From “Pose” to Propaganda: 2018 Was the Most Confusing Year for the Trans Community

The question of whether we will be tolerated in the land of the free remains an open one.

In 2018, a dark fog of right-wing scapegoating and Trump administration hostility settled over the transgender community with a feeling of suffocating permanence. The stakes were high, but again and again the ongoing national argument over whether trans people will be allowed to exist devolved into dark rumors and bickering over minor matters of pop culture representation. If there can be said to be a bright side, it was that antagonists from the Trump administration to concern-trolling journalists seemed no more successful in their attempts to drive trans people out of public life than trans people were in finally asserting our humanity, once and for all.

From the beginning of the Trump administration, trans Americans have been a target, but the assaults peaked when The New York Times reported on the Trump administration’s intention to define trans people “out of existence” in October, and then—nothing. Calls to support hotlines quadrupled, but the “un-definition-ing” of trans folks never came to pass. And though there were some measures the administration followed through with, when you peruse a list showing what the administration has actually done this year, you get the distinct sense that symbolic cheap shots won out over tangible measures. For instance, the Trump administration created a new division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) dedicated to encouraging discrimination against trans patients in January. However, since healthcare discrimination against trans patients was already rampant, the result could hardly be more than a drop in a very ugly bucket.

Drew Angerer/Getty
Protest of Trump’s trans erasure memo.

Likewise, it was cruel for the Trump administration to pressure 4-H to remove language welcoming LGBTQ youth, but it doesn’t quite strike at the heart of trans identity to be somewhat less officially welcome in competitive youth farming. Meanwhile, though fears and rumors circulated through trans circles that the State Department was taking measures to restrict trans people from changing gender markers on their U.S. passports, such measures never materialized—at least not yet. A more tangible threat to trans existence was the nomination and confirmation of far-right Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, but for now, Kavanaugh’s impact remains as a threat on the horizon, the details still unknown.

Late in the year, the midterm elections were a bright spot, offering an historic rebuke to the president’s agenda of intolerance, and perhaps that means elected Democrats will stand between the vulnerable trans community and right-wing extremists seeking our destruction. Democrats have betrayed trans rights for political gain before, but since they’re the only game in town, we vest our fragile hopes in them.

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty
Brett Kavanaugh is ceremonially sworn into the Supreme Court.

But despite it being an election year, most of the real action in the culture war felt like it was taking place in, well, the culture. On Fox News, the sport of mocking trans people became even more ubiquitous this year—host Tucker Carlson, in particular, returned to the well of trans ridicule at least 35 times. And Fox was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to trans hatred in conservative media. The further from the mainstream you looked, the uglier and more paranoid talk about trans people became.

For instance, Jordan Peterson—a Canadian academic whose paranoid fantasy that the Mounties would come for anyone who misgendered a trans person resulted in his being embraced (and greatly enriched) by the far right—was everywhere in 2018. (Seriously: I tripped over seven Jordan Petersons while writing this article.) The less said about his surrogate parenthood of America’s lost boys and its cultish appeal, the better. But wherever Peterson went, the fear that polite treatment of trans people will result in the downfall of Western Civilization followed. In a nation where trans people, particularly trans women of color, face disproportionately high rates of hate-motivated violence, this transphobic vitriol isn’t just another bad take; it’s violent rhetoric that poses a very real threat.

Chris Williamson/Getty Images
Jordan Peterson addresses students at The Cambridge Union.

Against this hostile backdrop, the results trans activists were able to achieve in the cultural arena seem somewhat hollow. When it was announced that Scarlett Johansson, of all people, would play a trans man in an upcoming movie, I joined others in objecting to a cross-gender casting for the role, and Johansson eventually withdrew. In another incident, Victoria’s Secret executive Ed Razek apologized for comments that indicated he didn’t think trans models had any place in the brand’s fashion shows after widespread criticism from trans and plus-size women. To nobody’s surprise, these modest victories only fueled the right-wing narrative of political correctness run amok. (This is hardly to say that trans activists could have appeased the right by staying quiet, since they take our very existence as a threat.)

Jeff Neira via Getty
Runway models at the 2018 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

Fears of trans rights going “too far” were hardly confined to the right, either. In a July/August cover story for The Atlantic, journalist Jesse Singal amplified fears in the mainstream center and left that gender-nonconforming young people are being led astray by trans visibility, perhaps influenced into becoming trans by the nefarious forces of tolerance. Singal began the piece with the story of a girl who didn’t transition after experimenting with a short haircut and baggy clothing, but might have—and the piece continued in that vein for 12,000 words. Singal’s piece was followed by coverage of a study from a Brown University professor who took parental reports from transphobic parents and used those as evidence of an epidemic of young people falsely believing they are trans. And, just before the year’s end, the film Girl was released to widespread praise and awards buzz from cisgender film critics and total dismay from trans writers, who particularly hated it’s prurient interest in (and eventual mutilation of) the genitalia of the lead character.

But there was some good news this year. States including Oregon, Arkansas, and New York began to offer a third gender option on IDs or other official documents. The New York Times added a trans woman—Jennifer Finney Boylan—as a contributing opinion writer, giving some measure of balance to the many opinion writers who have been skeptical or critical of trans rights in the paper. The courts have continued to deliver victories for transgender students, in spite of efforts by the Trump administration to sabotage trans equality in the schools. FX’s hit series Pose offered a much-needed view into the lives of trans people of color. And LGBTQ organizations have largely increased their support for the trans community in the face of scapegoating by the Trump administration.

FX/Pose
Indya Moore in Pose.

The community has pulled together, and there are many ways to express support for trans lives in these dark times. But, taken as a whole, 2018 was a frustrating and uncertain year for trans Americans, and the question of whether our existence will be tolerated in the land of the free remains an open one.

Evan Urquhart is a freelance writer covering LGBT issues.
@e_urq