Why the Pickle Became a Symbol of Transgender Rights

The New York Times Opinions 0 month ago

Sometimes readers give me things. A Jack Kerouac bobblehead. Gourmet chocolate cupcakes. A stuffed Brutus Buckeye, the mascot of Ohio State. Once, after a bookstore reading, I received a 45 r.p.m. single of Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band.” Also: a whole schiacciata Siciliana (think calzone, only better).

But I’d never gotten pickles before.

This was in Portland, Me., two years ago, where I was doing an event with my friend, the novelist Richard Russo. As the night wound down, a transgender woman approached the signing table and handed me an enormous jar full of kosher dills.

“I made you these pickles,” she said somberly, “in solidarity.”

How had I missed the fact that pickles had become a symbol of the fight for trans equality? I knew about the transgender flag, of course — designed in 1999 by Monica Helms, a Navy veteran, after her service on the Francis Scott Key and the Flasher, both submarines. The original flag — alternating blue, pink and white stripes — was donated to the Smithsonian in 2014.

It’s worth noting that Ms. Helms, in spite of her eight years of service to the country, would no longer be welcome in the military, thanks to Donald Trump’s hatin’-on-the-trans-people policy. Who else is no longer welcome in the military? Amanda Simpson, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense. Not to mention the over 134,000 veterans who are trans — and the estimated 15,000 troops who are serving at this moment.

It is remarkable that Mr. Trump has been able to make such strategic decisions as commander in chief of our military, given the pain those bone spurs of his must give him.

Anyway. I knew all about the trans flag. But I didn’t know anything about pickles.

I caught up quickly, though. Apparently the meme began because transgender women in transition often take the drug spironolactone, an anti-androgen that has the side effect of making people crave sodium.

Which is where the pickles come in; if it’s salt you’re after, pickles will definitely do the trick. A New York restaurant, Jacob’s Pickles, has even become a meeting spot for some transgender people. “The pickle brings magic to everything we do,” reads its website. (Personally, I would like to learn more about its catfish tacos.)

And so. As a trans activist and writer, I get a lot of pickles these days from readers: dilly beans, hot sour cukes, even pickled fiddlehead ferns. I am grateful for every single crunchy, salty, peppery, briny, buttery gift.

But there are times — to quote Arlo Guthrie — when I don’t want a pickle.

I mean, yes, they’re crunchy. But if given a choice between a pickle and, say, justice, I’d have to go with the latter.

It would be nice, for instance, if transgender women — most of them women of color — weren’t being routinely murdered. Twenty-six were killed in 2018. We’re up to 18 so far this year. Bee Love Slater was tied up and shot before being incinerated on Sept. 4. She was 23 years old.

“These victims are not numbers,” the Human Rights Campaign tweeted this week. “They were people with hopes and dreams, loved ones and communities who will miss them every day.”

It would also be nice if it were not legal to fire someone for being trans, as it is in 26 states. This fall, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in R.G and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The case may decide whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination against transgender people. The Trump administration, of course, is arguing that it’s fine to fire people for who they are. The Log Cabin Republicans, meanwhile, published an essay in The Washington Post this summer endorsing him for re-election. “Trump met his commitments to L.G.B.T. Americans,” the group cluelessly declared.

Dear Log Cabin Republicans: no pickles for you.

What else is better than a pickle? How about a roof over our heads? L.G.B.T.Q. people face much higher odds of becoming homeless during their lives, in part because the people who are supposed to care for us so often throw us out on the street when we come out. The Trump administration, the little dears, announced a new policy this spring making it legal to gut protections for trans people in homeless shelters. Because clearly, when people voted to make America great again, kicking people out of homeless shelters was what they had in mind.

Come to think of it, I want a lot of things besides pickles. Most of the things I want could be classified under the heading “equal protection under the law.” In some circles, this makes me a radical.

Honestly, there is nothing radical about me. Except, perhaps, my love of pickles.

Some people think they’re too briny, too bitter, too fiery.

But I am not one of those people. Until we have justice, we will continue to live in a country full of brine, and bitterness, and fire.


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