the surrealness of being trans in 2020

By Audrey June

I am less afraid of dying because I am trans than I was 2 years ago. This probably seems counter-intuitive given that the world is almost certainly darker than it was then. I am going to spend a lot of time and words explaining some of this. This is simply where I am at, living as a late 30’s trans woman.

I am sure part of this is that I am frequently read as cis now, or at least “cis enough” in the eyes of the general public. In the 2+ years that I have been fully out and moving through the world as a woman I have yet to experience harassment or danger as a result of my transness, though I have had moments where being a woman has put me into situations of elevated risk. But no one has ever openly and vocally questioned my use of the restroom, and I only received awkward looks while shopping the one time—shopping for dresses, prior to coming out, during Prom Season no less.

However, I also am aware that in the darkest hour my blending into society will not save me. I have already legally changed my name. Now I am just updating all the documents. There will be a trail, and should the worst happen, my history can be ascertained.

I remember the first time I thought about the darkest dangers of my transness. When the Trump administration announced their (I intentionally refuse to use “it” in reference to a group of people, they are not a faceless monolith, they are awful individuals who are acting with the full knowledge of the horrific impact their policy changes will have) initial push to strip away the rights of trans people in 2018, I was absolutely frightened in a way I never had been before. It was a year into my transition, and the reality of the change—going from being read as a cis het man to a trans gay woman—really hit me. For years I had followed politics as an “interest” and while I had known months earlier that my safety and health were now political questions, it hadn't hit home until that day. That was the day that I first had the thought “oh, I might need to get GRS, not just for my emotional and mental well being, but for my physical safety. That might actually be the primary reason eventually.”

These days I find these thoughts have managed to find their way in more often, but I have acclimated to them. It's not that I think the worst is likely but that I recognize that we live in a world where some previously unthinkable things are definitely possible. For me, this is what the age of Trump is: the reality of the absurdity. We have grown accustomed to each day being hit with a story more ridiculous than the last. Our nation is no longer capable of being shocked.

I imagine if 9/11 happened today, people would shrug it off. The conspiracy theories would somehow be even more ridiculous than the ones of that era. People would protest that there was any interruption to the airline schedules. Somehow, we would find the grounding of planes controversial, as previously unknown pundits crawled out of the woodwork to question whether that was “really necessary.”

At this point, I don't know if a breaking point exists for Trump supporters. I should ask my mom where hers is. What would it take for you to say “I am done with this Presidency”? If you can't imagine one, doesn't that scare you? If you are supporting someone for whom no action can be presented to sway you from them, isn't that basically a cult? Didn't we already escape one—doesn't it concern you to possibly be involved with another one?

It can sound hyperbolic to invoke the use of the word “cult,” but I assure you as a survivor of one, I don't do so lightly. I am going to spare you the details, but suffice to say I was born into the outskirts of one, and raised in it till I was 11. My family wasn't super deep, I wasn't in obvious imminent danger, and it wasn't a Jim Jones-eque suicide cult. But it doesn't take extremes like that to really warp the way you see the world and fuck with your sense of reality.

The cult of the Trump Presidency doesn't bear all of the markings, but it sure has plenty, and it has one of the most dangerous: the principle that information contradictory to its worldview is not only false, but proves the validity of that view. Every news article, expose, leak, tell-all and smoking gun is not only false, but proof of the righteousness of their cause and the evilness of those who oppose them. This is the view that says that reporters are puppets being pulled by an international cabal, the Deep State, and other boogeymen. When people get to this level in a traditional cult it becomes very difficult to get them out. This is the point where families watch their loved ones cut them off and become completely separated. This is when those families become desperate and have those same loved ones kidnapped and deprogrammed.

Individual deprogramming isn't a tactic that scales to 30% of the population though. That's where we find ourselves now, as that appears to be the base of voters supporting the President at all costs. I don't pretend to have answers to how we combat that, my only hope is that once defeated they see the reality of the situation and cast off this man like they have so many defeated GOP politicians before him.

Which brings us to the current non-zero concern: what if they don't? What if they don't accept the reality of defeat? This isn't the 70's, there are no GOP politicians lining up to impeach a derelict president like there were for Nixon. This isn't 1992, they are not turning their backs on Trump like they did Bush 1 for failing to live up to his promises. This isn't even 2008, when conservatives were ready to move on for Bush 2 because they saw him betraying their principles. This feels to me like a group of people who have succumbed to a win-at-all-costs mindset. In their minds, Trump is a winner. Sure he's coarse, but he pisses off “the libs,” so it's excusable. Plus, having him in office keeps those scary socialists far far away. The fact that he betrays even their professed concerns does not sway them because he's got the correct letter after his name, and that gives them proximity to power, even if that proximity is largely imaginary.

