In the past month, people have rushed to blame “identity politics” for Democrats’ defeat. And at least New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost and Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla have explicitly suggested that a focus on the experiences of transgender people during the campaign somehow cost Hillary Clinton the US presidency. To use Bruni’s language, by focusing on such a “boutique” issue as transgender rights instead of issues implicating the economy, Democrats alienated voters (implicitly white, heterosexual male voters) and ensured the party’s collapse at the polls.
There are at least three major problems with this argument.
The first, is that it assumes that white people don’t have an identity or that class-based arguments don’t implicate the so-called identity politics the framework critiques. When Donald Trump advocates for institutionalizing a political paradigm of expelling immigrants, doubling down on racial profiling, and registering Muslim people, that is not “ divisive identity politics, apparently,” as Hadley Freeman explains in the Guardian. Under this formulation, Freeman writes, “white straight voters don’t have an identity — they are just people.” The critique of identity politics then, which is really just a call for people of color, queer people, trans people to be quiet, further normalizes the subject position of white, heterosexual, men as objective.
The second problem with this argument is that, even accepting the dubious premise that Democrats over-emphasized the “identities” of marginalized communities, it simply did not cost them votes. One need look no further than the ouster of incumbent governor and “sore loser“ Pat McCrory in North Carolina. McCrory banked his political career on targeting oppressed communities — particularly black people and trans people. Rather than silently accept his transparent suppression of black voters and anti-trans fear mongering, the public, including state and national Democratic leaders, pushed back. So while Trump took North Carolina, McCrory plainly did not.
Finally, I believe this identity politics argument is morally indefensible because what it really does is tell people that their very existence is the problem. It suggests marginalized communities should wait until white, straight men are comfortable before demanding their right to exist. I enjoy a joke at my own expense just as much as the next person, but there is something quite unnerving when you are expected to laugh at the systemic forces that make it impossible for you to survive.
The idea that my health care or my ability to go to the bathroom should be compromised and silenced is a request for me to succumb to the darkest impulses of self-hate that have plagued me my entire life.
I carried around this fear and self-hate even before state legislatures proposed more than 50 bills targeting trans people like me. And when these bills come, and they will keep coming, what are people like me supposed to do?
If we listen to Bruni or Lilla or Jost, the answer would be to just accept that our lives simply are not important enough to defend against these attacks; we should just focus on more important things like jobs. But that, of course, means jobs for other people since there is no way I, for example, could have a job if I am forced to use a women’s restroom. Not only would it be humiliating and dangerous for me to be forced into a space that directly undermines who I am, the mandate is really just a demand that I not exist in public space.
For as long as I can remember I have worked to overcome that same impulse within myself — the idea that I should not exist. Because of the health care that I have received, the jobs that have accepted me, the institutions that have included me, the communities that have loved me, I have found my way to a sense of beauty and pride in who I am.
I absolutely do not accept the insistence that my trans body is grotesque and dangerous or that my health care is unnecessary or that I should simply not go to the bathroom. If challenging those narratives costs us elections, then those are elections I will gladly lose. We cannot be patient in our demand to lift up the humanity of our siblings in struggle.
When trans people demand safety in public or the ability to go to the restroom, that is the politics of survival.
When black people demand not to be murdered in the street by agents of the government, that is the politics of survival.
When immigrants demand not to be held indefinitely in detention, that is the politics of survival.
When water protectors at Standing Rock or in Detroit demand clean water, that is the politics of survival.
When Muslim people demand to practice their faith without harassment, violence or forced registration, that is the politics of survival.
That people have an identity does not change the fact that they also have humanity. We all have both. Let us not be lulled into complacency by the thinly veiled calls for our silence by our so-called allies. And so, as I look ahead to the Trump administration, I know that I will put everything that I have on the line for my communities and for all other communities targeted by government policies or political discourse.
When my father casts his vote in defense of a separation between the “economy” and “identity,” he quite knowingly erases my own identity while undermining my ability to participate in the economy that he so disingenuously defends. But more than that, he misses out on being part of the beautiful, transformative vision that I, and others, have for our future.
We will build beautiful spaces; we will claim collective love; we will unrelentingly stand up for each other.
Take away our rights but you won’t take away my fight.