Freethought NOW!

It’s not actually about trans people

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Trans rights, trans legislation, trans people

Copyright: Ted Eyton

It seems like every time I write something on the current state of transgender rights in this country, I immediately have to turn around and write something new as the snowball of legalized bigotry continues to grow. This month alone has seen some of the worst anti-trans legislation in recent memory get signed into law, especially in Florida, where conditions are now so dire that the NAACP has issued a travel advisory heading into the summer vacation season.

It is now essentially impossible to safely exist as a trans person in Florida. You can be charged with trespassing if a cisgender person asks you to leave the bathroom. Your children can be taken away by the state if either you, someone in your family, or your child themselves are trans. Gender-affirming care has been totally banned for minors and essentially banned for adults due to the levels of restriction that have now been placed on it. I haven’t mentioned yet the expansion of the “Don’t Say Gay/Trans” law and the reclassification of drag performances (regardless of their actual content) to “adult entertainment,” leading to the cancellation of long-standing pride events and concern among trans and gender-nonconforming performers of all types that their ability to perform will be impacted.

There is absolutely no doubt that these laws are rooted in religious extremism. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held a public signing ceremony for the anti-trans legislation at Cambridge Christian School, a conservative evangelical pre-K–12 school in Tampa, in an environment that the Associated Press described as having a “campaign-like feel” — especially compared to his private signings of anti-abortion and pro-gun laws. He tossed out Sharpies to a cheering crowd of supporters, publicly celebrating a systemic attack on bodily autonomy and personal expression. These laws have no basis in science or reality and instead were specifically created by organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Heritage Foundation and the Family Policy Alliance to impose a Christian nationalist worldview on all Americans.

I can, have and will continue to go into heavy detail regarding how these and the hundreds of other laws being proposed nationwide are going to harm trans people and our families, likely for the rest of my career. But today I’m going to let you all in on a secret: This isn’t actually about trans people.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a walk through Florida’s new bathroom ban.

On its face, it appears to operate like this: If a trans person is in the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity in a government-owned building and refuses to leave after being asked to do so by an employee or law enforcement, they can be charged with trespassing. (There are some more complex rules for schools, but for our purposes, let’s stay focused on that singular element.)

The first question someone has to ask in this situation is “How do you know who is and isn’t trans?” The answer, in practice, is, of course: “You can’t.” There is no way for employees or law enforcement to reliably clock trans people with 100 percent accuracy. ID documents can be legally changed, so carding someone isn’t going to work (even in a state where policies are being changed to prohibit gender marker changes, there will always be out-of-state IDs to contend with). There is the horrifying option of subjecting people to genital exams, but even that fails to accomplish the stated goal of figuring out who is in the “correct” bathroom, as many transgender people receive gender-affirming surgery at some point in their lives. This means that on a practical level, the only way to enforce this law is through stereotyping and, ultimately, by regulating everyone’s gender expression.

Say you’re a cisgender woman with short hair at the airport, wearing pants, a sweatshirt and sneakers. You need to use the restroom before you catch your flight, so you head to the nearest women’s room. You wait in line, mind your business, and go into the next available stall. Meanwhile, another woman has determined that you don’t look sufficiently “feminine” enough to belong in the same restroom, and has gone to alert security, who agrees that you don’t look like a “real” woman. You are then informed in front of everyone present that you need to leave the restroom or be arrested for trespassing. All the while, you have done nothing except exist in a public space while not adhering to an incredibly subjective view of gender presentation.

Second verse, same as the first — what if you’re a cisgender man with long hair and painted nails, wearing a floral shirt in a courthouse, and someone in the washroom decides that you’re not “masculine” enough to be a “real” man? Again, you’ve done nothing but exist in public in a gender-nonconforming way. But if the law enforcement officer deciding whether or not you’re trans doesn’t agree with your definition of masculinity, you’re stuck with the choice of leaving, being stripsearched or being arrested.

Sure, in either case you could fight the charges, but the public humiliation and loss of basic dignity will stay with you. It will be in the back of your mind next time you get a haircut, or clean out your closet, or go shopping. A small, anxious part of you will build up every time you look in the mirror, or catch your reflection in a window. You’ll constantly be asking yourself if you look enough in line with your assigned gender at birth, making changes to how you interact with the world. More skirts. Less nail polish. Changing how you speak. The world around you will also follow suit. Framing these laws as “protecting private spaces” implies to the public that anyone who looks like they don’t belong in a certain restroom is there to commit sexual violence. The people around you start policing each other out of fear for themselves and their children. This type of fear escalates into violence, such as the assault of an 86-year-old cisgender woman with dementia caused by the perpetrator’s belief that she was “a man dressed as a woman” and a “pedophile.” Assault and murder are still illegal, but suddenly the trans panic defense starts coming back into play in the courts, leading to lesser sentences based on the victim’s gender presentation.

All of these things eventually add up until we’ve all been pushed back into a very specific image of femininity or masculinity that is directly in line with the values of the Christian nationalist groups that have been directing this legislation. When you start to then look at the bigger picture, including the ever-growing restrictions on reproductive health care and the methodical steps toward dismantling civil rights laws being taken by the same groups, an even more frightening reality emerges. Strict gender roles and the associated adherence to patriarchal hierarchies are classic elements of fascism.

You might not personally agree with the existence of trans people, and that’s fine. The point of this blog is not to change your mind on that front. But we all must face the reality that we are at a critical moment in American history. You have to ask yourself if your disagreement with the lives of less than 2 percent of Americans is worth sacrificing decades of social progress and the very soul of our democracy. Is it really worth it to align yourself with the same people who want to force your children to learn the bible in their public school classrooms in order to save some discomfort over pronouns? You aren’t paying for your own safety with trans lives, you’re simply empowering the forces of theocracy to come after you next.

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