The Transgender Political Paradox
A recent rally for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was interrupted by a heckler supporting Republican candidate Donald Trump. This heckler was carrying a sign that read, “Obama is as Christian as Bruce Jenner is a woman.” Afterwards, my editor asked me if I thought that transgender people could become targets of Trump’s ire the way Latinos and Muslims have been.
My first instinct was that transgender people would make a natural, easy political target. Transgender people already are heavily stigmatized. When trans issues come up for a popular vote, things often go horribly wrong, as they did in Houston, Fayetteville, and Anchorage. Why not go after transgender people, then?
However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this strategy doesn’t make sense for a lot of reasons, which impact both pro- and anti-LGBT forces.
From a standpoint of almost any politician’s campaign, you want to pick about three issues and then stay on message regarding those three. While Trump has been all over the place on messaging overall, his three consistent issues have been immigration, terrorism, and the economy. He has generally avoided getting wrapped up in social issues like marriage equality and abortion, and he tries to brush past them when he forced to acknowledge they existence.
From a different perspective, it would be difficult for a candidate to run on a fearmongering platform of “transgender people will take your jobs and kill you.” First, it’s not like we’re getting a lot of job offers to begin with. Second, people aren’t afraid of transgender people in general. We are treated as pathetic jokes, but not as genuine threats.
This might not seem intuitive, given how the “bathroom rapist,” meme has been so successful. However, most anti-LGBT activists have been careful to couch their language in terms of “people pretending to be transgender” are a threat. For transgender people, this is a meaningless difference: We still can’t use the legally use the bathroom, and visibly transgender people are treated as potential rapists. In the minds of the public, though, a hypothetical transgender person isn’t a threat. This may be, in part, why anti-transgender forces in California weren’t able to get enough signatures to put an anti-trans initiative on the ballot.
Another related reason why transgender people wouldn’t become a central theme in a campaign for elected office is that the vast majority of the public doesn’t know anyone who is transgender. Only 16 percent of Americans know a trans person. From a practical standpoint, you can’t realistically convince the public that hordes of transgender people will rise up in some sort of genderqueer zombie apocalypse and destroy the world. It’s essentially the reason why most (sane) people don’t worry about the United States being conquered by Vanuatu.
Oddly enough, this messaging that transgender people are a tiny minority has also been bolstered by the right wing. The messaging strategy by the anti-LGBT organizations is often that transgender people are such a small minority that they should have no legal protections. However, this messaging would run counter to attempts to whip up fear that transgender people can take all the good jobs, destroy the world’s mightiest military, or whatever other paranoid fever dream a candidate could think of.
So this all sounds great, and we can all relax, right? This is also a blade that cuts both ways. Just as it is difficult for anti-LGBT candidates to use transgender people as a central theme, the LGBT movement has found it is difficult to rally around trans-specific issues for many of the same reasons.
In 2003, sexual orientation protections were passed in New York. Gender identity was left out of that bill, and the bill to include gender identity never made it out of the state Senate. After marriage equality was won in the courts, New York’s state LGBT organization, Empire State Pride Agenda, declared victory and went home. Other state-level LGBT organizations are seeing their wells run dry as the post-marriage money dries up, and transgender issues languish.
Similarly, after “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, OutServe-SLDN was unable to raise enough money on the issue of open transgender military service, and suffered a messy splintering over the issue. The Ford Foundation also announced in 2015 that due to the advances in LGBT rights it would cut back on funding for LGBT issues to focus on “issues that will have a bigger social impact.” In other words, the transgender community is so small that it’s not worth investing in.
Never mind that transgender bodily functions may be criminalized in several states.
So where does that leave the transgender community? We’re visible enough that people know what transgender is, but they don’t know us well enough to decide we’re OK. We’re demagogued enough that we’re not well accepted, but we’re also rare enough that people aren’t particularly afraid of transgender people turning the country into a Mad Max apocalyptic wasteland. Candidates and organizations aren’t able to stir a great deal of passion (or money) about transgender people either way.
So where are we? Same as always: just the butt of bad jokes by people who would vote for a candidate like Donald Trump.