Transgender rights: the next big political movement

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Niccolo and Donkey
Transgender rights: the next big political movement

Guardian UK

Rodrigo Lehtinen

April 23, 2013

Members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community hold the gay pride flag during the opening ceremony of the 1st South Asian LGBT Games in Katmandu, Nepal.

Recently we've been inundated with images of gay couples holding hands, demonstrating their commitment to one another and protesting the marriage ban. But while the push toward marriage equality sits in the spotlight , there's another movement underway, one that's gaining momentum and promises to grow into a leading political contender, but you may not know it yet. I'm talking about the transgender movement.

We live in a culture of disrespect towards trans people, only compounded by laws on the books that fail to uphold justice equally. But this isn't just about a distant minority, the status of trans people in this country matters not only because we are a marginalized minority – though that is in itself significant – but also because it has broader implications for who we are as a nation. How do we treat each other? To what standard do we hold our government?

One of the biggest issues is discrimination, which holds transgender people back in a myriad of ways, primary among them being in employment. It's shocking to learn that transgender people are nearly four times more likely than the general population to make less than $10,000 a year, according to Injustice At Every Turn (pdf), the largest study ever conducted on transgender people in the US. This is due in large part to public attitudes. Transgender people are often denied jobs or promotions, keeping us on the bottom of the economic ladder. There's no federal law prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity, and only 16 states have stepped up to fill the void. That leaves 34 states where it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being transgender.

We're also face discrimination in the streets – confronting violence and harassment, including from the police, who are the very ones sworn to protect us. Hate crimes go under-reported, or cases aren't taken seriously, and survivors are frequently disregarded and disrespected. In the study Injustice at Every Turn, over one-fifth (22%) of respondents who have interacted with police reported harassment by officers, with much higher rates reported by trans people of color. In fact, trans people are often targeted by law enforcement as "suspicious". In another study , almost 60% of trans Latinas stopped by police in Los Angeles said they were stopped while doing everyday things like "coming back from the grocery store" and "waiting for the bus" – hardly criminal activities. Considering police mistreatment, the last thing you want is to be caught "walking while trans", especially if you're a trans woman of color.

But in the face of such rampant discrimination, transgender people are coming together to create a bona fide political movement. Formal organizations are starting up, creating infrastructure to make demands of those in charge and hold them accountable. A critical mass of us are moving past getting angry and moving on to getting politically savvy, building a network of activists pushing for social change. We're starting to rake up smaller victories that lay the groundwork for larger culture shifts. For example, of the 16 state laws protecting trans people against employment discrimination, 14 of them passed within the last decade, representing a groundswell of political organizing and public education.

Gender Justice LA, the organization I work for, is a key example of this burgeoning movement. A small but mighty operation with just three staff, we're building a base of transgender leaders with the skills and confidence to advocate for trans rights. Recently we won major reforms concerning the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). It's now spelled out in LAPD policy that police officers are not to assume a trans person in public is engaged in sex work, which marks progress towards ending the abuses of "walking while trans". Police officers must treat us respectfully – no more calling us "it" or mocking us with "sir" while we're wearing a dress. We're also pushing for community responses to violence, using groundbreaking theatre techniques to develop our own capacity to respond to violence and deescalate situations without calling the cops. Through our growing membership and willingness to use non-traditional tactics, we're changing the perception of trans people throughout the city, boosting the community's safety and sense of empowerment.

As grim as the state of transgender America may seem, the truth is that we are beginning to make progress. There is a movement underway, calling for an America that truly holds liberty and justice for all. You may not hear much about the transgender movement now, but we'll be the loudest voice at the table soon enough.
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