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Their first experience of violence is usually in their own homes.

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The Transgender Wars

by Kelly Cogswell

OCTOBER 2, 2000. Some children are sure by the innocent age of four or five that there's been a big mistake with their bodies. Maybe you feel like you're a girl but you're stuck with the privates of a boy. Or vice versa. An uncle asks his niece "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And she says, "A boy." She's not joking.

It's far more than a girl liking to climb trees and play baseball, like I did, or a skinny boy being bad at sports, but good at theater. Transgendered means that your body (sex) doesn't match how you are supposed to feel or act (gender). Transsexual means you can only be satisfied by surgically matching sex to gender.

Identifying yourself, discovering the words 'transsexual' or 'transgendered' is only partial relief. The primary problem of transgendered people, and all those who don't fit the man/woman straitjacket, is not so much about accepting their identity, but about coping with how society violently enforces gender norms.

Roz's experience is unfortunately typical. When, at 16, she began the process of transitioning from a male into a female, she thought the process of freeing herself from "the conscription of gender" would be joyful, or liberating. Instead, her parents kicked her out of the house. She was thrown out of school, and had to live on the street. When she turned her first trick she was robbed and raped. Later, underground surgery, the equivalent of a botched backroom abortion, left her unable to breathe or talk properly.

Is it her problem, or ours?

Violence, A to Z
One of the worst problems facing transgendered people is violence. Their first experience of it is usually in their own homes. The perpetrators are parents, grandparents and siblings. Annoyed questions like "When are you going to start acting like a boy?" "When are you gonna start acting like a little girl?" escalate to fists. Kids are thrown out of their homes.

It's no better outside the house for boys who swish, or girls who don't. There are always people saying mean things, threatening. Race and class compound the problems. There is extra pressure from already oppressed communities to conform, to be good, to "help the people to rise up." In the insecurity of oppression, any behavior considered deviant is seen as an attack on your community. This sometimes intensifies the effects of trans- and homophobia.

Schools have their own horrifying tortures. Who can learn algebra in the midst of name-calling, harassment, ridicule, and beatings? These, of course, come not only from other students, but from teachers and coaches, too. Depression among transgendered youth is a serious, sometimes deadly problem. Many turn to drugs and alcohol.

Without an education, often without a home, some transgendered people find themselves on the street as prostitutes. Since criminals look for those who are not protected, prostitutes are targets for rape and murder. The police themselves, no friends of prostitutes, seem to single out transgendered female prostitutes for harassment. When these women report crimes against them, officers often laugh, or refuse to pursue the cases.

At a recent public meeting in New York City's Lesbian and Gay Community Center, one transgendered woman, who is not a prostitute, told us how she went to a club, and met a man there who lured her to his apartment. There, thirteen men imprisoned her for three days while they raped and beat her. When she escaped with broken ribs, and a bashed-in face, she went to the cops. Which is when the real nightmare began.

The cops were nice until they discovered she was transgendered. "A man can't be raped," they said, dismissing her. Ditto for the hospital where she was told, "You asked for it." Years later, she saw the torturer in a club. When asked why he did it, he said "if he wants to dress up like a woman, he deserves it. That's what a woman gets."

It's the same story for transgendered men. One told the meeting how he "never did a feminine thing in my life. That's not true. I did it once for a year. I really learned a lot, got in touch with my feminine side." The crowd laughed, but not when he described the horror of being attacked by a group of men who almost beat him to death. The men said, "You gonna look like that, you deserve it. So take it like a man."

Getting it: Legislation
Activists at the meeting seemed to agree that legislation was a necessary step in the battle for transgender civil rights, though it was no substitute for informed understanding. The legal war currently focuses on hate crimes legislation, and anti-discrimination laws in housing, and employment.

robertsonGetting included in the necessary, but inadequate, hate crimes legislation has been a nightmare for the transgender community. Not only do they have to fight the Pat Robertson's of the world, they have faced opposition from lesbians and gay men who imagine the legislation will pass faster without them. Although the hate crimes law only kicks in when someone's already been beaten, or killed, it is useful symbolically. It makes all of us visible.

Priorities on the legal front are laws preventing discrimination in housing, and in employment. Such laws could help alleviate homelessness and unemployment among transgendered people. One speaker told how a transgendered bike messenger was fired because of complaints about her appearance, even though the boss said she was the most reliable and best worker on the job. This in a field where multiple tattoos and piercings are standard issue. Many transgendered people don't even get to the stage where they can be fired, or where they can lose their homes.

However, the proof of any law is its enforcement. The battle for legislation goes hand in hand with the need to educate the justice system, especially cops, and the public at large.

Duh!
While the transgendered community is eminently capable of fighting its own battles, it would be stupid for lesbian and gay people, and for feminists, to sit silently by when so many of our own concerns intersect.

Face it, queers, the most vulnerable people in our community are the queens and the butches, those that don't conform to gender expectations. They are the ones that get the crap beaten out of them. And those are the people, the butch dykes, queens, and the transgendered, who are historically the front line in every queer revolution from New York City's Stonewall to Guayaquil, Ecuador to Bombay. Why? It's simple. When no closet can hide you, and you have nothing to lose, why not try to get yours?

Feminists, too, should take a good look at how violence against transgendered people has its roots in misogyny. Every story I've related has been a ritual for upholding a brutal masculinity and a docile, easy to victimize femininity. You can't win your war without addressing lesbo- and transphobia.

Our oppressors have tied us all together, like it or not. In the schoolyard and locker room, 'faggot' is the all-purpose insult, enforcing not only heterosexuality, but a standard of masculine stupidity. It's reserved for queens, queers, and intellectuals. 'Dyke' is the choice insult for butch women, lesbians (if there're any actually out), freaks, eggheads, and yes, feminists.

The only long term solution is for brainiacs, he-she's, queers, daggers, genderbenders, and bra-burners to unite. Let's do it.

Much of the information and stories were drawn from the event "T" Town II, held Thursday, September 28 at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in New York City, and hosted by the Center's Gender Identity Project.

Revised June 1, 2002.

Related links:

For U.S. transgender activists go to Public Advocacy Coalition.

For U.K. activists go to Press for Change.

For Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Anti-Violence Programs.

For Transsexuality - personal and general info on the what, how, and why of gender dysphoria.

For a handy exhaustive Glossary of Transgender Terms.

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

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