Violence and Harassment Against Transgender People in the United States
by shored against ruin
this isn’t my best work, but I’ve recently switched my major from Health & Wellness Promotion to Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, so I believe it’s fitting for me to include more of my work on topics relevant to that program. This research paper was for a Sociology course I took my sophomore year on violence in America. The course was divided into three sections: Serial Murders, Domestic Violence, and Capital Punishment. Cheery stuff. More to the point though, for our final paper, our professor invited us to find a topic we wanted to learn more about; I picked transgender discrimination and violence. I’ve met many gay and lesbian individuals in my lifetime (attended an arts middle & high school, so it was inevitable), but I’ve rarely encountered many trans people, so I thought I should learn more about this under-represented demographic. Turns out, I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. I hope this paper sheds some much needed light on a heart-renching problem in our world today. I hope we can change this problem, I really do.
In the 1999 preface to Judith Butler’s work, Gender Trouble: Feminisms and the Subversion of Identity, she writes that through her book, she “sought to counter those views that made presumptions about the limits and propriety of gender and restricted the meaning of gender to received notions of masculinity and femininity” (Butler 2002: vii). Narrowing her argument, she asserts that “any feminist theory that restricts the meaning of gender in the presuppositions of its own practice sets up exclusionary gender norms within feminism, often with homophobic consequences” (Butler 2002: viii). In Gender Trouble, Butler focuses mainly on issues with certain feminist theoretical lenses; however, her arguments and theories about gender and gender roles—in her words, “gender performativity”—provide useful information for understanding the issues of violence and discrimination towards transgender individuals in our culture who do not conform to structural gender norms. In the Trans-Respect Versus Trans-Phobia (TVT Project) March 2012 Report, a total of 816 murders of transgender individuals were reported worldwide over the last four years (1 January 2008 to 31 December 2011), with 52 reported murders in the United States. I believe that to successfully begin to address the indecency and inhumanity from which many transgender people suffer, we must openly address notions and theories of genders, societal norms and expectations, and the devastating statistics representing a population of citizens living in every corner of the world.
In the opening paragraph of an article published in Guernica Magazine a year ago, Meaghan Winter claimed that “the average life span of a transgender person is twenty-three years” (Winter 2011). From this strong statement, Winter moves on to other facts about transgender discrimination and injustices:
“Gender non-conformists face routine exclusion and violence. Transgender people are disproportionately poor, homeless, and incarcerated. Many of the systems and facilities intended to help low-income people are sex-segregated and thereby alienate those who don’t comply with state-imposted categories.” (Winter 2011)
From these contextual statistics, Winter leads into her discussion with Dean Spade, an openly transgender law professor and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), a non-profit organization that provides free legal services to low income transgender and gender non-conforming people.
Still, the number twenty-three remains heavy, lodged somewhere in the gut of the reader, reverberating in his or her heart. This statistic is shocking. So shocking, in fact, that many people who read the article could not believe it. One internet blogger emailed Guernica asking for their source; they responded with a link to a college newspaper article referencing a quote from EqualityNetwork.org, a Scottish organization founded in 1997 working to “challenge discrimination and to consult, involve and inform the individuals and the communities for which [they] work” (Equality Network). The organization claimed that the global average of transgender people’s life expectancy was “believed to be around 23—due to suicide, murder, and large percentages of transgender young teenagers in various countries ending up homeless and involved in drugs/prostitution/crime [sic]” (Equality Network). The conversations revolving around Winter’s intriguing and mind-blowing statistic and the ambiguity and confusion behind the references highlights a critical problem in our society regarding a significant number of people in our country (and, in a larger sphere, in our world): Not only are transgender people discriminated against, killed, beaten, insulted, and dehumanized, but they are also forgotten, invisible. In many cases, this often violent discrimination stems from the contrast between society’s gender norms and the identities of people who cannot fit themselves into those norms.
In Meaghan Winter’s interview with Dean Spade, he argues that “gender norms and norms about sexuality are very intertwined in our culture, and people targeted for breaking those norms include lots of kinds of queer and trans people” (Winter 2011). As Butler argues, gender is a learned behavior, where men are associated with specific traits and women are associated with other specific traits. When these rules are “broken” or “disregarded,” a certain understood balance or social code is upset, and the people who “broke” the rules are treated as less than human.
