Commentary

Transgender people, “Come out, come out, wherever you are”

Transgender flags
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It’s official. The Trump administration and several red states are reversing gains made during the Obama administration for LGBTQ people.

For instance, the South Dakota House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would criminalize doctors who assist in the gender confirmation process for transgender youth. Lawmakers have introduced similar legislation in at least ten other states.

Related: “Lifelong conservative Republican” fired from job after announcing transition

Transgender people have lagged behind others in the LGBTQ initialism in gaining protections and rights. As such, it is not surprising that they are proving most vulnerable to attack now.

Attacks on trans rights exploit the fact that not everyone today personally knows (or knows they know) someone who is transgender. This makes it easier to spread falsehoods and fear.

This used to be true for gay men and lesbians as well, but decades of coming have changed that — with important social and political implications.

In 1978, gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk famously made “Come out, come out, wherever you are” the slogan of his campaign to defeat the Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gay teachers from working in public schools in California.

The idea was that if enough people told their friends they were gay, Californians would realize that they had friends, co-workers, and family members who were gay. Then, out of solidarity, they would oppose the proposition. The campaign helped defeat the initiative.

Since then, lesbians’ and gay men’s visibility and rights have increased in tandem. As recounted in a new Apple docuseries Visible: Out on Television,” the LGBTQ movement strategically shaped television to make sexual minorities more visible.

In 1997, Ellen Degeneres came out and the following year the popular sitcom Will and Grace premiered with two gay men as protagonists. Today, marriage equality is the law of the land, Modern Family features a gay couple, and one of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential ticket, Pete Buttigieg, was a gay man.

Future rights for transgender people may depend, in part, on the extent to which transgender people come out as such. Even if their visibility is steadily increasing, transgender people are not yet as visible as lesbians and gay men. Directly related to this, as we are seeing, their grasp on equality is more tenuous.

Part of this may be related to the fact that not all transgender people identify as such. Some transgender men and women identify simply as men or women and wish to be treated as such. Others may not feel safe revealing their transgender biography. In some cases, others may not realize that they are transgender.

While this can help keep individual transgender people safe, it does little to shift people’s attitudes about transgender people as a group.

Still, more transgender people have been coming out as such in recent years. Indeed, many of the gains made for transgender people under the Obama administration were made possible because Barack Obama had staff who were out as transgender.

Mara Keisling, founder and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, explained this to my colleague Juliet Williams and me in an interview we conducted as part of our ongoing research into gender politics. Because Obama staff members were out as transgender, explained Keisling, their colleagues and boss could not easily ignore their needs.

These are the very same rights that the Trump administration is now reversing, likely aided by a lack of out transgender staff in the Trump White House.

But it is not clear that transgender people will go back into the closet or give up their hard-won rights so readily. Indeed, by profiling the lives and struggles of transgender people, news coverage about the Trump administration’s attacks on transgender people give them a way to come out to readers.

Likewise, when Texas lawmakers tried to limit transgender people’s access to restrooms, this galvanized the LGBTQ movement. The public hearings on the bathroom bill encouraged people to identify as transgender for the first time and, in publicly testifying, they met others who also identified as transgender.

For instance, former candidate for Austin City Council and transgender movement activist Danielle Skidmore told Williams and me how the Texas bathroom bills “brought all these people to Austin,” the state capital and her home.  Skidmore became friends with these people and “started to become more visible” as a transgender person herself.

She explained in an interview in April 2018: “The reality is everyone in Texas knows what being transgender is now, and that wasn’t true in January of 2017. And many people now in Texas can say, ‘Yeah, I’ve met a transgender person.’”

Skidmore herself admitted that she did not personally know another transgender woman even three years earlier. She argued that making transgender people visible and thereby normalizing them is essential for increasing tolerance and support.

To be sure, there are many challenges at the moment for transgender people that cannot be easily solved by individual people coming out as transgender.

Moreover, in a world where there are few legal protections for being transgender, revealing that you are transgender — especially for Black transgender women — can be risky.

Last, the Trump administration has already shown itself capable of catering to a small political base, while disregarding broader public opinion.

But if history is any guide, it would suggest that the more transgender people come out, the more people will realize that they already have friends and coworkers who are transgender and the more equality transgender people will gain.

If we believe that all people should be treated fairly and without bias, we should be concerned not only about the specific rights that the Trump administration is rolling back but that it is making it riskier to be out as transgender.

Abigail C. Saguy is a UCLA Professor of Sociology (with a courtesy appointment in Gender Studies) and the author of Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are (Oxford, 2020).

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