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Wednesday, September 22,2010

Transgender turn into GOP’s newest political football

by Kyle Melinn

Forget the double-dip recession breathing down our neck. Figuring out creative ways to run government cheaper? Why bother.


Michigan’s top issue is male-to-female transgender individuals using women restrooms. It’s certainly not the other way around. I mean if female-to-male transgender individuals (or anyone else for that matter) actually want to brave the dirty guy’s john, go for it.


I’m not making this up. The wedge issue used by conservative Republicans throughout the summer primary focused on the 0.5 percent born with one set of genitalia but who associate with the other gender as adults.


In the secretary of state race, state Rep. Paul Scott drew headlines across the state earlier this year for vowing to deny folks the ability to change their gender identity on their driver licenses.


Weeks before the state Republican Party convention, eventual nominee Ruth Johnson, likely concerned Scott would outflank her among conservatives, sold her soul to the mildly scary Campaign for Michigan Families and came out in support of Scott’s position.


Initially, Johnson told the capital news service MIRS she thought the issue was a law enforcement issue. But on the eve of what was assumed to be a nip-and-tuck battle with Scott, Johnson, the Oakland County clerk, told the Ward and June Cleaver-era "family" group: "I do not support allowing people to change their gender on their license as a result of surgery or lifestyle."


She also opposed giving same-sex couples the right to adopt and any effort to appeal the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. As if that has anything to do with the mostly administrative job of being secretary of state.


Who knows how Johnson pulls this off if she beats Democrat Jocelyn Benson for the secretary of state position in November. Will she order her clerks to disobey court orders that demand a person’s designation be changed? Will she subject her office’s scarce resources to lengthy litigation? If so, to what end?


Will women across this state feel saver using the public toilet knowing Johnson is doing her darnedest to keep out those whose appearance doesn’t match their gender identity?


A similar dynamic played out in the Michigan State University board race, where former football stud Mitch Lyons used transgender people as a wedge issue to differentiate himself from GOP incumbent Don Nugent.


Again, Lyons benefited from the Gary Glenn-led Campaign for Michigan Families, which put out an e-mail blast that went after Nugent for voting to add the "radical term" gender identity to the harassment clause of Michigan State’s nondiscrimination policy in ’03 and ’07.


Glenn didn’t reference incidents of transgender individuals being harassed, attacked, ridiculed or otherwise discriminated on campus in his e-mail blast. Nothing about the story of Kevin O’Malley, who was beaten up on MSU’s campus several years ago for being transgender.


Instead, he told one story about a Western Michigan University professor who found herself showering next to a male-to-female transgender person at the on-campus health club. She apparently saw a penis. Must have been a horrifying experience for everyone involved.


"Is this the kind of policy Republican state convention delegates expect their candidates to support once elected to office?" Glenn asked.


It’s a horrifying concept, isn’t it, that Republicans would actually be open-minded enough to accept the challenges faced by the tiny fraction of individuals who face gender identity issues?


Lyons told me he would have been a "no" vote on both of the transgender votes. Is he going to make it a big issue if he’s on the MSU board? Probably not. He said the issue was brought up to show some difference between himself and Nugent. In fact, he was a little uncomfortable with how the tone played out.


Regardless the issue helped Lyons beat Nugent at the convention. He is now one of the Republican nominees. Brian Breslin, who also benefited from the anti- Nugent attacks, is the other GOP nominee. Considering MSU Trustees are typically swept in by the strength of the top of the ticket, both should be considered favorites to win in November.


Will transgender individuals come up in the General Election? Unless the Democrats bring it up, no. Outside of the red-meat conservatives who sit through the Republican convention, it’s hard to see how a rationale person can honestly get fired up about this issue.


But what it shows is that six years removed from the unnecessary anti-gay marriage amendment of 2004 and the divisive anti-affirmative action proposal of 2006, the hard-core among the Republican Party can still find a disadvantaged population to use as a political foothold when needed, even when it couldn’t be less of a real issue.


How unfortunate and sad that is.


(Kyle Melinn is the News Editor of the MIRS Newsletter. He’s at Melinn@lansingcitypulse.com.)

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