On Sunday, Aaron Sorkin was interviewed by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria about politics, while promoting a new play and continuing to ride the high of his Bush-era fantasia “The West Wing.” In the full tradition of his chiding-happy characters, Sorkin had a few strong words for “the crop of young people” who have just entered Congress:
“I think there is a great opportunity here, now more than ever, for Democrats to be the non-stupid party,” he told Zakaria. “It’s not just about transgender bathrooms… [T]hat’s just a Republican talking point to distract you.”
The same evening as the Zakaria interview, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) ― whose nimble Twitter wit and forthright ideological statements have garnered her outsize attention among freshmen lawmakers ― was hopping on a Donkey Kong Twitch stream to raise funds for a charity that supports trans and gender-diverse children.
It’s hard to think of a more perfect contrast between generations or a more fitting issue to divide them. Are trans rights, as Sorkin put it, just a distraction? Or are they more fundamental to a bitter war for minds and hearts playing out between the left and right?
“The right’s obsession with trans people is 50x what you imagine it to be.”
It’s easy to think about trans rights as a frivolous issue, antithetical to a “non-stupid” party, until you realize the depth of the opposition to trans people’s mere existence and the massive legal and financial support for material anti-trans discrimination. This was vividly illustrated on Tuesday, as the conservative-majority Supreme Court voted to reinstate President Donald Trump’s discriminatory ban on transgender individuals serving in the military while challenges to the prohibition make their way through lower courts.
Trans rights are often dismissed by a certain segment of the left as being frivolous, the razor’s edge of “identity politics.” They’re also vehemently opposed by conservatives, with a degree of rancor that might shock anyone who has never had occasion to discover the breathtaking depths of conservative loathing.
As the trans writer Katelyn Burns put it on Twitter, “The right’s obsession with trans people is 50x what you imagine it to be… They view this as a culture war they can win and they are dreadfully close to winning the legal fight… I just don’t see a matching energy on the left for trans people.”
A quick examination of conservative outlets reveals just how vehemently opposition to trans rights looms in the conservative psyche. On the conservative commentary website The Federalist, a search for “transgender” comes up with 697 articles ― with the three most recent being “30 Transgender Regretters Come Out of the Closet,” “Church of England’s Transgender Baptisms Blaze Trail for 3 More Blasphemous Rites,” and “The Transgender Movement is Not Interested in Compromise.” A search of Breitbart for the same term yields dozens of pages of anti-trans content.
But anti-trans rancor isn’t limited to livid cultural commentary ― or even slurs, deliberate misgendering and intense fixation on the gender binary in public discourse. It comes in the form of legal restrictions on trans lives, federally permitted denial of medical care, and other initiatives that show the real animus ― and real force ― behind anti-trans sentiment.
One of these particularly frightening moments for trans people came when Trump ― abruptly, and without the advice or consent of his military advisers ― announced that transgender servicemen and women would no longer be accepted by the military. His decision stemmed from, the president claimed, the prohibitive cost of their medical care. This claim was thoroughly debunked, as researchers pointed out that trans medical care is an infinitesimal portion of the Pentagon’s bloated budget. The Washington Post pointed out that the military spends 10 times as much on erectile dysfunction as it does on transgender care.
Not only is the nominal premise utterly fictive, the initiative is chilling. In a culture as militaristic as the United States ― one that loves to sanctimoniously celebrate its troops ― excluding trans people from military service sent an unmistakable message of contempt, the same one gay and lesbian people faced before the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy concerning their service. Trump’s directive was, in essence, a move to declare trans people second-class citizens, a move that’s now been at least temporarily endorsed by the Supreme Court.
“It’s incumbent upon the left to fight anti-trans animus, which manifests as both visceral loathing and material discrimination, with a roaring surge of protection.”
As for the anti-trans “bathroom bills” scorned by Sorkin ― far from a mere “talking point” for the right, these measures, introduced in 18 different states, represent not just a falsehood-riven moral panic but a material danger to trans lives.
According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, during 2017 alone 16 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New York, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming — considered legislation to restrict access to multiuser restrooms, locker rooms and other sex-segregated facilities on the basis of a definition of sex or gender consistent with sex assigned at birth or “biological sex.”
Bathrooms and locker rooms are fraught spaces, loci of physical vulnerability, and these discriminatory initiatives ask trans people to put their own lives in danger in order to salve the fear and hatred of others. It’s telling that for a purported leftist, the right of fellow Americans to perform basic bodily functions in safety is viewed as a frivolity.
In fact, anti-trans animus has gained cultural ground precisely because it preys on both the base fears of moral panic and the apathy of those who ought to be defending the rights of trans people. There’s a lack of concomitant force to defend trans people ― there are no marches in the streets mobilizing millions to defend the rights of this tiny sliver of the population, which is subject to such outsize and dangerous attacks. “The rallies I’ve attended for trans rights are attended... mostly only by trans people,” Burns wrote.
It’s precisely the Sorkin perspective ― one that focuses on cis, white men ― that young Democrats have the power to jettison. It’s time to recognize that centering ourselves around the needs of those with the least social capital, those who are most marginalized, protects us all. When divided, we are easily conquered; when arrayed in solidarity, we make more formidable foes.
It’s incumbent upon the left to fight anti-trans animus, which manifests as both visceral loathing and material discrimination, with a roaring surge of protection that demonstrates without ambiguity the justice that our movement seeks.
Talia Lavin is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn.