First, They Came for the Muslims. Then, They Came for the Children Who Were Trans.

A few days ago my wife went to the Emergency Department with symptoms which suggested a life-threatening illness. In the end, the symptoms subsided and as far as we know she is okay.

But for a few hours, it was possible that my wife was dying.

I sat in the Emergency Department with her and our youngest. Our youngest did what homework they could. I stroked my wife’s forehead and sang to her and told her that I loved her. And when she closed her eyes and rested, I tried to distract myself with a bit of online reading.

Which is when I learned that newly-appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions had used part of his first two days on the job to target trans children.

And just as trans people were starting to dare to hope that we could receive equal treatment under the law.

It was just last May that then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave a frank and coherent speech about the rights of transgender people. The Washington Post did a good job of explaining why her speech was so significant.

Several LGBT advocates said they were stunned by her words. It is not that the Obama administration has not been supportive of their cause, but never before had they heard the government come to their defense so unequivocally and so eloquently, they say.

As Lynch announced that the Justice Department was countersuing North Carolina to stop its bathroom law from going into effect, she gave a passionate and direct defense of transgender and gay rights that in no uncertain terms put their battle in the context of a decades-long civil rights debate.

She drew on the ghost of Jim Crow and separate-but-equal bathrooms for black and white Americans to make parallels to today’s bathroom battles. And she delivered her defense in soaring words not normally used in the ho-hum, legalese-heavy news conferences typical at the Justice Department…

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta could not have made it plainer, even against the background of Lynch’s speech:

Transgender men are men. They live, work, and study as men. Transgender women are women. They live, work, and study as women.

Nevertheless, it was Attorney General Lynch herself who really hit it out of the park:

…Let me speak now directly to the people of the great state, the beautiful state, my home state of North Carolina. You have been told that this law protects vulnerable populations from harm. That is just not the case. Instead, what this law does is inflict further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share. This law provides no benefit to society, and all it does is harm innocent Americans.

Instead of turning away from our neighbors, our friends, and colleagues, let us instead learn from our history and avoid repeating the mistakes of our past. Let us reflect on the obvious, but often neglected, lesson, that state-sanctioned discrimination never looks good, and never works, in hindsight. It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had other signs above restrooms, water fountains, and on public accommodations, keeping people out based on a distinction without a difference.

Let me also speak directly to the transgender community itself. …No matter how isolated, no matter how afraid, and no matter how alone you may feel today, know this: that the Department of Justice, and indeed, the entire Obama Administration want you to know that we see you. We stand with you, and we will do everything we can to protect you, going forward.

I had never heard any representative of my government speak so forcefully and so plainly in favor of the notion that I am the equal of any American, and entitled to the same bare minimum of public accommodation. I wept, on hearing that, on hearing it from the Attorney General of the United States!

That’s all gone.

Now we have Jeff Sessions. Sessions doesn’t see us, and doesn’t stand with us, and not only won’t do everything he can to protect us, but will do everything he can to make us live as second-class citizens.

Next month, the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments over whether Gavin Grimm, a Virginia teenager who has not been permitted to use the boys’ room at his high school for several years, is male.

Grimm came out as a transgender boy while a student at Gloucester High School in Virginia. After he began using male facilities, the Gloucester County School Board passed a policy passed a policy resolution requiring that access to changing rooms and bathrooms “shall be limited to the corresponding biological genders, and students with gender identity issues shall be provided an alternative appropriate private facility”. At the school board meeting, speakers addressing the board called Grimm a “freak” and compared him to a dog. When he refused to use the girls’ bathroom, Grimm was offered the use of some broom closets that had been retrofitted into unisex bathrooms.

This is what Jeff Sessions wants to happen to children. The shredding, corrosive impact of that kind of exclusion, that kind of shunning, is beyond most people’s ability to understand, because most people have never been shunned.

I have been shunned. It was shockingly difficult to take; it undermined me in a way no previous stress in my life had prepared me for. It is a constant pressure and a constant corrosion. It wears at your soul.

