Congresswoman Slams Anti-Trans Activist During Hearing: “You’re a Bigot, Lady!”
A House Judiciary Committee hearing grew heated on Wednesday during an exchange between California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren and Gail Heriot, an anti-trans activist and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The topic was regulatory overreach, and Heriot submitted an outrageously transphobic testimony attacking the Department of Education’s recent trans-inclusive guidance. Lofgren read a portion of Heriot’s testimony aloud:
We are teaching people a terrible lesson. If I believe that I am a Russian princess, that doesn’t make me a Russian princess, even if my friends and acquaintances are willing to indulge my fantasy. Nor am I a great horned owl just because as I have been told I happen to share some personality traits with those feathered creatures.
“I’ve got to say, I found this rather offensive,” Lofgren then said of the passage:
It says to me that the witness really doesn’t know anything—and probably has never met a transgender child who is going through, in almost every case, a very difficult experience finding themselves. And I believe that the department’s guidance will help schools all over the United States in preventing the kind of violence and harassment that these transgender kids find too often. … I think it’s very regrettable that that comment was put into the record and I think it’s highly offensive.
Heriot then asked to respond. Lofgren said no, but Heriot proceeded anyway, telling Lofgren that “I think you’ll find that many people find it very offensive that the Department of Education thinks they can tell schools …”
But Lofgren shut her down.
“I think you’re a bigot, lady,” she said. “I think you’re an ignorant bigot.”
Republican Rep. Steve King ordered Lofgren to stop.
“I would just like to say,” Lofgren concluded, “that we allow witnesses to say offensive things—but I cannot allow that kind of bigotry to go into the record unchallenged.”
A side note on Heriot: The commissioner, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2007, was a lifelong registered Republican prior to her service on the commission. However, federal law prohibits more than four members of the same political party to be on the commission at once—and at that time, the commission already had four Republican members. So Heriot re-registered as an independent, allowing her to be legally appointed.
During its years dominated by Bush-appointed conservatives, the commission scrapped plans to investigate race-based voting discrimination and push for greater racial integration in public schools. Instead, it investigated affirmative action programs and government efforts to help minority-owned businesses.
Heriot maintains that her decision to re-register as an independent shortly before her appointment was unrelated to her eagerness to join the commission. As the Boston Globe reported at the time:
Heriot was an alternate delegate to the 2000 Republican National Convention and was a registered Republican until seven months before her appointment. In an interview, Heriot said her decision to reregister as an independent in August 2006, making her eligible to fill the vacancy, “had nothing to do with the commission.”
“I have disagreements with the Republican Party,” she said. Asked to name one, she declined.
There Is Only a Title IX Crisis if You Believe the Existence of Trans People Is up for Debate
On May 24, Harvard Law Professor Jeannie Suk published an article on the New Yorker’s website headlined “The Transgender Bathroom Debate and the Looming Title IX Crisis.” Suk described her misgivings about recent guidance from the Department of Education and the Department of Justice about transgender students with no shortage of hyperbole. But almost everything about her article—from its title to its legal reasoning to its alarmist conclusion—is erroneous. In fact, Suk’s article is so filled with sloppy language and legal inaccuracies, so mired in stereotyped views of trans individuals, that it makes a perfect case study in how not to write about trans discrimination.
Start with Suk’s premise. In reality, there is no crisis looming over Title IX. There is, of course, a longstanding crisis for transgender people of violence, discrimination, and harassment, which you certainly wouldn’t know about from reading Suk’s piece. But despite what she suggests about the meaning and application of federal prohibitions on sex discrimination, the recent guidance is nothing more than a straightforward application of longstanding, established law.
Is Gay Culture Fading? Justin Sayre Considers the Fate of a Subculture on The Gay Agenda
Through his work as a writer, performer, podcast host, and general queer-about-town, Justin Sayre has established himself as one of the leading explorers and communicators of gay culture working today. (Outward interviewed him about his work in 2013.) A new collection of monologues from Sayre's monthly variety show, The Meeting* of the International Order of Sodomites, is now available for download. The album liner notes are reprinted below.
