Gay Rights Organizations Neglect Transgender People

ByAlok Vaid-Menon

Last week, a peer at Stanford biked past me and screamed: “You send so many emails!”

I must admit: I do send a lot of emails. I’m one of those kids. As a member of Stanford Students for Queer Liberation, a queer activist group on campus, I’ve been organizing Transgender Awareness Week for the past few weeks. This year our week, “Beyond the Binaries,” is composed of a diverse array of events touching on many different issues including: intersex identity, trans activism, asexuality, and polyamory (among others).

While I genuinely believe that many of my classmates care about discrimination against trans* people, I’m also sure that most students won’t attend Trans* Awareness Week because they don’t understand the importance. This is why you should care that Stanford is hosting a Beyond the Binaries Week: 

1. You probably know very little about transgender people. Chances are you have several gay friends and resonate deeply with their struggles. You’ve probably heard the acronym ‘LGBT.’ Maybe you even identify as an ‘ally,’ and believe that all gay people should have the right to marry and serve in the military. But, I doubt you know much about transgender identity, politics, and the experience of transgender people in our country. It’s even less likely that you could explain the difference between ‘transgender’ and ‘cisgender,’ or the difference betwee ‘gender identity’ and ‘sexual orientation.’

This is not your fault, as openly trans* people make up a very small percentage of our population, and mainstream ‘LGBT’ organizations have a long history of neglecting transgender issues. But, if you really care about the ‘LGBT’ community, you should learn what the ‘T’ really means.

2. Trans* people are crucial to your desire to ‘save the world.’ Transgender people experience some of the most severe discrimination in the United States. According to “Injustice at Every Turn,” a study released by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force: 15% of trans* people have a household income of less than $10,000 a year. Trans* people experience double the rate of unemployment, with rates for people of color up to four times higher than the national unemployment rate. The systems established to protect minorities fail trans people: 19% of trans people have been refused health care due to their identity and 22% report harassment by police. Due to a combination of structural inequalities and interpersonal prejudice, 41% of trans* people report attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population. 

3. Trans Awareness Week is crucial for all people, regardless of your gender identity. News flash: Regardless of your intended career, chances are you will one day interact with a trans* person. Let’s say you want to be a doctor. What are you going to do when a transwoman walks into your office? Will you be prepared? Will you abuse her, will you call her by the wrong names, will you deny her treatment like many other doctors do? Let’s say you want to be a lawyer. What will you do if your client is trans*? Will you know how to interact with them respectfully, will you actually be able to represent their interests? Let’s say you want to be a kindergarten teacher. What will you do when one of your little ‘boys’ wears a dress to class and all of her peers make fun of her? Will you know how to intervene, or will you do nothing – contributing to years of psychological harm and neglect?

4. Trans people can teach you so much about yourself. By dedicating a week to trans* experiences, we are taking what is normally thought of as a ‘minority’ subject position and universalizing it. Trans* experiences have critiqued the simplistic and dichotomous way we have come to conceptualize gender as male/female and sex as man/woman. Some of us are in ‘committed’ relationships with our lover, but experience intense emotional attachment to our friends. Where does this place us in this simplistic paradigm? We are complicated creatures and don’t fit so narrowly into categories. Trans* experiences allows all of us to think about how suffocating the boxes and categories we get placed into are. Trans* experiences teach us the importance of self-identification and self-realization. We should be able to construct and present our own unique identities, regardless of dominant assumptions of what is ‘right. 

5. Stanford’s Transgender Awareness Week is useful for the Progressive Movement. Beyond Binaries Week is a crucial tactic of college activism. The role of university-based advocacy has been largely under-appreciated in our understandings of social movements and Progressive Movement building. This week is part of the larger national and international struggle to increase awareness and acceptance of trans* identities. The sheer visibility of these events is crucial for our college campuses and future of the Progressive Movement. It is crucial that we educate the future of our nation if we want to dismantle the systems of prejudice that are so pervasive in our current moment.