Allen Johnson, a professor of sociology at Hartford College, argues in his article “Patriarchy, the System,” that when demonstrating that gender oppression exists, “we don’t have to show that men are villains, that women are good-hearted victims, that women don’t participate in their oppression, or that men never oppose it” (Johnson 2009: 100); in an oppressive society, “people who grow up and live in it will tend to accept, identify with, and participate in it as ‘normal’ and unremarkable life” (Johnson 2009: 100). In a patriarchal system, Johnson argues, there are only two recognized, distinct genders; heterosexuality is considered “natural”; and that
“because men neither bear nor breast-feed children, they cannot feel a compelling bodily connection to them; that on some level every woman, whether heterosexual or lesbian, wants a ‘real man’ who knows how to ‘take charge of things,’ including her; that females can’t be trusted, especially when they’re menstruating or accusing men of sexual misconduct.” (Johnson 2009: 102)
Anything that challenges these notions and beliefs creates unrest, confusion, and upset in a society.
Estelle Disch, the editor of the anthology, Reconstructing Gender, notes that “because gender is a socialized aspect of life rather than a purely genetic/biological one, and because it is largely ‘socially constructed’ rather than instinctual, there is flexibility in how it is expressed” (Disch 2009: 107).
Judith Lorber claims in her article, “The Social Construction of Gender,” that gender has become so socialized in our culture (e.g., from the moment we are born, we are determined to be ‘male’ or ‘female’ and wrapped in pink or blue accordingly) and that the signs and signals for gender “are so ubiquitous that we usually fail to notice them — unless they are missing or ambiguous” (Lorber 2009: 113). When society is confronted with individuals who do not conform to these standards, who do not match up with expectations—which is ultimately the essence of people who are transgender, who cannot identify as male or female in either term’s cultural context—it marginalizes these subgroups, establishing social, legislative, and judicial discrimination.
Interestingly, our society’s gender binaries do not match up with our biological truths. Disch points out this inconsistency, stating that “although the genes that determine sex come in several combinations … and although the hormonal makeup and physical characteristics of human beings fall along a continuum” with masculine and feminine at opposite ends, leaving between the two gender poles “many combinations and permutations that define one’s biological sex, the social contexts in which infants are assigned a gender do not allow for more than two categories in mainstream U.S. Society” (Disch 2009: 107).
In 2011, the National Center for Transgender Equality published “Injustice at Every Turn,” a report authored by Jaime M. Grant, Ph.D, and others, which analyzed data from a survey of 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming participants (across all state, race, nationality, ethnicity lines). Their results were comprehensive, bringing to light “what is both patently obvious and far too often dismissed from the human rights agenda” (Grant 2011). Following the results of their study they concluded that transgender people “face injustice at every turn: in childhood homes, in school systems … [and] in harsh and exclusionary workplaces, at the grocery store, the hotel front desk, in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, before judges and at the hands of landlords” (Grant 2011).
In their key findings, they state that “respondents lived in extreme poverty” and “a staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population” (Grant 2011). The rates of attempted suicide were higher for respondents who were harassed in school (55%), were the victim of physical assault (61%), or were sexually assaulted (64%). Additionally, they reported that while “discrimination was pervasive throughout the entire survey, … the combination of anti-transgender bias and persistent, structural racism was especially devastating” (Grant 2011).
Respondents to the survey reported that, while in grade school, 78% were harassed, 35% were physically assaulted, and 12% experienced sexual violence. Fifteen percent of respondents claimed that they were harassed so severely in school that it led them to drop out. Even after leaving school, 90% of the individuals surveyed reported “experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job or took actions like hiding who they were to avoid it” (Grant 2011).
Difficulties at work can lead to financial problems; the report noted that their “sample was nearly four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000/year compared to the general population” (Grant 2011). Nineteen percent reported that they were refused housing because of their gender identity, while an equal percentage of respondents experienced homelessness at some point—fifty-five percent of those trying to access a homeless shelter were harassed by shelter staff or residents (Grant 2011).
The National Center for Transgender Equality recently published subsequent reports on transgender Latino/as and African Americans. In response to their findings, they stated that, “transgender people face unrelenting discrimination in virtually all aspects of their lives” (Injustice at Every Turn 2011). Their examination of transgender discrimination at the intersection of gender and race led to important and detailed results.
Of the respondents in the survey of Latino/a transgender people, 28% reported household incomes of less than $10,000 a year (Injustice at Every Turn 2011). Thirty-four percent (34%) of African American transgender people reported incomes of less than $10,000 a year (Injustice at Every Turn 2011). For perspective, the percentage of transgender people of all races who have reported incomes lower than $10,000 a year is about 15% while the general population’s rate is only four percent (Injustice at Every Turn 2011).
