Picture yourself as a transgender person, going out dressed as your new gender, when “nature calls.” Then picture yourself going to the restroom, only to by stopped and informed you cannot use any restrooms there. You can’t use the women’s and you can’t use the men – they have no facilities for people like you to use. Most folks would think this was something that occurred only during the Jim Crow era with “whites only” facilities. It happens as recent as yesterday, January 8, 2009, for transgenders in suburban Houston.
Fleshing out this story, it wasn’t in just any old public haunt either. This was in the County Courthouse in a county adjacent to Houston. A county where the person in question was ordered to come in for a court hearing regarding her divorce. The deputy who stopped her – addressing her as ma’am (as she was presenting!) – instructed her not to use either men’s or women’s restrooms, that there was no restroom to use, and that this was by order of the judge presiding over her divorce case. She said her attorney confirmed that was indeed the judge’s request.
A week from today I’ll be arriving in Washington with the intent of watching my first Inauguration in person. It’s heady times as a number of us in the Democratic transgender delegation will be the first trans people attending an inauguration for a Democratic President, Barack Obama. We aren’t the first, as one of Houston’s Republican transwomen, Charles / Kathryn McGuire, attended George Bush’s inauguration in 1988. But in many ways, we in the trans community have come a long way.
“Each person must live their life as a model for others.” — civil rights icon, Rosa Parks
This inauguration itself is historic in that we are finally electing our first non-white male to the White House over forty-four years after the Civil Rights Act eliminated America’s shame of no service or no facilities available for people of color. It seems quaint and remote remembering a time when such blatant discrimination was open and allowable.
The Civil Rights Act was long overdue, especially if one were to follow the true spirit of the preamble to the Constitution. It was proven that there was a demonstrated, systematic discrimination of a class of people, there was demonstrated economic hardship as a result and there was a demonstrated lack of this class empowered or elected to office, preventing any direct advocacy to rectify this disparity. Now codified, America’s finally made good on the promise “you can grow up to be President someday.”
Progress … but to this very day it’s legal to fire someone in this country for being gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. Now most of these companies in these states will point to the fact that they don’t discriminate and have hired and even promoted gay and lesbian employees. Most states will point to an out gay or lesbian elected official. But when discussions of this progress occur, transgenders suddenly become invisible and unheard in the discussion.
“Vote for me and I’ll set you free!
Rap on, brother. Rap on!” — Ball Of Confusion, the Temptations
Trans people, even in 2009, are overwhelmingly unemployed and under-employed, or disproportionately “disemployed” from previous employers once their status is discovered, even if they were in positions of authority (as was the case with Largo, Florida’s longtime city manager, Susan Stanton).
Even in the most enlightened environ for GLBT people, San Francisco, only 4% of transgenders responding to a study earned the median income of $61,200 or above, while 59% earned less than $15,333. The only other category in the U.S. that has a lesser per capita income that trans people would be Native Americans (and don’t get me started on that as I’m a “breed”.)
Trans people are typically considered to be nothing more than the prevalent stereotype for male-to-female trans people: streetwalking prostitutes. Accordingly, the court system is anything but kind to out gays and lesbians, much less transgenders. Unlike other classes, though, trans people are incarcerated with people of our birth gender, meaning a female-appearing male in with other male prisoners. A study in California observed that 59% of transgenders in prison were frequently raped and beaten by male inmates, and often were punished with being thrown in “the hole” if they raised the issue with guards.
How many states can point to having an out transgender person as an elected official? Two: Missouri and a just-elected mayor in Oregon. The first out trans person ever was just hired a couple weeks ago to work on Capitol Hill in Rep. Barney Frank’s office. We have no state officials, no federal officials, and no way to access and directly appeal our issues.
With George W. Bush’s Real ID Act coming to fruition, even the issue of obtaining identification becomes dicey, affecting our drivers licensing and passports – and increasingly, states requiring photo ID for voting. We already experience Social Security Administration sending letters to employers to amend their employment records to reflect transitioned transsexuals birth gender, not the one which they publicly represent. The potential for being disallowed voting in all of this chills me to the bone. May there come a time when we may be turned away from the polls because of mismatched gender identification?
“I knew that I could vote and that that wasn't a privilege; it was my right. Every time I tried I was shot, killed or jailed, beaten or economically deprived.” — activist & Black Panther, Stokley Carmichael
I’ve been in an Applebee’s in College Park, MD where they wouldn’t serve us, and made it distinctly clear (as we waited for over an hour) that we were the only table that wouldn’t be served. I’ve watched a trans man and person of color (and leader of NTAC) blatantly passed over when they came to our table to take our orders. There have only incurred two instances where I was refused usage of the women’s restroom – one in a lesbian bar, the other in a straight bar. The latter instance, I went into the men’s restroom (not wanting the Houston police officer to arrest me) and almost immediately upon entering was accosted by a man who was clearly inebriated and grabbed me by the elbow – I left the bar immediately and never went back.
I’ve been directly let go from jobs due to my transitioning and transgender status. I’ve been pulled over by police early in my transtion, before my ID was corrected to my current gender, and had the officers interrogate me over “where I was working tonight” – i.e. where I was “hooking.”
I’ve heard well the epithets (even a couple from gay men during this election cycle as I was campaigning for Obama instead of Hillary), though the most graphic ones came from straight men, including a couple who were black. And yes, I’ve felt the boot of the more physical manifestations of discrimination.
It’s a historic time in our country, and I’ll also join in the revelry of beginning of physically demonstrating the promise of Civil Rights as we see President Barack Obama take the helm. In my opinion, it can’t come soon enough. Hope as a word lost meaning for me many years ago, but Change means a lot. And change we must!
Yet I also must keep in mind transgenders will continue seeing systemic discrimination from the courts to the workplace, our lack of employment (as I’m experience now) will keep us economically at a severe disadvantage, and the prospects of having a Trans person in Congress currently do not exist. That said, without a sufficient voice to make this issue known, this is a situation we’ll be living with for some time as there are many, many priorities inherited by this president that will preclude even the most remote chance of extending civil rights for Trans America. That hasn’t changed, and we must find a way to work around it until the day that occurs. Like the Isley Brothers sang many years ago, “we’ve got work to do!”
For now, if a judge decrees it, we do not have the right to use any restroom in public. If we violate the law, we should not expect favorable treatment in courts or in jails after. Even without violating a law ourselves, we most frequently can expect not to be equally protected by those same laws. Economically, we can expect not to see “equal” for many years to come, nor the subsequent entré into politics or power.
Civil rights are being realized by many and being taken for granted as fact. But for us in the Trans community, those rights still don’t exist.
“There is a higher law than the law of government. That's the law of conscience.” — activist & Black Panther, Stokley Carmichael
“I favor the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and it must be enforced at gunpoint if necessary.” — former Pres. Ronald Reagan