September 2016 Church & State - September 2016

Transgender Rights: The Far Right And A New Wave Of Discrimination

  Barry W. Lynn

One morning during the interminable presidential primary season, I came into the kitchen for breakfast and saw U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on CNN discussing bathrooms. 

Cruz was weighing in on the issue of whether persons should be able to use whatever gender-labeled bathroom is consistent with their gender identity.  Predictably, he was against this idea. This was apparently not the issue on the minds of most Republican voters because we’re not now seeing a Clinton vs. Cruz campaign.

One of the chapters in my book God and Government is called: “Does The Religious Right Hate Everybody? Answer: Yes!” Indeed, having lost the battle to prevent marriage equality, this movement has now turned to finding ways to harass same-sex couples and developing new targets for their bizarrely developed “moral outrage.”

Once a group is singled out – in this case, transgender people – Religious Right heavy hitters weigh in, piling on with pseudo-scientific assertions and political horror stories. 

I have been on radio shows where anti-LGBTQ advocates made claims about transgender Americans that I know are false. They seem unable to understand a simple fact: Most people know from a young age that they are male or female, but this isn’t true for everyone.

Facts show some interesting things. For example, law enforcement officials in 12 states that have laws permitting gender identity to be the basis of restroom entry found no cases of harassment or assault by transgender people. However, a survey by the Williams Institute found that 70 percent of transgender persons had suffered harassment or violence while trying to use a restroom.

Some of the anti-transgender advocates will occasionally concede that there is no evidence that assaults occur when a man dresses as a woman and enters a women’s restroom, but they still insist that people must remain with their assigned birth gender.

Another tactic of the far right is to claim a propagandistic purpose behind the most benign efforts by any government official to handle an issue. Enter the “gender unicorn.” Franklin Graham, recipient of vast quantities of tax dollars and an ever Islamophobic evangelist, issued a statement to a conservative radio network about this mythological figure creeping into the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina.

Here’s what he is talking about: The Trans Student Educational Resources group created an educational resource to help people better understand gender identity and sexuality. Its purpose was to educate, which could also help curb bullying. Graham seems to believe, however, that this is some nefarious plot to push an agenda of “normalizing” transgender people. He seems to think that without any affirmation, transgender people would not even exist. (I do recall former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while speaking at an American university, asserting that gay people don’t exist in Iran.)

There are transgender officials in the United Church of Christ, which is where I first became aware of both the struggles and triumphs of such individuals.  I’ve learned more over the years, and just weeks ago I got an even deeper understanding at one of our “Voices United” events in Cambridge, Mass., at Club Passim. 

The principal artist was Faith Soloway, one of the creators, along with her sister Jill, of the award-winning Amazon-produced series “Transparent,” based in part on the experience these sisters had growing up and finding a parent “coming out” at the age of 70 as transgender. In the series, actor Jeffrey Tambor is an aging father who comes out as transgender and transitions from Mort to Maura.

Faith did a few songs on the piano, and AU Special Projects Manager Catie Curtis asked a few questions. The packed-house audience was then invited to ask questions. 

The Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus and both of Faith’s daughters (who themselves have fabulous voices) performed. A few of the questions were complex enough that Faith asked folks in the audience to address them. I said a few words about Americans United and how we have been getting inquiries about possible litigation in this area and how we have been fighting state legislation that seeks to undermine LGBTQ rights. Board of Trustees member and Massachusetts AU Chapter president Ron Madnick also set up a table to hand out literature and talk with attendees.

This event was one of the very best in tying together our cause with fine music. Best of all, it educated a lot of people – and I’m not ashamed to say that I was one of them.


Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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