I’m setting myself up for criticism. After all, aren’t Quakers known for our fierce (some would say strident) pacifism and opposition to all things military? So why is this Quaker advocating for the legal right of transgender Americans to serve in the military?
The easy answer is simply that I am also a transgender person, so I feel a profound solidarity with my transgender brothers and sisters in any aspect of our shared struggle for equality as American citizens. Have I placed myself on the horns of moral and spiritual conflict then – pacifism versus equality?
First, the pacifism that Quakers generally espouse runs deep. It isn’t simply about avoiding military service and renouncing war; it’s about avoiding all conditions that give rise to violent conflict in the first place. Many will argue that it is human nature to be competitive, and that on occasion this competition is inherently bound to escalate to violence and sometimes even organized violence at scale – war. What drives competition to become violent conflict is as complex as is human nature, and yet such extreme competition is frequently and appropriately linked to some of the worst attributes of human nature: greed, pride, arrogance, callousness to human suffering, elitism, even evil.
In short, violent conflict – and the need for having a military to defend us – represents human failure at a vast scale. While Americans frequently celebrate our women and men in uniform, and rightly express our gratitude to them for their service, we tend to turn a blind eye to the brutal savagery and devastation of warfare. War leads inexorably to human suffering, often massively. Morality, and our efforts towards building civilized societies, is all about ending human suffering. War and violence stand in our way.
Those who feel called to place themselves in harm’s way to defend us from the devastating and destructive consequences of that massive human failure are rightly hailed for their selfless courage and sacrifice. I’m the grandchild of a Marine Corps general, the daughter of a Marine Corps colonel, the sister of brothers all of whom served in the armed forces, and the aunt of a Navy pilot, so I have lived close to men of commendable patriotism, sacrifice, virtue, and dedication through their service. I have many dear friends (some transgender) who are veterans. I respect them all deeply.
In 2015 I completed my original manuscript for my memoir Self-ish: a transgender awakening. That year felt to me like an auspicious time to be sharing one transgender woman’s journey, as the public discourse on gender identity issues was already fractious, politicized, and rife with misinformation. When Red Hen Press gently but firmly reminded me that the backlog for actually publishing their approved manuscripts was three years, I was distraught. The message seemed so urgent then.
Little did I know.
My book came out this March, and I’ve been pleased to see it well received both in terms of reviews and sales. I had made some important edits to the manuscript in the period between 2015 and this year, to offer an updated critical perspective on the intensifying damage coming in the wake of Trump-fueled transphobia and the targeting of transgender persons. Yet even in March when the memoir finally hit the bookstores, I hadn’t anticipated the recent dramatic escalation in this targeting. No doubt the current turbulence in the media arising from the leaked memo from Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, will quickly fade as the mid-term election pushes all other topics aside. Still, the New York Times’ account of the draft memo is harrowing, describing language that dispassionately and categorically intends to strip me of my legal standing as a woman (as a post-operative transgender person, that would leave me in a very curious anatomical place as a legal man). Psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally, to be disappeared so comprehensively would be unbearable. Such an intense level of government-induced trauma among my community would be catastrophic; it bears urgent contemplation well past the vagaries of the news cycle.
That official de-gendering threat alone is something that most cisgender people (people who do not identify as transgender) are unlikely to be able to wrap their heads around. For us this is more than a legal nuance, or the checking of a different box, yet from the character of so much of the caustic social media on this topic in the past few days, a very large number of Americans view transgender and non-binary people as confused, intentionally provocative, irrational, or bereft of common sense. We are an irritant, and a threat to … well, that part isn’t clear. What is clear is that the experience of always being comfortably aligned with your sex and gender is difficult to unpack when there is no vantage point outside that experience.
Except that there is such a vantage point – the lives and stories of transgender people like me. My book was written with just that goal in mind, and if nothing else it would be challenging for even the most transphobic reader to convincingly label this author as someone who is psychologically unhinged or otherwise of dubious character. I am simply a woman, a human being, and a person with the same innate dignity as any other person.
Dave Chappelle – Funny Or Die Oddball To by Anirudh Koul, on Flickr
Should I write yet another note to PBS NewsHour? That particular evening show is one of my favorite sources of thoughtful news and reflection on the world around me, but they do occasionally stumble. This evening, they did more than stumble. They waved me aside, and relegated me and people like me to an insignificant footnote.
I wasn’t meant to be a footnote.
