Note: I use “trans” here to include the transgender spectrum but also genderqueer and gender nonconforming people (essentially everyone whose gender identities do not match the identities assigned to them at birth).
The LGBTQ struggle has a basic unity in the fight to overturn oppression based on sexual orientation and patriarchal gender norms. But while “lesbian,” “gay” and “bisexual” describe a sexual orientation, “trans” describes a gender identity. My experience as a trans person on the feminine spectrum, and the specific harassment I’ve faced day-to-day is qualitatively different from bi, lesbian, or gay folks. If nothing else, the chilling fact that 41 percent of trans people have attempted suicide speaks to the harsh reality of discrimination and hate that trans people face.
The oppression facing trans people has often been overshadowed by the battle over marriage equality. Marriage discrimination does affect trans people because their legal gender status often complicates or obstructs the process of getting married and divorced. It is an important battleground for all classconscious and progressive people, but it is far from the sole form of oppression.
One of the issues that affects trans people differently is health care. While one small victory was won when the American Psychiatric Association stopped listing transgender as a mental disorder, the health care system can still be an obstacle course full of gatekeepers for medically necessary treatment. Trans people often need access to therapy, hormones and surgery among other treatments in order for their bodies to come into closer alignment with their identities. Without universal access to health care, many are denied such treatments.
Unemployment for trans people is double the rate of the national average, with trans people of color being as high as four times the national average. Meanwhile, those “who had lost a job due to bias also experienced ruinous consequences such as four times the rate of homelessness,” says one report issued in 2011. While Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is legislation that would make it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, different versions of the bill have often excluded protections for transgender individuals. Today, it is legal in 34 states to fire someone because they are trans.
Another issue is bathroom access. People who are visibly trans or do not “pass” for their expressed gender identity often face harassment when simply needing to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, and gender-neutral restrooms are hard to come by. Adding to the anxiety that we feel when having to choose which bathroom to use, bills such as one recently passed in Arizona, only makes matters worse. State Rep. John Kavanagh introduced a bill that would have made it illegal to use a restroom that did not match the gender on your birth certificate. While that did not pass, its current “softened” form condones discrimination on the basis of gender identity for businesses. It is almost no surprise that Arizona— known for it’s racist anti-immigrant “Show me your papers” bill—would pass a bill called by some the “show me your papers before potty” bill.
State sponsorship of transphobia does not end at legislation. The case of CeCe McDonald, an African American trans woman who defended herself from a vicious hate crime, shows how the state represses trans people.
In Minneapolis in June 2011, McDonald and her friends were walking past a bar when patrons standing outside started yelling racist and transphobic slurs at them. McDonald was hit with a glass in the face by one of them, and had to defend herself from a brutal attack by another, who later died from the incident. The cops immediately sided with the bigots, and McDonald was tried for manslaughter and sentenced to 41 months in a male prison.
A report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs showed that in 2011 “Transgender women made up 40 percent of the 30 reported hate murders in 2011.” Furthermore, 87 percent of all hate murders targeting LGBTQ and HIV-affected people were against people of color.
In light of these statistics, it is quite clear that CeCe McDonald’s life was on the line. The cops do not protect and serve communities most at risk for attack. Instead, they harass them with policies such as New York’s “Stop and Frisk.” A recent study showed that trans people of color in the mainly immigrant neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens are being stopped and frisked at nearly double the already obscenely-high rate of the rest of the population.
While we must fight against such transphobic policies of the state, they are ultimately only a manifestation of a larger system whose foundations rest upon class exploitation, racism, sexism and the special oppression of LGBTQ people.
Fear and ignorance play a large role in spreading anti-trans bigotry among the working class. Transgender mixed martial arts fighter Fallon Fox said in an interview, “If you don’t understand a person, you are very likely to fear them.” To overcome such misunderstanding, we must educate ourselves and one another about the reality of trans oppression. We need to build a fully inclusive class-wide movement that fights under the famous slogan of solidarity: “an injury to one is an injury to all!”