The Republican presidential primary in this cycle has been marked by people in power punching down at people who aren’t. Frontrunner Donald Trump is the most obvious perpetrator, having gone after undocumented immigrants and religious and ethnic minorities in a largely successful effort to stir up an angry element of the GOP electorate.
The campaign may have reached a new low this weekend, though, in the continuing debate over North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom” law that requires people in the state using public bathrooms to only use those designated for the gender that appears on a their birth certificates.
For a moment, try to put aside the merits of the law as a piece of public policy.
Clearly, that’s a tall order. There are people who feel it is a gratuitous effort to use the force of law to stigmatize those who do not have a traditional gender identity. There are also people who insist that the law protects people (mainly women) from sex offenders (mainly men) who would “self-identify” as a gender other than the one assigned at birth for the express purpose of being allowed to enter a restroom and assault or surreptitiously observe other people.
Taken at face value, both concerns are compelling. But the point here isn’t to adjudicate the merits of either. It’s to consider a different question.
Regardless of how people feel about the North Carolina bathroom law, can we all agree that belittling the transgendered ought to be out of bounds for a U.S. presidential candidate?
This weekend, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz continued what has been a recent theme of his campaign — slamming Trump for failing to be adequately opposed to the North Carolina law. At a rally in Terre Haute, Indiana, Cruz said, “Let me make this real, real simple for folks in the media who find this conversation very confusing: If Donald Trump dresses up as Hillary Clinton, he still can’t go to the girls’ bathroom.”
He then jokingly apologized for giving the crowd the image of “Donald in a bright blue pantsuit...But let me just say to Jimmy Fallon and 'The Tonight Show,' please give us that image.”
Now, to be fair, Cruz is probably feeling a bit desperate right now. He’s trying hard to catch up to Trump, who is currently leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump’s recent victory in his home state of New York, as well as a strong expected showing in several Northeast and mid-Atlantic states that vote tomorrow, have made the Texas senator’s task more urgent. Polls from key future primary states, including Indiana, show Trump ahead there, too, which can’t be helping.
But consider for a moment what Cruz is suggesting — that people who declare that they identify as a gender other than the one their physical characteristics dictated they be assigned at birth are all doing so as some kind of joke, or to attract attention, or worse.
Like those who insisted for years — and in some quarters, still do — that homosexuality is a conscious choice rather than an inherent trait, people who make arguments like Cruz did in Terre Haute are suggesting that the transgendered are expressly opting to identify as transgendered, as though they have other options. Worse, still, in the bathroom debate the suggestion is that that “choice” is being made in order to prey on others.
But, like declaring one’s homosexuality, “choosing” to identify as transgendered is, right now, more an act of bravery than anything else.
People with declared non-traditional gender identities are more prone to depression, self-harm and suicide than almost any other population in the country. They are in many cases alienated from their families, neighbors, schoolmates and colleagues. Life as a transgendered person in the U.S. in 2016 is, at best, difficult. It is, at worst, unbearable.
Unless candidates like Cruz are prepared to make the argument that the transgendered are all faking their gender identities for nefarious purposes, their public remarks about the North Carolina law ought to stick to the specific policy arguments — contentious and tendentious as they may be — and steer away from beating up on an already brutalized minority.