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Here's Why I Believe the Debate around Transgender Rights Is Eroding the Very Heart of Our Democracy

Here's Why I Believe the Debate around Transgender Rights Is Eroding the Very Heart of Our Democracy

By Patti Davis
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​​Currently we're seeing a record number of bills targeting the rights of transgender people and the LGBTQ community at-large. To name a few examples, in January, Utah banned transgender youth from receiving transition health care. In March, Texas approved a bill that would block transgender youth from updating their birth certificates, amongst a slew of other anti-trans bills state lawmakers are considering. This egregious legislation is symptomatic of the larger masses attacking the trans community.

Last month when a school shooting in Nashville happened, droves of us watched in grief—as elected officials continue to do nothing to counter gun violence—while a chorus came up from the far right attacking trans people. Yes, the shooter was trans, but that hardly justifies indicting an entire group of people any more than teenage white boys should all be indicted because several mass shooters have been exactly that. Tucker Carlson claimed that trans people are “natural enemies” of Christians. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Donald Trump Jr. used the shooting to rail against healthcare for trans people. This is the America we are living in, where mass shootings are commonplace, and entire groups of people are berated and castigated simply because they don’t fit the norm that others have decided upon. It’s not the America I was taught to love.

I hope my story below sheds light on how each of us deserves the right to be fully and freely ourselves—in our country and beyond.

I used to go away to summer camp when I was a child. On one of those summers, we were taken to a lake to ride on a boat. It appeared that two men were in charge of the boats, but as we got closer, it was evident that one of them wasn’t a man but rather a woman dressed and groomed to look like a man. I remember standing in the shack that served as the office and feeling the girl behind me nudge me in the back.

“That’s a woman,” she whispered.

I was fascinated. The woman wore a pale blue man’s shirt, dark trousers, and she had her hair cut like a man’s and slicked down. Her hands were pale and slender, and her voice was rough, but I had the feeling she was trying to make it that way.

After we left the lake, I asked our camp counselor about the woman dressed like a man. I asked why she wanted to do that. The counselor, a teenager with freckles and a ponytail, told me that the woman probably felt more comfortable as a man, more like who she really was– her true self.

This was around 1961. Transgender wasn’t even a word yet, and wouldn’t be until 1965 when a psychiatrist named John F. Oliven coined the term. Cross-dressing in public was illegal; people could be arrested for doing what this woman at the boat place was doing. Now, in 2023, in Florida and a few other states, a camp counselor would probably get fired for the explanation she gave me. But her explanation made perfect sense to me. As a painfully insecure child, I tried different ways to figure out who I was, what felt comfortable, and what felt like the me I wanted to become. I played around with different accents and ways of walking. A woman dressed as a man, because that’s what made her feel authentic and whole, was a perfectly understandable concept to me.

When summer camp was over, I told my parents one evening at dinner about the woman at the lake. They said basically the same thing that the camp counselor had said, and my father added a historical fact: In the Civil War, a number of women dressed like men so they could fight as soldiers. He was right. Between 1861 and 1865, 240 females dressed in men’s uniforms and went to war. I asked why the woman at the lake didn’t appear to have breasts, and my mother said she had probably wrapped something around her chest to conceal them. I pictured the woman standing in front of a mirror, wrapping her chest, combing her hair, and becoming who she wanted to be. None of it seemed strange to me.

Children are intuitive, and wide open. They don’t interpret information on the basis of boundaries and dictums, not unless they have been taught that by adults. Who are we going to be as a country if vast numbers of children aren’t given the chance to tolerate and accept others who are different from them?

We are careening toward a land in which savagery and civilization are at war with each other. A land in which people are afraid to communicate, to share the most essential parts of themselves because they might be condemned. Rather than accepting the fact that people are different and adapting to that, there is an increasing agenda to demonize anyone who doesn’t fit into a particular mold. And that mold is straight with a conservative view of family and relationships and no tolerance for anyone who is seen to challenge that norm.

Democracy, by definition, depends on the will of the people—all the people, not just the straight ones. But democracies are fragile; they don’t die all at once; they tip-toe toward their demise. In 1933, when Hitler was just getting started, homosexuals were condemned as “socially aberrant.” Fueled by what was deemed a moral crusade, those in power rounded up gay men, put them in the first concentration camps and often castrated them. In 1937, what was called Paragraph 175 outlawed homosexuality, although that word wasn’t in use then, nor was the word transgender. Demeaning descriptions of sexual preference and behavior were used to condemn, imprison, and torture.

We need to take an unflinching look at the small steps we are taking that lead away from the freedoms our democracy was built on. From banning drag shows to imposing restrictions on citizens who are transgender, we are re-molding America into a country where only some people have freedom, and the rest are supposed to hide and shut up.

In William Golding’s brilliant novel Lord of the Flies, which if it hasn’t already been banned probably will be, there is this line: “They walked along a continent of experience and feeling, unable to communicate.”

America is fast becoming that continent, a place where people no longer try to communicate because fear stops them. And that is a place where democracies go to die.

Patti Davis is an author of many books, including The Long Goodbye, in which she explored the experience of losing her father to Alzheimer's. The lessons she learned from the ten years of her father's illness inspired her to create a support group program for caregivers of people with dementia called Beyond Alzheimer's. Her most recent book , which is an extension of that support group, is Floating in the Deep End, which you can order here.

The views expressed in Sunday Paper Guest Opinions are those of the authors and do not represent the views or positions of The Sunday Paper.

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