It’s easy to recognize that transgender and gender-nonbinary people have gained greater social visibility over the past several years. Even before Laverne Cox became the first trans person on the cover of Time magazine in 2014, the national conversation about the “T” in LGBTQ was heating up.
Television shows like Transparent garnered critical acclaim throughout its five-season run, and created opportunities for broader discussions about gender identity. More recently, the hit television show Pose became the first scripted television series to the tell stories of African-American and Latinx trans women from the ballroom community. The groundbreaking production prominently features the work of trans women of color behind the camera, with show producer Janet Mock becoming the first Black trans woman to write and direct a television series.
Not too long ago, discriminatory state legislation in the guise of “bathroom bills” was being proposed at alarming rates throughout the country, attempting to force trans people to use bathrooms according to the gender assigned at birth and narrowly defining gender as a binary construct. The offensive arguments in favor of these bills included suggestions that trans women represent a danger in women’s bathrooms. Fortunately, most of the proposed bills failed to become law, and many states even adopted anti-discrimination laws in response.
Although notable for the amount of media attention received, bathroom bills represent only one aspect in the fight for trans rights. For example, obtaining identity documents such as birth certificates, state identification cards, or driver licenses consistent with one’s correct name and gender identity can be particularly challenging in some states. Additionally, improving equal access to education, fair housing, employment, and healthcare have remained core issues in the trans equality movement.
An Epidemic of Anti-Trans Violence
Despite greater visibility and the appearance of increased social acceptance, trans and gender-nonconforming persons remain at a heightened risk to become victims of violence. According to the 2015 US Transgender Survey (USTS), sponsored by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 10 percent of trans persons who are out to their immediate family reported being the victim of violence at the hands of a family member because of their gender identity, and 8 percent were kicked out of the home because they were trans.
The Human Rights Campaign reported at least 27 deaths of trans or gender-nonconforming people in the U.S. in 2019. Unfortunately, 2020 has already seen 22 deaths. Black trans women are particularly at risk, and disproportionately represented among victims. It is also important to note that some of the trans and gender-nonconforming victims may not be accurately counted due to victim misgendering in police reports.
Discrimination: An Everyday Occurrence
For many, simply accessing the most basic elements of life can become difficult in the face of extreme prejudice and transphobia. Trans people disproportionately report social stressors such as violence, discrimination, and the lingering effects of childhood abuse. In fact, discrimination often prevents trans people from obtaining education, housing, healthcare, and legal protections.
In schools, trans students are more likely to experience mistreatment, including verbal harassment, physical attacks, and sexual assault. One study found that nearly 20 percent of trans students experience such severe mistreatment that they choose to leave school.
Workplace discrimination is common for trans persons, with 30 percent of employed trans persons reporting workplace mistreatment, being fired, or being denied promotions because of their gender identity. On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court extended the scope of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by ruling that “an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or trans defies the law.” For trans workers, this legal interpretation represents an important milestone in the fight for equality.
According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, as many as 1 in 4 trans persons have been denied equal treatment in healthcare settings, which results in nearly 1 out of 3 trans people either delaying or not seeking needed healthcare.
Discrimination Leads to Poverty
Economic hardship is a sad reality for many trans individuals. Nearly one-third of trans Americans have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, and nearly one-third are now living in poverty (in comparison to 12 percent of the general population). According to the 2019 UCLA School of Law Williams Institute study LGBT Poverty in the United States, the poverty rate is 40 to 50 percent among trans people of color. This is likely due to significantly higher unemployment rates among trans folks, as well as the compounded stigma of racial and ethnic identity.
The mental-health consequences of life at these extreme margins can be quite alarming. Trans people are more likely to experience psychological distress, report suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives, or to actually make a suicide attempt.
Get Involved in Making Trans Lives Matter
The fight for trans rights must become a more prominent part in the fight for LGBTQ equality. We should ask ourselves what more we can do to personally support the trans and gender-nonconforming community. Here are several ways to get involved:
• Watching Pose does not equate to being a trans ally. It’s easy (and convenient) for queer people to celebrate the fabulous ballroom and drag scenes featuring trans and gender-nonconforming persons. But pause to think about the day-to-day lives of these performers who so frequently provide us with entertainment. It is important to interrogate the line between support and exploitation.
• Be informed about the status of trans-rights work. Organizations such as the National Center for Transgender Equality (transequality.org/know-your-rights) and the American Civil Liberties Union (aclu.org/issues/lgbt-rights/transgender-rights) provide up-to-date information about local and national efforts to fight trans discrimination.
• Think globally, act locally. There are numerous organizations in Houston that focus on securing trans rights, promoting physical safety, and supporting our trans neighbors with employment, housing, medical, and legal assistance. How might you support these organizations through a donation of time, talent, or money? When possible, consider supporting trans-owned businesses and entrepreneurs.
• It is important to be a vocal advocate in schools and in the workplace, given the discrimination that trans and gender-nonconforming persons will most likely experience. How can you promote safety, or help to generate a more diverse and representative applicant pool? What training is necessary for managers or interview committees to reduce bias in hiring or promotions? To escape poverty, access to employment is essential.
• Speak out against violence perpetrated against trans people. This is a time to leverage our privilege and collective voice to lobby City Council members and local law enforcement to increase protection of the gender-nonconforming community and prosecution of those who would harm them.
Although it may feel daunting, joining the fight begins with one simple act. What will you do today to advance trans equality?
This article appears in the August 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.