The storm that is already upon us

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Angry political seas are churning in Washington.

Progressive civil rights organizations are mobilized as perhaps never before, building and expanding coalitions and urging the public to awaken to what is now rapidly taking shape, and how threatening it is to us all. Activists are trying as hard as we can to chart some safe, sane course that doesn’t leave our country – or at least the most vulnerable in our country – smashed upon the jagged rocks of public indifference, political arrogance, and ideological purity. We’re not doe-eyed do-gooders baking cookies for the church fundraiser; we’re battle-hardened experienced realists who are sadly all too aware that the storm we are just beginning to feel in force will result in many, many casualties. We know that we’ll lose in many and perhaps most of our efforts to overcome this mindless devastation, but we look for even small opportunities to prevent or diminish the suffering ahead, to speak out in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us, and to preserve and live out what remains of the best values that have historically defined us as Americans.

It may all sound both dire and slightly heroic, a David and Goliath struggle that will in time become the stuff of legend. The daily reality is something very different. Each day as I go to work at the National Center for Transgender Equality, I know that the hours ahead will be long and hard and that – at best – any progress we make on behalf of protecting the very threatened rights and quality of life of transgender people will be incremental. There will be hours of engagement with the staff of Senators and Representatives, strategy meetings with coalition partners across the civil and human rights spectrum, research and reaching out, and communications. And while all of this goes on, powerful waves of malevolent force will be thundering down upon us and our efforts. Those waves are already here, in force, as we see in the mindless urgency to repeal the Affordable Care Act before any replacement plan is proposed, completely insensitive to the suffering that millions of America’s poorest will face. Transgender persons are disproportionately represented in those ranks of the poor, with recent survey data showing 29% of transgender people living in poverty compared to 14% in the larger U.S. population. Those angry waves seek to defund Planned Parenthood, an essential provider of health services to women across the nation, and the largest single provider of health care to transgender Americans.

The choice of a storm metaphor makes perfect sense to me. There is great force and weight to a storm, but only the most rudimentary direction. A storm lacks logic, rationality, or compassion. It is often accompanied by darkness and cold. It feels unrelenting, and those who are in its path will suffer, or worse. Continue reading The storm that is already upon us

Despite it all…

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For the first time in years, I actually bought one of those magazines at the check-out counter at the grocery store. You know the ones – they jostle in their gaudy colors, their provocative titles distracting (and generally irritating) overwhelmed shoppers like me. Yet for the first time ever, one of those better-known, thankfully non-gaudy magazines features (provocatively) a transgender girl on its cover – absent any subtext of outrage, disgust, or rejection. A girl, right there on that cover, just being herself. Whew…what a relief, and what a blessing.

Thank you, National Geographic.

Some upbeat news at the end of a very hard year is indeed a welcome Christmas present. And there is no pretending that 2016 has been OK; it hasn’t. For me this year has been marked by vulnerability, stigmatization, worry, financial insecurity, and exclusion. It’s been a year of first-hand encounters with ageism and transphobia, again and again and again. It’s sadly telling that this will be the first time in decades that I’m not sending out Christmas cards – it’s been that kind of a year. So yes, I’m glad to see 2016 go away, even if I’ve very little reason to hope that the coming year (the coming four years, really) will be any better for many, many people who are facing not only various emboldened forms of exclusion and stigma, but also the possibility of losing their health insurance, seeing their civil rights eroded, watching our country engage in bellicose and ill-judged international engagements, and standing aghast as our environmental protections go down the drain.

Somehow though, I’m feeling ready. Bring it on. I’ve made it this far, and there’s no stopping me now. And I sense I am not alone in that determination…

That simple magazine cover (and its well-written contents) reminded me of something that I sorely needed to be reminded of. There are good people “out there”, open to learning about and boldly – intentionally – embracing a new world of diversity in which people like me are accepted and even valued (my friends have been saying that consistently, but you know how a funky mood in a bad election year can shut down even the love and wisdom of terrific friends). But being around loving family and friends does make a huge difference, as does finding some income-generating work (and I have just found some, at least for a while), and maybe those Christmas carols and the cards I’ve received have also shone their rejuvenating light into the darkness. Whatever…I’m feeling more upbeat now than I have all year. Continue reading Despite it all…

Risking existential authenticity in the Trump Era

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It’s existential.

