Reviews | Trans people shouldn’t have to hide to help Democrats win

(Michael Hirshon for the Washington Post)
(Michael Hirshon for the Washington Post)


Jennifer Finney Boylan is Professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia University and Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. His next book,crazy honey”, co-written with Jodi Picoult, should be published in October.

I was nervous. I had known most of the women in my mother’s bridge group — conservatives, republicans, evangelicals — since I was a kid. But now that I had become trans, I was exposed, like a new iPhone. The doorbell rang. My heart was pounding in my throat.

It was 2001. My mother was such a Republican woman that she had only voted for a Democratic president once, in 1936, when she disappointed Alf Landon. “You don’t change horses along the way,” she explained.

Now here I was, having – you know – changed horses. Mom made a tray of small cucumber sandwiches and a large pitcher of gin and tonics. I opened the door.

A woman named Mary Alice looked me up and down. Then she said, “Shit, Jennifer, you’re doing a pretty big one!”

One by one, the others followed. To my surprise and relief, they promised their support – to me and my mother – even though transgender issues were not something they fully understood.

What they did understand is that I was a human being, their friend’s child, and what I needed at that moment was above all love.

That was then. Now, 21 years later, conservatives, Republicans and evangelicals have made anti-transgender rhetoric a central pillar of their ideology.

In June, the Texas GOP pulled out its party Platform, defining the gay experience as “abnormal” and opposing “all efforts to validate transgender identity”. In March, Robert Foster, a former Mississippi state legislator who ran for governor in 2019, tweeted that people who support people like me “must be aligned against [a] wall in front of a firing squad to be sent to an early judgment. Last week, a school board candidate near Pensacola, Florida said doctors who treat transgender youth “should hang from the nearest tree.”

They’re not exactly cucumber sandwiches anymore.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), speaking to a group of right-wing students, said this month that his pronoun is “kiss my ass.”

This should be proof, if it were needed, that trans people are now, officially, right wing. whipping girls. As a result, some progressives are suggesting that we should keep a low profile until after November, or – who knows? – possibly an even later date than that.

Even Hillary Clinton seemed to agree in an interview with the Financial Times in June. Instead of challenging the premise of a question about whether the Democrats are losing the midterm elections because of the “transgender debate,” she said, “Listen, the most important thing is to win the next election. The alternative is so scary that anything that doesn’t help you win should not be a priority.”

It is not the first time trans people have been told to stay away or blamed for the rise of conservatism. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016, a commentator on MSNBC suggested which Clinton had lost because of the Democratic Party’s emphasis on transgender bathrooms and other “boutique issues.”

Try to imagine what it’s like to have someone in your own party suggest that your identity, the struggle that in many ways has defined your life, is all about boutique.

I want to elect progressives as much as the next woman, and I’m willing to be pragmatic about what issues we should be focusing on. Inflation, climate change and job creation should certainly be at the center of our agenda. But to be told that to achieve these goals I have to be invisible, that I have to avoid upsetting the most intolerant souls in the country, well, that’s just humiliating.

When I opened the door to see my mother’s friends again, I felt—sometimes—like the only me in the world. Being trans felt like a burden almost too heavy to bear. Now, trans and non-binary people seem to be everywhere. Instead of despairing, they rejoice, reveling in the glory of the genre and its many curious and wonderful permutations.

This is exactly what the Republicans have grasped. Because what strikes us as joy and glory — new pronouns, gateless transitions — is precisely what curators want to redefine as terrifying and weird.

After all the attention to bathrooms in 2016, the focus has now shifted to trans women‘s participation in sports and healthcare for trans children. Understanding these questions requires more than engaging in scientific research on endocrinology. It requires moral imagination – a sense of being able to empathize with the struggles of people whose experience of being human may be profoundly different from one’s own.

I am grateful for people who have a sense of moral imagination. But is it really as complex as all that? Maybe all we really need, even now, is love. Love for those we don’t understand, love for people who struggle to be known, love for people who are told every day that instead of being embraced with grace, they should be aligned before a firing squad and shot.

If we are to lose the next election, I would prefer that we lose because we stood up for the most vulnerable, because we refused to give ground to the voices of ignorance and hatred.

There is room in this country for everyone. Even me.

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