Commentary LGBTQ

Trans Lives Depend on Resisting ‘Unlikely’ Partnerships

Aaron Kappel

If the trans community and our allies are going to succeed, we cannot look at anti-trans collaborations as isolated.

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear oral arguments in its first major trans rights lawsuit. In that case, Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student, sued the Gloucester County School Board in Virginia for its discriminatory bathroom policy barring transgender students from using communal restrooms that align with their gender identities.

With this case, the transgender community is more visible than ever before; however, increased visibility has only made us more susceptible to transphobic attacks. A so-called “unlikely” partnership between a radical feminist group and an evangelical Christian organization only makes that vulnerability more apparent.

If the trans community and our allies are going to succeed, we cannot look at these hateful incidents as isolated. We have to broaden our perspective and see how our humanity is being erased on multiple fronts, and how these attempts are all connected. Our lives depend on it.

As Rewire Senior Legal Analyst Imani Gandy reported, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Virginia have argued, on behalf of 17-year-old Gavin Grimm, the bathroom policy at his school “is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment and a violation of Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.”

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As is typical in Supreme Court cases, advocacy groups have filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting their preferred outcome. Of particular concern is the brief filed by the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), which describes itself as a group of “unapologetically radical feminists,” and Focus on the Family’s public policy partner, Family Policy Alliance. In their petition they argue that “redefining ‘sex’ to mean ‘gender identity’ … strips women of their privacy, threatens their physical safety, undercuts the means by which women can achieve educational equality, and ultimately works to erase women’s very existence.”

Ironically, Focus on the Family’s founder, James Dobson, has been wildly critical of feminism for decades, often using his radio show, Family Talk, to express his misogynistic views. For example in 2011, he said, “The feminist movement has just hammered away at what manhood means.” And the following year, he dedicated an entire program to rail against the “radical feminist movement,” and their alleged “love affair with abortion,” as a guest on the program said.

This has been a career-long stance of Dobson. As Ludger Viefhues-Bailey wrote, “In Dobson’s world, great care has to be invested so that [children] learn the proper gender behavior and become comfortable with their sexual identity. Dobson concludes that ‘masculinity is an achievement.’ … Men should not be ‘feminized, emasculated, and wimpified.’”

Although Dobson’s group would seem like an obvious foe to WoLF, the radical feminist organization—a misnomer that actually means the members reject trans women’s identities—joined forces to show its support for anti-transgender legislation.

In a promotional video announcing the partnership, Kara Dansky, the chair of WoLF’s Board of Directors, classified the two groups’ opposing views on abortion access and lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights as mere “disagreements.” “On certain issues, such as gender identity, pornography, and prostitution—WoLF finds that the left has pretty much sold out women on these issues,” Dansky said. “To the extent that Family Policy Alliance also stands up for women and girls on these issues, we’ll work together.”

Family Policy Alliance’s director of policy, Autumn Leva, put it more bluntly, asking, “How wrong does something have to be for a Christian pro-family organization and a radical feminist organization to oppose it together?”

Apparently allowing transgender students to use the restroom of their gender identity is so “wrong,” the organizations involved are willing to set aside their “disagreements” to fight against Grimm’s case.

What’s deeply troubling about this line of thinking is that we’ve seen it before with other movements and political leaders who are so eager to make progress on their own agendas that they’re willing to set aside other core issues, to the detriment of trans rights.

As Raquel Willis wrote in a December article for Rewire, there has been a long-standing tension in the LGBTQ movement because of how some have silenced the needs of transgender people in order to advance other priorities tailored to meet the needs of the cisgender queer community. In a 2016 BuzzFeed article, Dominic Holden revealed the most recent strife between LGBTQ organizations, where one side wants to put off passing state-level public accommodation laws to “avoid the bathroom issue and religious objections,” ensuring increased protections for the rest of the umbrella first.

Chiefly, this roadblock—the disagreement on public accommodation laws—is putting funding at risk. “One key player is the Gill Foundation, which gave more than $6.5 million to LGBT causes in 2014,” Holden writes. “Gill and several groups that receive its grants, including Freedom for All Americans and the National Center for Transgender Equality, contend this sort of compromise may be their only shot of winning civil rights for millions of LGBT people at the state level in the next decade, even if those gains are incomplete.”

