On Sunday night, in a restroom at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, I was washing my hands when someone in a crimson ballgown swept past me toward the stalls. There was something about this person’s energy that was different than that of other women who were milling around, redoing their lipstick, chatting about the Oscars show.
I felt I knew this person in the crimson gown. Or had seen them somewhere before. So I left the bathroom and waited outside, in the lobby. And when this person left the ladies room, I stopped them to chat.
Sure enough, it was Sam Brinton, 29, an unforgettable, gender-fluid LGBTQ activist whom I’d met almost four years ago at a conference in Las Vegas for educators who work with LGBTQ students. There, Brinton spoke about the degrading experience of undergoing reparative therapy as a teenager.
Today, Brinton, who has a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from MIT, works for the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention group for LGBTQ youth.
“I feel safe in a women’s restroom,” Brinton said. That’s understandable. In the ladies room, Brinton was surrounded by women who wanted to take pictures of this person in the fabulous dress and sparkly Jimmy Choo stilettos.
“It’s the farthest you can get from ridicule,” Brinton said. “I was on the red carpet and Jane Fonda was literally, ‘I have to get a photo with you.’ This is a dream come true.”
It’s always dangerous to declare a cultural tipping point, as these things are only really clear in retrospect. But once the battle for gay marriage in America was won, it really did seem as if the next barrier to crumble would be legal discrimination against transgender people.
In 2015, for instance, President Obama mentioned transgender rights in his State of the Union speech, a first for an American president. A few months later, Caitlyn Jenner announced herself. The Pentagon said it would reverse its ban on military service by transgender people.
And then, in one of the most repugnant backlashes in history, the stupidity over school bathrooms began. The legislation pending in Kansas is typical: According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, it would require public schools to designate all restrooms for the use of male students only or female students only. Gender, Kansas law would say, is determined by “anatomy and genetics existing at the time of birth.”
President Trump then stomped into the fray.
In July, without consulting top military brass, he announced by tweet that he would reinstate the military’s transgender ban, throwing the armed forces (and their estimated 15,000-plus transgender servicemen and women) into a needless state of confusion. Thankfully, Trump’s ban, which is being challenged in court, has not been implemented. On Feb. 26, the Pentagon confirmed to CNN that an openly transgender person recently joined the U.S. military, a first.
Sunday night, I tweeted a photo of Brinton standing next to a heroic-size Oscar statue, and was gently chastised by some in social media who took issue with my use of the pronoun “he” to describe Brinton.
I was thinking about this a bit later, as I stood at a bar near that Oscar statue. I was typing on my iPhone when a man walked up next to me and plopped a shiny gold Oscar onto the bar. It was filmmaker Sebastian Lelio, who had just won best foreign film for his feature, “A Fantastic Woman.”
The movie is about the struggles of a transgender woman after her lover dies, and has become, writes my colleague Jeffrey Fleishman, “a bellwether for the transgender movement.” It was Chile’s first Oscar, and had earned Lelio an invitation to the presidential palace this week. And it is the first Oscar-winning film to feature both an openly transgender lead actor and a transgender storyline.
Lelio said he began writing the film four years ago, just as the transgender rights movement was gaining traction. And then, momentum stalled. “The world shifted 180 degrees politically — toward the Middle Ages,” he said. “The right wing in Europe, Brexit, Trump.”
And now, he said, “we are going through a crisis that has to do with the limits of empathy, and the question of whether there is such a thing as ‘illegitimate’ people, or ‘illegitimate’ love.”
I have no trouble wrapping my brain around the notion that sexuality is fluid, or that gender is nonbinary. I embrace the idea that how you look may not reflect who you are.
When I met Brinton in 2014, Brinton’s preferred gender pronoun was “he/him.” Right now, it is “they/them.” So that’s what I have gone with today.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not stressed by pronouns that seem ungrammatical. Even as I know in my bones that language is a living, changing thing, my writer’s brain chafes at the idea that I should call an individual “they” or “them.”
Yet addressing people the way they choose to be addressed is a tenet of respect. At the newspaper, for example, we have always called this principle the “Muhammad Ali rule,” which means that when Cassius Clay changed his name, the newspaper should comply with his preference. Using a preferred pronoun should be considered an extension of that rule, even if it makes people’s heads explode.
Once our heads are done exploding, we can get on with the business of civil rights for all.