By Jay Maddock
“No Men In Women’s Bathrooms” was on T-shirts and posters and brochures that the opposition used during the campaign to keep Houston an inclusive city for all its residents. And these five words inflicted enough fear, based on lies and anti-trans rhetoric, to prevent an equal rights ordinance to pass. We once again have an opportunity to learn that civil rights should never be put to a vote. Historically, even when equal right ordinances have won in a vote, the most marginalized lives still suffer great harm from backlash and hate rhetoric from opposition.
I’m from Kalamazoo, where in 2009 our city also had to vote to keep our nondiscrimination ordinance that our city commission unanimously passed. In Kalamazoo, we won. But that didn’t mean trans people stopped getting harassed for trying to pee, or while walking to work, or while living their lives. That’s because regardless of win or lose in these campaigns for inclusion and fairness, this country needs a lot of in-depth and intentional education around trans people.
As long as the opposition uses lies and fear-mongering to scare people out of doing the right thing, the solution has to be putting the humanity back into trans identities. As long as trans people, particularly transwomen, are associated with humanity-robbing slogans like “no men in women’s bathrooms,” not only will we continue to lose, but we will continue to watch transwomen be harassed, assaulted and murdered. In fact, if we don’t speak out against it, we will be culpable in this dehumanization. The opposition is relying on people’s fear and discomfort with trans bodies to justify not protecting trans lives. When the opposition uses this tactic, it’s not just an ordinance on the line: it is real, living and breathing lives on the line.
When we focus on whether an ordinance wins or loses, maybe we’re missing the point. When we focus on getting out the vote, maybe we’re missing the point. When we focus on nationwide trends of acceptance of LGBT families, maybe we’re missing the point. When we leave out the presence of racism and sexism and how it plays out in transphobia, maybe we’re missing the point. When we forget to include trans people in the leadership and direction of these campaigns, maybe we’re missing the point.
We are missing the point. These transphobic narratives are intentionally written not only to keep us from winning, but to keep us from being seen as human. Because it is easier to kill, imprison, fire, evict and harm someone whom we do not see as human. We’re missing the point that these narratives are not only transphobic, but they are also racist, sexist, misogynist and classist. Until we invest in a campaign rooted in education and led by trans people that focuses on taking control of this narrative to reclaim the humanity of trans identities, we will continue to miss the point.
Before we wage a costly ballot campaign, it is crucial that we focus our efforts on educating people on trans lives. We have to help people hear the truth over the lies they are hearing from opposition. We have to connect people to the reality of living as a trans person and why legislation that protects trans lives is imperative to all of our livelihoods. We have to understand that transphobia has racist and sexist roots, and incorporate that understanding into our education campaigns. And most importantly we must maintain the unity of our community around the importance of adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and allow trans leaders to guide us forward. Because after all, it will be the trans community that takes the brunt of the backlash.
Trans folks are strong, and we overcome barriers on a daily basis to live as our authentic selves. We fight for every breath we inhale, every step we walk, every day we live. And we are having to fight to have our stories heard. We need to intentionally create spaces and avenues for trans voices, particularly transwomen of color, to be heard. The invisibility of trans lives from our narrative is not because trans people aren’t telling their stories; it’s because we aren’t hearing their stories. Intentional and in-depth education by trans people about trans lives is the only way we will shift control of the narrative and begin securing protections for trans people.