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Transphobia Is Not a Feminist Value

Reflections on the eve of Transgender Day of Visibility.

On July 26, 2017, after a series of tweets by President Trump which proposed to ban transgender people from military service, thousands of New Yorkers took the streets of in opposition. (Photo: Michael Nigro / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images)

On the eve of Transgender Day of Visibility, there is renewed hope in the fight for trans liberation, as more people come to see and accept our lives and identities. However, there is also anguish, as the culture wars shift their focus to trans rights and make the trans community a target of Trump’s authoritarian tactics. In the past week, ostensibly to assuage Trump’s evangelical Christian base in the midst of the Stormy Daniels controversy, the White House released yet another discriminatory policy barring most transgender individuals from serving in the military, after a previous ban on trans service members was blocked by federal judges.

Courts have provided some respite from transphobic repression, and the Trump administration’s attempt to deny workplace protections to transgender individuals was rejected this month by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In the landmark ruling, the federal appeals court found that laws against employment discrimination on the basis of sex apply to anti-trans discrimination in the workplace, and religious exemptions cannot be granted to employers.

Feminism today must face the reality that trans women are being murdered around the world simply for existing.

In the UK, as parliament considers updates to the Gender Recognition Act aimed at removing stigmatizing medical requirements for trans people to amend their gender markers and providing greater protections against discrimination, there has also been a deluge of transphobia. The Labour Party’s position of including trans women on female shortlists has also prompted a fierce backlash. Unfortunately, much of the vitriol has come from trans-exclusionary activists who describe themselves as feminists. This only serves to underscore the urgency with which mainstream feminism must affirm a non-negotiable commitment to trans inclusion both within the movement and beyond.

Trans women are in danger, and the clock has run out on debates among feminists about whether we are really women, whether we should be included and whether we should be rendered second-class status. Feminism today must face the reality that trans women are being murdered around the world simply for existing, for breathing the air and walking in the streets.

Dandara dos Santos, a 42-year-old trans woman, was beaten to death last year after being dragged from her home in a northern Brazilian slum. Her torture was filmed and distributed as she begged for her life. How could this horrific violence possibly be a product of the “male privilege” that trans exclusionary women ascribe to us?

There are currently 72 countries where being transgender is criminalized.

When out-of-touch women claiming to be feminists believe that trans womanhood begins with Caitlyn Jenner and ends with “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” they are ignorant of the actual lives of trans women throughout the world. The trans women we most often see and read about form a tiny fraction of our population and have very little in common with the average trans woman.

This really should not be difficult to grasp for the cisgender women who denounce trans womanhood, since I am sure they very well comprehend that Ivanka Trump or Kim Kardashian are not representative of the vast majority of cisgender women throughout the world. With visibility comes privilege, and any claims that all cisgender women have privilege based on the most visible and powerful women should be met with ridicule.

Globally, the situation is especially dire for trans women. There are currently 72 countries where being transgender is criminalized — meaning that trans women must live their entire lives in hiding, or face state-sponsored violence and terror. In many of these countries, a woman faces the death penalty for being transgender. Vigilante violence against trans women is widespread and particularly high where LGBT people are criminalized, and ranges from assault and rape to torture and murder. A survey published by the Other Foundation estimated that 450,000 South Africans reported physically harming gender-nonconforming individuals, and a 2014 report found that the life expectancy of trans women in the Americas is between 30 and 35.

The US is especially plagued with trans misogynistic violence, and a study found that trans women here are over four times more likely to be murdered than the general population of all women, and more than 80 percent of trans people murdered since 2013 have been people of color. Trans women in the US are more than four times as likely to live in extreme poverty than a non-trans person, and a fifth have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. More than 90 percent of trans women have been harassed in the workplace, and trans women of color are unemployed at four times the national average.

Trans people have also been at the receiving end of the Trump administration’s assault on civil rights, and one of the earliest actions taken was rescinding protections for trans students, in addition to its ongoing efforts to bar trans people from the military. It appears that beyond the political and legal ramifications on trans rights, the Trump effect is fueling declining acceptance of LGBT people in the US, and especially trans individuals, according to a newly released poll, which marked the first time in the poll’s history that a drop was found.

While most feminists have embraced trans women, a small but very vocal minority continues to persecute and victimize us. The Women’s Marches this year renewed their commitment to trans inclusion by featuring trans women as speakers, yet there were still several incidents of ugly transphobia on display.

There were threats of violence against a trans woman who posted about the importance of inclusion on a feminist page, leaving her too scared to attend the march. Several trans women who attended Women’s Marches were booed when they spoke about their experiences, and a photo of a woman at one of the marches holding a sign stating, “Trans Women are Men” went viral. Her sign also expressed a set of other transphobic tropes, including the tired and medically unsound claim that trans women are inauthentic since being a woman is “biology.”

