Transgender equality struggle: Everyone has a stake

Awareness of the struggle for transgender equality is growing across the country. From bathroom laws in North Carolina to Sarah McBride’s speech at the DNC, trans issues are making headlines. On the left and among progressives, especially, there is increasing recognition of this movement for equality.

Allies and friends are looking for ways to contribute to the trans community’s fight. This article is for them – a primer on trans issues and challenges. It reviews some fundamentals of what the specifics of gender, sex, and identity mean and do not mean. It provides a framework for how to understand the fight for trans rights in connection with the overall democratic struggle.

The right-wing figures behind transphobic legislation are the same people pushing racist, sexist, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-worker bills across America. The struggle for trans equality does not belong to the trans community alone; everyone has a stake in this fight.

Sex, gender, expression, identity

First off, let’s start with a bit of basic information for allies who are newer to transgender issues. Folks are looking to educate themselves and that should be welcomed. The essential point to start with is to understand that biologically-determined sex and gender expression are completely different things.

Your biology can say that because you have an XY or XX or any other chromosomal combination (and yes, there are more!) you will have certain types of physical characteristics and so therefore you will be labeled as a man or a woman.

We have been conditioned and taught to believe there are only two sexes and gender expressions: male and female, men and women. Yet even science knows that this is not true based upon on the variety of chromosomal combinations and physical expressions of characteristics typically used to denote biological sex and gender expression.

Biological sex is even so subjective a concept that doctors sometimes make decisions to operate on newborns to create a vagina if a baby’s genitals at birth are “ambiguous” (this is what is known as intersex – when someone at birth has a penis that is determined to be smaller or a clitoris that is determined to be larger than what is considered “normal”; most doctors find it easier to create a vagina than a penis, and thus they denote the person as female and operate on them accordingly).

History is rife with those who, through either physical manifestations or their own creative expression, have bucked the rigid sex/gender binary of male and female. Today, when we think of this, people like Caitlin Jenner, Laverne Cox, and Janet Mock come to mind – trans women who are out and public about their lives.

Expressing and fully living as a gender other than your biological sex, either as a trans woman or a trans man, is one part of the community. There are also gender non-conforming people and gender-queer people who do not fully identify with either sex and who play with gender in a way that more fully expresses who they are as people. This all is in addition to those who biologically do not fit into the male-female binary.

We should be expansive and broad, rather than limiting and narrow, when it comes to understanding transgender and gender non-conformity.

The liberating potential of dropping the gender binary

At its core, that is really the radical and liberating piece of transgender and gender non-conformity: that we can throw to the wind the restrictive and oppressively constructed sex and gender roles we have inherited and fully express each of ourselves as authentic beings. It is the notion that my genes don’t fully determine who I am as a person, and that I actually have control over how I express myself.

So, why is this so scary? What’s the big deal with an individual expressing who they are?

It’s scary to some because it threatens a fundamental pillar of patriarchy and male chauvinism: men are men, women are women, and men are better than women.

These rigid classifications are needed to build impermeable walls that can control women and create and enforce their oppression. If biology is thrown out as the sole determinant of gender, or even more radically, if the notion of gender itself is thrown out, where does that leave the basis of men and women being different? Where does it leave all of the ideological, cultural, and social attitudes and norms that flow from this way of thinking?

The oppression of transgender and gender non-conforming people, as well as LGB people, is rooted in the oppression of women and the ideological systems of patriarchy and male supremacy that are created to propagate this oppression.

The idea that someone who could be perceived as a man would want to express themselves in ways that are perceived to not fit into what is expected of a male, from a patriarchal worldview, is a massive (even deadly) transgression that cannot be tolerated. That someone who is perceived as a woman could express themselves as someone according to expected male behaviors invalidates the notion that sexes are separate. It challenges the hierarchical gender structure in a way that enrages the defenders of sexism and misogyny.

If we sit for a moment and think about this, it becomes clear that many of the issues taken up by feminists are centered around these very same notions. Women have fought uncountable battles to have a voice and to determine themselves what it means to be a woman. They have challenged the notion of what it means to be a man and the idea that men are naturally better than women.

The issues of employment, attire, behavior, equal pay, abortion rights, the double burden of working both inside and outside the home – all of these exist as both economic and democratic struggles. A main thread in all of them is the rejection of the expression of gender that has largely been determined through a patriarchal and misogynistic ideological lens.

The struggle against transphobia and for the freedom of gender expression is also part of this struggle.

Major components of the struggle for trans equality

The struggle for transgender equality has a multitude of components, but these are some of the major overarching pieces.

Violence

There continues to be an epidemic of violence against trans women, and trans women of color in particular. Violence against trans women is often extremely brutal and deadly. As of this writing, there have been 13 reported murders of trans women, 3 murders of trans men, and 1 murder of a gender-fluid person in 2016 in the United States (most were people of color). We need to continue to work on highlighting this issue and its causes and continue to pressure for police to investigate and solve these murders.

