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.
Ken Paxton hasn’t stopped with that one lawsuit. He’s followed it up with another, on behalf of Texas and four other states as well as several religious organizations, that would even deny medical coverage to transgender people as now covered under Obamacare. While Ken Paxton is a state attorney general, Loretta Lynch is America’s attorney general. Her words this past May roundly denouncing the demeaning, ignorance-fueled bathroom law of North Carolina were unprecedented. No national political administration anywhere has ever stood up for people like me with such resolution and force. When I learned from Lynch’s announcement that the Justice Department was counter-suing North Carolina to put a stop to its appalling bathroom law from taking effect, I was moved to tears. I knew that she had placed me and my transgender sisters and brothers squarely in the center of a moral battle for human dignity, which is part of a larger struggle for civil rights. That’s a struggle that America cannot afford to falter on, much less lose. In Attorney Lynch’s own words: “it’s about the founding ideals that have led this country – haltingly but inexorably – in the direction of fairness, inclusion and equality for all Americans.”
I am an ethics professor, and for me, ideals matter. But I am also a transgender woman, and as such I depend on those ideals to give me space and protection in our society, so that America has the time to learn. (Hopefully those ideals will also allow me to use the public restrooms and see a doctor from time to time while America is being educated; it may take a while). The optimist and the idealist in me clings to the conviction that once America stops treating me and my transgender sisters and brothers as lurid, threatening stereotypes, we might even be seen as fellow citizens. As good folk. There is even a small part of me that imagines an America someday that celebrates our diversity; an America that looks to us to hold a mirror up to society so that we can all give a little thought to what this thing we call gender is all about. Thinking that through is one important pathway to a society that will recoil at the notion that boasting about sexual assault is some form of innocuous “locker room” banter.
We’re certainly not there yet. Across America, ignorant or fearful or venal political leaders see us and react with real or feigned outrage or disgust. They cast us (without benefit of any factual evidence, which of course doesn’t exist) as potential sexual predators in the stall next to your daughter in those much-embattled bathrooms, or as people who are unworthy of medical insurance coverage. Public approbation is marshaled against us, and our dignity is determined by public referenda. In Houston, despite the courageous and outspoken leadership of then mayor and out lesbian Annise Parker, our dignity took a hit. I’m not allowed to use public toilet rooms in that city. Governor McCrory of North Carolina has made ignorance a virtue, to the shame of his beautiful state, as he refuses to retract that state’s odious bathroom law against transgender people; against me. States around this country have their own versions of this “bathroom bill” and similar anti-transgender bills awaiting legislative action, depending on who is elected.
This election however is about a great deal more than bathrooms. In some important ways, transgender people are the canaries in the coal mines of human dignity. Canaries are beautiful, bright, feisty little creatures, and like them, transgender people feel that we are down at the darkly uncomfortable coalface of societal change. Depending on how much noxious hate fills the air, we too stand to become victimized by an unhealthy, threatening environment. Just like those resolute small birds, our futures hang in the balance: our dreams, our plans, and our demand to have our lives respected. We who are transgender cling with tenacity and unapologetic determination to that perch we call human dignity, but we know all too well that ignorance, fear, and hate can overwhelm us – to the benefit of some political agenda.
Our votes won’t swing any election, but perhaps our stories will move some hearts and open some minds. Open-minded, big-hearted politicians are generally people of principle who see America – and America’s leadership role in the world – as one that is inclusive, respectful, decent, and caring .
You know who they are. They deserve your votes.