Saturday, January 14, 2012

Transphobia, Racism, and Segregation

I want to talk about some contemporary issues, and how they relate to American history. The exclusion of trans people from facilities and organizations is not often framed as segregation, but that is exactly what it is, and I want to illustrate that. This will be a rather “heavy” post, but it's important to talk about recurrent patterns in American social history, so that we can learn lessons from our collective past. I'll be discussing patterns and parallels, not equivalences. Racial segregation in the U.S. came into being in the aftermath of racial slavery, the most extreme form of oppression our nation has seen, and one that, as a white man, I cannot claim fully to comprehend. Transphobic segregation does not have this terrible history directly behind it, for which I am grateful. That said, trans people suffer from segregation every day, and to understand the problem, and gain insight into solutions, we have to examine patterns of the justification of segregation across history.

Sometimes, as a trans person, it seems like every day brings another news story about some transphobic incident or initiative. At times there's a ray of light, but often it's followed by a dark cloud of backlash. I have two situations of this sort on my mind right now, both having to do with segregation. These situations illuminate a common thread in American history: the enactment of bigotry through segregation policies that are justified as somehow “protecting the innocent” by oppressing a minority group.

The first of these situations relates to an incident in which a trans woman was shopping at Macy's. When she took some items to a dressing room to try them on, she was denied access by a sales clerk. The customer went to the manager, who told the clerk to let her in to try on her items. The clerk refused, shouting that God doesn't recognize “transgendereds” and that the customer was thus just a man in a dress, about to violate a private women's space. Embarrassed by the scene and by the employee's noncompliance, the manager fired her. The clerk soon acquired a circle of religious advocates demanding her reinstatement, but Macy's actually quietly refused. (See here.)

The day that I read about Macy's asserting a nondiscrimination policy, I was pleasantly surprised. The store would not put up a symbolic “Cis Women Only” sign above the changing room. But, sadly and predictably, a lot of backlash followed. In just one of the actions taken in retaliation, Rep. Richard Floyd, a Tennessee republican, introduced a state measure prohibiting transgender people from using public bathrooms or dressing rooms that conflict with the sex listed on their birth certificates. (Tennessee, by the way, does not permit people to change the sex on their birth certificates when they gender transition.) What uproar this would have led to when bearded Tennessee-born trans men dutifully entered ladies' rooms, one fortunately has only to imagine, as the state sponsor of the bill chose to withdraw it as distracting the legislature from pressing economic issues. While the withdrawal brought me a sigh of relief, I keep hearing the words that Rep. Floyd spoke when introducing the bill:

“I believe if I was standing at a dressing room and my wife or one of my daughters was in the dressing room and a man tried to go in there — I don’t care if he thinks he’s a woman and tries on clothes with them in there — I’d just try to stomp a mudhole in him and then stomp him dry. Don’t ask me to adjust to their perverted way of thinking and put my family at risk. We cannot continue to let these people dominate how society acts and reacts.” (See here.)

Floyd's words follow a time-worn groove in the politics of bigotry in America. A minority group is framed as posing some imaginary threat to privileged innocents, and segregation and violence against that minority are thus framed as justified. The U.S. saw such violent “logic” on a vast scale after the end of the Civil War and the manumission of all who were enslaved. Here are the words of Sen. Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina, speaking on the U.S. Senate floor in March of 1900 in favor of racial segregation and against voting by African Americans: “As to the Negro's 'rights,'— I will not discuss them now. We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.” (See here.)

The wave of racist violence against African Americans in the wake of Reconstruction took place on an appalling scale. Between 1889 and 1940, 3800 lynchings of African American men and women were reported—and doubtless, many more went unreported. There was a claim that most of these were in retaliation for black men raping white women in what was termed the “New Crime,” supposedly caused by black men reverting to a “savage type” once the “civilizing influence” of slavery was removed. In fact, as activist and author Ida B. Wells found in her research on 728 lynchings, the majority of lynching victims were not even accused of rape, but of crimes such as “quarreling with Whites” and “incendiarism.”

