Branded complicit

Elizabeth Nolan Brown went to an LGBT summit the other day and wrote it up for Reason.

During a lunch break at The Atlantic LGBT summit Thursday, attendees were invited to watch an informal panel discussion on transgender civil rights. Panelists included several transgender activists, as well as several non-trans panelists included for their expertise on legal issues (such as Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner Chai Feldblum) or proximity to the conversation (such as an Atlantic staff writer who covers social justice). This, it turns out, was problematic.

Erasing marginalized people from discourse about their own communities has long been a problem, of course. But the fact remains that, at the moment, there are no trans EEOC commissioners. There is no trans executive of the American Civil Liberties Union D.C., or on the White House outreach team. Considering that this was not a panel on the trans experience per se but a dialogue on legal barriers to equality, the inclusion of cisgender people who work directly on these issues hardly seems a mystery or a microaggression.

Commissioner Feldblum and moderator Steve Clemons pushed back slightly, defending the inclusion of non-trans panelists on these grounds. No good. Before long, those who thought having cis people on the panel was OK were branded complicit in the fact that trans people are often the targets of physical violence. Once again, nods and murmurs of approval from the audience.

Were they told they have blood on their hands?

here’s some other conventional wisdom gleaned from the summit:

  • Being “safe” means not just freedom from actual or threatened physical violence but also avoiding offensive or hurtful language.
  • Gender identity is established in early childhood (“between three and six years old,” according to Hattaway Communications research associate Nicholle Manners); for parents, helping children transition to their preferred gender identity at a young age is the only humane position.
  • Laws that are redundant or practically unenforceable are still worthwhile for their “symbolic” power. (Says Scott Shackford: “I remember when people defended anti-sodomy laws as symbolic.”)
  • Anything short of unconditional affirmation of minority-activist goals is a form of “erasure.” The correct response when talking about politics and policy is to assess who has the most potent victim-profile and then defer to them. By assessing people on things like race, gender expression, and sexuality rather than the content of their ideas, we are showing them proper respect.

The urge to police people’s language at the summit was also strong—comically so, at times. During one Q&A session, an aggrieved audience member suggested panelists watch their use of the word “states” when referring to American land, as it was exclusionary to those who live in U.S. territories.

And it was impossible not to notice a contradictory impulse in so many of those gathered. At the same time as people praised the non-binary “gender spectrum,” they reinforced old tropes about masculinity and femininity, and the centrality of biology to both. One speaker said he knew his daughter was trans from a young age because Nicole—assigned male at birth, like her twin brother—liked to dress in pink and avoided boy toys. Another speaker described a man as being “in touch with his feminine side” because “he cries a lot.” (Nothing regressive and gender-stereotypical to see here!)

That’s one I still haven’t seen any sensible explanation or reconciliation of. I don’t think I’ve even seen any acknowledgement that it is contradictory. I still want to know – why is non-binary seen as on a continuum with trans when in fact it’s the opposite?

For years, feminists have fought against the idea that there’s something inherent in girlhood or womanhood that explains most of the gendered preferences and traits foisted on us. Now this viewpoint gets a pass, as long as it’s espoused by the LGBTIQ community rather than the usual old patriarchy.

Not from me it doesn’t.

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