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When Your Existence Is Up for Debate

How trans people’s lives are jeopardized by the latest trend of “think pieces” on trans issues.

The author and a student after testifying against an anti-trans bill in Tennessee.

Every few months, an influential publication gives platform to a piece purporting to debate the “fiercely contested” or “hard to navigate” questions about transgender identity. Usually focusing on restroom/locker room use or health care, these think pieces by design claim to offer analyses of the “different sides” to some question about the costs and benefits of navigating the existence of trans people in particular ways.

Whether appearing in the New Yorker, New York Magazine, or the New York Times, these pieces follow the same formula — a non-transgender writer poses a question about the impact of respecting transgender people’s bodies and identities framing it as a “debate”, “culture war” or “clash of values” then interviews a lot of non-transgender people, and concludes that the issue is difficult because unlike other civil rights struggles, transgender people’s demand for humanity infringes the rights of others. Or, as Elinor Burkett put it in a June, 2015 Sunday New York Times op-ed, “the trans movement isn’t simply echoing African-Americans, Chicanos, gays or women by demanding an end to the violence and discrimination, and to be treated with a full measure of respect. It’s demanding that women reconceptualize ourselves.”

The latest such exploration into trans existence was this weekend’s opinion piece in the New York Times by Judith Shulevitz entitled “Is It Time to Desegregate the Sexes?” Shulevitz’s piece purports to discuss the varying outcomes for managing the question of whether transgender students should use communal locker rooms with their peers. Or, what she deemed on Twitter in a since deleted tweet, an exploration of the “clash of values” at hand in this so-called debate.

Like Burkett (and others, including the New Yorker’s Jeannie Suk Gersen), Shulevitz assumes that transgender people’s bodies inherently threaten the modesty and privacy of others. After framing her question as what to do when two girls — one transgender and one not — are forced to disrobe together in the locker room, Shulevitz queries “we have to ask whether physical modesty is tantamount to racism or has a more legitimate basis.” Forget the fact that her scenario itself is contrived and unlikely to find replication in the real world, it is used to cause the reader to imagine the nature of a trans person’s body and the intrusion it poses. And though she doesn’t actually engage the question about the relationship between the “more legitimate basis” she posits and other forms of oppression, she answers it quite explicitly, explaining of the plaintiffs in a Minnesota lawsuit seeking to expel a girl from the girls’ locker room because she is transgender: “you can’t dismiss the plaintiffs’ concerns as mere intolerance.”

What Burkett and Shulevitz do is normalize the idea that demands by trans people to, as Burkett says, “be treated with a full measure of respect” necessarily hurt others. For Burkett this is by “demanding” that “women reconcentualize” themselves and for Shulevitz it is by implicating/upsetting the privacy and modesty rights of others — mostly cisgender girls. Though their frame takes these tensions as a given, they are anything but given. Instead, this framing reflects the authors’ ideological views about transgender people disguised by the sanitizing language of clashing values. It is dangerous to accept the premise of these pieces without interrogating those underlying views.

Additionally, the setup by Burkett and Shulevitz fails to appreciate the nature of power and oppression more broadly. For some — those in power — demands by marginalized populations for justice are always viewed as a threat to the dominant structure. This why, for example, when Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, takes a knee during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality against communities of color, it is seen as upsetting what it means to be American. His demand for justice and humanity is viewed as threat to the social order. And in a sense, it is such a threat, as that social order has always been defined through the exclusion of others — particularly Black and brown people, poor people, immigrants, trans people, people with disabilities.

It is unsurprising then, that Shulevitz worries about “[a] revolution of this magnitude” — referring to the inclusion of transgender students under basic nondiscrimination protections. Protection for and inclusion of those that have historically been excluded feels like a “revolution” or a revolt against the social order precisely because the social order has been defined to not include many groups. But that does not make it right.

Shulevitz’s failure to grapple with the reality of transgender people’s lives and her own assumptions about that reality results in a misleading and dangerous piece.

