Transgender Politics and Transforming America

Transgender Politics and Transforming America

Monday, Nov. 13 marked the beginning of Transgender Awareness Week, and in 2017 the transgender community is more visible than ever before in history. While it is natural, perhaps unavoidable, to feel as though the transphobia that is so deeply ingrained into our culture will never truly go away, I believe wholeheartedly that our progress towards equality is undeniable and that our fight to improve society’s acceptance of the transgender community is indeed advancing permanently—albeit laboriously.


At the beginning of January 2017, conservative Virginia Delegate Robert G. Marshall of Prince William County proposed the “Physical Privacy Act,” a bill which was largely reminiscent of North Carolina’s 2016 anti-trans bathroom bill (HB2). This bill would not only ban transgender people from using the restroom corresponding with their gender identities, but would also require any principal of a public school to out transgender children to their parents within 24 hours. On Nov. 7, that very same man was unseated by a transgender woman named Danica Roem, making her the first openly transgender state representative in the country. Some might call that poetic justice, but it’s much larger than that—Roem’s victory is one of eight wins for openly transgender candidates nationwide, including two black transgender candidates elected into Minneapolis City Council, Connecticut’s first ever transgender lawmaker, the first trans person elected in Pennsylvania, and the first transgender person elected into a non-judicial office in California, making the Palm Springs City Council the first ever city government in the nation to have LGBTQ+ members make up its majority.


This groundbreaking victory for the transgender community is indicative of a shift in public perception of transgender people, especially trans people in politics.


Virginia’s self-described “chief homophobe” Bob Marshall had a 13-term run, throughout which he was a vehement opponent of the LGBTQ+ community, even going so far as to refuse to debate Roem and consistently misgendering her. Marshall also directly attacked Roem’s identity in campaign ads while simultaneously claiming that Roem had been campaigning based on transgender identity politics, a sentiment shared by republican Prince William County Supervisor Jeanine M. Lawson. Meanwhile, Roem thought Marshall was the one who was overly fixated on transgender identity politics, commenting, “Delegate Marshall’s legislative priorities are more concerned with where I go to the bathroom than how you get to work.” Roem instead chose to focus on traffic issues on Route 28 and other “bread-and-butter” issues concerning infrastructure, teacher pay, and Medicaid. While she certainly did not refrain from standing up for transgender rights, her main focus throughout her campaign concerned infrastructure and public policy, with Roem declaring in her victory speech that she believed in “building up our infrastructure instead of tearing down each other.” Roem also made it clear that she believed Marshall’s bigotry directly contributed to his loss, proclaiming, “this election has to prove nationwide that discrimination is a disqualifier,” a message of utmost importance in today’s political climate.


Marshall’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislation was not the first of its kind, nor was it unique. In early 2016, the Human Rights Campaign reported 44 anti-trans propositions across 16 states, 29 of which were “bathroom bills,” compared to 21 anti-trans bills proposed in 2015. One could easily point towards President Donald Trump’s campaign as being responsible for this spike in hostility against transgender people, considering that his campaign was attributed to a 20 percent rise in hate crimes last year. However, it is important to note that a major contributor to this rise in transphobia is the simple fact that transgender people were becoming more visible. After all, it can be quite difficult to discriminate against a group of people whose existence you aren’t aware of.


Within the past few years, the transgender community has received unprecedented spotlight. Laverne Cox rose to prominence in 2013 for her role in popular Netflix series, Orange Is the New Black, and became the first transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine in 2014. That same year, Against Me!’s album Transgender Dysphoria Blues was voted Rolling Stone’s 15th best album of the year, peaking at No. 23 on the Billboard 200. Barneys New York’s Spring 2014 campaign featured seventeen transgender models. Facebook allowed users to select from over 50 genders and 3 pronouns while Google simply began allowing users to type in their gender identities. Under the Obama administration, the Department of Education gave Title IX protection to transgender students and the Affordable Care Act, which prohibited discrimination based on gender identity, provided widespread transition-related care to trans people nationwide. The following year—perhaps most notably of all—retired Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete and reality television personality, Caitlyn Jenner, came out as transgender. Despite the LGBTQ+ community’s general distaste for her as a figurehead, she was undeniably responsible for massively increased visibility for the transgender community.


As expected, with this attention came backlash; the aforementioned anti-trans bills, Donald Trump’s attempt to ban transgender people from serving in the military, and Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’s rollbacks of federal protections for transgender students are only a small part of it. According to the Human Rights Campaign, “More transgender people were killed in the first six months of [2015] than in all of 2014.” Twenty-one transgender people were reported to have been victims of fatally violent attacks that year, which was more than any prior year recorded. That record was exceeded in 2016 with 23 killed and has already been topped again this year with 25 transgender people reportedly killed as of Nov. 3.


However, on the flipside, increased public awareness of transgender issues also brought wider public acceptance of transgender people, as 68 percent of American voters, including 55 percent of voters in military households believe that transgender people should be allowed to serve in the military, and of course, several transgender candidates have now been voted into office.


Danica Roem’s election into state office as an openly transgender woman shows significant change in public perception of transgender people in politics compared to public perception in 1991, when former Denver Councilwoman Joanne Conte was elected without disclosing her gender identity and was essentially forced to come out as transgender on her own terms before the press would take matters into their own hands. Conte cited her reasons for secrecy, stating, “I didn’t want to be known as Joanne Conte who had a sex reassignment. I wanted to do one thing independent of that scourge.” Not only had Conte been disowned by her family for being transgender, but after coming out, she was met with the Associated Press’s headline, “Councilwoman Was Once A Man,” and in 1995 her bid for re-election was unsuccessful. With that, her political career was over. Even in her later radio career, advertisements mocked her with the questions, “Is it a man? Is it a woman?” In 1992, just one year after Conte’s election, Althea Garrison was elected as a Republican representative in Massachusetts without disclosing that she was transgender and was subsequently outed as transgender against her will by reporter Eric Fehrnstrom in the conservative Boston Herald, after which she did not succeed in her 14 attempts at re-election.


Today, as proven by the recent election, not only can openly transgender people be elected politicians without fearing that their identities are a death sentence to their careers, but they can do so against transphobic opposition and be celebrated for it. Roem even received kudos from former Vice President Joe Biden, who called to congratulate her on her victory. Biden, an active ally of the transgender community has called transgender equality “the civil rights issue of our time.” Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), commented on the election, “this is a clear repudiation of President Trump’s hate-fueled politics of bullying and browbeating. Yesterday, Americans took to the polls and chose optimism, hope, and new leadership – and this is only the beginning of our resistance.” Newly-elected Minneapolis councilwoman Andrea Jenkins stated more succinctly, “my election is what resistance looks like.”


The significance of the recent election cannot be overstated. Nov. 7, 2017 will be remembered as a crucial milestone for the rights of transgender individuals across the nation, myself included. This election marks a massive cultural shift in America’s perception of transgender issues. More importantly, though, this victory signifies greater progress to come.


John Steinbeck once said of mankind and progress, “having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back.” It can often feel like the battle for transgender rights is fought in vain, like every futile attempt to push forward will inevitably be set back, but the transgender community’s triumph in the recent election definitively demonstrates our resilience and displays a monumental, irreversible step towards a more tolerant America—something no opposition can undo.


Human Rights Campaign spokeswoman Sarah McBride—also a transgender woman—told The New York Times,“For trans youth across the country, Danica Roem’s election isn’t just a headline or even history. It’s hope. Hope for a better tomorrow.”


To me, though, this election is more than just hope: it is proof of a better tomorrow, just over the horizon.


photo courtesy of Redlands Bulldog Editor-in-Chief, Willow Higgins