Seiler: How to define cruelty – Times Union

Ketanji Brown Jackson testifying before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on April 28, 2021. Jackson has been nominated by President Joe Biden to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images)
Last week, I got a call from an older gentleman who asked if he could remain anonymous in order to share something he considered to be newsworthy. He said some of the women at his place of employment were disturbed at having to share a restroom with a person who was transgender. Would we be interested in doing this as a story?
I inquired as to what behavior was alarming these women. He said they were freaked out to come in and see a transgender person washing their hands and whatnot. I said that while I had not spent much time in women’s restrooms, that behavior seemed fairly innocuous. (It is, actually, hygienically commendable.) It didn’t seem like much of a story — unless, that is, anything that trans people do in their daily lives is worth reporting and commenting on and portraying as somehow objectionable.
This call, coincidentally, came the day before International Transgender Day of Visibility, which this year was observed during what appeared to have been unofficially designated as National Performative Transphobia Week. This year’s celebration of the latter holiday was brought to you in large part by U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn’s question to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during last month’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings: « Can you provide a definition of the word ‘woman’? »
When Jackson responded that she couldn’t define it in the context Blackburn seemed to be seeking (« I’m not a biologist »), Republicans reacted as if it were the starting pistol in a Define-« Woman » competition, and the race to the bottom had begun.
« I think you are the only Supreme Court nominee in history who has been unable to answer the question, » Sen. Ted Cruz asked Jackson the next day. Cruz is from Texas, where the attorney general was recently blocked by a state court from launching child-abuse  investigations into families that pursue gender-affirming procedures. Left unsaid by Cruz was whether any previous court nominees had been asked the same question.
The pile-on continued last week: « Biden’s Supreme Court nominee’s inability to define what a woman is was an unacceptable answer for a Supreme Court judge. … You’re either born a biological man or a biological woman, » wrote whoever writes Rep. Elise Stefanik’s Tweets, and linked to an interview in which she said that Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have had no trouble defining the word. Ginsburg’s career, of course, was devoted to the notion that gender differences, binary or otherwise, should not matter before the law. 
In 2019, Stefanik was one of the handful of Republican supporters of the Equality Act, which affirmed LGBTQ+ rights. In 2021, she continued her journey toward the No. 3 post in the House GOP by voting no on a virtually identical bill. Perhaps her definition of trans rights had undergone its own transition.
Because every movement needs its purest distillation, the Define-« Woman » craze reached its zenith, or nadir, or something last weekend, when gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Giuliani appeared before a gathering of Long Island fringe conservatives and described how he had genitalia-checked his infant daughter.
According to the Daily Beast, Giuliani conjured up a scene in the hospital just after the child’s delivery: « She shook my hand and I said, ‘I’m the only boyfriend till you’re 25 years old, shake hands.’ 
 » … I have changed the diapers; I have looked under the hood: She’s a woman. I’m gonna be the last guy in a long time that looks under the hood right there, » he continued, to what I prefer to imagine were his audience’s screams for mercy or the sweet release of death. « But guess what? She was born a woman and she’s gonna stay a woman, it’s that simple.”
The mind reels, both at Giuliani’s presumption that his daughter’s sex life is his fief for the next quarter-century and his use of « under the hood, » which suggests that his understanding of the mystery of human sexual identity is as simple as the manual for a ’57 Chevy.  
My caller, at least, tacitly acknowledged that things might be more mutable, even as he seemed desperate for some kind of easy under-the-hood test: He asked if I knew if there was a set level of estrogen or testosterone in one’s system that would determine gender identity. I said I was unaware of such a measure, and that the quantity of those hormones can vary from body to body, and even within the same body over the course of one’s life. And then I said I had to be on my proverbial horse.
This column could go on for hundreds of inches cataloging ugly transphobic remarks from the right since Blackburn posed her question to Jackson. And it would be pretty funny, until you realize that these comments are being backed by a multi-state wave of discriminatory legislation.
Every example of this cynical political opportunism takes a chunk out of members of the trans community — who want nothing more than to live their lives, go to work and maybe go to the bathroom every now and then. It also makes it more likely that young people struggling with their gender identity will internalize the message that what they’re going through is fundamentally wrong, a sin.
That kind of cruelty ought to be rejected by all Americans, however you might define us.
Casey Seiler is the Times Union’s editor. He previously served as managing editor, Capitol Bureau chief and entertainment editor. He is a longtime contributor to WMHT’s weekly political roundup « New York Now. »
Before arriving in Albany in 2000, Seiler worked at the Burlington Free Press in Vermont and the Jackson Hole Guide in Wyoming. A graduate of Northwestern University, Seiler is a Buffalo native who grew up in Louisville, Ky. He lives in Albany’s lovely Pine Hills. Contact him at or 518-454-5619.