By Katharine Hughes
President Barack Obama, in his second inaugural address, said, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.” It’s a nice sentiment, and while equality for gay and lesbian individuals and the legalization of same-gender marriage would be a significant step forward on our journey, we would unfortunately still be far from the end.
What Obama’s statement failed to mention was the ongoing struggle for equality faced by transgender and non-gender conforming individuals in our society. This sort of erasure, deliberate or otherwise, is nothing new to trans* 1 individuals, and in fact trans* invisibility is often a lesser problem than the discrimination and hurdles that trans* individuals face when they are recognized. Trans* individuals live every day in a hostile environment simply by navigating through our society. To be trans* in America means living with a greatly increased risk of becoming a victim of violence, sexual or otherwise, being fired or harassed on the job (if one can even get a job to begin with), increased likelihood of poverty (which only becomes more likely if a trans* individual is a person of color), increased risk of harassment, increased discrimination and violence from law enforcement, increased likelihood of discrimination by government authorities, inability to obtain up-to-date identification, increased likelihood of abuse in prison, and less likelihood to have access to healthcare, among many other problems.
Casual transphobia remains socially acceptable in nearly every sphere of public life. Transphobic slurs are commonplace. To watch television as a transgender person is to walk through a minefield, as one never knows when to expect the next assault upon one’s identity in the name of “humor” or inaccurate portrayals of one’s identity. Even when using public restroom facilities, trans* individuals face anxiety knowing that if they are “found out” for using the restroom corresponding to their gender identities, they face the possibility of violence or other social punishment. Politicians have even attempted to craft so-called “bathroom bills” which would, among other things, force individuals identifying as women to use men’s restrooms at the risk of their own safety. In the case of Tennessee’s proposed “bathroom bill”, the state senator that proposed the bill also threatened to “stomp a mudhole” in any trans* individuals who were in the proximity of his family.
These are not harmless words. These are not small problems. These are not idle threats. These things have real, profound, and lasting effects on the lives of trans* individuals every day. These words and actions reinforce societal narratives about who is valid in their gender identity, reinforce an environment of violence against trans* individuals, reinforce the dehumanization of trans* individuals only trying to live unashamed and comfortably in their skin, and reinforce the acceptability of the exclusion of a trans* individuals from participating equally in society.
One thing is clear. Our journey is long, and we still have miles to go before we can rest. Steps forward in equality are important, but only if they achieve equality for all, and trans* individuals are far from equal in our society. It is imperative to recognize their struggle if we truly believe in the promise of America. We must speak out against transphobia in word and deed. We must end the stigma against gender non-conformity. We must make it clear that violence is not an acceptable response to what our socialization has programmed us to interpret as “deviant”. We must affirm the right of all individuals to feel secure not only in their bodies but everywhere in our society. We cannot erase the story of trans* people from our history or neglect to mention their struggles. We must recognize their contributions when we mention Stonewall, and we must commit equal love as well in working to achieve equality for all. Then, and only then, will our journey be complete.
1 The use of trans* with an asterisk is meant to be an umbrella term encompassing not only transgender individuals, but all individuals of non-binary gender identities.