Hiding the T in Trans Rights

“Hiding the T” is an expression for men who are involved with trans women romantically but too ashamed to be open about it. The trans stigma runs so deep that many men will keep their distance in social settings from a visibly transgender person, lest it raise questions about their fragile masculinity. Being one of those transgender women, it is painful for me to realize that we are probably decades if not centuries away from a world in which transgender people can expect as much out of life–romantically, socially, even legally–as cisgender people. However, it is even more disheartening when supporters of LGBT rights also “hide the T” in the pivotal civil rights battle of our day.

For example, recently I watched in dismay as North Carolina’s Governor-elect Roy Cooper condemned the failure of his state’s GOP-led legislature to repeal the notorious HB2 law without once mentioning the word “transgender.” This was quite a feat, given that this law acquired its notoriety because of its infamous “bathroom bill” provision, which made it emblematic of the legislative assault on transgender rights in America. It is doubly confounding since the Republicans have used transgender access to public accommodations–or “men in dresses entering little girls’ bathrooms,” as they put it–as their primary weapon against the efforts to repeal HB2. Now that other states have begun to enact their own versions of that disgraceful law, we cannot afford to hide the trans dimension of the struggle for LGBT equality.

When transgender supporters in the political and public spheres are reluctant to openly speak up for us and instead make every effort to avoid mentioning us, they further reinforce the shame around trans identity and impair the diffusion of trans-positive perspectives in the public debates. Trans individuals, especially trans women, are maltreated far more injuriously in social interactions than even the worst legislative assaults can accomplish. By the same token, the ordeal of violence, intimidation and exclusion transgender people face cannot be addressed by legislative battles alone. Therefore it is essential to capitalize on the attention political struggles bring us, to voice our experiences and affirm our lives and humanity. This is the only hope we have of changing social attitudes toward us.

The bias and stigma against transgender people often escalates from verbal and expressive assaults and into deadly physical violence. Mere days before the North Carolina GOP reneged on its promise to repeal HB2, trans victims of violence achieved a thankless victory when for the first time a man who murdered a transgender person was charged under federal hate crime laws. Joshua Vallum, the twenty-nine year old man who murdered Mercedes Williamson, a seventeen-year old transgender girl, stabbed her multiple times and bludgeoned her to death with a hammer because he was worried that his friends would discover he was in a consensual relationship with a transgender girl. The prospect of exposing his romantic involvement with a trans person was apparently more unbearable for him than the cold-blooded killing of a child. This story is only one of many. The year just past has been the deadliest year ever for transgender Americans, again breaking the record set the previous year.

To make matters worse, opponents of transgender rights stop at nothing to vilify transgender individuals and foment fear and revulsion among a public largely ignorant and already heavily biased against us. Republicans have repeatedly run grotesque ad campaigns reminiscent of Third Reich propaganda, featuring depictions of rapacious and malevolent transgender women following young girls into restrooms. If we do not respond openly and directly to these poisonous lies, we also undermine public trust in the legitimacy of the trans rights movement while squandering a critical opportunity to reclaim the discourse on this issue. When Republicans charge that bills such as HB2 allow ‘men’ into women’s restrooms, trans advocates should use that as an opportunity to respond to those claims head-on rather than with vague generalities about non-discrimination. Trans-inclusive protections do not sanction inappropriate behavior towards anyone in public accommodations; on the contrary, they are there precisely to ensure that no one is harassed, trans or cis, while using these facilities.

Too many progressives dismiss trans rights as a “boutique” issue, framed by them as only what pronouns to use in conversation or which restroom a trans woman uses to put on her mascara. The focus on trans rights, they say, shows that progressives are out of touch with the everyday struggles of real Americans. In truth, these critics are ones who are out of touch. Treating trans people with dignity and respect is but one step toward understanding the plight of our youth, the shocking levels of violence we face, the homelessness and unemployment we suffer in huge numbers, the life-saving medical care we are frequently denied. It is a measure of the bigots’ success that the public fails to comprehend the magnitude of our desperation. Progressives who trivialize the very real dangers confronting the trans community become the bigots’ unwitting accomplices.

These progressives also fail to see that the anti-trans campaign is not just designed to victimize us, but is a diversionary tactic to block progress on gender equality more generally. To avoid taking action on real threats facing women, such as campus rape and workplace discrimination, Republicans feign concern for women by “protecting” them from nonexistent trans predators. If transgender people are kept in the shadows, we are denied a voice in exposing the Republican political agenda as not one that is protective of women as it claims to be, but instead one that is focused on patriarchal control over women and our bodies. Those who dismiss trans discrimination as marginal to bigger concerns reveal their naïveté about its strategic use by conservatives. “Hiding the T” is counterproductive to progress on social issues across the board.

We in the trans community, and supporters who are unafraid to speak for us, should not let our would-be allies follow this counterproductive approach. The trans community and its outspoken supporters have been organizing to build an effective political machine but should not hesitate to remind politicians that our opinions carry weight. Transgender advocates were pivotal in achieving Roy Cooper’s victory against Pat McCrory, delivering the only result in which an incumbent Governor of either party was defeated, in this case by a Democrat in a state carried by Donald Trump. Our rights were widely understood to be on the ballot, and the Democratic candidate’s commitment to protecting them delivered him his victory.

Finally, without directly addressing transgender rights we are unable to draw attention to the violation of foundational post-Enlightenment values of self-determination and personal liberty, and limits on what arbitrary limitations society and the state can impose on individual autonomy. Western democracy is hollow without the principle that citizens made “uncomfortable” by others cannot curtail their freedom of movement and expression, and that individuals are innocent until proven guilty. Thus, as we equivocate over granting transgender Americans their civil rights we must pose ourselves the question as a nation whether we are truly citizens of a democratic republic based on the ideals of individual liberty or are we merely inhabitants of an Orwellian pig farm. “Hiding the T” is just another way of decreeing that some of us are more equal than others.

Mischa Haider is a transgender activist and mother. She is an applied physicist at Harvard University who studies applications of mathematical and physical models to social networks. Prior to her work in social networks, she did research on femtosecond lasers and NMR studies of protein structure. Before coming to Harvard, she was involved in research on high temperature superconductivity at Imperial College. She has written for the Advocate and Tikkun, and her research has been published in Applied Physics Letters. She also is a member of the Board of Trustees at Lambda Literary.

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