Carlos Motta’s We Who Feel Differently: On Trans Politics and Visibility in the Last Decade
In this exclusive two-week screening, artist Carlos Motta speaks with activist Chase Strangio about fighting for trans rights and autonomy.
Stuart Comer, Chase Strangio
Jun 21, 2023
Carlos Motta’s We Who Feel Differently: On Trans Politics and Visibility in the Last Decade screened here June 21–July 5, 2023. The video is no longer available for streaming. Join us for the next Hyundai Card Video Views, screening on July 19.
Carlos Motta. We Who Feel Differently. 2012
See below for a transcript of the video.
My name is Chase Strangio. I am deputy director for transgender justice at the national office of the ACLU in our LGBTQ and HIV project. In this role, I litigate cases across the United States, often challenging government restrictions on the rights and autonomy of transgender people. I also lobby in state legislatures to try to stop the passage of anti-trans legislation, and try to mobilize public discourse around trans bodies and gender justice more broadly. I’ve been at the ACLU since 2013. So I’ve spent the last decade doing this work in different permutations. And currently, a lot of the focus of my work right now is litigating in federal courts, in some state courts, trying to stop the, you know, very significant governmental assault on the ability of trans people in the United States to access healthcare generally, but particularly gender-affirming healthcare.
Carlos Motta: What has happened in the last decade?
I think if we think about the last decade and particularly the last eight years, it’s been a combination of sort of a rise of visibility with a sort of very, you know, you could think of it as a rise in backlash against trans bodies than against gender variants more broadly in the United States and around the world. I mean, part of that comes from the way in which mainstream LGBTQ legal movements prioritized the recognition of marriage in civil marriage in the United States, sort of focusing on normative relationships between same-sex couples and trying to obtain legal recognition of civil marriage. And in the course of doing that, emphasized, you know, or sort of put a lot of resources behind movements for legal equality. And so sort of creating narratives in the courtroom about the ways in which cisgender, lesbian, and gay people were equal to different sex couples. And that was a huge focus of mainstream LGBT legal movements in the United States.
That results in, I would say, two fundamental things. The first is the, you know...sort of success of this rights-based movement in the culmination of two major Supreme Court decisions in the United States: one being in 2013, that’s the Windsor decision, striking down federal restrictions on recognition of marriage between same-sex couples, and then Obergefell v. Hodges. That’s in 2015, and that’s the case from the United States Supreme Court, in essence, recognizing marriage equality for same-sex couples. That, you know, creates this sense of formalized legal equality based on sexual orientation. That was the culmination of decades of work from the LGBTQ legal movement. It also creates a huge backlash from the right that had focused for the same number of years, for decades in trying to stop marriage equality for same-sex couples.
The right, our opponents, were very agile in shifting their focus of their attacks onto trans bodies, onto trans people, while the mainstream LGBT movements were not so agile in focusing resources on the support for trans people and people who had been historically marginalized from the center of mainstream LGBTQ advocacy. So that’s sort of one trend that happens over the course of this period of time.
I think the secondary thing that’s happening is the rise of social media and other sort of democratized so-called, or, you know, potentially democratized platforms for the spread of information. So you have increased visibility of trans people and communication of trans people across space in a different way. And so you have then, you know, while you have this sort of rise in acceptance of lesbian and gay people, cisgender, lesbian and gay people, you also have this increase in visibility among trans people that's happening at the same period of time. Both of those things lead to a very significant backlash against trans people, the success of the lesbian and gay mainstream civil marriage movement, and then the increase in visibility of trans people, both in sort of the cultural production context, which is through, you know, television and film as well as through social media platforms that are allowing people to share information about themselves in new ways.
From 2016, after the Obergefell decision to the present, we see this very methodical escalation of attacks on trans bodies. And that’s culminating in what we’re seeing in 2023, which is a very singular fixation in many ways from the political right, the Christian right in the United States on stopping, you know, trans existence, trans embodiment through very strategic attacks on people’s ability to access healthcare, people's ability to enter and maintain their freedom in public space, people's ability to maintain control over their reproductive autonomy.
