What makes a good society? Is it a guaranteed right to pursue happiness, as our Declaration of Independence proclaimed? Perhaps, as Gandhi said, it’s providing the poorest and most vulnerable among us with the means to control their own lives. But what happens when it’s the pursuit of happiness that makes someone most vulnerable?
Let me introduce you to my child, my one and only. They–and, no, it wasn’t as hard as I expected to get used to the gender-neutral plural pronoun that they prefer–are brown-skinned, Mexican-American, secular-Jewish, and gay-married. In a country where Donald Trump is still admired by some 40% of the public, don’t imagine for a second that my child, with all those identities, isn’t horrifyingly vulnerable.
Lately, however, the Trumpian movement (with the full support of the future president’s assumed Republican opponent in 2024, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis) has targeted its most intense hatred on another part of my child’s identity. They are a gender-non-binary (and highly successful) drag queen, bringing happiness not only to themselves but to their cheering audiences. That’s where their right to the pursuit of happiness is most threatened at the moment and what makes them most vulnerable.
My child has been safe from attack–so far. Others haven’t been so fortunate. The murderous shootings at a drag club in my home state of Colorado are just the most notorious in a string of hate crimes directed at drag shows. More than 120 of them reportedly experienced protests, were threatened, or even attacked in 2022. Some transgender folks have come to believe that it’s no longer safe to live in this country. Others are thinking they might be better off taking leave of life itself.
In such a world, what’s a proud, concerned, on-the-edge-of-frightened father to do? For me, a first step is to come out of retirement and try to write some helpful words.
It would be easy to simply denounce the spread of right-wing bigotry as misinformed, misguided, and unjust, but what good would that do? Right-wingers live in a Fox News-mediated world of their own, where their bigotry seems to make perfectly good sense to them, while otherwise reasonable arguments fall on deaf ears.
So I want to write for a different audience. I’m inspired by the words Martin Luther King, Jr., penned while sitting in a Birmingham jail. “The Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom” was not, he said, the out-and-out racist. It was “the white moderate, more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Of course, there are big differences between the Jim Crow South of his day and the gender-identity-biased world of today. Still, I’ve talked to people who would never countenance discrimination, much less violence, against any minority, yet offer, at best, the most lukewarm acceptance of drag queens, non-binary, or transgender folks. They tell me they aren’t quite sure how they feel about such people. Some admit to just not being comfortable going to a drag show and finding themselves surprisingly unnerved around anyone who claims to be transgender.
Often, their understanding of what’s going on in our world couldn’t be shallower. They may even refer to my child as transgender because they haven’t grasped the difference between that and non-binary. To put it all too briefly: a transgender person has a specific gender identity different from the sex assigned them at birth; a non-binary person doesn’t identify exclusively as male or female, but as both, neither, or some combination of the two. Acquaintances who do know the difference have said to me that it’s still not clear to them what category my beloved drag queen fits into. (In fact, drag queens come with all kinds of gender identities.)
Since many people of good will remain uncertain and confused on issues like these, they don’t raise their voices to protest such discrimination. To my mind, that hesitation holds the key to understanding the problem in a basic way–and also to reducing discrimination and violence, and so moving this society in a more just direction.
Reinforcing the Wall of Gender Separation
Why are many thoughtful, well-educated people so ready to lump drag queens, non-binary, and transgender people in a single rejectable category? I suspect it’s much the same reason that leads to attacks on all three from the bigoted right and the same reason media stories often lump all three together: they all challenge the traditional division of humanity into two simple categories, male and female. They seem to blur that line or even dissolve it. Think of them, then, as gender-blenders. And because of that, they threaten our sense of social order, which, as King pointed out, may be more important than justice, even to many well-meaning people.
In my professional field as an academic, the study of religion, we have often explored how people create order in their lives by translating the world into sets of binary opposites with firm values attached: up is better than down; God is better than the devil; our God is better than their devil; we are better than them. Religion is often remarkably devoted to shoring up the boundary lines that keep those opposites apart.
These days, scholars are more likely to stress the ways that religion can actually help people blur and cross boundaries, because most of us grasp the danger of maintaining a separation between categories that naturally blur in the real world. Doing so is a first step down the slippery slope to creating ever more extreme hierarchies, which all too often end in injustice, oppression, and violence. The quest for order, in other words, has a way of transforming itself into a license to suppress or even ultimately eliminate “those people” on the other side of the line.
One recent analyst of the right-wing’s hatred of gender-blenders, Nathan Robinson, explains that it comes from “a visceral distaste for that which is different.” And behind that distaste lies “a devotion to traditional hierarchies.” Trumpublicans hope, writes Amanda Marcotte,
that they can return men to some imaginary glory days when the line between the genders was thick and inflexible, and women’s role was unquestionably that of subservience to men… If people start questioning what gender even means, then the whole right-wing system of power allocation begins to crumble.
To paraphrase Robert Frost, something there is about a bigot that does love a wall, whether it’s between Mexico and the U.S. or men and women. How appropriate, then, that the legendary beginning of the gay rights movement in this country was a 1969 police raid on a gay bar named the Stonewall Inn. Consider it an irony, then, that there is now a growing acceptance of gays and lesbians, in part because they are seen as maintaining (or even reinforcing) the clear difference between male and female.
