Trump’s transphobic attack is deeper than definitions

October 25, 2018

The Trump administration is escalating its attacks on transgender people — and the left has a duty to not only resist, but put forward a positive vision, writes Fainan Lakha.

SHOCK AND sickness produced a heaviness in my body that kept me pinned me under the covers all Sunday.

Moments after waking up that morning, I saw the notification on my partner’s phone. There among the night’s e-mails and missed messages, one word stood out with urgency: “transgender.”

By now, many people have read and responded, in words and actions, to the New York Times article revealing a Trump administration memo that directs federal agencies to “define sex as male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with,” the Times reported.

But as I scanned the article in an anxious rush, all I could feel was a void left in place of the expectation of a comfortable Sunday spent with my partner. All I could feel was myself coming apart as my limbs drifted further and further from me.

A demonstration for trans equality in front of the White House
A demonstration for trans equality in front of the White House (ACLU)

The administration memo was a reminder of that precarious knowledge: that to be out in the world is, for me, not a right.

ACCORDING TO the Times, “the Department of Health and Human Services is spearheading an effort to establish a legal definition of sex” under federal civil rights law that rolls back decisions made by the Obama administration to recognize that gender is not defined by the sex assigned at birth.

The Times headline for the article — “‘Transgender’ could be defined out of existence under Trump administration” — was itself problematic, in that trans people are not at risk of being “defined out of existence.” Our existence is a fact and will never be up for question — just as systematic oppression, marginalization, violence, exclusion and the constant questioning of our legitimacy are also facts of trans existence.

But in a way, that language about being “defined out of existence” — which could also be found at the Guardian, Washington Post and Reuters — reveals the precise intentions of the Trump administration.

The project of erasing trans life from public consciousness depends, above all, on the notion that our existence is a matter of debate that can be resolved by appealing to some unquestionable formula, rooted in a warped sense of “biology” — by identifying the genitals one is born with, through some imagined genetic test that could clarify the matter, if necessary.

Besides the fact that “sex characteristics” are expressed very differently in different bodies, even when those bodies have been grouped under the categories of “male” and “female” — and besides the fact of the existence of intersex persons — the very idea that social rights can be determined by a false binary created through an assessment of genitalia at birth is absurd enough to make clear how politically motivated any discussion of the invalidity of trans life really is.

Though the full legal implications of the administration memo are unclear, it will doubtless give further license to transphobes, especially those with power over trans lives.

According to the Times, Title IX civil rights law is to be enforced in a way that will allow federal institutions to permit discrimination against trans people in hiring, cases of sexual harassment, access to housing and education and protection from hate crimes. As trans activist Evan Greer wrote, the memo “allows for government-enforced poverty and homelessness.”

There is precedent in the courts that understands “sex discrimination” to include discrimination against trans people, so there may be limits to the overall scope and effectiveness of the memo.

But for right now, trans activist and legal advocate Dean Spade rightly warns that administration officials will feel greater confidence to act in completely discriminatory ways — just as they have with regard to immigrants and detention centers. Spade writes:

In areas where there has not been a clear definition or policy regarding how gender is established or changed, these plans could create a norm that keeps trans people out of basic services and makes us more vulnerable to discrimination and violence. In areas where advocacy has led to improved policies, it could roll those back. Trans people could see renewed and enhanced barriers in health care, education, employment, ID and other key areas.

In other words, the Trump administration’s actions are part of a social battle over trans equality, over our communities’ access to society as a whole. The intent of the attack is to push us into the shadows, out of our jobs and our neighborhoods, and out of whatever sense of security we might have achieved after decades of struggle in the LGBT and feminist movements.

ISSUES PERTAINING to trans oppression go to the basic question of participation in broader society.

Prior to this, the Trump administration had already rescinded protections for students in public schools seeking to use the bathroom that best corresponds to their gender. In North Carolina, a 2016 bill barred transgender people from using bathrooms that don’t match their birth certificate.

What is at stake here is not merely a choice between rooms, but a fight over whether trans people should have the ability to go out in public space.

The memo further extends the attempt to exclude into basic needs — in particular, housing and jobs.

One in five trans people has experienced homelessness, and one in four trans people have lost a job due to discrimination. For many trans women and trans femmes of color, the threats of police violence and sexual violence are constant.

Statistics attest to the rates of sexual violence against incarcerated trans people, the number of trans women murdered just this year, lack of access to health care and disproportionate levels of poverty — all of which points to the same thing: trans people, and particularly trans people of color, suffer uniquely in the degree to which marginalization is experienced.

On a cultural and ideological level, there have been significant gains in terms of inclusion and recognition of our community since what Time magazine referred to in 2014 as a “transgender tipping point” in awareness and recognition of trans people in broader society.

These gains have meant a profound change in mainstream willingness to accept transgender people. Clearly, this has not meant a change in safety and stability for all trans people, but the recent attacks by the Trump administration indicate the growing far right’s intense desire to reverse the situation.

IN RECENT years, the movement for trans inclusion has become a rallying point for a growing far right.

For those with reactionary politics, complicated social issues can be explained in terms of the “decay” of traditional institutions like the family — and particularly the stability of male identity, which is all the more urgent for the right in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Trans rights are a paradigmatic case of ideological and cultural gains, and are thus highlighted for attack. In this sense, a political strategy undergirds the attacks we face, rooted in the questioning of the legitimacy of trans identity, as well as its presentation as a threat.