When the NewsHour introduced their interview with the comedian Dave Chapelle, they did fleetingly acknowledge that he sometimes mocked transgender people. But having that footnote out of the way, Jeffrey Brown of PBS continued with his interview, with no further reference to this frequent practice by this stand-up comic. Why let this man’s regular practice of humiliating transgender persons get in the way of the bigger story: a comedian’s return to the spotlight? What’s so important about gender identity anyway? After all, there is no human right to a gender identity.
I would guess that even the term “gender identity” remains unfamiliar to many Americans, so speculating about a human right to one’s authentic sense of self is arguably premature. To most people, we’re the sex we were assigned at birth, and the state – which has unquestioned authority in such matters – records the observable fact of our sex. That’s it. Done. We are sexed and then society sets to work on making sure that we are appropriately gendered.
It’s all so obvious – except when it isn’t.
Short of incidents of hate-speech, intentional defamation, or libel, it appears that we also have no specific human right individually or as a group not to be humiliated or made the butt of humor due to who and what we are, even when who and what we are do not constitute choices. Freedom of expression prevails over the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of many marginalized persons, and those affected are supposed to shrug it off.
It’s no big deal – except when it is.
Arguably there do remain some social constraints on abusing the dignity of other persons, which in America we used to call “decency”. That concept may already be anachronistic for large numbers of my fellow citizens, who in 2015 not only tolerated watching then presidential candidate Donald Trump as he crudely mocked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski (who suffers from arthrogryposis), but then went on to vote this person into the highest position of power and trust in the nation. While most of us haven’t forgotten Trump’s appallingly insensitive portrayal of this person with disabilities, we’ve waved it aside. After all, Trump is Trump; he makes it a common practice to assault the dignity of others by using demeaning nicknames, calling human beings “animals”, branding entire ethnicities (presumably just the males) as rapists, and so on. Sure, some of us get upset momentarily, then we let it go, with perhaps a whispered aside about the national “erosion of values”.
So, making fun of some of us is apparently acceptable, or at least one would be forgiven if one reached this conclusion because PBS chose to feature a comic who makes transphobia an integral part of his act. What are we who are transgender supposed to do? Is there a human right to having one’s dignity recognized and respected?
Back in early June 2016, I posted a memorial blog about the tragic and violent deaths on April 25th of that year of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, two remarkably brave and courageous Bangladeshi human rights defenders. They had fearlessly asserted through launching Bangladesh’s first LGBTQI magazine, Roopbahn, that the dignity and human rights of all Bangladeshis – not just those who are straight and cisgender – ought to be respected.
For that audacity, they paid a dreadful price.
This past week, I had the privilege of hearing a presentation from an openly gay Bangladeshi man who’d been a friend to these two men. Now Ahmed is here in this country, pursuing two ambitions. First, he’s sharing a remarkable exhibition of photographs (including the one above) to remind the world that justice remains unfulfilled for those who viciously took the lives of Xulhaz and Tonoy. Second, Ahmed wishes to have some hope for his own future – not to forsake his friends and family back home, but to find a safe space from which he can use his art and his voice to open the eyes of the world to the strident and unforgiving intolerance of his native land. He’s seeking asylum from those who would do him – and possibly his family and friends back home – great harm, because in their culture people like him are not acceptable.
“Not acceptable” is a perilous place to find oneself. Most of us who came to his presentation last week have looked that accusation straight in the eye ourselves, repeatedly, although seldom at the risk of violence or death. For us, being “not acceptable” is even more abrasive when those holding such views are so unshakably self-righteous about their bias, and when they are empowered to bend the institutions of government to inflict harm on those marginalized groups who dare to express their integrity of self. The Bangladeshi government is now on the offensive, and since the brutal murder of Bangladesh’s two LGBTQI leaders, the movement has been forced to adopt a low profile. Not low enough, however; “not acceptable” asserted itself yet again last year when on May 19th an elite security force with the arguably glamorous name of the Rapid Action Battalion arrested 27 young gay men who’d gathered discreetly at a community center in Dhaka.
