By Michael Hiltzik
Oct 23, 2018
Back in 2010, I had an emotional conversation with a woman I am proud to call my closest transgender friend.
She’s Lynn Conway, one of the most important pioneers in the history of electrical engineering and computer science, whose distinguished career spans industry and academia. She’s also a pioneer and a leader in transgender advocacy, having started her gender transition in the 1960s.
As she had told me for a Los Angeles Times Magazine piece, her decision cost her a job at IBM, where she already had made important breakthroughs, and access to her daughters. (Years later, she was able to reconnect.)
That conversation in 2010 drifted inevitably to political targeting of transgender individuals and the community. It came vividly back to me a few days ago, when a report surfaced that the Trump administration, in yet another medieval policy initiative, is considering erasing federal civil rights protections for transgender Americans, who number an estimated 1.4 million individuals. More on that in a moment.
Lynn and I were talking about the issue because in her home state of Michigan, two Republican candidates for secretary of state were trying to match each other’s transgender-bashing bona fides by pledging to bar transgender people from changing their gender designations on their drivers licenses. (Those licenses fall within that office’s jurisdiction.)
I could hear the anger and perplexity anguish in Lynn’s voice as we pondered why the transgender community suddenly found itself engulfed in Michigan state politics, out of the blue.
My theory wasn’t especially reassuring: In its crass and cruel quest for targets to unite its base against, the right wing had run out of admissible candidates for discrimination and abuse.
Open racism was no longer socially acceptable (though it has made a strong comeback in the Trump era). The roster of ethnic groups that could be stereotyped as undesirables had shrunk. It was no longer respectable to laugh at or denigrate the mentally ill, the homeless, the disabled.
Gays and lesbians had moved into the mainstream of culture and society. Even conservative and Republican families were finding themselves accepting gay and lesbian siblings, children and parents as worthy of familial love and respect.
Gay and lesbian characters in Hollywood movies and TV shows had started to evolve from those whose homosexuality set them apart; to those who were just like everyone else, except gay and lesbian; to those whose homosexuality was just another character trait; to those whose homosexuality was barely relevant to the story or their role in it. (To be sure, this evolution is a work in progress.)
Most importantly, gays and lesbians had acquired a political voice; gay-bashing would no longer work for a political candidate as it had in the past, except perhaps in the most benighted corners of American society.
So who was left? The Michigan candidates had made a calculated choice. In 2010, gender transition was still a rare enough occurrence — and gender reassignment surgery even rarer — that they figured they were unlikely to be hitting members of their base in the family circle.