Gender Backlash

02.23.15 11:45 AM ET

America’s Deadly Trans Backlash

Transgender people, some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBT community, are paying with discrimination for the victories of some of the more privileged.

For years, some mainstream gay activists said to the transgender community, “Just wait—first we’ll get our rights, and then you’ll get yours.”

As offensive and patronizing as that was, what has come to pass is far worse.  The anti-LGBT backlash is here, and transgender populations are suffering the most—even though they hadn’t won that many legal victories in the first place. They’re getting the backlash before winning anything to lash back against.

Let’s start with the worst. Five transgender women of color have already been murdered in 2015, and just last weekend, a (white) transgender woman was stabbed to death by her own father.

The way these attacks are covered by most media outlets adds indignity to injury. First, they’re barely reported at all—in 2012, I wrote in these pages that the “media ignores rash of assaults on transgender women.” That hasn’t changed.      

And then, when they are reported, the victims are often sexualized, misgendered, and assumed to be sex workers, even without evidence.

Supporters of transgender equality—although perhaps we should just say transgender humanity—have been using the hashtag #translivesmatter to call attention to the crisis, as well as to balance these horrible stories of victimization with parallel stories of transgender thriving.

While transgender people are being murdered in the streets, lowbrow lawmakers are depicting them as predators in the bathrooms.

Yes, once again, it’s the trannie tearoom terror.  To be clear, there is not a single case—not one—of a transwoman assaulting other women in a public restroom. (If men want to assault women, they don’t put on drag or “claim to be women” in order to do so.) And yet, to protect the fair ladies from the new lavender menace, pathetically ignorant legislators have introduced “bathroom bills” in Florida, Kentucky, and Arkansas. The details vary, but the gist of these bills is to ban transgender people from using restrooms that correspond to their gender, rather than their biological sex.

Now let’s think about that for a moment. Imagine you’re a transman, with a full beard and chest hair, dressed in masculine-identified clothes. According to these bills, you’ve got to use the ladies’ room.

Because that’ll make women feel safe. 

Likewise if you’re Laverne Cox or Janet Mock—into the men’s room with you. Never mind your obvious gender presentation, or the fact that you’ve lived according to your gender for years. No, because some dumb, white, cisgendered religious bigots can score cheap political points by pandering to their constituents’ basest fears, your identity is simply erased. Forget #translivesmatter; these bills say that trans lives don’t exist.

Which, of course, is precisely the point.

The costs of this stigma are more than hurt feelings and closed bathroom doors. Fifteen percent of transgender people are living in poverty, compared with 4 percent of the U.S. population. Between 19 percent and 30 percent report suicidal ideation before gender transition therapy (just 1 percent to 6 percent do afterward). This is a population that continues to be oppressed.

In most states, it’s still legal to fire an employee because that person’s gender presentation rubs you the wrong way. That dude starts wearing a skirt? You can fire him for it. That chick binds her chest, starts wearing “men’s” clothes? Her too. Gender identity and gender expression are protected characteristics in 17 states, but not in 33 others. 

Access to health care is likewise uneven across the United States. It is an important symbolic step forward that Chelsea Manning will be able to receive hormone therapy in jail, and that Obamacare pays for gender reassignment surgery. But many insurance companies specifically exclude transgender people from coverage, Medicaid coverage is uneven, and there are countless horror stories of transgender people getting bad care from ignorant (even if well-meaning) doctors. 

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And yet, along with the physical and legal violence against transgender people specifically, trans folk are being swept up in an anti-LGBT backlash—before they’ve even had a “frontlash.”

The recent anti-LGBT bill in Arkansas, for example, bans cities from protecting transgender people as well as gays. And the “Brownback Rollback” in Kansas stripped trans as well as LGB people of their anti-discrimination protection. 

Conventional wisdom is that these steps are “Hail Marys” from a conservative rearguard that knows it’s losing the moral and legal battles on LGBT equality.  But let’s remember, it is same-sex marriage and other gay-centered issues that have been winning in the first place. 

To be sure, there has been progress. Celebrities such as Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono do matter. Transparent matters. And who knows, maybe Bruce Jenner will one day, too. There have been legal victories in the United States, and there are stories of resilience and triumph from all around the world

It is also true that understanding transgender experience can be difficult for many people; even the first step, really getting the difference between sex and gender, can be a lot. I’ve met parents who grieved the loss of their daughter, even as they welcomed the emergence of their transgender son. And as the intricacies of non-binary gender identities, gender nonconformity, and gender fluidity become better known, there will be more for all of us to learn.

But the people lashing out against trans populations, whether on the streets of our cities or in statehouses across the country, aren’t wrestling with thorny questions of gender and self-understanding. They’re reacting out of fear, or, worse, stoking the fears of others. They’re punishing some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBT community for the victories of some of the most privileged. And they’re sending a message that trans lives don’t matter—a message heard loud and clear by six murderers so far this year. 

Hopefully, it’ll be heard, and rejected, by fair-minded people as well.

UPDATE: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story transposed the words transgender and cisgender.