Bill Maher on Trans Rights Exemplifies the Flawed Defensiveness of the Mainstream Left


If you’re in the market for proof that leftists can be just as obnoxious as their right-wing counterparts, Bill Maher is always a reliable source of material. Even so, he’s outdone himself this week — in the run-up to the the return of his show Real Time with Bill Maher to HBO, he released a video to the show’s YouTube channel wherein he held forth about his views on the rights of “transgenders.” According to Maher, now is not the time to be bothering the great American public with the question of the rights of some of America’s most marginalized citizens; no, that can wait until after the election.

Quoth Bill: “Here’s what we can’t do [at] this election: get tricked into symbolic fights about college campus pet peeves.” Generously, he offered to “take my … pet cause, pot legalization, off the table.” Those advocating for trans rights, he suggested, should do the same: “If someone told me pushing for pot might cost Hillary Ohio, until November 8th I’m just going to shut the fuck up about it… From now until Election Day, everything else — every issue, every fight, every cause — has to take a backseat to defeating Trump.”

Hopefully, it doesn’t need explaining why transgender rights are neither a “boutique issue,” as Maher described them, nor someone’s “college campus pet peeve.” Bill Maher’s inability to (legally) have a spliff after dinner isn’t quite on the same level as a trans person’s inability to live a single fucking day of their lives without the threat of being discriminated against, assaulted and/or killed. Maher, of course, doesn’t know this, because he doesn’t have to live with it: “[T]he people who lead on social issues aren’t in Washington anyway — they’re here in Hollywood,” he said. “This transgender thing? Let us handle it like we did with gay rights, which very few cared about until Hollywood put gay people in every single TV show. … We hit them with Glee and Ellen and Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and pretty soon being gay was just part of our Modern Family.”

There’s a lot to unpick from this spectacularly asinine idea piece of “thinking” — the idea that gay rights are somehow “fixed,” the idea that this is because of Glee and not a century of struggle by activists (and commentators with more gumption in their left toe than Maher has in his whole body), and the idea that the marginalization and brutalization of trans people will go away on its own if we give it time. It’s obnoxious in the extreme to suggest that someone’s fundamental right to exist in society is an issue that should be shelved because a) they’re a minority and/or b) something about their nature makes “normal” people feel icky. Maher’s stance has, rightly, attracted plenty of condemnation, which doubtless bothers him not one iota, because he’s one of the blessed breed of white men 100% convinced of his own rectitude at all times.

It’s important to note, though, that what Maher’s really getting at here is political expediency: the most charitable interpretation of his argument (and it’s a very charitable one, given the way Maher presented it, along with his history of being, well, an asshole) is that transgender rights are worth fighting for, but not until after the election, because focusing on them now gives the GOP and their ilk an excuse to portray liberals as lunatics who want to let men use women’s bathrooms.

This is both a familiar argument and, perhaps, a superficially attractive one. “History,” Maher argues, “has taught us Democrats are pretty good at blowing elections and Republicans are masters at winning elections with solutions in search of a problem.” This is certainly true. The solution, according to the realpolitik Maher is advocating, is to quietly shelve “controversial” issues like transgender rights until after the election, whereupon they can be brought triumphantly back into the limelight and back into Congress, with laws passed to address the needs of a minority whose patience and “common sense” are duly rewarded.

Republican candidates don’t quietly hide away their determination to find a way around Roe v. Wade and then spring it on an unsuspecting electorate after they’re in the White House — they shout to anyone who’ll listen about their prioritizing of fetuses over the lives of the women carrying them.

This approach has never worked, and most likely will never work. If we’re going to look at what history teaches us, we find that there’s never a good time to address these issues. There was never a convenient time for civil rights. There was never a convenient time for women’s suffrage. There was never a convenient time for gay marriage. And so on. If it’s not the run-up to a Presidential election, then it’s the run-up to the midterms, or there are municipal elections in the offing, or some other group’s issue hanging in the balance. Given the choice, politicians will keep kicking these issues down the road until the end of time — why take on a fight that might cost you votes, if you can instead avoid it until it becomes someone else’s problem?

When issues of minority rights and other social justice topics have been addressed, it’s because someone’s halted this cycle of abrogation and decided that, no, the issue in question has to be dealt with right now. Politicians, of course, rarely do this out of the goodness of their hearts — it’s generally taken public protests and direct action to force their hands. This country’s treatment of its trans citizens and residents is shameful, and transphobic nonsense like North Carolina’s bathroom bill should be addressed immediately, both because such issues should always be addressed immediately, and because lives are quite literally at risk.

Beyond the above, there are two other fundamental problems with the approach Maher is advocating. The first is that it lets the right define the terms of an election. The GOP, after all, isn’t exactly backing away from its pet issues: abortion, freedom of access to effective ways of killing people gun control, the evils of the citizens of a rich and highly-developed country having access to publicly funded healthcare, and so on. Republican candidates don’t quietly hide away their determination to find a way around Roe v. Wade and then spring it on an unsuspecting electorate after they’re in the White House — they shout to anyone who’ll listen about their prioritizing of fetuses over the lives of the women carrying them.

If one party is shouting loudly about the issues it considers important — or, in the case of the GOP, the issues that it thinks its voters will find important enough to take their minds off the fact that the party doing the shouting is also throttling them — and the other party is silent, then which issues will command voters’ attention? There’s something unpleasantly defeatist about the idea that suggesting that we not be awful to trans people will somehow freak out the electorate. It doesn’t say much for the Democrats’ opinion of voters. You might argue that this is more a case of realism than pessimism, but there’s also a degree of a self-fulfilling prophecy here — if you treat the electorate as right-leaning and fundamentally selfish, they tend to act that way.

Most importantly, though, this attitude undermines the entire purpose of the left. If the left isn’t standing up for the rights of the marginalized and disenfranchised, then what is it doing? Why does it even exist? It’s for this reason that Bill Maher is especially frustrating — he has a national TV show, a profile that dictates that even his most vapid comments get reported in the national media, and the ears of plenty of influential people. He has a huge platform and potential to make a positive difference. And what does he do? He marginalizes trans people and complains about not being able to smoke weed. What a guy, eh?