One step up and two steps back

Written By: Jennifer Finney Boylan © 2021 The New York Times The New York Times
Washington, United States Updated: Feb 01, 2021, 05:29 PM(IST)

Joe Biden Photograph:( AFP )

Story highlights

Before the sun had set on his first day, President Biden had signed an executive order extending federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people

There he was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Boss himself, the opening act on the night of the virtual inaugural ball. His song was “Land of Hope and Dreams.” “Leave behind your sorrows,” he sang. “Let this day be the last. Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past.”

I got all weepy listening to Bruce Springsteen perform, especially with the Great Emancipator looking over his shoulder. Still, if you’re part of an L.G.B.T.Q. family in this country, it was hard not to wonder if a more on-the-nose song for him to sing that night might have been his “One Step Up and Two Steps Back.”

The “one step up” was self-evident. Before the sun had set on his first day, President Biden had signed an executive order extending federal nondiscrimination protections for L.G.B.T.Q. people.

“Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports,” the order stated. “Adults should be able to earn a living and pursue a vocation knowing that they will not be fired, demoted or mistreated because of whom they go home to or because how they dress does not conform to sex-based stereotypes.”

More good news followed five days later, when the ban on trans troops was lifted. “What I’m doing is enabling all qualified Americans to serve in uniform,” the president said. It hardly seems crazy, radical stuff.

And yet some see extending rights to all Americans as radical indeed. How else to explain that “two steps back” has been on full display, too, this January. As if in response to the prospect of things getting better for queer Americans at the federal level, Republicans in statehouses from Montana to New Hampshire have introduced a slew of anti-L.G.B.T.Q. bills.

With the coronavirus raging, the economy shattered and white supremacy on the rise, Republican legislators have pushed to the top of their agenda young queer people trying to live their lives safely, and in peace.

Transgender youth — surely the most vulnerable of the already vulnerable L.G.B.T.Q. community — are the target. On the day after the election, Ryan T. Anderson, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, lamented to The Washington Post, “On the same day he called for healing and unity, President Joe Biden signed a radical divisive transgender executive order that threatens the privacy and safety of women in single-sex facilities, equality and fairness in single-sex sports, and good medicine based on the reality that males and females are biologically different.”

This would be the now-familiar conservative canard that granting equal rights to queer people somehow endangers the womenfolk. Is now a good moment to point out, once again, that more Republican congressmen have been busted for inappropriate behavior in public restrooms than trans women?

Bills restricting trans students from participating in athletics have now been introduced in Florida, Kentucky, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee. Other bills that would penalize or criminalize medical professionals who provide services to young trans and nonbinary people have been proposed in Alabama, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Texas and Utah.

You’d think that legislation affecting the lives of so many young people would be based on hard research and science. But then science has ceased to be a primary concern of social conservatives.

Science shows us that sex is not binary — that it is, like so much of creation, wild and holy in its remarkable variation. We know that trans youth who get access to needed care before the age of 15 face significantly lower risks for attempted suicide, depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

Are conservative parents truly so distressed by the prospect of young people coming out as trans or nonbinary that they would deny them treatment? Is having a nonbinary child so terrible, in their eyes, that it would be better to condemn them to years of depression rather than embrace them? Is having a trans daughter actually worse, in their eyes, than having a dead son?

The movement to deny trans students the opportunity to participate in school sports is likewise spurious. If the argument is that birth sex provides an automatic advantage in sports, this is clearly not borne out by the facts. Trans athletes have been allowed in Olympic competition since 2003, but no trans athlete has made it to the Olympics. Transgender athletes have been able to compete on college teams consistent with their gender identity for the past nine years, without any particular disruption to women’s collegiate sports.

In fact, trans women aren’t dominating the events in which we compete; it’s only with the rare gold medal that hackles rise. (The track cyclist Jen Wagner-Assali accused a trans competitor, Rachel McKinnon, of cheating when she won a 2018 world championship in which Wagner-Assali placed third. She failed to mention she had beaten McKinnon in seven of 12 previous races.)

It’s enough to make you wonder whether the Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the organizations driving these bills, is really out to defend, you know, freedom.

Given that the alliance has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, it seems to me that what it really wants to defend is not freedom, but its opposite: bigotry against people whose fundamental experience of being human is not identical to their own. What about my freedom? Who will defend me, and the people I love?

I believe that no one in this country is a bigger Bruce Springsteen fan than my wife, Deirdre. The Saturday after the inauguration, I found her drinking coffee in the living room, listening to “Land of Hopes and Dreams” on the radio. Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine, and all this darkness past.

In the wake of the president signing the executive orders, #BidenErasesWomen had trended on Twitter, the hashtag signaling the fear of conservatives and so-called trans-exclusionary radical feminists (“terfs”) that making room for someone like me has to come at the expense of cis women like Deirdre.

But Deirdre wasn’t erased at all. She was as visible as can be. She looked at me and smiled.

What she seemed, above all, was happy that the person she loves is once again considered an American with the same rights as everyone else: a woman free at last to pursue her dreams in peace.

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