We Won’t Be Erased
By Alex Patchin McNeill
Executive Director, More Light Presbyterians
As a publicly out transgender man, the ways in which the Trump Administration is working to “define transgender people out of existence” hits very close to home. This Sunday’s New York Times article reported that among other things, the administration wants to narrowly define gender as a “biological immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth,” denying the physical and lived reality of millions of Americans. With just eight words, the government wants to define our bodies, our consciousness, and our humanity, and give legal protection to the kinds of violence that are, right now, considered crimes punishable by law.
If my nightmare scenarios about how this proposed definition would play out as policy, I keep coming back to one of the most haunting scenes from Boys Don’t Cry, the film on the life and murder of transgender man, Brandon Teena. In the scene, two of Brandon’s male “friends” violently confront him and force him to remove his pants and reveal his genitals, after discovering that he was assigned a different name at birth and had transgender literature in his bedroom. Later these same men rape and kill him. By endorsing this policy, the Trump Administration would give legal cover to anyone who wants to challenge the gender identity of trans people, and create an imperative for the government to invasively investigate the nature of people’s genitals. This proposed change not only presents an inaccurate understanding of gender identity, it is also dehumanizing and unnecessarily cruel.
So, what happens when a person doesn’t meet this arbitrary criteria? In Boys Don’t Cry, the punishment for not passing a stranger’s test was death. Even closer to home here in Durham, I am also reminded of the notorious 1981 murder of Ronald Antonevitch, who was beaten to death because a group of young men thought he was gay. That is, these men thought they had a right to mercilessly bludgeon someone to death because, they later admitted, they wanted to “attack homosexuals,” and Antonevitch was sitting in a spot they thought was frequented by gay people. (The Little River beach area where Antonevitch was sitting was a popular spot for families, water sports enthusiasts, and sunbathers.) With this statement, the Trump administration wants to and will embolden people like the men that killed both Teena and Antonevitch.
Trans and non-binary people already face enhanced body scans, pat-downs, and physical trauma in places like the TSA airport screening line. If this definition of sex becomes written into law, the Trump administration will also be guaranteeing that citizens will be forced to undergo more arbitrary tests of their gender expression, official and otherwise. Will the TSA screening room now become a doctor’s examination room? A prison cell?
In the statement, the Department of Health and Human Services also proposed conducting genetic testing to clarify any “disputes” about biological gender. Leaving aside the nightmare scenario where the government can compel a citizen to undergo genetic testing for the purpose of “proving” some aspect of their humanity, the reality is that 22 known transgender people this year have already been murdered simply because they didn’t pass someone’s test. Will people now be criminalized for how other people perceive the way their bodies convey the sex a stranger assigned them at birth? Will I, and many other transgender people who’ve changed their gender marker on their drivers license or birth certificate, have to change that marker back to an identity that does not fit who I am?
It’s thoughts like these that haunt me after reading this report, but I’m heartened by the dozens of people who’ve reached out to me to offer their support, love, and prayers. This show of solidarity has helped ease the fears I have for myself, my friends, for trans youth, for anyone who doesn’t fit into this medically and morally irresponsible and dehumanizing definition. It helped me remember that a definition is only as good as the paper it is written on and the people who enforce it. We have the ability and responsibility to counter this attempt at erasure with our visibility.
Already, trans folks and their family and friends have filled social media sites with photos and messages tagged #WontBeErased to declare, yet again, our existence is our resistance. If you are trans and/or non-binary and feel safe to be visible and share more about your experience, the world needs to hear from you. If you love someone who identifies as trans, or if you simply believe the government shouldn’t be policing citizens’ genitalia, I encourage you to use your privilege to speak out for the protection of those who stay quiet out of fear for their safety.
My own friends and family and many many more people whom I’ve only met or spoken to briefly, have shared with me how our interactions inspired them to push back against deadly wrong portrayals of trans people. What I’ve learned in telling my story publicly is that we are in a moment when most people WANT to learn more about trans and non-binary people. If you have a story to tell, I encourage you to share your story. We cannot be erased if the world is committed to keeping us, and our stories, alive.
If you are feeling as frustrated as me right now, there are lots of ways you can support trans people and make sure no one is erased.
- If you’re looking for some more education to increase your confidence in engaging around trans inclusion, we recently released Connecting the Dots Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation as a two-part video series. It’s a great way to learn more so you can help push back against transgender erasure. Check it out here: https://mlp.org/connecting-the-dots-gender-identity-and-sexual-orientation/
- Worship can be a great way to be sure people in your congregation know that God loves trans people just as they are. This weekend, consider naming trans and non-binary people in the prayers of the people, or in your sermon. You could even read part of the GA overture “Affirming and Celebrating the Full Dignity and Humanity of People of All Gender Identities” as part of worship:
- Standing in the conviction that all people are created in the image of God and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for all people, the 223rd General Assembly affirms its commitment to the full welcome, acceptance, and inclusion of transgender people, people who identify as gender non-binary, and people of all gender identities within the full life of the church and the world. The Assembly affirms the full dignity and the full humanity of transgender people, their full inclusion in all human rights, and their giftedness for service. The Assembly affirms the church’s obligation to stand for the right of people of all gender identities to live free from discrimination, violence, and every form of injustice. Making these affirmations, the Assembly acknowledges that the church has fallen short of these commitments and obligations. In the world and in the Church, transgender people too often experience and suffer discrimination and violence. The church has failed to understand fully and to celebrate adequately the full spectrum of gender embodied in God’s creation. As a result, we have participated in systemic and targeted discrimination against transgender people, and we have been complicit in violence against them. The Assembly affirms the scriptural obligation to work for justice for all God’s children, and particularly here to work for justice for people of all gender identities. We have fallen short of this obligation, and – by the grace of God – commit ourselves to do better.
- Support transgender led organizations working hard to preserve and promote trans lives. Most transgender led organizations run on a shoestring budget, whether you support them with your dollars or even sharing about them with people in your life, a little goes a long way.
- More Light Presbyterians: Yes! We are a trans-led and run organization working to center the voices of those often silenced in churches.
- Trans LifeLine, fighting the epidemic of trans suicide and improve overall life-outcomes of trans people by facilitating justice-oriented, collective community aid
- Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement founded at the beginning of 2014 by trans and queer immigrants, undocumented and allies, youth leaders and parents which organizes, educates, and advocates for the issues most important to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) and Latino communities
- Sylvia Rivera Law Project: SLRP works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination, or violence. SRLP is a collective organization founded on the understanding that gender self-determination is inextricably intertwined with racial, social and economic justice.
- Immerse yourself in positive representations of trans and non-binary folks to explore the big, beautiful world of trans-created art.
- Them: I’m currently getting inspiration daily from this incredible Instagram account and trans-led media/news company
- We Are Transilient: A traveling photo and interview project featuring the daily lives of trans folks
- To Survive on This Shore: a photo and interview project of transgender and gender non-conforming older adults. It’s a beautiful project you can experience online or as a hardcover book!
Together we can declare that God delights in trans identities and nothing can separate us from God’s love and affirmation of who we are.