The black squares on Instagram last summer probably seemed like a good idea at first. Not only did they let people know where you personally stood with regard to Black lives mattering, but they helped amplify a greater message of unity around the issue.
The only problem was that the squares stopped short of doing anything else—well, except steal space from folks trying to amplify not merely the existence of the problem, but pathways toward a solution. Taken together, those tacky squares essentially formed a digital banner advertising awareness itself.
Standing up on behalf of other people—or “virtue-signaling,” as it is known on the right—only becomes an empty gesture if it isn’t followed up with action. Anyone can present as being on the progressive side of an issue, but without agitating for substantive change in whichever ways are available, that support only amounts to a gesture.
Just over two months into Joe Biden’s presidency, it remains unclear whether he is more than just a presenter.
Take, for instance, his support for the rights of transgendered Americans.
On Wednesday, March 31, Biden became the first U.S. president to recognize the annual Trans Day of Visibility with an official proclamation.
Transgender rights are human rights — and I’m calling on every American to join me in uplifting the worth and dignity of transgender Americans. Together, we can stamp out discrimination and deliver on our nation’s promise of freedom and equality for all. #TransDayofVisibility
— President Biden (@POTUS) March 31, 2021
It’s certainly a turnaround from the previous president, who did as much as he could to roll back trans rights during his lone term in office. But unfortunately it’s not enough.
At this moment, trans people don’t have the luxury of merely basking in presidential recognition. Many are instead pleading with would-be allies to speak up on behalf of their humanity. All year long, Republican politicians have been fixated on anti-transgender legislation, with Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi already passing bills that either prevent trans youth from participating in school sports or denying them healthcare. The fact that these bills will not only stigmatize but physically harm trans youth is a feature, not a bug. It’s the kind of thing a new president who campaigned on an ambitious LGBTQ platform might want to do more than just tweet about.
Last month, Biden sent out a message of support for Amazon workers amidst a contentious union drive. Although he never used the word “Amazon” or explicitly directed workers to vote in favor of the union, the message was clear: The president has your back!
Workers in Alabama – and all across America – are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. It’s a vitally important choice – one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers.
Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. pic.twitter.com/2lzbyyii1g
— President Biden (@POTUS) March 1, 2021
Considering existent labor laws, this video is more or less about as far as a president could go (within reason) to support the unionization effort at that Amazon fulfillment center.
The same cannot be said for Biden’s tweet about #TransDayofVisibility. It’s pretty much literally the least he can do.
To the president’s credit, he’s already signed an executive order aimed at LGBTQ discrimination, and House Democrats passed the Equality Act, which would ensure protections for LGBTQ folks on issues such as employment, housing, education, and medical care. (Getting it through the Senate will be tougher.) However, there is a lot more he can do besides tweet while GOP politicians try to push through the 60+ anti-trans bills currently being considered in 28 states. He could hold a televised town hall with parents of trans children and advocates such as Chase Strangio to explain the pernicious, wildly unnecessary legislation that the GOP is trying to enact. He could use more executive actions. He could hold one-on-one talks with transphobic colleagues. He could appear as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race and formally endorse Gottmik.
He could do more.
It’s commendable when Oreo tweets that “trans people exist.” (As long as the company also puts some money toward anti-trans advocacy groups.) When that’s as far as “the most progressive presidential nominee in history” is willing to go, though, to borrow a phrase from Joe Biden: Come on.