A couple months ago the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was reauthorized in spite of fairly significant Republican opposition in the House of Representatives. Their opposition was based mainly upon the extension of protections to people of all sexes, sexualities and genders, not just heterosexual women abused by men. This opposition can be summed up by the response of Republican Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas who said he opposed VAWA because it contained protections for transgender individuals: “This is a truly bad bill,” he said in an article published by the National Review. “This is helping the liberals, this is horrible. Unbelievable. What really bothers — it’s called a women’s act, but then they have men dressed up as women, they count that. Change-gender, or whatever. How is that — how is that a woman?”
In his reasoning, it is more important to protect the rights of people TO COMMIT acts of violence against transgender individuals than it is TO PROTECT women (and all people, since the bill includes men as well as transgender people) from violence. Fortunately, these confused transphobic views were in the minority in Congress and President Obama signed the bill into law in March. VAWA demonstrates that there are legal protections and consequences for violence against any and all people in the United States. VAWA, together with the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009 have been the first federal legal protections officially inclusive of all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.
While these are clearly very important steps in providing legal recourse to transgender people, victories are still few and far between as recent examples from within and outside of the GLBT community demonstrate. See the continued debate over transgender inclusion at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF), and the repeated attempts by conservative CongressMEN to pass “Bathroom Harassment Bills” in Tennessee and Arizona which would restrict people to using the bathroom indicated by the sex marked on their birth certificate. (Who carries their birth certificate on them for inspection on entrance to bathrooms anyway?)
Both of these examples explain my continued hesitancy to embrace the “victory” of VAWA for transgender people. It is certainly important to have legal recourse and non-discrimination policies, however, exceptions to the rule of law and in practice demonstrate that there is still a long way to go in eradicating transphobia from the cisgender lesbian, gay and bisexual communities as well as the cisgender hetersexual ones. For example, the founder of the MWMF justifies their exclusion of transgender women from the festival to allow womyn-born-womyn the “freedom to walk in the woods at night alone without fear.” While I certainly support women (trans and womyn-born) and their right to feel safe – not just at the MWMF – I cannot believe it must come at the cost of the invalidation of the lives and experiences of transgender people who are as stigmatized and discriminated against as lesbian women. Further, the supported inclusion of transgender men in these same womnyn-born-womyn spaces sends the message that birth assigned sex and genitals are what truly matters for inclusion and exclusion rather than self-identified gender. Likewise, bathroom bill advocates claim the need to protect women and girls in bathrooms from predatory men who have disguised themselves as women in order to enter into a women’s only “safe space.” (Can anyone give me an example of violence perpetrated against women or girls by a “man dressed as a woman” in spaces like these?) Again, I realize the need for women’s safety and security, but I submit that these bills aren’t being proposed by CongressWOMEN or advocated by women’s interest groups.
Taking the MWMF and the bathroom bills into consideration with an essential exception included in VAWA we can see why transgender rights have actually become more limited recently. Below is the “exception” taken from the official wording of VAWA:
‘‘(B) EXCEPTION.—If sex segregation or sex-specific programming is necessary to the essential operation of a program, nothing in this paragraph [the non-discrimination policy paragraph] shall prevent any such program or activity from consideration of an individual’s sex. In such circumstances, grantees may meet the requirements of this paragraph by providing comparable services to individuals who cannot be provided with the sex-segregated or sex-specific programming.”
So, let’s consider this in light of an example from my research in Tennessee. A transgender woman who has been victimized by her male intimate partner managed to leave her abuser in spite of unemployment and other financial and interpersonal obstacles only to be turned away from a “women’s” shelter because she has not been able to change her identity documents to reflect her gender expression. While the official policy of non-discrimination includes gender expression and identity, the exception based upon sex segregation allows her to be turned away from the female shelter. And as she told me, the male shelter was “not an option physically or emotionally.” She was eventually able to find a trans-inclusive shelter that allowed her to be herself during the recovery process, not every transgender woman is so lucky or resourceful. With the knowledge that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence against (trans)women, I understand that it would be unsuitable and potentially harmful for men and women to be sheltered together. However, by setting up the segregation system by sex, I am left to wonder where transgender people belong? What documentation is acceptable to permit a transwoman entry into a woman’s shelter? What if she was without the resources to obtain any formal documentation of her feminine identity? Additionally, I wonder how shelters can be inclusive of lesbian and gay men when their abusers are of the same sex as they are.
Continuing with the reasoning of the sex-segregation exception, “comparable services” must be provided to those who cannot be accommodated within the existing sex-specific programming. Optimistically, I hope this will entail the creation of numerous trans-only or at least transgender-positive shelters. Then again, are transgender men and transgender women to be sheltered together? What about issues of sexism and misogyny within the transgender community?
The above examples elucidate the shift in acceptable forms of transphobia. Homophobia and transphobia in the recent American past had been based upon policing gender performance and norms which often included butch lesbians and effeminate gay men. However, homophobia of any kind is no longer socially acceptable (not that it doesn’t still occur) and transphobia as demonstrated above has become an almost compulsive process of policing genitals and glorifying the “irrevocable” nature of biological sex. Today, American culture is much more accepting of various gender expressions, and can even laugh at playful gender presentations (see Ru Paul’s Drag Race). But has this acceptance come at the expense of solidifying the line between male and female and exalting the naturalness of sex and genitals? It seems that culturally, we have agreed to a certain amount of gender transgression but have drawn a line in the sand, allowing cisgender people to wink at one another and say, “Okay, you can be whoever you want to be, but we know who/what you REALLY are.” Many seem comfortable with gender and sexual transgression so long as one fits neatly into a box, even if that box is gay or lesbian. Transgender is still an unknown, often understood as the representative from Texas said, “change genders” or men who dress like women. Thus, genitalia and the “naturalness” of biology have been exalted so that people can “understand” at the cost of allowing for the diversity of transgender experience and the complex interplay of gender, sex and sexuality. Instances like these remind me just how far we still must go.