This situation leads to the possibility of an amazing number of really bad scenarios. The first is that the election outcome is almost certainly going to be contested. There is no margin of defeat for Trump that can guarantee this situation will be averted. A close election? Always ripe for contention. A landslide defeat? Expect wild claims of impropriety. The 2016 election saw a polling error lead to the astonishment surrounding Trump’s victory. This is actually a common thing, but when the error is in favor of the losing candidate (i.e. the loser loses by more than expected), it goes unremarked. Don’t be surprised though if that changes this time, and a wider Biden victory is used by supporters as evidence of malfeasance.

This brings us to the next possibility: a presidential election decided by the Supreme Court. The last time this happened the court stepped in and stopped a statewide recount ordered by a lower court. Al Gore ultimately demurred and conceded, but does anyone expect that this time?

As I write this two pretty bad options are obvious: one is that a court nomination is rushed through either before or immediately following the election and that Judge is then immediately presented with the role of casting a critical vote on this election. The other is that the seat remains open and the court splits 4-4 and the election is decided by a lower court ruling, or perhaps a series of them. Either way, it’s an awful situation and regardless of the official winner it brings up the spectre of further chaos and contention.

For most of us, the 2000 election was the closest and most controversial one of our lifetimes, but the country’s craziest election dispute was actually in 1876. A series of disputes surrounding 20 decisive electoral votes across 4 states led to both candidates claiming victory. The country faced an unprecedented constitutional crisis, and ultimately had to set up a 15 person commission to settle the dispute. The resolution was a grand compromise that saw Democratic Candidate Samuel Tilden conceding to Republican Candidate Rutherford B. Hayes for a series of concessions, the most important of which was the withdrawal of Federal troops from the remaining Southern states. The Republicans sold out the Southern Black citizens who had voted for them in exchange for the temporary power of an electoral win. This act marked the end of Reconstruction and allowed the further entrenchment of the post-War apartheid state across the South. It should be noted, the election was not a “fair election” by any means, and there was rampant suppression and intimidation of Black citizens all across the South including the states that were disputed. Several states had a majority of Black citizens but this was not reflected in the results due to the widespread terror propagated by paramilitary groups. This allowed the official results to show that Tilden had received a majority of votes cast, and while there have been five elections in which the loser of the popular vote has won the electoral college, Tilden remains the only one to officially lose the electoral college while receiving a majority of the popular vote.

The common thread in both of these cases is that politicians ultimately sided with stability above all else. It wasn’t merely the candidates that had to concede the elections, it was also their supporters—especially those who held Federal office. Senators and House Reps had the power to really contest the election, indeed it is Congress that counts the votes of the Electoral College. It is not surprising to me that those in the South, less than a decade removed from War would be hesitant to push back too hard, especially as they were given so many key concessions. Nor am I shocked that Al Gore, who in 2000 was the very personification of centrist Democrat, would choose the magnanimous route and opt to avoid contention. No one expects this of Trump, the man is anything but magnanimous. If it comes down to whether the Democrats are forced to either accept another controversial loss meekly, or escalate, I am not actually sure that good outcomes can result from either. The former is a path to the further entrenchment of fascism, the latter might be the tipping point for widespread violence on a domestic scale we haven’t seen since the early days of the labor movement.

I swear that every year we hear “this is the most important election of our lifetimes,” and I can’t help but wonder why that always feels correct. Is it merely that our media culture and political class manages to exploit our fear and create urgency to reinforce power structures that serve them? This is how I have often felt, especially pre-transition. Even in 2016, I didn’t think the worst predicted outcomes of Trump’s election were all that likely. Sure, the right manages to find unique monsters to put up for election, but even the worst ones usually seem to manage to find a way to not be complete caricatures of evil. Hell, even Reagan granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants—that he later disowned. The visions of fascism simply seemed too unlikely though. White Supremacists are always backing right-wing candidates, but surely they hadn’t actually found one willing to give them influence?

My expectations existed in a paradigm governed by the history of power seekers who had at least a small modicum of restraint, and the capability of personal shame. Even when I allowed for the possibility that Trump himself might exceed the window of typical abhorrent behavior that exists with right-wing U.S. leaders, I still expected the rest of the right to make real attempts to rein him in. I know, I know, it was incredibly naïve of me, but I actually believed at least a significant number of these assholes at least adhered to the principles they claimed to be defending. Instead they have proven themselves to be a group composed of liars, cowards, and hypocrites.

So here we are, it’s 2020 and we rang in the New Year as wildfires raged across an ocean away enveloping an entire continent, and a viral epidemic was breaking out on another. We’ve watched for the last four years as fascism has openly and brazenly expanded. The fire and the plague are upon us here, and the paramilitary reactionaries are literally barricading roads. We have an election that is basically guaranteed to be disputed and a sitting President that won’t commit to accepting the results, and also openly speculates about attempting to run for a third term.

