From invisibility to stability
Transgender organizing for the masses
The first step toward addressing an issue is to make it visible. An alcoholic will fail to get sober until he or she admits to having a problem. Slapping around one’s wife was not a punishable offence until it became socially and legally recognized as domestic violence. Visibility is gained through definition, and with visibility comes the power to create social change.
Transgender and gender nonconforming people are just beginning to shed the cloak of invisibility that has shrouded their participation in social and political life. The success of productions featuring middle-class transgender people, like the film Transamerica and the television show The L Word, is opening the door to public conversations that had previously been relegated to academic departments of women’s and queer studies. These popular portrayals are not always politically correct, but they do help to foster the development of an active and visible transgender citizenry working for public recognition of equal rights. Unfortunately, however, transgender visibility seems to be stalled along class lines, a problematic development that advances the rights of a privileged few at the expense of community-oriented movement building.
Similar to queer activism, transgender rights organizing appears to be gaining ground in major metropolitan areas including Washington, D.C., and Toronto. Legal victories for public bathroom access in New York City and anti-discrimination laws in Maine, as well as the election of a transgender mayor in Silverton, Oregon, are certainly cause for celebration. However, the focus on battles that require class privilege means that other battles that would make a significant impact on the majority of poor transgender people have scarcely begun. Would-be transgender activists must often favour their own material conditions above collective advocacy in order to simply survive — a position working-class feminists and feminists of colour have been arguing for decades regarding their place in the movement for women’s liberation. Given this reality, organizing around transgender issues should be viewed through an economic lens in addition to one of gender.
Transgender and gender nonconforming people in the U.S. list their three most important and immediate needs as housing, employment and health care. This is no different from the main preoccupations of low-income people generally, which is not a coincidence as a great number of transgender people live in poverty. (In the United States, a transgender person is twice as likely to live below the poverty line.)
A disproportionate number of transgender people are relegated to low-paying jobs, denied work, or fired for reasons directly related to their gender identity. More than two-thirds report experiencing verbal and physical harassment on the job. Since there are few legal protections against such discrimination, transgender folks have little recourse to address mistreatment on the job, and employers consistently fail to protect transgender workers; in fact, many times they contribute to the abuse. All of these factors contribute to the disproportionate numbers of transgender people experiencing chronic unemployment.
Transgender people who apply for public assistance face difficulties in obtaining the benefits they both need and are entitled to, particularly when they lack access to appropriate identification documents. Those who do receive benefits may do so in a program that has a minimum work requirement in an environment that proves to be dangerous for transgender people, creating a difficult choice between losing benefits and maintaining one’s personal safety. Given their limited employment options, many transgender people become involved in the illegal activities of the street economy — sex work, theft, selling drugs — and so may wind up entangled in the legal system, thus further marginalizing them.
Access to affordable housing is also a problem. Housing refusal is common, leaving many people to live in homeless shelters or on the street. Shelters, which tend to be sex-segregated, bring another unique brand of difficulty, particularly when transgender individuals are not allowed to bunk with members of their self-identified sex or given access to shower and bathroom facilities that suit their needs. Shelters can be unsafe and harassment from other residents and staff is common. Transgender people are frequently turned away from shelters (some even have policies barring their entry) or are thrown out when the staff finds out they are transgender.
Although class and gender intersect deeply and complexly for transgender folks, very little research has been done into the discrimination they face. Figures that are typically calculated by means of the census, public assistance intake forms or social service agencies are lost because transgender identity is not tracked. When people are required to check one of two boxes — male or female — those whose gender identity falls outside the boxes are rendered invisible. The same is true for laws that do not specify protections if a person’s transgender status makes them a target for a crime, such as workplace discrimination or hate violence.
This lack of data contributes to further barriers, as non-profit organizations that have trans-specific initiatives face an enormous challenge in obtaining funding. “Getting government funders to understand the risk and vulnerability that transgender people are at to be homeless and getting grants that apply to this work is the biggest challenge we face” says Yasmeen Persad, the transgender program coordinator at Supporting Our Youth (SOY) in Toronto. A lack of finances is not simply a reality for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals; it is also a reality for the organizations that assist those individuals.
No one decides to do social justice work because they think it will be easy, but some areas are more challenging than others. Low-income transgender people are highly vulnerable to social isolation, abuse and violence — factors that make becoming an advocate or activist extremely difficult. According to Lynn E. Walker, the program director of the Transgender Transitional Housing Program at Housing Works in New York City, “One of the greatest challenges for our clients derives from the reluctance of trans and gender nonconforming people to advocate for themselves. Many clients have experienced long years of disempowerment and homelessness, sometimes complicated by physical and mental illness, and unfortunate encounters with the criminal justice system. Consequently, they tend to prefer to avoid advocacy events where they may encounter institutional and governmental authority, which for them are symbols of ignorance and instruments of oppression.”