Employment Discrimination

Nearly one in four trans people reported having lost a job due to bias. There are often issues of non-hiring due to not presenting as categorically male or female. This creates a division between those who can “pass” as a man or a woman and those who cannot – an ability often determined by wealth and race. There are issues of privacy (employers wanting to know an employee’s sex and the history of their gender expression), as well as workplace harassment and violence.

Poverty is a huge issue with the inability of many trans individuals to find employment. The corollary of this is that one in 8 trans people have had to resort to high-risk employment, such as sex work and selling drugs. This of course puts them at higher risk of being assaulted and murdered – another direct connection to the epidemic of violence against trans women.

Access to quality healthcare

There is a severe lack of healthcare providers that are knowledgeable about and accepting of trans individuals. Most don’t know enough about specific trans health issues and concerns, which can include mental health/substance abuse, hormone replacement therapy, cosmetic procedures, surgical procedures, or providing treatment to those in the process of transitioning.

Most insurance companies do not cover procedures such as laser treatment for body hair removal, cosmetic surgeries, hormone replacement therapies, surgeries to remove breasts, etc. This reality puts trans individuals who are not able to “pass” in a position of being discriminated against because we as a society continue to validate trans individuals who physically fit into our defined male-female binary and invalidate trans individuals who do not. This furthers the issues of un(der)employment and forcing trans individuals to engage in risky employment opportunities that put them at further risk of violence and assault.

There is also a lack of resources for mental health services to assist someone in processing their own gender expression, coming to terms with themselves, processing their experiences of transphobia from family/community, and assisting families in engaging with their family members who are trans in a meaningful and healthy way.

Suicide rates for trans individuals are higher than the average for society generally and continue to rise due to lack of family/social support, stigma, discrimination, violence, and lack of resources to get help. The lack of resources for families also contributes to the violence; far too many trans individuals have been murdered by their own family members.

Transgender bathroom laws

The forcible sex segregation of bathrooms is the newest struggle for transgender rights and gender expression. North Carolina passed a law forcibly segregating bathroom use to the biological sex you were assigned at birth. Seven other states have considered passing similar laws. These regulations are desperate attempts by the right to further anti-LGBT sentiment now that marriage equality has become the law of the land.

The timing of these laws is important to take note of. They have followed on the heels of the marriage equality ruling of June 2015. It’s not as if trans people just suddenly arrived from outer space in 2016 and started peeing in public bathrooms. It’s no coincidence that they are being targeted now.

The right wing uses old tropes that trans/queer people are child molesters and criminals. They employ paternalistic rhetoric about defending women while they simultaneously continue the war on women through various political and social means. These laws are also intimately linked to the struggle against sexism – not just on who is sponsoring them, but also the ways that they are carried out.

There are reports of people being forcibly removed from women’s bathrooms because they did not “look like a woman” regardless of whether they were trans or not. This continues to reinforce patriarchal systems of defining behaviors and expressions that are appropriately male and female, generally centered on sexist interpretations of what people perceived as women should look like and how they should dress. There are also no protections for trans people who have been violently assaulted in these spaces.

Such cases will probably end up in the Supreme Court and hopefully be overturned. The Department of Justice issued a forcible rebuke of the hatred that is explicit in these types of legislation. The arguments will probably also include issues of public school bathrooms/locker-rooms due to conservative backlash from the Obama Administration’s directives in May 2016 that public school districts must accommodate their transgender students and that transgender students must be allowed to use facilities of the gender they identify with, not what was assigned at birth. Noncompliance with this directive could result in the loss of federal funds for a school district.

Advancing trans equality means beating the ultra-right

Victories on these issues only further and deepen the democratic struggle and afford people basic human rights and dignity – just as the struggle for marriage equality and for gay rights has done. Advancing and winning on these struggles will only further erode and weaken the ultra-right.

The politicians who advocate and perpetuate transphobia are the same ones who promote corporate interests, racism, sexism, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant legislation and rhetoric; who fight against raising the minimum wage, expanding healthcare, and the whole host of right-wing ideological causes. Samantha Bee on her show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, makes strong arguments about this, particularly in the case of North Carolina. It’s worth the watch if you haven’t been tuning in.

Anyone focused on defeating the ultra-right and understanding the danger of the ultra-right in our political, economic, and social life, should be at the forefront of these issues. They should be making the necessary connections between the struggle for transgender rights and the broader democratic struggle.

This article is based on a presentation delivered at a meeting of the National Committee of the Communist Party on June 1, 2016.

Photo: Members of the Retail Action Project march in support of transgender workers at the Trans Day of Action for Social and Economic Justice in New York City in June 2013. | Retail Action Project


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