Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation

May 3 2016 3:34 PM

The Unexpected Upside to That Anti-Trans School Board Meeting in South Carolina

If you want to pass a law that singles out a specific class of people based on their identity and disadvantages them under the law, you have to be smart about it. Don’t go shouting down your opponents, ranting about your religion, or parading in the streets with splenetic signs thatmight be illegal in Europe. That’s the old model! These days, you’re supposed to hire a respectable-sounding law firm—doesn’t the Alliance Defending Freedom sound definitely not hateful?—then dress up your bigotry in neutral garb. Discrimination becomes religious liberty. Prejudice becomes pluralism. Two plus two becomes five. And so on.

These lessons, alas, were lost on the passionate folks who attended a school board meeting in Horry County, South Carolina, on Monday—a meeting dominated by jeers and derision, punctuated by Christian hymns. As my colleague Laura Moser explained, the controversy centers around a trans high school senior. When the student began transitioning from female to male in seventh grade, school administrators agreedthat he should use the men’s bathroom, in part because female students were uncomfortable with a male-presenting student using their facilities. The student, who has asked to remain anonymous, used the men’s bathroom for the next several years without incident. In his senior year, several teachers apparently embarked on a campaign to bar him from the men’s bathroom, demanding that he return to the women’s bathroom—or use a bathroom in the nurse’s office, far away from the main facilities. In January, a teacher covertly followed him around and witnessed him using the men’s room. The next day, the school suspended him.

May 3 2016 8:30 AM

The Cultural Alienation of Anti-Trans Americans

Christian conservatives in the United States would like you to believe that we are in the middle of an ideological and philosophical war over the validity of the trans identity. They are incorrect. The war has come and gone. And Christian conservatives lost.

You might not know it given the rash of anti-trans legislation sailing through Republican-dominated statehouses. Conservatives are striving to frame these bills as the first coordinated offensive to drive back what the Weekly Standard earnestly calls World War T. In reality, these laws are a pitiful Hail Mary—a final, doomed attempt to reverse the growing American consensus that trans people are deserving of equal dignity. Despite a few temporary victories, the long-term consequence of the contemporary anti-trans movement will not be the long-hoped-for banishment of trans people from public life. Rather, the campaign will only serve to drive anti-trans Americans further out of the cultural mainstream, onto the fringes of society.

A recent Daily Beast article by Samantha Allen gestures toward this fact with a cheeky article titled “All the Things You Can No Longer Buy if You’re Really Boycotting Trans-Friendly Businesses.” Allen points to a boycott against Target—launched by the American Family Association, an anti-LGBTQhate group—for reaffirming its trans-tolerant policies. Any consistent boycotter, Allen notes, shouldn’t post about their objections on Facebook, Twitter, or Google, all of which vehemently support trans rights.

“If you don’t want your money to go to a company that openly supports transgender people,” Allen writes, “you can’t buy an iPhone, eat an Egg McMuffin, drink a Sprite, stock up Budweiser, or fill your prescriptions at either of the nation’s two largest pharmacy chains because Apple, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, Walgreens, and CVS” all advocate for trans tolerance, too. Anti-trans boycotters had also better blacklist Mastercard, Visa, American Express, and Discover; IKEA, Home Depot, JCPenney, Sears, and Nordstrom; Sony, Universal, Paramount, Disney, and Warner Bros.; Comcast, AT&T, and Time Warner—all companies with trans-inclusive policies. The list goes on.

May 2 2016 10:42 AM

It’s Time to Take Cisgender Seriously

Last month, the Merriam-Webster dictionary adopted a cavalcade of words related to gender, including the gender-neutral honorific “Mx.,” the noun “transphobia,” and the adjectives “gender-fluid,” and “cisgender.” Always an avid observer of the gender-zeitgeist, this last one in particular caught my attention. Much has been made over the last few years about the growing visibility of transgender people in mainstream media, from Janet Mock to Caitlyn Jenner. Comparatively little has been written about a necessary corollary, however: As society begins to acknowledge the basic humanity of trans people—as opposed to seeing them as some sectioned off group of alien freaks—a reciprocal deepening of understanding around non-transgender folks is inevitable. Just as we need light to understand dark (or homosexuality to understand heterosexuality), so too do we need “trans” to really understand “cis.”

May 2 2016 9:25 AM

Stop Calling Jamaica “the Most Homophobic Place on Earth”

In April 2006, Time magazine branded Jamaica with an epithet it has yet to shake: “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth.” The article mentioned the murders of two of the island’s leading gay activists and detailed acts of mob violence, including the brutal bludgeoning of a gay man at the hands of assailants who included Buju Banton, a recording artist whose hit song “Boom Bye Bye” contains lyrics that call for gay men to shot in the head. Nearly every article mentioning the words homophobia and Jamaica subsequently cited Banton's song, giving the impression of an otherwise idyllic island paradise inconveniently sullied by the violence of anti-gay attacks.

