Transmissions: Transit tales — and transgender typecasting

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday September 21, 2022
Share this Post:
Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

Your average, modern city is a labyrinth of streets linking home, work, and entertainment in a maze of asphaltic concrete as far as the eye can see. Heck, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, more than 80% of all public space in the average city is made up of streets.

Ruling those streets is the automobile.

If you pull up newsreels from the beginning of the previous century, however, the city was a different place. Sure, you had streets — usually a mix of paved and unpaved roads, and not the heavily-engineered thoroughfares we experience today. On these, you'd find a mix of pedestrian traffic, public transit made up of cable, street, or horse-drawn cars, and a healthy smattering of carts and wagons. Oh, and of course, you might find some early cars.

Indeed, in the brass-era of automobiles, the average flivver was viewed with some disdain and fear. The car was generally faster than what was on the roads of the time, and drivers were inexperienced. Traffic laws for cars, too, were still coming together. As a result, automobile-related fatalities were common, and many were outraged.

Yes, we will get to some actual transgender-related content, I assure you.

After a push 100 years ago to limit vehicles to 25 miles per hour hit the ballot in Cincinnati, carmakers, dealers, and others tried to shift the blame from vehicles to the pedestrian. The National Automobile Chamber of Commerce pushed the media to blame pedestrians over vehicles and advocated for new laws to restrict foot traffic on roads. The Automobile Association of America treated safety campaigns as a way to keep people out of the street.

There was one more important element: public shaming. The term "jaywalker" was born, essentially painting walking in the street as being unsophisticated and oafish. Shouting at jaywalkers was encouraged.

These and other campaigns encouraged the mockery of those using the streets as a walking thoroughfare and, while it took a while to catch on, one can see the ripple effects of that campaign today.

If you'd like to dig deep into this history, by the way, I'd recommend grabbing a copy of Peter D. Norton's "Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City" — but I digress.

It was likely the aforementioned social engineering campaigns, far more than the letter of the law, which changed the way our nation looks at roadways. Most people today, for example, do not think twice about waiting at a crosswalk and limiting their time in a roadway. Walking in the street has become something that one simply does not do.

Now then, let's consider something other than jaywalking. Let's instead look at the transgender community. See, I told you we'd get there.

Since the 1990s or so, the visibility of the LGBTQ movement and, notably, the transgender community, has grown. We have won in the courtrooms, at the ballot box, and in the hearts of minds of an otherwise skeptical public. While the LGBTQ movement as a whole grew, I would hardly argue that the transgender community itself gained more than the smallest level of leverage and authority. Nevertheless, we did gain visibility and were able to press back in the same way pedestrians initially pushed back against the "speed demons" of early automobiles.

Yet, in the last decade, this has begun to shift. Much like gay rights battles post-Stonewall faced the backlash of the Anita Bryant era, so too did the so-called transgender tipping point heralded by Time magazine in 2014 lead to a dramatic pushback.

Initially it was the "bathroom meme" of sex predators using trans rights to assault women and girls in restrooms. The idea never made sense, knowing that no law against sexual assault would be voided by the presence of a dress, and given there were far easier ways for sexual predators to access restrooms.

As bad as the argument was, it did help cement one thing in the public's mind, in much the same way the jaywalking rube became an anti-pedestrian symbol: while the initial notion was that sexual predators would use trans rights as a dodge, it nevertheless linked sexual deviancy with transgender people for many.

Consider everything since then. Transgender and LGBTQ book bans and "Don't Say Gay/Trans" laws are based on the notion of any LGBTQ writing being obscene. The "groomer" panic, as well, is attempting to conflate the idea of sexual predators attempting to build trust with children for deviant sexual purposes with any support of LGBTQs — children and young adults. The care of trans youth, predominately young trans men, is lumped in with child sexual abuse. Likewise, drag queen story hours are now under physical attack in part due to people trying to paint them as sexually charged events.

This, of course, puts us in a bind: how do we discuss our sexuality and our gender identity without now being tainted with this same brush? I do not believe we need to try the same tactics that failed in the 1970s, by stripping away these parts of ourselves, or trying to proclaim how we are just like those people accusing us of sex crimes. Yet we need to figure out how we are pushing back.

A hundred years ago, our roads were vibrant places, where pedestrians, transit, and other conveyances worked together, until the automobile — and the social engineering that tied pedestrians with old-fashioned clowns — changed that for the worse, potentially forever.

We need to change the narrative now, before we are doomed to a far worse fate.

Gwen Smith invited you to look both ways, and then move gayly forward. You'll find her at

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.