There’s a word that’s overused, often at the center of hyperbole. After all, existential means of, relating to, or affirming existence. In other words, it’s about being – and “being” is where everything ultimately comes down to. That’s a very big notion.

Is being transgender existential? After all, every human being is more than our gender, sex, or gender identity. Some of us are short, athletic, graceful, coordinated, musical – there are nearly innumerable attributes that might define or describe very important aspects of who we are – but these are not existential attributes. Our core identity will not collapse if a late burst of growth in our teen years catapults us from short to tall. We won’t cease to be ourselves if we lose our athleticism through aging or disability. We may grow less graceful, coordinated, or even less musical, but we are still ourselves.

Many cisgender (non-transgender) persons incorrectly view the transgender journey as a path toward a chosen set of attributes – in effect, the intentional construction of an alternative (or radical, or fringe, or delusional, or irrational, or…) lifestyle. For similar reasons, many cisgender folk will question the centrality of any decision, or self-identification, that some persons adopt which places them outside the gender binary – a binary that has defined humanity since time immemorial. To them, being transgender or being outside the gender binary (which are not necessarily the same thing), are at best  harmless, silly, or inconvenient contrivances. At worst, it’s immoral, sinful, an abomination to be rejected.

Take it from me: it’s existential.

Or, if you would rather look for further validation, consider the appallingly high attempted suicide rate that afflicts so many transgender persons. Reliable data places the rate of attempted suicides among the general U.S. population at 4.6 percent, but among transgender or gender non-conforming people this rate soars to 41 percent. For many, many transgender persons, life in the wrong gender is unsustainable. We simply can’t go on another day like that. It’s traumatic, and it’s existential.

Yesterday I spent the day in Baltimore, Maryland at a gathering of faith leaders (clergy, and others who play a leadership role in communities of faith) organized by Transfaith to build community, solidarity and share each others wisdom and strength in the healing work of helping transgender persons overcome trauma. Nearly all of us who gathered there were self-identified as transgender and/or gender non-conforming, and we each had found our various ways to survive the journey across (or beyond) the gender boundaries that had been imposed upon us at birth. We had survived, through coping skills and grit and resilience, and we continue to exist…we’ve moved toward lives of existential authenticity. We’d found support and affirmation among our own faith communities – as I had among the Quakers. Some of us however had been forced to find new communities of faith, having grown up in faith traditions that have no tolerance for us. Continue reading Risking existential authenticity in the Trump Era

Indignation and outrage – precious and necessary

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The position of President of the United States of America is intended for those whom we most esteem – people we hold up to our children as exemplars of all that is best about this beloved country. Just speaking aloud such names as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, or Franklin Roosevelt is to invoke respect and awe…these leaders and many others among our past presidents truly were transformational, and we honor them. Based on such exemplars, we now rightly expect anyone holding this highest office to model the virtues of wisdom and temperance, decency and compassion, empathy and judgment, patience and restraint, and unyielding respect for the human dignity of all persons. In their private lives, and in their business and public transactions, we expect them to be accountable to the core secular ethical standards that underpin the public trust: competence, civility, transparency, honesty, responsibility, consistency, and accountability. We look to their courage and fortitude, we depend on their reliability and honor. We delight if they are witty. They should be patriots in the best sense of that concept – dedicated to upholding the Constitution and being wholly committed to the pursuit of the common good…in which “common” means for everyone. No exceptions.

It is a very high standard, and historically no previous president has scored highly in all respects. Our presidents have not been saints, but their human foibles and modest limitations have made them people we could relate to. And yes, Donald Trump will soon ride to his electoral college victory by having cultivated that populist persona – a flawed man that ordinary folk could relate to. Those attributes are important, but not nearly good enough. At an absolute minimum, the President of the United States must be someone we can trust. Continue reading Indignation and outrage – precious and necessary

Musings of an “East Coast liberal elite” on Thanksgiving

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It’s Thanksgiving, and so far I have sat mute as numerous messages have reached me across the Internet from friends and family, effusive in their gratitude for the many blessings that characterize their lives and relationships. These are sincere, warm, caring messages, and it is wonderful that this holiday opens the door to such expressions. Throughout the rest of the year, none of us says “thank you” nearly enough.

