In that last few years, gay rights advocacy has grown well beyond LGBT community. People of all sexual orientations are making arguments for marriage equality and legal protections for sexual orientation. Straight employees are pressing their employees to provide same-gender partner benefits, and for equal opportunity clauses for their workplaces. Local municipalities are passing human rights ordinances covering sexual orientation. Public figures who come out are applauded for their bravery. Governors, Senators, and even the President are coming out in support of gay rights. It is the most progressive time in history for the gay and lesbian community. I’ll stop short of calling gay rights advocacy “trendy”, but there’s a definite perception of it being, how should we say, sexy? Unfortunately, trans people are not so lucky.
The first problem, of course, is the age old problem of the rather small minority of the population that trans people make up. There just aren’t nearly as many trans people are there are gay folks. This, in turn, means much fewer people know (or are aware that they know) a transgender individual. The problem here cannot be understated. Numerous polls have pointed towards a strong correlation between having a gay friend or family member and support for gay rights. Compounding this is the fact that transpeople tend to put forth a lot of effort to not be noticed. Many go stealth if they can, and even people who don’t go completely stealth generally don’t go out of their way to be identified as transgender. So even if someone DOES have a trans person somewhere in their life, it’s entirely possible that they aren’t aware of it.
But that’s really just the surface problem. The larger problem is that there seems to exist a taboo on trans advocacy. Most of us (trans people and allies included) seem to be afraid to stand up and fight for transgender rights and trans inclusion. For transpeople, I think one of the largest problems is our shame. We are so heavily and constantly vilified all throughout media and culture that we are ashamed of being trans; we have internalized cultural transphobia to such an extent that we’re not only transphobic to each other, but we’re transphobic to ourselves. This shame drives to avoid anything that give people the idea that we’re transgender, including advocating for ourselves. I believe some of this shame extends to our friends and allies, too. As much as we might care about our trans friends, the culture of transphobia makes us afraid to advocate for them, afraid that other might judge us for even being associated with the trans community. In much of society’s eyes, being an trans advocate or a trans ally makes you a degenerate or associates you with degenerates.
As a community, trans people are not exactly helping themselves in many cases. The most privileged among us- those of us who are white, young, thin, and attractive- have by far the best access to individuals and institutions who could most facilitate change for our community. Unfortunately, this privilege allows them to distance themselves from the community and from an overt trans identity. And to a certain extent, who can blame them? To be trans means to be in constant danger of harassment, perfectly legal discrimination, hate crimes, and more. If one can distance themselves from all of that, why wouldn’t they? Because in the end, they’re trading a short term comfort and safety for further entrenchment of the things they are trying to avoid. If the most privileged abandon us, then it’s those of us with less access, less influence, and less social acceptability who are left holding the bag, fighting on for our rights. This not only reduces our voice by sheer numbers, but cuts down our influence where we need it most. I don’t think we all need wear our trans pride flags as capes every day, but we need to not let the allure of quietly blending in drive us to stop pushing for the things that will ultimately bring us real progress and acceptance.
Cis-gender gays and lesbians are not off the hook in this regard, either. When it comes to the LGBT community, it seems like the T is often preferred to be silent. While a number of queer rights groups (I’m looking at you, HRC) are all too happy to take our hard work, and our donations, the push for trans rights often take a back seat. We’re told that pushing for trans rights as a part of gay rights will sour the public on the gay rights push, and hold back the progress being made. The idea, they say, is that acceptance of LGB people is the larger issue, and the progress they’re making helps us too! But this sounds a lot like the shame I mentioned before. They are ashamed that trans people are associated with them, and would prefer we just keep our mouths closed and our donations coming in. And a look at any of the recent studies about things like transgender violence (1), transgender homelessness (2) , or transgender health (3) give us pretty strong evidence that things are not really getting better for trans people, despite the major progress made in gay acceptance.
So what’s the takeaway here? It’s simple, actually. ALL OF US- transpeople, the LGBT community, and cis/straight allies- need to get over our shame and internalized transphobia. I realize that I’m painting with broad strokes in this piece, and that many people ARE working on this, and do work their asses off as advocates…so please forgive my generalities. But in the grand scheme of things, we all need to be doing more. We need to writing to our HR departments and pushing for trans-inclusive healthcare. We need to be pushing our places of employment to include gender identity in their non-discrimination statements. We need to be writing our local, state, and national leaders to support gender identity protections in housing, employment, and public programs. We need to be calling out and correcting transphobia when we see it in our everyday lives. We need to stop trading the convenience of blending in for the passive acceptance of trans exclusion. Most of all, we need to learn to love ourselves and each other, stop being ashamed, and erase the taboos of trans advocacy.