What’s the wedge issue?

Last month I was talking with the amazing Amaya Perez-Brumer and other graduate students at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Someone asked me, “If same-sex marriage is the wedge issue for the gay rights movement, what’s the most divisive issue in transgender politics?”  A good question, and certainly there are real divisions about what should be prioritized, just as there has been in the LGB rights movement.

There are a number of  priorities, but what should top the list? If we want to make trans lives better, where should our resources be directed? In fact, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality  asked that question on page 178 of their enormous 2011 survey project, “Injustice at Every Turn.” The policy areas most frequently by the survey’s 6450 respondents were:

Protecting transgender/gender non-conforming people from discrimination in hiring and at work: 70%

Getting transgender-related health care covered by insurance: 64%

Passing laws that address hate crimes against transgender/gender non-conforming people: 47%

Access to transgender-sensitive health care: 43%

Better policies on gender and identity documents and other records: 40%

Protecting transgender/gender non-conforming people from discrimination in housing: 26%

The right to equal recognition of marriages involving transgender partners: 25%

Passing anti-bullying laws that make schools safer: 21%

Transgender/gender non-conforming prisoners’ rights: 15%

The right of transgender/gender non-conforming people to parent, including adoption: 14%

HIV prevention, education and treatment:11%

Allowing transgender/gender non-conforming people to serve in the military: 7%

Immigration policy reform (such as asylum or partner recognition): 5%

This list gives some sense of the popularity of particular policy areas.  But the numbers fail to reveal a wedge issue, just significantly less interest in immigration, military service, parenting rights, incarceration. bullying. Even these least popular issues represent very different political positions–for example, prisoners’ rights versus the right to serve in the military.

I’m still thinking this through, but my first stab at an answer to this question was that there really isn’t a wedge issue. It’s not trans employment discrimination versus the plight of trans HIV positive people, prisoners, parents or immigrants.   The wedge is transgender itself. In that sense, it’s sort of an inverse wedge, if there can be such a thing.  So really not a wedge, but a wrong cramming together of people whose only commonality is that one way or another their gender didn’t turn out as expected, based on the sex they were assigned at birth. That “trans” or “transgender” purports to describe people who are so very  differently situated in relation to their vulnerability to violence, to incarceration, to illness, to homelessness seems like one of the more miraculous feats of identity politics.

More on this to come as I work these ideas out in the chapter I’m writing on incarceration, trans economicus and the freeze frame policy in the book.

Coal, Sex, and Democracy

Now that the semester is over, I’m beginning to catch up on bits and pieces of trans news that I’d marked for a closer look when I had time. One item that had caught my eye was a blog post from Jacobin about the guidelines issued in April by the Department of Education suggesting that transgender students are among the groups that Title IX protects from sexual violence. In the post, “An Unlikely Transgender Rights Vanguard,” Kate Redburn writes,

As welcome, and indeed necessary, as queer legal protections are, we should be cautious about endorsing the discretionary interpretation of law by agencies. There’s nothing to say that they couldn’t just as easily have had opposite findings in these cases, thus perpetuating legal discrimination without any input from Congress, the President, or the courts. As the court wrote above, it’s a subversion of the democratic system.

….In fact, Tuesday’s DOE announcement isn’t even the first time in the past few years that an agency has interpreted federal law to protect trans* and queer people without the cover of court precedent: A series of decisions at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects against gender identity-based and gender presentation-based discrimination.

….When the Employment Non-Discrimination Act has failed to pass for nearly a decade, these advances feel like a rare step forward in the fight against transphobia. They also raise troubling questions about administrative discretion and authority.

I don’t agree with Redburn’s assessment (nor, by the way, do I agree that queer includes trans, but that’s a discussion for another day). Regulations and especially administrative guidance documents like this interpretation of Title IX are part of the political process, albeit one step removed, and they change back and forth as administrations change. And to me, it’s reasonable to interpret the language of Title IX, passed in 1972 (“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”) to include students whose gender identity or gender expression is not traditionally associated with their birth sex–i.e. transgender students.

But the DOE interpretation might not seem reasonable to everyone, and the larger argument that important political matters ought to be decided in the legislative arena has merit. Bringing those who haven’t made up their mind into the conversation can provide a better foundation in the long run.  Gayle Trotter, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, agrees with Redburn on this. In a discussion about the Title IX announcement,  she pointed out that people have difficulty accepting “the fact that our society has changed and our culture has changed….and part of it is because these edicts come down that are not part of the political process, that have not been debated, and people feel like they are left out of the debate.”

There is another area where the Obama administration has relied  on regulations, rules and guidance documents rather than legislation: climate change.  Just like LGBT friendly legislation, bills on climate change have gotten nowhere in the Republican led House. So just this week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed regulations that would interpret the meaning of “air pollution” in the 1970 Clean Air Act to include greenhouse gasses. The resulting policy changes would be far-reaching, and I’m all for them.

But I’m waiting for Jacobin to publish a post condemning these new clean air regulations as subversions of the democratic process. If put in place, they would have a much greater economic effect than a letter to schools pointing out that if they fail to protect trans kids from being bullied or beat up at school, they might be violating Title IX.  If the democratic process only occurs in the legislative arena (I don’t necessarily agree), when is democratic deliberation required and when is it not?  Where’s the consistency?