It’s funny, right?

Dave Chappelle – Funny Or Die Oddball To by Anirudh Koul, on Flickr

 

Should I write yet another note to PBS NewsHour? That particular evening show is one of my favorite sources of thoughtful news and reflection on the world around me, but they do occasionally stumble. This evening, they did more than stumble. They waved me aside, and relegated me and people like me to an insignificant footnote.

I wasn’t meant to be a footnote.

When the NewsHour introduced their interview with the comedian Dave Chapelle, they did fleetingly acknowledge that he sometimes mocked transgender people. But having that footnote out of the way, Jeffrey Brown of PBS continued with his interview, with no further reference to this frequent practice by this stand-up comic. Why let this man’s regular practice of humiliating transgender persons get in the way of the bigger story: a comedian’s return to the spotlight? What’s so important about gender identity anyway? After all, there is no human right to a gender identity.

I would guess that even the term “gender identity” remains unfamiliar to many Americans, so speculating about a human right to one’s authentic sense of self is arguably premature. To most people, we’re the sex we were assigned at birth, and the state – which has unquestioned authority in such matters – records the observable fact of our sex. That’s it. Done. We are sexed and then society sets to work on making sure that we are appropriately gendered.

It’s all so obvious – except when it isn’t.

Short of incidents of hate-speech, intentional defamation, or libel, it appears that we also have no specific human right individually or as a group not to be humiliated or made the butt of humor due to who and what we are, even when who and what we are do not constitute choices. Freedom of expression prevails over the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of many marginalized persons, and those affected are supposed to shrug it off.

It’s no big deal – except when it is.

Arguably there do remain some social constraints on abusing the dignity of other persons, which in America we used to call “decency”. That concept may already be anachronistic for large numbers of my fellow citizens, who in 2015 not only tolerated watching then presidential candidate Donald Trump as he crudely mocked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski (who suffers from arthrogryposis), but then went on to vote this person into the highest position of power and trust in the nation. While most of us haven’t forgotten Trump’s appallingly insensitive portrayal of this person with disabilities, we’ve waved it aside. After all, Trump is Trump; he makes it a common practice to assault the dignity of others by using demeaning nicknames, calling human beings “animals”, branding entire ethnicities (presumably just the males) as rapists, and so on. Sure, some of us get upset momentarily, then we let it go, with perhaps a whispered aside about the national “erosion of values”.

So, making fun of some of us is apparently acceptable, or at least one would be forgiven if one reached this conclusion because PBS chose to feature a comic who makes transphobia an integral part of his act.  What are we who are transgender supposed to do? Is there a human right to having one’s dignity recognized and respected?

In fact, yes. Continue reading It’s funny, right?

Madness

Photo: Honore-Daumier-Don-Quixote.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

 

Not too long ago, I took my daughter Audrey to a Washington DC production by the Shakespeare Theatre Company of the play Man of La Mancha. It’s one of my favorite plays, and one that I first saw when I was her age. It is based on the famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, in which an elderly gentleman is deluded into thinking that he is a valiant knight – Don Quixote de la Mancha – who is sworn to uphold the strict moral code of chivalry in a cynical, brutal, violent world that is devoid of such ideals. Although long past the time of armored knights on horseback, he and his faithful squire set out across the plains of La Mancha and the mountains of the Sierra Morena on a madman’s quest, the virtuous and indefatigable champion of a better world.

Madness?

Perhaps, but for many of us Don Quixote is heroic, even if comically soft in the head. Does one need to be certifiably insane to yearn for a world in which decency, honor, love, and bravery speak to a man’s best character? Granted, chivalry is a problematic moral premise, given its machismo ethos, its disdain for the peasantry, and its relegation of women as chaste objects of beauty and purity. Still, considering what values prevailed four hundred years ago when Cervantes wrote this epic novel, chivalry was a monumental step ahead in moral evolution.

My musings are not only literary.

Given the full house at that play’s production, and the fact that this play and the novel itself have such continuing appeal to so many of us, it isn’t too much of a stretch to assert that many people yearn for a less cynical, more principled, more compassionate world…a world, for instance, in which the destruction of the planet’s environment for the sake of short term economic gain (by the few) would be recognized as the starkest madness. Our own children and grandchildren will pay a dreadful price for this morally indefensible position, and it is harrowing to even imagine what we are bequeathing to generations further into the future – if we have such a future at all. We know enough however to imagine such a dire future very clearly – yet still we as a nation respond tentatively, if at all. Madness.