This year, however, I have not found the words inside me to be warmly responsive to these sentiments. Maybe I am just in a funky place…which might be forgivable in my current circumstances. I’m still trying – without measurable success – to make any sense of the recent presidential election, as the American political landscape seems to have entered into a place of irrationality and deep division. While the world around me seems very insecure, my own personal world also has more than a fair share of insecurity.  I’ve been unemployed (not counting a few consulting assignments and some modestly-remunerated adjunct teaching) for the past two years, despite my monumental efforts to find a new job. Success in securing employment eludes me. My small savings long ago were depleted, and despite many job applications still “pending” my prospects continue to look bleak. So…I am finding myself blocked from that congenial space in which to muse upon my blessings. I might take some small satisfaction in laying some blame for my plight on ageism and transphobia, but placing blame won’t change a culture that excludes well-qualified people from employment opportunities simply because they are mature, experienced, and living authentically.

Still, I know all too well that I am blessed.

I do indeed have much to be thankful for: my health, my family and friends, my Quaker faith community, my excellent education, my life’s narrative of so many international adventures, my growing and inspirational global community of LGBTI persons and allies. I should even be grateful for my cat…he’s a good cat.

Optimistic, idealistic do-gooders are generally not esteemed in society (cats or no cats), especially by those of a more hard-edged, pragmatic character. Still, I am grateful for my resilient idealism, despite the many knocks along the way. Among these ideals that mean the most to me are two: 1) that human dignity is universal, and 2) that ethical leadership makes all the difference in getting to a place where societies honor that dignity…for everyone. Continue reading Musings of an “East Coast liberal elite” on Thanksgiving

Wrapped in the flag

 

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Following the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America, the prospects for a strengthening of universal respect for human dignity and human rights around the world are hardly sanguine.

There exists a long if occasionally erratic tradition of American leadership in the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, stretching back to 1919 when President Wilson carried his Fourteen Points to the Versailles conference, and later bolstered dramatically in 1948 by Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That legacy is threatened to fade into obscurity and irrelevance as this new Administration adopts an emphatically pro-American, self-interested stance in its foreign policy. We already know from the 2016 Republican Party platform that U.S. foreign aid is being construed first and foremost as a “critical tool for advancing America’s security and economic interests,” and that U.S. foreign aid must therefore serve U.S. strategic interests first. As for the plight of the impoverished and powerless people in countries where an authoritarian ruling elite has adopted an anti-American posture, Trump’s “America First” agenda and his pledge to “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us” are likely to compound their suffering. The RNC’s platform does make a commitment to the integration of human rights issues at “every appropriate level” of American bilateral engagements, yet it remains unclear whether this view of human rights is strictly linked to tightly legalistic interpretations of international treaty commitments or whether the deeper moral principles of universal human dignity and human rights will be accessed and accentuated by the new Administration. We can but hope at this stage, yet the Republican Party’s stand on sexual orientation and gender identity certainly begs the question of whether Trump’s team will even consider LGBTI concerns as human rights issues, particularly whenever such concerns come into conflict with the priorities of certain influential faith-based groups.

There is even talk within the Washington rumor mill of transitioning the US Agency for International Development (USAID) directly into the US State Department, intentionally obscuring the institutional division between diplomacy and development. This division has been very important to date, as “development people” tend to view their mission as being first and foremost about fostering freedom and human well-being around the globe, recognizing that this is a long-term endeavor that ultimately serves the interests of the entire planet – which includes America. The diplomats carry out a different and also important role, looking after the strategic short-term interests of this country as we engage with other nations around the world in a wide variety of contexts. There’s significant overlap between these two international frameworks and their respective roles, but they are distinctive and they are different. Were we to lose that autonomous voice of the world’s largest bilateral foreign aid entity championing human development, seeing it subsumed to a mere footnote in an American diplomacy focused only on “making America great again” in the short term, we would all be diminished.