It is generally advised, when on the giving side of a blowjob, to begin one’s work with an offering of praise—an approving comment on size, perhaps, or a wicked flash of the eyes. On the seventh track of this collection, Justin Sayre suggests a different approach: an invocation of the gay ancestors to bless the oral sacrament. “This one goes out to Oscar Wilde!” he cries up to our smiling forefathers, just before going down.
That Sayre invites Wilde to watch is no surprise; their verbal talents and aesthetic sensibilities are so in tune that one assumes their taste in men must align as well. Indeed, when I reflect on the material in this exquisite curio of Sayre’s stand-up routines from The Meeting* of the International Order of Sodomites—which careens thrillingly from gala evening sparkle to opium den vulgarity—I can’t help but think of Wilde, and in particular a line from Lady Windermere’s Fan: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
In the play, this aphorism is a comment on the fallen nature of the male sex. But it has a particular relevance to the gay experience, one that from Wilde’s time well into the 20th century saw the fairies rather miraculously refashioning the gutter into which society had cast them into a twinkling and influential subculture. Sayre, more than any contemporary queen I can think of, is schooled in this history—and due to that erudition, painfully aware of how it seems to be slipping away.
There’s a melancholy lurking beneath the spritely humor of this album, a creeping sense that today’s gays have, tragically, made for themselves a new kind of gutter. “Sometimes I think people have forgotten all the good stuff,” Sayre worries in “Letters to the Chairman.” Even as our lives are increasingly enriched by legal dignity, our contemporary culture feels somehow impoverished. It’s this concern that fuels the preservationist impulse of the IOS—something is lost if young queens no longer understand (if not viscerally, at least intellectually) the terrible importance of Judy and Joan or the semiotic richness of the hanky code.
But these aren’t just the rearguard rantings of a bitter old queen mourning her divas. Sayre, with classic “spoonful of sugar” subversion, levels serious criticisms of certain “respectable” values that have gained prominence in gay life in the wake of the AIDS crisis. “The future looks bleak, ladies and gentlemen, when you’re sitting in a gay bar and some 22-year-old is thinking God, I just wanna settle down and meet Mr. Right,” the chairman laments while discussing the threat of gay marriage. “The only thought in a 22-year-old’s mind should be why do I still have these pants on?” Later, Sayre admits it’s not holy matrimony and settling down that he objects to, per se; it’s just that gays used to have more interesting thoughts in their heads—thoughts that, instead of comforting the world that its institutions and expectations were right and desirable, made the world nervous in the best possible way.
“You people used to be the arbiters of style. You used to be the Truman Capotes, the Oscar Wildes,” Sayre mock-scolds in “Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus.” Within that chastisement—and indeed, within the very concept of a secret international cabal of faggots—lies a hope: Gays have used their unique perspective, their “gutter vision,” to great effect in the past. We could again. But to do that, we need to spend less time coveting our straight neighbors and more time looking to our own culture for models of how to be. As Sayre eloquently puts it in “Valley of the Gays,” our people have managed, against incredible odds, to produce a glittering cultural constellation of “vibrancy and wonder.” There’s real pride to be taken in that, and power, too. Sayre’s great contribution is to remind us that even when it seems dim, that legacy, like the stars, is never gone—you just have to look a little harder.
Australia’s Popular Vote on Same-Sex Marriage Is Unjust—and Expensive
This past weekend, my boyfriend and I accidentally got married on Facebook. We were at a friend’s wedding in Spain, and I uploaded a photo of us together with the hashtag #wedding. Before I knew it, the photo had been liked over 200 times. Comments were pouring in with variations on the theme of ‘Congratulations!’ Our mothers were frantically texting us asking why they hadn’t been informed of our impending nuptials.
Though the support was lovely, we’ve since corrected our social media faux pas—we’re not even engaged. Still, it got me thinking about the possibility of my own wedding. Like the real wedding I attended, I often imagine tying the knot by the ocean, specifically above the cliffs of Sydney where I’ve spent nearly every summer with my family. Then my stomach does a little lurch as I remember that such a wedding is impossible. Because unlike Spain and 20 other countries around the world, gay marriage still isn’t legal in Australia. Instead, for the last seven or eight years, I’ve watched as politicians in my home country have given just enough hope to avoid seeming entirely bigoted, while always stopping short of making actual progress.
