Commentary Human Rights

Have We Evolved in Our View of Transgender People?

Debbie McMillan

Twenty states now have laws prohibiting gender discrimination against LGBT people. However, that still means that 30 states do not.

Like most people, the sum of who I am is much more than my individual traits. However, there is one fact about me that puts me way outside the mainstream. It’s that I’m a tran-sgender woman.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Massachusetts judge ordered prison officials to provide sex-reassignment surgery for a murder convict. 

The piece started by talking about a transgender woman who used to meet in dark parking lots with other transgender people for support. “How things have changed since then for transgender men and women in America, who have made great strides in recent years toward reaching their ultimate goal: to be treated like ordinary people,” the piece noted.

I agree, strides have been made. But “great” grossly overstates the reality. Discrimination and misunderstanding is still rampant. I frequently feel that I’m assigned to a class of sub-humans. Even the judge who ordered the surgery said it was to treat “gender-identity disorder.” As a society, we still view transgender people as being against the natural order and place the blame on our minds, rather than where the real problem is: our incorrect bodies.

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A recent article in the New York Times Magazine would indeed lead sympathetic readers to believe things are not so bad for transgender people and that there’s really just left over misunderstandings to clear up. The piece told honest, compelling, sometimes gut wrenching stories of good people trying to navigate the world for and with their gender non-specific children.

Consider that it was only in April of this year that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission ruled that that discriminating against an employee or potential employee based on their gender identity is in violation of the Civil Rights Act. Forty-eight years after that Act passed Congress!

Twenty states now have laws prohibiting gender discrimination against LGBT people. However, that still means that 30 states do not.

I work with transgender people every day. Many of them have trouble finding housing or jobs, no matter what the laws say. Many of them are drug users driven to it, in part, because by living with the constant, unrelenting stigma we feel. It’s almost palpable.  

I went to the street alone at 14 because I thought it was the only place for someone like me. I became a commercial sex worker because I believed it was the only occupation available to me. I looked around and saw that no one was going to give me a job.

Though I lived as a woman and looked like one, when I was arrested for solicitation, I was sent to the men’s prison. After one arrest for prostitution, I was thrown in the wing with the felons. When I inevitably contracted HIV, the doctors I sought continually called me by my birth name. When you have HIV, you want medical personnel who understand that your entire life changes the instant you get that diagnosis. Not someone who doesn’t bother to look in your eyes and see the very basics of who you are.  

To be fair, these events happened to me 20 years ago. Back then, we didn’t have the word “transgender” and I was considered an effeminate gay boy. Things are different now but believing that there is significantly less discrimination because some people allow their sons to wear dresses is like thinking that because we have a black President, racism in America is gone.

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