Moral principles are important to me. In my decades of work in less developed countries, I’ve been face-to-face with those who are beset by intense poverty – poverty so grinding and debilitating that it is very hard for Americans to imagine. Still, we have poverty here too, yet despite being an exceptionally wealthy country we watch powerlessly as the gap between rich and poor widens inexorably, while curiously so many poor citizens celebrate a new tax law that exacerbates this trend. Simultaneously, we cut back on foreign aid and humanitarian relief. Then we wonder why the rich get richer and the refugee numbers swell. Madness.

Human rights are important. Human rights describe and set the “bare-bones” threshold conditions for how human beings ought to live, and what governments ought to do to make this happen. Demanding that human rights be taken seriously is to demand governance that is about public service, justice, duty, and empathy – and being morally responsive to the “oughts”. Instead, we see our government unapologetically abuse the most vulnerable people of all – young children – by ripping them from the loving care of their parents, to “discourage” asylum seekers who are desperate for a place of safety – America – where they believed their human rights would be respected. Instead, and acting in our name, we see our government demonstrate astounding callousness, a total lack of empathy, and a disdain for human rights as they use the intense suffering of vulnerable children and their bereft parents to make a political point. This is morally repugnant. This is madness.

America’s president has walked away from our once-celebrated leadership in human rights, to petulantly demand that a vast and expensive border wall be constructed to keep out those persons whose asylum claims are morally sound, and whose hopes, dreams, and needs are very human. Were we instead to spend the wall money on strategically helping to solve the problems that drive people to seek asylum far from their homes, we might see positive changes and a steep decline in asylum seekers. Instead, Trump and his base insist on a wall for us all to hide behind, while the human beings on the other side of that wall unrelentingly suffer. “Not our problem!” Madness.

Gender equality and fairness (equity) is important to me. While Don Quixote would have been ethically challenged to imagine such a thing, we now know better. We are reminded by the example of courageous feminists – women and men – that the principle of human dignity is for all human beings, regardless of gender (or race, or ethnicity, or age, or disability status, or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or…). Yet we have a President who has excused his boasts of sexual assaulting women as “locker room”, a Vice President who is hostile to women’s rights, and an Attorney General who has a long record of opposition to fundamental rights for women. In short, our political leadership undercuts any moral position that would recognize the worth and full humanity of the female half of the country, and of others who are marginalized. Still, more than 51% of white women voted for Trump in 2016. Madness, yet again.

Yes, Don Quixote de la Mancha was almost certainly the victim of a form of insanity. Still, it was an insanity that epitomized humanity’s idealistic struggle for a better world, a world that “ought to be”. I’m more inclined to follow the example of Don Quixote, tilt at the windmills of greed, callousness, ignorance, fear, arrogance, lies, bigotry, hatred, and cynicism, than accept – much less politically celebrate – the feckless, morally bereft leadership that now prevails in our once proud country.

Hopefully the Democrats can find better leadership than a modern version of Don Quixote. Leaders with a clear and transformative moral vision, leaders with a commitment to democracy and public service, leaders who are environmentally intelligent and wise, leaders who actually possess empathy and decency and integrity. Leaders who are sane.

As the November mid-terms approach, as we confront the grim prospects of the nomination (by an illegitimate President) and the confirmation (by a morally spineless Senate majority) of yet another hard-right Supreme Court Justice, and the long-awaited revelations of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation (as Trump heads off to have his summit with Putin), I have to believe that clinging to idealism isn’t madness.

It’s the definition of sanity, and hope.

Existential indifference

Existential, as the word implies, has to do with existence. Our existence.

Indifference is somewhat easier to grasp, since the sentiment of “I really don’t care” is so frequently on common display in America – most recently in large letters on the back of First Lady Melania Trump’s jacket.

