Same Phony Fear, Different Decade:
On the Damaging Discourse Around Trans Rights
Gabrielle Bellot on the Shameful Debate on the Equality Act
In 1908, one day after Christmas—fittingly, on Boxing Day—two heavyweight boxers entered a ring in Sydney, Australia. One was Jack Johnson, a tall, toned black American from Texas; the other, who seemed tiny besides his opponent, was Tommy Burns, the Ontario-born World Heavyweight Champion. Despite how far across the Pacific they were from North America, both men knew that the outcome of their bout would surge across the United States and Canada like a tidal wave. People asked aloud if Negroes were vulnerable in the chest or had weaknesses white men didn’t. Yet it was Burns who appeared frail, dominated, at every turn, by Johnson.
So forceful were Johnson’s final punches that the police ordered the cameras shut off and declared Johnson the winner. Johnson—who had avoided body shots out of his fear that he would be disqualified for them, even if Burns would not be—was victorious, and, across America, people alternately cheered and cursed and shrieked, even, that the end of white people had come. (This sounds rather 2019, actually.) It was a striking symbol: in the era of Jim Crow, in the wake of the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, a black man had toppled a white one, fair and square—and not only that, but with an effortless flair.
Australia shared with America a colonial history inextricably intertwined with racism. Yet America remained a special case, so defined by its anti-blackness that it would be unimaginable without it. Blackface and minstrelsy, the then-most popular vaudevillian entertainments in America, existed around the world, yet they were so iconic in the United States that, for decades to come, blackface would be one of America’s most recognizable cultural images. This notion was cemented in Al Jolson’s performance in the seminal 1927 film, The Jazz Singer, wherein a white Jewish singer “becomes American” by singing jazz and wearing blackface on stage. Racism was not American; it was America.
Decades later, another controversy enveloped by bigotry roiled the world of American sports—only this time, it was over gender identity. It involved Renee Richards, a trans woman whose transition and desire to play in women’s tennis leagues engendered widespread debate. At over six feet and in her forties, she was a salient presence on the court when she attempted to play women’s tennis without having disclosed that she was trans—and, because she won matches, rumors quickly swirled around her, until all anyone could talk about was her gender. Instead of talking about her matches, people asked her, after matches, about her gender, if not her genitalia.
Women in sports already get disproportionately asked sexist questions about their appearance and relationships; Richards was probed, additionally, on whether or not she was even allowed to be a woman. She was “the source of international and national controversy,” one commentator said during a game. “The reason: is she male or is she female?” A number of cis women players protested and asked, with alarm, if transitioning would become a “trend.” Even the cis women who supported her transition vacillated when asked about tennis; to them, her womanhood was acceptable, except when she played sports.
In 1976, the United States Tennis Association declared that she could only compete if she could “scientifically” prove she was a woman through a chromosome test. These tests had gained cultural currency even before Richards, in the wake of absurd McCarthyist propagandizing about Communist countries “transforming” boys into girls to give them a “competitive edge” in Olympic sports. Eventually, the courts ruled that Richards was allowed to play as a woman—and though she was undeniably talented, she was never able to fully feel comfortable, simply because there were always people who said she only won matches because of what she had been assigned at birth, or that she was a weirdo pervert trying to steal her way into cis women’s spaces. It hurt. She had gotten what she dreamt of, only to be told her dreams were selfish, horrific. It was like being frozen in place, when all you yearn to do is run, knowing that you will be damned if you do and will damn yourself if you don’t. She lived under a cloud of transmisogyny—the special form of misogyny that includes transphobia.Being trans is not some fad, not some scheme, I have to reiterate far too often; at my unhappiest moments, it has felt like being a citizen of a shadow-country that does not exist.