It’s surreal.

Now, I am not so naïve anymore as to not see the many ways that this is a continuation of the previously quiet behavior the right has been engaged in for decades. However, the fact that they have become so emboldened as to openly and proudly campaign towards fascism is very concerning. When we talk about punching fascists, a big part of that is about creating an environment where fascists are afraid to be open about their beliefs. The world we live in is increasingly tolerant of them, and that is a problem. Once they make far enough inroads, the power they seize will be enough to greatly expand their reach. This is how they operate. They exploit the openness of societies that make the mistake of tolerating them. A majority is not what they are after, because they won’t need it. They will simply take the levers of government to consolidate what power they have and simply abolish the machinations of dissent.

To some this probably sounds extreme. Really, fascists gaining influence in our town? It’s more likely than you think. Consider this definition by Jason Stanley, who literally wrote a book about fascism in 2018, “a cult of the leader who promises national restoration in the face of humiliation brought on by supposed communists, Marxists and minorities and immigrants who are supposedly posing a threat to the character and the history of a nation.” This is exactly what “Make America Great Again” has always been about.

I opened by professing that I am less afraid for my safety now than I was 2 years ago, and yet have spent most of this space by giving many reasons why I should actually be much more afraid. More fear would probably be justified. For all the reasons I have listed we are much closer today to living in a dystopia that would see transgender people and rounded up and murdered, imprisoned, or otherwise removed from society. By changing my name I have removed the option of taking easy measures to hide should the worst happen. I can’t simply shave my head, use my deadname, and pretend to be that person in order to survive. It’s a pretty extreme measure, but these are also extreme times, and 2020 has taught me not to underestimate the possibility of extremes.

One extreme, civil war, has been brought up occasionally over the past decade as people have considered what the country might look like after breaking apart. This is something I contemplate surprisingly often, because while I think it unlikely, I think we all have to consider planning for the unlikely, but disastrous possibilities. Most of us understand the value of taking at least mild precautions around the common natural disasters for our area, whether they are hurricanes, snow storms or flooding. I think the possibility of widespread violence not only by the state against citizens but also by paramilitary groups (like the Proud Boys) is something that all of us need to be actively preparing for. What these preparations look like is going to vary from person to person, depending on where you live and what your needs and abilities are. I think though that it is imperative that we all ask ourselves “what would I need to do to keep myself and my loved ones safe if shit got bad tomorrow?” and look at the steps we can take now to be prepared for that scenario.

I know all of this sounds incredibly alarmist. That’s not by accident. We should all be alarmed that this is where we are. If I took a time machine to 2008 and told you about 2020 and the last four years, there is almost certainly no way you would believe me. I wouldn’t have believed me. When you really step back and look at it, it’s really fucking unbelievable. We have been desensitized to how unbelievable it is. That’s part of why we should be alarmed. Growing accustomed to egregious and outrageous behavior by a world leader is part of what enables him. Because it’s hard to be outraged all of the time, it’s exhausting. We need to be prepared though to not only be outraged but enact action should any of the doomsday scenarios come to fruition.

Which finally brings us to the two reasons my fear is lower now. I really do believe in our ability to defeat fascism (at least on a local level, and I remain more concerned for those of us who live in rather inhospitable areas). I think if the conflict that the Right is openly cheering for breaks out, I think I live in an area that might make it through. A lot could go wrong, mind you, I live a few miles from a major military base, after all. However, Western Washington is probably one of the safer places to be, and there is a sizable mountain range between here and much of the most Right Wing population in the state. It’s also a 3.5 hour drive to the border, should it ever come to that (while also acknowledging that might not be an option either).

I want to also explicitly state that I am not an accelerationist or even an active proponent of revolution. Such a conflict would get very ugly, very quickly. The most marginalized of our community would suffer the most, and while I think a victory is possible, it is by no means guaranteed, and even a “victory” over fascism does not necessarily entail a world with improved conditions.

Which brings us to my second reason for being less afraid: when you live in a world that often sees your mere existence as troubling and a problem to be solved, being happy becomes an act of defiance. Taking joy and optimism in your daily life becomes a political statement. It is a middle finger to those who actively work against my well-being. I live my life with cheer and optimism. This might not be possible forever, but I refuse to relinquish the realities of today in fear of the doom of tomorrow. Preparing for the future does not mean we must be prisoners of it.

So I do not show fear, and in turn, over time, I have come to experience far less of it. I am not cavalier, and I am not reckless. But I am also not about to give in to the desires of the people who would see me dead.

So why am I less afraid, even as the world burns and crumbles, and the boots of fascists march in the street? Ultimately, because fuck them, that’s why.