A transphobic bathroom bill in North Carolina … a similar bill squashed at the last minute in Georgia … and Transgender Day of Visibility this week … all have me thinking about the relationship between “visibility” and “violence.” When is visibility empowering? When is it dangerous? Whose safety is at the center of concern and why? Who is suffering violence?
Last week, the governor of North Carolina signed a hastily passed law eliminating anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people. Among other things, the law requires transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to their sex assigned at birth, rather than their gender identity. Steeped in transphobia, proponents of the bill claim they are “protecting women and children” – on the assumption that trans women want to do far more than pee and check the mirror when they are in the restroom.
While there is zero evidence that trans people are sexual predators (any more so than cis-gendered people), this illogical reasoning also rests on traditional gendered beliefs about women as weak and vulnerable: note, the concern is never for cis-men exposed to trans men at the next urinal. The hyperventilating is always about guarding women’s precarious sexuality. (Recall that the Equal Rights Amendment fell apart over threats of unisex bathrooms.)
[Need a gender terminology refresher? “Cis-gender” refers to individuals whose bodies and internal sense of gender identity correspond, and have always corresponded, to their sex assigned at birth. Use of the term calls attention to the fact that some people do not experience this alignment of body parts and gender identity.]
Never mind that gender identity and sexual identity are completely different things – a trans woman may be attracted to cis-men, cis-women, or gender-queer or gender-nonconforming or non-binary individuals. However they identify their own sexuality, it is not pre-defined by their gender identity. The conflation of the two is partly intentional fear mongering, and partly resistance to giving up a binary definition of biological sex that underlies a traditional understanding of gender roles. Because gender has long been understood as “natural” and fixed, it has been one of the most entrenched systems used to organize social, economic, and political power.
In order to really understand the hysteria around the “threat” of trans people in bathrooms, we have to think about gender as these hierarchical relationships of power. What is really being threatened when a trans women uses the ladies’ room isn’t other women, but the naturalized system of gender based on sex-assigned-at-birth that “keeps everyone in their place.” Now combine this with the construction of race and you get an even more powerful regulatory system. Boundary crossing and ambiguity threaten to destabilize gender and racial categories that provide benefits to some and not others; and sadly, those with the least power to start with often cling to systems that provide some way of staying ahead of those lower on the ladder.
The cruel reality, of course, is that trans people are actually the ones most threatened by North Carolina’s law, since they will now be accused of using the “wrong” bathroom as others read their gender identity and classify them based on their outward gender presentation. Trans people, especially trans women of color, are some of the most vulnerable members of society: last year, the murder rate of transgender people hit an all time high. [The Guardian, 11-13-15]
Being trans in the United States is one of the most dangerous things you can be. Which is why visibility is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, finding ways for marginalized people to be seen is necessary to bring their oppression out of the shadows: by centering their experiences we “see” transgender people and understand them as whole human beings and members of our communities. On the other hand, as the activists behind this week’s Transgender Day of Visibility noted, “while visibility is important, we must take direct action against transphobia.” Explaining this year’s hash tag, #MoreThanVisibility, they said, “Visibility is not enough alone to bring transgender liberation. Some people experience violence due to their visibility and some others don’t want to be visible. However, we can use visibility as a vital tool for transgender justice.” [TransStudent.org, #MoreThanVisibility campaign]
Just what that looks like was on clear display in North Carolina this week. Two transgender individuals are literally using their visibility for social justice by filing a lawsuit against the state. One of those two is Payton McGarry, a 20-year old student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. [Hear an interview with him, here: DemocracyNow, 3-29-16] North Carolina’s Attorney General is refusing to defend the state against the lawsuit, saying, “Not only is this new law a national embarrassment, it will set North Carolina’s economy back … We’re talking about discrimination here.” [Washington Post, 3-30-16]
The potential economic impact has taken center state as corporations such as American Airlines, Apple, Dow Chemical, PayPal, Red Hat, Biogen, Wells Fargo,and the NBA all publicly criticized the new law. [New York Times, 3-25-16] This corporate intervention is terribly important and got lots of attention, but it certainly didn’t happen because companies are naturally progressive institutions. Rather, these organizations are taking stands because social justice communities have made it clear through their grassroots activism that it will impact bottom lines: both in negative ways, such as through boycotts, but also in positive ways, such as working with human resource professionals and those in board rooms promoting the benefits of inclusion and diversity to their own employees and communities.
Years of grassroots pressure, working outside and within corporations, led to a different outcome in Georgia this week, when the governor vetoed a similar bill after coming under intense pressure from Disney, the National Football League, and others. [Washington Post, 3-28-16] So in this case, visibility of the issue of transphobia led to a social justice victory. But we also know that visibility of individuals is not always empowering. While silencing and erasure are certainly forms of oppression, unwanted exposure can be another. Forcing people to enact their gender in a way other than their choosing – by using a bathroom that doesn’t match their chosen gender identity – is compulsory visibility, drawing unwelcome attention, and quite possibly violence.
It’s on cis-gender people to fight back against the hatred and transphobia behind laws like the one in North Carolina: and there are plenty of states and cities with nasty legislation on the books, allowing trans people to lose their jobs, to be denied housing, and more. While there are many brave and admirable trans activists – including students like Payton McGarry who are leading the way – expecting trans people to be visible spokespeople when it can cost them their livelihoods, or even their lives, is itself oppressive. At the same time, when trans, LGBTQIA, and queer people speak, cis-gender people need to listen. I leave you with these thoughts on visibility from TransStudents.org: