Transit Tales and Transgender Typecasting

Illustration by Ash Cheshire.

Your average, modern city is a labyrinth of streets, linking home, work, and entertainment in a maze of asphaltic concrete as far as the eye can see. Heck, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, more than 80% of all public space in the average city is made up of streets. 

Ruling those streets is the automobile.

If you pull up newsreels from the beginning of the previous century, however, the city was a different place. Sure, you had streets — usually a mix of paved and unpaved, and not the heavily-engineered thoroughfares we experience today. On these, you’d find a mix of pedestrian traffic, public transit made up of cable, street, or horse cars, and a healthy smattering of carts and wagons. Oh, and of course, you might find a smattering of early cars. 

Indeed, in the brass-era of automobiles, the average flivver (a small, cheap car) was viewed with some disdain and fear. The car was generally faster than what was on the roads of the time, and their drivers were inexperienced. Traffic laws for cars, too, were still coming together. As a result, automobile-related fatalities were common, and many people were outraged.

Yes, we will get to some actual transgender-related content, I assure you.

After a push 100 years to limit vehicles to 25 miles per hour hit the ballot in Cincinnati, car makers, dealers, and others tried to shift the blame from the car to the pedestrian. The National Automobile Chamber of Commerce pushed the media to blame pedestrians over vehicles, and pushed for new laws to restrict foot traffic on roads. The Automobile Association of America treated safety campaigns to keep people out of the street. 

There was one more important element: public shaming. The term “Jaywalker” was born, essentially painting walking in the street as being unsophisticated and oafish. Shouting at jaywalkers was encouraged. 

These and other campaigns encourage the mockery of those using the streets as a walking thoroughfare and, while it took a while to catch on, one can see the ripple effects of that campaign today.  

It was likely the above social engineering campaigns, far more than the letter of the law, that changed the way our nation looks at roadways. Most people today, for example, do not think twice about waiting at a crosswalk, and would limit their time in a roadway. It has become something that one simply does not do. 

Now then, let’s consider something other than jaywalking. Let’s instead look at the transgender community. See, I told you we’d get there.

Since the 1990s or so, the visibility of the LGBTQ movement and, notably, the transgender community has grown. We have won nil the courtrooms, hat the ballot box, and in the hearts of minds of an otherwise skeptical public. While the LGBTQ movement as a whole grew, I would hardly argue that the transgender community itself gained more than the smallest level of leverage and authority. Nevertheless, we did gain visibility, and were able to press back in the same way pedestrians initially pushed back against the “speed demons” of early automobiles.

Yet in the last decade, this has begun to shift. Much like gay rights battles post-Stonewall faced the backlash of the Anita Bryant era, so too did the so-called “transgender Tipping Point” heralded by Time magazine in 2014 let to a dramatic push back.

Initially it was the “bathroom meme” of sex predators using trans rights to assault women and girls in restrooms. The idea never made sense, knowing that no law against sexual assault would be voided by the presence of a dress, and given there were far easier ways for sexual predators to access restrooms. 

As bad as the argument was, it did help cement one thing in the public’s mind, in much the same way the jaywalking rube became an anti-pedestrian symbol: while the initial notion was that sexual predators would use trans rights as a dodge, the nevertheless linked sexual deviancy with transgender people for many.

Consider everything since then. Transgender and LGBTQ book bans and “Don’t Say Gay/Trans” laws are based on the notion of any LGBTQ writing being obscene. The “groomer” panic, as well, is attempting to conflate the idea of sexual predators attempting to build trust with children for deviant sexual purposes with any support of LGBTQ — children and young adults. The care of trans youth, predominately young trans men, is lumped in with child sexual abuse. Likewise, “Drag queen story hours” are now under physical attack in part due to people trying to paint them as sexually charged events. 

This, of course, puts us in a bind: how do we discuss our sexuality and our gender identity without now being tainted with this same brush? I do not believe we need to try the same tactics that failed in the 1970s, by stripping away these parts of ourselves, or trying to proclaim how we are just like those people accusing us of sex crimes. Yet we need to figure out how we are pushing back.

100 years ago, our roads were vibrant places, where pedestrians, transit, and other conveyances worked together, until the automobile — and the social engineering that tied pedestrians with old-fashioned clowns — changed that for the worse, potentially forever. 

Will we change the narrative now, or are we doomed to a far worse fate? 

Gwen Smith invited you to look both ways, and then move gayly forward. You’ll find her at www.gwensmith.com/.