Remember that time our President, for the first time in the history of the United States, addressed the unequivocally anti-LGBTQ Values Voter Summit?
Just shortly after addressing the terrible response to those impacted by recent catastrophic weather, he digressed into the diatribe about ‘values’ that I have excerpted and transcribed below, emphasis mine.
“We love our families. We love our neighbors, we love our country.
Everyone here today is brought together by the same shared and timeless values. We cherish the sacred dignity of every human life.
We believe in strong families and safe communities. We honor the dignity of work.
We defend our Constitution; we protect religious liberty.
We treasure our freedom, we are proud of our history, we support the rule of law and the incredible men and women of law enforcement.
We celebrate our heroes, we celebrate every American who wears the uniform. We respect our great American flag.
[Standing ovation from the audience.]
Thank you, thank you. Thank you. And we stand united behind the customs, beliefs, and traditions that define who we are, as a nation and as a people.
George Washington said that religion and morality are indispensable. To America’s happiness, really prosperity, and totally, to its success, it is our faith and our values that inspires us to give with charity, to act with courage, and to sacrifice for what we know is right.
The American founders invoked our creator four times in the Declaration of Independence. Four times. How times have changed, but you know what?
They’re changing back again, just remember that.”
As it turns out, Trump’s speech was more on-the-nose than he might have imagined. Or was it?
The hidden ‘us versus them.’
I’ve always loved the expression that everything somebody says after the word ‘but’ is just bullshit.
Do you see the slimy rhetorical tricks at work in our President’s speech? Donald Trump, the self-acclaimed dealmaker, is a master at publicly hedging his bets. But he is not a master linguist. He is no orator.
Trump’s incompetence in public speaking has raised questions about his mental competency and fitness to lead, even to the extent that’s he’s developed a strategy around this communications weakness: hedging.
His favorite strategy? Divide and conquer, lambaste and scapegoat.
Wikipedia defines a rhetorical “hedge” as “a mitigating word, sound or construction used to lessen the impact of an utterance due to constraints on the interaction between the speaker and addressee, such as politeness, softening the blow, avoiding the appearance of bragging and others.” (emphasis mine)
Bruce Fraser, Professor Emeritus at Boston University in Linguistics and Education, conducted a study of this deliberate rhetorical strategy, as it was employed by former President Bush, taken from the transcripts of 30 press conferences held in 2007. In his analysis, Fraser concludes there are ultimately two reasons a politician might employ rhetorical hedging: to mitigate the impression that you’ve said or done something wrong, or to avoid giving the information that is expected as a response to the question in the first place.
Let’s take a look at recent examples from Trump’s tenure:
Are there doubts about the future of his ‘repeal-and-replace’ legislative initiative? He blamed everyone for even the possibility that the bill might fail, so that his particular brand of fiery twitter tantrums were already armed with a scapegoat.
Promise to drain the swamp? Ignore the question and blame the bureaucratic swamp itself. Promise to protect DACA recipients? Blame either side of the aisle.
When he faces a tough question? Say just enough to look like you’re touching the topic, then deflect or deny blame, and shift the conversation in another direction, typically by pointing his own short little fingers. (MSNBC has a video detailing Trump’s deployment of this strategy, hinting at its intended uses, if you’re interested in reading more about that.)
So when it comes to the notoriously anti-LGBT Value Voter Summit, his grandstanding here is just one elaborate rhetorical hedge-turned-dogwhistle, indicating which side of the fence he is on.
Criticizing the ‘race to embrace’ trans kids
At one panel during the summit, hosted by the also anti-LGBT Family Research Council, hosted a breakout session on ‘trangender ideology in public schools.’ Family Research Council’s Cathy Ruse and Peter Sprigg were joined on the panel by Elizabeth Schultz, a member of the Fairfax County school board in Fairfax, Virginia, Meg Kilgannon, a parent and director of Concernet Parents and Educators of Fairfax County, and Josh Hertzler, of the Family Foundation of Virginia.
For context, the school board of Fairfax County voted in 2015 to advance a policy protecting transgender kids in schools. By the time the Obama administration issued guidance from the Department of Education in May 2016, Fairfax County’s policy had already been in place for more than a year.
