By Riki Wilchins
Originally published on Advocate.com November 12 2013 7:30 AM ET
Maxwell Klinger, where are you?
It was almost 20 years ago that I found myself yelling at the then-head of the Human Rights Campaign and one of its top legal advisers about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
The former is now my sister-in-law, and the latter serves on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
This highlights the first law of Washington: It's a very small town, so be careful with whom you pick fights. It will come around to bite you in the ass.
The discussion kept pivoting around the assertion that sexual orientation needed federal legislation to end discrimination, but gender identity could be handled through the courts.
Naturally we pressed for a single, unified bill rather than an endless series of legal battles that no one in the room was prepared to pay for, given that a hostile panel of Supremes may or may not take the case.
This was before the LGB movement had finally morphed into the LGBT movement for good. Trans people were still widely considered not only disposable but an impediment to bills like ENDA and state legislation New York’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act.
The question of the moment at that point was, which was better: passing a good bill that would protect 98 percent of the community now, or waiting 10, 20, 30 years or even more, to pass the perfect bill that would protect 100 percent?
Rep. Barney Frank, the reigning head of gay politics in Congress, had formerly opined that being trans-inclusive was a deal-killer. And that was the end of our chances that time around. As one Democratic congressional office staffer told us, "No one is going to get to the left of Barney on gay rights."
Frank was worried that cisgender folks’ fears of sharing a public shower with trans people would make ENDA go up in flames. (By the way, I have never met a pre-op transsexual woman with an unquenchable desire to take showers with cisgender females.)
Indeed, after we organized the first National Gender Lobby Day, the people at the anti-LGBT Family Research Council put out a nasty little cartoon summarizing our efforts around ENDA with Cpl. Maxwell Klinger of M*A*S*H in a dress, demanding his right to work in the office as a woman. And that was their A-game, folks.
No matter. Gender identity and trans people were excised from the version of ENDA that finally passed the (Democratic) House, but predictably died in the (Democratic) Senate.
Of course, today things are completely different. ENDA has finally passed the (Democratic) Senate, and is about to die a predictable death in the (Republican) House. Plus ça change …
At least it would seem we finally have an answer to the question posed in that first meeting: How many years would enabling pre-op “trannies” to indulge their pathological need to shower naked around cisgender folks set back ENDA?
Except we don't, not really. In fact, for all the anger and angst we've expended on it, the issue of trans people and ENDA, like Elvis, has quietly left the building.
In a sign of how much the dialogue has shifted, there’s Indiana Senator Dan Coats, a Republican and dedicated wingnut if ever there was one. He was the only senator to speak out against ENDA (yes, the only one) but he devoted his entire 12-minute speech to just about everything but transgender people, showered or dry. His main bone to pick seemed to be with jurisprudential overreach as it related to the protection of religious-minded employers.
Alas FRC, like Old Faithful, has not changed its playbook quite as much. We're still in there, but trans intrusion into bathrooms is the seventh item down in a 13-item shopping list of misinformed objections — "would allow some biological males (who claim to be female) to appear nude before females (and vice versa) in bathrooms, locker rooms, and shows."
Where is Mad Max Klinger when we need him?
Trans people are in real danger of moving all the way along an arc that stretches from social freaks to acceptable shower mates. Talk about your gender spectrum!
I suspect that part of this shift is due to transgender kids. When I was running GenderPAC, we'd get calls every few months from some publicity-hungry media outlet in the midst of a ratings sweep (it was always TV) asking for help locating a transgender person they could interview and get good, titillating before-and-after pictures of transitioning.
Cisgender viewers apparently love that shit. The teaser practically writes itself and hasn't budged an inch since Christine Jorgensen found her Danish doctor: "Ex-G.I. Becomes Blonde Beauty!!!"
We always refused to help, considering this kind of salacious coverage to be exploitative rather than informative. And to be truthful, they usually found some cooperative person eager for the publicity anyway.
But then the bigots changed tactics entirely, and (unintentionally) did us some good. They dropped the adults — who were getting to be old news — and went for the kids.
What really shifted the dialogue on being trans and helped spike the right-wing cannons was not only decades of transgender activism and people like me yelling at people like them.
No, what has helped turn the tide has been a cascade of stories like "Transgender at 6: For Tyler and His Parents, No Second Thoughts," "Colorado Transgender Girl, 6, Wins Discrimination Case," "Transgender Girl Crowned Homecoming Queen at California School," and "Iowa Crowns Transgender Homecoming Queen." (Iowa??? Really??)
Now you can argue that adults like me are indecent perverts, and maybe you have a point. But what do you do with a 6-year-old MTF who just wants to wear a dress and play dolls with her friends? Or a 4-year-old FTM who, invited to examine his crotch to prove that he's really a girl, demands of his mom, "What have you done to my body?"
I mean, this kind of thing is fairly hard to argue with.
It's clearly not his "lifestyle" or " personal choice" or any of those other clinical right-wing euphemisms designed to obscure the well-known fact that that gender identity is hard-wired from birth and there's nothing we can do about it.
So right now transgender children are leading the fight and winning. Simply being who they are refutes nearly every argument the right wing wants to make. It's truly a case of "and a child shall lead them."
Six-year-olds Tyler and Coy are both in elementary school, and I sincerely doubt that either of them dreams of growing up to shower naked with their cisgender classmates.
What they do dream of or will dream of is being accepted, being left in peace, and being in line for pretty much the same choices and opportunities as everyone else. And that day, if the damn bill ever passes, has now moved just a little bit closer.
RIKI WILCHINS is an activist, stand-up comedian, and author of Read My Lips.