Year In Review On Grifters
Everyone deserves to have a seat at the table, and that seat can’t be tricked away from us by some faithless cis white politician’s grift. At least it shouldn’t be.
I was asked to write about 2022 through the lens of rights for trans children. After all— I am trans, I write about children’s horror. And it sure has been a horror for children this year in the United States.
But first, dear reader, let me tell you why I fucking hate J. D. Vance.
I just moved from Oregon to Ohio; I was used to voting being extremely easy. The state boasts of its gold standard of voting. You just—mail in a packet. You can even track it. A middle school social studies teacher’s absolute dream, the pinnacle of functioning capital-D Democracy. In Ohio, however, I registered by mail because I didn’t have time to go to the DMV to get my Ohio driver’s license (I ride my bicycle most everywhere anyhow), and the United States Post Office (defunded by Republicans who somehow successfully grifted their base into thinking mail was bad?) lost my dang registration. I didn’t check until the night before so I didn’t know there was a problem until it was too late to fix—a fact I feel deep shame about, but who could blame me because voting should be easy; widespread voter fraud is a myth , a trick played on all of us by conservative politicians to restrict voting access. I stood for an hour in the gymnasium at the Greek Orthodox Church so the very nice poll workers could make sure I voted provisional.
“This is very important to me,” I kept saying. And they knew. It was very important to them too. Poll workers are, by and large, a group of people who really believe in something: that, despite all evidence to the contrary, we have it in us to collectively govern in a way that doesn’t suck. That democracy is actually important. That everyone deserves to have a seat at the table, and that seat can’t be tricked away from us by some faithless cis white politician’s grift.
Voting is always important to me. It’s always been important to me. There are a million good reasons that people have to not vote; my parents were both government employees and for me, to me, voting is necessary. The times in my life where I haven’t done it because my life got in the way are moments of distraction I deeply regret.
My best friend Laura is really good at taking what our middle school social studies teacher taught us and motivating adults around her with apt metaphors. She described the act of voting as the default cake recipe on the side of the bag of flour: the one that is just like, put some water, eggs, sugar, leavening agent, and oil in a bowl and stir it—this will technically yield you cake. It is the bare minimum; it will not get you the good-tasting cake. For the good-tasting cake, you need a lot more. But you cannot bake a cake without the bare minimum.
Rights are like that. You need to do a lot more to exist as a citizen in our world, but if you don’t have the stupid basic recipe, you can’t move on to things like vanilla or chocolate or getting fancy with crème fraîche, with the codified Roe, with making sure trans children don’t kill themselves. So I would’ve waited in line at the gymnasium to do a maybe-vote in any circumstance. But this election was special-special, because I wanted the Republican candidate for the Senate, J. D. Vance, to lose so fucking bad.
Prior to being elected senator this year, J. D. Vance wrote a book called Hillbilly Elegy , which trafficked in some pretty egregious stereotyping of folks living in Appalachia. But folks who have internalized deep hatred of poor people ate that shit up, and it became a New York Times best seller because it offered easy answers about why people voted for a grifting reality television star with an anal sphincter for a mouth to be the next president. Grifters explaining grifters.
Do I know J. D. Vance? No. I’ve seen him speak one time and I found him to be insufferable. So do I have any business hating J. D. Vance? I don’t know, probably not, but I’m human and, you know what, I’m fine with having a personality flaw of hating J. D. Vance. I would be in good company. Because J. D. Vance is a writer (or at least, he made a book one time), which means he has spent time in and around the writing community, and one thing most writers (that I know, at least) have in common is their unwavering opinion that J. D. Vance is an asshole.
The essayist Elissa Washuta suggested I call J. D. Vance’s office every single day for the next year and read negative reviews of Hillbilly Elegy to him, a fate I’m guessing she wouldn’t wish on any other writer. The memoirist Jeanna Kadlec told me, “J. D. Vance is the very worst the Midwest has to offer. He’s a charlatan of the values he purportedly peddles and is also a sellout who has traded that well-peddled act of caring for the people of Ohio to the far right in exchange for party favor and currency.” And when invited to shit talk J. D. Vance, the novelist Nick White said, “Everything I want to say just fizzles out to inarticulate rage.” To which I replied “Same. I’m trying to stick the landing on this essay and I honestly don’t know if I will.”
It’s this word that Kadlec used that sticks with me as I write: charlatan . A huckster, to get old-timey about it. A fraud. J. D. Vance is emblematic of what I believe is the one true theme of 2022: the faithless cis white politician’s grift. The thing about J. D. Vance is that he believes in whatever will reify the majority’s view on the minority so that the majority will give him fame and money. Which really means J. D. Vance believes in nothing.
You cannot bake a cake without the bare minimum. Rights are like that.