A decade later, Jamaica has evolved in radical ways, but lack of media coverage and that decade-old designation as the most homophobic place on Earth has obscured the country's incremental social progress and dynamic activism, and ignoreds the impact that socioeconomic status and gender identity have on the lives of LGBTQ Jamaicans. Foreign reporters come to the country for short stints and zero in on the most horrific examples of anti-LGBTQ attacks, creating a false narrative of victimhood among LGBTQ Jamaicans. Portrayals of Jamaica as the racialized stereotype of machete-wielding homophobic mobs has eliminated the historic movement of activists and allies who, by speaking out, coming out, and affirming the intersections of their LGBTQ Jamaican identities, have forced LGBTQ rights into public discourse in a way that was previously inconceivable.

April 29 2016 1:43 PM

Two Visions of the Gender Police State to Come If Bathroom Panic Continues

Back in March, I responded to the passage of North Carolina’s now-embattled HB2—the measure, which, among other things, prohibited LGBT nondiscrimination protections in the state and barred transgender folks from using the restrooms in public buildings consistent with their gender identity—with a warning about the gender police state such surveillance-based policies must necessarily bring about. How can a state enforce bathroom use based on birth certificate or “biological sex”? Will we all be required to carry vital documents at all times? Will a state employee be posted at every public restroom door to check for forgeries? Or, perhaps more efficient, will a new front of job creation open up for bureaucrats tasked with examining all of our genitals prior to facility use?

While such pee policing is not impossible, the complex logistics involved make it doubtful. Far more practical is citizen-level gender monitoring, in which empowered busybodies take it upon themselves to judge who is male or female based on appearance and alert the authorities to difference-danger when it arises. This might explain why, for the past week, a satirical “news story” has fooled folks around the Web with reports of a 24-hour “HB2 Offender Hotline” dedicated to this sort of report—sadly, it sounds perfectly plausible.


In the version of the fake story I encountered on an “ABC News” spoof site, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is “quoted” as saying: “If you see a woman, who doesn’t look like a woman, using the woman’s restroom, be vigilant, call the hotline, and report that individual.” And then a fictitious spokesman, Tom Downey, piles on: “Beginning today, individuals that notice any kind of gender-suspicious activity in the men’s or women’s restrooms are encouraged to call the new HB2 Offender Hotline. … We are sending a clear message to all the transsexuals out there; their illegal actions and deviant behavior will no longer be tolerated in the state of North Carolina.”

The phrase “gender-suspicious activity” might have been made up by a rather brilliant satirist, but it’s actually a useful distillation of the fetid drain clump of sexist assumptions, judgmental entitlement, and curdled hostility to diversity that lies at the core of this kind of legislation. Like the laws it is mocking, the phrase immediately sets up a world in which “normal” gender activities are known and agreed upon, and any deviance is automatically suspicious—to the point of police involvement.

While the fake article imagines this neighborly surveillance targeting “transsexuals,” rest assured that plenty of cisgender folks will also find themselves caught in the real-life “gender-suspicious” dragnet. Because just as there are some trans individuals who easily “pass” and some who do not, there are plenty of cis people who do and do not “look like” standard conceptions of their gender—particularly, in my experience, among certain working-class, mullet-sporting women in the South. Of course, I’m enacting a kind of gender surveillance by even noting that group, but the difference is, I’m not the least bit interested in telling those women—or anyone else—where they can urinate. In any case, the point is that state-mandated gender policing is a road none of us, cis or trans, should want to go down.

But if you need further convincing, just take a look at this video—which shows a cis butch lesbian being accosted and called “sir” by police—which has gone viral in the last few days. While the provenance of the clip is unclear, and it appears to have been recorded in 2015, the general scenario is one that’s going to become a lot more common if this bathroom panic continues unchecked. This is not a cis or trans issue—it’s a matter of human decency for everyone.

In a certain way, it’s a shame the HB2 hotline isn’t real. If it was, we could all call and share how little we care for the looks of the nanny-state bigots behind this almost authoritarian legislation—because whatever their gender may be, they’re ugly as sin.

April 29 2016 10:00 AM

One Radical Change Cisgender Women Can Make Today to Support Trans Bathroom Access

What if I told you that there was a simple, straightforward action that cisgender women who support transgender rights could take that would change the terms of the debate about trans bathroom access? There is something, and it is as radical as it is easy to do. What’s more, it’s available to anyone who currently uses the women’s bathroom without fear of being asked to leave.

Until now, the issue of bathroom access has been treated primarily as a matter for legislatures and courts, while the role of ordinary people has been to come out for or against bathroom access in tweets and Facebook posts, and maybe, eventually, to vote for politicians who agree with them about transgender rights.

