Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation

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.)

April 27 2016 2:07 PM

Breitbart Proves What We Already Knew: Trans Women Are Not Bathroom Predators

Since big box store Target affirmed its support of transgender people last week by explicitly encouraging employees and guests to use the bathroom that comports with their gender identity, the anti-LGBTQ right has been busy gnashing their teeth and rending their Mossimo-brand garments. The American Family Association has a boycott pledge going with almost 900,000 signatures at the time of writing, and, on Tuesday, right-wing site Breitbart posted a very clever roundup of alleged sexual assaults in Target stores to demonstrate the danger of the company’s trans-inclusive policy. The 20 incident descriptions are truly harrowing, and one hopes that the victims find the appropriate justice.

But there’s one glaring problem: According the cited reports, none of the alleged assailants were trans people.


For anyone who’s looked into the data behind the trans bathroom predator myth currently gripping our nation, this won’t come as a surprise. There are no confirmed, true cases of trans women (or men) accosting anyone in public restrooms. (If anything, it’s trans folks who live in fear of being attacked or bullied in those spaces, among many others.) Indeed, as the Breitbart post so helpfully demonstrates, it is cisgender men who we should all be fearing in the loo—and, contra the gross fearmongering about “men in dresses” out to get “little girls,” this sampling of cases shows that real predators are fairly equal opportunity in terms of the gender of their victims.

Moreover, though it’s been said many times before, let’s say it again: Assaulting people in the bathroom is already illegal, and if a cis man (or anyone!) wants to put on a dress to do it in Target or anywhere else, he should be appropriately dealt with by law enforcement. Ensuring that trans people have the baseline protection of being able to relieve themselves with dignity will do nothing to change that. It will only make a group of people who face a general onslaught of discrimination throughout their lives feel a tiny bit more secure. 

April 27 2016 1:05 PM

The Ab Fab Movie Trailer Is Here—and, Sweetie Darling, It’s a Gorgeous Mess

A poster posted online a few weeks ago hinted as much, but with the release today of an actual full trailer, we can all exhale and throw back some Bolly: Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is real, it’s finished, and it’s coming to theaters for your messy glam gal camptastic pleasure this July.

The trailer—which borrows many design cues from that other great act of gay-TV-to-gay-movie transposition, the Sex and the City films—confirms in an appropriately frenetic, slurring way the plot description we’ve been hearing since late 2015. Eddie (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy (Joanna Lumely) are on the hunt for a new client for the former’s D-list PR agency—specifically, Kate Moss. They find her at a swanky London fashion party, only for Eddie to knock her off the balcony and into the unfashionably chilly Thames. Now personas even more non grata than normal, the pair flee the U.K. for the south of France, where, Eddie points out: “Everyone’s a criminal.” Boozy, glittery, French-inflected hijinks ensue amid a bevy of celebrity cameos (oh hello, Jon Hamm) and appearances from the TV show’s other mainstays, including Eddie’s daughter Saffi (Julia Sawalha) and dear old mother (June Whitfield).


Compatriots of the twosome can catch them on July 1, while fans across the pond will have to wait until July 22, according to IMDB. Which is probably for the best, as I’ll need to pop by Harvey Nicks for a few things in the interim anyway.

April 27 2016 11:52 AM

Liberals: How Strong Is Your Support for Transgender Equality?

In the wake of draconian laws passed in North Carolina and Mississippi restricting which restrooms transgender people can use, much of the attention has focused on the economic and political backlash to anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Sometimes, public pressure is the best or only tactic that works, and it’s heartening to see economic and political costs imposed on supporters of these odious laws. But it’s easy to forget just how important private conversations can be to securing lasting social change, especially in a campaign where winning hearts and minds is a key goal.

Fortunately, media coverage of the laws has also spawned just such water cooler conversations, dialogues about what it means to be transgender and what full equality should look like.


April 26 2016 1:31 PM

The First Challenge to Mississippi’s Anti-LGBTQ Law Has Arrived

When a federal judge struck down Mississippi’s same-sex marriage ban in July, Roberta Kaplan had a simple message: “It’s over.”

It was, in fact, not quite yet over.

Kaplan, who represented Edie Windsor in the litigation that toppled the federal same-sex marriage ban, had barely secured her marriage victorywhen she turned to Mississippi’s other anti-gay law: The last ban on same-sex adoption in the United States. On April 1, Kaplan won that case, knocking down the Mississippi adoption ban for good.

Four days later, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law the most sweeping anti-LGBTQ legislation in the nation. Mississippi wasn’t quite finished discriminating against its LGBTQ residents. And so Kaplan wasn’t quite finished with Mississippi.

On Monday, Kaplan launched the first legal challenge to HB 1523, Mississippi’s anti-LGBQT “religious liberty” measure. Rather than taking on the entire law, Kaplan is focusing on one especially troubling section: A provision that allows clerks to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses when their “sincerely held religious beliefs” dictate that “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.” While the law insists that clerk recusal cannot “impede[] or delay” marriage licensing, it doesn’t explain how, exactly, same-sex couples will be protected.

But Kaplan has a trump card. In his July order, United States District Judge Carlton W. Reeves issued a permanent injunction barring all “agents, officers, employees, and subsidiaries” of Mississippi from treating same-sex couples differently from opposite-sex couples. That injunction remains in effect today. As a result, if Mississippi allows a clerk recusal that disadvantages same-sex couples in compliance with HB 1523, it will be in violation of Reeves’ July injunction.