As trans socialist Alyssa Pariah argued recently, to the extent that the Trump administration is unable to live up to its promises, issues which can bind and cohere a base around questions like trans rights and abortion become increasingly important.

One feature of conservative politics in the U.S. has always been a desire to impose control on people’s bodies, whether that be through security, policing or abrogating the right to bodily self-determination. The Trump memo can be seen as an instruction on how the state might determine and restrict people’s rights based on their bodies.

All this rests on the premise that the state has the right to know about people’s bodies in the first place. And then, of course, there is the limitation of access to medical resources, which directly inhibits people’s right to modify their body however they like.

This is quite close to the way that the right turns the bodies of many cis women and other people who can get pregnant into a battlefield through the fight over abortion. The conclusion to draw is that bodily autonomy is integral to all fights against gender oppression.

Marxist feminists Tithi Bhattacharya and Sue Ferguson have written about how capital has an interest in producing and regulating bodies of a certain kind.

They write that the trans impetus to manipulate our bodies with hormones or surgeries reflects a “prioritizing [of] life over capital” and a resistance against the way that capitalism finds cis bodies to be cheaper to produce and regulate through “psycho-social investment in the heterosexist, cis-gendered norms.”

Looked at this way, the defense of trans rights has something quite important to say about what socialist liberation might mean. Although it is not the same as freedom itself, the right to modify one’s body in whatever way one chooses is an exercise in self-ownership that stands in direct tension to capitalism’s constant appropriation of bodies that labor.

AS I absorbed the news about the Trump administration memo last Sunday, I turned my head into my partner’s shoulder and squeezed, and she squeezed back, hard enough to keep my rib cage from coming apart, hard enough to protect my heart and lungs.

Maybe this feeling — of dissipating, of dissolving — will be familiar to my trans siblings. It is easier to ignore one’s body this way.

I ask myself sometimes why I seek out this oblivion. It’s not quite right to say that it is simply because “my existence isn’t recognized.” Perhaps it is that I am indeed recognized — just continually and violently mis-recognized. This leaves me with an incessant tension that takes and takes, leaving me exhausted.

This is the feeling that encroaches when I sense eyes upon me, when I raise my gaze to meet them or ignore the looks and scurry past, when my moments of confidence and beauty feel stolen by the words of a passerby. It is the sense of alienation born of the knowledge that what I am is not what I am for so many people.

On Sunday, I stayed in bed, ignored my phone and missed a brilliant protest with a number of trans organizers as speakers. Many of my trans friends, acquaintances and ex-lovers posted photos. I would have liked solace of knowing that the protest had happened, but knowing I wasn’t there only left me emptier.

But as I write, I am also excited and hopeful. A new socialist movement is being born, and my sincere hope is that we can respond to this attack, and all attacks against trans people, with the force of the largest working-class movement we can build.

Still, trans lives are being turned into a battlefield at a time when the gains of our movement continue to rest on precarious foundations.

LIBERALISM ISN’T equipped to respond effectively to the kind of reactionary politics we are seeing, and it is therefore the responsibility of the left to take the defense of trans life seriously.

Many articles since the administration memo was revealed have offered wonderful advice on how to better treat the trans people around us, and how to support direct services for the most vulnerable. But it’s also important for the left to focus on more than just mitigating existing oppression. We have to fight for something better.

The multiculturalism put forward by the mainstream Democratic Party is a paltry response to the profoundly social forms of oppression experienced by the trans community. The kinds of solutions that could make the most substantial changes in people’s lives — affordable housing, free education, free and universal access to health care — are the kind of things for which only the left can assume responsibility.

But “universalist” demands alone aren’t enough, either to truly change the circumstances of trans people, or to build an emancipated, socialist society.

Medicare For All must guarantee the right to all medical treatments requested by trans people — including facial feminization surgery, for example, a procedure which is almost never covered. Public works projects must come along with a serious commitment to hire all, and not repeat the employment segregation that accompanied the New Deal of the 1930s. The same goes for housing and education.

All these require a particular attentiveness and commitment to the interests of trans people that goes beyond providing a universal right.

Trans people also have a stake in other fights — against police brutality, immigrant detention centers and border violence, for example — not only for these struggles to be effective, but also for the socialist movement to mean more than the distribution of social resources.

An analysis which understands these linkages is crucial, but so is a sense of solidarity that goes beyond tactical considerations.

Working class agency is the crucial lever for exercising this kind of power — and here, a fight for the inclusion of trans people and their struggles in our unions is important. In my union, I’m working to get a resolution passed in support of trans people and against the Trump administration action.

And in terms of the socialist movement, an awareness of trans issues must shape the propaganda that we put forward, and we must make sure candidates that we stand or support be prepared to not only respond effectively when there is a threat, but also articulate a positive vision, whenever possible in conjunction with the demands of trans activists.

The possibilities for our bodies and our lives are limited under capitalism. The socialist impulse is to fundamentally change this condition.

Those of us who are trans are often people who so can’t bear the weight of this constraint on our very bodies that we live in a way which subjects us to further oppression. That impulse is, however, one that doesn’t solely belong to us.

A socialist emancipation will have to be an emancipation from the way capitalism organizes gender and alienates our bodily life. Toward that end, the defense of trans life must be a principle for the movement that we today seek to build.

Thanks to Rachel Himes for her help with this article.

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