I thought I was inured to the onslaught of terrible news coming out of the Trump administration. I thought this dark timeline had no power to shake me anymore.
Then I read the New York Times story about the latest trans memo. The headline was uncharacteristically blunt, for the Grey Lady: “’Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out Of Existence Under Trump Administration.” It about stopped my heart in my chest.
I admit, it’s selfish, my reaction. Doubly so: I’m not even trans. My fear is that I will be bycatch, when they come for the big fish they’re really after. That when the powers that be set out to deliberately destroy every vestige of dignity in my trans friends’ lives, fueled by a gross and incurious delight in casual cruelty toward people they consider disposable, they will come for the garden-variety gender nonconformists as well. As an afterthought, perhaps.
Or, more likely, they will leave that work to their accomplices: the unappointed gender police. People who just don’t like the cut of your jib, and will cross a street on a dark night to tell you so. Sports officials who think this alleged girl is just too good to be allowed to play. Diners in restaurants who alert the management, or call the cops, when they’re unduly curious about what sort of genitals lurk in the pants of a bathroom-user. As somebody who’s been frequently bending the rules on hair and clothes since adolescence, I’ve run afoul of these people many a time. They have nothing on me legally — yet, anyway — but I’ll be damned if they don’t have the power to ruin my day.
When government wonks set out to cancel my friends’ “incorrect” passports, when the paper-pushers make it impossible or illegal for them to use public bathrooms, they are merely the legally sanctioned arm of a vast dark apparatus that watches us all for signs of aberrant gender behavior. Everyone who’s publicly flouted the unwritten laws of gender behavior knows what I’m talking about.
It baffles me no end that my libertarian friends, who are up in righteous arms at the idea that a government official might lay a hand on their gun, don’t revolt in the street at the prospect of Big Government and their nosy neighbors peeking into their pants — or their DNA, for that matter. I can only assume that it’s because they can’t imagine it actually happening to them.
I am steeling myself for this latest Trump administration memo on gender to spark a wave of vigilante gender injustice. I’m preparing for it. And I’ll be honest: if gender misbehavior is becoming more publicly unacceptable, I’m glad I live in a small town.
It’s the same small town that embraced my great-grand-uncle decades ago as a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing bachelor crank. The same town where the tough, wisecracking, breathtakingly butch lady who delivers my wood fought for (and won) the right to be a good old boy in all but gender. It’s just a few miles over from where Joe Lobdell, born Lucy Ann Lobdell, earned local notoriety as a hunter and a husband more than a hundred years ago, before being involuntarily committed to an insane asylum for his gender crimes. Trans and gender nonconforming people are not a modern phenomenon, or an urban one; they have always been among us.
It seems counterintuitive. This is, after all, red territory. I know many of my friends and neighbors are supremely unbothered by this administration’s fierce crackdown on gender deviance. It gives me a certain amount of despair, knowing that people who are friendly to me in the post office will gleefully vote for pols who are causing direct harm to me, my family and my friends.
But the fact of the matter is: I cherish that post-office friendliness anyway. My small town is not a place where people tend to give you a lot of grief about your personal appearance. When I lived in Boston, casual catcalling, random unsolicited comments on my body and my clothes, and general judginess from strangers were pretty much a constant fact of life. That chronic noise, and the vigilance it requires from a person, are simply not a factor in my life in Margaretville.
I have no doubt that even here, I would be subject to much more gender policing if I were farther outside the circle of public approval. If I weren’t white. If I were male, or a trans woman. If I weren’t from here. If I were a vulnerable teen, with disapproving parents and an inescapably cruel social circle, instead of an adult with autonomy and an established role in the community. If, if, if.
Even so: As a gender nonconformer, I feel safer here than in the city. In fact, I feel downright emboldened. I can bartend in a vest and tie with my hair spiked up to kingdom come, and still get more tips than pursed lips from the amused church lady set. I can handle myself in a room full of good old boys; they’re infuriating, they’re rooting for people who want to tear up my marriage certificate and my trans friends’ passports, but in person, they elbow me in the ribs and crack friendly jokes about my hair.
Personal goodwill toward the marginalized people in your life does not absolve you of political callousness to their fate at the hands of authority. It does, however, make their lives easier, on a day-to-day basis. It’s not the world I’d like to live in, but considering the darker alternative, I’ll take it.
If the gender police are going to start cracking down harder, I’m glad I live here, in the rural Catskills. My experience of small-town upstate New York is that — once one has escaped the terrible crucible of school — it is a place where bland glossy-magazine heteronormative attractiveness is not required to earn public respect. A place where one is generally allowed to be a harmless weirdo. A place where people tend to stay the hell off your lawn.
I pray it stays that way.