So those are sort of the main trends that are happening over time. This is also, of course, happening in a global context where we see the rise of right-wing governments globally. With that rise of right-wing governments globally, is also this fixation on attacking what is, you know, deemed gender ideology or sex-based rights, or, in the US, transgenderism, different words for really the same thing, which is these pseudo-fascist, Christo-fascist governments trying to increase their control over the family and the body and enforce very particular norms of gender and sexuality. So all of these things are happening in this dynamic process in which they’re reinforcing each other. And now we’re in this situation in 2023 with real increase in precarity among the ability of people who exist outside of the gender binary in any way to access material needs as well as legal protections.
CM: Why is transness such a threat for conservatives?
I mean, I think there’s sort of two fundamental reasons, at least in the US, why we’re seeing this fixation on trans people, and I sort of understand and am most familiar with the US context, although I think it does apply globally. The first is that, you know, transness represents a fundamental freedom from the lie of the gender binary. So this idea that there’s this structural imperative that we oppose on infants that there are two fixed genders that you can discern at birth organizes much of society. So transness represents a fundamental threat to that. This idea that you can exist outside that which we presume to be fixed. You can exist outside that, which we presume to be, you know, immutable. And so the freedom that transness represents, the idea that we have more agency, we have more choices is a fundamental threat to, you know, a sort of fascist ideology that wants people to believe that you have limited choices. They have to give up their freedoms even before those freedoms are taken from them. So transness is that. It’s that sort of promise of freedom that causes people an extreme amount of anxiety. And, you know, I think freedom is both enticing and terrifying. If we can make so many choices, then that sort of begs the question sort of, has everyone been selling themselves short? Have you not made choices that you could have made? Have you accepted a certain amount of constraint that maybe you shouldn’t have? I think there is this deep psychological anxiety that transness poses and the freedom that we represent. So I think that’s underlying a lot of what we're seeing. And then this imperative to control it, this imperative to suppress it, to reinforce the idea that there is no choice, that there are fixed concepts that we have to reinforce in every structural dynamic that we can.
Then there’s a secondary, you know, sort of reality in, in the US at least, which is just a pure political opportunism. So, we’re existing in a context in particular since 2013, where the Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act, struck down section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. In so doing, it allowed for states to move very systematically to the political right by gerrymandering their legislative districts and suppressing the vote. And so that is another thing that’s happening throughout this period of time. As these legislatures become more gerrymandered, as they're able to suppress more and more votes, then you start to see new efforts to mobilize a right-wing base. And so, and the way that they do that is to use incendiary language that taps into people’s anxiety. And so over the last few years, we’ve seen different iterations of this, the attack on so-called critical race theory, which has led to all of this classroom censorship and book banning that we’ve seen across the United States, as well as these new efforts to deem all trans people and all drag performance and all gender variants as sort of sexually explicit performance as grooming activity that’s inducing children into some sort of, you know, sexually deviant lifestyle.
This rhetoric is being used to stoke anxiety and fear in an effort to mobilize a right-wing voting base. I do think some of that is very much at play. You know, large groups of lawmakers in the state legislatures could genuinely care less about trans people, but what they’re doing is following their caucuses in order to maintain the voter anxiety to drive people to the polls. Much like we actually saw in the early 2000s with the conversation around marriage equality for same sex couples that was used in the United States to turn out a right-wing voting base that led to the election of George W. Bush in 2000, and then his reelection in 2004, as well as the midterm elections in 2006. That was very much the strategy. Focus on this idea that the world is fundamentally changing in scary ways that is harming children. You better go vote, or else these scary gay people will get married and the world will be fundamentally changed. That was the early 2000s.
Now, what we’re seeing is there are these scary people who defy the basic tenets of biology and who by virtue of their presence in your classrooms or in your communities, are going to change what your kids believe to be true. So you better go out and vote for the people who will be the most repressive in their actions towards this community of otherness that poses a fundamental threat to what you believe to be the stable social order. So that’s also happening. It’s both the combination of people’s, I think, very significant, actual, genuine anxiety, and desire to stamp out that which is a threat to these orderly notions of the world. And then also just politically opportunistic strategy to mobilize the voting base, which is particularly significant in 2023 in the lead up to the 2024 presidential election, which is probably going to be for many of us, the most consequential presidential elections in terms of the impact on democratic norms in the United States in our lifetime.
CM: How is DeSantis’s Florida an example?