Still, it isn’t accurate to say that we simply don’t care about the values, principles, and issues we hold to be important. For many of us, it’s more appropriate to describe our indifference in terms of being overwhelmed, confounded, even laid low by a comprehensive, intense, and unrelenting assault on those very values, principles, and issues that we once defined ourselves by. The hyper-nationalist, increasingly authoritarian, and deeply divisive discourse, policies, and direction in this country, as well as in once democratic (or quasi-democratic) countries like Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Turkey have grave consequences. We watch as Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam all sink deeper into authoritarianism. We see global inequalities rise more precipitously than ever before.

What does it take for ordinary citizens to withstand such a torrent of outrageous, destructive, self-serving, corrupt, often callous, and sometimes evil policies, actions, sentiments, language, and assumptions – and their dire consequences? What kind of ideologies can drive such disarray?

In the United States, labeling the politics of Trump, Pence, and Sessions as “ideologies” presumes a coherence, intelligence, and intentionality that would have to be more strategic and inspired than what we are confronting, yet the danger is no less real. Existential, even.

So, what’s the threat?

Well, the list is long…we could start (in no particular order) with human dignity and human rights. Trump regularly refers to human beings in language that denies any shared moral commitment to universal human dignity. He describes immigrants infesting our country, and members of the notorious  MS-13 drug gang as “animals”. Human beings do not “infest”, and even hardened MS-13 gang members are still human beings (after all, we seek to prosecute those who are proven to be criminals because we hold that all human beings – and not animals – are obligated to act morally and in compliance with just laws). Even Hillary Clinton’s election campaign indiscretion of labeling some Trump supporters as “deplorables” spoke about their racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamaphobic values, not their lack of human dignity. Trump, Pence, and Sessions have similarly ganged up to humiliate, malign, and deny the equal dignity and rights of between 4,000 and 10,000 patriotic US active-duty and reserve transgender military service members, not to mention those transgender persons who are aspiring recruits. The transgender phenomenon seems particularly troublesome to these and many other Republicans, as they also have acted to deny basic equal human rights and legal protections to transgender students, and to push back on transgender people accessing essential health care. Obviously in their eyes, some of us – including people just like me – are not quite human enough.

A second casualty of the current assault is truth itself. We have a president who seems to be incapable, or at least indisposed, to be truthful. Trump is on the record in saying that lying in public is acceptable. He lives this belief every day; the cascade of lies is nearly beyond the best fact-checkers’ capability to count that high. With truth so battered and eroded, day after day, we finally grow numb, even indifferent. We grow complacent, no longer expecting truth from those elected in positions of public trust. What’s “public trust”? A quaint notion, it seems.

A third casualty is compassion. This administration equates compassion with leniency, weakness, and a lack of virility. We’ve had the most graphic example this past week in the boldly callous Trump policy of separating the children of immigrants charged with illegal crossings along our southern border. The reality of innocent, vulnerable, distraught, traumatized young children and even toddlers being ripped away from their parents’ arms does not appear to elicit a scintilla of care, concern, or compassion from Trump, Pence, Sessions, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, or White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. Most Republicans in Congress demonstrate their own callousness by their silence. Continue reading Existential indifference

“Not acceptable”

Back in early June 2016, I posted a memorial blog about the tragic and violent deaths on April 25th of that year of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, two remarkably brave and courageous Bangladeshi human rights defenders. They had fearlessly asserted through launching Bangladesh’s first LGBTQI magazine, Roopbahn, that the dignity and human rights of all Bangladeshis – not just those who are straight and cisgender – ought to be respected.

For that audacity, they paid a dreadful price.

This past week, I had the privilege of hearing a presentation from an openly gay Bangladeshi man who’d been a friend to these two men. Now Ahmed is here in this country, pursuing two ambitions. First, he’s sharing a remarkable exhibition of photographs (including the one above) to remind the world that justice remains unfulfilled for those who viciously took the lives of Xulhaz and Tonoy. Second, Ahmed wishes to have some hope for his own future – not to forsake his friends and family back home, but to find a safe space from which he can use his art and his voice to open the eyes of the world to the strident and unforgiving intolerance of his native land. He’s seeking asylum from those who would do him – and possibly his family and friends back home – great harm, because in their culture people like him are not acceptable.

