Unpacking #TransLivesMatter

By Brandon Kemp

Transgender Pride Flag / Twitter

The tragic recent suicide of trans teen Leelah Alcorn has provided an occasion for a much-needed conversation about trans lives and the importance of creating a more just and inclusive society for everyone, regardless of gender identity/expression. As I’ve noted before, there has long been a link between the psychiatric establishment and the silencing of queer and trans people. We can see those dynamics at work once again in those segments of the media bent on misgendering and misrepresenting young trans people like Leelah. Make no mistake: To implicitly or explicitly portray trans individuals as merely “confused” or psychologically “sick” is a strategy that can only serve to silence their demands while maintaining the gender and economic status quo.

And while Leelah’s case highlights the additional pressures on young trans people from religious and family circles, the subsequent online reactions—including the #TransLivesMatter and #RealLiveTransAdult hashtags—have played an important role in bringing attention to numerous other, less-talked-about barriers facing trans people at every level of society. Like the #BlackLivesMatter slogan from which it derives its inspiration, #TransLivesMatter is an opportunity for those of us on the Left to acknowledge the ways in which violence against a marginalized community comes not just from daily, interpersonal interactions, but also from institutional forces like medical authorities, discriminatory employers, police profiling and prisons, and the military-industrial complex.

To stay on health care for the moment: Even now that “gender dysphoria” has been formally removed from the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ list of “disorders,” there remains a significant number of mental health care professionals in general who are ill equipped and poorly trained to deal with the needs of trans patients. Compounding this, there are serious barriers to accessing care of any kind that trans people across the country face, including high poverty rates and lack of public and private coverage for those seeking gender-confirmation surgeries. As trans actress and activist Laverne Cox stated in a powerful speech to the National LGBTQ Task Force last February, “Health care for trans people is a necessity. It is not elective. It is not cosmetic. It is life saving.” A recent victory for trans-inclusive Medicare in New York should encourage the struggle, but there’s still a long way to go before equity in any meaningful sense is achieved.

The statistics bear this out. Trans people in the U.S., according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, are four times as likely to have a household income under $10,000 and twice as likely to be unemployed as their non-trans counterparts. The average life expectancy for a trans person in the U.S. is around 30. More than 40 percent have attempted suicide while 69 percent have experienced homelessness. Blatant workplace discrimination in heavily de-unionized service-sector jobs means that countless trans people can’t even access the poverty-wage standard of living typical of much of the American working class. The result is a push into informal sectors of the economy, including but not limited to sex work.

The visibility of “non-passing” trans people makes them easy targets for draconian laws allowing police to target individuals “manifesting prostitution.” Monica Jones is a recent example. (Needless to say, these laws—also in place in much of the European Union—blend seamlessly into deportation efforts.) Once imprisoned, trans people find themselves vulnerable to placement with the wrong sex and dangerously high levels of physical and sexual violence. Similarly high vulnerability within the military has also prompted some radical trans activists like Dean Spade to question the motivations of well-off advocates of trans military inclusion who are willing to throw ordinary trans people under the bus in the name of patriotism. As he tweeted shortly before being interviewed on Al Jazeera’s program The Stream, “Trans people shouldn't have to kill or be killed to survive. Military service is not a job with justice.”

In short, it’s difficult to even begin discussing the sorts of issues facing trans communities without quickly finding ourselves also talking about the nuclear family, organized religion, psychiatry and health care, immigration, sex work, the military and foreign policy, police brutality and for-profit prisons, workplace organizing, the living wage, sexism, homophobia, racism, and countless other matters besides. Indeed, the sheer visibility of Leelah’s death—important though it is—is in stark contrast to the less covered struggles of trans women of color like Cece McDonald, who too frequently find themselves dead or imprisoned merely for fighting for their lives. (Of course, all this is nothing new. The invisibility of huge segments, perhaps even the majority, of queer and trans populations is old news by now.)

This is why we can’t afford to indulge liberal identity politics that narrowly define queer and trans issues according to the interests of our most elite representatives (usually marriage and military inclusion, respectively). Not only does this kind of politics represent a thoroughly ahistorical, anti-materialist deviation from the best leftist analysis and activism—like property relations, there is nothing natural or inevitable about today’s dominant forms of sexuality and gender; another world is possible—but it also fails to grasp the way in which these various inflections of exploitation, disciplinary power, and violence don’t just “intersect” at junctures but actively shape one another under late capitalism in an ongoing, dynamic way. To combat these forces, we need a Left that is committed to an equally dynamic politics of democratic resistance and transformation.

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