The latest step in this homophobic waltz is called a plebiscite, and although it sounds like a blood-sucking insect you might find lodged on the back of your neck, it’s actually a kind of referendum. In this case, the question of marriage equality will be put to a nationwide vote—a vote which, according to the government's 2016/17 budget announced a few weeks ago, is going to cost $160 million Australian dollars ($115 million US). Besides this hefty price tag, the vote is in and of itself a problematic notion—why should 20 million straight people decide who I can marry? (This Irishmarriage equality video does a good job of poking fun at the idea). But even if we leave that injustice aside and pretend, as Australian politicians insist, that this is a more democratic way of deciding the matter, it’s still a bizarre and ultimately ineffective process that will achieve nothing but demonstrate just how far middle-aged white men will go to avoid progress.
Eleven States Sue Federal Government to Keep Trans Kids Out of School Bathrooms
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton launched a lawsuit against the federal government on Wednesday, suing to block the Obama administration’s recent trans rights directive. The directive urged public schools to let trans students use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity, affirming the Department of Education’s interpretation of existing federal law to bar anti-trans discrimination. Any schools that violate the directive risk losing federal education funding. Ten other states joined Texas’ suit, which named the Education, Labor, and Justice Departments—as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—as defendants. The states have asked a federal court to declare the directive invalid and block it permanently. They allege that the directive erroneously interprets federal law—and that it violates the 10th Amendment, the 14th Amendment, and state sovereign immunity.
If recent history is any guide, the federal government will vehemently defend its directive in response to Texas’ attack. When North Carolina sued the Justice Department to preserve its anti-trans law, Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke “directly to the transgender community itself” to assure them that the administration had its back:
Some of you have lived freely for decades. Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward. Please know that history is on your side. This country was founded on a promise of equal rights for all, and we have always managed to move closer to that promise, little by little, one day at a time. It may not be easy—but we’ll get there together.
In contrast, Paxton had this to say about the administration’s directive earlier in May:
Once again, the Obama Administration has overstepped its constitutional bounds to meddle in the affairs of state and local government. Today’s announcement seeking to unilaterally redefine and expand federal law must be challenged. If President Obama thinks he can bully Texas schools into allowing men to have open access to girls in bathrooms, he better prepare for yet another legal fight.
Incidentally, Paxton is currently battling serious accusations of wrongdoing related to the secret commissions he made from a technology company during his time as a state legislator. Paxton raised $840,000 for the tech startup without disclosing to investors that he was being compensated for his efforts, as is legally required. He has since been indicted by a Texas grand jury on securities fraud charges and charged with securities fraud by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Unlike Paxton, Lynch has not been indicted for securities fraud. She did, however, vigorously prosecute white-collar crime, securities fraud, and wire fraud during her years as a U.S. attorney.
Update, May 25, 2016: This post has been updated with additional information about the lawsuit.
Last Year, Queer Ugandans Celebrated Pride Like Never Before. But Can They Do It Again?
Last month, Uganda entered the gay rights spotlight once again when Rebecca Kadaga, Uganda’s Speaker of Parliament, declared that a harsh anti-homosexuality law, annulled in 2014, could return at any time. Homosexual acts are already illegal in Uganda, but the law Kadaga supports would allow harsher sentencing, prohibit the "promotion" of gay rights, and call for the punishment of anyone who funds, sponsors, or abets homosexuality.
After the widely-celebrated success of Pride Uganda last summer—the gathering drew record numbers and seemed to many like a sign of new hope—it’s disheartening to imagine Uganda’s queer community being thrust back into hiding by anti-gay legislation. But was last year’s Pride really an indication of better times for LGBTQ Uganda? And what do Kadaga’s threats really mean to that community?
For insight, I spoke with two people deeply invested in these questions: photographer Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi, whose intimate images of Pride Uganda recently appeared in Dazed Digital and Lens Culture; and Rita, an organizer of Pride Uganda. They helped put Kadaga’s remarks in context—and discussed what Pride means for Uganda’s LGBTQ community in uncertain times.
