A Reminder of Why We Must Protect Trans People

Juan Michael Porter II

We should fight for the rights of transgender people because it is the right thing to do and because trans rights, like Black rights, queer rights, and HIV rights are human rights — point blank, period.

I recently spelled that out to a former friend and fellow same-gender-loving man who asked why I kept getting “distracted” by supporting transgender folks. This person felt that I should stay in my lane and focus on HIV instead. He insisted — erroneously — that our trans siblings “don’t have it as bad as we did back in the day,” and were, therefore, less deserving of support.

It was almost as if he had transformed into a conservative commentator and forgotten about the existence of intersectionality — the overlay of existing discriminations that oppress various groups — and that we are all in this together.

Bigotry by any other name is still bigotry

After reminding him that he was mirroring the same coded language that xenophobic bigots have long used to deny aid to immigrants, I told him that I’d been hit with similar rhetoric from people who should’ve been standing in community with me: queer folks who have told me that people living with HIV “mess it up for gay people,” heterosexual artists who have claimed that my homosexuality was a perversion or that the only reason I was successful was because I am Black, and supposedly liberal — but actually racist — white gay men who’ve insisted that Black people “don’t have it as bad as [gay people] do and need to sit down.”

Not that the fight for collective liberation needs to be a case of the oppression Olympics, but it is obtuse to ignore the reality that if neo-Nazis show up, they are going to target Black folks first. Reductive comparisons aside, I speak of racism because the foundation for oppressing others in this country is rooted in anti-Blackness — equating the richness of one’s skin with “dark evil,” all while connecting the notion of “pale superiority” with purity — and that this same ideology has been seized by homophobes to associate queerness and especially transgender existence with negativity. Hence the rush by right-wing extremists, such as the so-called Proud Boys, to target drag performers, who they equate with trans people.

What it all comes down to, I told my no-longer friend, is that there will always be a reason to hate people who are different — especially when it helps one to divide and conquer. Or as the activist and artist Qween Jean recently put it, “How are we fighting for Black liberation while denying it for our queer and trans siblings? The assignment was to dismantle the master’s house — not move into the guest house.”

But moving into “master’s guest house” — by becoming white supremacist adjacent and allowing proxy wars to turn us against each other — seems to be the name of the game for some people. And what’s it all about? Ultimately, the collective eradication of anyone who exists outside of white Christian patriarchy’s ideal.

Arguing for freedom of thought while promoting genocide

Following our fractious discussion, I told my former friend that our relationship was over, at which point, he suggested that I was the actual bigot because I was judging him for holding a different opinion. I responded, “Harriet Tubman would have left you,” and walked away. Snappy retort and calm exterior aside, I felt sadly about this breakup. I got over it by reminding myself that while I respect one’s right to disagree with me, I refuse to share my time with anyone who argues for the invalidation of another person’s right to exist — or who peddles anti-liberation talking points.

The most recent rush of anti-liberation (and decidedly anti-queer) hate seems to have broken past years of anti-trans bathroom and sports legislation and found a new standard bearer in the governor of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law — which forces educators to out children who might be queer to their parents. The genesis for that law can be tracked to the Helms Amendment, which was introduced in 1987 by then-Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. That “no promo homo” law prohibited any funds provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from supporting HIV prevention materials and advocacy that might “promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual sexual activities.” This included mentioning anal sex.

Though Helms could be called the modern day progenitor of recent anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, its original blueprint was laid by a group of people who fled religious persecution in England, only to oppress others in this country — all while enshrining the rights of white Christian male landowners to eliminate Indigenous people, enslave and medically experiment on kidnapped Africans, and oppress their descendants. Presently, there is a move to erase this history because it might make white kids feel badly — all while ignoring how global majority children might feel or the fact that such history could inspire white youth to feel positively by aligning themselves with collective freedom.

Dragging us back in time

These efforts to legislate global majority and queer people out of existence are part of a multi-pronged attack to deny historically marginalized people access to sexual health or basic care, are the literal manifestation of “Silence=Death,” and have disastrous implications for all people — because what affects one will eventually affect all.

Though there has been some racial and sexual progress over the last two decades, with this year’s introduction of over 400 anti-LGBTQ bills, it seems that conservative activists have returned to saying the quiet part out loud. To wit, the conservative commentator who — during the Conservative Political Action Conference, held earlier this year — stated, “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”

This brings us back to Helms who, during his arguments against funding HIV prevention, stated, ″Some senators believe the AIDS epidemic is so bad that we should disseminate whatever materials anyone wants to produce regardless of content. But I still flinch when I hear the word condom on television… We’ve got to call a spade a spade and a perverted human being a perverted human being, not in anger but in realism… I just want the American taxpayer’s dollars to be spent in a moral way.″

By 1993, Helms’ morals had contributed to HIV becoming the leading cause of death among people aged 25-44 years in the U.S. Though he was considered extreme in his day, he still held the ear of Pres. Ronald Reagan and was able to push forward his amendment with a vote of 94-2. As Lori Behrman — then-spokesperson of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) — foresaw, ″This kind of amendment only sets a precedent that will come to haunt everyone at a later date.”

That date is now. And if we aren’t all in this together — if we don’t support transgender people who currently bear the brunt of these attacks, even as they fight for our collective right to thrive — we will be taken down piece by piece until there is no one left.

Juan Michael Porter II is a contributing editor for TheBody and TheBodyPro. He has been living with HIV since 2015. This column is a project of TheBody, Plus, Positively Aware, POZ and Q Syndicate.