“Not acceptable” is rough company to keep. In 1995, well before I came out as openly transgender, I was working in Durban, South Africa. Nelson Mandela had recently become president, and the country was in a state of tectonic change and unsettling uncertainty. Many white South Africans felt great fear, as the historically subjugated black population rose up proudly to take their place in building the new Rainbow Nation. It all came into painfully sharp focus for me one evening; I was riding in an elevator filled only with whites (mostly older white South African men) who spontaneously struck up a loud, boorish, and unashamedly racist conversation about President Mandela and his supporters in the African National Congress (ANC). The simple assumption of this crowded elevator’s white passengers was that I was in solidarity with their views, because I too am white. The realization of this presumed fellowship sickened me. I pushed the emergency stop button, and when all eyes turned to me all I could say was “shame!”. I then pushed the button for the next floor, exited the completely silent lift, and left them to stew in their own fear-induced prejudices.
“Not acceptable” isn’t only about race, same-sex orientation, or transgender identity. I’ve also directly experienced “not acceptable” being regularly employed as a judgment by many men here in my own country as they exploited all-male meetings and gatherings (of which there are many) to make frequent sexist (and often wildly misogynist) comments deriding and disparaging women. Unlike my cisgender sisters, I’ve spent much of my life embodied as a man; I haven’t forgotten what I heard and saw. I know all too well the coarse and objectifying ways that so many men routinely feel at liberty to demean women and girls. As troubling as that banter is, what bothers me even more is the relegation of existential, urgent issues such as gender inequality, gender-based violence, and even violence against children as “women’s issues”. To this day, men are barely present among those who labor tirelessly to achieve progress toward gender equality and fairness among all genders. Continue reading “Not acceptable”→
It’s becoming progressively more difficult to persist in enjoying my longstanding daily ritual of reading the Washington Post, particularly when juxtaposed with the increasing number of desperate email messages and Facebook communications coming to me from Kakuma, Kenya.
It’s 7,209 miles from this frigid winter in Washington to that baking hot refugee camp in Turkana County in Kenya’s northwest – a formidable distance to be sure – but we now appear to be planets apart. The United States of America, the world’s most powerful and wealthiest country, now wallows, disempowered. We are transfixed and immobilized by the latest daily disclosures of our broken presidential governance, and the alarming tally of damage it is doing to us as a nation and to our place in the world. Trump commands news cycle after news cycle, and the plight of the rest of the world barely warrants a mention.
It wasn’t always so. Until quite recently in fact, the care, compassion, and generosity of Americans was evident in our internationalism, our staunch (if still inadequate) commitment to foreign assistance, our stand on human rights, the hard and selfless work of our Peace Corps Volunteers abroad, and our solidarity with human rights defenders. All have been weakened in the era of Trump. Yes, even before Trump it should have been much better – too frequently we chose to let the State Department justify funding of very narrow “strategic targets” at the expense of sustainable development. While the truly urgent demands of humanitarian emergencies still command some attention among American policy makers and among individual and non-profit donors, the level of funding remains woefully inadequate.
And that’s for the emergencies.
What about the chronic needs of the more than 35 million refugees (80% of whom are women and children) currently in camps in more than 125 countries? What about the nearly 180,000 refugees at the Kakuma refugee camp? What about the approximately 200 refugees at that camp who happen to be LGBTQI? But then again, why should we care about 200 sexual and gender minority refugees in northwestern Kenya (95% of whom are Ugandan) compared to the needs of 35 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world?
We should care because they are all human beings. We should care as a way of respecting their human dignity – and the universality of human dignity. We should care because we can afford to care, financially, with such caring (were it to be properly funded) imposing an almost negligible impact on our relatively comfortable quality of life . We should care because there at Kakuma, but for the grace of God, you or I could now be one of those 200. Yet the grace of God shines brightly in each one of them, in their courageous resilience in the face of enormous hardship, and in the strength and clarity of their voices reaching out to me, and to us all. I cherish each one of their messages, although I feel deep discomfort in my relative inability to offer them any meaningful support. Continue reading Distracted.→
We live in a time of political triage, and in an environment characterized by blatant sexism and misogyny. It takes very little mental effort to know what that overlap generates – and where our laws, public policies, and politics choose to focus. Even with human rights, human dignity, and civility in the balance, we conclude that we cannot do it all. Through the fierce logic of cost-benefit utilitarian thinking, we decide to do what will benefit the greatest number at the least cost, with weight on the scales by the powerful elite interests. The issues that remain – the sea of waving petitions of the aggrieved – are simply deferred to an ill-defined future date, ignored, or swept aside. Not even self-interest will necessarily prevail; consider the 62% of white, non-college educated women who became Trump voters, surprisingly placing theirs and other women’s dignity and equality as a lower priority. But then we also live in a time where many of us are resigned to accept the way things are as being immutable, and a byproduct of the allegedly inherent self-serving nature of human beings (again, as reinforced by capitalist economics notions).