Speaking to the Values Voter Summit, Schultz criticized what she terms “the race to embrace” transgender inclusive policy; she compared and contrasted the needs of trans kids getting bullied in the halls to a decade-long time period during which the school board evaluated changes to school starting times.
I just have to ask: WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?
Trans kids are under assault since the Trump administration took office. If there is anyone hell-bent on pursuing a course of ideological destruction and total war, it is anyone pushing this ‘divide and conquer’ line.
Let’s take a step back here: Are transgender children not still children? Should children be subject to bullying, period? Or is it okay to bully, sometimes? I don’t know about you, but most students don’t pay attention to district-wide changes over the course of ten years — fights to take their lunch money, to harass them for their gender identities, being shoved or pushed into lockers, ridiculed at assemblies — all of these incidents are over in moments. If you wait years to set the expectation that all students retain the right to learn in a harassment-free environment, what message is that really sending to the students?
Meg Kilgannon, also on the panel, called the school board’s actions a “massive violation of public trust.” She offered three strategic priorities and five tactical options that activists in other school districts should use to push back on trans-inclusive school policy. Her strategic priorities are as follows:
1. “Focus on gender identity to divide and conquer.”
“For all of its recent success, the LGBT alliance is actually fragile, and the trans activists need the gay rights movement to help legitimize them. Gender identity on its own is just a bridge too far. If you separate the T from the alphabet soup, we’ll have more success.”
2. “No personal attacks on LGBT people or parents of trans children.”
“If you attack trans people, you become the proof they rely on for demanding protection, so don’t play into their victim narrative because in this culture war, they are the bullies, not the victims.” She added that elected officials are fair game for attacks for their public votes.
3. “Don’t use religious arguments, because they aren’t effective.”
Kilgannon offered that secular, instead of religious arguments, can reach a wider and more diverse audience. As an example, she pointed to trans-exclusionary radical feminist group, the Hands Across the Aisle Coalition, to demonstrate that finding shared opposition to trans values serves to expand, not limit, their message and messaging reach.
Tactically, Kilgannon recommended that communities follow her five E’s: Engage, Educate, Explain, Empower, and Elect. On the point of elections, Kilgannon encouraged anti-trans activists to run for school board or to do what they could to supplant school boards full of ‘ideological liberals,’ and lamented that in Fairfax County, that the school board (who she supposes is all leftists) was in control of their entire $2.8 billion budget. “Why are we letting the left spend all that money?”
The erasure of trans humanity
Ruse and Sprigg offered that trans-inclusive policies do not truly aim at protecting transgender people from bullying, but instead to force changes in the way people act and operate on a day-to-day basis. Ruse specifically commented that gender identity protections hurt all children, including victims of sexual assault and kids from evangelical, Muslim, and Catholic families.
All of these attacks are premised on the dogwhistle that transgender and gender non-conforming folks are deceitful in our existence, basing them in a nonsensical understanding of the identity politics surrounding gender identity in general.
Words and phrases used in these spaces like ‘we, us, them, they’ all serve to inculcate the listener to a particular group. “You’re either with us, or against us, based on your response to this information,” the premise goes, a false dichotomy of existence. The lack of nuance in this discussion is disgusting.
Transgender and gender non-conforming people who are rejected by their families are nearly three times as likely to experience homelessness, 73 percent more likely to be incarcerated, and 59 percent more likely to attempt suicide, according to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey. In 2015, a follow-up survey found that in schools specifically, trans kids who were subjected to bullying were 52 percent more likely to have attempted suicide and 40% as likely to experience homelessness.
It’s important to note that those numbers, taken in surveys four years apart, aren’t the same. It’s the kind of evidence that suggests we were on the right track, doing the right thing to improve life on a daily basis for kids who really just want to go to school and learn. We were making progress, making some positive headway into the dark and gloomy hallways where trans kids are afraid to be themselves. But now?
Just since the start of the year:
In February: The Departments of Justice and Education withdrew the 2016 guidance explaining how schools must protect and safeguard transgender students’ rights under Federal Title IX law. This required the signature of Betsy DeVos, who was reportedly hesitant to sign the initiative but compelled to do so by Trump and Sessions.