Under such an institutional revamping in which the longer-term view is waved aside, the prospects for the world’s poorest people look particularly bleak. Continue reading Wrapped in the flag

The fight for America’s soul

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Transgender people know what it means to fight for our souls. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If we fail to live our lives in full commitment to who we are, we lose our identity. Without our identity, we lose meaning. We lose joy. We lose self-respect.

We lose.

Yesterday evening America lost. Now we have to fight to get her back again. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If America fails to conduct itself as a nation committed to the principles she was founded on – “American values” for which so many have sacrificed and struggled and died – we lose our meaning and our place in history as a great nation. We lose any reason to be proud. Far from becoming “great again”, we become small…just another country with a narcissistic, self-serving, unprincipled ruler, and a citizenry who has been conned into thinking that this is who we are.

If that becomes the status quo, we all lose.

It may not seem very obvious this morning, but America is still a nation of ethical principles founded on revolutionary ideals of universal dignity and freedom. We are a nation where human rights values are manifest in our laws, and where we innately know that our (much eroded) tradition of civility in public discourse is necessary if we are to foster our co-existence as a diverse society with a common identity. We are a nation where we have labored hard to create and sustain strong democratic institutions characterized by integrity, self-sacrifice, justice, compassion, and the service of the common good. America is about freedom of religion. America is about caring for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. America is about responsibility to our children and our grandchildren and generations yet unborn, especially in the face of a threat as existential and monumental as global climate change.

That is my America, but this American awoke this morning with a new edge of vulnerability.

My suspicions are that the vast majority of those who voted in Donald Trump yesterday do not view me and those such as me as human beings worthy of respect. If you think locker room talk is corrosive to the dignity of women, that low standard of behavior that the majority of American voters chose to overlook isn’t limited to misogyny and tough-guy boasting. For those who are at home in that particular locker room, there is a special dialogue of enmity and scorn for anyone who dares to challenge the assigned-at-birth gender binary. The prospects for transgender rights were dealt an enormous set-back last night, and that has implications across the civil rights spectrum for so many minorities in this country. While we may all be Americans, we who are members of sexual minorities find ourselves set-aside and “othered”.

Yet…if we bother to try, each of us is able to feel what “America” means. OK, this morning it is harder: it is now more darkly obscured by venal politicians, the irresponsible media, self-righteously intolerant faith leaders, faulty polls that we won’t ever trust again, and by all those Americans who cling to “deplorable” sensibilities and values. Yes, Secretary Clinton was wrong to use that adjective for the people she targeted, but she was absolutely correct using it to describe their behavior and their attitudes – their intolerance, smallness-of-spirit, isolationism, misogyny, racism, and profound lack of civility. “Trump the bitch” is deplorable. Threatening one’s political opponent with jail is deplorable. Promising to renege on the Paris Agreement on global climate change is deplorable. Suggesting that America will return to torturing suspected terrorists with water boarding (or worse) is deplorable.  Urging the summary deportation of millions of undocumented people is deplorable. Claiming Mexican immigrants are all rapists and criminals is deplorable. Closing the country to Muslim visitors and igniting a national witch-hunt against Muslims who are already here is deplorable.

Voting for all of this was deplorable, and frankly beyond my comprehension. Continue reading The fight for America’s soul

Normalizing America – in a vacuum of values

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I would never have believed we, as a nation, could come to this.

Perhaps I should take some comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in my perplexed disbelief. In an op-ed in the Washington Post published today, Republican columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson shared his own incredulity, and his words speak directly to my own pre-election anxieties:

“It is almost beyond belief that Americans should bless and normalize Trump’s appeal. Normalize vindictiveness and prejudice. Normalize bragging about sexual assault and the objectification of women. Normalize conspiracy theories and the abandonment of reason. Normalize contempt for the vulnerable, including disabled people and refugees fleeing oppression. Normalize a political tone that dehumanizes opponents and excuses violence. Normalize an appeal to white identity in a nation where racial discord and conflict are always close to the surface. Normalize every shouted epithet, every cruel ethnic and religious stereotype, every act of bullying in the cause of American “greatness” … In the end, a Trump victory would normalize the belief that the structures of self-government are unequal to the crisis of our time.”