Sadly, this trans exclusionary element has many followers who force everyone into one of two distinct categories based solely on their external genitalia at birth. Leaving aside trans individuals, what does this thinking mean for the tens of millions of people around the world who are intersex at birth? There is no medical evidence that requires people to be assigned one of two sexes, and in fact, research demonstrates that non-binary genitalia are a natural and normal part of human diversity, not aberrations that must be “fixed.”

Similarly, genital absolutism toward trans people contradicts a broad medical consensus that gender identity is valid, and that affirming care leads to the best outcomes for trans individuals. Research is suggesting that an individual’s sense of gender identity is innate and that gender identity is wired into natal brain structure, and a recent discovery has identified a panel of genes linked to gender dysphoria. However, it is important to note that trans advocates are in no way attempting to erase other anatomical aspects of sex, and as a trans woman who has experienced dysphoria, I grasp the visceral connection between the physical body and the sense of womanhood that many cisgender women innately feel.

Despots like Trump scapegoat our communities and attempt to erase us from public life. Yet, these actions only strengthen the resolve of trans activists and our allies.

Throughout my adolescence, my body felt it did not belong to me. Deep within, I wondered why a beard was developing instead of breasts and wondered where my vagina was. It was in my 20s, while observing pregnant women, that I came to the full realization of being transgender. It is precisely this biological dysphoria, which some — though not all — trans women experience, that compels us to medically transition, undergo surgeries and even dream of the day when we might bear our own children.

Yet, often forgotten among discussions of women’s health care is the horrifying reality for trans people who seek treatment. A recent survey shows that discrimination against trans and gender-nonconforming people is endemic in the US health care system, and that nearly 20 percent of respondents have been refused care at some point. Almost a third of trans people faced harassment in medical settings, and due to discrimination and mistreatment, 28 percent of respondents postponed medical care while sick or injured.

Sexual assault survivors who are transgender face bias both from law enforcement and health care providers. One survey respondent said, “My experiences in dealing with police and hospital personnel after my rape was not pleasant and lacked a lot of sensitivity to trans issues.” Over 40 percent of trans women have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, compared to 4.6 percent of the general population. Moreover, studies have confirmed that bias and negative attitudes that lead to widespread social exclusion, discrimination and violence against trans individuals are responsible for that staggering statistic.

Overwhelmingly, coverage on trans issues lacks trans voices, perhaps explaining the perpetuation of so many falsehoods about us. British media coverage on trans issues over the past year has demonstrated a pervasive transphobia bolstered by trans exclusionary feminism on the left.

Pundits, talk show hosts and politicians are not qualified to determine the authenticity of trans children or the best medical decisions for trans individuals. Those decisions, as we feminists know well in terms of reproductive rights, are best left between individuals and their health care providers. Piers Morgan is no more an expert on treating trans patients than he is on the intricacies of open-heart surgery, yet our current climate invites every uninformed lout to weigh in on just about every aspect of our lives.

Feminists must insist on an accurate and factual basis for discussions on trans women, both within our institutions and the wider media establishment. Almost daily, we are served a nauseating platter of sensational lies about how trans women pose a threat to other women. As “trans panic” sets in, one could be led to believe that cisgender women have never been involved in assaulting, raping and murdering other women — including trans women such as trans teenager Ally Steinfeld, who was tortured and killed in Missouri last year. This past Sunday, Naomi Hersi, a Somali trans woman, was brutally stabbed to death in London and a 24-year-old man and 17-year-old woman have been charged with her murder.

Trans exclusionary activists are telling trans women to know our place. They are dictating to trans girls and women that we are not autonomous, that we will be told who we are, where we are allowed to be and under what conditions. That sounds an awful lot like tyranny — the opposing aim of true feminism.

Fear and ignorance have been exploited to oppress vulnerable groups throughout history, and trans people know this all too well. Our existence is mocked, invalidated and reviled by the dominant forces in mainstream culture, and our livelihoods, safety and survival are imperiled because we are accused of making others uncomfortable. Despots like Trump scapegoat our communities and attempt to erase us from public life. Yet, these actions only strengthen the resolve of trans activists and our allies, including feminist allies, to fight tirelessly for trans liberation. As our stories are heard and we are seen by broader segments of society, greater understanding and inclusion emerge. Today, the courts may be our main recourse to protect us from tyranny, but tomorrow it will be our neighbors, co-workers and even those who may not know us. A better day is coming.

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