The topics that get the most attention from transgender advocates and activists, therefore, are often those of primary interest to middle- and upper-class transgender folks. This is particularly the case in the U.S., where health care disparities are so pronounced: advocating for insurance companies to cover sex reassignment surgery will no doubt benefit transgender people with enough class privilege to actually have health insurance, but what about the need for basic medical care that low-income transgender people are unable to afford?
Organizing to provide free, comprehensive health care services for transgender people would prove to be a much more inclusive and effective organizing strategy. These services could include the provision of basic medical care and medications, including hormones and antidepressants; psychiatric and psychosocial services like individual and group counselling; and HIV prevention and treatment as well as substance abuse treatment facilities for the disproportionate number of transgender folks who are afflicted with these ailments. A breakthrough in health care provision would represent a momentous step forward for the rights and well-being of transgender people, and would foster the conditions for more activists to step forward.
The Transgender Transitional Housing Program at Housing Works in New York exemplifies the kind of work organizations could be doing to address low-income transgender people’s needs. Tackling all three of transgender people’s most pressing needs, Housing Works provides “one-bedroom furnished apartments for gender non-conforming people and people of trans experience living with HIV/AIDS for up to twenty-four months. Along with appropriate medical, dental, and mental health care, [they] assist them in finding affordable permanent housing, and for those who are interested, the agency provides legal and administrative support as well as vocational training to enable them to obtain satisfactory employment.” Housing Works takes a holistic approach and works for transgender rights where it can make the broadest impact.
Increasing the visibility of low-income transgender people is a step in the right direction but it is not enough to make a sustained impact on their most pressing needs. For that, activism is needed.
Creative solutions can be implemented to solve the problems that are inherent in the current systems that serve low-income people. Transgender-only housing units or floors in existing facilities can be established with private, lockable restroom facilities and staff who are trained in transgender sensitivity. Exclusions of transition-related and gender-specific health care can be removed from the policies of medical facilities and health insurance companies. Governments can invest in transgender-specific workforce development and public assistance programs. Laws and policies that prohibit employment discrimination and workplace harassment can be amended to include transgender and gender non-conforming people. Although transgender organizing is newly emerging, the movement need not make the same mistakes as its well-meaning predecessors by ignoring the class-based needs of the majority of its members.
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aw shut the hell up. every trans activist I know in NYC is focused on either housing rights, shelter access and violence, welfare access or other “middle and upper class” concerns like the intersection of being trans/ gnc and fighting the prison industrial complex.
But thank you for your help and concern and taking the time to explain where us silly trans people have gone astray.
From estrobutch on Jan 12th, 2010 at 6:49am
same goes for DC (by which i mean the locally-focused groups, not the federal policy people). most of the trans groups here are working on prison, police brutality, sex worker’s issues, domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, public schools, public funding for hiv prevention, clean needles for hormones and injection drug use….
this is good to think about, and yeah a lot of middle class trans activists are pretty guilty of advancing their own needs without thinking of others. but please don’t erase those of us who are either not middle class and/or are doing intersectional work!
From saide ryanne on Jan 12th, 2010 at 12:59pm
What do you mean by “visibility”?
Trans women have a history of being highly visible in their communities. Though that visibility is not always by choice and many times is accompanied with being perceived as sexual threats, as sex objects, as objects of derision and hate, and as objects of pity.
When I read “Increasing the visibility of low-income transgender people is a step in the right direction…” I felt as though that history was being ignored.
From sable_twilight on Jan 12th, 2010 at 2:29pm
I’m so glad you cissplained where we’re going wrong. Thank heaven for ignorant, privileged people and their unfounded assumptions about what we do, and why!
From slightly on Jan 12th, 2010 at 4:53pm
I love how the nice cis lady compares us to alcoholics and wife beaters in the first few sentences.
What an entitled, clueless, piece of shit. May you rot in the Hell of your own making.
From voz on Jan 13th, 2010 at 1:52am
do you really think that trans activism is a new idea?
do you really think that surgery is less of a pressing need for low-income trans people than hormones, therapy, substance abuse counseling, and/or HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment?
