Living in Southern California, where we don't get a lot of seasonal variation, one of our treasured fall rituals is our annual family trek to Julian, Calif. Each year, Russ and I pile the boys into the car and head to the picturesque mining town just northeast of San Diego, where we indulge in all the sights and senses of autumn, eating more than our share of apple pie. It is a journey I cherish, but this year, instead of being festive and restorative, the visit brought to mind the more recent horrors of Halloweens past, as the ghost of Prop 8 unexpectedly came rushing back in the most unwelcome of places.
We'd just arrived, stepping onto the charming main street, when I spotted it: a line of people standing, waiting. At first I thought it was a backed-up line of customers pouring forth from one of the town's many restaurants, but as we got closer, I was able to spot a card table, with two small, simple signs affixed: "Stop Co-Ed Showers in Schools" and "No Opposite Sex in School Bathrooms." It was then that I realized that the hordes of tourists were waiting not for pie but for their chance to add signatures to the growing petition hoping to topple California's new law protecting transgender students.
As an LGBT advocate and gay dad, I was both sickened and saddened. Not only was I immediately and emotionally transported back to those divisive fall days leading up to the November 2008 election, when front yards across the state were littered with both fake gravestones and political signs, but the thought of fighting yet another brutal battle, and one we're likely to lose, put an abrupt end to my autumnal revelry.
As for many other LGBT people, the stigma of being thought of as "sick" and "abnormal" has shadowed me, making me work diligently to be viewed as good, "normal," and a person of value. I've been on the front lines, time and again, battling for the rights that should, in America, be a given. During the Prop 8 campaign, it was incredibly demoralizing to put so much work into planning our anti-Prop 8 rallies only to drive through a sea of yellow "Yes on 8" signs as we headed back home. In conversations with voters, they would say, "Oh, we're not voting against you; we're voting to protect our children." Um, protect them from whom, exactly? Me? I've spent years fighting for basic equal treatment under the law, and being dismissed as "less than" can take a personal toll on one's psyche.
Happily, for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals nationwide, we're finally seeing the political results of such efforts, as in both courts of law and public opinion we're steadily being given the same rights and responsibilities as most everyone else, moving the "LGB" in our movement one step closer to actual equality.
In our various campaigns, we've been joined time and again by our transgender allies, yet I wonder if the "LGB" members of the community will this time stand up for the "T." Too often, trans people and their concerns are largely relegated to the back of the bus. Within the LGBTQIA community, there are divisions, particularly because of the fact that, while we share the common goal of equality, for some the root is sexual identity, and for others it is gender identity. For gays and lesbians, who perhaps have been told that the butch dyke "wants to be a man" while the effeminate guy "really wants to be a girl," joining forces with those who in fact may identify with a different gender can be confusing. Indeed, I've even heard some gays and lesbians refer to transgender people as "sick" and "abnormal," using the very same arrows slung by others to demoralize and dehumanize gays. This lack of compassion and curiosity as to who trans people are makes me wonder who among us will stand alongside them when this battle comes.
Actually, correct that: The battle is here. The anti-gay, anti-trans troops from NOM are on the ground, mobilized, and using many of the same strategies that proved effective for them on Prop 8.
This petition is being sold to the California public as a way to protect children, with the accessible and sensible title of "Privacy for All Students." Who, after all, can articulately argue against the right to privacy? Respect for individual freedom and privacy seems inherently American, making the signing of a petition that says just that seem fairly reasonable. Come to think of it, isn't individual privacy an essential element of the LGBT equal rights movement?
"Stop Co-Ed Showers in Schools." Gosh, sounds like we need to stop some wild parties, huh? Check! Petition signed!
"No Opposite Sex in School Bathrooms." Again, that seems like a sensible request -- so why not sign the petition?
Unfortunately, the thousands of people who do sign these petitions will not explore the law in any further depth than just reading the poster taglines. And when these petitioners gather the necessary 500,000 signatures, those same effective messages will be used to engage voters on the proposition's behalf. (While they have very few days remaining in which to gather the necessary signatures, if the enthusiasm I witnessed in Julian is any indication of momentum elsewhere, they'll have no problem meeting their quota.)
Given all the similarities to Prop 8 messaging, it's no surprise that the National Organization for Marriage is behind this petition drive, or that Prop 8's chief strategist, Frank Schubert, works on this campaign as well. As NOM has demonstrated in each of their campaigns, being truthful in their quest is less important to them than winning.
The law, as written, was created to ensure that transgender students feel safe at school, and that the way in which they view themselves is in sync with how they live their lives, enabling them to dress and go about their day as they identify (including going to the bathroom or playing sports). You'd never know that, though, from the petition drive. Here, the majority of California's "innocent children" are under attack from a vile, twisted bunch hoping to ogle the opposite sex in the bathroom. Just as in Prop 8, the LGBT community is being equated with pedophiles. That tired old "abnormal" and "sick" paintbrush is being used collectively on the trans community, as if simply being different makes one unworthy of equal treatment under the law.
Of course, the petition drive doesn't mention that there are already laws in place to prevent bad behavior, violence, or voyeurism. Instead, it creates the impression of a lawless land, a World War T where the only way to defeat the "trans zombies" is to build barriers, lest their "infections" spread to the general populace.
I'm curious to see what the LGBT organizations have up their sleeves in order to combat this eventual proposition; I hope it involves actual transgender people. Real people with real stories make for compelling testimony, but my hunch is that, just as in the anti-Prop 8 commercials, we'll instead be treated to our straight allies waxing obliquely about equality and respect, with trans people themselves deemed "too icky" and "risky" for public consumption. But it is exactly the personal that helps open hearts and transform minds.
We're friendly with one family at our church who has a transgender child who self-identified as a girl and has dressed as such since she was very young. (I interviewed her mother here.) In every move and gesture, as well as in appearance, she is indeed a girl. If it were not for her activism and willingness to speak to the media, no one would ever think differently.
But imagine if this girl, wearing her pretty pink dress, were to enter a boys' bathroom? Or be forced to play on the boys' team, in disregard of her preferred gender? At the very least, wouldn't questions be asked? How could her privacy as a transgender person, let alone her safety, be ensured? This bill simply allows her to participate in sports as a girl, use facilities as a girl, and, in essence, live her life as she so chooses.
Critics point to the old California law, which provided trans students with the ability to use private facilities, as being "fair," but such attempts only further stigmatization and "out" the trans person as such. (For a list of common misconceptions around this new legislation, visit American Progress.)
While it may be easy for NOM to make transgender people seem the boogeyman in this fight, there is something much scarier at work. In this petition drive, there is dishonesty and misrepresentation of transgender people at the expense of their esteem and perhaps even their personal safety. During the Prop 8 battle, some pointed to an increase in anti-gay violence as attributable to the bruising fight, which makes me wonder and fear for the safety involved in this battle as well.
Though this petition drive is occurring now, we'll see the results of their labor next fall on the November 2014 ballot. And once again, next Halloween will be an unsettling mix of both fake ghosts hung from trees and the very real ghosts of Prop 8, played out like a bad scary movie to which we already know the ending: Ignorant masses will be riled up by fear and bias in order to pass a ballot measure at the expense of a largely defenseless minority.
Kergan Edwards-Stout can be found via his website, Facebook, and Twitter. His new book, Gifts Not Yet Given, can be found at Indie Bound (Independent Book Stores), Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or your favorite book sellers.