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This weekend, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, most famous for his work on the award-winning political drama The West Wing, made a comment in an interview that many interpreted as calling transgender rights a distraction.
“I think that there’s a great opportunity here, now more than ever, for Democrats to be the non-stupid party, to point out the difference—that it’s not just about transgender bathrooms. That’s a Republican talking point. They’re trying to distract you with that,” said Sorkin in the interview on CNN. “That we haven’t forgotten the economic anxiety of the middle class.”
Newly elected Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) admonished the comments on Twitter, saying, “equal rights aren’t trends” and “If we don’t show up for people, why should you feel entitled to their vote?”
News Flash: Medicare for All & equal rights aren’t trends.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 20, 2019
When people complain about low turnout in some demos, it’s not because communities are apathetic, it’s bc they don’t see you fighting for them.
If we don’t show up for people, why should you feel entitled to their vote? https://t.co/oGRsG9NZV3
Now, just a few days later, the Supreme Court has ruled to uphold President Donald Trump’s 2017 ban on transgender people serving in the military. Do trans rights still seem like a distraction? Or a very real thing under siege?
Officials have repeatedly stressed that the policy is not an outright ban, but the restrictions outlined prove otherwise, preventing the vast majority of transgender people from enlisting. In effect, almost anyone who has undergone gender transition won’t be able to join the military, and if they haven’t undergone any medical transition, they’re only allowed to serve as the gender they were assigned at birth. People who were enlisted and diagnosed with gender dysphoria before this policy went into effect will be allowed to continue to serve as their true gender and will continue to receive medical treatment.
It’s not that Sorkin isn’t partially right. Republicans appear to have invented a monstrous trans person invading bathrooms to hurt people, despite there being no evidence of this being a problem, much like they have made up some evil trans military personnel. It is in many ways similar to the migrant caravan “border crisis.” Trump responded to the caravan by sending thousands of more troops to the border than there were migrants approaching it from the other side, despite the caravan being made up of many families and children. He even called the migrants and asylum seekers, “an invasion” and insinuated that it was made up of gang members and “very bad people.”
Both of these are cases of Republicans spreading fear to their supporters by telling them there is a threat which does not actually exist. Sorkin is right that this fearmongering does distract from other issues, but that doesn’t mean it can be treated as a simple distraction by Democrats. When the rights of marginalized people are used as political playing chips, those people suffer. It doesn’t matter if the person putting forth discriminatory policies is bigoted against that marginalized group, or just wants to distract people from tax cuts for the rich, it still causes the same suffering.
People who aren’t involved in the fight for transgender rights might not understand why ensuring access to public bathrooms is so important. But to dismiss “transgender bathroom bills” as a distraction from more important issues allows the foundations of legalized discrimination to be built. From there, the debate over trans rights becomes not just about what bathrooms trans people can use, but about other things trans people could be barred from too. It allows bigots a basis on which to build their discrimination to higher levels, and it clears the way for policies like the transgender military ban.
Who knows where trans people could be outlawed from next? And even if they aren’t, these bills and rulings send the message that trans people are to be “othered,” harassed, or put in graver danger just for simply existing.
Alex Dalbey is a writer and zinester currently living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. They have written for The Daily Dot, Kill Screen, The Lingerie Addict, and Bullet Points.