Voter ID Laws Are Preventing Trans People From Voting
It is common knowledge and objective fact that the actual purpose and intended consequence of voter ID laws is to prevent traditionally Democratic votersfrom casting a ballot. This highly effective mode of voter suppression has already successfully skewed elections in favor of white Republicans by blockingpoor, black, elderly, and Latino voters. Now it appears these laws are suppressing the votes of another historically left-leaning bloc: transgender Americans.
While obtaining a valid ID is difficult for many voters, trans people face a special hurdle: In voter-suppression states, they must present an ID. If that ID displays a sex that seems obviously different from their current gender identity, poll workers may turn them away. Yet changing the sex on your ID typically necessitates changing the sex on your birth certificate first. In about a dozen states, trans people can do this fairly easily, with a notarized doctor’s note affirming their transition. (No surgery required.) But then, these states also tend to have progressive voting laws. Most voter ID states—and most states in general—force trans people to have sex reassignment surgery before changing their birth certificate sex. Yet many trans people don’t want or need this surgery. For these individuals, the combination of voter ID laws and stringent birth certificate rules essentially revokes their right to vote.
Being Uncomfortable Doesn’t Mean You’re Unsafe
I traveled to Europe last week, where I enjoyed such delicacies as tea and scones with clotted cream in England, paella and local wine in Spain, ancient Roman architecture and art, and, perhaps most refreshingly, blissful silence on the transgender bathroom usage.
Many of the restrooms I used while away were single-stalled and not gender-specific. Even those that were gender-segregated had shared space around the sinks—and guess what, no one was assaulted, mugged, or given the evil eye. I felt perfectly safe peeing next to another human being who just happened to have different bits.
Oklahoma Lawmakers: Religious Students Must Get Their Own Trans-Free Bathrooms
Oklahoma legislators introduced a measure on Thursday that is at once vexingly bizarre and wonderfully clarifying. The bill, SB 1619, would declare a “State of Emergency” in Oklahoma in response to the Obama administration’s directive barring public schools from discriminating against trans students.
Been there, done that, you might think—but wait: The precise mechanism by which the bill legalizes anti-trans discrimination is unusually inventive. Rather than explicitly excluding trans students from school bathrooms, SB 1619 grants non-trans students a right to use trans-free bathrooms. The reason? Non-trans students may have “sincerely held religious beliefs” that using the same bathroom as a trans person violates their religion. And accommodating these beliefs is necessary “for the preservation of the public peace, health and safety.”
How the Gay Twist in Neighbors 2 Turns the “Bromance” on Its Head
Spoilers for Neighbors 2 ahead.
Early in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Zac Efron, Dave Franco, and other frat bros from the original 2014 movie assemble around a poker table. Square jaws and goofy bravado intact, they are a little more domesticated, but no less tribal and demented. Everything is as it should be.
Then something odd happens. Suddenly, several of the men break into a ukulele-led rendition of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” and Darren (John Early), a newcomer to the group, takes a knee in front of Pete (Franco). It’s a proposal. Of marriage. Pete says yes, the men kiss, and the camera never cuts away. The proud brothers break into a chant of “USA! USA!!”
The scene is ingeniously direct. There are no weird jokes, just a cute proposal inflected with priceless post-frat touches (see: Mraz, ukulele, inexplicable patriotism). The infectious moment almost distracts us from what’s really going on. Recall that in the original Neighbors, Pete hooked up with women and was carefully coded as heterosexual, even though his most intense emotional (and really, physical) bonds were clearly with his frat brothers. This is the “bromance” contract Neighbors observed: The love between the two men in question (in this case, Efron and Franco) must never become sexual. In turn, the audience, usually young men, giggles rather than asks questions.
By bringing Pete out of the closet without so much as a wink, Neighbors 2 tries to tear down that wall. The proposal scene is beautifully engineered to catch audiences off guard and then disarm them with genuine sweetness and giddy emotion. The sequence feels like a stinging rebuke to years of skittish comedies about male bonds, up to and including the original Neighbors—an unforced triumph in a movie that could have been much safer.