Until the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
Are we at a unique tipping point in our social norms? It’s still much too early to say, but any optimism that the age of gender equality and equity is fast approaching must be tempered by the recognition that men’s sexual harassment of women has been the norm throughout all of recorded history (except that such sexual harassment and violence has rarely been considered sufficiently noteworthy to be recorded). One need only reflect on the many people who were aware but who tolerated (or were compelled to stay silent about) the reprehensible behavior that was the standard operating procedure by Mr. Weinstein over more than three decades. So many powerful men have been called to account in the weeks that have followed; one might just dare to feel a twinge of vindication, a lightness in one’s step…but perhaps not yet.
Sexual harassment is, of course, but one form in the panoply of gendered manifestations of abuse of power and violence directed against women, girls, and marginalized persons which those of us in the feminist research world classify under the umbrella term “gender based violence” (GBV). That’s an especially large umbrella, with as many at 35% of the world’s women (or more than 1.3 billion female persons, for those who are moved by exceptionally large numbers) being subjected to sexual or physical violence in their lives – a fundamental disrespect of universal dignity and a gross violation of human rights. The most graphic examples of GBV consist of physical violence and emotional abuse – domestic violence, intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, honor killings, forced and unwanted sex, early and forced marriage, female genital cutting, human trafficking, and the gendered deprivation of resources and rights. The vast majority of the perpetrators of such GBV enjoy impunity, either because those victimized remain silent (for many valid reasons), or because the rule-of-law and cultural institutions of governance almost always place a low priority on dealing with GBV. Is there an element of triage in choosing what kinds of crimes to prosecute? Or are certain human beings simply not deemed to be as important: women, girls, and marginalized persons? The fact that this victimized population constitutes more than half of humanity ought to be statistically significant, but such is not the case. Continue reading Less than One Percent→
GBV’s impacts are grievous, debilitating—and can be fatal. Women and girls are most often the victims of GBV, and by far the majority of perpetrators are men and boys. The fact that GBV is dramatically split along gender lines is disturbing—but for those of us who identify as feminist researchers, we feel fully committed to studying GBV, determining the most effective prevention practices and discerning the best ways to support victims.
We already know a great deal about the prevention of GBV and how to care for those affected. We just don’t know how to stop it. But opening up the conversation on trans-directed GBV may lead us to new and much-needed solutions.
The transgender community is largely synonymous with the experience of gender-based stigma, humiliation, bigotry, exclusion and violence—violence that is physical, situational and structural. Transgender persons are often the lightning rod for GBV—but why? As a transgender woman myself, it lies beyond my comprehension to understand how our personal claims to our authentic sense of identity serve to trigger such widespread extremes of violence. We’re simply being ourselves, and our authenticity brings little if any direct harm to anyone else.
My consciousness of GBV as it affects the transgender and gender non-conforming population is heightened at this time of the year. Around the world, November 20th is commemorated as Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). For those of us who are transgender, it’s a somber day of reflection and sorrow. Yet TDOR is also a day of solidarity, validation and sensitivity to context.
We know from the many stories shared within our community that those who are remembered today suffered not only a truncated, and frequently grisly, end to their lives, but that they experienced violence and exclusion on a daily basis, for years or even decades. That pervasive ostracization forms the backdrop—as well as the enabler—of so many incidents of acute, debilitating, tragic violence directed at the transgender community, also referred to as trans-directed GBV.
It’s not easy to talk about. By sharing GBV accounts through anecdotal narratives, we tend to elicit either puzzlement or pity. Those who are puzzled often simply can’t relate to such suffering. Those who express care and concern think of transgender people as sad, powerless and marginalized. “Marginal” isn’t a good place to be, and this simplified narrative leaves transgender persons with little hope for change.
Trans-directed GBV comes from a place of rejecting otherness and maintaining foundational gender norms within society. The gender binary, and the unassailable assignment of sex and gender at birth, are central planks in that platform. In so many ways and often with self-righteousness, society staunchly polices that most inflexible societal barrier.
Gender, sex and the panoply of associated gender roles drives a wedge into the heart of our humanity. At its most benign, that policing is a form of structural violence forcing transgender persons to confront ridicule and humiliation, assaults upon our dignity and the comprehensive loss of opportunity and choice in our lives. The doors to a meaningful and dignified life are closed to us, and in most countries, our authentic gender identity is officially repudiated. We become invisible—with no legal, economic, political or social recognition of the names and gender identity that we know ourselves to be.
