Visibility Leads to Progress on Trans Rights

March 4, 2013

Lee Jimenez lives life beyond the boxes that many of us check for hospital registration, tax returns, or online dating. “I get a lot of weird looks,” says the 22-year-old. “People don’t understand how I can appear as a woman but don’t identify as a woman.”

Waiting for a friend last year at a bar near home in New York City, Jimenez was threatened by a man standing close by: “You look like a man, but you’re not man,” Jimenez recalls him saying. “I wanna cut your head off.”

“It struck fear in me,” says Jimenez, an activist and spokesperson with the organization FIERCE, a New York-based LGBTQ youth of color group that campaigns to improve the quality of life and safety of its members and others.

Jimenez was a speaker at last year’s Trans Day of Action on June 22 in New York’s Washington Square Park, where hundreds of participants gathered to call for more awareness and justice for trans communities.

“Members of our community are struggling with daily survival because there’s such an enormous level of discrimination,” says Justus Eisfeld, co-director of Global Action for Trans* Equality (GATE), a small think tank, founded in 2009, that works with activists and groups to pursue common goals. “Violence comes not only from strangers but within families.”

A groundbreaking first study on trans life experiences in the United States, published in 2011 by the National Council on Trans Equality (NCTE) and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, found that 41 percent of 6,450 survey respondents had tried to commit suicide and 90 percent had been harassed or mistreated at work.

The report, Injustice at Every Turn, also found that trans people were nearly four times more likely than the general population to live in extreme poverty. Trans people of color fared much worse than white respondents across all categories.

Among the personal and professional barriers that NCTE and others have worked to remove are the inability to obtain important documents that match one’s gender, such as driver’s licenses, that are used as a common form of identification in the United States.

Pennsylvania in September 2012 removed the question of gender from the voter I.D. process. In October of the same year, a Chicago judge approved a court agreement allowing transgender people to change Illinois state-issued birth certificates, although with some surgical or medical requirements.

The shift came after the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Illinois Department of Public Health in a case involving three trans people who were told they needed proof of gender-related surgery to change the gender on their birth certificates.

The U.S. State Department has cleared the way for people to change gender on passports, and NCTE is calling for the U.S. Social Security Administration to change gender markers on its records to be consistent with passport requirements.

However, of those who have been through gender transitions, only one-fifth had been able to update all of their identification documents with their new gender, according to Injustice at Every Turn.

“No one has the right to tell us who we are except us,” says Kara St. James, who is active with the Audre Lorde Project and has worked for a decade in support of laws against discrimination faced by trans people in housing and health care.

“Having a law on the books that protects us and gives us a voice to fight back is something that I truly believe is the best way to self-actualize our community,” she says, referring to the late 1990s as “the dark ages.”

While New York City has officially outlawed such discrimination, according to Dru Levasseur, transgender rights attorney at Lambda Legal: “This is a population that’s facing a crisis in all walks of life—discrimination in the workplace, in health care.”

What does trans* mean? According to the Mazzoni Center, the asterisk symbol (*) indicates a broad range of gender identities and experiences. The center uses trans* “as an umbrella term that includes anyone identifying along the transgender spectrum, those who consider themselves bi-gendered or multi-gendered, as well as people who do not identify with any labels.”