“Not acceptable” is a perilous place to find oneself. Most of us who came to his presentation last week have looked that accusation straight in the eye ourselves, repeatedly, although seldom at the risk of violence or death.  For us, being “not acceptable” is even more abrasive when those holding such views are so unshakably self-righteous about their bias, and when they are empowered to bend the institutions of government to inflict harm on those marginalized groups who dare to express their integrity of self. The Bangladeshi government is now on the offensive, and since the brutal murder of Bangladesh’s two LGBTQI leaders, the movement has been forced to adopt a low profile. Not low enough, however; “not acceptable” asserted itself yet again last year when on May 19th an elite security force with the arguably glamorous name of the Rapid Action Battalion arrested 27 young gay men who’d gathered discreetly at a community center in Dhaka.

“Not acceptable” is rough company to keep. In 1995, well before I came out as openly transgender, I was working in Durban, South Africa. Nelson Mandela had recently become president, and the country was in a state of tectonic change and unsettling uncertainty. Many white South Africans felt great fear, as the historically subjugated black population rose up proudly to take their place in building the new Rainbow Nation. It all came into painfully sharp focus for me one evening; I was riding in an elevator filled only with whites (mostly older white South African men) who spontaneously struck up a loud, boorish, and unashamedly racist conversation about President Mandela and his supporters in the African National Congress (ANC). The simple assumption of this crowded elevator’s white passengers was that I was in solidarity with their views, because I too am white. The realization of this presumed fellowship sickened me. I pushed the emergency stop button, and when all eyes turned to me all I could say was “shame!”. I then pushed the button for the next floor, exited the completely silent lift, and left them to stew in their own fear-induced prejudices.

“Not acceptable” isn’t only about race, same-sex orientation, or transgender identity. I’ve also directly experienced “not acceptable” being regularly employed as a judgment by many men here in my own country as they exploited all-male meetings and gatherings (of which there are many) to make frequent sexist (and often wildly misogynist) comments deriding and disparaging women. Unlike my cisgender sisters, I’ve spent much of my life embodied as a man; I haven’t forgotten what I heard and saw. I know all too well the coarse and objectifying ways that so many men routinely feel at liberty to demean women and girls. As troubling as that banter is, what bothers me even more is the relegation of existential, urgent issues such as gender inequality, gender-based violence, and even violence against children as “women’s issues”. To this day, men are barely present among those who labor tirelessly to achieve progress toward gender equality and fairness among all genders. Continue reading “Not acceptable”

On thin ice

I can’t remember the last time I saw someone fall through the ice. Given that my high school and college years were spent in upstate New York, there’s little doubt that I’ve seen such a thing, but somehow watching this happen again yesterday – several times – transfixed me.

Saturday January 20th was auspicious – Year #2 for the Women’s March in Washington and around the world. So I probably should’ve been paying more attention to the many “big name” speakers up there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in the heart of my city. Thousands of people (yes, mostly women) gathered around the Reflecting Pool, which was covered with ice from our long bout of extreme cold weather. Yesterday, however, the sun baked down and the temperatures soared. A few of those gathered chose to wander out onto the ice… and in time, a few of them fell through.

Their mishaps were little more than uncomfortably cold brief embarrassments; the water was barely deeper than their knees. Still, it offered an apt metaphor to where my thoughts had wandered. As I mused on their icy exploits, speaker after speaker exhorted us to redouble our resistance, to mobilize in strength for the upcoming midterm elections, to “do politics – or else politics will do you”. I knew they were preaching to the choir – we were there because we’re the committed ones. Still, even our staunch commitment had limits; the speeches were too many, too long, and most of us wandered off after the speeches had droned on for well over an hour past the official march start time. So technically I did not march yesterday, but the afternoon was well spent and reinforcing; at this stage I will take whatever solidarity I can find. Living in Trump’s Washington is dispiriting in the extreme, and the harshly cold winter has only exacerbated the misery – and the alarm.

After all, we’re walking on thin ice. Our democracy itself is in peril, as most in Congress prove – yet again – to be ineffectual or inept, unprincipled or simply opportunistic. It’s hard to find a positive narrative as I watch the U.S. Government shut down again, irrefutable evidence that our legislators cannot perform the most fundamental task that they were sent there to do – pass a budget. Living in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., I know that so many of my neighbors who are hard-working, vastly under-appreciated federal civil servants or foreign service officers will again feel that they’re pawns in a cruel and unnecessary game. Continue reading On thin ice

Distracted.

