On April 24, The Economist published “Trans medicine gets entangled in America’s culture wars.” They promoted it on Twitter, claiming “Lawmakers in conservative states are pushing back against the Biden administration’s embrace of gender ideology.” The article contained a multitude of falsehoods and misleading statements, but none more asinine than its claim that, with regards to “the belief that trans children are at a greatly heightened risk of suicide,” “there is no evidence.”
On May 5, a study published Nature suggested that trans youth die by suicide somewhere around a thousand times more often than the general population.
I am surrounded by claims that, when it comes to transgender issues, we live in an entirely different world than half a century ago. Transgender rights have progressed so much in the United States: There are no longer laws criminalizing cross-dressing, medically appropriate healthcare for trans people is more accessible, there are more nondiscrimination laws that cover trans people, corporations make big shows of supporting trans people, etc. The story is similar in other countries, with an explosion of acceptance and support at all levels of society. That’s the story I keep hearing.
And to be sure, I certainly would prefer to live in the United States today than in basically any country in the 1970s. But this story seems misleading, incomplete at best. When I read things written about transgender issues around half a century ago, I feel as though little has changed. In a 1989 interview with Eric Marcus, Sylvia Rivera talked about how trans people “were nothing” to the wider gay community. This was certainly on display in 1973, when she was booed and jeered at the New York City Gay Pride Parade before she hardly had a chance to speak. This was despite her aggressive, ongoing activism for the larger gay community, and the sacrifices she had made for it. Today, there are multiple gay men with massive platforms who use their voices to be patently transphobic, while the larger gay community is extremely hit-or-miss in terms of trans inclusion.
Marsha P. Johnson, also in an interview with Eric Marcus, remarked about how drag queens like her would get arrested and sent to jail “just for wearing a little bit of makeup down Forty-second Street.” Marsha died in 1992; the law which prompted the police to continually arrest trans people for simply being in public was only repealed in February of this year.
In another interview, “Rapping with a Street Transvestite Revolutionary,” Marsha P. Johnson provided another two parallels. She remarked on how she had been nearly killed several times (she ultimately died under unclear circumstances with a massive wound to the back of her head); the 2015 United States Trans Survey found that around one in ten trans people in the United States had been physically assaulted just in the past year, and the Human Rights Campaign has noted that last year had the most known killings of transgender people since they began keeping count, and this year is on track to break that record. Additionally, Marsha, who was very poor, had said that she was planning on going to Sweden to get a sex change; today, access to healthcare can still be daunting for trans people, despite improvements.
Organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the Empire State Pride Agenda used to repeatedly refuse to support transgender people in their political efforts, regarding them as too fringe and unpopular. Rivera said that they had pushed trans people to “the back of the bumper. It’s not even the back of the bus anymore—it’s the back of the bumper.” Today, it’s commonly held that transgender people are too small a population to devote any substantial effort to.
And so on. Those are just a few of the examples I have. In each case, I can say that things have become better, but that is a much smaller claim than saying that we have seen some meteoric improvement.
Despite this apparent material improvement, I am struck by a feeling of deja vu. When I read the old arguments from decades ago, reflect on the debates I have lived through, and review what has happened in between, it feels like the same issue relitigated again and again and again. Additionally, all victories feel extremely precarious; I find myself regularly let down by people I felt were allies, and now we face a massive surge of anti-transgender state legislation which risks revoking progress and, in some ways, making matters worse than they ever were. For example, consider Texas Senate Bill 1646, which labels consenting to your child receiving medically appropriate healthcare for gender dysphoria as child abuse, potentially leading to your child being taken away. Senate Bill 1646 has passed the Texas Senate, and it’s unclear if it will pass or fail in the House.
Why? Why have things improved so slowly? Why are these improvements so insecure? Why is it that, despite the improvements, I feel as though we are essentially debating the same thing over and over again?
I believe this is because we have not significantly changed the prevailing attitude society has towards being transgender. By my count, the dominant sentiment in the United States regarding transgender people is that being transgender is unfortunate and undesirable, but there is nothing that can reasonably be done to change it. Transgender people are obviously born that way, because who would ever want to be transgender given how much discrimination they face? Plus, transgender people normally hate being transgender in and of itself, with all the dysphoria that accompanies it. And with all the costs that accompany transitioning, it’s a poor financial decision as well. The notion that being transgender is on all counts undesirable is ascendant in American society.
A great example of how this attitude goes beyond just popular apologetics to make a real, negative impact is medicine. To this day, clinicians such as Kenneth Zucker and Ray Blanchard hold immense sway in medical discussions about transgender issues, even though they hold positions explicitly hostile to the idea that it being transgender is something that can be valued. Zucker’s work supports conversion therapy and the notion that transgender youth are merely going through a phase—a notion we are seeing play out with devastating consequences—while Blanchard’s work involves a lot of “trans women are just guys with fetishes” with an academic gloss. Zucker’s work has seen significant support within the United States and his home country of Canada, while the United Kingdom’s public healthcare system is greatly influenced by Blanchard’s understanding of transgender women. They both have simultaneously contributed to the expansion of transgender medicine and been a major part in why transgender medicine remains strictly gatekept and hard to access for many.