For many of us, that bleak scenario is simply unbearable. Yet to deny our authentic gender identity would be more unbearable. Yes, the daily reality of living lives of exclusion, stigmatization, rejection and violence is bad—but not as bad as living a lie every day. For many of us, life in the wrong body is wrenching. We transition because we must. We feel a deeply-rooted compulsion to live life as ourselves, despite it all.
“Despite it all” is a heavy package. The anecdotal evidence backs this up, but there’s been very little support for establishing solid data. What happens to us really doesn’t have a measurable impact on the larger society. We’re few in number, estimated now to be just 0.6 per cent of the adult population in the U.S. Decision-makers will argue that there are more important issues towards which we should direct precious research dollars. It’s a common assertion, yet transgender persons offer singular insights into the meaning of gender that are relevant to people everywhere. Our “curious” status may offer an opening to learn more about the causes of GBV, as this affects both us and the cisgender population. Were we to be taken seriously, our sense of gender identity might even shed some light on the path to universal gender equity.
However, we’re rarely taken seriously, at least not in the sense of having our human dignity and worth respected. Arguably, the most reliable current source of data is the U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS) of 2015, which included responses from nearly 28,000 persons above the age of 17 who identify as transgender within the U.S. That’s large for a survey—certainly the largest survey ever to capture the lived experiences of transgender persons.
The results of the USTS tells a powerful story of trans-directed violence, one of the deeply entrenched structural violence faced by the transgender community every day. The USTS notes that 14 percent of transgender respondents in 2015 were unemployed, and 29 percent were living in poverty, compared to 5 percent and 14 percent respectively within the larger U.S. population. The psychological impacts of encountering exclusion and stigma each and every day are harsh, with 39 percent of respondents, compared to just 5 percent of the U.S. population, saying that they experienced deep psychological distress.
The USTS bears witness to the reality that—over time—these levels of distress are unsustainable. 40 percent of respondents admitted to having attempted suicide in their lifetime. This rate is almost nine times the attempted suicide rate in the general U.S. population—4.6 percent. The data from the USTS is even worse for transgender persons of color, with attempted suicide rates cited at an alarming 54 percent.
For transgender persons now, and for all those who stand in solidarity to commemorate TDOR each year, we must move forward. Research must be carried out with respect and should include transgender participants. And funding is vital as we aim to get to the roots of trans-directed GBV, moving us all towards solutions based in a greater understanding of diversity.
The precious notion of universal human dignity and human rights demand nothing less.
Chloe Schwenke is the Director of the Global Program for Violence, Rights and Inclusion at the International Center for Research on Women. Previously, she served as Vice President for Global Programs at Freedom House and in the dual role of Senior Advisor on Human Rights at the Africa Bureau and Senior Advisor on LGBT issues globally at USAID during the Obama administration—becoming the first-ever openly transgender political appointee in the federal foreign affairs agencies. Chloe received her Ph.D. in Public Policy at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland at College Park.
It was 1979, and my first year in my new home in Nairobi. I’d audaciously (or foolishly) arrived in Kenya with no job and very little money, yet the job offers had come quickly. I’d soon found a modest place in which to live, and an old VW Beetle to drive. I was settling in and learning all that I could, quite unaware that an entire decade of life, work, adventure, and learning in Kenya was to unfold before me. So much learning ahead…
The lessons were plentiful, and among my most memorable early awakenings came from reading the local paper. The Nairobi Standard’s report that caught my eye was about a rousing debate in Kenya’s Parliament on a bill that sought to make polygamy legal. Already a widespread traditional practice in Kenya, the bill was designed to codify certain protections for the many wives a man might acquire, and it included one provision that was interpreted as a denial of a husband’s “traditional right” to beat his wife. MPs rose to protest indignantly. One of them, Hon. Kimunai arap Soi, said something that I’ve never forgotten: “It is very African to teach women manners by beating them.”
The newspaper article was jocular in tone, and more than a little condescending. Men drinking their early morning coffee in downtown Nairobi were quite amused. On the street in Nairobi some women even agreed, asserting that they would not believe in their husband’s love if he were not “strict” with them. I was left perplexed and disoriented; I struggled to reconcile this new information about social norms in East Africa in contrast to what my life had taught me up to that point. Had I known then what I know now (or had I been then who I am now) I probably would’ve taken note far earlier of the pervasive culture of sexism around me. I might have wondered why Kenya’s parliament at that time was 168 men and just 4 women. But that was 1979; back then I didn’t perceive much of that, despite my liberal middle class American upbringing. Still, I was astounded by what I read. I should have been outraged.
