The last frontier in sexual bigotry: transgender rights

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An especially nasty development this week in transgender rights in Florida raises the question of whether transgender discrimination is the last frontier in sex discrimination, now that gay marriage is winning the fight for legal and social acceptance nationwide.

In Florida, an outlandishly harsh anti-transgender bill was just reported out of the Republican-majority state legislature’s civil rights subcommittee (of all places) on a party line vote.

The measure would make it a crime for anyone to use a public bathroom, locker room or dressing room of the sex other than that they were assigned at birth. The penalties include up to a year in prison. Businesses also would be liable to civil suits for violating the law, which was designed to override a Miami-Dade County anti-discrimination ordinance.


During a visit in 2010 to Ann Arbor, Mich., I stopped in to see an old friend who happened to be transgender. She had transitioned decades earlier, when such a choice was well out of the social mainstream. Despite years of discrimination she had made an exceptionally distinguished career in technology and academia.

At the time she was mystified and angry about how transgender rights had suddenly become an issue in the race for the GOP nomination for Michigan secretary of state. One candidate, Paul Scott, had declared out of the blue that he would “make it a priority to ensure transgender individuals will not be allowed to change the sex on their driver’s license in any circumstance.” His stance forced his chief opponent, Ruth Johnson, to match his retrograde position. She won the primary and the general election.

My conjecture was that transgender rights were being attacked because that was the last option for those inclined to sexual discrimination. In a world where gays and lesbians were increasingly accepted in society, in their families, and in popular culture, politicians hoping to solidify their standing among the more bigoted members of their base had few other victims to aim at. The transgender community was still sufficiently unfamiliar to the public, its voice seldom heard, so it served as an easy target for any office-seeker looking to ride the us-vs.-them wave.

That was true, up to a point. Johnson, who earlier in her career had received the endorsement of a gay rights group, moved sharply right on gay and lesbian issues too, opposing the addition of sexual orientation to the state’s civil rights law and against adoption by gay couples. To this day the rules governing gender identification on the state’s driver’s licenses are murky.

Nor was it entirely true that transgender characters hadn’t been seen in popular culture, an important step toward social acceptance. Among other examples, the transgender ex-football star Roberta Muldoon was a central character in John Irving’s bestselling novel “The World According to Garp” and its 1982 film version. Hilary Swank won an Oscar for portraying the real-life Brandon Teena in the 1999 movie “Boys Don’t Cry.”

An intersex character was the focus of Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex. You can go back to Gore Vidal’s 1968 novel “Myra Breckinridge,” though in that case Vidal was exploiting the otherness of his transgender main character to provide narrative distance for his satirical tale of Washington. Much more recently, a real landmark of cultural acceptance of transgender lives is Jeffrey Tambor’s portrayal of Maura in the current Amazon TV series “Transparent.”


As it happens, it’s premature to declare gay and lesbian discrimination dead. In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback, whose conception of “conservatism” is to move the state back in time, decades at a stroke, recently abolished all LGBT state employees’ protections against job discrimination. The rules had been implemented by his predecessor, Kathleen Sebelius, in 2007. And the Alabama supreme court is still fighting what is sure to be a losing battle against a federal court order legalizing gay marriage in that state.

But it’s notable that the same arguments that were used to rationalize anti-gay discrimination--and for that matter, racial discrimination--are being mustered today on behalf of anti-transgender legislation.

The Florida measure’s sponsor, Rep. Frank Artiles, defends it as “a safety and privacy law that would protect people from molestation, rape and voyeurism,” according to the Tallahassee Democrat, as though anyone can waltz into a women’s bathroom and commit mayhem. “All they have to say is, ‘I feel like a woman today,’” Artiles said. This claim invokes the ancient fears invariably used to justify the exclusion of any minority group from society at large.

A few positive signs are being seen. Medical science understands that gender identification at birth is not necessarily a binary choice between male or female, but can be a choice among ambiguous conditions--sometimes the wrong choice. Just this week, the all-female Wellesley College (among its alumnae: Hillary Rodham Clinton) announced it would consider for admission any applicant who “lives as a woman and consistently identifies as a woman.” Wellesley is late on this, as it happens: Mount Holyoke College and Mills College both made similar changes last year.

Wellesley placed its decision in the context of the “revolutionary act” of its own 1870 founding to advance the roles of women in society. But that just points to how we’ll know that the goal of equality for transgender individuals is reached: It’s when decisions like this are no longer “revolutionary.”

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