Close your eyes and imagine struggling to do simple acts such as going out to buy a pint of milk or catching a train to work. Imagine that this is because the way you present does not align with mainstream societies view of what it means to be male or female. My cis privilege means this is something I have not experienced, but I know it to be the lived experience for many trans people who face daily street harassment and abuse and worse.
This thought experiment could come in handy for journalists at the Sunday Times and the New Yorker. Both published articles recently by cis people which cited the experiences of trans people without once mentioning transphobia. If these cis writers had a modicum of journalistic integrity this fundamental issue would not have been overlooked.
The Sunday Times ran a ridiculous story, entitled: “male prisoners jump at transgender privileges”. This article suggested that the increase in the number of trans women coming out in male prisons was a result of them wanting to enjoy so-called “privileges”. Of course, being an out trans woman in prison must be full of privileges! The safety risks; the risk to a trans person’s physical and mental health; the struggle to access appropriate health care, navigating a culture where prison rape and violence is rife. Of course, what a privilege it must be to come out as a trans person in that environment!
This level of ignorance within our media helps to perpetuate misunderstanding amongst cis people and feeds into lazy and dangerous stereotypes. It creates an environment where the rights and dignity of trans people can legitimately be violated because they are seen as “playing” at being a gender of their choice.
This approach was consistent with the one-sided bile espoused by an article in the New Yorker. Michelle Goldbeg wrote at length about the war between “radical feminists vs trangenderism”. Putting aside the bizarre terminology, there is a deeply flawed narrative which is, at best, intellectually disingenuous and, at worse, transphobic vitriol. This particularly stood out as a theory noted in the article: trans women transition “for reasons of sexual fetishism, Sheila Jeffreys [a feminist academic] says, and the majority of trans women in the West start off not as effeminate gay men but as straight or bisexual men, and they are initially motivated by erotic compulsion rather than by any conceived female identity…. it’s really exciting for guys to imagine themselves with female breasts, or female breasts and a vulva.”
Goldberg also cites Sheila Jeffrey’s criticisms of providing support to trans young people as this will “prevent them from developing unwanted secondary sex characteristics and can result in sterilization.” She fails to even mention in passing the statistics of suicide attempts and self-harm affecting trans young people. Research indicates that “the shame and rejection felt by these children in turn leads to self-harming behaviours, increased drug use, homelessness, HIV/AIDS infection, depression, and suicide. One-third (33.2%) of transgender youth have attempted suicide.” The gaps in Goldberg’s narrative are extremely dangerous.
It occurred to me that if Michelle Goldberg is able to research the key feminist academics and cite the scant examples where trans women have sought to reverse the transitioning process, why is she unable to cite the research on the huge levels of inequality trans people experience? Had she citied this, her argument that people are choosing to transition to fulfil a sexual fetish would be seen as the vacuous nonsense it really is.
Perhaps this is where the issue of trans equality, as viewed from the outside cis world, is being lost. There is either the deliberate or unintentional (if one is being charitable) misunderstanding of the deep structural inequalities trans people face.
In a 2011 survey conducted by the UK government, nearly half of trans employees experience discrimination or harassment in their workplaces and they highlight transitioning at work as one of the most significant triggers for discrimination. Trans people have some of the highest rates of mental ill-health, a 2010 survey found that 41 percent of transgender people in the U.S. have attempted suicide. Researchers attributed those rates to discrimination and stigma. The transphobia is found in the public spaces and services trans people seek to access such as public transport, housing and healthcare. These barriers hinder the possibility of trans people living any kind of meaningful life.
As a cis woman of colour, I cannot see how women’s liberation can be complete without the structure of race inequality being dismantled. In line with this, how is women’s liberation complete if trans inequality remains intact? When we allow one minority to suffer persecution and inequality, we leave the door open for oppression to be perpetuated against other marginalised groups.
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Huma Munshi started the #fuckhonour hashtag to express her anger at the oppression women have experienced. She is a writer, poet, blogger and trade unionist. She is a regular contributor to Media Diversified, F-Word and Time to Change.
She has written widely on honour based violence, mental health, film and intersectionality. Her weekly column will reflect her passion for activism, a feminism that reflects her own experiences as an Asian Muslim woman, film reviews and current affairs. Read more of her articles here