Everyone should have been outraged.
Of course the bill went down to defeat, and it took almost 36 more years – until May of 2015 – before some legal protection for Kenyan wives passed that chamber to become law. Despite that relatively recent milestone, women in Kenya and throughout Africa continue to routinely face wife-beating and other forms of domestic violence. Traditional norms will not be transformed quickly in cultures where women have been cast in a rigidly subordinate role for millennia.
To most Americans Kenya is far away, yet the issues are hardly remote. On August 26th I read a Washington Post article by Elizabeth Winkler about a graduate student named Alice Wu who is poised to begin her doctoral studies at Harvard. Ms. Wu will do well; she’s already established herself as an ingenious, resourceful, and highly motivated researcher. Ms. Wu used her statistical and computer skills to analyze over a million postings on an anonymous online site, Economics Job Market Rumors, to determine how women are currently talked about within the profession of economics. She used a clever method to isolate hard data on what was widely known anecdotally, but never before described in any empirical, robust way. Now we know. Thanks to Ms. Wu, it has become empirically clear that sexism and gender-based discrimination within the profession of economics is egregious, rampant, and remarkably crude. In short, women within economics (or aspiring to be) are looked at, talked about, and described by many of their male counterparts (yes, even the Millennials) in ways that make it an irrefutable fact that the dignity of such women is not respected.
Are Americans witnessing the triumph of ignorance, selfishness, greed, and incompetence? If so, we ought not to be surprised. Outside of religious values tied to particular beliefs, dogmas and ideologies, we just don’t talk about morals. OK – sometimes we do love to ascribe some negative values (vices, really) to certain others: greediness, vanity, laziness, boastfulness. But when we attempt to describe our moral foundations as a nation, or even try to unpack what “American values” mean, we get tongue-tied. We often seem to have lost the vocabulary of secular morals, and we stumble forward without recognizing moral dilemmas in our path. Our inability to articulate a moral quandary might go some way in explaining the flailing soul-searching now happening about Charlottesville.
Has the notion of secular, universal moral values lost its appeal? Moral principles certainly have become obscured by politicized law-making, and “ethics” has come to mean only dry, tedious rules about disclosure and behavior. The voices of secular morality and ethical principles are largely notable by their absence. Gone are the days when people of the stature of Eleanor Roosevelt labored hard to help craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now we have a Secretary of State in Rex Tillerson who lacks a moral vocabulary. He has consigned freedom, dignity, and human rights to irrelevancy, at least whenever these principles fail to align with what “the leadership” has identified as our economic and security interests. In the era of America First, our nation is self-maximizing, which arguably nations ought to be. But should there not be some moral constraints that we consider?
And yes, there is the commander-in-chief, the 45th President of the United States of America. Donald Trump does a credible job of being the incarnation of maximizing self-interest and eschewing moral determinations, even as he holds the office in which our many institutions of government were meant to be guided by. That guidance was always intended to be an executive function of looking out for the well-being of all Americans, and standing tall for universal moral principles even beyond our borders. But Trump is about winning, about wealth, about power, about Trump.
Trump is ignorant. But the ignorance I’m perplexed by isn’t about lack of education, or a deficient intellect, or even individualism on its own merits, but is more in the sense of ignorance as described by Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist meditation master:
When we talk of ignorance, it has nothing to do with stupidity. In a way, ignorance is very intelligent, but it is an intelligence that works exclusively in one direction. That is, we react exclusively to our own projections instead of simply seeing what is there.
Given such ignorance at the top, what direction are we going in? While it is now popular (and in many contexts warranted) to deprecate Trump, you may think I’m being too harsh if I ascribe ignorance to all those who adhere to modern economic dogma. The goal is “every man for himself” – and it is usually assumed to be the men and not the women who are out there heroically forging their respective individual “did-it-my-way” destinies, unconstrained by concerns about others. Individualism has become our unwritten national creed, and the foundation of our economy.
