protect trans kids, and save us all
A call for empathy.
When I stepped into the men's restroom of the black-tie gala, a benefit for children's rights in Los Angeles, the attendant looked at me and recoiled. "You need to get out of here," he told me, eying my floor-length black gown, tiara, and long hair. His eyes turned critically to my partner. "There's no hanky panky in here."
Momentarily, I was speechless, humiliated, mortified. A stranger stopped washing his hands and stared at me — not to come to my defense, but to scrutinize my gender and how I would react. As I began to stammer — what, I'm not sure, an explanation, an apology, an expletive — the attendant stepped aside, sensing perhaps that a train wreck had been set in motion that was not worth the trouble. I did my business as quickly as possible and left, holding it in for the rest of the night to avoid another encounter.
I am not transgender, but I identify as queer and femme. Occasionally, I, as a person who stands at about 6'6", will wear a dress. And in Los Angeles, where I reside, I usually don't think much of it. Most of the events I attend are LGBT or LGBT-friendly. The venues usually provide gender-neutral or all-gender facilities, creating an atmosphere that is inclusive. In these settings, men and women relieve themselves next to one another without incident. There's no "hanky panky," as the attendant described.
Yet in this situation, it was clear that I had stepped outside of the bubble I had been living in for some time. It's a memory that sticks with me. That anxiety, which was gone for me the moment I took off my dress, is an everyday reality for many transgender people across the country. The so-called "bathroom battle," made famous in part by North Carolina's passage of the anti-LGBT legislation House Bill 2, has attacked the right of trans people to use the public facilities that correspond to their gender identity. It's thrust them into the middle of a cultural war, in which they have been demonized by opponents as sexual predators and perverts.
It's important that I remember how that feels: the fear that a factor as simple as one's appearance could incite hostility, rejection, or violence, even as others look on. It makes me a better ally. It forces me to see what's at stake. As Atticus Finch said, in a To Kill a Mockingbird quotation used by Barack Obama in his farewell address, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." It's a powerful call to empathy. And it's response, to my surprise, has been heard loud and clear for countless folks since Donald Trump's presidential election.
This is not to say that Trump's win sparked a movement of gender bending — although perhaps it should. As RuPaul says, "You're born naked, and the rest is drag," an axiom that should encourage more men to wear dresses (and women to wear suits and impersonate Sean Spicer) as a means of protesting against the patriarchy.
But there is indeed a movement. It began with the Women's March — a historic protest in which people of every race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity made themselves heard across the nation and world in record numbers. It happened again when protesters of every faith flocked to U.S. airports in response to Trump's executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. In both events, the message was clear: Attack one of us, attack us all.
This unified response occurred again this week. Under Trump's order, Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions — the newly confirmed heads of the departments of Education and Justice — withdrew nationwide education guidelines for transgender students, which were put in place by the Obama administration to protect these young people from abuse.
The outcry was immediate. The hashtag #ProtectTransKids began trending on social media, with hundreds of thousands sending messages of support. Celebrities like Chris Evans, Katy Perry, Josh Groban, Ellen DeGeneres, Patricia Arquette, Ellen Page, and Mark Ruffalo; businesses like YouTube; politicians like Sen. Kamala Harris, Rep. Marc Pocan, Rep. Barbara Lee, Sen. Al Franken, and Sen. Chuck Schumer; folks of every identity and background sent their love and solidarity.
Many told trans youth they are not alone. Others pointed to resources like Trans LifeLine and The Trevor Project, which offer counseling services to those in need. "To the LGBTQ community, I'm sorry for the message that was sent today. They don't speak for all of us. We love you," wrote Evans. "For anyone who feels scared or hopeless, know that we will never stop fighting for your rights," said DeGeneres on Twitter.
Trump broke his promise to trans youth. He declared himself an ally of the LGBT community on the campaign trail and after his inauguration. But this week, he proved he was the furthest thing. Yet in his place, countless others have proved they are allies. Perhaps they were called on to become allies in light of this newfound sense of urgency and unity.
In the days to come, I hope this energy continues beyond social media. I urge parents to talk to their children's teachers and elected officials to demand they protect trans students from discrimination. At present, policies regarding restrooms and locker rooms vary by state and school, so it is essential that the voices of trans kids and their allies be heard at this critical time. An upcoming Supreme Court case, involving trans high school student Gavin Grimm, may decide this matter once and for all — hopefully, on the side of equality. We must all let Gavin know he has our support, through hashtags like #StandWithGavin and donations to advocacy organizations like the ACLU and Lambda Legal.
But support for the transgender community must not end with public schools. I urge employees to petition for protections for their LGBT coworkers. I urge businesses to open their doors — and bathrooms — to all patrons, regardless of gender identity and expression.
And I urge us all, myself included, to fight to keep this miracle of intersectionality — to advocate for women, for people of color, for trans kids, for Jews, for Muslims, whenever their rights are attacked.
As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a BBC interview this week, "We are not experiencing the best of times." Jewish cemeteries are being desecrated. Families are being torn apart by the travel ban. Children fear to attend school due to a rise in bullying, and now, LGBT kids have even less support from the federal government. However, Ginsburg added, "I am optimistic in the long run. A great man once said that the true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle. It is the pendulum. And when the pendulum swings too far in one direction it will go back."
Pendulums swing. And when they do, we must to cleave together to push them back in the other direction. Regardless of what we see when we look in the mirror, this strategy is the only way to save us all. How else will we be able to look at ourselves when the day is done?
Text Daniel Reynolds
Photography Lia Clay