The Radical Normalcy of a Trans ‘Jeopardy!’ Winner
I’d like Transgender Equality for $100, please.
The answer is: This kind of behavior infuriates people opposed to progress for trans and nonbinary individuals.
What is passing as normal?
In late December an Oakland, Calif., engineering manager named Amy Schneider became the winningest woman in “Jeopardy!” history — and then she kept on winning. She just became the first woman in the history of the game show to surpass $1 million in winnings during regular-season play.
Ms. Schneider tweeted in December that she felt “proud, dazed, happy, numb, all those things.”
Midway through her winning streak, Ms. Schneider began to talk publicly about her pride in another aspect of her identity. “I am a trans woman, and I’m proud of that fact,” she posted on Twitter, “but I’m a lot of other things too!” She asked her new followers to consider a holiday donation to charities that help trans folks in need, including the Trans Lifeline and the Transgender Law Center.
Unfortunately — but unsurprisingly — Ms. Schneider’s trans pride awoke a crew of conservative pundits who worked to chip away at her joy, insisting she hadn’t achieved the accomplishment of “most consecutive victories by a woman.” Their ugly quotes are hardly worth repeating, but the sum of it was the complaint that Ms. Schneider’s remarkable achievements weren’t a win for women. That, of course, is because they insist she is not a woman at all.
Like all dust-ups over trans success stories, this bloviating over a trans woman winning one of America’s longest-running game shows is not about Ms. Schneider herself or the records she has set. It’s not even, really, about women’s rights or biology. It’s about how terrifying some Americans find any shift toward inclusivity and tolerance. It’s about their unwillingness to accept the reality that it’s actually not very radical to be trans anymore. What, after all, is more mainstream than “Jeopardy!”?
To keep trans people on the margins of society, living in some sort of gender netherworld, is to assert that trans Americans aren’t America. It is OK only if gender variance stays in the realms of performance and satire, a laugh line on a sitcom, someone acting like a clown. Remember that time Rudy Giuliani appeared in drag as “Rudia” at a charity dinner? All in good fun! (Yes, I am aware that drag is actually an art form that has provided an outlet and a lifeline for many, many L.G.B.T. people.)
But heaven forbid trans people try to be something other than a laugh line. Was it actually Rachel Levine’s long history as a public health advocate that Rand Paul found so objectionable when he turned contentious, grilling her during her Senate confirmation hearings for assistant secretary of health? Sure, the occasion of Admiral Levine’s candidacy gave Senator Paul an opportunity to hold forth on what he saw as the evils lurking behind providing gender-confirming medical care to trans teenagers. But I suspect Admiral Levine’s greater sin was that she had the temerity to exist without shame in the first place.
Similarly, it probably wasn’t the patriotism of trans service members or their combat readiness that Donald Trump had in mind when he issued his directive to deny trans people the ability to serve in the military. More likely, it was the very idea that these heroes had the gall to be both valorous and visible.
It is worth admitting that normality as a goal, for anyone, is dubious at best. I know plenty of trans and nonbinary people whose very identity is tied up in the idea of transgression, of rejection of the chains that the idea of a gender binary demands. Allowing a multitude of ways to exist in the world seems like a very good way of setting people free.
My dear friend Kate Bornstein titled her 1994 memoir “Gender Outlaw.” In the years since then, she and I have had many loving disagreements about gender and whether to be trans demands that we become “outlaws.” I tell her, I’m an outlaw, but not because I’m trans. I’m an outlaw because I seek knowledge in a culture that elevates ignorance; I’m an outlaw because I’m a Deadhead in a culture that celebrates Justin Bieber. Being trans is essential to who I am, but it doesn’t make me an outlaw. For me, being trans, in the end, is kind of boring. I am surely not normal — whatever that means — but my transness has little to do with my being a kind of outlier. As Ms. Schneider tweeted: “The fact is, I don’t actually think about being trans all that often …. I wanted to represent that part of my identity accurately; as important, but also relatively minor.”
Normal, as the saying goes, is just a setting on the dryer.
It may be that what many social conservatives fear most of all is that making space for trans people in ordinary American life means that the very definition of what it means to be mainstream is changing. There is nothing inherently salutary about fitting in. But surely any list of accomplished Americans could include people such as my friend Lana Moore, a retired fire captain in Columbus, Ohio; Dr. Christine McGinn, who served as a flight surgeon for two space shuttle missions; my colleague Rebecca Oppenheimer, a professor of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University; and Tona Brown, an internationally acclaimed violinist and mezzo-soprano. All of them are trans, but they’re not heroes because of what they are. They’re heroes because of what they have done.
We’re almost out of time, so here’s the topic for Final Jeopardy: Famous Mythical Quotes.
And the answer is: Long (but likely falsely) attributed to Oscar Wilde, this is the best reason to just be yourself.
What is “Everyone else is already taken”?
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