April 29 2016 8:30 AM

Just as Boycotts Are Making a Difference for LGBTQ People, Some Lawmakers Want to Shut Them Down

In recent weeks, governors, mayors, major businesses, and entertainers have joined a boycott of North Carolina and Mississippi as a way of protesting new state laws that license discrimination against LGBT people. Similar boycotts of Indiana were threatened or announced last year when that state also passed homophobic legislation. Yet it’s particularly ironic that public and private actors are jumping on the boycott bandwagon to protest laws that deny fundamental civil rights when, at the same time, state legislatures are passing bills that would punish the use of economic boycotts in similar circumstances.

Boycotts are a familiar tool used by public officials and private actors to protest the passage of unjust laws. Almost every social movement has at some point deployed boycotts as a tactic to advance its political goals, along with demonstrations, picketing, strikes, sit ins, and other forms of direct action. In 1792, supporters of abolition of the slave trade in Britain urged a boycott of slave-produced sugar. In 1902, the Chinese boycotted American products to protest the extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1903, Mohandas Gandhi and other anti-colonial actors in India called for a boycott of British goods, launching the “Swadeshi” (self-sufficiency) movement. In 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the “white section” of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, she sparked the Montgomery bus boycott to protest racial segregation in public transportation and began a chain reaction of similar boycotts throughout the South.


In the 1970s and ’80s, prominent politicians on both the federal and state levels strongly endorsed a financial boycott and divestment of public funds from companies that did business in South Africa. These boycott supporters included Rep. Ronald Dellums and Sen. Ted Kennedy, who pushed for tighter economic sanctions through the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. In New York, supporters included Mayor Ed Koch, Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, Comptroller Harrison Goldin, union chief Victor Gotbaum, and City Council President Carol Bellamy.

So, the turn to boycotts this month to express a commitment to fundamental civil and human rights is nothing new—except it comes at a time when several states are trying to make boycotts illegal. For example, a bill just passed by the New York State Senate bars any business, organization, or group that supports the boycott of any U.S. ally from bidding on public contracts. Moreover, it requires the state to create and make public a list of their names. If this bill becomes law, a construction company could not bid on road repair projects in New York state if its owner has personally endorsed an economic boycott of Turkey for that government’s repression of dissidents; a florist that supplies flowers to the governor’s office would be blacklisted and have its contract canceled if the owner has vocally supported a boycott of Italy for its refusal to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples; and the Presbyterian Church (USA) would be blacklisted and could no longer run homeless shelters in New York with public money because of its policy of divesting from companies involved in the demolition of Palestinian homes and the surveillance of Palestinians by the Israeli government. 

The proposed New York law treats constitutionally protected political activism as treason and is part of a series of similar bills that have been introduced or passed in about two dozen states across the country. What lies behind today’s ill-conceived calls to outlaw boycotts and create what is essentially a public blacklist of groups that turn to boycotts as a political tactic?

The bills in question have been advanced by right-wing supporters of Israel who are responding to a growing grassroots campaign to use economic leverage to draw attention to human rights violations committed by the Israeli government. Israel’s defenders have resorted to anti-boycott and blacklist laws to censure political debate about the Israeli occupation of Palestine. They seek to discredit not only the arguments of their critics, but also the tactics they deploy: namely boycotts, a nonviolent form of direct political action. With a broad brush they portray boycotts as a kind of dirty trick that is subversive, sinister and slanderous in nature. 

Defenders of the right to use boycotts as part of movement organizing consider the New York bill particularly worrisome in light of the law’s requirement that the state publish a list every year of organizations that have boycotted allied nations. The list is designed to send the message: “New York State won’t do business with these entities, you shouldn’t either.” For this reason, boycott proponents consider the law to require the creation of a “blacklist”—why other than public shaming would the state be required to publish these names? Through history, blacklists have been generally regarded as a form of political extortion, lying well outside the bounds of legitimate politics. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s blacklist naming actors, activists, and others who were suspected of harboring Communist sympathies ruined lives and careers and suppressed a wide range of otherwise constitutionally protected speech. 

Despite this ugly historical backdrop, lawmakers in New York and other states are itching to get into the blacklisting business. Just as in the McCarthy era, the list they want to set up would call out for sanction and ridicule citizens who engage in a familiar form of constitutionally protected speech and political activity. Under the law just passed by the New York State Senate, unions such as AFSCME, the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, and the New York City Council itself would have been blacklisted for their endorsement of the boycott of South Africa. 

The frontal attack on boycotts as a political tactic made by supporters of Israel is truly ironic given the support that prominent Jewish and Zionist organizations have given to boycotts in other contexts. For instance, American Jews convinced the World Jewish Congress to endorse a resolution calling for a boycott of German goods in 1936. And when the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of black citizens’ boycott of racist businesses in Mississippi in the 1960s, the American Jewish Congress submitted a friend of the court brief arguing that “politically motivated economic boycotts have a long and honored history in our nation,” and that boycotts “are forms of expression undoubtedly protected by the First Amendment.” 