It’s naïve to wholly equate Johnson and Richards’ struggles; Richards was white, and the weight of anti-blackness in America remains the heaviest albatross around its neck. Yet as someone trans and part-black, I find myself thinking about both of their stories, again. In particular, the prejudicial rhetoric in each strikes me: the assumption that both Johnson and Richards represented, in their own ways, the monstrous Other, the competitor who, should they become victorious, would open the floodgates to more like them winning matches (because win matches they would, these critics assumed). Critics talked about their proportions: Johnson was a giant compared to Burns, and Richards was often taller than her cis-women competitors. They were dangerous, the barbarians at the gate who had, unaccountably, challenged the monarch of that gated world to a fight—and, should they win, how would the world spin as before? What would they take next? Jobs? Homes? Cis white people’s privileges?
These were the questions conservatives recently asked while debating the Equality Act, a historic bill that would expand the Civil Rights Act to enshrine anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ persons. Republicans compared queer people to Nazis. Men would “game the system,” I heard, pretending, in droves, to be women to enter bathrooms. Conservatives claimed trans women would take over women’s sports leagues and women’s everything altogether, until cis women somehow ceased to exist. We were threatening, invasive predators in disguise.
I’m happy to have nuanced conversations about what it means to be trans, including in the world of sports—and I try to be empathetic, gentle—but these are rarely the conversations we have, particularly in the political arena.
Instead, we get tired arguments, which echo, at core, all “invasion” arguments: that one group, the Others, will invade and take over, forever altering the landscape. The ignorance frustrates me. I did not, could not, transition on a whim; instead, I had to give up the home and family I knew because neither would accept me, and I hated that, still hate that, still cry over it. I had to be approved for hormone therapy first by a therapist, then an endocrinologist, all while being mis-gendered and mocked by hospital employees; I had to legally change my name, all while being mis-gendered and mocked, louder now, at the police station where I had to get fingerprinted, then at the court, where a clerk repeatedly and vociferously called me sir in front strangers; I had to humiliate myself countless times over the phone and in person when someone did not know what to do with my voice or appearance, including a police officer I feared would harm me when he saw the “M” on my ID before I got it changed. I had to fight the urge to kill myself, multiple times, from my despair at thinking I could never bear children and that no one could love a freakish body like my own, after hearing my own mother tell me this, after hearing men who had praised my beauty tell me how revolting I was upon learning I was trans.
Trans athletes have rigorous standards to meet at the professional level, like being on hormone therapy for at least a year and having certain hormonal levels; one can debate the fairness of these standards, but they exist, and no one can just “pretend” to be something and get into a league. Cis and trans bodies vary tremendously; memorable competitors often have unusual capacities for speed or strength or endurance or whatever else, and this corporal uniqueness is what people cheer for when someone is impressive—except when they are trans, and then people jeer, even though being trans does not inherently confer special strength or speed.
Being trans is not some fad, not some scheme, I have to reiterate far too often; at my unhappiest moments, it has felt like being a citizen of a shadow-country that does not exist. I am proud, ultimately, of what I am—but god, does it hurt, too.
During a 1961 radio debate moderated by James Baldwin, Malcolm X asked a sit-in student a trenchant question. “If you are a citizen,” he said, “why do you have to fight for your civil rights? If you are fighting for your civil rights, that means you are not a citizen.”
The same is true of queer Americans today. We would not have to fight to preserve marriage equality, would not have to fight against being fired for being openly queer, if America truly saw us as citizens in the same way it saw its cis, straight inhabitants. I don’t care, at the end of the day, if a baker grumbles or swears when I walk into his shop; I care that he can be legally protected from serving me, in a non-private business, because he does not like what I am, that my right to be is not enshrined into law but his right to be a bigot is, in some states, under the guise of “religious freedom.” I hate worrying, again and again, that doctors might refuse to serve me when they learn what I am.
It is unacceptable. We deserve better.
It surrounds you, river-fills you, this dizzying, angry anxiety about how people will treat you once they learn what you are. You fear, sometimes, you will just snap one day when someone says the wrong thing because the weight of dealing with bigotry and keeping a straight face is incredible—yet you know if you do snap, you will be labeled the angry brown woman, who is not even really a woman, just some triggered, dangerous freak.
Shamefully, you become accustomed to it.
It is a familiar sadness, knowing you should be a citizen in the country you live and work in legally, though the rights you fight for suggest you are anything but.