Arguably Trump is more a symptom or byproduct of the trend of unapologetic individualism, and not a leader of a new agenda. He’s already demonstrated – time and again – his lack of empathy, competence, judgment, or the temperament of a real leader. Trump is more about rule than leadership; he serves himself and his family. His “projections” are about winning, not about what is morally right or wrong, good or bad. As president he’s turned his back on decades of global American leadership grounded in a moral agenda that once spoke to most American’s sense of common identity, common destiny, common decency, common good. But now, with the election of Donald Trump, America has personified and projected a new identity – America First. That doctrine is the natural outcome of an amoral, every-man-for-himself world view.
A new political era is about to begin. What do we do? The harshness of winter has almost certainly dissuaded those who were entertaining the notion of emigrating north to Canada, and we’ve all witnessed with chagrin the various efforts of those who vainly sought to convince the electors in the Electoral College to do what that institution was originally intended for—to stop a demagogue. Is it time to roll over and play dead?
Hardly. As we each reflect on the years ahead, the post-election mood among many LGBT people and our loved ones and allies ranges from seething anger to disempowering dismay. Along with most other minorities in America, the prospect of this new Administration taking up the reins of power across the federal government—and similarly hostile leaders in many state governments—raises important questions about protecting fundamental civil and human rights. While Trump himself has seemed equivocal on LGBT equality, he has filled his Cabinet and West Wing with anti-LGBT extremists, demonized other minorities, and disdained the democratic norms that serve to protect vulnerable groups.
We therefore have reason to fear the new Administration and Congress could roll back (or simply choose not to enforce) numerous critical protections for LGBT people’s health, safety, education, employment, and participation in public life. The reality is inescapable; things will soon be very different in Trump’s and Pence’s White House, and in the 70 percent of state legislative bodies that will now rest firmly in Republican control. We can’t afford inaction or passively waiting until the worst happens.
As many people have already pointed out, the silver lining in this moment is that harsh but empowering jolt of electricity many of us have felt, especially those of us who may have been taking our rights for granted. After all, only 55 percent of the voting age electorate actually turned out, and most did not vote for this incoming President. So now we are all called to action—urgently—and it is very hard to overstate how much is at stake. For transgender Americans, our recently gained access to health care and insurance, protections that have been transformative for many transgender students, housing and employment protections, and efforts to rein in police misconduct and protect trans immigrants are all on the line.
You—yes, you reading this—need to do something. Urgent action, to be effective, needs to be directed, coordinated, sustained, constructive, and positive. Here at the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), we will be very busy in the weeks and months ahead giving you detailed information regarding policy and legislative issues of importance to our community. With that information at your fingertips, we’ll strongly urge you to reach out to your representatives in Congress and in your state governments, as we’ve done again and again in the past. So will many of our partners.
That’s what we do as an advocacy organization…only now, it matters more than ever.
It’s become fashionable to demonize our political opponents, as our society moves more and more into polarized factions—each with our own sources of selective news and opinions designed to reinforce our current views and excoriate the other side. In the process, the very human stories that bind us all together fail to get communicated to those who most need to hear them. The fundamental message of LGBT advocates is that we each embody a narrative of human values at the very heart of what it means to be human. We were born to be ourselves, and to be and to love as we must—authentically. So fierce resistance to political strategies aimed against us must be complimented by bringing our very human narrative forward in ways that soften the hard shell of those who act from transphobic bias, ignorance, and harmful ideologies. We need to be ourselves now more than ever, proud and determined and here to stay. Being ourselves is our political message of resistance, and its power is not to be underestimated—but only if we act.
Call your representatives. Write to them. Do it often, speak with intensity and courage, and speak with an intention not only to draw a line in the sand but also to open up hearts and minds. No matter where they fall ideologically, call and write them. If they’re a hardline opponent, they need to be softened with constituent pressure. If they’re already a supporter, they need to be pressed to defend us vocally at every step. Organize a meeting at their office—or if they won’t meet, a protest.
The worst tactic for us now is to assume there is nothing we can do. While expecting politicians to change their ideological stripes may be a fool’s venture, expecting them to revise some of their less well thought out attitudes and values about us may be just enough for now. Those who won’t learn in their hearts will still respond to pressure if we keep building it and moving public opinion. We need you, week in and week out, to participate in making our case, push back, tell our stories, and keep changing the hearts and minds of people across this country.
In his farewell address last week, President Obama spoke of the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change, to carry the hard work of democracy forward. In his words: “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change—but in yours.”
Chloe Schwenke is the Senior Advisor at the National Center for Transgender Equality, the nation’s leading social justice advocacy organization winning life-saving change for transgender people.