DeSantis is a perfect example on.... You know, well, DeSantis is a complicated example actually of this, because I think one of the things that DeSantis has done incredibly effectively is sort of expand his executive power and control in the state of Florida, and you’ve seen this in a number of ways. So not only is he acting as his, you know, gubernatorial authority over the state, he’s, you know, weaponizing various state agencies to repress people’s rights and autonomy. So this is being done through, for example, the Board of Medicine enacting regulations that restrict access to gender-affirming care, not just for transgender minors, but also for adults. Also using state higher education to repress what people can learn in the classroom. You know, creating this sense of anxiety over this idea of “wokeness,” which is having a discourse which is beyond the way that power has been able to maintain historical narratives in the past. And so he’s using this idea to repress and suppress what people can learn in first, the K–3 context and now the K–12 context. And of course, then through his executive power in the higher education realm.
So he’s, you know, using his power in every possible legal mechanism to slowly and methodically erode people’s rights and autonomy. The way that we fight back against that is to file lawsuits where we can to try to stop both the structural ways he’s taken over power. So, he has all of his political appointees in various contexts eroding what people can and can’t do. So we say, well, that as a matter of process is impermissible, and then as a matter of substance, violates both the state and federal constitutions.
The challenge, of course, is that we’re existing in a paradigm in which Trump fundamentally changed the landscape of federal courts. We had a very aggressive set of appointments and nominations under the Trump administration in the four years that he was president, much more so than any Democratic president that preceded him. And so now when you’re looking at trying to, you know, hold someone like DeSantis, hold his power in check, there are limited options because of the structures of the federal courts that were largely transformed by President Trump. So we are going head-to-head with DeSantis to a certain extent, but part of it is that the structures that are supposedly in place in order to maintain those checks on executive power have been fundamentally changed over the last 10 years, which limits what we can do in federal or state litigation.
I mean, the other thing about DeSantis is he’s not working on his own. He’s working within a discursive environment in which there are people who are fueling the rhetoric that he's utilizing to transform both his executive agencies and the Florida legislature. So you have people like Christopher Rufo, who are weaponizing the idea of, you know, dynamic sharing of information, and sort of using these terms like critical race theory or grooming in order to fuel the rhetoric that DeSantis has been using in his governmental agencies. DeSantis isn’t doing this in a vacuum. He is operating within both these discursive structures and in these legal structures that are, you know, bigger than what he's able to accomplish within Florida.
I actually think when you look at DeSantis on a national scale, he doesn’t have ultimately, either the legal savvy or the cultural nuance in order to mobilize this type of program that he’s been able to do in Florida on a national level. What I’m concerned about is that we’re talking about, you know, many forces at play that are supporting that type of agenda. And Florida is a terrifying example of what can happen very quickly, where you moved from, you know, the context of just having this sort of rhetoric of stopping “wokeness” into this fundamental erosion of people’s rights and material survival opportunities.
We’re now in a situation in Florida where the ability to teach in the public classroom is fundamentally changed within a matter of one year. You have not only trans adolescents unable to access gender-affirming care, but trans adults across the state having all medical appointments canceled, having the ability to access hormones completely cut off within a matter of weeks in some cases, because legislation was able to move very rapidly through the Florida legislature. So yes, that’s a function of what DeSantis has been able to do, and it’s also a function of how significantly our institutions have been transformed because of the transformation of the federal courts under Trump, because the Supreme Court had previously struck down section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which enabled legislatures like Florida to be gerrymandered and to suppress the vote in Florida as they’ve done, including through the felon disenfranchisement that has been ongoing in Florida for many years. And so that is sort of the way in which all of these forces are working together. DeSantis is a symbol of it in many ways, but I think we have to look behind it to see all of the structures at play, really holding up his agenda.
CM: Reality of progress vs. political backlash?
I mean, I really struggle with both holding the reality of progress because I think it’s important to honor that while also recognizing like the such significant material consequences of the backlash. And so if we look at 2023, for example, when I started practicing law in, you know, between 2008 and 2010, in a place like New York, even in New York City, in order to say update your birth certificate, you would have to show operating room records from contemporaneous operating room records to just update a binary birth certificate in New York City. Now in 2023, we have many jurisdictions across the country where you can self-determine your gender on your government-issued identification, including from the federal government. And not only can you self-determine it without a doctor certification, let alone a surgical certification, you can also have a non-binary gender marker on your identification.
