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Culhane: A dark picture of injustice

February 17th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

“It is part of social and legal convention in the United States to discriminate against, ridicule, and abuse transgender and gender non-conforming people within foundational institutions such as the family, schools, the workplace and health care settings, every day.”

That startling sentence is from the Conclusion to the Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Study issued last week, aptly entitled Injustice at Every Turn. Before I go any further, I need to encourage all of you to read the full Report – or at least the Executive Summary.

The dark picture it paints should disturb anyone concerned about how to achieve full equality and justice for our entire community.

I also invite those in the transgender and gender non-conforming communities to share their experiences – the good as well as the bad – either in the comments to this post, in the Forum linked to this post, or by creating a Forum dedicated to a particular topic of importance to the community.

In a column of this length, it’s impossible to capture the depth and power of this report, undertaken with the support and commitment of the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. (The survey returned more than 7,500 responses from the United States, D.C., Puerto Rico, and two territories.)

So I’m going to offer a few observations in the hope of attracting more attention to this important study, which is likely the best-designed and most comprehensive ever undertaken of the target population(s). More attention should lead to more dialogue and, I dare to hope, the kinds of social and legal changes needed to improve the condition the trans- and gender-non-conforming members of our community.

The first point is borrowed from public health discourse: It’s important to focus on specific populations, because the policy interventions that are needed must be targered in a nuanced and informed way.

The study’s authors were especially sensitive to the complexity of the populations they were dealing with, recognizing that the terms the respondents used to describe themselves are constituitive of their reality. Thus, even though for organizational purposes both NCTE and NGLTF use the term “transgender” to refer to those who identify as “transgender,” “gender-non-conforming” and “cross-dresser,” for purposes of counting survey responses these three groups were sorted out.

Although there’s a great deal of overlap in the issues and challenges these three groups deal with, there are important differences, too. Those differences are only compounded when other categories – most importantly including race – are factored in. It will surprise no one to learn that the first of the Key Findings in the Report is that, while discrimination “was pervasive” throughout the surveyed population, “the combination of anti-transgender bias and persistent, structural racism was especially devastating.” (boldface in original)

Whatever the respondents’ race, their health, wealth, and security status was poor when compared to that of the general population.

Reading through the results and then imagining a typical day in the life of many trans- and gender-non-conforming people left me with a deep sense of empathy, and of injustice. In devastating numbers, they are harassed or physically assaulted in school, not hired or fired because of their non-conformity, denied housing, forced to deal with bureaucracies that resist changing their identification documents to match their lived gender, and thrown out of their family homes. These factors combine to force many to live in extreme poverty.

Suicides and attempted suicides rates are also many times higher than those found in the general population (or even in the larger gay and lesbian communities).

What can be done about this? Again, targeted interventions should yield results.

Consider the following finding as a clue to a possibly useful step: Family support was protective against the worst effects of discrimination. The authors provided a graph that illustrated a stark difference in “threats to well-being” between those who enjoyed support and those who didn’t. (Example: about half of those whose families rejected them had attempted suicide, as opposed to “only” 32% with accepting families.)

But slightly more than half the respondents reported rejection from family because of their non-conformity.

Therefore, programs that provide families and the non-conforming members in them with the tools needed to understand and deal with the acceptance issues can be expected to produce measurably positive results.

As mentioned above, though, 32% attempt suicide even within families that are more accepting. Changes are needed at all levels, but perhaps especially at the state and local levels where administrative policies (such as driver’s license ID issues) and laws hold sway.

From interventions in schools, to laws protecting against discrimination in employment and housing, to training of hospital and police personnel to enable them to deal with the trans-community in a professional way, a battery of approaches (some proven effective, others more novel) will be needed to begin to change the dismal outcomes reported in this study.

It’s not all bleak.

The Report notes the remarkable resiliency of many in the trans-community, despite overwhelming odds. Many of us in the more mainstream gay and lesbian population are lucky enough to know gender non-conforming folks whose blend of determination, painfully acquired wisdom, and (not only dark) humor are as inspiring as they are remarkable.

It might turn out that a few well-placed initiatives will do more good than we might expect.

But this is a sobering report, confirming what we already intuitively knew: Life is very hard for many in the trans-community. I’ll dig more deeply into the details soon. For now, I hope to spur further thought and discussion about how these multi-layered, complex problems might be dealt with.