Why are such pernicious, appalling values being normalized? Why are so many Americans completely unconcerned as Trump wreaks havoc with truthfulness by doubling down on lies and on his distortions of well-documented facts?  Why are so many Americans committed to a leader who assaults the very premise of our democracy, i.e. that we as a nation are able to rise together in collaboration to address the challenges that confront us, and to seize the opportunities that await us?  Why are so many Americans so  enthusiastic in their support of a leader who takes pride in turning his back on the urgent threat of global climate change – despite the proven (and progressively self-evident) devastating impacts that will affect their own children, grandchildren, and generations yet unborn? Why are the promises of short-term economic gains so alluring, ignoring all of the subsequent trade-offs of long term (and in many cases) irreparable harms to our economy, our environment, our security, and our sense of ourselves as a nation? In short, why are the polls so damnably close, with the election just days away?

My best guess is that we have lost our sense of direction as a nation.  We have no moral compass, and many of us don’t give a damn.

No, a moral compass isn’t the latest app that can be downloaded onto your smartphone. You may know it best by its absence – the lack of any discernible institutionalized process of robust discussion of secular values in our society at large, and specifically in the corridors of governance. Instead, “values” and “morality” have fallen victim to claims associated with narrow ideologies – and to vagueness – with expressions such as “traditional values”, “family values”, the “moral majority”, and even “American values” often being rhetorical devices to advocate for very narrow and often very polarizing political, cultural, or religious objectives. The idea that secular morality and ethics forms a common societal unifying platform – a deliberative space in which people are respected, listened to, and able to share their well-informed and considered views without jeopardy – is now largely a lost notion. Even our fundamental national institution of deliberation, our Congress, has lost even the pretense of deliberative, mutually respectful discourse and debate on the issues that affect us all. When was the last time that Senators or Representatives actually debated an issue?

The mechanism at the heart of any moral compass is ethics – a system of moral values that guides discernment and decision-making. Sadly, that mechanism has atrophied, due in large measure to semantics. Few really know what “ethics” means. In the media and in the public consciousness, “ethics” as a discipline has been narrowly redefined by the lawyers and legislators, who have reduced and reinterpreted the word to mean little more than compliance with codes of conduct and disclosure, with legal requirements, and with avoidance of conflicts of interest (or the appearance thereof). It’s pretty dry stuff, and not likely to stimulate much lively discourse. While compliance and legal propriety have obvious importance, limiting the role of ethics in this way diminishes ethics to nothing more than a skeletal version of its essential secular and governance role.  Secular ethics and morality exist to make our values explicit and meaningful, to provide the societal glue to bind us together and to guide our progress and direction as a society. Through the application of secular ethics, we learn to recognize which values have the most relevance to specific situations, which values deserve to be respected as universal, and how best to use this knowledge to forge a persuasive social consensus on the shared values, rights, and principles that allow us to cohere as a society and as a nation.

In short, we need that moral compass to guide how we normalize the secular values and human rights that ought to define us, and to reject those values that discredit us as a people. Michael Gerson’s description of what is now being “normalized” clearly shows little reference by Americans to the application of such a moral compass.

What might such a moral compass guide us toward? Continue reading Normalizing America – in a vacuum of values

An endorsement for Hillary – from the fringes

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Last night I shared the stage with prominent politicians and activists: Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Neera Tanden (president of the Center for American Progress), Helene Gayle (CEO of McKinsey Social Initiative) and others of note. It’s not my usual crowd, granted, but we were all there with a common purpose – to rally the troops in these final “get out the vote” days of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and to help move her forward to claim her place in history. The first woman President – it’s been such a long wait!

Humility aside, I was delighted to be invited to speak to the large crowd gathered at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C.  But as I began my address I paused; I had to share with them the obvious: that there almost certainly would not be a Republic campaign event anywhere in the country that would have an openly transgender woman at the speakers’ podium.

This was special.

My invitation to speak – while special – was no accident. Instead, my presence was clearly intended to underpin a central message of the Hillary Clinton campaign: “stronger together”. I was included, alongside the political and activist luminaries, because “stronger together” means all of us – even those whom society typically places at the fringes.