There is a difference of scale in the level of violence faced by African Americans after Reconstruction and by trans people today. But contemporary transphobic policies and violence follow this historic pattern of blaming the true victim. Rather than owning their bigotry, legislators, street thugs and shop clerks claim that the trans people they exclude or assault “started it.” We don't enter a restroom to use the toilet, they claim: we come in to sexually assault those in the women's room or challenge those in the men's room, so segregating us and/or assaulting us is justified. Any violence against us is framed as merely self-defense, or as defending the honor of women and children. The fact, of course, is that trans people are the victims, and our “offense” is not attacking the “helpless,” but challenging the worldview of an angry, privileged, insecure group.

And so we see our first theme: the projection of violence onto the victims of bigotry.

Justifications for both racial segregation and the segregation of cis and trans people are unfortunately often based on religious worldviews—as the sales clerk justified her actions at Macy's. Many religious organizations are firmly in favor of trans people's rights. But in the U.S., transphobes often present their ideologies as dictated by the Bible. The standard claim of contemporary transphobic Christians is that gender transition violates God's plan:

“Most basic to our understanding оf sex іѕ that God created twо (and оnly two) genders: “male аnd female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). All the modern-day speculation abоut numerous genders—or еven а gender “continuum” wіth unlimited genders—is unbiblical. . . God’s creation оf еаch individual muѕt surely include His designation оf gender/sex. His wonderful work leaves no room for mistakes; nо оnе іѕ born with the 'wrong body'. . . In the Law, transvestism / transvestitism wаѕ specifically forbidden: 'A woman muѕt not wear men’s clothing, nor а man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests аnyone whо dоes this' (Deuteronomy 22:5). . . Transgenderism іs not genetically based, аnd іt is nоt simply a psychological disorder; it iѕ rebellion аgainѕt God’s plan.” (See here.)

(The fact that sex is indeed a spectrum, which is something that as an intersex person I am aware of every day, raises a problem for this worldview. I once asked an evangelical leader how he could reconcile his claim of divinely-created gender dyadism with my intersex birth status, and the prevalence of intersexuality in all species. He responded that God did not intend for me to be intersex, but that in a world of sin birth defects occurred, and that in the world to come there would be no “errors” like me. . . which conflicts with the simultaneous claim that “His wonderful work leaves no room for mistakes; nо оnе іѕ born with the 'wrong body'.” There is a great illogic in claiming that people born with intersex bodies that bother the majority have defects that must be medically corrected, but nonintersex trans people cannot seek these same medical services because God makes no mistakes.)

Transphobic Christians see in gender transition more than a case of “individual sin;” they see a danger to society as a whole. The entire LGBT community is framed as sexually perverse, polluting society with the belief that sexuality need not be limited to the confines of a marriage between one person who was assigned male at birth and one person who was assigned female. Trans visibility is seen as carrying a further seductive and contagious danger: the idea that both physical sex and gender roles are mutable, which will spread to children and confuse them about their “true” sexes, making them rebellious. In questioning their sexes, they believe, their children will question God's plan as manifested in human bodies since the creation of Adam, and Eve from Adam's rib. Children who question their sex also question Adam's superiority and Eve's submission to him. Thus, trans people threaten the “proper” order of all gender relations in society.

This framing of a persecuted minority as posing a threat to the plan God made manifest in the body also has a long history in the U.S.. Consider this editorial published in a Madison, Wisconsin newspaper, the Daily Argus and Democrat, on September 11, 1857. The editorial advocates in favor of racial segregation, and bases its argument on the idea that segregation will prevent interracial relationships, which are against God's plan:

“Our Creator clearly never intended these two widely dissimilar races to fraternize; if he had wanted them to be one, he would have so made them—but he has placed, with his own finger, a mark , in color, intellect, physiognomy, and other strongly marked characteristics. Whenever these lines of demarkation are endeavored to be obliterated by amalgamation, the white race has been degenerated, enfeebled, and degraded, as a natural consequence.”

Though written a century later, the 1959 order of the trial court in the case of Loving vs. Virginia uses quite similar language. (It would eventually be overturned by the Supreme Court, putting an end to bans on interracial marriage in the U.S.) In sentencing Mildred and Richard Loving to jail under Virgina's Racial Integrity Act of 1924 for having married out of state and returned to Virginia, the trial court wrote: "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

So we see another recurrent theme: a claim that bigoted civil policies follow God's plan as made clear in the color and shape of the flesh.

