According to the press release from the House of Bishops regarding their spring retreat activities, the bishops reaffirmed their support for transgender people and their families in the face of the “current legislative actions in 41 states targeting trans people.” Presumably that reference to state actions encompassed the recently-passed bills in Tennessee which prohibit transgender minors from partaking in medical gender transition programs, as well as prohibits minors from attending drag shows. There is nothing in the press release that mentions the Tennessee drag show law, despite it being the most widely reported and publicly discussed law on this particular subject.
Does the House of Bishops really oppose the actions of the Tennessee legislature and governor in banning children from attending these adult-oriented entertainment venues? By their silence on that important law, and by their apparent decision to lump that law in with all “anti-trans” legislation, the Episcopal bishops are signaling that they are dismayed by the actions of the Tennessee legislature and governor. The priests and laity of the Episcopal Church, regardless of our stances on transgender issues, need more clarity from the bishops in that regard – more specifics on where they stand as a body – not generalized statements that fail to address this critical cultural moment. As a long-time supporter of transgender civil rights, I fear that the current pronouncements by the House of Bishops are playing right into the hands of those who seek to expose children to sexualized content and, consequently, right into the hands of those who wish to doom the advancement of transgender civil rights. The bishops need to discern these matters on their own, not just reiterate the talking points of the LGBTQ lobby, and they certainly do not need to mirror the moral myopia and political meanness that often plagues the latter.
Here’s an often ignored historical fact: The T part in the LGBTQ+ alphabet soup wasn’t always there. In fact, I am old enough to remember a time when gays and lesbians were, in the main, so embarrassed by the presence of transgender persons that the latter were effectively excluded from the gay civil rights movement.
On the night of Friday April 23rd, 1993, an interesting event happened outside the headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign, then called Human Rights Campaign Fund (HRCF), which was and remains the largest gay civil rights organization in the country. A group of transgender folks and their supporters held a rally to protest the fact that the former were being deliberately excluded from the title of what would, two days later, become the historic April 25th, 1993 “March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.” Notice there was no Transgender in that formulation. Back then, the gay establishment concluded that trans people were too freaky for middle America to even process. At that point, as a young gay activist (I have no use for sexual identity labels anymore), I had already heard countless testimonies of transgender men and women who were anything but freaky: they were in fact normal people who had struggled mightily with gender dysphoria, and simply wanted to be loved and accepted for who they are. Those of us who attended that protest rally outside of HRC in 1993 were outraged that human rights and human dignity were being shafted by the narrow judgment calls of organization activists who had no problem crafting a message catered to the lowest common denominator, which meant tossing transgender people under the bus, including in the advancement of basic civil rights. The social and political environments are vastly different than they were three decades ago, yet the signs of narrow consciousness from LGBTQ officialdom are as neon as ever.
Most glaringly, Tennessee’s recently passed law restricting drag performances to adult-only venues, along with the provision to ban medical interventions for transgender minors, has earned the ire of the Human Rights Campaign – yes, the same organization which I protested thirty years ago because of their anti-trans policies.
Much as I try to keep abreast of issues relating to the healthcare and well-being of our transgender fellow citizens, I am by no means qualified to give an informed opinion on their medical care and the attendant legal frameworks, but can only lament when I see that these complex issues are being turned into a political football to score points in the culture wars. Moreover, legislative initiatives seeking to “protect” transgender persons from unwarranted medical procedures suffer from a lack of moral standing on the part of legislation proponents. Where have these “concerned” legislators been in the decades-long fight to secure basic civil rights protections for transgender Americans, so that they can live economically-secure and physically safe lives free from societal discrimination? The former seem to want to protect trans people from medical interventions, but do virtually nothing to combat the societal intolerance, fueled by completely obsessive and demeaning rhetoric, that leaves transgender people far more vulnerable to physical assault as they go about their daily lives. Consequently, whether it is intended or not, these legislative measures on transgender minors appear to many fair-minded citizens not as protective measures, but as a sustained cultural commitment to use brute, coercive power to get gender non-conforming people to comply with gender standards. If that is not the intent behind these legislative measures, and the intent is to genuinely safeguard minors for medical procedures that will affect them for the rest of their lives, then perhaps the legislative proponents of these measures ought to pause and reassess their dismissive attitudes toward civil rights protections for transgender persons, so these children of God can be safeguarded from the thugs and bullies who prove, on a daily basis, that they are hellbent on making life unlivable for our transgender and non-binary fellow human beings.
Yet, what I can, and what we all can, comment upon, regardless of our left, right or center political views, is the societal standards we uphold for the protection of children. In that regard, Tennessee’s passage of a law to designate drag shows as adult-oriented cabaret shows, for which children will not be permitted to attend, is entirely sound. It’s not a ban on drag shows, it’s a ban on children attending such events. For a glimpse of what can happen at drag shows in which children are in attendance, watch this. And if you don’t mind fake breasts dangling in front of children, watch this. Or, if you don’t mind fake breasts dangling in a box in front of children, along with simulations of sex acts in front of children, watch this.
Mirroring that lack of moral standing to speak on transgender medical issues, it ought to go without saying, but needs to be said nonetheless, that Republican proponents of such otherwise common sense laws to protect children from sexualized entertainment should stop – immediately – undermining their moral credibility by idolizing a man who brags about grabbing women by their genitalia, and who has had a fondness for entering the dressing rooms of Miss Teen USA contestants. Indeed, they ought to stop idolizing that individual, as well as stop hoping and praying that this dehumanizing figure will once again be back in the Oval Office.
Back in the early nineties when I was a gay activist, transgender activists went to great lengths to impress upon the wider community that they were not simply people wearing drag costumes. Unlike drag performers, they were not just “impersonating” another gender for other people’s laughter and entertainment. On the contrary, these transgender men and women went to great lengths to impress upon people that their journey in coming to terms with their gender identity was long and painful, not a frivolous escapade. Tragically, with the help of narrow lens political moves by the likes of HRC, for many regular Americans who are making good faith efforts to be fair and compassionate citizens these vitally important distinctions in the human experience are getting extremely blurred. The political and legal consequences of that blurring could not be more dangerous, as classical civil rights protections, such as nondiscrimination rights in employment, education, public accommodations etc., are now being conflated in the public imagination with a so-called “right” of grown men in drag to wear G-strings in front of seven-year-olds, and have said seven-year-olds place dollar bills in the G-strings.
While most of us may not be able to contribute much to fostering social clarity in that regard, all of us can and should ensure that our nation’s children are shielded from adult-only entertainment content. As a new member of the Episcopal Church, I hope that our bishops will make it abundantly clear that exposing children to such content is not only cruel, perverted and anti-human, it is utterly antithetical to our call to help build the city of God here on earth.
Timothy Villareal, an Episcopalian, is a privately-vowed, non-canonical monk. His social and religious commentaries have been published by the The Washington Post’s On Faith, TheAtlantic.com, Tikkun, Christian Century, Chicago Tribune, Austin American-Statesman, Tallahassee Democrat among other U.S. dailies.