Sunday, June 19, 2011

MUST trans people be Democrats?

A trans activist, Christian Williams, who’s been outspoken in regards to the Nikki Araguz case has, in the course of her following the intricacies of that case, occasionally made comments which spark intense reaction within the trans community, both in agreement and opposition. For the most part I’ve kept my head down on all that. It is, in a sense, a tangent from the larger ongoing rift in the trans community concerning the “TS not TG” position (which I’m largely sympathetic to - but that’s for another post) and the counter-argument to that position.

However, in a recent post she addressed herself to a somewhat broader conversation and I felt I had to reply. It occurred to me as I did that what I wanted to say was worthy of expanding on here, as a very worthy example of the sort of things I want to speak to here since it has become inconvenient for me to be very autobiographical here.

Ms Williams went to exhaustive length to, in her view, identify and refute any possible disagreement with her premise as illogical and even possibly irrational. I am willing to recognize the validity of her argument as far as it goes, but I think that it exists largely in a rhetorical vacuum and ignores important context which makes the choice she presents far from the slam-dunk that she argues for, in my opinion.

Without going to such lengths to review her position, which you may consider in full (if you have lots of time - I thought I was verbose!) I hope that I can fairly summarize it before offering my semi-rebuttal. In short, Williams argues that for a trans person (actually, any LGBT person) to EVER support a Republican is to make common cause with those who would deny rights to LGBT people and is thus never, ever the right choice. Any arguments offered to the contrary are, as she attempts to demonstrate, logical fallacies. Again I must be clear, in an absolute vacuum, I think she has a valid point. But we do not live and move in a vacuum and context matters. I offered in my comments there and wish to expand upon here, four areas which I believe are important context for the discussion that she does not address to my satisfaction in her post.

Before I begin, a couple of points of clarification:
1. My actual sympathies are only marginally more Republican than Democrat. I consider myself a “small l” libertarian. But I have voted with the GOP on several occasions and virtually never for a Democrat. In any case, I am not so much arguing “I’m a proud Republican!” as “It’s not entirely unsupportable to vote for A Republican.”
2. I will not attempt to argue the premise that Republicans do not actually DO what they say they believe in when they have power. In most cases, neither party does. But if my goal is, for instance, smaller government, voting for the party which professes that view, even if they don’t often act on it, is still defensible against the idea of supporting a party who has no interest at all in that position. Just as a left winger might well vote for a “tax the rich” party like the Democrats that often do not actually do that, as vote for the GOP who has expressed no sympathy at all to that objective.

Now, with that said, there are four points I think need to be made. Not direct refutation to the premise, so much as context worthy of consideration so that the deceleration can no longer be seen as such an absolute.

First, Us/Them politics is counter-productive. If one "writes off" the opposing group as unwindable and takes their stand firmly with their opposition, then you reinforce your opponents resolve to be unwinable. Whatever might be said for political activism on the left side of the spectrum, there is, in my view, a SERIOUS need to "put a face on" trans issues (and the larger LGBT community) among those on the right who have limited exposure. It's much more difficult for my right-of-center friends to know me and care for me and still say "no rights for you" and that applies in all cases. Isolation from us makes it much easier to oppose us. You might say, well sure, be friends with them but be active for Democrats and the left - but they can see that. If you go about with an Obama bumper sticker and a pro-choice button and the whole nine yards, your arguments for trans rights are automatically written off as "left wing nonsense." but if they know that you are otherwise "one of them" - small government, tax cuts, pro-life, whatever - then your counter-argument on trans rights is not so easily ignored. Especially when you appeal to small-government and pro-liberty instincts in order to make the case.
(And before you get self satisfied, my lefty friend, look in the mirror - reverse all the issues and most of you do the same thing)

By contrast, when I am well known among my acquaintances as a small-government conservative with little sympathy for all that class-warfare rhetoric, and then I argue this point I cannot be dismissed as “toeing the party line.” Furthermore, the act of “putting a face on” a concern, which is of incalculable value in my opinion, cannot be done from the other side of the political aisle. It is MUCH harder for a conservative to argue that the person they know, respect, and maybe love is unworthy of equality than it is for them to argue against the “freaks and pervs in San Francisco.” That’s not to say it can’t be done. No one is more familiar than me with the concept that loved ones sometimes reject you and your rights in your very face. But the percentages are assuredly in our favor. The people who are bold enough to reject me to my face would have done so to anyone in any context - those are not the one’s I’m trying to reach. It’s the ones who might well reject what Gavin Newsom or Nancy Pelosi says on the subject, but are more open when it’s someone they know. THEY can be won.

Secondly, Ms Williams paints a picture of what would seem to be, in essence, a direct choice between “good social policy + economics I don’t like” vs. “Economics I like + bad social policies” but this overlooks the context of HOW bad the economy is and how bad the potential social policies are. If my choice was between “less than the best” economics, which resulted in a slow-growth economy as a worst case, or solid economics which provoked a booming economy, I might well vote Democrat in order to move the ball on civil rights while the mood was favorable. But that’s not the choice. In my opinion we are teetering on the brink of abject economic disaster. The choices made over the next 4-8 years may very well set an irreversible course. Certainly it’s arguable that the GOP can’t or won’t fix this, but the Democrats are committed to a course which barely acknowledges the possibility of disaster, let alone makes good choices. (Please don’t take the time to try to change my mind on economics, if you disagree then take this as a “for the sake of discussion” theoretical point - economic debates are for another day)

I must therefore ask the question - who protects my rights if the economy completely collapses? There is such a thing as “recessive discrimination” - which is to say that the employee you tolerate in the good times is the first one out the door (and the last one hired) in the bad times. This will be true with or without ENDA, employers will always find another reason to get rid of you if they want you gone. To me, it’s about the priority of the moment, and the context of the present economy. Not the theoretical economy of her argument. In this present hour, I want an at least stable economy in which there IS a job for me to apply for before I worry about whether discrimination keeps me from it.

