What took Biden so long on trans discrimination?

Many trans advocates welcome the VP's recognition, but others have been more critical

By Natasha Lennard
Published October 31, 2012 9:37PM (EDT)

Vice President Joe Biden called transgender discrimination "the civil rights issue of our time" to a woman outside a campaign office in Sarasota, Fla. Tuesday.  Although his comment was largely inaudible to pool reporters, his interlocutor later said she had described the abuse faced by her trans friends:

Linda Carragher Bourne of Sarasota said her daughter was Miss Trans New England and asked if he would help them. "A lot of my friends are being killed, and they don't have the civil rights yet. These guys are gonna make it happen," she told the pool.

Biden has been a vocal supporter of LGBT rights -- notably endorsing same-sex marriage before the president. Many will welcome Biden's comment about transgender rights. Bourne took to Facebook to elatedly recount here interaction with him: "It was a miraculous (to me) and magical moment in time... He’s in our corner, friends!!!" [sic.]

However, other trans allies and advocates reacted to Biden more critically. One trans activist acquaintance of mine took to Facebook to comment, "Oh, Fuck off Joe Biden," and was followed up by a fellow commenter noting, "You mean Uncle Joe doesn't have the right invested in him by White Male Privilege to tell marginalized communities what 'the Civil Rights Issue is of our time' [is]?"

Much like how President Obama characterized Biden's gun-jumping on same-sex marriage as borne of his "generosity of spirit," the trans comment no doubt came from a genuine concern for trans rights. But anger at his comment stems from the rage and pain felt in marginalized queer and trans communities. They have not been ameliorated by Biden's one meeting with LGBT leaders in his Washington home.

If the vice-president sees transgender discrimination as the civil rights issue of our time, he has maintained a startling silence up until now over the fact that 50 percent of all LGBT hate-crime murder victims are trans. Biden has also not spoken up so far for the educators and parents around the country who have been swiftly silenced when they attempt to bring policies into schools to provide safe spaces for trans children.

Nor has Biden spoken about the criminal justice system's treatment of trans individuals. He said nothing when trans advocates nationwide decried the 41-month jail sentence (in a male prison) handed to transwoman CeCe McDonald in Minnesota. McDonald was charged with manslaughter after killing one of her transphobic attackers in a group assault, which saw her face smashed in and scarred with a glass. Not only was McDonald assaulted for being trans, she was punished for defending herself.

Granted, when it comes to riling trans communities, Roseanne Barr set a bar this week when she tweeted against any policy that would allow transwomen into female bathrooms. She tweeted, “Women do not want your penises forced in their faces or in our private bathrooms. Respect that FACT.” (Some corners of) Twitter erupted in anger at Barr's distinction between transwomen and "real" women and her assumption that transwomen with penises wanted to "force" them anywhere. Thus, in the presidential race field, which technically includes Barr, (she is the Peace and Freedom Party's candidate), Biden no doubt stands out as a trans advocacy hero.

For a type of discrimination to be "the civil rights issue of our time," however, there should be at least a modicum of institutional recognition of the problems and abuses faced by the group in question. Trans people enjoy no such institutional recognition at all, just regular abuse and alienation. If the vice president believes this to be the civil rights issue of our time, one week before an election is an odd time to announce it to one concerned mother. It is understandable that many trans people who have spent lifetimes fighting discrimination in an abusive, gender-normative world are not welcoming Biden's inaudible proclamations with open arms, although many thousands of Uncle Joe's liberal supporters will.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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Cece Mcdonald Election 2012 Lgbt Trans Trans Rights Transgender