If you’re reading this, you may be aware that November is Transgender Awareness Month. It’s a month for centering the rights and visibility of trans women, men, and non-binary people. From November 13 (today!) to November 19th is Transgender Awareness Week, or #Transweek, and then on November 20 is Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR, pronounced “TEE-door”). TDoR is for remembering and grieving those killed by transphobic violence.
TDoR allows us to observe a day of mourning for those trans people who are gone and those who continue to be subject to body terrorism and transphobic violence. It was started by trans advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith in honor of Rita Hester, a Black trans woman who was subjected to anti-trans violence and murdered in the Allston neighborhood of Boston on November 28, 1998. It’s a day to memorialize trans victims of violence while raising awareness of the effects of transphobia.
Although the visibility, awareness, and humanity of transgender people matters, this November reminds us that trans bodies are under constant violence and erasure. This month serves as a collective reminder that we all must continue to fight to end transphobia and transantagonism.
The Role of Policy in Fighting Transphobia
Policy plays an important role in both creating and fighting transphobia. School policies regarding pronouns and trans bathroom rights become extremely important when thinking about the comfort and safety of transgender people. Many universities and schools have adopted policies that allow for people to use the pronouns that accurately describe their own understanding of their identities rather than being misgendered. Similarly, many of these institutions have also begun to implement gender-inclusive bathrooms, bathrooms for all genders to use, and/ or have allowed trans students to use the bathroom of their choosing.
While these policy transitions have been really successful in some schools, in other institutions they have been met with more resistance. This was the case at the University of Toronto, as well as at the University of Michigan, where one cisgender student protested the choose-your-own-pronouns policy and began sarcastically using the pronoun “his majesty” in response. Public K-12 schools also have some of the fiercest examples of resistance to trans inclusion in recent years.
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The history of transphobia, in which being trans and queer has falsely been associated with pedophilia and “perversion,” is at the root of the majority of the anti-trans backlash taking place. These transphobic stances hurt trans people, who in reality are the ones being put greatly at risk just by trying to use the bathroom.
According to a study done by Judy Herman at the University of California, Los Angeles, up to 70 percent of trans participants reported being denied access to restrooms, being harassed while using restrooms, and even experiencing physical assault. It’s statistics like this that remind us that trans bodies are not safe in this country and that trans people are not allotted safety. The fact that trans bodies are under attack means there must be a push for their humanization and the recognition of their rights.
Due to growing concerns about transgender people’s right to privacy and freedom from discrimination, in October the Obama administration took an aggressive stance in defending transgender people’s right to use the bathroom that they feel comfortable with. In defending this civil right, the administration sent out a letter to public schools across the country notifying them that transgender students must be permitted to use the bathroom of their choosing. This right is defended by Title IX, a federal law which defends against sex-based discrimination in schools, extending protection to people’s right to their own gender identity and trans people’s right to express their gender identity without harassment, discrimination or violence. The letter included a threat that any state that fails to comply with the administration’s interpretation of the law risks having federal funding pulled, as well as being sued by the government.
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Unfortunately however, a federal Texas state Judge blocked the Obama administration’s effort to allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor of the Northern District of Texas, a Republican appointee of President George W. Bush, issued an injunction against the administration siding with the 13 states and blocking the Obama administration’s policy the evening before many students across the country where due to go back to school.
Failures to implement policy to support transgender people’s rights has led to cases like Gavin Grimm’s, which the ACLU will be representing in the supreme court. Gavin Gram, a 17 year old Transgender boy in Virginia’s Gloucester County, got permission to use the boys bathroom at his high school, and then had his right promptly revoked once parents and other citizens in the county threatened the school board and pushed them to pass a new school policy that limits access to communal restrooms based on the idea of “biological gender”. This policy pushes Gavin and other Transgender people attending the county schools into alternative restrooms which are relegated to students with “gender identity issues”. As a result, Gavin’s medical information and his body have been put on public display and became a topic of conversation for his community and his classmates. This case will be the first case of which the Supreme Court deals with a civil rights case directly about rights for transgender people.
Gavin’s Supreme Court case marks the growing emergence of policy and law cases pushing towards the protection of transgender people on a visible national level in a country that has been and continues to be highly transphobic. By not recognizing one’s gender identity, we demean and dismiss that person’s lived experience. It is the bodies like those of Rita Hester and Gavin Grimm that continue to be subjected to transphobic body terrorism and policing because the United States is a country that fosters transphobia in its law and in its culture. This is a form of dehumanization. It is in this way the government has failed and continues to be a failure to trans folks in its reign of body terrorism towards them.
Although laws are put in place for the protection and privacy of all people, when specific policies fail to protect transgender folks, the law reaffirms that their bodies, their happiness, their safety and their lives don’t matter. Policies that reassert the rights of transgender people, although these policies won’t bring about the systematic and revolutionary change that is deserved to transgender folks, are an important form of harm reduction. It is a form of affirming the right to have your gender recognized. It is a fight for the humanization and better treatment of transgender and gender nonconforming folks. More than rights, it is a start to the social recognition of the humanity of transgender people. While law and policy won’t disrupt and dismantle transphobia, policies protecting trans rights at school level to state level have the ability to make the quality of life better for transgender people.
[Feature Image: A person to the left of the photo with chin-length blond hair, they are wearing a blue sweater and a blue shirt with a face on it. They have sunglasses on top of their hair. Behind them is a crowd of people. Behind the crowd of people is a tree and a couple of buildings. Source: Franziska Neumeister]