From MHS on Jan 13th, 2010 at 1:39pm
EstroButch – Do you really think the organizing that happens in NYC (or the community in which you surround yourself) is representative of the most public-political trans activism in North America? Just the fact that the most visible trans organizing happens in places like NYC, DC, and Toronto is a problem, as the priorities of that organizing will necessarily be urban ones. The point is to ask “who are and what is being overlooked?” in order to meet the needs of everyone. If your answer is “no one and nothing” then I guess we simply don’t agree.
Saide – Your point is well taken, though a bit confusing since this piece is about uncovering how intersectional non-middle class centric work is often ignored and de-prioritized. Pointing to a trouble spot in the most visible, resource-laden work w/in a particular movement isn’t the same as erasing the work that isn’t as visible or resource-laden, so that is a false dichotomy.
Sable – By ‘visible’ I mean having a public-political voice and representation. You’re right that I should have spelled that out more.
Slightly – Perhaps you could explain what you think I’ve got wrong in my analysis instead of attempting to attack my credibility based on no more than my being cisgender.
Voz – Is that really what you get from that opening? I mean, really? How is that the parallel exactly?
MHS – Trans activism that is publicly acknowledged and given legitimacy by both the state and general public is absolutely a recent occurrence of the past 15-20 years. As for your second question, the need to prioritize surgery is one that will differ for each trans person. However, when one does not have basic necessities like adequate housing, food, income, safety, and basic medical care, obtaining those things tend to take precedence. Obviously this is a generalization and will not be the case across the board.
From Mandy Van Deven on Jan 14th, 2010 at 2:04am
Mandy Van Deven- could you please clarify why you don’t believe that gender affirming surgeries [for low-income trans people] qualify as “basic medical care”, in specific terms?
From MHS on Jan 14th, 2010 at 5:12am
It seems like you had a good intention when you wrote this article — you wanted to start a discussion about the needs of low-income trans people. But the article reads like you’re scolding “the trans movement” for being too middle-class. Why is that a problem?
1) You’re cisgendered. Lecturing “the trans movement” about what you think it’s doing wrong is offensive/unbecoming. (I do think you could have written a fine article about the unmet needs of low-income trans people without coming off like you were telling trans activists what they’re doing wrong; however, this is not that article.) [See also: I don’t want to read articles by men about how I’m doing feminism wrong; POC probably don’t want to read articles by white people about how they’re doing anti-racism wrong, etc. etc.]
2) The article does seem to gloss over/erase work done by intersectional groups (i.e. Queers for Economic Justice, Silvia Rivera Law Project, Safe Outside the System, etc. — sorry to be NYC-centric but that’s where I live). Which is probably also depressing/alienating to many folks in the “trans movement” you’re lecturing at.
And this comments section is making things worse. I know you probably wrote this article with good intentions, but instead of reacting to angry commenters in a dismissive/defensive/intellectual way, you might stop, take a breath, and try to understand why people are angry instead.
From nika on Jan 14th, 2010 at 7:17am
Mandy- if you work really really REALLY hard at it, you might be able to come across as more patronizing.
But it’ll take some serious effort.
From Boo on Jan 14th, 2010 at 9:24am
[i]Saide – Your point is well taken, though a bit confusing since this piece is about uncovering how intersectional non-middle class centric work is often ignored and de-prioritized.[/i]
To me, this statement represents the biggest issue with this essay. Ignored [i]by whom[/i]? De-prioritized [i]by whom[/i]? Previous commenters have already pointed out that trans activism frequently involves, or even specifically focuses on “intersectional non-middle class centric work.” You really come across to me as scolding trans activists for the fact that cis people aren’t prioritizing the same things that we are. This suggests that rather than lecturing us, you should join us in railing against the negative impacts of cis privilege.
From eastsidekate on Jan 14th, 2010 at 10:12am
MHS – You’re missing the point. There is a continuum of health care. Surely you recognize that getting a flu shot and getting a sex change operation are in different places on that continuum, and that different people will prioritizing one over the other based on material circumstance.
Nika – I feel that. Lisa at Questioning Transphobia has a really good critique of this article ([url=http://questioningtransphobia.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/digital-ventriloquism-the-ethics-of-speaking-about-minorities/]http://questioningtransphobia.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/digital-ventriloquism-the-ethics-of-speaking-about-minorities/[/url]) that brings up these points. I’ve responded to them at length there. Briefly though, this piece would have needed to have been thousands upon thousands of words longer in order to spin out the full implications of each point I offered and truly do them justice. It is a limitation of the medium to try to say as much as possible given the spacial constraints, and things will necessarily be glossed over or left out. I don’t say that as an excuse for omissions or lack of depth; I take full responsibility for the choices I made, and your critique is well taken.