The other side, which includes the ACLU and the Human Rights Campaign, fear that if fights like the discriminatory bathroom policies are shelved, “It may take years to pass laws that provide public protections in the future—if ever.” And importantly, “leaving them out may even send a message that discrimination in public is acceptable.”

While some pro-LGBTQ civil rights groups are considering conceding on important trans protections for the sake of cis lesbians and gays, the Christian right has been making compromises of its own in order to ensure the transgender community goes back into hiding.

Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, and president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has repeatedly insisted that God played an important role in electing Donald Trump. On the day before the election Graham argued that Christians “may have to hold [their] nose and vote.” Despite any reservations Christians might feel about Trump, Graham explained that it was necessary to put Trump in the White House.

Last September, when U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley ruled that Highland Local Schools in Morrow County, Ohio, must allow an 11-year-old transgender student to use the girls’ bathroom and locker room, Graham took to Facebook. He wrote, “The next president of the United States will appoint well over 100 powerful federal judges during their term. This liberal judge in Ohio was appointed by Bill Clinton in 1997 …. It just shows you how important the next election is.”

The following month, when the Supreme Court announced its decision to hear Gavin Grimm’s case, Graham repeated the bathroom predator myth, stating, “Safety for women and children—and privacy for everyone—are at stake. How the Court rules on this case will have implications far beyond Virginia and far into the future of our nation.” He urged his more than five million Facebook followers to consider this when they pray about whom to cast their vote for in November, insisting, “The main issue of this election? The Supreme Court.”

Last May, the president of Focus on the Family, Jim Daly, responded to the Obama administration’s guidance regarding transgender students in public schools. He argued that trans individuals must use the wrong restroom, and by “shouldering this burden” they will help protect all of our children. Later that summer, Daly continued his fear-mongering and unveiled a new article series put together by its policy team: Public Restrooms – Your Privacy and Safety. In October, Vice President Mike Pence went on Dobson’s radio program and said a Donald Trump-Pence administration would, if elected, resolve both Obamacare’s birth control mandate and President Barack Obama’s transgender bathroom policy.

Fear-mongering about trans people and claiming God is on your side has proven to be an effective method for the Christian right. After the 2016 election, many Democrats and progressives saw how the Christian right turned out for a man whose lifestyle is antithetical to their religious doctrine and, in part, blamed identity politics for Trump’s win.

At a rally in Boston after the election, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said, “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.” And on the New York Times’ Opinion Pages, Angie Morelli, a former delegate for Sanders, wrote that she shares his frustration and called identity politics a distraction: “Tailoring these concerns for different groups only alienates support that could come from actually talking about the real issues.”

Identity politics is the recognition of how identities intersect and how those intersections add important nuances to political issues. Calling this a “distraction” from “real” concerns dehumanizes and devalues the lived experience of millions of people.

For example, according to a 2014 report, transgender Americans are nearly four times more likely to have a household income under $10,000 per year than the population as a whole. An increase in minimum wage and an improved economic policy that benefits the so-called working class won’t reach the trans community if their would-be employers are allowed to deny them employment based on their gender identity. Nor can a trans student achieve their education goals, which ultimately decides what job one can get, if their school policies are discriminatory. These intersections aren’t distractions—they are a matter of life and death.

But in the spirit of this ignorance and eagerness to partner with ideological enemies, Sanders has doubled-down and announced his willingness to work with the Trump administration on issues he feels there is a mutual understanding. And he is not alone: As other progressive leaders have argued, they must win back Trump supporters who were frustrated with the economy. Read this as the white, cis electorate who were also tired of hearing about identity politics because their privilege affords them this convenience.

Collaborating, or in this particular case, being willing to collaborate with ideological foes to gain the illusion of victory has been prevalent for years. In this light, the partnering of a radical feminist group and an evangelical Christian organization to fight transgender restroom accommodations makes perfect sense. If religious groups can go out of their way to justify support for someone who jokingly admitted to being an actual sexual predator, then working together with secular abortion advocates is inconsequential.

The Christian right’s partnership, so far, is paying off with the appointments of Betsy DeVos and Jerry Falwell Jr. But for putting at risk the safety, well-being, and dignity of transgender individuals, what will the alleged progressives get in return? As writer Katelyn Burns aptly concluded, “It’s easy to oppose an enemy that is consistently hateful …. It’s altogether more difficult when people who pledge to be your ally end up stabbing you in the back.”

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