A Special Place in Hell
If you are paying attention to politics in Washington State, then you likely have heard about Senate Bill 6443 (and a few more that are similar in tone and effect). This is the one politely known as the “Bathroom Bill.” Basically, SB 6443 codified a demand to the Washington Human Rights Commission – the administrative agency that engages in rule-making pursuant to the Washington Laws Against Discrimination (WLAD) – repeal WAC 162-32-060. This WAC simply states that it is a violation of WLAD to force people to use bathrooms that do not conform with their gender. No boys in the girls room, no women in men’s locker rooms. I wrote about this bill during the hearings.
Thankfully, the bill failed on the floor of the State Senate. There are more to kill, and some Republican legislators are promising a ballot measure. I fear the impact that conversation is going to have on trans youth across the state. But I also have hope that the people of Washington will see through this veiled attempt to discriminate against a population that has been rejected and neglected for years – including by many in the LGBTQ community.
This has been a year of pretty awful rhetoric. The #BernieBros phenomenon; the bathroom bills (they’ve also been killed in Virginia this year); some of the racism we are seeing in progressive circles; the racism and Islamaphobia from the GOP candidates; the constant attacks on women’s reproductive rights.
One uniting characteristic of much of the vitriol? Straight white dudes.
It is not uncommon for historically marginalized communities to gather together to support their own for elective office. For all of the gains our country has made in terms of passing laws that outlaw discrimination – whether based on race, gender, orientation, identity, religion – we continue to lag in actually achieving equitable equality. Frankly, the only way to ensure that laws are functioning in a way that moves away from the institutional isms and phobias is to have more people who have actually experienced discrimination making decisions in the halls of power.
My people have the Victory Fund, which is designed to assist LGBTQ candidates be successful – through training, connections with donor networks, and recruitment of more LGBTQ candidates, particularly those who experience the intersectionality between race, gender, and identity. The Northwest Women’s Political Caucus does a phenomenal job recruiting and supporting women running for office – working to change the sad fact that only 1/3 of our state legislators are women. Progressive Majority Washington - headed by an LGBTQ person of color - actively recruits, trains, and supports diversity in candidate pools across the State. Something that many other organizations seeking to elect people on their issues fail to do.
When groups do similar work for people of color and Latinos, charges of reverse racism regularly fly. Similarly to what the LGBTQ community will hear about trying to elect from our community, or people explaining to women that they are just discriminating against men by trying to elect more women. This isn’t to say that folks are always the most articulate when attempting to make a point. Much has been said about former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s revival of her own line regarding a “special place in hell for women who don’t help women.”
But the point is similar to what many of us have: when we are divided, we don’t win. The challenges and roadblocks to just getting to the table set up by society are not insignificant, and I do believe there is an obligation to support changing that. I recently wrote about the importance of being at the table – lest we are left on the menu (if we’re lucky). The fact is that for all of the ally we have in straight white dudes, they will never have shared the experiences of extreme prejudice that we have.
Locally, I am reminded of my own campaign for Seattle City Council. I was proudly supported by many in the LGBTQ community who believed that diversity at the table is a good thing. Not all, mind you, but we definitely held our own. Even still, concern was raised that I was too "preoccupied" on LGBTQ issues (regularly bringing up the need to invest in solutions for LGBTQ youth homelessness).
But then there is what happens after the fact. My now city council member had a tough night with a neighborhood group. I was the recipient of a letter telling me that my people – the LGBTQ community – has too much already and that I needed to “grow the fuck up,” with a copy to my boss in hopes I would be fired.
The experience of straight white dudes is very different from gay white dudes. Yet even we have much in the way of privilege that women and people of color just do not. And can I even mention transgender persons? Some of the vitriol is incredibly beyond the pale, and commonly tosses in some homophobia for good measure.
I was again reminded of this dynamic today while listening to KUOW’s Week in Review. Paul Guppy, Vice President for Research at the Washington Policy Center (a conservative think-tank) went on a rant of sorts opposing a bill that would make it easier for prosecutors to charge police officers who engage in misconduct with crimes. His rant included the idea that “minorities” make up the majority of criminals, and that, in his view, the real issue in “minority” neighborhoods in black-on-black crime, and that “minorities” should be welcoming of greater police presence.
Suffice it to say, this did not go over well with another panelist – civil rights activist, writer, and Editor at Large of TheEstablishment.co, Ijeoma Oluo. She wasted no time identifying the racism in his statements, and attempting to present data about the brutality people of color experience. This led to shouting – almost exclusively from Mr. Guppy trying to shut Ms. Oluo down and claim her point was invalid.
This is the world we create when our people in places of power are predominantly straight white men. Whether those places are in elective office, media, journalism, or other arenas where influence is had, and opinion is freely given.
It should be no surprise, of course, that this is where we are. Nationally, 79.8% of the United States House is white, 10.1% black, 7.8% Hispanic, and 2.3% Asian. (The Senate is 94% white, 2% black, 3% Hispanic, and 1% Asian). Men make up 80.6% of the House’s membership, and 80% of the Senate’s. There is one LGBTQ U.S. Senator, and six (out of 435) in the House – 1% overall of Congress.
Compare those to the actual American public – 49% male, 51% female; 63.7% white; 12.2% black; 4.7% Asian; 16.3% Hispanic or Latino. Clearly the makeup of our halls of power are lagging behind the people of our country.
And it does matter. While the Washington Laws Against Discrimination adding LGBTQ protections didn’t happen overnight, having colleagues who were out undoubtedly helped corral the bill through. The same can be said about marriage equality. Protection for women’s health care access is not going to be assured by men, because most will not understand the importance of it being a priority. Historical and ongoing institutional racism is not caused simply by economic inequality, rather is greatly exacerbated by income inequality and divestment (ie: Flint, MI).
That’s why whenever I hear the charge of “identity politics” I cringe. It is a charge levied as a reason to ignore the real-life experiences of people growing up without privilege. While straight dudes make for great votes and great allies, better policy and prioritization of investment happens when we have diversity in our halls of power. And wherever we have opportunity to grow that diversity – more women, more LGBTQ (especially trans*), more Latino, more African American, more Asian American – for the sake of our country and future generations, we must. That also means that straight dudes and white dudes need to check themselves, and determine whether it is in our communities’ best interest for us to run for power, or for us to encourage and support those who are historically – and presently – denied a seat at the table.