A sea change in transgender rights

transgender symbolThe past month or so has been incredible for transgender rights victories, and I want to acknowledge this moment. We’re seeing the kind of movement on trans issues that I’ve dreamed of – our community is finally winning the protections we need. I think this has a lot to do with the ways trans folks have shared our stories and organized for our rights, including at online spaces like Feministing.

On Sunday, Nok Yonlada, who is trans, won a provincial election in Thailand. This means a lot in terms of visibility, to have an out trans woman representing constituents as an elected official. Argentina made trans health care a human right and gave folks the right to legally change their genders without the approval of a judge or doctor. In the US, the The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced they will hear claims of gender identity-based employment discrimination, meaning trans and gender non-conforming folks have employment protections at the national level for the first time. The Department of Justice released national standards to prevent prison rape that include specific provisions to protect trans and gender non-conforming folks. These standards were developed with community input and are an important step in addressing the high rates of sexual violence experienced by incarcerated trans folks.

These victories in the political arena are huge. The trans community is at square one when it comes to winning the rights we need to be able to participate in society without facing massive amounts of discrimination. Winning protections from workplace discrimination means we can actually get jobs. We obviously need to address the high rates of incarceration faced by trans folks, but protections for those behind bars could make a big difference in people’s lived realities. These are the first steps towards being full human beings under the law, whose experience of discrimination is valid and who deserve just as much access as everybody else.

The US isn’t close to Argentina yet, where they’ve got this wild idea that health care should be a human right. We need to continue fighting for basic protections, including from discrimination in housing and public accomodations. But ideally this moves us towards the point where we win positive rights, like the right to determine our own genders without having to go through gatekeepers.

I think these wins have a ton to do with trans folks standing up and telling our stories. In the past few years, an increasing number of trans and gender non-conforming writers have popped up online. We’ve shared our own experiences on trans-focused blogs, broader queer and trans sights, and spaces like Feministing that aren’t explicitly organized around LGBT issues. Community groups and individuals have also talked to the press, and insisted on accurate coverage. And, like the rest of the social justice internets, we’ve used these new tools to take action. While organizing for a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act was unsuccessful, it galvanized the community and created a megaphone for our issues in a way that probably led to the EEOC victory.

I believe this increased visibility has been vital to the wins we’re seeing right now. You don’t start winning rights just by demanding them. Victories require that your needs are respected, that they’re seen as valid and legitimate. Basically, groups of people needed to recognize that trans folks are human beings deserving of the same rights as everyone else. And that didn’t happen by accident – it happened because we stood up and demanded it, loudly, over and over again. Every time a trans person tells their story, it has the potential to humanize our whole community. Being out can be dangerous for trans folks, and it’s not something I would encourage anyone to do in a way that does not feel safe and supported. But those of us who have been willing and able to share our experiences have gotten to see people’s minds change.

These victories have been inspiring to watch. But at the same time, the trans community is still facing heartbreaking violence. In the past month Brandy Martell was shot and killed in Oakland. CeCe McDonald was found guilty for defending herself against a transphobic attack in which someone tragically lost his life. Recent wins don’t undermine these tragedies in any way. In fact, it’s all that much harder to see the most marginalized in our community facing violence at the same time that we’re winning victories. Changes in our laws don’t mean people automatically stop hating us. Sometimes increased visibility can mean increased violence. We have to continue working to change people’s minds while we also work to change the laws. Trans women of color continue to face the worst transphobic violence. So we have to continue working deliberately to lift up the voices of trans women of color, to make sure the community most impacted can speak for themselves and humanize themselves.

The New York Times‘ offensive article about Lorena Escalera was a reminder that we can have our identities undermined and attacked even in death. Though the article stood out partially because we’ve seen less of this sort of offensive coverage lately. When I first joined Feministing a few years ago, it seemed like every trans-related article was about a death, and they all included the wrong pronouns or were offensive in some other way. We’ve seen a real shift in the way the media talks about trans folks – they’re actually starting to do their job and report responsibly and accurately. I think the credit absolutely goes to trans writers and organizers and our allies, who wrote blog posts, tweeted, emailed, and called news outlets whenever these offensive stories came out.