We can trace the modern bromance movie back about a decade, roughly to the years following 2007’s Superbad, about two teenage outcasts with filthy mouths and an undying love for each other. Comedy about male friendship wasn’t new, but these movies and their mutually adoring heroes felt like a shift after a decade of virulently homophobic frat-pack flicks—Wedding Crashers, Dodgeball, etc.—in which same-sex kisses and man-on-man contact were the ultimate transgression. Seth Rogen, a co-writer and co-star of Superbad who also leads both Neighbors movies, helped usher in this new tide along with his Apatovian ilk, from Pineapple Express to the less subtle I Love You, Man. The movies proved to be a formidable challenge to the Will Ferrell-Vince Vaughn anti-laugh factory. Before long, they became a bit of an assembly line themselves, and they brought their own problems, but they seemed at least to reject many of American comedy’s most toxic gay-panic instincts in favor of newly introspective male relationships.
Or so I thought. Lately, Rogen doesn’t seem so sure. In a widely quoted Guardian interview promoting Neighbors 2, he said:
It’s funny looking at some movies we’ve made in the last 10 years under the lenses of new eras, new social consciousness. There’s for sure some stuff in our earlier movies—and even in our more recent movies—where even like a year later you’re like, “Eh, maybe that wasn’t the greatest idea.” …
There are probably some jokes in Superbad that are bordering on blatantly homophobic at times. They’re all in the voice of high school kids, who do speak like that, but I think we’d also be silly not to acknowledge that we also were, to some degree, glamorizing that type of language in a lot of ways.
Looking back, he’s not wrong. Superbad, now nearly 10 years old, was the first feature Rogen wrote (with his writing partner Evan Goldberg), and the jokes tended to hinge on the fear of sucking dicks, drawing dicks, or just being near dicks. It’s the kind of movie where a character named Fogell inevitably becomes Fagell. There are plenty of other examples in the oeuvre. Take, for instance, Channing Tatum’s cameo as a bottom-boy sex slave in This is the End. Or The Interview, with its truly idiotic scenes where Eminem comes out as gay and James Franco kisses Kim Jong-un. Neighbors itself toggles between gay baiting and gay panic, as when two frat bros grasp each other’s balls during a fight but then have a near breakdown when one of them gets an erection.
But even as they relied on these sometimes-homophobic crutches, the movies really were getting at something new. To a viewer like me—who nearly melted in a college-town theater when Superbad’s wistful teen boys stared into each other’s eyes and declared, “I love you, man”—it felt as if they were priming the audience to accept new modes of male intimacy. It couldn’t be a coincidence that the bromance hit a zeitgeisy high at the same time American pop culture began to question its ideas about male closeness and kneejerk ridiculing of gayness. Gay panic didn’t disappear from Hollywood comedies, but this gentle progress certainly made a difference.
Still, a clear taboo remained, a new code that still seemed to forbid explicit romance. That brings us back to Neighbors 2. Rogen, who reprises his role as a young father warding off the excesses of the Greek house next door, picked up a screenwriting credit this time around, along with his writing partner Goldberg. Goldberg was apparently the one who suggested that Pete “should just be gay,” since he basically was already. Rogen agreed, and so Neighbors 2’s unlikely reveal was born. In their passing acknowledgement that one of these guys could love another one romantically, they dismantled one of the bromance’s foundational constraints. Just like that.
Alas, Neighbors 2 arrives a little too late to mark a sea change—the genre as I have defined it is now in decline, giving way to a long-overdue wave of female-star vehicles and a far less welcome resurgence in frat-pack tendencies. But the moment is still worth celebrating, because it shows how the movie’s homosocial progenitors really did open up new possibilities. It’s hard to imagine the marriage subplot (and that unabashed same-sex kiss) could have made it into a studio comedy aimed at young men a decade ago. We can thank these films for some of that evolution. And on that hopeful note, should there be a Neighbors 3, perhaps Rogen and Goldberg can explore why Pete didn’t get engaged to Teddy (Efron), who showed pretty much the exact same signs of being smitten with his frat brother in the original movie. That’s a wedding I’d truly like to see.