Donna Rose

Daily Assaults on Personal Dignity

Filed By Donna Rose | August 08, 2008 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: bathroom, Dignity Catholics, workplace protections

As transgender people feel more and more empowered to come out of the shadows to take their rightful place as contributing and accepted members of society, incidents against us based on discrimination, hatred, and ignorance are on the rise. These incidents range from the relatively minor indignities that we often come to quietly accept as simply part of the journey, to brutal, life-threatening physical attacks.

Whether it's the horrible video in Knoxville where police verbally and physically assaulted a trans-woman earlier this year or the brutal murder of Angie Zapata in Greeley, Colorado where her murderer referred to his victim as an "it" - the assaults many of us face on a daily basis are part of a constant de-humanizing assault on our personal dignity and sense of self-worth. Although we can sugar coat it with statistics of growing acceptance and protections for transgender people in workplaces, cities, counties, and states across this country, the soul-sucking reality that many of us face on a personal level can easily become overwhelming.

Being transgender is a difficult life. There are no two ways about it. To hide it is to struggle with the life-long conundrum of knowing that you're living a lie, a constant battle with the fear and shame of being discovered. To acknowledge it is to submit to the discomforts and ignorance of others, and to risk everything you know and love. For what? For the simple peace that comes with being authentic about who you know yourself to be. Unfortunately, many of us will never know that peace no matter which direction we choose.

The most recent incident to catch my attention was a situation in Jacksonville, FL earlier this week where police confronted a transitioning Male-to-Female transsexual who was simply using the women's bathroom in a bus station there. They asked to see this person's ID.

The Driver's License is the document that is most commonly used to define a person's "legal" gender. Different states have different rules for changing the gender marker on your Driver's License - something that is particularly pertinent for transsexuals who are transitioning and who are following the standard protocol of treatment known as the "Standards of Care". I live in Arizona, where the process was very straightforward and relatively easy. However, some states will not allow transitioning transsexuals to change the gender marker on their driver's license until after they have had sex reassignment surgery. As a result, for those who have not yet had surgery or who will never have surgery (for any number of reasons) their Gender Marker is dangerously incongruent with every other aspect of their lives.

Florida is one of those states. So, this person has obviously been transitioning for a while and is obviously not using the woman's bathroom as some sort of voyeur or pervert. However, that doesn't change the fact that this police officer confronted her as she came out of the bathroom and her driver's license identified her as "Male".

If you watch the TV news report you'll see first-hand some of the indignities that were forced upon her. First, she has to deal with ignorant people - like that smug police officer - who still want to classify her as a "man". They disrespect her by using male pronouns. And they seem totally oblivious to the fact that this person had every right to be in that bathroom - no wonder she became "beligerent" and caused a "scene". I would too.

Reporter: "JTA [Jacksonville Transit Authority] tells us when they removed Jordan from the restroom the 22-year old became beligerent and they had to call in JSO [Jacksonville Sheriff's Office]."

Police Officer: "Because of the commotion and the scene that he made they issued him a trespass warning, warning him not to come back on that property because of the scene that he was making. But as a result of that he was told never to come back to use either bathroom"

Can you imagine being confronted similarly coming out of the bathroom, being forced to "prove" your gender? Can you imagine what would have happened if this person had used the men's bathroom, as this police officer somehow suggests based on her gender marker? It would have been dangerous, and at the very least police would have been called and she would have been told not to use that bathroom, either.

In 2007, a "manly lesbian" was similarly confronted coming out of a woman's bathroom at a restaurant in NY City (details here). She subsequently sued for "embarrassment, humiliation, and emotional distress." Similarly, a 70 year old transitioning MTF transsexual was arrested for using the women's bathroom at Grand Central Station. During the arrest one MTA officer called her "a freak, a weirdo and the ugliest woman in the world." She sued, too. The result? The NYC Transit Authority announced a ground-breaking policy opening all restrooms to transgender people.

Transgender people now have the right to use any restroom they choose in New York City's public transit system under an unprecedented deal revealed Tuesday. According to the New York Daily News, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has agreed to allow riders to use MTA rest rooms "consistent with their gender expression," the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund announced yesterday.

Still, the bathroom has become the main battleground used by others in an effort de-humanize us and deny transgender people simple, basic rights. Scare tactics of "men" as sexual predators and pedophiles in Women's bathrooms are constantly used to inflame others, despite the fact that not a single documented incident of such behavior exists. Those of us who are transgender and who are forced to see this kind of sensational misrepresentation often experience it is as a direct personal assault on us and people like us. The current effort in Montgomery County, MD is the perfect example of this inexcusable attack on decent, innocent people just trying to live. It has implications far beyond that one single county.

This kind of behavior towards transgender people is part of a continuum of empowered disrespect. It starts with refusing to acknowledge that gender is more than simply a marker on a driver's license, of using improper pronouns and names. It moves through harassment and legalized discrimination in housing, at school, at work, and in other aspects of our lives. It involves being demeaned by people who somehow feel empowered to assault our dignity, our rights, and our very existence. And, in some cases, it ends with tragically brutal physical acts of violence.

An article in Pasadena Weekly this week, titled Hate by Numbers, analyzes hate crimes statistics recently released in the annual report by the country Commission on Human Relations:

Crimes motivated by gender more than doubled from seven to 15, all but one of them based on gender identity. Most targeted male-to-female transgender women, according to the report, and all the crimes targeting transgender victims were violent.

