A day after we cheered as Laverne Cox graced the cover of Time magazine last week, news broke that two trans women were viscously assaulted on the MARTA subway in Atlanta. One woman was stripped naked as onlookers failed to intervene to end their torment. They laughed, cheered, and captured video on their cell phones.
It was that cell phone video (which we will not be linking to) that eventually filled my Facebook feed over the weekend, detailing disappointing realities about trans misogyny in communities of color. Tyra Woods, one of the woman assaulted, said that the verbal harassment began while they waited for the train to arrive. “They were trying to find out if we are men or women… I shouldn’t have to disclose who I am to an innocent person who I’m not even interested in talking to.”
No, you shouldn’t.
Earlier this year, Cox and Carmen Carrera appeared on Katie Couric’s show and deftly shut down Couric’s invasive questions about genitalia. As Jos noted in a piece she wrote for CJR, Cox and Carrera’s refusal to answer the question transformed it to a teachable moment to explain why the focus on genitalia “is dangerous, dehumanizing, and unacceptable.” Jos highlighted the problem with the media’s insistence on framing trans identity around anatomy:
Gender is an identity, not something that can be found in someone’s crotch; in fact, we manage to gender everyone around us without seeing them naked. Yet the media often requires trans women to “prove” their genders… Press about trans women paints a prurient image of us as a group, one in which we are only visible as sexualized objects hiding our original gender—whose bodies and identities are open to scrutiny—rather than as full people.
I can’t help but be reminded of Cox’s statement months ago on Tumblr after her appearance on Couric’s show: “It is a state of emergency for far too many trans people across this country.” It’s huge that Cox appeared on the cover of a mainstream news magazine as a trans woman of color.
This is a watershed moment in our culture.
Which was why The Chicago Sun-Times‘s decision to re-publish a trans misogynist op-ed from The National Review‘s Kevin D. Williamson so epically screwed up. The Sun-Times has since taken down the piece and has issued an apology, but only after considerable public pressure from a barrage of tweets and successful petitions mounted by WAM! and GLAAD. Williamson’s click-baity post surprised no one. He misgendered Cox (as he previously misgendered Chelsea Manning) in his retrograde critique and has since written unwanted rebuttals defending his views. The second and equally inflammatory post goes further to argue for de-accreditation to doctors who perform transition-related surgeries. These pieces represent the old order, desperately clinging to compulsory gender binaries.
Williamson seems to be consciously ignorant of the kind of violence that the trans community faces – and how views like his undergird that violence. They can lead to the kind of violence that Tyra Woods and Janell Crosby experienced two weeks ago in Atlanta, the kind of violence CeCe McDonald escaped three years ago in Minneapolis, the kind of violence that left Islan Nettles dead ten months ago in Harlem and Shelley Hilliard dead three years ago in Detroit. The National Coalition of Anti Violence reports nearly 2,001 incidents of assaults on trans community in 2013. Of the 18 reported anti-LGBTQ homicides in 2013, 89 percent of the victims were people of color, and 72 percent were transgender women.
The paper’s apology is particularly infuriating, as it implies that a range of viewpoints on the validity of trans people’s existence are worthy of publication. While the editors acknowledge that the medical establishment considers trans healthcare medically necessary, and that we face extreme discrimination and violence, the Sun-Times fails to make a clear statement that trans people’s identities are valid and that questioning this is not legitimate journalism.
Despite the positive publicity generated Cox’s Time cover, trans women are still fighting for others in media to recognize our basic humanity. And there are very real consequences of this terrible media coverage: the trans community, particularly low-income trans women and trans people of color, face astronomically high rates of discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations; are far too often homeless or incarcerated; and trans women of color are facing a global epidemic of violence.
I’m disgusted and heartbroken that in 2014 we have so much work to do. Sometimes, we want to believe that the learning curve isn’t so steep, so insurmountable that we can feel safe to move about the world in our skin without harm. Gender is fluid and complicated. Surely we as a civil society can embrace complex identities?
The truth is that, even with Laverne Cox on the cover of Time, it is still a state of emergency for trans people. As Mychal writes at The Nation, “When black trans women can walk the street without the fear of violence and harassment, then we’ll be on the right path.” Trans misogyny is a killer. We can help stop the violence by demanding our media be responsible. The Chicago Sun-Times should put muscle behind an apology by accurately reporting stories of trans people in their hometown and nationwide.
Syreeta McFadden is a writer and lives in Brooklyn.