I can't deny there is a delicious irony to the news that Danica Roem, a transgender heavy metal singer, has defeated Bob Marshall in an election for the Virginia House of Representatives. Bob Marshall, the Republican incumbent who calls himself "Virginia's Chief Homophobe", is notable for his opposition to same-sex marriage and for tabling a motion similar to North Carolina's anti-trans Bathroom Bill.
Roem's win for the Democrats is history-making, as she is now the first openly trans candidate to win an election to the legislature in the United States. Her win was shortly followed by that of Andrea Jenkins to Minneapolis City Council, who becomes the first trans person of colour elected to any government office in the US. These are notable achievements, especially in Trump's America, as they take place in a political landscape increasingly hostile to LGBT people, and especially trans women and queer people colour. Marshall's own campaign, unsurprisingly, played into this hostility by refusing to debate Roem and by calling her "him" throughout his campaign.
Roem and Jenkins' wins are important for trans people in the States, but might still provide important lessons for trans people on this side of the pond. We, too, are facing an increasingly hostile political environment as transphobes mobilise hard ahead of the UK government's consultation into potential changes to the Gender Recognition Act. There's not a week that goes by without a transphobic story in the national news, a seemingly deliberate attempt to entrench that hostile political landscape and sink any furtherment of trans rights that might be won through changes to the Act. At the heart of the controversy over the Gender Recognition Act lies the same issue as Marshall's Bathroom Bill, opposition to which formed a large part of Roem's platform. The issue being; who gets access to gender-specific spaces and on what basis?
Marshall's bill was essentially a copy of the infamous North Carolina Bathroom Bill which required people to use the bathroom of the sex listed on their original birth certificate. This mean that trans people, regardless of whether they had undergone medical transition or had had their gender marker on their birth certificates changed or not, were forced to misgender themselves and potentially put themselves in danger every time they went to a public loo.
Despite that fact that there has been no recorded incident of a cis (non-trans) woman being harmed in the loo by a trans person, the Bill's Republican architects drew upon a transphobic discourse that painted trans women in particular as threats to cis women's safety. Given that Marshall is also notable support of Donald Trump, a man who has faced numerous accusations from women of sexual assault, it seems unlikely that his concerns are genuine, or at least consistent. But for all that talk, the Bill was never really about the safety of (cis) women; it was about who is allowed access to public space and public life. The lesson being; if you must be trans, don't be trans in public.
The controversy over the potential changes to the Gender Recognition Act is the UK's version of the same discussion. Whilst there are no firm proposals up for discussion as yet, transphobes are going full force to paint the consultation as a threat to women's spaces and to women's safety, arguing for even further restrictions on trans women's access to womens-only services such as crisis centres. Like the Bathroom Bill; the real issue isn't (cis) women's safety, but one of who is allowed access to support services and resources. The lesson being; if you must be trans and a victim of violence, don't seek out support: make sure you suffer alone and in silence.
The Bathroom Bill was a complete failure, notable for creating the problem that it wanted to solve. The Bill created an environment where gender policing was encouraged, and had an effect that felt much wider than the States. Men literally chased butch women into bathrooms to confront them on their gender presentations.Transgender men were legally required to use the women's loos.Lesbians were denied access to women's bathrooms. It turns out an increase in gender policing not only harms trans people, but cis women too. And if the transphobes get their way with the Gender Recognition Act, a similar dynamic would result with crisis services. Trans women don't have equal access to women's crisis centres at the moment, but anything less that full equal access not only harms trans women, but opens any women up to the potential of being interrogated on her gender when she is at most need of support.
But what Roem's and Jenkins' elections show us is that, despite the transphobic political landscape, despite being told that trans issues are unimportant, despite trans people being considered unelectable or otherwise inferior, we can win and we will win. And right now, this is a message that trans people desperately need to hear.