Hillary Clinton has a choice to make. She needs to decide whether or not she will fight for transgender Americans’ efforts to secure access to the bathrooms that accord with their gender identity. If she fully supports such efforts—which already have a strong ally in President Barack Obama—she will eventually have to say so. Alternatively, she could withhold her full backing while continuing to make vague statements of support for transgender people.
This is the tack she took last Friday. In a statement to the Washington Post, spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said, “Hillary Clinton applauds the Obama administration for taking actions this week to stand up for the rights of LGBT people—and particularly for the rights of transgender people—across the country. As president, she will fight to make sure all Americans can live their lives free from discrimination.” The statement is interesting both for what it says—that she supports trans people and the president—and for the fact that it does not specifically say she supports trans people using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity.
Bathroom access for trans people is starting to look a lot like LGBTQ wedge issues of elections past. Such wedges have been a feature of American politics since before I was of voting age. When I was in high school, Republicans attacked Bill Clinton for his supposedly radical support for gays serving in the military. Clinton not only backed down, creating the disastrous “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” in the process; he also went on to sign the Defense of Marriage Act, a law the Supreme Court eventually struck down as unconstitutionally discriminatory, but only after many thousands of Americans had been denied the full benefits of marriage for more than a decade.
Marriage equality was still a wedge in 2008, when both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama supported civil unions for same-sex couples but agreed that marriage should be reserved for partnerships between a man and a woman. It was only after public opinion shifted decisively toward support for same-sex marriage that Obama, and then Clinton, came out in favor.
The pattern is easy to recognize: First, Republicans whip up fear and bigotry in the populace. They portray queer people as being outside the mainstream and Democrats as out of touch for supporting them. Then the Democrats retreat, unwilling to risk losing support from homophobic members of the voting public by standing up for queer people.
Recent history therefore suggests that Clinton will take the safe path that assumes people who care about LGBTQ issues will still support her even as she courts the sorts of voters who might feel uncomfortable with too much progress too quickly. This was her husband’s way, and it has always been her way. Anything else would be a departure.
Fortunately, at least for those of us who care about LGBTQ issues, that safe path isn’t looking as safe today as it did until quite recently. Equal rights for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people are popular among mainstream liberal Democrats, and the rapid turnaround of opinion on same-sex marriage makes a similarly rapid shift on transgender rights seem plausible—perhaps plausible enough that a candidate might not want to be caught on the wrong side of history.
In the recent past, the fact that they have only tepidly supported same-sex marriage and other issues important to queer Americans has been used against both Clintons. This means that if she makes the same play on trans bathroom access, it will further highlight the very things the left has always found lacking in Hillary. Trying to have it both ways too many times is bound to backfire. In addition, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has been more open to supporting gay and trans issues than any previous GOP candidate. Of course, this could change—Trump isn’t known for consistency—but the more liberal the Republican candidate on social issues, the less pressure Clinton will feel to distance herself from socially liberal positions.
Clinton’s strongest base of support has always been among older women voters. These women may be uncomfortable with the idea of sharing restrooms with transgender people—although support for bathroom access is higher among women than men, only 27 percent of voters 60 and over believe that people should use the bathroom that accords with their gender identity rather than their birth certificate. Will Clinton return to form, catering to the remnants of prejudice that still exist in the voting public by falling short of full support for trans people seeking to pee in peace? Her decision will speak volumes about her values as well as her political priorities.