Seventy-seven percent (77%) of the respondents in the Latino/a survey “reported alarming rates of harassment,” 36% reported physical assault, and 13% reported sexual assault in Kindergarten through twelfth grades (Injustice at Every Turn 2011). Of the African American respondents, 49% reported harassment, 27% reported physical assault, and 15% reported sexual assault in school. Twenty-one percent (21%) of each group surveyed claimed that the harassment was so severe that it led them to leave school.
The studies performed by the National Center for Transgender Equality reveal that as transgender or gender non-conforming individuals enter the school system, they experience high rates of harassment and bullying, which leads many teenagers to drop out of school.
Considering these findings and the March 2012 Report on international violence against transgender people, the argument made by the TVT Project speaks with great clarity and sincerity:
“The … alarming figures demonstrate once more that there is an urgent need to react to the violence against trans people and to seek mechanisms to protect trans people. Some international trans activists even started to introduce the term ‘transcide’ to reflect the continuously elevated level of deadly violence against trans people on a global scale.” (Trans-Respect Versus Trans-Phobia 2012)
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), founded by Dean Spade, also addresses these alarming figures, noting that “transgender, transsexual, intersex and other gender non-conforming people face persistent and severe discrimination in employment, education, health care, social and legal services, criminal justice and many other realms” (Sylvia Rivera Law Project). For transgender people, problems arise inside of other structural problems, such as when individuals are forced to identify as a specific gender:
“Low-income people and people of color are overrepresented in systems such as prisons, group homes, shelters and detention facilities. Because so many of the systems are sex-segregated, many people face serious problems of inaccessibility, harassment or violence if their gender identity or expression does not conform to their birth sex.” (SRLP)
In many states, transgender Americans are not protected through legislation. The Transgender Law and Policy Institute’s Fact Sheet about transgender issues lists only 16 states with transgender explicit non-discrimination laws (Transgender Law and Policy Institute).
This data, paired with the NCTE’s findings about violence and job discrimination toward transgender Americans, establishes the undeniable injustices against marginalized members in our society. The NCTE’s survey results for African Americans and Latino/as further indicates the discrimination faced by transgender individuals at the intersections of marginalized groups.
Addressing these issues requires that we begin to call ardently for a national, or even international, conversation—bringing these problems and injustices out of the small sociological and activist realms in which they are currently being discussed and moving them into the larger social sphere would ideally promote a national understanding or awareness of a great human rights problem, which stems largely from our strict binary system of defining gender—a system that has resulted from centuries of gender discrimination and hierarchy.
Though the National Center for Transgender Equality published the most comprehensive report on transgender discrimination to date, its data shows overwhelming evidence of a great sociological failure: Thousands of Americans, unable to conform to the rigid standards of gender, sexuality, and identity set up for them by culture and society, are marginalized and silenced, left not only without a voice, but without legal representation or protection, and often hindered by a lack of resources, and abused and harassed in their homes, their schools, or their jobs. The NCTE’s survey concludes with hope and optimism, citing respondents who have found jobs and homes since previously being unemployed or homeless. By bringing the conversations of gender performativity and gender non-conformity into the public sphere, perhaps another invisible margin of America will be brought into view and will be treated with respect, both in their homes and in their jobs.
Butler, Judith. 2002. Gender Trouble: Feminisms and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
Disch, Estelle. 2009. “Gender Socialization.” In Reconstructing Gender: A Multicultural Anthology, edited by Estelle Disch. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Equality Network. About Us. http://www.equality-network.org. Accessed April 7, 2012.
Grant, Ph.D, Jaime M.; et. al. 2011. Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Injustice at Every Turn: A Look at Latino/a Respondents in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. League of United Latin American Citizens, National Center for Transgender Equality, and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Johnson, Allen. 2009. “Patriarchy, the System: An It, Not a He, a Them, or an Us.” In Reconstructing Gender: A Multicultural Anthology, edited by Estelle Disch. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Lorber, Judith. 2009. “The Social Construction of Gender.” In Reconstructing Gender: A Multicultural Anthology, edited by Estelle Disch. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Sylvia Rivera Law Project. http://srlp.org/about . / Accessed on April 7, 2012.
Transgender Law and Policy Institute. Transgender Issues: A Fact Sheet. http://www.transgenderlaw.org/resources/transfactsheet.pdf. / Accessed on April 7, 2012.
Trans-Respect Versus Trans-Phobia. March 2012. http://www.transrespect-transphobia.org/en_US/tvt-project/tmm-results/march-2012.htm / . Accessed April 7, 2012.
Winter, Meaghan. 2011. Guernica Magazine. Transformative Change. http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/spade_3_1_11 . Accessed April 7, 2012.