Joe Biden Calls Transgender Discrimination the "Civil Rights Issue of Our Time"

Joe is doing the right thing, and he’s getting on the right side of history here. By coming out publicly in support of trans rights, he’s sending a clear message, just as he did when he supported same-sex marriage.
Publish date:
October 31, 2012
politics, trans issues, civil rights, Joe Biden

I’m starting to develop a soft spot for Joe Biden. Our veep is one of those people who might appear on the surface to be making a series of gaffes or ridiculous public comments, but beneath the surface, he’s actually a great strategizer, and I don’t think those “casual” comments are as off-the-cuff as some people make them out to be.

I loved watching him eviscerate Ryan in the Vice-Presidential Debate, and I love watching him on the campaign trail even more. Unlike the President, who stays calm and collected most of the time, you never know what Biden’s going to do or say, and you never know when a little sound bite that changes the conversation might sneak in there. Sometimes, I think those sound bites aren’t just coming from Biden; I have strong suspicions that the President has supported him from behind the scenes on occasion.

Biden, after all, was the first of the two to come out in public support of same sex marriage. Some people have framed that as the push that forced the President to support it, but I’m not sure Biden would be that reckless. I suspect that was a carefully orchestrated decision to put the President in a public position to come down firmly on one side or the other, balancing political and social interests.

Now, I personally wish that same-sex marriage wasn’t such a huge priority for the mainstream queer movement, because there are a lot of things I’m way more worried about. I understand the symbolic importance of marriage as well as the embedded legal issues like visitation rights and child custody, but I hate that it seems to have become the cause celebre of the movement to the exclusion of issues like homelessness among queer youth, high suicide rates in the community, hate crimes against queer people and continued social discrimination.

Sure, striking down DOMA and legalizing same-sex marriage across the country would be very important symbolically and could even be an important gesture in terms of fighting discrimination. But the fact that a substantial of money and energy is invested in this cause troubles me, and makes me worry about the triaging skills of the organizations dominating the movement.

But I digress. Forgive me, I get a little hot under the collar when it comes to the subject of marriage equality. Obviously, it’s something I support, it’s just not as much of a priority for me as it is for many other people in the queer movement.

Biden was at it again with a game-changing, seemingly casual comment on a visit to a Florida field office, in which he said that transgender rights are the “civil rights issue of our time” when a woman at the office said that her daughter was Miss Trans New England and she wanted more support for transgender rights.

Now, Joe and I actually disagree a little bit here, which may surprise some of you. But, the thing is, I don’t think trans rights are the civil rights issue of our time. I think they are among a tangle of issues, including civil rights issues that still haven’t been addressed; we still need civil rights for disabled Americans, people of color and nonwhite people, low-income people, LGBQ people -- and the list seems to grow ever longer.

This is an election cycle where people of color are being subjected to an intense voter suppression campaign, for example, showing that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 didn’t put a stop to that particular civil rights issue.

So I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are multiple important civil rights issues going on in the United States right now, and that trans rights is only part of the picture. I do agree with Biden in the sense that it’s a subject that wasn’t really tackled by previous generations, and it’s risen to prominence as a result of more people living out and proud, more people applying pressure on the issue, and more groups agitating for civil rights protections.

Trans people need anti-discrimination protections, and it’s telling that in regions where people have tried to enact protections for the trans community, there’s been a lot of opposition. Some cities have done well on this subject; San Francisco, for example, has been working hard to protect its transgender and transsexual citizens. Other cities have struggled, dealing with internal pressures from people who don’t support trans rights, fear the trans community, or think such protections aren’t necessary.

While Joe and I might quibble over his wording, there’s one very important takeaway: Joe is doing the right thing, and he’s getting on the right side of history here. By coming out publicly in support of trans rights, he’s sending a clear message, just as he did when he supported same-sex marriage. He’s also creating a situation where the White House is effectively forced to comment on the issue as well, and I can only hope the President speaks strongly in support of trans rights, while tempering his comments to make it clear that he recognizes other ongoing civil rights issues in the United States.

Given that the Justice Department under Obama appointee Eric Holder has beefed up civil rights enforcement considerably, I think it’s safe to say that the Obama administration is concerned with civil rights. The DoJ has been active on voter suppression, disability rights, and a number of other civil rights issues to enforce existing laws and legal decisions and promote equal access to society for all Americans; sadly, of course, the Obama Administration has also supervised the rise of surveillance and other privacy violations, a marked contrast to its civil rights advocacy in other arenas.

I hope Biden’s statement signals a promise of more action from the DoJ if we reelect the President. And I hope that the administration reconsiders its often-conflicting stance on civil rights issues, as well. How is it that the administration can simultaneously acknowledge the need for equal rights for all people in the US while fighting judicial review of warrantless wiretapping and other intrusive surveillance tactics? Because this, too, is a civil rights issue of our time.

Image credit: Richard Cornish.