Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series about the “bathroom bills” and transgender rights by Shakina Nayfack, PhD. Read the first two here.
Transgender Rights are a Feminist Issue
Some people say feminism is about women being treated equally to men. Actually, that’s really just a great side effect of feminism. What feminism is really about is dismantling the systems of power that create and maintain gender inequality in the first place. Several millennia ago human beings developed a social order that placed men in a class above women. We achieve gender equality by deconstructing the power dynamics that have historically given more value to maleness and masculinity and devalued femaleness and femininity. That hierarchy relies on a fixed notion of gender, where two unchanging options are ranked, one ahead of the other. This is what’s understood as the gender binary, a system of two where one has value and the other does not.
Transgender people don’t exist within the gender binary, or at least prove that the binary is a superficial social construction, meaning we accept it to be true when in reality it’s just a set of made-up rules most of us follow without thinking much about it. Trans people cross those gender lines and that freaks some other people out, especially the ones who rely on those lines to stay ahead of or in control of others. Feminism is the project of dismantling the social construction of gender once and for all, and you can practice that project anywhere you are. It’s as personal as calling out your family and friends when they say or do something sexist or transphobic, and as political as resisting the president when he tries to undo legal protections for trans people.
As a feminist, anything that attempts to enforce gendered hierarchy (placing one gender above another in privilege or power) should set off alarms. And when a policy is put in place that makes people with certain gender identities or expressions unequal to others, Feminism demands that you take action to oppose it!
Transgender Rights are a Civil Rights Issue
When I was on tour in North Carolina last year, just after the passage of HB2, I performed across the street from the site of the famous 1960 Woolworth’s Diner Sit-In, one of the great civil rights demonstrations in American history, where young black college students hunkered down at a “whites only” counter and demanded to be served. It’s easy to draw a parallel between the Jim Crow and Separate But Equal laws that sanctioned racism half a century ago, and these new laws aimed at prohibiting transgender people from using shared, public space today. It’s easy to draw the parallel, but it’s not necessarily correct.
Every social justice movement in this country has learned from those that preceded it. Transgender liberation carries forth wisdom from abolitionism, women’s suffrage, union organizing, civil rights, feminism, disability rights, gay and lesbian rights, the queer youth movement, just to name a few. However, to reductively conflate anti-Trans legislation with Jim Crow mistakenly negates the history of African American slavery from which those heinous laws were born and upon which so much of this nation was built.
Instead, what we can infer from the parallels to the civil rights movement is that our country has a shameful legacy of defending discrimination through a politics of exclusion. By outlawing certain people from using public spaces or participating in public life, people in power have tried again and again to maintain a position of superiority. The good news is that we’ve seen exclusion politics backfire everywhere from withholding the Women’s Vote and Separate But Equal laws, to The Defense of Marriage Act, which until recently forbid same sex marriage. The reason these laws can’t stand for long is that they’re fundamentally unconstitutional. Our nation was founded on the principle that all human beings are created equal. Over time and with great struggle we have replaced discriminatory laws with laws that protect marginalized people from discrimination. Just as the civil rights demonstrators did in previous generations, we need to demand that transgender people are afforded equal protection under the law, protection from the sanctioned discrimination caused by exclusion.
Transgender Rights are a Human Rights Issue
Another hot button topic in our country right now is illegal immigration. Often you’ll hear people (mostly those critical of immigrant rights) use the phrase “Illegals” when talking about undocumented immigrants. Yet Holocaust Survivor and world-renown writer and activist Elie Wiesel has famously told us that, “no human being is illegal.” His reasoning:
“Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal… Once you label a people ‘illegal,’ that is exactly what the Nazis did to Jews.”
I’m bringing up these linguistic concepts because it’s important to understand how we objectify people through labels, intentionally or not. Follow me with this a little further…
If you ever hear someone refer to transgender people as “transgenders” or “transgendered,” please, do whatever you can to educate them. The word “Transgender” is an adjective, it is used to describe one aspect of a person. It is not a noun. A person is not A transgender even if they happen to BE transgender. “Transgender” is also not a verb, an action that begins and ends. A transgender person is never transgendered, they didn’t finish some sort of mysterious transgender process — even if transitioning between or beyond genders is a process some transgender people undertake. Saying someone is transgendered would be like saying a tall person is talled or a smart person is smarted.