There is also some personal history here. For me, the invitation first came from President Obama, when I was asked by his Administration to become one of the first three transgender political appointees in this nation’s history, and the very first in the foreign affairs agencies. More invitations followed, including a monthly invitation to all three of us to come to the White House. Once there, Amanda Simpson, Dylan Orr, and I were invited to suggest how they – the White House – might best address the plight of transgender people. And they listened, and each month they reported back to us!

At those monthly meetings, the three of us each had much to share. The daily realities faced by this highly-marginalized group – my people – remain bleak. We struggle to be accepted, to avoid persecution and violence, and to access things that most people take for granted…a chance at a job, the ability to rent an apartment, insurance coverage that doesn’t exclude our health needs, and a future free from becoming just another statistic in a worsening epidemic of murder of transgender women sweeping this country, especially for my Black transgender sisters.

Despite this profound set of challenges, it’s not all bad. In many important ways, things have been getting better. Under President Obama, the Democrats have had our backs, and the transgender-specific campaign promises that Secretary Clinton has placed on her website make it very clear that this will continue, and will gain even more momentum. We’re counting on that. Continue reading An endorsement for Hillary – from the fringes

Feisty canaries, and this election.

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With election day just three weeks away, people like me have more cause than many to be wary. American society stands at a vulnerable place, characterized by one political campaign that is built on fomenting anger. Anytime that such deep discontent is viewed instrumentally as an incendiary resource to be ignited to political ends, many unrelated dimensions of societal ignorance are also made kindling to the flames. Intensified exclusion, persecution, bullying, and violence have their roots in that ignorance – and what happens next in that context matters greatly to us.

Ignorance about people who are like me, however, isn’t limited to those of one political party, or to any specific socioeconomic class. There are many with advanced degrees and distinguished careers, people who are successful in business and in government – in short, people who are respected by their communities – who are ignorant about my small group of people at the fringe. Perhaps they can afford to be ignorant; we’ve been kept in the shadows – or far worse – throughout human history, and we’re so few in number that what society does with us really doesn’t seem to matter very much to the majority. As for those few awkward times when – for whatever reason – we can no longer be ignored, our very existence makes ignorant people squirm with discomfort, or look for ways to dismiss the very idea of us. Off-color, hurtful jokes seem to work for some, and self-righteous indignation for others, but it remains a fact: people like me – or at least the idea of people like me – frighten many Americans. I know that ignorance gives birth to fear. Still, I don’t think of myself as particularly frightening.

Such fear is out there, however. I’ve seen the manifestations of both that ignorance and the ensuing fear far too frequently in my interactions with some of my fellow citizens, at least when they have had reason to Google me.   It isn’t pleasant…like when I’ve applied for a job with someone’s organization, and the promising dialogue suddenly goes quiet. Next applicant…!

This is the political season, and political leaders are successful to the extent that they can read the hopes and dreams, worries and fears, of the people whose votes they depend upon. If they are truly transformational leaders, they are busy building or at least refining a vision that will excite, motivate, and inspire their followers. Hopes and dreams are the stuff of such visions and become the grit that electoral agendas depend upon for traction, yet some astute if less principled politicians also know that ignorance and fear can be played to their advantage too, even if at the cost of someone else. Visions need not always be virtuous, or even benign.

Right now, I and those who wear a similar label know that we will never be a “big issue”, yet how this election turns out will have a profound impact on our futures. We know that we’re few, and that we are at the fringes. But in heated, fractious school board meetings around this country, and on far too many places in social media, we are the topic. Some – in fact more than a few – local and state leaders recognize that, and across this nation there are numerous bills that await consideration by legislators and town councils that have but one purpose: to move us back into the shadows from which we have had the audacity to emerge. At times like this, marginalized groups appeal to a higher authority – the state or the federal government – to step up and be counted. And sometimes, even for people like me, they actually do.

Still, it’s not always good news. In Texas, Republican state attorney general Ken Paxton’s idea of stepping up is to exploit ignorance and fear by making it part of the political agenda. He filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of more than a dozen states to contest how a different political leader – President Obama – has met the leadership challenge of ignorance and fear. President Obama and his administration knew that they had neither the time nor the resources to educate or foster empathy among the entire American electorate, but they recognized that they could at least take measures that protect us, and demonstrate respect for our inherent dignity.

Even if we are transgender. Continue reading Feisty canaries, and this election.