After 10 years on the books, Washington State’s law protecting transgender people from discrimination is under attack. And we’re not alone. Similar fights are playing out across the country over the recent wave of anti-trans legislation. Why now? It seems that for all these years, Americans were okay with trans people in public bathrooms, but only so long as they remained on the margins, in a legal limbo, with no rules laid down to clarify their right to be there.
These so-called “bathroom bills” won’t keep transgender people out of public spaces. They simply shore up the status quo that makes trans lives illicit or invisible. Despite the ugly rhetoric, most of their supporters acknowledge that a trans person using the bathroom is not a threat to the person in the stall next to them. The only real threat is to the authority of the (previously unwritten) rules that force all of us to fit into rigid gender roles and punish us if we don’t.
The current backlash is a signal that the transgender movement has achieved a profound cultural shift. Social acceptance of trans people has made room to acknowledge all kinds of gender expression and identities that don’t fit neatly into the categories defined by standard bathroom signs. The “bathroom bills” re-assert a clear dividing line between men and women. They lay down rules for which is which, and penalties for crossing that line.
If you have been watching television for the past 20 years, you have witnessed the progression of cultural attitudes toward trans people, from freaky (trans people on Jerry Springer) to respectable (trans people on Oprah). And if you have not been watching, now is a good time to start. Trans people are asserting the right to be respected and freaky at the same time (and we have our own shows!).
It’s not just state legislators anxious about this development. The trans community itself is grappling with the tension between “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” and “We’re here, we’re totally normal, so nothing to worry about!” The trans women of I Am Cait represent the whole range. As Caitlyn Jenner is thrust into the role of transgender celebrity, Professor Jenny Boylan leads a crash course on everything she needs to know to represent the diverse community. Jenner sees no contradiction between her goals of winning broad acceptance for transgender rights and protecting her own substantial privilege through electing right wing conservatives. And then there’s gender outlaw Kate Bornstein, whose version of liberation is making the world safe for everyone living outside the lines.
The conflict may be predictable, but the solidarity and commitment to hearing each other steals the show. Who would have thought reality television would bring us an exquisite model for approaching this essential conversation with realness, courage, and love?