In March: The Department of Justice abandoned its request for a preliminary injunction against North Carolina’s HB-2, the anti-transgender bill that banned trans folks from using the facilities that correspond with their gender identity. This was perhaps one of the earliest signs that the Trump administration was starting the war on transgender and gender non-conforming people. (Side note: how heinous is it that the first salvo against trans-inclusive policies and protections was a slight against children, exposing them to unprecedented levels of abuse and bullying in the hallways, between classes, or after school?)
Also in March, the Census bureau withdrew a proposal to collect demographic details on LGBT people in the 2020 Census.
In April: the Department of Justice wholly abandoned its lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s HB-2.
In May: The Department of Health and Human Services announced their plans to roll back regulations that interpreted the ACA’s nondiscrimination provisions to protect transgender people.
In June: The Department of Education withdrew its finding that an Ohio school district discriminated against a transgender girl. The Department gave no explanation for withdrawing the finding, which a federal judge upheld. In this case, the student was forced to use a gender neutral restroom.
In July: The Department of Justice filed a legal brief arguing that the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or, implicitly, gender identity.
In September: The Department of Justice filed a legal brief on behalf of the United States in the Supreme Court, arguing that businesses have a constitutional right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and, implicitly, gender identity.
In October: The Department of Justice issued a wide “license to discriminate” allowing federal agencies, government contractors, government grantees, and even private businesses to engage in illegal discrimination, as long as they can cite religious reasons for doing so.
Also in October: The Department of Justice issued a memo instructing Department of Justice attorneys to take the legal position that federal law does not protect transgender workers from discrimination.
And that about brings it up to date. Data available to us suggests that these policies were improving the world for transgender people. As a community, the transgender population is being forced back into the shadows, out of respectable jobs they probably deserve, and into obscurity through invisibility.
The Census data would have created an impetus for the government to collect its own data on transgender people. Just the simple act of being counted is enough to afford me, my family and friends, our whole community, the privilege of existence.
Refusing to count us casts transgender identity back into ‘gray area.’ Studies, facts, science all come into dispute when the chief executive officer of our country provides his agents the political cover to do so. This turns conversations about people into “he said/she said” disagreements without any kind of conversational barometer to help the uneducated separate fact from fiction, or truth from bullshit rhetorical hedging.
Which brings us back to the dog whistle: what did President Trump really mean when he said, “How times have changed, but you know what? They’re changing back again, just remember that”?
Casting doubt on transgender humanity casts doubt on our stories, our very existence. While this piece and my analysis has focused on transgender folks, that’s only because I am myself transgender; it’s easier for me to contextualize the malicious actions of this administration by calling them how I see them, by comparing their actions and statements to my own reality.
The truth is, his strategy is effective.
By forcing people into the shadows, by inviting his Twitter army of literal torches and figurative pitchforks, the forces of bigotry are bullying their way into the mainstream. By controlling the message, by deflecting from the material reality of how people live, he is able to control the news cycle.
And now that he’s escalated tensions with North Korea to their boiling point, we can’t stop paying attention for fear that his next tantrum might be our last. It’s a catch-22, where the ringleader standing in the middle of the circus has moved all the lions to the doors and forces us to enable the destruction of what we cherish — our families, our friends, and our relationships.
I can only hope that someday, instead of highlighting our differences, we will highlight the experiences we as people inhabiting the country share, our common ground, that makes this country great again.
Over at Fox News this weekend, I was shocked to read the opinion headline: “Message to liberal feminists: Don’t dictate political views to me just because we share the same body parts.”
Lauren DeBellis Appell wrote, quoting Sheryl Sandberg: “‘In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.’ If that’s truly the endgame, how can we ever hope to stop differentiating between the two if we’re always throwing around the gender card?... Women have made great strides and come too far in the last 100 years to be bullied into falling blindly in love with other women out of some fabricated sense of duty based purely on the fact that we share the same body parts.” (emphasis mine)
Now, she was writing about how women who voted for Trump were exercising their own agency and autonomy — but she’s right.
The idea that all women have the same experience, that all women can be defined in the same certain terms, has always been nauseating. So why the focus on this fabricated sense of duty based in the idea that women = vagina? That we must protect cis folks from sexual assault in bathrooms, at all costs?
Food for thought.