As we proceed in our advocacy efforts post-HERO, no longer with any excuses to ignore the strategies of "bathroom bills" and "religious liberty" espoused by our adversaries, we need to take stock and seriously consider how we can create new allies. We've never been able to win more than a few local victories on our own, which we did when the trans issue was virtually unknown throughout society at large. (For an introduction to what the world was like then for many, I suggest you read this column by Liana Aghajanian.)
The ally issue was raised shortly after Election Day by this change.org petition demanding that the national LGBT organizations revert to being LG only. Being 2015, many thought this was that day's edition of the Onion satire. Others we devastated to see such a thing publicly. I, too, was surprised by the gall it took to go public, which was mitigated by the fact the sponsor was anonymous. Not to be outdone, the anti-trans lesbian separatists promoted their own (signed) petition two days later. Then the anonymous poster of the "Drop the T" petition sat for an interview with the extreme right blog, the Federalist, to explain his views. His views were some of the most outdated and incoherent I've read in a long time. I've battled these people within the community for the past decade, both gay men and women, some at the highest levels of our community, so the intentions of these groups are nothing new.
Incitement, however, is still occurring on campuses, threatening to balkanize an already tiny community and isolate us from the mainstream of which we are a part and whose support we ultimately need. It's been two decades since the formation of GenderPAC, a national trans advocacy group which evolved to focus on outreach to the general community on issues of gender expression and a deeper understanding of masculinity and femininity. That organization ultimate suffered from intra-communal wars demanding purity of focus on trans persons, and the progress we've made today is threatened by the increasing radicalization of the young generation of trans and genderqueer activists.
As a recent example, I received a letter from a young woman studying neuroscience at Claremont McKenna College in southern California. An ardent feminist as well as a scientist, Jillian Knox, was a supporter of a Scripps College (part of the Claremont College Consortium) event called Project Vulva, aimed at helping people understand the difference between a vagina and vulva. The effort to destigmatize those anatomical terms engendered backlash with the women staging the event being called transmisogynistic, transphobic, gross and ugly and degenerated into cyberbullying in an attempt to shame Jillian and her friends into silence. One critic said, "A trans woman is telling y'all this makes her feel uncomfortable and that's not enough for you to rethink your stance on this? You're gross, this whole thing is gross, have fun with your ugly cupcakes." Really? Someone is uncomfortable and that is supposed to simply shut down the program and all discussion? Why is that person in college in the first place?
That Jillian and her friends were bullied is shameful; that the Consortium's trans community and its allies are so insecure that they would attack a group simply trying to teach about female anatomy is disgraceful. These women are our natural allies, whose assistance we need to achieve full equality, yet their classmates attack rather than attempt to cooperate.
We have made great progress over the past decade decoupling gender identity from genitalia. On the one hand, it's easy, because gender identity is a brain function and genitalia are just genitals. On the other hand, trying to teach a society that has been raised for generations (millennia, actually) to believe that sex is nothing more than genitals, is extremely difficult. Because we have been successful, we have put ourselves in the unenviable but unavoidable position of dealing with bathroom panic attacks that stem from fears of male genitals.
Not that long ago trans women were assumed to have undergone genital reconstruction. No more penis, therefore, no threat that the male weapon would be used for predation, a fear that underlies transphobia. Not that there weren't many trans women who could not afford bottom surgery, or for whom it was medically contraindicated, or who just didn't care, but the cisgender population viewed trans women as postoperative trans women. As the decoupling began, initially targeted to include trans men rather than non-operative trans women, it became obvious to more non-trans persons, as an unintended consequence, that some trans women still had their penises, and that propelled the bathroom panic forward.
I don't for a minute believe that we wouldn't have bathroom panics directed towards trans equality even if all trans women had vaginas, as most civil rights movements have degenerated into bathroom civil wars for no rational reasons. But given that the trans community is diverse in its anatomy, we have, by necessity, proceeded to educate the general population that genital anatomy and brain sex/gender are two independent phenomena. We're making progress, but that progress is impacted when we also have trans students who are offended when NARAL is protecting women's reproductive rights without mentioning trans men, or a college is staging a performance of the slightly dated, non-genderqueer-inclusive The Vagina Monologues, or a group of female students is trying to destigmatize female genitalia.
These groups are in no way excluding trans women or trans men. Not mentioning them, or not using gender-neutral language, is not an act of exclusion. Denying trans men reproductive health care would be an act of exclusion. Refusing to discuss trans bodies in a discussion of The Vagina Monologues would be exclusion. Blocking trans women from participating in Project Vulva would be exclusion.
When we lobby for anti-discrimination protections, we fight to add categories such as gender identity and gender expression. In court we argue cases on the basis of sex discrimination and sex stereotypes. We're fortunate that the law, in its genius, is structured around these abstract classifications with fuzzy boundaries, rather than specific identities which ebb and flow over time. That's how we create positive change.
Politically speaking and being hard-nosed and practical, I will say that trans persons have no right to demand that language be changed to include them while alienating the vast majority in the process. Educate, yes; demand, no. Doing so alienates millions of potential allies. It is very easy to turn off those who are willing to learn about a community of which they know little but have been taught to fear. Really, is a group of girls discussing the difference between a vagina and vulva a threat to anyone? Many trans persons could use brush-ups on anatomical terminology, too.
The more important issue, though, is finding a way to work with our natural allies to deal with the more threatening resistance in this country. When three Republican presidential candidates attend a conference where speakers exhort their listeners to "kill the gays," we can't afford to shut down rational debate. Women discussing female anatomy doesn't exclude anyone else from discussion, nor does it prevent trans women from educating their peers that not all women have vaginas or vulva and explaining why. That's how you increase understanding and grow a movement.