total strangers knowing that they’re trans).