If They Won’t, We Will


DeVos’s Education Dept. Officially Abandons Trans Students (The Advocate)

When Americans venerate the founding of our country, the story of how we got our three branches of federal government tends to be pretty high up on the list. Instead of agreeing to become the first monarch of post-revolutionary America, George Washington instead pushed for a system of governance with co-equal branches — the executive, the legislative and the judicial — that would hold checks over one another, in order to prevent the kinds of tyranny that had become so common in Europe (and so devastating to the people under the thumbs of those tyrants). It was a progressive idea for its time, and while many will make arguments that America is retreating from this ideal at a blinding pace. the basic theory of checks and balances remains very noble and popular.

There can be huge gaps, however, between what seems good in theory on the one hand, and what works well in practice on the other. The checks and balances of the three branches of federal government necessitate a process of developing and enacting laws that is very deliberate and, by today’s standards, slow. The pace of governance created by the American system was probably quite sufficient for the needs of the country’s first two centuries, but  it can feel inadequate for the realities of today’s world. Just look at how American laws are struggling to keep up with advances in technology like self-driving cars, personal drones and vaping. The threats America faces from hostile countries in 2018 would have been nearly inconceivable to the average American in 1988, let alone 1788. The ideas behind separate branches of government keeping a watchful eye over one another may still be strong, but their execution can often seem woefully inadequate when it comes to responding to today’s rapidly-changing world.

One of the reasons I both love and hate Russell Brand’s book Revolution is that it places such a high priority on individual citizens acting to meet immediate needs, instead of relying on the government to fix a problem before it reaches a crisis point. As I’ve blogged about before, there is a real danger in not fighting to make government more responsive to its citizens’ needs, because this has a strong potential to reinforce existing notions that a government is irrevocably damaged and can never do any good again, but it’s also true that individual action is as much a part of a strong society as a responsive and altruistic government. In an ideal country, the two would work hand-in-hand to compensate for the other’s inefficiencies, but if Brand (rightfully) feels that even the United Kingdom’s parliamentary system, with its much stronger “emergency release button” to eject a bad government, needs a lot more immediate citizen involvement, it’s not hard to imagine how that feeling translates to America in 2018.

It’s likely that a vast majority of Americans will always feel like at least one of the two major political parties in this country will never do anything to help “people like them,” and a large number of those people probably feel the same about both major parties, if not every politician in America. Even as LGBT+/SAGA Americans felt a greater sense of acceptance during the Obama presidency, and even as some moderate Republicans broke with party orthodoxy on major issues like marriage equality, there was still a deep fear that those on the fringes of the American right, those who still openly espoused hatred of LGBT+/SAGA people, would one day wield significant power in Washington, DC again.

That day came a lot sooner than a lot of us thought it would, and it’s hard to imagine that a cabinet secretary with a long history of far-right religious zealotry would have ever done anything to protect the safety and basic needs of young transgender people. In that respect, it can feel almost foolish to call this week’s announcement that the Department of Education wouldn’t help transgender students with bathroom access as “news” of any kind. However, as with so much this administration has done, the purpose of this announcement wasn’t really to set or clarify policy; rather, it was meant to placate their base, to give them another headline to help them feel good about themselves, that the administration is continuing to do what it can to make life harder for people that those in power, and their supporters, see as “enemies” of America. As uneventful as the headlines about this announcement might seem, they certainly make a good rah-rah line for transphobic conservatives.

Long before the Obama Administration issued guidance that students should be able to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender — which, believe me, didn’t “solve” the problem of transphobes making transgender students’ lives miserable — students and teachers and administrators took the initiative to help transgender people use public bathrooms in peace, most notably with the #IllGoWithYou campaign. The Obama Administration’s guidance may have temporarily lessened the need for this kind of work, but if the change in administration last year didn’t make it clear that campaigns like #IllGoWithYou are needed now more than ever, this week’s news certainly has.

In addition, if the federal government is going to turn a deaf ear to transgender students, then we need to seek help at all other levels of governance, including not just the state and local levels, but also the administrators and boards of directors for each individual campus. If we can’t count on the Department of Education reversing course on this week’s policy announcement any time soon — and that feels like a pretty safe bet — then it’s incumbent on the rest of us to get help for transgender students in every other possible way, from personally offering escort to petitioning any and every person in power who might be able to reinstate bathroom rights for transgender students.

Those who stand in active opposition to what the current administration is doing — call them “The Resistance” or whatever you will — have provided some flashes of light in what has felt like the darkest of times in America, at least in my lifetime. The actions of individual people, whether it’s helping transgender people use public bathrooms peacefully or anything else, can only go so far, but as long as America’s government is, by its nature, so slow to react to rapidly-changing times, then those individual actions may be all that we have. As many of us as possible need to do our part to ensure the safety and well-being of those we care about, whether they’re family members, friends, or just strangers whom we believe deserve the same rights as everyone else.

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