Despite the bill Florida Governor DeSantis passed–dubbed by its opponents the “Don’t Say Gay” bill–the reactionary right-wing has largely lost the battle against gay and lesbian rights and is now turning to a more popular target: those who blur, or even dissolve, that gender boundary. And the bigots fight all the more fiercely because they’re not just defending a particular boundary, but the very existence of social demarcation itself.
Today, the appropriate metaphor for it may not be a wall at all, but a dam. Martin Luther King put it aptly so long ago, indicting those “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” because order without justice is a “dangerously structured dam that blocks the flow of social progress.” And a New York City politician proved King’s point all too well recently. Condemning schools and libraries that bring in drag queens to read books to children, that Republican (after mouthing the usual, totally unfounded charge of “sexual grooming”) revealed her deepest source of anger–that it’s “a program teaching little children about their gender fluidity.”
Fluids, of course, may dissolve whatever they touch, whatever kinds of boundaries we create to give us a sense of social order. If so, the satisfaction we get from believing those lines to be immutable will begin to dissolve, too. Hence, the fierce desire to attack “gender fluidity.”
There surely is a big difference between the right-wingers who actively hate gender-blenders and the moderates or liberals who offer lukewarm acceptance and shallow understanding. The latter earn the title “people of good will” because they’re not seized by the urge to maintain boundaries or strengthen hierarchies that give them power and control over others. They won’t, in other words, actively demand unjust laws and policies.
But neither will they take a strong stand for justice, because those binary categories and boundaries still offer them a sense of order in their own lives. Somewhere, somehow, they want our fast-changing world to remain stable, simple, and familiar. As a result, they do share with the bigots, though obviously to a lesser degree, discomfort at seeing that classic boundary between male and female, which used to feel so immutable, disappear before their very eyes.
If we look in the mirror honestly enough, we’re likely to recognize that all of us have some boundary lines that are truly important to us, even if it’s only “us well-meaning liberals against those nasty Trumpsters.” Each of us has our own bottom line, the place where the blurring of lines does indeed become disturbing or even intolerable.
For a lot of people, however unconsciously, the distinction between male and female may be the hardest one of all to surrender. No wonder, then, that even people of good will regularly offer only lukewarm acceptance and shallow understanding to their fellow Americans who are gender-blenders.
Tear Down the Dam, It’s Good for Us All
Make no mistake, though. Those same people of good will may hold the key to freeing the gender-blenders from oppression and violence, if they can be roused to active support.
Every successful movement for social change needs just such a broad base of support. That’s why Dr. King called those lukewarm white moderates the great stumbling block to his own movement’s success. Doug McAdam, a prominent scholar of the civil rights movement, notes that it had to “compel supportive intervention by liberal northern allies… to the point where sympathetic media coverage and broad public support for the movement could be mobilized.” He quotes famed civil rights leader Bob Moses: “When the interest of the country is awakened, the government responds to that issue.”
America’s laws now demand that schools, parks, restaurants, and the like be open to all. Even virulent racists no longer call for those laws to be repealed. That’s because things do indeed become unthinkable once a large enough chunk of the public views them that way. Just as no one talks openly about reinstituting Jim Crow laws anymore, nobody urges that the vote be taken away from women either.
How can we make the right of gender-blenders simply to be who they are an equally unquestionable part of American society? Perhaps the key is to persuade well-meaning but confused and hesitant Americans not merely to tolerate them, or even simply to speak out for their safety or rights, but to appreciate how they actually enrich life for us all.
How we treat the most marginal and vulnerable among us determines the quality of life for the rest of us, too. A good society takes care of the most vulnerable by assuring their safety and the means to sustain their lives, along with their liberty to choose their own unique paths in pursuing happiness. If some find happiness by blending familiar categories, or even erasing the lines between them totally, supporting their choice could make a better society for us all.
The famed poet Walt Whitman suggested that there are “two main constituents for a truly grand nationality: first, a large variety of character, and second, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions.”
Gender-blenders serve us by bringing us closer to that ideal. They are a model for a truly free society where we don’t feel compelled to fit ourselves into narrow binary categories, where everyone can accept themselves and explore who they really are, safely and without shame.
If the gender-blenders are provocative, all the better. Then they’ll provoke us to think and talk more freely about individuality, acceptance, and true community. Why wouldn’t we want them teaching our children? Even a 10-year-old can see that drag performers are “the most encouraging thing ever.” Openly non-binary and transgender people can be similarly encouraging.
Just to speak for myself, I’m so proud of my child, and the many thousands like them, claiming and proclaiming their right to pursue happiness by tearing down the old gender walls. To me, they–and in this case I mean all of them–are heroes because, as Whitman put it, they “walk at their ease through and out of that custom or precedent or authority that suits them not.”
I will be equally proud of my country when enough of us stand up strongly for the right to, and value of, gender fluidity–so strongly that this innocent and socially constructive pursuit of happiness will never make anyone vulnerable again.
Ira Chernus is professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In his retirement, he has created an online anthology of Walt Whitman’s words.