It’s becoming progressively more difficult to persist in enjoying my longstanding daily ritual of reading the Washington Post, particularly when juxtaposed with the increasing number of desperate email messages and Facebook communications coming to me from Kakuma, Kenya.

It’s 7,209 miles from this frigid winter in Washington to that baking hot refugee camp in Turkana County in Kenya’s northwest – a formidable distance to be sure – but we now appear to be planets apart.  The United States of America, the world’s most powerful and wealthiest country, now wallows, disempowered. We are transfixed and immobilized by the latest daily disclosures of our broken presidential governance, and the alarming tally of damage it is doing to us as a nation and to our place in the world. Trump commands news cycle after news cycle, and the plight of the rest of the world barely warrants a mention.

It wasn’t always so. Until quite recently in fact, the care, compassion, and generosity of Americans was evident in our internationalism, our staunch (if still inadequate) commitment to foreign assistance, our stand on human rights, the hard and selfless work of our Peace Corps Volunteers abroad, and our solidarity with human rights defenders. All have been weakened in the era of Trump. Yes, even before Trump it should have been much better – too frequently we chose to let the State Department justify funding of very narrow “strategic targets” at the expense of sustainable development. While the truly urgent demands of humanitarian emergencies still command some attention among American policy makers and among individual and non-profit donors, the level of funding remains woefully inadequate.

And that’s for the emergencies.

What about the chronic needs of the more than 35 million refugees (80% of whom are women and children) currently in camps in more than 125 countries? What about the nearly 180,000 refugees at the Kakuma refugee camp? What about the approximately 200 refugees at that camp who happen to be LGBTQI? But then again, why should we care about 200 sexual and gender minority refugees in northwestern Kenya (95% of whom are Ugandan)  compared to the needs of 35 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world?

We should care because they are all human beings. We should care as a way of respecting their human dignity – and the universality of human dignity. We should care because we can afford to care, financially, with such caring (were it to be properly funded) imposing an almost negligible impact on our relatively comfortable quality of life . We should care because there at Kakuma, but for the grace of God, you or I could now be one of those 200. Yet the grace of God shines brightly in each one of them, in their courageous resilience in the face of enormous hardship, and in the strength and clarity of their voices reaching out to me, and to us all. I cherish each one of their messages, although I feel deep discomfort in my relative inability to offer them any meaningful support. Continue reading Distracted.

Erased, by presidential decree

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” This statement in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 was challenging the first time I read it, many years ago, but I never imagined that the words being destroyed would be about particular human beings. Human beings who are like …

Me.

In the latest in the incessant deluge of outrage upon offense upon indignity, the Trump administration has dictated that I be made invisible – at least in official documents being prepared by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as part of next year’s budget process. Yes, the word transgender is no longer permitted, as are six other presumably highly provocative words: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, fetus, evidencebased and science-based.

In some ways I feel that as Chloe, I’ve only just arrived, so it is unsettling now to find myself about to be erased. Have I been getting too complacent, having managed to get my name, gender marker, passport, drivers’ license, and even birth certificate all formally changed to become “Chloe” and “female”? None of those documents employ the word transgender, so why should I be concerned if President Trump has launched yet another flagrant attack against transgender folk? Will the next words to be banned include “Latina” or “African-American”. No matter – we’ll still each have our names and numbers. Right?

We’ll only be losing our identity.

There is no specific human right to be yourself. Part of being myself includes owning the fact that I was born into a male body and was once classified as a male, but I’ve yet to hear of anyone who ever argued the need for a specific human right to recognize that fact of one’s birth. We exist, and we exist as male or female. Except when we don’t.

Now I (blissfully) inhabit a female body, and am officially accepted by law as a woman – but only fully so in 19 states within these United States. The majority of U.S. states and of the world’s countries either refuse fully to accept people such as me, or they make it nearly impossible bureaucratically to transition to one’s authentic gender. Here in Maryland, I am Chloe, a woman who was never a girl, and I am transgender. I don’t walk around holding a placard stating this identity, but I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to be transgender. It is what it is; the journey across the gender binary (the absurd presumption of a binary itself being highly contentious) has been grueling and enormously difficult. But I’m here now. I have every reason to expect my own government to acknowledge my identity in this critically descriptive context – and I bristle at the notion that the White House would act to impose barriers in accessing government-funding for CDC programs affecting transgender persons. Health programs.