By contrast, do the Republicans have the political will or capital to actively roll back rights which have already been achieved? Almost never. Even when they occasionally try they tend to lose, as in Maine. The recent nonsense in Tennessee is the tiny exception, not the rule. The occasional “old school” politician trying to prove how “godly” he is notwithstanding, and the positions taken in ongoing battles such as California’s Prop 8 being a different subject, I can’t think of a GOP politician, no matter how conservative, who ever spends ANY political capital addressing the idea of turning back the clock. Some of the left’s most despised targets fail to reach for that goal. Take Sarah Palin. Feel free to cite me anything she’s ever said that hints that she would seek to reduce the rights of gay Americans. That’s not to say they won’t mouth the right words in a primary race, as several did the other night in offering token support to a “Marriage amendment” - but there is no practical chance at all of such an amendment even making it out of committee, let alone into the Constitution. Given these realities, prioritizing is, at a minimum, a defensible position.

Third, Ms Williams cites, in support of her case, poll results which indicate that Republicans lag in their support for gay rights. And it’s true that conservatives do lag behind the curve on this issue. However, it’s also very true that even among Republicans support is growing. The line is moving steadily and inexorably towards support for gay marriages or the legal equivalent (even in the poll she cites, more than half of polled Republicans - 59% - support legal recognition of either marriage or civil unions for homosexuals). This is not happening because LGBT people abandon conservatism, but because we engage it - because we remind conservatives how staying out of people’s private affairs is a small-government value. How refraining from dictating religious morality by the power of the law is a pro-liberty position. Again, this is almost impossible to do from across the political aisle - there is simply too much baggage attached to that.

Even though the Republican demographic still trails badly in opinion polls, the public sentiment for gay/trans rights is an unrelenting tide in our direction. They WILL come, as the recent article on HuffPost notes, the war is over - some just haven't realized they have lost yet. The key demographic is not the party split but the age split - younger voters are hugely in our favor, and those most opposed are passing from the political arena. Even the head of Focus on the Family is on record saying the gay marriage battle is lost - and make no mistake, when that is accomplished all the other things we are fighting for get WAY harder to logically (even with the most generous definition of logic) argue against. If they stop fighting your marriage, they will not go to the mat on housing or employment. So what she argues for here is not win v. lose, it's urgency - do it in the next five years instead of the next 10 or whatever.

Fourth, she notes, correctly, regional politics in admitting that some northeastern Republicans might support our rights, but you ignore the reverse of that. She lives in Texas, I live in Mississippi. I don't know that I can speak for their legislature, specifically, but in this state and many like it - the most Democrat of Democrat, the most left of the left person who can possibly get elected in any district in this state would not DARE sacrifice their re-election chances (as they perceive them) to support a gay/trans friendly bill. The most left wing districts are in the delta, which are heavily African American - but African American voters are also the most stridently anti-gay (even more so than evangelicals). In a state with big cities like Texas there will be some pro-gay enclaves. But in the VAST swath of non-urban America, voting for a Democrat is by NO means voting for a gay/trans friendly office holder. Quite the opposite. Even when gay/trans friendly is the party line. Put another way, if You don't live in a city that's at least the size of, say, Nashville the option to vote for a LGBT supportive politician, of either party, almost certainly doesn't exist. Which means when you vote Democrat is solidarity with your activist brothers and sisters, you get all of the bad aspects of left-wing economics and none of the good aspects of left wing social policy. In fact, you reinforce exactly the WRONG instincts on both sides of that ledger.

This point might seem to stand in contrast to the claim that the tide is moving in our direction. I rather suggest it is an acknowledgment that politicians are a superstitious and cowardly lot who, in the aggregate, are far more likely to follow than lead. This tends to put them behind the will of the people - particularly when the change is perceived as radical. Also, the opposition - particularly on the right - tends to be louder than the favorable. We are having legislative elections in Mississippi this year and I know before I speak that not one of the men who go to the stump to ask for your vote, in either party, will speak up and say “It’s time for equality.”. No matter what polls may say. That said, I acknowledge that Mississippi is near the bottom of the list in terms of public approval, I suffer no illusions on that score. Nevertheless, when the right wing activist mobilize to shout from the rooftops at any politician from the middle to the right about “Godly values” and the LGBT supporters shout at every politician from the middle left “Equality!” all you end up with is that “Us v. them” dichotomy which serves no one.

So in summation, while I do not disagree with her observation on a national, corporate level, I respectfully submit that she overlook a GREAT deal of needed context to basically take a sledgehammer to any LGBT person who gets off the Democrat reservation. I reserve my right to stay off that reservation until I can support them on more than one issue.