There’s a culture shift, at least within the social justice internets, that’s happening at the same time as these rights victories. When I first joined Feministing three years ago, the community could be super transphobic, and this was not a rarity for feminist blogs. There were some badass trans folks and allies holding it down in the community, but the transphobic voices got pretty loud too. Since then, attitudes on trans issues have shifted in this space and on other blogs as well. We see less controversies around transphobia within the blogosphere. Instead, folks are getting behind trans issues. I was inspired to see how many people got angry and took action about the NYT Lorena Escalera article. While the paper didn’t retract the story, there was a ton of outrage and action take on Facebook and Twitter; Feministing’s call to action was one of our most highly trafficked posts this past month. Our post about Argentina’s new laws also received a ton of page views, which tells me trans issues have become a focus for our readers.

There’s still a ton of work to do to shift the culture as a whole. Hell, lefty communities have a lot of work still to do to be less transphobic. Just because I’ve seen changes on some blogs doesn’t mean they’ve all become paradises of trans inclusion. But increasing awareness and involvement within social justice communities is the first step. Allies who will take action on trans issues, and who will speak up for trans folks to their friends, are absolutely necessary to influence larger groups of people.

It’s partially because there’s a growing community who will speak up for trans rights that victories like the EEOC ruling are possible. Policymakers need to be pushed by their constituents to take action on issues. And they need a base of supporters who will stand against those who oppose trans rights. Political change doesn’t happen without cultural change. These recent trans wins have a ton to do with culture shift within organizing communities, including the social justice internets.

Similarly, we’ve got to use these rights victories to continue our culture change work. We need to build off the legal recognition of our humanity, taking this opportunity to increase positive visibility for trans folks.

I feel blessed to be a small part of this moment. I know I’m standing on the shoulders of elders who fought for me before I even knew I was trans. I feel incredibly lucky to be one of a number of trans advocates who are telling our stories at this moment when our laws are starting to shift. Getting to see change within lefty communities has been a gift as well. It sucks that this hard work still needs to be done. And these victories don’t at all downplay the tragic realities the trans community still faces. But this is an important moment in the history of trans rights. It’s important to acknowledge the hard work that’s led us here. It’s important to celebrate these victories. And it’s vital to use them to build to even more wins.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted May 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this. I just wanted to add the new WPATH Standards of Care. You mentioned the goal of being able to determine our genders without having to go through gatekeepers. As a mental health professional who works with transgender and gender variant folks, I was thrilled when these new standards of care came out which to me represent a drastic shift in the extent to which mental health professionals are asked to be gatekeepers. I have young people I’m working with who no longer need a letter from me to start hormone therapy. I don’t believe I should be making the determination that someone should “get to” have hormones or surgery. As mental health professionals who understand transgender issues, we can offer support and information through the process. But I believe these choices need to be made by the individual – and that seems to be the direction WPATH is going!

  2. Posted May 30, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Well, this is as good a time and place as any to say it: Thanks for all your hard work, sis. It makes a difference.

  3. Posted May 30, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    It really is heartening to read this, to see the victories and steps forward all put together. It can be so easy to get demoralized about the path of human rights and social justice these days, seeing all the hatred and bigotry still being proudly displayed…so it’s really refreshing to read this and remember that progress IS really happening, even though it may be slow and extremely hard-won. I am generally a fairly cynical person, but I do think that we are moving toward a more just society, and I think the progress on trans* rights is a big indicator of that, since the phobia and violence inflicted on trans* folks has for far too long been so prevalent and tolerated. Slowly slowly, we’re moving away from that being acceptable, and that makes even cynical me feel optimistic.

    • Posted May 30, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

      Ta-Nehisi Coates posted this on his blog in the past week, and it really resonated with me:

      “This is what progress always looks like. Progress is not the practice of those in the business of sweeping success. Progress overawes–but its work is slow and grim. Progress waits on people to die, and more enlightened people to take their place. Progress works even as the unenlightened abound, but find their ranks thinned and their positions exposed.”

  4. Posted June 6, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    It’s so good to read some good news. Thanks for this broad view of our progress thanks to the brave work of so many!

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