That is a fundamental transformation that we’ve seen over the last 10 to 15 years in many jurisdictions in the United States, things that were unimaginable. And that has material impact on people’s lives. Not only the ability to move through space with more freedom and confidence, but also, for example, the ability to access, say public assistance and interface with government agencies in a way that is not going to deprive your well-being and your material survival through health benefits, food benefits, housing benefits, and other mechanisms, limited as they are. So that is a significant progress, and I think it’s important that we not lose sight of all of the progress that we’ve made through pushing the bounds through legal advocacy, as well as through people's visibility and conversations and the transformation of our public discourse.
At the same time, there has been a considerable backlash, the more visibility you have. We now have, for example, in 2023, 25 states introducing legislation that would in one way or another, attempt to prohibit people from even just using affirming pronouns in classrooms. That would attempt to enable medical providers to turn people away from even emergency medical services based on their sincerely held religious or moral beliefs. So you have both the expansion of this autonomy through this legal recognition, and then alongside that, this very significant effort by the government to allow people to fundamentally disregard that both in the conversational exchange sense and also in the accessing of services sense. And it’s in some sense too, a really complicated thing to try to contend with both in advocacy and conversation, because the truth is that people do see more trans people whether it’s on their television, whether it’s in their news conversations, whether it’s in legal cases that are happening, but the more that we’re seeing trans people, the more we’re having this right-wing set of attacks that then result in increases of violence against trans people, increases of attacks on doctors who provide gender-affirming care to trans people.
And so that all of the perceived progress and actual progress is coming with such significant backlash that I don’t think we can fully discern sort of what is the net progress or backlash if you sort of take everything together. But what’s concerning to me is if I take a step back as a 40-year-old trans person in the United States right now, that I think it’s fundamentally less safe for trans adolescents today than it was for me as an adolescent. Because as much as we didn’t have as much access, there wasn’t as much healthcare, there weren’t gender clinics to go into, there wasn’t insurance coverage, there simultaneously wasn’t the level of violence that we’re seeing. And the level of violence obviously has the impact of people being attacked, whether it’s through legal structures or through interpersonal violence. But it also then has the chilling impact where even though there may be more services available, people are increasingly going to avoid accessing those services, even where they are available because there’s such a significant set of material consequences to outing oneself as trans to accessing these goods and services because you are subjected to violence and harassment when you enter those spaces, or because by virtue of, you know, being a person in the world of conversations at this moment, we’re starting to see this re-internalization of an even more insidious anti-trans or trans-antagonistic framework.
CM: Is there hope?
I mean, I would say there is plenty of room for hope and there’s lots of reasons to be very fearful, and I think it’s just absolutely essential that we hold both those things at once. And we also can’t sort of isolate, you know, trans justice or the fight for trans bodily autonomy and freedom from all of these other fights that are going on. You know, fundamentally, the attack on the bodily autonomy of trans people is a white supremacist project, isn’t a project of empire, it’s a project that is trying to create order in the service of whiteness, in the service of patriarchy. And that is fundamentally at play as we think about what is going on in the 2024 presidential elections. And so the hope comes in our ability to be collaborative in our resistance, and our ability to interface cross movement, our ability to mobilize globally, because it’s not just obviously in the United States where this is happening.
And I think fundamentally, trans people have always, under the most repressive circumstances, found ways to care for each other and resist. So I will always retain that hope. I will always retain hope in intergenerational organizing. At the same time, we can’t just sort of sit idly by and think the same strategies are going to work that worked five years ago or 10 years ago. Our courts have been fundamentally transformed. Our state legislatures have been fundamentally transformed that we can’t simply go about business as usual because there is this existential threat to the, not only our individual sense of our legal rights and our bodily autonomy, but there are structural attacks that are happening that we can’t just go into court and sue and think that’s gonna change the material realities of people’s lives. Not necessarily that it ever could, but I think we really can’t be doing that now. So we have to recognize the existential threats, honor the realities of how significant many communities are facing attacks on their survival, but also not lose the hope that comes from the intergenerational organizing that has long-sustained trans movements. Whether those movements were 10 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, we know how to take care of each other. We didn’t have access to healthcare for many years, but we’re able to get it and maintain it for our people. So I have both hope and fear for the future.
We Who Feel Differently was acquired through the generosity of the David Sanders Living Trust, Pedro Barbosa, Mrs. Clarice Tavares, TPCA Collection-Thibault Poutrel, and Steven Johnson.
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