Being Gender: The Continued Struggle for Transgender Equality
The transgender community gains inches, but needs miles in the march toward equality and the struggle for basic rights; many recent achievements that protect against workplace discrimination pave the way, but much still needs to be done.
Equality is the forefront for any individual in the pursuit of happiness. Fighting for equality has become a forced right of passage for many minority groups in the United States. The promise of equality is a deeply rooted American standard, but African Americans have fought slavery, Native Americans have fought for existence and religion. Women have fought for equal rights and continue to fight for equal pay. Immigrants have always struggled to find a foothold in the U.S., and now the LGBT community fights discrimination and in some states finds marriage equality.
As an umbrella term Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender or LGBT encompasses the transgender community, but often gets missed by the spotlight. However, recently the actress, Laverne Cox has been in that spotlight and using it to promote transgender awareness. She is the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine. Cox frequently spoke out about the contentious sentence of CeCe McDonald, who received 41 months in prison for second-degree manslaughter charges after allegedly defending herself against racist and transphobic attacks. In the case of McDonald and many other transgender people, transphobic actions from the public can dramatically escalate toward violence and the assault of a transgender person.
Violent crimes against transgender people are the highest among the LGBT community. In a report put out by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs or NCAVP titled Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and HIV-Affected Hate Violence in 2012, released in 2013, states under the heading, Hate Violence Homicide Demographics, that there was a decrease in anti-LGBTQ and HIV-affected homicides from 2011 to 2012. However, severe violence among transgender women who are Black or multicultural remains alarmingly high. Black and African Americans being the highest at 53.8%, and with more than half of the victims identified as transgender women. Some of this is due to the trust transgender people have with law enforcement.
Many hate crimes against transgender people especially of African American and multicultural ethnicities go unreported. In a report titled, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, states that the majority of the overall transgender population feels neutral or uncomfortable seeking aid from police. Also in a sampling from the same report, sexual assaults by police are highest among Black and Latina transgender women. Whereas Black transgender men faced the highest harassment by police, reinforcing the hesitance in seeking help from law enforcement.
Transgender activism started before the lesbian and gay movement by a woman called Jennie June, born in 1874 as Earl Lind. She published a pair of books titled, Autobiography of an Androgyne (1918) and The Female Impersonators (1922). June was a self-professed androgyne and met with other androgynes in a society created in 1895, with the name Cercle Hermaphroditos, to come together in defense of persecution. The group was based in the industrial city of New York, and was the first to announce a political agenda of its kind.
John D’Emilio has one of the most widely famous arguments as to why there was such an emergence of lesbian, gay, transgender, and gender variant identities in the nineteenth century, citing industrial cities and capitalism as the catalyst. “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (D’Emilio, 1993) published in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader,(p. 469) explains that by the nineteenth century men and women are drawn out of a self-sufficient household economy and into a capitalist system. Capitalism, as D’Emilio would explain, created an outside the family, church, and small community life, where single working people could meet without restriction.
Continuing, D’Emilio (The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, 1993) also speaks about the post-World War II era, and the imposed oppression by President Dwight D. Eisenhower with a “total ban” (p. 472) on anyone who was gay, lesbian, or transgender. This was done in the interest of national security on what the executive order classified as, “sexual perversion” or sexual perverts to work within the federal government or as government contractors. Vice Squads invaded private homes, and lesbian and gay bars, and the danger arose for gay, lesbian, and transgender people. Because of this discrimination it became hard to find employment and many became sex workers and criminals for a means to survive.
These conditions and means to survive exist today, with many who identify as transgender being involved in commercial sex work. This is primarily caused by an inadequacy of awareness, transphobia, discrimination, and economic hardships; leaving transgender people open to severe violence and HIV infection. According to a report by the CDC, HIV Among Transgender People in New York City, from 2007-2011, there were 191 new diagnoses of HIV infection reported among transgender people. With 99% being transgender women and over half of the newly diagnosed in their twenties. The report also highlights that police polices can conflict with public health initiatives. Some officers or agencies view the presence of condoms as evidence of sex work, possibly curbing the use of condoms and causing HIV infection to spread among the community.
There are nearly 700,000 individuals who identify as transgender in the United States alone, as indicated in a 2011 report by Gary J. Gates titled, How Many People Are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, And Transgender? The CDC report HIV Among Transgender People, also states that discrimination can inhibit a transgender person’s life in access to education, employment, and housing opportunities. The social stigma and discrimination that has become a part of American culture created by the “total ban”, imposed by President Eisenhower, is slowly being reversed through activism. The 1969 Stonewall Riots are recorded as the single most important event leading to a liberation movement for the LGBT community, and is now a National Historic Landmark. This event is celebrated and remembered every year across the United States, as Pride Parades.
As a movement that started in the nineteenth century, it is only now that the struggle becomes a chance for equality. Notable recent civil rights advancements, such as President Barack Obama signing an Executive Order on July 21, 2014 to protect transgender employees from workplace discrimination, are attempting to remove the social stigma and intolerance faced by transgender people. As a result, lifting the “total ban” put in place by President Eisenhower and ultimately progressing the political agenda and defending the rights Jennie June sought over 100 years ago.
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