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.
GBV directed at more than half of humanity exists – and is arguably rampant – in every society; what then are we to make of violence directed at a tiny, tiny fraction of humanity? The world’s transgender population is estimated, roughly, at about 0.6 percent. Don’t confuse that with 6 percent; this is six-tenths of one percent. Less than one percent. Too few for those who control funding to bother to collect robust data about; although what data we have (anecdotally, and some empirical data) points to exceptionally high levels of violence against transgender women, and especially transgender women of color. Frequently such violence has been terminal; each of these fatalities had a name and a story – one website has had the decency to name and describe almost 30 transgender women who have died in this country in 2017. Once you know their names, and something about their circumstances, ignoring them gets a lot harder.
We also know that in the United States, in the morally unhinged era of president Trump (who is either transphobic or simply sees an effective and vulnerable political scapegoat to appease his base), this violence is very much on the increase. Violence against transgender persons – which is primarily directed against transgender women instead of transgender men or genderqueer persons – appears to matter very little to the larger cisgender population. In an age of political triage, the transgender population huddles at the very far edges of numerical significance.
But why should you care? Why should anyone?
Americans committed to decency, human rights, and progressive principles would seem to be a fertile demographic for caring solidarity, but even my concerted efforts as an articulate, well-positioned, and extroverted transgender woman to mobilize support among this base has largely been met only with a modicum of rhetorical sympathy, and otherwise with apathy and indifference. Transgender people are perceived as being hard to understand, and even though our voices have grown incrementally louder we remain a curiosity. Those Americans outside Trump’s base but within the other 99.4 per cent of the cisgender population are under such a constant, intense barrage of Trump-inflicted outrages against decency, universal human dignity, and civic values that the plight of a tiny, beleaguered-yet-resilient group subjected to rapidly rising rates of GBV, bias, discrimination, and hate crimes isn’t sufficiently compelling. And at less than one percent, we’re not in a position of leverage.
Despite those odds, I will however push back (such being my scrappy and incorrigible nature). Transgender people stand at the very precipice of human dignity, although some will assert that we’ve already fallen well below that threshold. I choose not to relinquish my claim to my dignity, even if that translates figuratively to my fingers alone on the edge as all that prevents me from that fall. It is a desperate situation, but I know that the remarkable example transgender people offer of authenticity, courage, persistence, and resilience, and our unique insights on the nature of gender identity that apply to all persons, are invaluable. Give us half a chance, and this less-than-one percent will punch far above our weight. We have an important role to play in building a more decent society.
My advocacy, as one of the less-than-one percent, is for that half a chance. While my enjoyment of human rights stands in the balance, my dignity will never be forfeit.