The limitation of an electronic medium of communication is that the perception of tone is largely up to the reader, not the writer. I truly don’t feel defensive about these critiques. I think they’re necessary in order to have a dialogue. (I will admit that some critiques seem less valid than others.) If I come across as intellectual, well, that’s because it’s how I think through things and engage in what seems like an intellectually-based argument. I’m not sure what other way I’m supposed to do that.
I definitely understand why people are angry. Some of it is my fault and I do apologize for illiciting that response. It doesn’t make me feel good to upset those who I see as allies and hope would see me as an ally also.
EastSideKate – Ignored by both trans activists who prioritize work that benefits mainly those with class privilege, cis activists who do the same, and the general public. All of these groups are the audience for this article, not trans people doing the intersectional non-middle class centric work. I know there is work done that focuses on trans people in lower classes. (It’s usually not what is most visible though.) That’s not the focus of this piece, but I do mention two orgs that are doing that work (SOY and Housing Works) specifically to let the readers know that it is being done. I’ll refer you to what I’ve written above about the limitations of writing about an enormously complicated issue in appx 1500 words. I do, and will continue, to rail against the negative impacts of cis privilege—including my own.
From Mandy Van Deven on Jan 14th, 2010 at 1:08pm
Mandy Van Deven- You did not answer my question, and I don’t understand. Are you saying that low income trans people deserve flu shots, but not gender affirming surgeries? Are you suggesting that it is harmless to leave transition-related medical needs unmet in low income trans people?
BTW I didn’t realize that people still used the term “sex change operation” (well, other than on FOX News). Which procedure were you referring to?
From MHS on Jan 14th, 2010 at 2:17pm
Oh look, another cis person acting like they’re qualified to speak for us because they’ve been studying up on cis-made portrayals of what cis people think trans people’s lives are all about. No surprise here.
We can speak for ourselves, thank you very much.
From Megan on Jan 14th, 2010 at 3:49pm
Too much anger…..
There is a reason why so many Trans spokescritters like myself are white, middle class, and moderately wealthy.
OK, so I’m below the poverty line – but only just. That puts me very much in the “above average income” for trans people.
The reason why we are so visible is Darwinian. We were able to afford treatment. So we got to live. Those who could not, died.
But there’s more of us born each day, an inexhaustible supply of those in impoverished or disadvantaged circumstances. They tend to be a bit too busy surviving for as long as they can to do much activism though. We try to do what we can for them, while not fully understanding their needs. Perhaps 80% of our efforts go towards them – they just don’t get publicised, because so many of their needs aren’t due solely to being TS, but are due to being impoverished. Our efforts get lost in the shuffle.
Then we get told by someone who is less than well-informed about the situation what we should be doing.
Meh. If we’re doing it already, it’s merely redundant, not harmful. And if it’s not what we’re doing, it should be.
It would be good though if, rather than dealing with the symptoms, we deal with the causes. That means having better employment protections, so fewer of us are trapped by poverty. And publicly funded basic healthcare for the truly indigents. For us, that means enough to transition.
From Zoe Brain on Jan 15th, 2010 at 5:33am
How quickly we forget… Mandy Van Deven has a history of paternalistic appropriation of marginalised women’s voices to further her own academic career. Not to mention using transmisogynistic slurs. She should never have been published in the first place.
From Fire Fly on Jan 16th, 2010 at 11:30pm
Mandy Van Deven wrote a well intentioned article. She speaks to serious issues. She is thinking actively about how to create change for people in need of it. If only every person made such an effort to help. Sometimes the help isn’t needed. Sometimes it isn’t welcome. But I would never discourage the effort, the desire to see an end to suffering.
The problem of trans poverty is very serious. On this the author and the commenters agree. We need everybody to care enough to think about these issues. We can’t afford to invest our energy into debating who does what and who can speak on behalf of whom. We can’t afford to turn away empathy. Through mutual instruction and learning we must harness and harmonize all energies committed to the same goal. We can’t afford to be wasteful, the need is too great.
As a transsexual, I feel particularly grateful that Mandy is speaking out about the problems that are relevant to me, that she is seeking solutions. I expect no less of any cisgender person and I welcome every effort to end transsexual oppression.
From calvin on Jan 18th, 2010 at 10:27pm
I’ve just posted a response to the complaints we’ve received about this article here: [url=http://briarpatchmagazine.com/editors-response-to-trans-organizing-article-complaints/]http://briarpatchmagazine.com/editors-response-to-trans-organizing-article-complaints/[/url]
Thanks to everyone who has shared their thoughts.
From briarpatch on Jan 19th, 2010 at 1:47pm