Probably no one has laid it out better than the author of the Coy Mathis decision, Steven Chavez, the Director of Division of Civil Rights in the State of Colorado, when he found himself having to explain his ruling to protect a six-year-old girl who was trans:

The evidence suggests that the restroom restriction also created an exclusionary environment, which tended to ostracize [Mathis], in effect producing an environment in which [Mathis] was forced to disengage from her group of friends. It also deprived her of the social interaction and bonding that commonly occurs in girls’ restrooms during those formative years, i.e., talking, sharing, and laughter. An additional problematic issue with this solution is the possibility that [Mathis] may be in an area where she does not have easy access to approved restrooms. As a result, at six years old, [Mathis] is tasked with the burden of having to plan her restroom visits to ensure that she has sufficient time to get to one of the approved restrooms. Even if [Mathis] was in the vicinity of the staff or health office restroom, she would have to explain to her friends why she is not permitted to go with them into the girls’ restroom. Telling [Mathis] that she must disregard her identity while performing one of the most essential human functions constitutes severe and pervasive treatment, and creates an environment that is objectively and subjectively hostile, intimidating or offensive.

These body blows, things like being compared to dogs, don’t just happen to children, although that would be bad enough. All TLBG people get told many times a day that it’s okay to debate our humanity. As drag queen Rory O’Neill, aka “Panti Bliss” famously put it (and her video is worth listening to in its entirety):

Have any of you ever come home in the evening and turned on the television and there is a panel of people – nice people, respectable people, smart people, the kind of people who probably make good neighbourly neighbours, the kind of people who write for newspapers. And they are all sitting around and they are having a reasoned debate on the television, a reasoned debate about you. About what kind of a person you are, about whether or not you are capable of being a good parent, about whether you want to destroy marriage, about whether or not you are safe around children, about whether or not God herself thinks you are an abomination, about whether in fact maybe you are “intrinsically disordered”. And even the nice TV presenter lady who feel is almost a friend because you see her being nice on TV all the time, even she thinks it’s perfectly ok that they are all having this reasoned debate about you and about who you are and about what rights you “deserve” and don’t “deserve”.

And that feels oppressive…

Have you ever gone into your favourite neighbourhood café with the paper that you buy every day, and you open it up and inside is a 500-word opinion written by a nice middle-class woman, the kind of woman who probably gives to charity, the kind of woman who you would be totally happy to leave your children with. And she is arguing, over 500 words, so reasonably about whether you should be treated less than everybody else, arguing that you should be given fewer rights than everybody else. And when you read that and then the woman at the next table gets up and excuses herself to squeeze by you and smiles at you and you smile back and nod and say, “No problem” and inside you wonder to yourself, “Does she think that about me too?”

And that feels oppressive…

Have you ever turned on the computer and you see videos of people who are just like you in countries that are far away and countries that are not far away at all, and they are being imprisoned and beaten and tortured and murdered and executed because they are just like you?

And that feels oppressive.

Yeah, it feels oppressive. And all for nothing. Trans people are not assaulting cis people in bathrooms. Quite the reverse, actually. But cis people excluding trans people from bathrooms, and especially trans children from bathrooms, has consequences.

Is this the damage we want for our transgender children?

Jeff Sessions thinks so.

This is not a surprise. It did not come out of nowhere. Trump may have said that he had nothing against trans people. He may have been willing to let wealthy Republican and trans woman Caitlin Jenner use the women’s room in Trump Tower. But he chose Michael Pence as his running mate. He chose a Vice President who is among the most poisonously anti-LGBT politicians in this country.

And if Trump gets hit by a bus tomorrow, we will still have Michael Pence and Jeff Sessions.

And people like me will sit in emergency departments, holding the hands of the people we love, and wonder when the axe will fall. Will a healthcare worker feel emboldened by those in power to refuse us care? If the local healthcare workers all behave professionally, then the next time I travel, maybe to the American South, do I have to worry about my health if I’m admitted to an Emergency Department there? These people who are running the government of my country — when they are done forcing the trans children to dance for them, to perform in a gender role those children demonstrably cannot tolerate, will these people take away my family’s healthcare, the healthcare which is the reason I could immediately say to my wife, when she was experiencing crushing, disorienting pain, “Call 911”? Will they nullify our marriage? Will I, a trans woman who is married to another woman, no longer be able to sit with her in the hospital, and stroke her forehead, and sing to her?

