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.
President-elect Trump isn’t even sworn in yet, but already we are storm-battered by the upcoming nomination hearings for a cast of Cabinet appointees who represent enormous destructive power, directly threatening the people we are working on behalf of. These nominees are bolstered by a profound sense of entitlement and in most cases vast financial resources, and in the context of the LGBTQ community they’re almost all distinguished by a deep ignorance of critical issues and a self-righteous anti-LGBTQ bias.
Their secular moral values are at best unexamined, and at worst pernicious. Yet as Trump’s designated lieutenants they are about to become extraordinarily powerful, and their immoral destructive potential has been channeled and directed by Trump voters. Right now, while the political and ideological shouting becomes even more partisan, shriller, and louder than in the recent unsettling election, I’m left to wonder where is the moral conversation. Have we as a nation really lost our way – and our shared values – to this extreme?
Consider billionaire Betsy DeVos, who has been selected by Trump to run the Department of Education, even though she has not a single day of experience in a public school in any capacity – as student, teacher, parent, or administrator. Over the years she’s used some of her phenomenal Amway fortune to fund groups such as the Family Research Council and its extremely transphobic Pastor Peter Sprigg, among others, who flagrantly spread misinformation and hateful lies about transgender persons and the entire LGBTQ community. Ms. DeVos cloaks her donations in the garb of doing God’s work, and takes comfort in her own interpretation of Christian values with apparently no thought to the great harm that the recipients of her funds are thereby empowered to inflict upon vulnerable transgender youth in our schools and throughout our society. Her lavish funding has also supported the campaigns of the Republican Senators who will soon cast their votes on her nomination (and who refuse to recuse themselves, despite this obvious conflict of interest). She’ll almost certainly be approved.
Is she – and all that she stands for – really what Trump voters want? Will they hold themselves morally accountable as citizens for the suffering experienced by the most vulnerable, that will be a direct consequence of their votes and her upcoming oversight of public education in America? Their moral responsibility in this travesty is beyond dispute, and not excusable because of ignorance. Citizens have an obligation to be well informed before they vote.
Consider the far less wealthy but politically strong Ben Carson, slated to become Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He’s a surgeon who knows nothing about the work of this large government agency or of any large organization, yet he “knows” enough to have argued that transgender persons are “abnormal,” “absurd,” and “beyond ridiculous.” He takes the view that same-sex relationships are an “abomination,” and he’s compared such relationships to having sex with children or animals. He’s openly opposed any effort to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. How will he function at the helm of an agency tasked with special responsibilities to serve the most vulnerable and most discriminated against in our society? I shudder to think about it.
I could share equally unsettling, fact-based observations about such nominees as Sen. Jeff Sessions (proposed to head up the Department of Justice, as Attorney General), or Rep. Tom Price to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Suffice it to say that the former has a history of egregious racism and – as noted by The Southern Poverty Law Center – “longstanding and extensive ties to both anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim extremist groups.” The latter, Tom Price, has a disturbing legislative record of voting to oppose the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and of labeling as “absurd” the current protections in place for transgender public school students.
And that’s just a sample of the nominees, and leaves aside those close advisors of Trump who require no Senate confirmation: consider the right-wing extremist and transphobic Steve Bannon, or retired General Michael Flynn who took the opportunity of his prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention to launch a vicious attack against transgender people. And there are others, equally as dangerous…
To be clear, among all of the LGBTQ people in America, the human rights and legal protection issues of transgender persons are the least well secured. Among the LGBTQ spectrum we are also the fewest in number, the most impoverished and isolated, and the least powerful – but we are often the most visible, the most ridiculed and humiliated, and (especially for transgender women of color) the most vulnerable to extreme violence and death. In short, we are perfect targets. The Republicans chosen by Trump are not ignorant of this fact. Using us as targets is politically expedient. The fact that we are human beings doesn’t get discussed.
For now, the focus of those among us working to calm this rising storm is strategic and organizational. What is missing is the time to have the secular moral conversations – to reflect upon the extreme degree to which the basic human dignity of certain very vulnerable people in our society is being seen as collateral damage in a fierce war of political ideologies and economic priorities. I will continue to argue – strenuously and for all I am worth – that protecting and securing the rights and dignity of transgender people is a central and essential component of building an American society that speaks to secular values of decency, compassion, care, diversity, authenticity, gender equality, civility, and inclusion. These are values that all Americans have a fundamental shared stake in, yet which as seen all too graphically through the lens of the transgender equality struggle are values that have somehow fallen out of the American dialogue. These are the values that serve as the glue that holds our society together, yet the fractures and fragmentation of that red vs. blue, straight vs. gay, cisgender vs. transgender society make each one of us vulnerable to the destructive force of the Trump-inspired storm that has now begun in earnest.
By all means, speak out loudly and frequently to your elected representatives. Most civil rights organizations have action links that facilitate this, as we do at the NCTE. But also look for or create the opportunities to have the discussion about “American values” and the secular (and hence universal) moral narrative. That’s a rusty, storm-battered narrative that we must rescue and revitalize if we are to stay afloat and continue our journey as a nation.