I want to examine one more theme—the way that gender and sexuality play out in enforcing marginalization. To do this, I want to turn to another story in the news: that of a 7-year-old Colorado trans girl, whose application to a Girl Scout troop was first denied, then accepted, leading again to lots of backlash. I've already noted that LGBT communities are framed as sexually perverse by bigots. Now, trans people are a gender minority, not a sexual minority. Gender transition does affect sexuality (a person who had been perceived as a straight man is categorized as a lesbian after transitioning, for example), but this is epiphenomenal rather than the cause of gender transition. We gender transition based on our gender identity, not for sexual reasons. Still, gender transgression is so linked in the popular imagination with “homosexuality” that it may seem inevitable that trans people would be viewed by bigots through a sexual lens. But the evocation of sexuality in American bigotry predates LGBT rights movements, and plays out even when sexuality should be deemed a nonissue.

Trans women have been slandered as men costuming themselves as women in order to gain access to women's private spaces to peep upon and sexually assault them by all sorts of groups. Excluding trans women from women's bathrooms, locker rooms, and other “safe spaces” is justified through a familiar Western system of sex/gender ideologies which frames “good women” as fragile sexual victims, to be put on a pedestal in a gilded cage. This same belief system frames even good men as sexual aggressors, able to control themselves around chaste good women, but naturally and excusably provoked by the actions of bad women to take sexual advantage of what is “offered.” Trans women suffer the doubly-negative fate of being framed as sexually aggressive men when in a woman's space, and as bad women who are “asking for it” in a men's space.

But Bobbie Montoya, Girl Scout aspirant, is seven years old. We contemporary Americans should see her as asexual, an innocent child. And yet the rhetoric deployed against her is remarkably unaltered from that directed at adult trans women. First of all, she's trying to enter a girl's space, so she's constantly being framed as a boy. The large majority of news reports blare “Boy Wants to be a Girl Scout,” or something similar. (See, e.g., this.) More importantly, she's framed as posing some sort of ominous threat by transphobic organizations. Three Louisiana Girl Scout troops that disbanded to protest the Colorado troop's action described the admission of trans gender children as not only “extremely confusing” for “normal” children, but as posing a danger to girls. (Here.) In a viral video calling for people to boycott Girl Scout cookies over the trans girl's admission, a 14-year-old Girl Scout says not only that the “radical homosexual agenda” of gender transition can't be permitted and that the trans girl is a boy, but that her presence endangers the other girls' safety. (Here.)

Bobbie Montoya is a button-eyed tot, not even four feet tall, living under extreme scrutiny. She poses no risk to anyone. And yet those fighting against allowing her to desegregate a cis gender Girl Scout troop continually evoke some sexual risk, some nameless dread. What this makes clear is that the justification of segregation as self-defense against a sexual risk has no relation to reality. It is a strategic claim, a trope. The fact that it emerges in the case of trans kids just makes this more obvious.

The gendered nature of the claim of sexual risk means that the bigotry faced by trans people differs a lot by gender. Trans women get the short end of the stick, attacked as victimizers when framed by the prejudiced as men, and sexually victimized when framed as women. Trans men suffer too, but not quite as dramatically. When framed as men, we can be attacked as victimizers, but when framed as women (as we often are by transphobes), though sometimes we are sexually victimized as “bad girls” who are “asking for it,” often we are put in the less physically dangerous (if unpleasant) position of being treated by bigots as pitiful and ugly self-mutilators who must be protected from ourselves.

This pattern of gender differences echoes the dangers faced by African American women and men after Reconstruction. Black men faced a great risk of being physically attacked by racists because they were framed as the most dangerous of male sexual aggressors. White fantasies about black male size and sexual violence were quite potent. For example, one white man who joined a mob of people flocking to look at the body of a lynching victim wrote that “the crowds from here that went over to see [the victim] for themselves said he was so large he could not assault her until he took his knife and cut her, and also had either cut or bit one of her breast off.” (Here.) In fact, stories like these were urban (or rural) legends, fantasies with no relationship to the actual cause of the lynchings, which were usually retaliation against the victim acting in a nondeferent manner, challenging a white man, rather than some accusation of rape. But these violent stories allowed white mobs to feel justified in torturing victims before lynching them, and in mutilating their bodies afterwards.