Lacking the voices of any transgender people or advocates, Shulevitz’s “debate” is set-up to reinforce all the assumptions about transgender people that many people share — the view that transgender girls and boys are not real girls and boys, the view that the bodies of transgender people infringe the rights of others, the view that inclusion of transgender people would disrupt educational and extracurricular settings.

She systemically introduces voices to reinforce each of these assumptions and never offers the expertise of individuals who can show that none of these assumptions is correct. She quotes Alliance Defending Freedom, a libertarian law professor, a so-called “radical feminist” organization defined by their belief that women who are trans are actually men, and a select group of educators to ostensibly highlight the challenges that transgender people pose in educational settings. Absent from her piece are the voices of transgender people, advocates, medical associations, pediatric associations, school administrators, and others who could clearly explain based on concrete experience that none of these assumptions comports with reality.

If she is going to deem protecting transgender people “a revolution” of notable “magnitude” then it might be useful to include the many school administrators who have testified to the exact opposite of her provocative warning — that such protections caused no disruption at school and were implemented seamlessly. This hyperbolic suggestion that merely allowing transgender people to be present in the locker room with their peers — most of whom love and respect them for who they are — is a revolution is offensive to both the concept of revolution and to the humanity of trans people. All Shulevitz has accomplished through this framing is to reinforce the talking points advanced by anti-trans groups like Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

Remarkably, Shulevitz ignores completely ADF’s longstanding mission to attack advances for LGBT individuals and the organization’s current and systematic attack on the rights of transgender individuals across the country. Instead, she describes ADF as a “Christian legal advocacy organization with mostly evangelical clients” and quotes their counsel in support of the view that protecting transgender individuals will violate girls’ “sincere religious or moral beliefs that they must practice modesty.”

Also absent from her piece despite her insistence that ADF’s orchestrated lawsuits not be cast as “intolerance” are the arguments that ADF has advanced in court in support of it’s position. These arguments include, among other things: the idea that being transgender is a delusion, that it amounts to child abuse to support transgender young people, that transgender individuals should be forced to live in accordance with their assigned sex at birth, that transgender bodies are deformed through scars after undergoing surgery. (Notably, all of these views have been hurled at me the past 24 hours by Shulevitz’s defenders.)

Given these extreme and harmful positions, it is difficult to discern why ADF would be given such prominence in Shulevitz’s piece without even the slightest qualification about their ultimate goals in advancing the positions they do. Goals, no doubt, which come close to stopping transgender people from existing.

There is much more to say about Shulevitz, Burkett, Gersen and others who take up transgender lives as a debate and then insist that they are merely contributing to a conversation about values. These pieces might be interesting for people to write, but they are devastating to read.

When I challenged Shulevitz about this on Twitter, she responded dismissively and defensively and then deleted her tweets and ended the conversation. My intention was never to demonize her but to draw attention to the risks of what she did on a platform as powerful as the Sunday Times.

As writer Imogen Binnie explained on Twitter, when reading pieces like Shulevitz’s, one must ask “what does this article propose trans people should do”

“[I]f the answer is something like ‘not be trans,’ please consider that most trans people have tried that and it didn’t work,” Binnie tweeted.

And that really is the crux of it. After reading Shulevitz’s piece, what is the answer for trans people other than to simply not be trans if it is our trans-ness itself that infringes the rights of others and creates this so-called clash of values? As Binnie so poignantly offered, most of us have tried that — we have spent years in dark places wrestling with our truth, feeling ashamed and plagued with self-loathing. And when we manage to come through that and survive, and thrive and even love ourselves, we are confronted with this kind of insidious insistence that we should have just not existed after all.

Too many of us die because that belief takes hold of us or of others. With attempted suicide rates in the community close to 50% and murders of transwomen and femmes of color reaching epidemic proportions, these questions truly are life or death. It is about existence even if you frame it as a clash of values.

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