There, now I’ve managed to talk about Transgender discrimination, undocumented immigrants, and anti-Semitism at the same time! Why, you ask? Because these three examples illustrate how, when we objectify people through dismissive labeling, we begin to strip them of their humanity in our minds, which is the first step toward allowing for their persecution.
Transgender people are people. (I could have just said that first, but then we would have missed the whole linguistics lesson). As I said before, we have a responsibility and a commitment in this country to ensure equal rights for all human beings. It stands to reason then, that we ought to protect the most vulnerable among us. That is what defending Human Rights is all about.
Where else can we see transgender rights intersecting with other causes Smart Girls care about?
Our current political administration wants to divide us by making so many sweeping changes at once that we feel we have to choose our causes. When you think about it though, most of our causes are connected. That’s called intersectionality, and it’s super important for creating unified resistance. People can be subjected to more than one kind of oppression at a time (say for example, an undocumented young person who is also LGBT), and conversely, people can be marginalized in one area of their life while still having privilege in another (a white transgender person may not be profiled by police the same way a transgender person of color may be). True solidarity means learning to keep in mind where you have an advantage over someone else, and always working to help level the playing field!
Here’s a list of some other causes and movements that intersect with Trans rights. Have more to add to the list? Tweet at me!
Black Lives Matter — Last year was the deadliest year on record for transgender people, and the majority of those killed due to hate crimes or police brutality were trans women of color. So far in 2017, 9 trans women of color have been murdered in the United States alone.
Immigration — There are so many undocumented transgender people living in the U.S. that separate detention facilities have been built to retain those arrested before they face deportation. There is, however, no standard of care for these facilities, and many undocumented transgender people face isolation, violence, and sexual assault.
Refugees — Transgender people face violent persecution all over the world, many come to the United States seeking refuge from state-sponsored violence.
Water Protection/Indigenous rights — In indigenous North American cultures 3rd and 4th genders have existed for hundreds of years. In Native tradition trans or two-spirit persons are revered as shamans and healers. And it’s not just some nostalgic First Nation past, there are trans people at Standing Rock!
Prison Reform — There is perhaps no place more dangerous for a transgender person than the Prison Industrial Complex. Trans inmates are often housed with the wrong gender, subjecting them to all kinds of violence. They are denied hormones and medical treatment, or left in solitary confinement.
Health Care — Earlier this year a Texas judge issued a ruling allowing doctors to discriminate against transgender people by virtue of their religious freedom. Transgender men, many of whom have ovaries and uteruses, are at risk for several types of reproductive organ cancers, just as transgender women taking synthetic estrogen have an increased risk of breast cancer. Most insurance companies still refuse to cover the costs associated with medical transition and gender confirmation surgeries.
Housing and Employment Discrimination — Until we have a nationally adopted non-discrimination policy that protects transgender people, in many states it is still acceptable for landlords to refuse to rent to or evict a tenant because they are trans. Likewise, employers in many states have the right to harass or fire someone because of their gender identity or expression.
Adoption and Foster Care — In South Dakota a bill was recently signed into law that allows state-funded service organizations to deny service based on moral or religious grounds. Transgender people may no longer be able to foster or adopt children, and trans youth who’ve been neglected by their families may be turned out from religious orphanages or group homes, or forced to undergo dangerous conversion therapies.
What can I do to help?
Stand up for trans youth. Tell your trans friends that they’re awesome and important. If you don’t have a trans friend, make some! Correct people who use offensive language or make false claims about privacy or safety. Be a bathroom or locker room buddy. Get your teachers and administrators involved. If your school has a GSA, consider ways the group can be more Trans-inclusive. Petition your school board to adopt a non-discrimination policy that includes transgender people. Urge your school to get gender neutral or trans-affirming signs for the restrooms.
Follow or donate to these organizations:
@ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union)
@TransEquality (National Center for Transgender Equality)
@TLDEF (Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund)
@TransLawCenter (The Transgender Law Center)
@GLSEN (Championing LGBTQ issues in K-12 education)
Need help? Please call the Transgender Lifeline
US: (877) 565–8860
Canada: (877) 330–6366
You can also donate to support the lifeline HERE!