We just marked the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which sparked the modern gay-rights movement, with Pride events in New York City and San Francisco. The events featured transgender celebrities Laverne Cox and Janet Mock as grand marshals; the symbolic inclusion was an attempt by Pride organizers to signal trans-inclusion. Unfortunately, Stonewall is also the starting point of the tensions between the LGB part of the community and its transgender counterparts. Nowadays, we know that two transgender women of color, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, were among some of the first people to fight back at Stonewall and therefore basically gave birth to the entire movement. However, what’s rarely discussed is the degree to which transgender people continue to be marginalized within the LGBT-rights struggle. More recently, transgender protections have been pushed aside so that LGB rights will be seen as more acceptable to mainstream society. In 2007, Barney Frank, the most well-known and respected openly gay member of the U.S. Congress, removed transgender protections from the proposed Employment Nondiscrimination Act in the hopes that would help it pass. That’s when I started calling ENDA “SPLENDA” — light on protections for our entire community.
What so many people don’t realize is that discrimination takes place in the lives of transgender people in a range of contexts, including in employment, health care, education, housing and public accommodations, such as public transit and retail establishments. Here is just one example of what occurs to trans people on a daily basis. On April 18, 2011, in Baltimore, a transgender woman named Chrissy Lee Polis went to the women’s restroom in McDonald’s. When she came out, two teenage girls grabbed her and spat in her face. As customers watched, the two girls threw her to the ground and began kicking her repeatedly in the head. Polis kept trying to stand up but the girls had her by the hair and were dragging her across the restaurant floor. Shortly thereafter, Polis suffered a seizure and the last thing she remembers is spitting blood on the restaurant floor. The incident made national news — but not because of the reason you would think: not because McDonald’s was outraged by the random, arbitrary and brutal violence that Polis endured, but rather because a McDonald’s employee (one of the people standing by doing nothing) happened to record the beating on his cell phone and it went viral on YouTube.
Studies show that anywhere from 15-43 percent of LGB people have experienced some form of discrimination and harassment at work. Moreover, a staggering 90 percent of transgender workers report harassment on the job. Workplace mistreatment poses a real threat to the economic security and overall psychological well-being of transgender workers.
Transgender people are regularly mistreated by police and profiled for unfair arrest simply because of their gender identity/expression. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 22 percent of transgender people who interacted with police reported harassment and 6 percent reported physical assault. Moreover, health care is a crucial issue from several angles. First, discrimination takes place in medical settings, which leads to poor health outcomes for many people, and close to 20 percent of transgender people report being refused medical care all together. Discrimination in the health-care realm leads many transgender people to avoid seeking medical care all together even when it’s absolutely necessary.
A sad and stark fact: Just a few weeks ago, Massachusetts became only the third state in the United States to cover transgender health care under Medicaid. As such, transgender people are often denied access to transition-related care by insurance companies, limiting the accessibility of often-life-saving forms of care.
Identity documents are essential to the basic social and economic operations in our country. You name it and you need an identity document to access it: employment, housing, health care, travel — even to get into a bar! Our everyday life hinges on having appropriate and consistent documents. Yet, for many transgender people, obtaining identity documents that match their name and gender is a major hurdle. While half of states now make it relatively easy to update the gender on a driver’s license, efforts are under way to ease the basic step of legally changing names and the often-more-difficult step of updating one’s birth certificate. This year, Oregon and the District of Columbia joined at least three other states in guaranteeing that individuals won’t be required to show proof of surgery to update their birth certificates. Washington, D.C. also joined the ranks of the nearly half of states that have eliminated requirements that name changes be published in the newspaper, an expensive and intimidating step for many trans people that is still required in Pennsylvania. Similar legislation has been proposed in California and Hawaii.
There is little discussion in mainstream media about what’s at stake in the fight for basic transgender rights, which is that trans people are dying at alarming rates, both at their own and others’ hands, all because of transphobia. Transgender murders in North and South America occur at a rate almost 50-percent higher than that of gays and lesbians, according to a new study, and 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide — a staggering 26 times the rate of the general population.
A truly inclusive LGBTQ movement will require a shift in the hearts and minds of the LGB population, one that requires us to accept transgender individuals as equals, and not just in name. If we’re going to use “LGBTQ” as an acronym to define our community, then we can no longer ignore the urgent health, psychological and social needs of our transgender family members. While we’ve had significant gains in recent years, we must continue to fight until we secure protections under federal, state and local laws for everyone under the LGBTQ umbrella.