If, at this point, you want to reassure me that they won’t do these things, spare me. I’ll be willing to have a reasoned discussion about whether my family is at risk sometime after the officials of my country stop arguing in reasoned tones that the law should relegate children who are trans to public accommodations which are separate but equal.

If you are a citizen of this country, you have a responsibility to your fellow citizens, especially to those who are children, to vote responsibly. It doesn’t matter whether the candidates are folksy, or whether you could have a beer with them, or whether they’re a member of your tribe. It matters what policies they are going to enact. It matters whom they appoint, and what they let those people do.

If you voted for Trump, you voted for this. You voted for me sitting in the Emergency Department, holding my wife’s hand, and reading about how the Attorney General of the United States is rushing to implement the suffering of children who are trans, and knowing that a man who is willing to crush trans children certainly won’t hesitate to crush trans adults, and trans marriages, and trans families. Me. Us.

For the love of all that is good, next time make a different choice.



On Wearing Hijab for the First Time, and Why

On Wearing Hijab in Public for the First Time, and Why

02-01 was World Hijab Day. A friend of ours invited us to protest Trump’s travel ban by standing with signs at the corner of the Dartmouth Green, wearing hijab.

Which we did.

Before I go further, it’s important to acknowledge certain things.

The question of whether and when and how to wear hijab is hotly debated even in communities where it is common. It means different things to different people in those communities. World Hijab Day is debated within those communities. And that’s all before we start to consider the meaning of wearing hijab in a country like the United States, where, regardless of what the wearer or community might want, people attach additional meanings to the practice. Some well-intentioned by naive women from cultures where it is not common to wear hijab have tried to experience what it is like to do so by wearing hijab. Some of them have had eye-opening experiences as they received the side-eye and abuse which some people feel it’s appropriate to bestow upon a woman wearing hijab. However, they have the freedom to walk away from it in a way that is not possible for people for whom wearing hijab can be bound up in cultural and religious identity. Because of those disparate backgrounds, a Western and non-Muslim woman wearing hijab does not, and cannot, experience it in the same way.

I have read only a tiny fraction of this debate. I have the impression that it’s rather like the debate among many Western feminists about the use of makeup. Some women object that makeup reinforces an artificial beauty standard, is expensive and time-consuming. Other women argue that they use makeup to enhance their appearance, and that they like it, and as adults capable of making their own decisions about their own bodies, they should be able to wear makeup. The center of the argument always seems to me to pivot around whether it’s a choice, and to what extent, in that it may technically be optional, but if, for instance, it’s expected in a competitive workplace, it become mandatory for those who want to get ahead. “Optional” is not a binary switch; it is a continuum of coercion.

Which is also true of the bit of debate I have seen around wearing hijab.

So, my wife and I were under no illusions that what we were doing in wearing hijab was equivalent to one of our Muslim friends wearing hijab.

Not wanting to offend those who matter to us personally because we know them, we checked with a friend of ours who is Muslim to ask if she, personally, would not be offended. She said she would not, and showed us different ways to wear it. (And, learning from her, it became clear to me that wearing hijab is a learned skill, rather like tying your shoes. Her movements were deft, and her hijab stayed in place. Our hands were clumsy, and ours unraveled easily.)

And then, armed with that crumb of knowledge, we wore hijab as a political statement, in solidarity with the women and men who were targeted by Trump’s ban.

Did the protest accomplish anything with our statement? I don’t know. After we arrived, several more people joined us, native-born Americans and immigrant Americans, both. A group of three Dartmouth students came and interviewed us on videotape. By the end of the interview they revealed themselves to be somewhat inclined to defend the current administration. The apparent head of the group objected to one of us characterizing Steve Bannon as a white supremacist. At the end, in response to something the leader said, one of my fellow protesters made what sounded like a nuanced and thoughtful statement about the state of Israeli politics, and the leader reduced that statement to a brief rhetorical question which baldly mischaracterized what my friend had just said. It was so nakedly twisted that I laughed out loud, and at that point the leader apparently thought better of it and they decamped.

I was glad my friend was there to tackle that topic; it’s certainly not one I feel qualified to speak on.

In the end, we got plenty of waves, and some honks.

And we stood up. Which is the first, and most important, thing.