Transgender people and issues are receiving more attention in media and policy spaces, but there seems to be some uncertainty from libertarians on how to go about approaching them in both personal and political contexts. This is odd from a group that boasted acceptance of same-sex unions long before the mainstream left or right and also professes a commitment to individual autonomy. Shouldn’t we also be at the forefront of the push for equal rights and social acceptance for trans people?
The hostility some libertarians have towards trans issues may stem from a conflation of transgender identities with progressive or leftist politics and social theory. Perhaps this is understandable given the more visible political aims of many in the trans community: Non-discrimination and hate crime legislation. But it is unreasonable to invalidate all trans identities, on personal or political levels, merely because one disagrees with the policy aims of some.
Being trans does not determine one’s politics, though it may indeed inform them. Assuming we are all Marxists is a collectivist assumption that erases our individual ethical and political identities. Such assumptions are also likely to force trans people into progressive or leftist spaces by creating an expectation that libertarians will not respect trans identities, let alone appreciate how particular trans experiences of state oppression might inform political leanings.
Some of the bureaucratic procedures trans people are forced to deal with include: Jumping through medical and legal hoops to obtain doctors’ notes; petitioning judges; dealing with differences in state and federal regulations for birth certificates, state identification, passports, and social security cards; and providing proof of surgery (which not all of us want, let alone can we afford). All of these are required, to some degree or another, when making changes to names and gender markers. Detainment can result when our presentations of gender do not align with the expectations set by our legal documents. This is enough to make anyone opposed to government bureaucracy.
Libertarians are, in effect, pushing potentially excellent advocates out of their movement simply because they feel the need to put conservative cultural preferences above their respect for self-determination and tolerance.
Even a thin libertarian — one who professes to be concerned only with the non-aggression principle and harm inflicted by states — should recognize that trans issues are fundamentally about self-determination and individual liberty. Inherent in these principles is the right to self-identify.
Indeed, libertarian policy projects which aim at reforming the criminal justice system, reducing or eliminating immigration restrictions, and minimizing state identification requirements have much to offer trans activists. Even other mainstream LGBTQ groups have thus far failed to offer the trans community the kind of support needed, often due to their heavy focus on policies like same-sex marriage, which offer little, if anything, to trans people. More apt reforms would target youth homelessness, decriminalization of sex work, and gun ownership for self-defense.
Libertarianism offers a unique and useful framework for advancing these issues. There are many trans issues that seem solvable only in the social sphere, such as that of personal bigotry — which libertarians rightly balk at approaching through politics. But much of the struggle for trans acceptance, and the inability to access equal treatment under the law, is the result of the state’s power to define, interrogate, restrict, and punish on the basis of gendered expectations and their desire to preserve “normalcy.” Just as libertarians should reject the idea that there are culturally correct and incorrect ideas (as judged from the classical liberal political framework), we should also reject state attempts to codify a particular set of cultural norms.
When trans activists call for a cultural change, we are more often than not calling for a change in the official, statist culture — that which allows the TSA to harass trans people left and right, simply because we don’t fit neatly into the state’s security apparatus; that which tells police they are above the law — and often leads them to assault trans people (22% of trans people surveyed reported harassment by the police, and the figures are even higher for Black and Latinx trans people); and that which allows trans people to be imprisoned in solitary confinement, “for our own protection,” of course.
Not everyone has to accept trans people — liberalism allows for a diversity of private moral and ethical convictions. We only argue that those with transphobic beliefs recognize that these prejudices are incompatible with libertarianism. In effect, you can hold both libertarian and transphobic ideas, but not without being entirely inconsistent.
Trans people are not calling for the feds to come sweeping in and arrest every person who’s had a transphobic thought. Rather, we have a truly classical liberal intention; we just want the state — and by extension all who have to live within its legal system — to leave us the hell alone.