Last month at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women I listened to Cynthia Rothschild explain how LGBT organizing is standing on the shoulders of feminist organizing. Last weekend at the Hampshire College conference, I heard from Gunner Scott of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition that transpeople have been paying for gay rights organizing since the early 20th century. Did you know a foundation founded by a transman paid for the NYC gay pride parade? I didn’t. In 1973, the trans community was ousted from the movement because it was deemed “too extreme.” Which begs the question: what hope does a civil rights movement have if it’s willing to oust one of it’s oldest and strongest constituencies?
Gunner talked about how people often assume that if your gender is unclear, your sexuality is non-normative. He used the example of seeing a boy wearing nail polish, who is assumed to be gay, or being at a domestic violence conference in the rural Midwest and seeing a bunch of hearty farmer’s wives who he initially thought were butch lesbians. Why do we assume that if a gender stereotype is subverted a sexual stereotype is as well? It’s these assumptions that can lead people to think that protecting sexual orientation is enough. It isn’t. We need to include protections for gender expression and identity in policy, because discrimination and violence against people who express their gender in non-normative ways is no less “real.”
We live in a world where corporations and institutions still mandate highly gendered policies. For example, a court upheld the rights of Nevada casinos to require female employees to wear makeup. Even more frightening, we live in a world where people are murdered for expressing their gender in non-normative ways and where what a woman wears and how she acts can become cause for violence. We’ve recently seen a rise in the numbers of “corrective” rapes of women perceived to be lesbian in South Africa–when dressing “butch” means that you get read as lesbian, and being lesbian puts you into more danger, your right to dress in gender-neutral clothing or behave in ways that are considered “unladylike” or “too masculine” is not trivial or negotiable. And the danger is much more acute when you look at violence against individuals who identify as transgender: according to trans rights activist Agniva Lahiri of People Like Us (PLUS) Kolkata, since the beginning of 2009 transgender women have been murdered in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Argentina, Serbia, Honduras, Turkey and the United States.
Clearly, protecting people’s freedom to express the gender identity of their choosing is just as necessary as protecting sexual orientation. There have been some successes: last December the UN included gender identity in a statement on sexual orientation. There are movements all over the country to introduce gender identity and expression protections into city ordinances and state and federal law. But there are also examples of backsliding: in early 2007 Representative Barney Frank included gender identity in Employment Non-Discrimination Act only to take it out later that year. It is past time for us to commit to recognizing that we all, regardless of our assigned sex or sexual orientation, have the right to express our gender in the way that feels best and most comfortable to us and not be discriminated against based on what someone else thinks about what we should wear or how we should behave.
So we keep T. We keep transgender, and all the crazy and beautiful variety it entails, because rights are not reserved for the “normal,” because the simplest thing, for someone with privilege, can be the most dangerous thing in the world for someone without.
Chelsea Ricker is the Africa Program Assistant at the International Women’s Health Coalition. Read her bio here.