The Emperor’s New Clothes

When Jonathan was little, he would sit for hours in the corner of his bedroom with his record player, listening to books and stories. One of his favorite stories was about the emperor who had no clothes. The story reached a crescendo in which a young child cries out, “Look at the king, the king, the king!” Then the narrator sings, “The king is in the all together, the all together, the all together, he’s all together as naked as the day that he was born.” (You can relive the magic via the Danny Kaye version on YouTube.)

I think of that story and song often. I think of the child who proclaims the truth about the king. The tragic reality is that people who declare that the king has no clothes are in for a rough time. People say they want to know the truth, but most people do not want to know the truth. We live by our illusions. Tell a fundamentalist there is no God and they will disappear from your life. Tell an atheist there might be a God and they will disappear from your life. We hang out with our own. It’s easier that way. Our assumptions don’t have to be challenged. We can make life simpler and don’t have to struggle under the weight of possibilities. Hence, our dislike for the child who cries out, “Look at the king, the king, the king!

The song does not tell us what happened to the boy. I can tell you what happened to the boy. He and his family were driven from the kingdom. It is happening all across America to transgender children and their families. They live in states becoming increasingly hostile to trans kids, passing laws threating their parents with legal action if they choose to love their children. The worst laws are in the second most populated state in the nation, Texas. I cannot tell you how many people I have met in Colorado who moved here from Texas. They were driven from their home because of their love for their children.

I experience trans hatred on a regular basis. I don’t write or talk about it much because I don’t want to give power to the haters.  Besides, I have enough privilege behind me to withstand the onslaught. I was told I should not attend my 45th high school reunion because there would be trouble. I still flew to the region. I just visited with friends, family, and individual classmates instead. Being barred from the reunion was no huge deal. But it’s not that easy for a child whose very existence screams out that the king has no clothes, or for the parents of that child. The second the child speaks his or her truth, life as they know it is over.

There is, of course, an empowering freedom in telling the truth. The king is naked, and the child knows it. The child’s parents know it, and it is liberating to speak the truth. But it can also be life threatening. Transgender adolescents have a suicide completion rate 13 times higher than their peers. I’m not sure when Republicans will give up their damaging campaign against trans kids. Two of the most egregiously anti-trans governors, in Texas and Florida, were re-elected by wide majorities, not exactly a hopeful sign that the siege is waning.

Just a few years ago I thought the narrative on transgender people was shifting toward the positive. But based on the hate mail I receive and the 286 anti-trans laws introduced in 2021 and 2022, that is clearly not the case. Over the past two years, a total of 39 anti-transgender laws have been signed into law in 19 different states.

A senior adviser to Greg Abbott’s campaign for governor said laws restricting care for transgender youth were a “75 – 80 percent winner.” Alabama governor Kay Ivey said, “We’re going to go by how God made us: If the Good Lord made you a boy, you’re a boy. If he made you a girl, you’re a girl. It’s simple.”

Uh, it is? First, last I checked we are not a Christian nation, so a “Good Lord” who is male is a decidedly Christian fundamentalist assumption. Second, a God who “makes” people one gender or another is a decidedly Calvinistic God, a demiurge worthy of Plato. Third, there are 150 different intersex conditions, so “simple” is hardly an appropriate word. I don’t even know why I’m countering Ivy’s fundamentalist argument. It is simplistic and uninformed. The problem is that a sizeable minority of Americans agree with her.

Most of the time I just ignore the anti-transgender rhetoric. It is just background noise in my personal life. In four of my five jobs, the fact I am trans is purely incidental. It has nothing to do with why I was hired, elected, or contracted to do that particular work. Even in my public speaking, fewer than ten percent of my speaking engagements are primarily because I am transgender.

I am fortunate. I do not have to live this nightmare as trans children are forced to live it. I don’t have to spend time in Texas. I can even avoid flying through Dallas. I don’t go to Florida much anymore. But with their hard turn to the right, those are not places I’d be inclined to visit anyway.

I don’t pay much of a price for saying the king is naked. But oh my, how I pray for those children whose lives are threatened. By simply existing, they are screaming out, “Look at the king, the king, the king.” The problem is that the king has the power to destroy them. Here’s to the states like Colorado that say, “Come, and abide with us. Here, you can cry out whatever truth you see.” I used to think it was that way in the whole nation. I now realize that was always the narrative of the privileged. Now I know better, and it is frightening.