Not later. Now.

John Culhane is Professor of Law and Director of the Health Law Institute at Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Del. He blogs about the role of law in everyday life, and about a bunch of other things at: http://wordinedgewise.org. and is a contributor to the on-line magazine Slate. He is the editor of and contributor to a just-released book from Cambridge Press, Reconsidering Law and Policy Debates: A Public Health Perspective, now available on Amazon.com.  His chapter is on marriage equality.
  1. marcus99
    February 17th, 2011 at 16:34 | #1

    Discrimination rears its ugly head in many ways. Here’s a story in the reverse of how it normally goes down.

    We were travelling, and having a drink with an old friend of my husband’s. They were catching up about this person and that person – his (and her) life long before me.

    Anyway, the conversation came up about this particular Trans woman. Apparently, she was sitting in a straight bar, minding her own business, but was being repeatedly harassed by a red neck sitting at the bar. Seems all of the bullying, put-downs, rejections, and hassles she had endured boiled over with his (literally) last remark, and she shanked him right on the spot.

    She’s in prison; he’s in the ground.

    Discrimination hurts everyone. The first step; the NOW you are talking about John, is to challenge our own community to stamp out such discrimination (and we all know it exists) and treat everyone within our community as equals. Period. Now.

  2. Tom in Long Beach
    February 17th, 2011 at 16:50 | #2

    If EVERYONE would just do onto others as they would like to be treated… But the religious right would never do that.
    I have to admit that as a gay male I have made and effort to understand the plight of trans people. My pain of feeling some discrimination has given me some sympathy. Live and let live people.

  3. February 17th, 2011 at 17:16 | #3

    Thank you John for bringing this up, I haven’t read the report yet myself but it is good to know there is some good news in there. I particularly appreciate your sensitivity in highlighting the issue of suicide rates in the Trans community, suicide and the issues that lead up to it are a major problem that needs to be dealt with with respect and compassion. In several spots you alluded to perhaps the biggest issue in the Trans community, access to competent respectful mental health care. I feel fortunate to have had access to such care despite my identity as a Transwoman, having that kind of care has saved my life many times. And I appreciate you highlighting the statistic concerning the percent of Transpeople that attempt suicide within accepting families, too often Transpeople are portrayed as either having an accepting family and being perfectly happy or being miserable with no family. My family is in between, not great but they’re into the actually accepting me phase, and I’m reasonably educated I have my bachelors and was working on my masters, despite these fairly good circumstances I fell prey to depression and anxiety severe enough to put me in the hospital several times often after either attempting or contemplating suicide. But as you said many of us are remarkably resilient and I’m proud to say I am one of those, I’ve survived things that would give most people nightmares and continue to deal with the effects of those events long after. Recently an event occurred which added to my stock of nightmarish experiences but afforded me the chance to get it all out, 2 decades worth of trauma and abuse, now as I have so often done I bounce back. If you saw me on the street you wouldn’t be able to tell, even if you figured out I was Trans you wouldn’t be able to guess at the scars beneath my skin, because I smile and laugh I flirt like any other single 20something I shyly say something too quiet to hear or tell an outrageous true story of a time when I put my foot in my mouth to hilarious effect and I’ll walk through the mall smiling at the young kid toddling along with their family and laughing silently as a group of goths try to stare me down since I look like everyone else, they don’t have a clue and I hope they never will.

  4. February 17th, 2011 at 18:02 | #4

    Jeez, the marriage and sex police need to be retired…

    Onward to full marriage and civil rights.

    Joe Mustich, CT Justice of the Peace,
    Washington Green, CT USA

  5. Wayne M.
    February 17th, 2011 at 21:06 | #5

    Sadly, some of the discrimination against Trans people comes from our own community. It is wise for people to remember that LGBT stands for Lesbians, Gay Men, Bisexual persons and Trans-identified (or Transgendered) persons– all EQUAL in our community. It is time we remember an attack on the equality rights of Trans people is an attack on the equality rights of all LGBT people.

  6. randy
    February 17th, 2011 at 23:49 | #6

    We haven’t focused often enough on the T and I people in LGBTI. Thanks for this article.

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