The trans community is seeing and being seen in way that it never before has in its long and secretive history. We are being discussed at the highest levels of politics in the United States and around the world, as a group worthy of the recognition and respect accorded to all human beings by virtue of the rights inherent in being human.
At the same time, this has created a platform for the oldest prejudices and canards against us to be aired as we struggle to create lives worth living. Martin Luther King often said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. But how quickly justice is to be achieved is not stated, and the arc can be long indeed, generations long.
What are the barriers to transgender people achieving the measure of power necessary in democracy for the recognition of the human rights to which we are entitled? Why are we so far behind the gay community in rights, economic power and cultural acceptance? What do we need to move our community forward?
I've been thinking about that lately, and here's what I've come up with. What do you think?
The first barrier is prejudice. Prejudice is not unique to transgender people, and the story of human history is filled with it. What is unique to transgender people, however, is the degree to which our identity, our culture, our politics and our lives are constituted and misunderstood as paradoxical and unintelligible. Our existential condition is unique, in that our identity becomes itself only by becoming another. We can only achieve the medical care we need by coming to terms with who we are, which means fitting into a medical narrative that is often at odds with our true selves. Because we are treated as untouchables, stealth and hiding is often the only route to being true to ourselves. When we come out, we reveal ourselves as "fakes," and when we erase our history and keep it to ourselves, we become "deceptive." When we live in between genders, we are considered destructive of all gender everywhere, and when we conform to standard gendered constructs, we are considered upholders of gender inequality. Thus, the issue of overcoming prejudice against us is not simply a matter of education in facts. It is a matter of education in the entrenched cultural paradoxes of gender.
The second barrier is employment discrimination. Whereas prejudice is a condition of the mind, discrimination is a condition of society. The United States has seen discrimination greatly reduced by the use of laws and education, even in the face of deep-seated prejudices that are still widespread. While there are many kinds of discrimination, and all are despicable, employment discrimination is the one type of discrimination calculated to keep a group in poverty. It renders impossible funding the community institutions necessary to the creation of political conditions favorable to human development and human rights. When donations are sought to create the educational, political and legal institutions we need to lift ourselves out of despair, we get the answer "I can't even feed myself, and you want me to feed you as well?"
The third barrier is shame. Whereas prejudice and discrimination come from the outside, shame is the inner enemy. Our shame for our transgender identity disempowers us from living as proud human beings, making hiding, secrecy and deception a way of life. It prevents us from standing up for ourselves, and imbues us with the knowledge that we are not worthy, and that others will never accept us. It prevents us from participating in the institution building we need, as we do not with to be too closely identified with each other. It is all too easy, then, to disparage other transgender people who do not meet our definitions and images of acceptable appearance or of acceptable politics. This makes it impossible to come together as one, and to accomplish that which must be done as a group. It is all too easy to disparage ourselves, too, and to feel that we are not worthy, are not capable of climbing the mountain. When the call comes to help in the cause, it is all too easy to ignore. Who am I to do this, and who are these people? Easier to sit quietly and make it through as best I can, and let others carry the mantle.
Another barrier is internal politics. There are strong divisions within the transgender community, and within the larger LGBT community of which we are a part. Some transsexual people seek to remain separate from these communities, on the grounds that their experience is so different that there can be no common ground. Some transgender people decry the transsexual narrative that prescribes erasure of gender history and conformity to gendered stereotypes. Other reject coalition with gays because they feel that gays and lesbians don't want us as part of their group, and some gays and lesbians feel that the differences in experience make such a coalition inadvisable. There is rancor and division, and a history of exclusion that is hard to overcome. Many of us are angry, and with good reason, at others in the community who hold prejudices against us. But, for better or for worse, the gay and lesbian rights institutions have adopted us, by and large, and are devoting time and resources and money to our cause. Since we have been unable, by and large, to do this for ourselves, the protest that outsiders shouldn't interfere falls flat. Overcoming these internal political struggles to achieve a unity of purpose will not be a simple task. Without it, however, there are simply too few of us, and too little resources to make a dent in the issues of prejudice, discrimination and shame.
The last barrier is the daunting task of institution-building. No individuals can alone bring about justice in the face of intolerance, though they may struggle valiantly. There are hundreds of millions in this nation to be educated in order to eradicate prejudice, and billions world-wide. There are thousands and thousands of politicians and judges and lawyers who must understand our cause before they can pass and interpret and enforce laws to help us. There are hundreds of thousands in our community who are suffering every day, bent under the weight of oppression, though they bear it with dignity, and they need our help when the prejudice and discrimination and shame become too much to be borne, when it cannot be borne, when to bear it means giving up all pretense of human dignity. Where is the community to lend support when these daily indignities are suffered? We have a few organizations that stand out -- the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Transgender Law Center, the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. There are also some other good organizations out there, but there is little coordination among these groups. And we need many, many more, and national ones. A few regional organizations just doesn't cut it.
Without the support of the trans rank-and-file, no institutions can be built or prosper. But how can they begin to support institution-building when they are so crushed under their burdens? When the only viable options are stealth or as small a profile as possible? Where will the manpower and the money come from? How can institutions be built without a system of communication to create our common understanding and our common causes? Slowly, very slowly, is the answer. And, in fact, we have some important transgender community institutions, and this work has been going on for a while. But it is very slow in coming. If we hope to shorten that arc of the moral universe that Reverend King talked about, we need more transgender institutions to do the work necessary.
But here we face a paradox. We must address the prejudice, discrimination, shame and internal politics that keep us from building that institutional base, while at the same time moving forward to create the institutional base necessary to address that prejudice, discrimination, shame and internal politics in a comprehensive and powerful way.
We must create an organization that coordinates our various transgender groups, provides direction and assistance, and creates a national narrative about the trans experience. But given our disarray, how would such a thing come about? Who would respond to such a call?
(Power stock photo via Bigstock)