Being made invisible is the starting point for dehumanization. In my on-going work at ICRW on social inclusion around the world, I see so many countries with laws that make it impossible for transgender persons to exist in any legal, economic, social, or political way. When you show up as a potential employee, tenant, voter, patient, bank account applicant, airline passenger, or even taxpayer and your official documents describe a person who is not you – by name or gender – you have the door slammed in your face. Again and again. You’re left to survive on the street, through informal employment if you can find it, perhaps as a sex worker if you are young. You cannot get official identity documents that descibe you, as you know yourself to be. So your choices are few, and your chances of having your human dignity acknowledged – must less respected – are scant. Continue reading Erased, by presidential decree

Less than One Percent

We live in a time of political triage, and in an environment characterized by blatant sexism and misogyny. It takes very little mental effort to know what that overlap generates – and where our laws, public policies, and politics choose to focus. Even with human rights, human dignity, and civility in the balance, we conclude that we cannot do it all. Through the fierce logic of cost-benefit utilitarian thinking, we decide to do what will benefit the greatest number at the least cost, with weight on the scales by the powerful elite interests. The issues that remain – the sea of waving petitions of the aggrieved – are simply deferred to an ill-defined future date, ignored, or swept aside. Not even self-interest will necessarily prevail; consider the 62% of white, non-college educated women who became Trump voters, surprisingly placing theirs and other women’s dignity and equality as a lower priority. But then we also live in a time where many of us are resigned to accept the way things are as being immutable, and a byproduct of the allegedly inherent self-serving nature of human beings (again, as reinforced by capitalist economics notions).

Until the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

Are we at a unique tipping point in our social norms? It’s still much too early to say, but any optimism that the age of gender equality and equity is fast approaching must be tempered by the recognition that men’s sexual harassment of women has been the norm throughout all of recorded history (except that such sexual harassment and violence has rarely been considered sufficiently noteworthy to be recorded). One need only reflect on the many people who were aware but who tolerated (or were compelled to stay silent about) the reprehensible behavior that was the standard operating procedure by Mr. Weinstein over more than three decades. So many powerful men have been called to account in the weeks that have followed; one might just dare to feel a twinge of vindication, a lightness in one’s step…but perhaps not yet.

Sexual harassment is, of course, but one form in the panoply of gendered manifestations of abuse of power and violence directed against women, girls, and marginalized persons which those of us in the feminist research world classify under the umbrella term “gender based violence” (GBV). That’s an especially large umbrella, with as many at 35% of the world’s women (or more than 1.3 billion female persons, for those who are moved by exceptionally large numbers) being subjected to sexual or physical violence in their lives – a fundamental disrespect of universal dignity and a gross violation of human rights. The most graphic examples of GBV consist of physical violence and emotional abuse – domestic violence, intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, honor killings, forced and unwanted sex, early and forced marriage, female genital cutting, human trafficking, and the gendered deprivation of resources and rights. The vast majority of the perpetrators of such GBV enjoy impunity, either because those victimized remain silent (for many valid reasons), or because the rule-of-law and cultural institutions of governance almost always place a low priority on dealing with GBV. Is there an element of triage in choosing what kinds of crimes to prosecute? Or are certain human beings simply not deemed to be as important: women, girls, and marginalized persons? The fact that this victimized population constitutes more than half of humanity ought to be statistically significant, but such is not the case. Continue reading Less than One Percent

Beyond Abstractions: Confronting Trans-Directed Violence

Note: This blog first appeared on November 20th, 2017 on the Ms. Magazine blog site, and can be directly accessed there at:

http://msmagazine.com/blog/2017/11/20/beyond-abstractions-confronting-trans-directed-violence/

 

Gender-based violence (GBV) is no abstraction.

GBV’s impacts are grievous, debilitating—and can be fatal.  Women and girls are most often the victims of GBV, and by far the majority of perpetrators are men and boys. The fact that GBV is dramatically split along gender lines is disturbing—but for those of us who identify as feminist researchers, we feel fully committed to studying GBV, determining the most effective prevention practices and discerning the best ways to support victims.