Even more ironic is the idea that supporters of Israel would turn to a blacklist, and a state-sponsored blacklist at that, to defend their cause. Blacklists in the U.S. have notoriously done the dirty work of anti-Semites, as the recent award-winning film Trumbo portrayed so painfully.

This history teaches us two important lessons: that there is nothing inherently sinister about the use of economic boycotts as a political tactic, and that there surely is something deeply suspect about the government’s turn to blacklists as a tool to punish, shame, and censor citizens who are engaging in important debates about Israel and Palestine.

It is unconscionable that lawmakers in New York and across the country have been aligning themselves with a smear tactic that imperils the reputations and economic well-being of constituents that they’re supposed to be representing. As legislators debate these bills, they should consider whether their moral compasses point in the direction of Joseph McCarthy or Rosa Parks. 

April 28 2016 1:35 PM

NCAA Says Cities and States That Discriminate Can’t Host Tournaments

In recent years, the NCAA has been a surprisingly effective force in fighting anti-LGBTQ discrimination. In 2015, when Indiana passed the anti-gay Religious Freedom Restoration Act, one of the factors that led to the state’s legislature enacting a quick (if inadequatefix was a statement from the NCAA, that came a week before a huge sporting event was held in the state. It said, “We are … concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees. We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill." (Theorganization drew criticism when it did not move the 2016 men’s Final Four from Houston after that city’s voters rejected a nondiscrimination law in November 2015, though it did warn the vote “could impact the NCAA returning to Houston for a future Final Four.”)

Now the NCAA has made its commitment to nondiscrimination even more explicit by setting new requirements for cities that wish to host NCAA events, including the men’s and women’s Final Four basketball tournaments, which draw thousands of visitors. At its quarterly meeting, held earlier this week, the NCAA Board of Governors adopted a policy that will require potential hosts “to demonstrate how they will provide an environment that is safe, healthy, and free of discrimination, plus safeguards the dignity of everyone involved in the event.”

April 28 2016 8:03 AM

What Does a “Queer Film” Before Stonewall Look Like?

Jimmy, a blonde boy in a pristine white shirt, accepts a ride home from an older man, Ralph, after playing some ball in the park. The man buys him a Coke and takes him fishing. Ralph never takes off his sunglasses, but from the way the camera lingers on his face, you can tell he’s doing some serious ... glancing at Jimmy. Soon, the paternal narrator arrives with news: “What Jimmy didn’t know is Ralph was sick. A sickness that was not visible like smallpox, but no less dangerous and contagious. A sickness of the mind. You see, Ralph was a homosexual.”

This is Boys Beware, a 1961 short produced by the police department and school board of Inglewood, Calif., to warn young boys of an unseen threat. It is also, according to the pleasingly elastic definition of film programmer Thomas Beard, a notable example of early queer cinema. Beard explores this elusive category in An Early Clue to the New Direction: Queer Cinema Before Stonewall, a film series now playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. For viewers in the area, the series is a must, packed with familiar staples (Hitchcock’s Rope, Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda?) alongside lesser-seen touchstones (Vingarne, a 1916 Swedish silent film billed as the first to feature a gay relationship “more or less explicitly”), much of them screened on rare 35mm prints. For farther-flung viewers, Beard’s complete program is a kind of patchwork syllabus for how to detect signs of queer life in films from the late 19th century to the cusp of gay liberation in 1969. Even for the studied fan of gay classics, the lineup offers some unexpected wonders.

April 27 2016 2:49 PM

Alabama City Bans Trans People From Using Any Public Bathroom

The Oxford, Alabama, city council unanimously approved an ordinance on Tuesday that bars trans people from using any public bathroom that doesn’t match the sex indicated on their birth certificate. Because changing one’s birth certificate is difficult in many states (including Alabama) and impossible in others, the measureeffectively proscribes trans people in Oxford from using any bathroom outside of their house. Trans people who violate the ordinance may be imprisoned for up to six months.

Oxford’s new law aligns neatly with Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s views on trans bathroom usage: Cruz recently asserted that trans people should only be allowed to use their home bathroom in order to protect women and children. The ordinance is also similar to “bathroom bills” in other states, such as Florida, where a bill to exclude trans people from public bathrooms sailed through committee before stalling last year. In March, North Carolina forbade trans people from using government bathrooms that align with their gender identity—including facilities at schools and universities—while the South Dakota legislature attempted to exclude all trans public school students from their preferred restroom facilities. The South Dakota legislation died on the governor’s desk; the North Carolina bill passed easily, though a lawsuit has contested its legality. (A federal appeals court recently held that federal law prohibits public schools from discriminating against trans students by forcing them into the incorrect bathrooms.)