Opinion 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 a professor of English at Barnard College of Columbia University and a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her next book, “Mad Honey,” co-authored with Jodi Picoult, is scheduled to be published in October.

I was nervous. I’d known most of the ladies in my mother’s bridge group — conservatives, Republicans, evangelicals — since I was a child. But now that I’d come out as trans, I was being unveiled, like a new iPhone. The doorbell rang. My heart pounded in my throat.

This was back in 2001. My mother was a woman so Republican she had voted for a Democratic president only once, in 1936, when she disappointed Alf Landon. “You don’t change horses in midstream,” she explained.

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

A woman named Mary Alice looked me up and down. Then she said, “Damn, Jennifer, you make a fine broad!”

One by one, the others followed. To my surprise and relief, they pledged their support — to me, and to my mom — even if transgender issues weren’t something they wholly grasped.

What they did understand was that I was a human being, the child of their friend, and that what I needed at that moment, above all, was 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 released its party platform, defining gay experience as “abnormal” and opposing “all efforts to validate transgender identity.” Back in March, Robert Foster, a former Mississippi state lawmaker who ran for governor in 2019, tweeted that people who support people like me “need to be lined up against [a] wall before a firing squad to be sent to an early judgment.” Last week, a school board candidate near Pensacola, Fla., said doctors who treat transgender youths “should be hanging from the nearest tree.”

It’s not exactly cucumber sandwiches anymore.

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

This should be proof, if any were needed, that trans people are now, officially, the right wing’s whipping girls. As a result, some progressives suggest that we should just lie low until after November, or — who knows? — perhaps some date even later than that.

Even Hillary Clinton seemed to agree in an interview with the Financial Times in June. Instead of contesting the premise of a question about whether Democrats are losing the midterms because of “the transgender debate,” she said, “Look, the most important thing is to win the next election. The alternative is so frightening that whatever does not help you win should not be a priority.”

It’s not the first time trans people have been told to stand aside, or been blamed for the ascension of conservatism. The day after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, a commentator on MSNBC suggested that Clinton had lost because of the Democratic Party’s focus 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 so many ways has defined your life, is a boutique issue.

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

Back when I opened the door to re-meet my mother’s friends, I felt — sometimes — like the only one of me in the world. Being trans felt like a burden that was almost too much to bear. Now, trans and nonbinary people seem to be everywhere. Instead of despair, they’re rejoicing, delighting in the glory of gender and its many curious and wonderful permutations.

Which is exactly what Republicans have seized upon. Because what feels to us like joy and glory — new pronouns, gatekeeper-less transitions — is the very thing that conservatives want to redefine as terrifying and strange.

After all the attention paid to bathrooms in 2016, the focus has now shifted to the participation of trans women in sports and to health care for trans children. Understanding these issues requires more than engaging with 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 might be profoundly different from one’s own.

I’m 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 do not understand, love for people who struggle to be known, love for people who every day are told that instead of being embraced with grace, they should be lined up before a firing squad and shot.

If we’re going to lose the next election, I would rather we lose because we advocated for the most vulnerable, because we refused to cede ground to voices of ignorance and hate.

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

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