Bill Maher Is Wrong: Trans Rights Can't Wait

Bill Maher

Comedian Bill Maher decided to wade into the fray over transgender bathroom access last week on his HBO show, Real Time With Bill Maher. The often inflammatory Maher painted trans rights as an issue that represents a distraction during the election and should be ignored until after November to avoid making voters uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, this kind of rhetoric has become depressingly familiar to trans people, and as we continue to grow in visibility without an increase in agency, we can no longer afford to be relegated to the metaphorical backseat of the liberal agenda.

In his closing monologue, Maher declared, "Every issue, every fight, every cause has to take a backseat to defeating to defeating [Donald] Trump." He specifically noted trans bathroom rights, then said, "We can't get tricked into symbolic fights over college campus pet peeves." He concluded, "There's no room for boutique issues in an Armageddon election. ... Let's not die on this hill."

Maher insisted that he's "not suggesting we throw the transgendered under the bus or discount their struggle," but then made a cheap throwaway joke steeped in transmisogyny about "finding panty hose when you're 6 foot 4."  

What Maher is missing is that trans people are in real danger. Trans people face unprecedented levels of poverty, employment discrimination, housing insecurity, and harassment. With the Republican push to force us into bathrooms for the wrong gender, trans people in many locations now face the terrifying choice of using a bathroom where they may be assaulted, using a bathroom where they may be arrested, or avoiding public restrooms all together. Most terrifying of all, black trans women are facing horrific levels of violence, as they are murdered in increasing numbers year after year.

Our struggles are not "finding panty hose," nor are they as simple as our right to use a bathroom without fear of assault or arrest. While the fight for bathroom rights has come to symbolize the entire trans rights movement, it's not a fight that trans people chose. We were pushing for things like employment and housing protections and access to appropriate health care when those on the right suddenly realized that trans people existed and panicked that we might be in the bathrooms with their wives and daughters, even though we had been there quietly for decades without any problems.

To refer to trans rights as a "boutique issue" or a "college campus pet peeve" is to willfully gloss over the very real and very dire situation that decades of ignoring trans rights has created our community. Maher selflessly offered to take his "pet issue," marijuana legalization, off the table until after the election, as if being unable to buy pot legally were somehow equivalent to the decades-long systematic oppression and violence faced by transgender people, as if that "sacrifice" were in any way similar to what trans people face every single day. But the end result of delaying movement on marijuana legalization is that Maher faces slightly stronger barriers to engaging in his favorite recreational activity — though for a wealthy straight white man, those barriers are already essentially negligible. Ignoring trans rights, on the other hand, places the lives and security of the at least 1.4 million trans people in the U.S. at risk. The comparison is, quite frankly, insulting.

Of course, trans people are depressingly familiar with having our rights relegated to low priority out of fears of sparking public backlash. For years, the Human Rights Campaign, arguably the most influential LGBT group in the U.S., utterly failed the trans community and routinely sacrificed potential gains in trans rights for the sake of progress for cisgender (nontrans) gay people. In attempts to gain approval of a federal antidiscrimination law covering the LGBT community, protections for trans people were dropped because they were seen as too controversial. That same situation has also played out over and over again at the state level. This is respectability politics in its most basic form, and Maher seems devoted to playing directly into it.

Maher's suggested solution is instead to leave trans issues to Hollywood. "Let us handle it, like we did with gay rights," he said. Maher appears to labor under the belief that the acceptance of gay people and gains in gay rights were won through the inclusion of gay characters in TV and movies until "being gay was just part of our Modern Family." Maher goes on to say that he believe this same action is under way for trans people, citing The Danish Girl, Dallas Buyers Club, and Transparent.

First, Maher's attempt to allow Hollywood to take credit for advances in gay rights is a deeply offensive erasure of the efforts and sacrifices of thousands of activists and advocates over several decades to scratch out the limited protections that gay and bisexual people now have. Even then, the fight for gay rights did not end with marriage equality. Huge swaths of the country still lack even basic antidiscrimination protections, meaning gay people can get married in those states but could legally be fired from their jobs for doing so. LGB rights are just as much a present and pressing political issue as they ever were.

Second, and more important, trans rights are not something that can be "left to Hollywood." The elite media will not be the savior of the trans community, and it routinely continues to fail us. None of the three examples cited by Maher even feature a trans actor or actress in a lead role. While trans narratives might be getting some visibility, trans performers certainly are not. Increasing trans acceptance is not part of Hollywood's agenda. As always, its sole agenda is to make a profit, and it has found that trans narratives are currently profitable. We should not kid ourselves into thinking that Hollywood benevolently has our best interests at heart, and we cannot simply leave the struggle for our basic rights to people whose job is to exploit our experiences for profit. Worse yet, trans people (particularly trans women) remain a standard hateful joke or trope throughout television and film, where it seems one cannot finish a season without hearing a transmisogynistic crack about how disgusting a  woman with a penis is.

Indeed, it could be argued that the rise of trans visibility in media without a concomitant rise in our agency (whether in media or politically) is actually a contributing factor to the current backlash against the inclusion of trans people in public life. Trans people are far from a new a phenomenon; we did not suddenly crawl up from the ground in 2011 and start clamoring for rights. We've been here all along, quietly living our lives in the background. The increased media attention seems to have placed enormous blinking signs over our heads, and the sudden realization that we exist beyond bad Jerry Springer episodes seems to be one of the catalysts of the sudden panic about us, whether in bathrooms or elsewhere.

Maher's monologue provides evidence of that we cannot leave it to Hollywood. In his five-minute bit, he managed to mangle the language of our community, referring to trans people as "the transgendered," and make a cheap joke about the appearance of trans women. Pardon me if I'm not interested in entrusting my rights and freedoms to an industry that can't manage even the most basic respect for my community.

Lastly, trans rights are far from a "boutique issue." The right of trans people to do things as simple as safetly using the appropriate bathroom resonate strongly with Democratic voters, and is supported by young voters by a more than 2-1 ratio. Voters also favor federal antidiscrimination protections by extraordinarily wide margins.

If Hillary Clinton continues trying to carve out a role for herself as a progressive to court young voters and Bernie Sanders supporters, she can ill afford to use the trans community as a sacrificial lamb in the way the Maher suggests. Progressive values involve prioritizing the needs of the marginalized, and giving up on trans people would signal that Clinton's push into progressivism is little more than election-year lip service.

Maher can insist all he wants that he's not throwing trans people under the bus, but it's abundantly clear that that's exactly what he's done.

MARI BRIGHE is The Advocate's transgender issues correspondent.

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