Yesterday, the Trump administration released a new set of guidelines that allow for health care providers to discriminate against LGBTQ people, particularly transgender individuals. In the detail which the guidance gives to the particular forms of discrimination allowed, one might say the document goes beyond a notice of what is allowed and into a tacit endorsement of such discrimination.
As noted by Masha Gessen in The New Yorker, among the practices explicitly allowed by the guidance are misgendering transgender individuals; refusing to grant gynecological care to trans men; giving medical advice, including drug prescriptions, based on an individual’s assigned sex at birth, regardless of their current physiology; and, that obsession of the anti-transgender movement, denying transgender people access to their proper restrooms.
This adds up to a license for medical practitioners to give care that is irrelevant, unhelpful, or actively damaging to transgender individuals, a group that already has worse health outcomes than average Americans.
As Gessen notes, it’s possible this document will be rendered irrelevant in a matter of days, as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a case regarding discrimination on the basis of sex and gender shortly. Depending on the outcome of that ruling, this guidance could be rendered moot, and, in any event, the guidance is a reversal of a 2016 rule issued under the Obama administration that has never yet gone into effect due to legal challenges.
In that sense, the guidance does nothing at all to change the material circumstances of transgender individuals in the United States – except to give a federal imprimatur to the bigotry they are shown.
The current guidance was issued on June 12th, the fourth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting that saw 49 killed and another 53 wounded at an LGBTQ establishment in Orlando. This may simply have been a mistake, but the timing feels something less than coincidental.
In this same week, J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter book series, posted a statement that was quite in line with the DHHS guidelines:
‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?
Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate https://t.co/cVpZxG7gaA
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
The statement drew wide criticism on Twitter, particularly from transgender rights supporters. Chelsea Steiner, writing at The Mary Sue, notes the contradictions of Rowling’s stance:
“If we’re following Rowling’s logic here, then only women menstruate and if you don’t menstruate you are not a woman? What about trans men and non-binary folks who menstruate? Do they not exist? What about women who have gone through menopause or for medical reasons do not menstruate? Are they no longer women?”
In response to the criticism, Rowling wrote an essay that further explored her feelings on sex and gender – an essay which ends up collapsing into fears that cisgender women will en masse decide to transition and that cisgender male abusers will apply to become certified as women in order to gain access to women’s restrooms.
Rowling’s stance seems to be that, as long as transgender individuals are obligated to undergo hormonal therapy and surgery – that is to say, as long as they submit their bodies to a certain medical standard, determined by an antagonistic government apparatus, in order to have their gender recognized by the state – she might be willing to support them.
That this is a clear violation of the principle of bodily autonomy, one of the central tenets of the feminist movement, does not seem to matter.
Rowling is not an agent of the state, and in that sense, her statement does not change the circumstances of transgender individuals in the United Kingdom. But she is the author of the most popular book series in history, and, rightly or wrongly, her words and ideas have had a profound impact on popular culture – and on Pagan culture as well, where a generation of Pagans have had their introductions to the ideas of witches and magic through Harry Potter. Although Rowling is steadfastly not a part of our community, her words nonetheless impact us.
We may like to think that we are not like those people, that the Pagan community is open, welcoming, and free of bigotry. That would be wrong.
While the Pagan and queer communities do frequently intermingle, Paganism has, throughout its history, put up many barriers against welcoming queer people into our spaces. Storm Faerywolf reflected on his own initial encounters with Paganism and magic as a gay man in his TWH column last year: “Though they were less harsh than my previous religious encounters, I still read blanket statements that gay people had no place in the magic circle, or that if we were admitted to a circle then we were expected to “assume the role of [our] actual gender” (whatever that means).” Nor are we so far removed from the clashes over Z. Budapest’s “genetic women only” ritual at the 2012 Pantheacon, which caused a widespread reevaluation of Paganism’s interactions with gender and biological essentialism.
All of which is to say that, as Pagans, as members of a religious community that was largely founded on the rejection of the patriarchal norms of Christianity, it is not enough for us to simply observe when figures of power attack queer communities. It is not enough for us to assume we are on the right side of history, or that through being passively “open” to transgender people we are providing actual support to those individuals.
Indeed, we have to make the choice to actively support the transgender and broader queer communities; we have to be willing to swallow our egos and follow the guidance of transgender leaders; and, yes, we need to examine the practices and assumptions within our religions, from the ways we invite people into our communities to the design of our rituals to even the assumptions about gender and identity encoded within our theologies.
Sarah Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, says this about the labor movement: “We as a movement are not automatically on the right side. We have to choose to be. And we have to live that choice.”
I think that sentiment applies to Paganism, too. As we see these attacks rise, facilitated by state actors and influential public figures, we as Pagans have to be deliberate in our choice to support our transgender siblings and neighbors. We will not do the right thing by accident.
Editorial note (June 15, 2020): US Supreme Court Says LGBTQ Employees Protected By Civil Rights Employment Statutes. Text from the Supreme Court: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/17-1618_hfci.pdf