Sometimes, under the increasingly wearisome burden of the current political struggle in this country, I get the sense that the threat from Trump and his Republican cronies is all I write about in this space. Looking back I find that’s not true, even though it’s evident the subject is seldom far from my mind. I do make an effort to look for “good news” angles to touch upon but I feel like my work here ought to be something different then just passing along a news item about some small victory that’s already been written about by a dozen others in higher profile places. Unless I can present some insight in HOW to think about this or that bit of news, it’s just a waste of the platform.
Less often there’s an opportunity to look into something that is good news on a systemic, rather than an individual level, such as the new vaginaplasty technique being pioneered at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City which has the potential to revolutionize the way such surgeries are done (quite likely I’ll write about that next time). But all too often my work here reflects the reality that these are, for many, increasingly dark times. It has been said the arc of history bends towards justice, and also rightly observed that it often does so only insomuch as we press it in that direction. The corollary to that observation is that history cautions us against complacency about that direction. An encouraging trend can all too often encounter a fierce blowback that not only wipes out gains but carries you even further in the wrong direction. After the Obergefell decision radio commentator Mike Signorile wrote a book cautioning gay activists against complacency called “It’s Not Over” – a caution which seemed prophetic after the 2016 election.
Where am I going with this? The reality is that sometimes to be ready for the future you must take a clear-eyed look at the past. If I asked you to look back and give me an estimate of when the modern understanding of, and reaction to, trans people began, there are several points you might feel justified in citing. The momentum towards recognizing our rights on a national level is relatively recent but that is predicated on advancements in scientific understanding in the last, roughly, 25 years. Bet before that was the nationwide headlines about Renee Richards. Even a few years before that, though, the city of Minneapolis included (in different language) gender identity in a non-discrimination ordinance. Still a few years before that trans women were at the forefront of protests and riots which would come to be seen as “gay rights” events. This era, the late 60’s, was also the period when Harry Benjamin was publishing. So in the U.S. one would feel justified in saying that this era of progress was around 50 years old. Fewer people know it’s actually twice that, but the roots of the modern understanding of gender identity is not an American thing, but a European.
The truth is you have to look to Germany, and you can go back just over 100 years to find what was, for it’s time, a progress curve that looks very much like what we have experienced in the past decade. You can read here about the evolving attitude in Europe and particularly in Germany in the two decades preceding Hitler’s assentation to power and like me you will likely find elements that seen strikingly familiar. What would our world look like now if that bending arc continued on uninterrupted towards justice?
One would have to consult serious historians to begin to grasp to what extent cultural reaction to increased acceptance of homosexuality and gender nonconformity contributed to a political landscape in which one such as Hitler could thrive. But one would also have to be blind to the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the party in power and the degree to which rollbacks of gains made by LGB/T persons over the previous decade go hand in hand with that political momentum. The lesson for us, I believe, is that it is all too easy to be lulled into a false sense of security and assume that a culture that has moved in a progressive, accepting, direction will inevitably continue to move in that direction. History instructs us to think again.
Photo from – Wikimedia Commons