I am a huge nerd, so naturally I went to a board game convention in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is just outside my “this-is-painless” driving threshold, so I decided to fly. Just as naturally as nerds flocking to Philadelphia to play obscure queer table top narrative games, my flight there was delayed four times and then canceled. The other convention in the Philadelphia convention center on that same weekend was a massive national gathering of social studies teachers, who were on that very same flight. In the minor crucible of flight annoyance, I got on a first name basis with some social studies teachers.
I don’t know about other people’s experiences with social studies teachers, but my experience with social studies teachers as a collective is that, largely, they are flawed but passionate humans who are extremely plugged into the movements in their towns, counties, states, and countries. They also are extremely observant with regards to their students, almost anthropologists of the future. And while sitting for a long time in the airport, they talked to me about two things:
First, how scary it is to be a middle school social studies teacher right now in Ohio. What they can and cannot say. Honestly, it’s no picnic being a professor either, in that respect. Ohio passed a law in December 2020 that purports to protect “free speech,” but reads like if a student of mine ever decides to hurl transphobic insults at me (or worse, at another student), I just kind of have to let them. But particular to the middle school teachers: They are not allowed to ask children their pronouns. And if a student asks to use a different name or different pronouns than “expected” (their scare quotes, not mine), they have to tell the guidance counselor, who tells their parents. One does not have to be a trans adult or a middle school social studies teacher to know that this is dangerous. Conversion therapy for queer kids is legal in Ohio; as of this November, they’re trying to pass laws that would create a registry of trans children in the state .
Second: Andrew Tate . The social studies teachers said that a few of their middle school young men love Andrew Tate. A vocal minority, to be sure, but troubling nonetheless because Andrew Tate is a Nazi with the serial numbers filed off, obscuring his far-right political opinions with misogyny-riddled “self-improvement” for men and young boys. His content is geared toward radicalizing young white men. The teachers told me that their students were falling for Tate’s pyramid scheme, called “Hustler’s University,” which costs $45 a month and is purportedly about how to make money in the digital age, but is actually about Andrew Tate making money.
Of course, these are children. So when they see “Hustler’s University,” they think it’s actually about how to hustle—as in, to make money —and not about being hustled—as in, getting tricked or grifted . And so, they are one step on their way to radicalization. Several steps, really. And having spent money—children’s money!—they are now in a position to defend their choice, double down, and build the habit of being this person, the person who gets grifted.
Here’s the point: Remember that trans children are also just children, which means all the other things children need are things trans children need. The point isn’t just that they should be asked their pronouns, that everyone should be asked their pronouns. To be perfectly honest, that’s the bare minimum, the stupid basic cake. The point is that they deserve to learn in an environment, to exist in a place, where they and their peers aren’t being recruited by Nazis so that adults can make money.
I think I was asked to talk about the rights of trans children with an eye specifically to healthcare, to Texas, to puberty blockers, to participation in sports, or maybe even to J.K. Rowling (who is a turd). I think I was asked to talk about all the things everyone else is already talking about and I don’t want to because we already know all that; the people who are fighting those battles are already fighting them. We are already with them. And there are—fuck, there are so many of those things. How could I talk about them all in 1500 words or less?
But I guess instead I’m talking about the things only the social studies teachers hear, the quiet grifters lurking under the surface that affect trans children because they affect children.
Here’s the point: Remember that trans children are also just children, which means all the other things children need are things trans children need.
Here is also the point: Trans people are also just people. They’re part of the people that politicians are supposed to be actively protecting, serving. When grifters take over, as they are taking over now, instead of public service, citizenship, and the glory of what collective governance could be, we wind up with—well, this. We wind up with J. D. Vance as a senator. And who except the social studies teachers know what that means for children, all of them, the trans ones included. The rest of us are not there, and no amount of past experience can put us there. We’re not in the classroom, or their homes, or online with them getting grifted by Nazis. And grifters make rules to protect their grift; nothing else. The grifters, maybe, aren’t even far-right, not really, it’s just the far-right is an easy grift. Who knows. They don’t care about the things they say or what they believe in. They care about parting thirteen-year-old boys from their money, and making those thirteen-year-old boys into pliable adults that they may continue to grift. Grift all the way into a senate seat.
I feel hopeless just having written this piece. Having gotten to the landing, I don’t know whether I can stick it; I don’t know whether there is ground on which to land. But I do know the only thing to do is bake a cake. And unless I want to eat shitty cake, I have to get my ass to the store and grab vanilla, no matter how depressed I am. And when it doesn’t work, we have to have the lightness of those baking cakes, those who have taken a cake from the oven only to discover it wonky, overbaked, with a soggy bottom and to say, oh well, I’ll make another cake. As in—the willingness to try again and again and again until we get it right, in this year and the next and the year after that, grifters be damned. Because otherwise children suffer. All of them. In more ways than one.