We already know a great deal about the prevention of GBV and how to care for those affected. We just don’t know how to stop it. But opening up the conversation on trans-directed GBV may lead us to new and much-needed solutions.

The transgender community is largely synonymous with the experience of gender-based stigma, humiliation, bigotry, exclusion and violence—violence that is physical, situational and structural. Transgender persons are often the lightning rod for GBV—but why? As a transgender woman myself, it lies beyond my comprehension to understand how our personal claims to our authentic sense of identity serve to trigger such widespread extremes of violence. We’re simply being ourselves, and our authenticity brings little if any direct harm to anyone else.

My consciousness of GBV as it affects the transgender and gender non-conforming population is heightened at this time of the year. Around the world, November 20th is commemorated as Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). For those of us who are transgender, it’s a somber day of reflection and sorrow. Yet TDOR is also a day of solidarity, validation and sensitivity to context.

We know from the many stories shared within our community that those who are remembered today suffered not only a truncated, and frequently grisly, end to their lives, but that they experienced violence and exclusion on a daily basis, for years or even decades. That pervasive ostracization forms the backdrop—as well as the enabler—of so many incidents of acute, debilitating, tragic violence directed at the transgender community, also referred to as trans-directed GBV.

It’s not easy to talk about. By sharing GBV accounts through anecdotal narratives, we tend to elicit either puzzlement or pity. Those who are puzzled often simply can’t relate to such suffering. Those who express care and concern think of transgender people as sad, powerless and marginalized. “Marginal” isn’t a good place to be, and this simplified narrative leaves transgender persons with little hope for change.

Trans-directed GBV comes from a place of rejecting otherness and maintaining foundational gender norms within society. The gender binary, and the unassailable assignment of sex and gender at birth, are central planks in that platform. In so many ways and often with self-righteousness, society staunchly polices that most inflexible societal barrier.

Gender, sex and the panoply of associated gender roles drives a wedge into the heart of our humanity. At its most benign, that policing is a form of structural violence forcing transgender persons to confront ridicule and humiliation, assaults upon our dignity and the comprehensive loss of opportunity and choice in our lives. The doors to a meaningful and dignified life are closed to us, and in most countries, our authentic gender identity is officially repudiated. We become invisible—with no legal, economic, political or social recognition of the names and gender identity that we know ourselves to be.

For many of us, that bleak scenario is simply unbearable. Yet to deny our authentic gender identity would be more unbearable. Yes, the daily reality of living lives of exclusion, stigmatization, rejection and violence is bad—but not as bad as living a lie every day. For many of us, life in the wrong body is wrenching. We transition because we must. We feel a deeply-rooted compulsion to live life as ourselves, despite it all.

“Despite it all” is a heavy package. The anecdotal evidence backs this up, but there’s been very little support for establishing solid data. What happens to us really doesn’t have a measurable impact on the larger society. We’re few in number, estimated now to be just 0.6 per cent of the adult population in the U.S. Decision-makers will argue that there are more important issues towards which we should direct precious research dollars. It’s a common assertion, yet transgender persons offer singular insights into the meaning of gender that are relevant to people everywhere. Our “curious” status may offer an opening to learn more about the causes of GBV, as this affects both us and the cisgender population. Were we to be taken seriously, our sense of gender identity might even shed some light on the path to universal gender equity.

However, we’re rarely taken seriously, at least not in the sense of having our human dignity and worth respected. Arguably, the most reliable current source of data is the U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS) of 2015, which included responses from nearly 28,000 persons above the age of 17 who identify as transgender within the U.S. That’s large for a survey—certainly the largest survey ever to capture the lived experiences of transgender persons.

The results of the USTS tells a powerful story of trans-directed violence, one of the deeply entrenched structural violence faced by the transgender community every day. The USTS notes that 14 percent of transgender respondents in 2015 were unemployed, and 29 percent were living in poverty, compared to 5 percent and 14 percent respectively within the larger U.S. population. The psychological impacts of encountering exclusion and stigma each and every day are harsh, with 39 percent of respondents, compared to just 5 percent of the U.S. population, saying that they experienced deep psychological distress.