This is the harsh reality for many of us. That's not to say that things aren't changing for the better. There was a time not all that long ago that these things happened in silence, that it wasn't "news". But the more progress we make the harder those who oppose us push back and try to take that progress away. It starts with seemingly minor assaults on personal dignity. Where does it end? The numbers don't lie.

I learned a long time ago that Dignity was one of those non-negotiable cornerstones of life. It became apparent to me that others couldn't take it from me unless I gave it away. Still, it's difficult to hold onto it during constant onslaughts of indiginities and disrespect. We have a word in our language for those who exhibit uncommon courage and resliliency in the face of daunting, often staggering opposition.

That word is "Hero".

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Excellent article, one of your best. It points out why we are angry at times.

i am flattered to be described as a hero but would not personally claim that title. i do agree that as a minority class, those who are transgender face daily challenges that require courage above and beyond. and most live their lives with humility and dignity in spite of all the indignities and oppression that we face. we are a special people. so very ordinary in almost every way, and yet we live our lives under such extra-ordinary circumstance. i would say that we are survivors, rather than heroes. we do what we have to just to get from one day to the next. and so it goes.

presently, we are in a struggle for basic human rights....up to and including the right to be human, the very right to exist and to live. we are not the first minority to experience oppression, and we won't be the last. it has all been done before. in some parts of the world, it is happening right now. women, gays, and whatever religious or ethnic group of the day suffer from persecution. there will never be a clear victory in the fight for human rights. the fight was not over for people of color with the emancipation proclamation. equality for women was not realized with the right to vote. those of jewish ancestry are not safe solely because of the creation of israel. every day since has been a struggle for equality; for the simple recognition of our common humanity. the fight for that principle is one that will never end because the world always seems to be in flux between enlightened principle and ignorance and bigotry.

i am reminded of a scene in a film, "starman". a scientist asks an extraterrestrial what he likes most about human beings. he answers that we (meaning humanity) are at our best when things are at their worst. well, we sometimes need to be at our best. that doesn't make us heroes. just very much human. be well, and stay true...

Excellent, Donna! While some may claim that the above incidents are isolated, they certainly can have far reaching effects on all of us. While I've never really given the bathroom more than a passing thought for years, now I'm finding it come to mind like say, yesterday at IKEA when I had to relieve myself. And noticing how when I entered, I did a quick check around to see if anyone was questioning whether or not a man with intent to rape (as we're being portrayed in Florida) had just entered the premises. Oh great, I thought, more day-to-day stress to deal with.

I wish I knew the answers. But I do fear that as in most like -instances, the more progress we make, the greater backlash we'll have to trudge through on our way. Let's just pray that most of us make it out in one whole and healthy piece.

Thanks for the work you do!

We see a different form of indignity that is aimed toward African-American trans women here in Atlanta. It's called "WWT," or "Walking While Trans." It comes from the popular term, "DWB," or "Driving While Black." The Atlanta police constantly harass trans women of Color on the streets of Atlanta, regardless of how they are dressed, where they are going, and even if they have been shopping and they have bags in their hands. It can be very degrading.

Monica Helms -- they do that here in Phoenix, too.

And LA.

Here, its WWH as well as WWT, since here its often the hispanic women who get treated as such (and its bad enough given they are subject to being asked anyway if they are "legal").

I've been accused of prostitution simply walking to the corner store.

In broad daylight.

They have no shame, because to them, it is not shameful.

the walking while trans happens in DC, too. and we even have a general order signed by the chief of police that forbids the harassment. you cannot legislate bigotry into a void. we still have a lot of work to do....

My anger's second-hand, if you like. I've ever been personally bothered by transphobia.

OK, there was the 20 month fight to get a passport, but even then "it was just business, nothing personal" as the Mafiosi say. It was the institution, the system, not the people I dealt with. They were "just following orders".

What angers me is the way others have been treated, those without my resources. Those least deserving of it. The trans girls thrown out on the street by their "loving" families, who have to peddle their bodies just to eat. Those without the support I've had from colleagues, family and friends.

I don't get mad, I get even. By doing what I can, letters, blogging, talks with the Human Rights commissioner, and some personal and practical help too. I feel I owe it to others. I've had immense good fortune, it is only right that I spread it around to the extent I can. Anger is an energy, as the PLC song goes.

Karen Collett | August 12, 2008 8:17 AM

Wow--great article. Every white trans woman should read it (seriously). Thanks for the pointer, Monica!

As a white trans woman, I've had one instance of a police officer stopping me for "walking while trans." I had just started living full time and was going to a hobby store that I'd shopped at for several years (and continued to shop at for several more). This hobby store also happened to be in the middle of a part of the city that had a large number of strip clubs and adult bookstores, although it wasn't adult-oriented.

Anyway, this police officer stops me because I have "things...hanging out." That is to say, I was wearing a blouse with the top three buttons undone and he saw a flash of cleavage. He made it clear to me that he believed I was a prostitute and he was going to do something, although he wasn't very clear. Fortunately, I was able to convince him that I was going to this store where the people have known me for years, but it was a real eye-opener - and yet a relatively mild experience. The officer ultimately didn't take me in, try to extort sex acts from me, or engage in any violence against me.

Of course, that was nearly 20 years ago. My run-ins with the police have been thankfully few - my second being an occasion when someone called the police on me for using the women's restroom, but the F on my photo ID meant nothing came of it. I realize that I'm not experiencing the worst of it.