When transgender identity is regarded not as a co-equal gender modality but rather as worse than cisgender identity, the impetus that people feel to help is heavily comprised of pity. “These poor unfortunate souls need our help!” But pity has a short half-life. People tend to focus their attention on the problems closest to them, and most people are not transgender and are not close to anyone who is. Trying to force pity can be like squeezing blood from a turnip, so victory on one issue may not say much about victory on the next one. This is part of why “what more rights could you want?” is a common refrain from those who aren’t familiar transgender issues, even though there’s a lot of progress to be made.
In the move from extreme issues like homicide to less obvious ones like sports, pity begins to wear thin and cisgender people’s convenience begins to define the terms of the debate. “What about cis women’s safety in restrooms?” “There is no reason to think that’s a problem.” “Then it’s okay. What about cis kids mistakenly being given hormones, or worse, being made transgender?” “There is no reason to think that will happen.” “Then it’s okay. What if nonbinary acceptance leads to an explosion of identities, making gender meaningless?” “There’s no reason to think that male and female won’t remain predominant.” “Then it’s okay.” The fact that transgender people live in a highly hostile society, a world built without concern for them, hardly registers; the true concern in the public debate is if cisgender people might potentially experience some drawbacks. Possibly the most clear example of this is pronouns: It’s not that hard to get them right. It’s a mild inconvenience at most. But the resistance to using the correct pronouns is immense.
A common problem in public policy occurs when a net positive change would have diffuse benefits but concentrated drawbacks. The group that experiences the brunt of the downsides loudly speaks out, and the change is never made, even though overall things would improve. When it comes to transgender issues, it’s often the opposite. A mere inkling of a potential inconvenience to cisgender people becomes a justification for not making a massive concentrated improvement among transgender people. Even if the net benefit is great, the fact that the much larger group might possibly have to make minor sacrifices evokes great resistance.
When the notion that being transgender is not a life worth valuing is ascendant, it is difficult to make more than modest progress. Pity is not effective in long-term fights, and framing the debate—and letting the debate be framed—as all about if cisgender people will be inconvenienced is ultimately doomed to fail. Every new issue will be relitigated on those same grounds, and eventually, fighting such an uphill battle will fail.
I want to emphasize that I am not thinking purely in terms of popular opinion. I am thinking in terms of what makes real, lasting change. The Economist reaches elite audiences: policymakers and CEOs and think tanks. That wasn’t the first time they had said something which was false and harmful, and it won’t be the last. It won’t be the last because their worries about cisgender convenience weigh heavily on their mind, while transgender oppression is given little more than vapid and patronizing statements of opposition. This is both a reflection of and a factor in the current policy debates raging in countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, and Sweden.
Charles Wade Mills observed that liberalism is the lingua franca of much of the political world. This is part of why much of the rhetorical focus for LGBT rights has been on equality. But equality, while good, is limited. That’s part of the point. One of the major tributaries of liberal thought has been that things are better when different social groups stop fighting over control of the state and settle for political equality. Neither group gets entirely what they want, but each gets a lot of what they want, and in the name of peace and fairness they settle for that. But transgender people are a very small portion of the population, and fairly evenly distributed. It is very difficult to convince cisgender people at-large that transgender people are equal to them in several key ways, whether by persuasion or by pragmatic compromise. So even the limited benefits of political equality are difficult for transgender people to achieve.
The idea of freedom is more potent, at least in the United States. Freedom is possibly the American word, the single most important political concept in the nation. I believe freedom has been emphasized less, to the detriment of transgender activism. “Mind your own business” is a very American sentiment, and one that can be a powerful defense of transgender people in the face of a populace that’s less than sympathetic. You don’t need to convince someone that what you are doing is just as good as what they are doing if they just mind their own business. Such an idea has political power: Arkansas certainly isn’t minding its own business in interfering with people’s healthcare.
The goal of politics is to make real change that lasts for a long time. It does not seem that such a thing has happened for transgender people; not yet. Change has been made, but there are still powerful groups that do not want transgender people to even exist, and many more think it would be better if all trans people were cis but that it’s simply not plausible to make that the case. Since trans people are seen as pitiful beings, pity is the emotional drive for policy change—but pity is in short supply. Pity quickly turns into resentment at the idea that one might be inconvenienced, and we can see this in our public debates about transgender rights. The problems that transgender people experience, which transcend far beyond inconvenience, hardly register against the notion that a cisgender person might be bothered. These sentiments find their way into public policy in the form of perpetual resistance to improvement and novel ways of making matters worse for transgender people. Revoke what progress has been made, punish people for coming out, and others for supporting them.
We have not yet seen meteoric change. We have not yet built change that will last for a long time. We just might; we certainly won’t unless we try. But it is an uphill battle, and success is not yet assured.