The USTS bears witness to the reality that—over time—these levels of distress are unsustainable. 40 percent of respondents admitted to having attempted suicide in their lifetime. This rate is almost nine times the attempted suicide rate in the general U.S. population—4.6 percent. The data from the USTS is even worse for transgender persons of color, with attempted suicide rates cited at an alarming 54 percent.

For transgender persons now, and for all those who stand in solidarity to commemorate TDOR each year, we must move forward. Research must be carried out with respect and should include transgender participants. And funding is vital as we aim to get to the roots of trans-directed GBV, moving us all towards solutions based in a greater understanding of diversity.

The precious notion of universal human dignity and human rights demand nothing less.

Chloe Schwenke is the Director of the Global Program for Violence, Rights and Inclusion at the International Center for Research on Women. Previously, she served as Vice President for Global Programs at Freedom House and in the dual role of Senior Advisor on Human Rights at the Africa Bureau and Senior Advisor on LGBT issues globally at USAID during the Obama administration—becoming the first-ever openly transgender political appointee in the federal foreign affairs agencies. Chloe received her Ph.D. in Public Policy at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Raw

It was 1979, and my first year in my new home in Nairobi. I’d audaciously (or foolishly) arrived in Kenya with no job and very little money, yet the job offers had come quickly. I’d soon found a modest place in which to live, and an old VW Beetle to drive. I was settling in and learning all that I could, quite unaware that an entire decade of life, work, adventure, and learning in Kenya was to unfold before me. So much learning ahead…

The lessons were plentiful, and among my most memorable early awakenings came from reading the local paper. The Nairobi Standard’s report that caught my eye was about a rousing debate in Kenya’s Parliament on a bill that sought to make polygamy legal. Already a widespread traditional practice in Kenya, the bill was designed to codify certain protections for the many wives a man might acquire, and it included one provision that was interpreted as a denial of a husband’s “traditional right” to beat his wife. MPs rose to protest indignantly. One of them, Hon. Kimunai arap Soi, said something that I’ve never forgotten: “It is very African to teach women manners by beating them.”

The newspaper article was jocular in tone, and more than a little condescending. Men drinking their early morning coffee in downtown Nairobi were quite amused. On the street in Nairobi some women even agreed, asserting that they would not believe in their husband’s love if he were not “strict” with them. I was left perplexed and disoriented; I struggled to reconcile this new information about social norms in East Africa in contrast to what my life had taught me up to that point. Had I known then what I know now (or had I been then who I am now) I probably would’ve taken note far earlier of the pervasive culture of sexism around me. I might have wondered why Kenya’s parliament at that time was 168 men and just 4 women. But that was 1979; back then I didn’t perceive much of that, despite my liberal middle class American upbringing. Still, I was astounded by what I read. I should have been outraged.

Everyone should have been outraged.

Of course the bill went down to defeat, and it took almost 36 more years – until May of 2015 – before some legal protection for Kenyan wives passed that chamber to become law. Despite that relatively recent milestone, women in Kenya and throughout Africa continue to routinely face wife-beating and other forms of domestic violence. Traditional norms will not be transformed quickly in cultures where women have been cast in a rigidly subordinate role for millennia.

To most Americans Kenya is far away, yet the issues are hardly remote. On August 26th I read a Washington Post article by Elizabeth Winkler about a graduate student named Alice Wu who is poised to begin her doctoral studies at Harvard. Ms. Wu will do well; she’s already established herself as an ingenious, resourceful, and highly motivated researcher. Ms. Wu used her statistical and computer skills to analyze over a million postings on an anonymous online site, Economics Job Market Rumors, to determine how women are currently talked about within the profession of economics.  She used a clever method to  isolate hard data on what was widely known anecdotally, but never before described in any empirical, robust way. Now we know. Thanks to Ms. Wu, it has become empirically clear that sexism and gender-based discrimination within the profession of economics is egregious, rampant, and remarkably crude.  In short, women within economics (or aspiring to be) are looked at, talked about, and described by many of their male counterparts (yes, even the Millennials) in ways that make it an irrefutable fact that the dignity of such women is not respected.

So much for the cherished notion of “universal” human dignity. Continue reading Raw