“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 …
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, evidence–based 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.
I’ve been some way down that path, having been fired by my employer when I transitioned gender, and finding myself struggling to get by on an irregular patchwork of small consulting assignments that never really paid the bills. I have a doctoral degree and decades of experience, but my status as a transgender woman in those days (only ten years ago) saw me evicted from doctor’s offices, refused job opportunities, and comprehensively stigmatized. Such was my life until the phone rang one day, and 14 months later I was a political appointee of the Obama administration at USAID – and the very first openly transgender political appointee in the federal foreign affairs establishment. For the first time in American history, and arguably the first time in world history, being transgender was no longer necessarily a liability.
Times have changed. President Trump’s targeting of transgender service members is already an integral part of his cruel legacy of discrimination and division, and we know where he stands on accepting our place within the American fabric. He (and presumably his base of supporters) would like us to be gone, and now his administration is moving ahead to make it so. Banning the word transgender is but the next logical step, and much easier and less expensive than making us wear declarative armbands or having us impounded somewhere out of the way. Just make us go away – administratively. But do it where it matters – in the allocation of the budget. In the expenditure of my taxes. On matters of health.
I’m not inclined to disappear quietly. I love being Chloe, a woman. I love my place in the sisterhood, the acceptance I enjoy from family, friends, my co-workers, and the members of my Quaker meeting. And while I revel and find deep meaning in my fulfilled femininity, I never forget the journey that got me here. Many of us – in fact perhaps most of us – who are transgender never find the wholeness and acceptance that I have been blessed to achieve. The hill is too steep, society too unforgiving, the financial and emotional costs too high, the mental anguish too unbearable, the violence we encounter too devastating. But now all of us who are transgender Americans find that we have a government that wishes we would be gone.
It is confounding that this should be so. Our authenticity – where we place ourselves along the gender continuum – may make many cisgender persons uncomfortable, but we cause no harm to them. We ask but one thing – that we be accepted as equal human beings. Which of course means the recognition of the transgender phenomenon as something real, something that happens and that has always been there, something that makes us just a little different. That difference is not “fake news”. It may even be a blessing, if we come to embrace human diversity and all the gifts and insights that diverse human beings bring to the United States and to the world.
Oh yes, diversity is also a banned word now. My bad.
So resistance becomes more urgent. It’s now time that I boldly hold the transgender placard. It’s time that I and all of my transgender and cisgender allies stand up and demand that our existence – the 0.6% of Americans who are transgender – be recognized, respected, and – yes – budgeted for. When specific groups of Americans can be rendered non-existent by our own government, we have a problem. People who do not exist have no rights. You can do what you want with them.
George Orwell again: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” Is this to be my face?
Not if I can help to stop it. Not if you help me.