African American women in the period after the Civil War were the group that actually suffered from an epidemic of transracial rape, in a reality that was an inversion of the myth of the “New Crime.” Evidence of this lies in the marked increase in the proportion of mixed-race children born to African American mothers in the period after the war.

What we see in the case of racial violence after the Civil War is a series of projections, in which a bigoted white majority reversed the positions of victim and attacker. This pattern is echoed by transphobic assaults today in the “trans panic” defense. A cis man who encounters a trans woman and finds her sexually attractive is viewed by bigots as justified in assaulting her for “tricking him” into finding her alluring, her very status as trans woman inviting violence. A cis man who kills a trans woman and claims she initiated a sexual encounter with him, after which he discovered her trans status, routinely walks away with little or no jail time—even if that claim seems patently implausible (see, e.g., this). Conversely, trans men are at risk of becoming victims of “corrective rape” by transphobic straight cis men who find them attractive, their trans status being seen as a provocation, with the chances of prosecution being slim.

It becomes clear when examining the way that gender and sexuality are filtered through bias that those who are the victims of segregation are also the victims of sexual assaults and sexual myths. And yet segregation is justified in the name of protecting the “innocent” majority from a supposedly dangerous, deviant minority group.

What lessons can we draw from the parallels we've seen? In enacting segregationist policies, whether in the case of race or gender identity, there are two bases commonly drawn upon. The first is a claim that the marginalized group represents a sexualized threat to the majority—a claim that is inversely related to actual victimization. The second is a religious claim that God has written an intent that the minority be discriminated against in the flesh—in the color of the skin, or the shape of the body—and that religious order demands enforcement of discriminatory policies. The first claim can be opposed by marshalling the facts to point out empirical reality. The second can be countered by noting both the diversity of religious opinion and the constitutional separation of church and state in America.

The lessons of history show that fighting segregationist policies requires social movements, not just logical arguments. It took many marches and sit-ins and protests to bring about racial desegregation. Furthermore, ending segregation at law doesn't end it in practice. The results of racial desegregation in the U.S. have included the gradual defunding of integrated public transportation, white flight from integrated neighborhoods, and the ongoing de facto segregation of schools by neighborhood. Today, I live in the most racially segregated major metropolitan area in the U.S., so this reality is clear to me. The suburb next door, a former segregated “sundown town,” is now under 2% African American, while African Americans make up about 35% of the total area population. (Map.) So I don't want to come across as implying that ending formal segregation is a sufficient solution to the problem. It isn't. But we live in a time of great flux for the rights of trans people, with nondiscrimination policies and discriminatory policies both being added to the books around the country. I do believe that if advocates for trans people can make clear the continuity between regulations excluding us from facilities and organizations, and the laws that enacted racial segregation in the U.S., it would affect the way some people see us. It's not a panacea, a magical solution, any more than ending legal racial segregation has solved the problem of racial inequality—but it is something worth doing.

So, please, if you have a discussion about discrimination against trans people, use the term “segregation” to refer to our exclusion from schools, public facilities, and organizations. Because segregation is exactly what it is. And point out that the supposed sexual risk posed by integration is a myth—as is abundantly clear in the case of letting a little trans girl into the Girl Scouts. We're not out to “get” cis people. We just want to be able to use the bathroom like anyone else.


  1. Thank you for your thoughts on this Cary, makes for very interesting reading

  2. I make a point of never visiting a public restroom, but sometimes ya just gotta go! I tend to live in my own little world sometimes for various reasons, and I had gone into a restroom a while back because I just had to. No two ways about it. Now I have quite a large chest, but I dress in a more masculine fashion (the fabric is more comfortable), and I have a beard. I completely forgot about said beard, and I ended up just staring straight ahead til I got to the door and could continue my shopping. I have never, in my life, had so many eyes trained on me. I thought I'd be terrified if that happened, when it turned out that all I really wanted was to just stop being stared at.

    There were comments, yeah. There ALWAYS are. But I'm done with being scared, yanno? I'm DONE with it. If someone's gonna beat me up or generally accost me because of who I am... I'll have to deal with it. But they'll have to deal with me, too.

    They'll have to deal with my mom or dad, or whoever is with me at the time, too. But I'm probably scarier when I'm trying not to meltdown from the sounds, smells, and people already. lol