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By Willa N. France
These oppressive political times push the trans community, bodily, backwards. Of course, we have always moved ahead in protest. At Stonewall, “transvestites” (the term then used) of color led the riots, a fact often omitted telling the Stonewall “origin” story.
Bodies have always been the site of the struggle for gender authenticity. When we wish each other Happy Pride and march waving banners and flags in celebration, it is also in protest for assaults on our physical existence.
Dismissive, exclusionary, and hateful rhetoric has consequences; it inspires physical actions of equal effect. Among the Trump administration’s first assaults was removal of any mention of gender from its websites and withdrawal of guidance for teachers with trans and gender non-conforming students. Petty, but we have been disappeared by the government and to those who search its internet.
In obvious perversions of “religious freedom,” the administration promulgates “conscience” rules permitting health care workers in federally funded facilities to deny services to LGBTQ patients on the basis of religious or moral beliefs. Such rules plainly enable discrimination against populations requiring health care the most.
In April legal injunctions were lifted and the trans military ban went into effect creating a “don’t ask don’t tell” atmosphere for thousands of uniformed personnel and immediately discharging thousands of others. While legal challenges to the ban continue, much of the harm has been done. Even now, Trump continues to exaggerate costs of trans medical care.
On June 14, Department of Health and Human Services proposed amendments to ACA regulations to specifically exclude “gender” from protection against discrimination. The issue of whether gender is protected under the existing regulation and statute has been the subject of extensive litigation. The newly conservative Supreme Court will soon consider the issue.
More proposals by the administration would allow federal prisons and homeless shelters receiving federal funds to determine placements based on birth sex rather than gender, putting trans people at obvious risk.
No federal law specifically prohibits an LGBT employee from being fired nor do the laws of the majority of states. New York state was only able to pass its gender non-discrimination act this year with a Democratic legislative majority; the bill had been stymied by Republicans for years. It is obvious that no similar federal legislation would have any hope of passage.
Fortunately the spate of state “bathroom” bills—forcing trans people to use bathrooms of their natal sex—has run its course. But earlier, during Pride month, the Vatican issued a guide for Catholic educators stating that trans people “annihilate … the concept of nature.” It targets the entire LGBTQ population, however, associating them with libertine sexuality. In the words of one commentator, the document “encourages hatred, bigotry and violence.”
The U.S. religious and political right has been downright hateful towards the trans and LGBQ communities. “Get AIDS and die,” said one “Christian” minister sponsoring a “Make America Straight Again” march in Florida a few days ago.
All this “top-down” oppression is more than matched by the physical and mental distress of trans people themselves. The attempted suicide rate among the trans population has been in the range of 25% to 50%, many times the rate of the general population.
International Transgender Day of Remembrance, observed annually on November 20, lists on its website, by country, trans people who have been murdered— beheaded, burned, dismembered, their bodies made unrecognizable. In the U.S., just this year, the increase in violence against trans people, especially POC, has become an epidemic.
Trans youth have long faced the ostracism of family and friends, hazing, harassment, and physical assault by community emergency and police forces. Rates of poverty and homelessness among the trans community are severe. Many are forced into sex work to survive, especially POC, with attendant risks of physical harm and disease. Federal statutes enacted in 2018 to criminalize advertising of sex work, ostensibly aimed at sex trafficking, had an immediate, chilling effect on the ability of sex workers to safely earn livings. Legislation has been introduced in NY and other states to decriminalize consensual sex work.
It is obvious that gender, race, and economics intersect in the lived experience of trans people, indeed in the lives of all LGBTQ people. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of psychiatric diagnoses depathologizes gender identity distress from “disorder” to “dysphoria.” Mental health professionals generally agree that “dysphoria” arises in large part from external pressures experienced by trans people—both before and after transition.
Even so, medical professionals and staff remain woefully untrained in trans care, even lacking basic social skills. A large percentage of trans patients report discrimination and disrespect in their medical treatment. Many trans people simply forgo medical care to avoid experiencing humiliation.
And what does the future hold for the aging trans population, of which I will soon be a member? In the U.S. most of the elder population rely on family and relatives. But the trans population is often estranged from their families and has need for greater reliance on the healthcare system. What do we do when we need elder care? De-transition, return to our closets? A forthcoming survey of hospice and palliative care providers reports that a majority of the LGB population received disrespectful if not outright discriminatory care, but for trans patients the result was two-thirds. Our prospects are not bright.
One trans commentator describes “battle fatigue.” I agree, I feel exhausted. Sometimes I find intellectual comfort in identifying as non-binary, or gender-queer, rejecting the masculine-feminine binary, an outdated societal construct. A recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article, “The Struggles of Rejecting the Gender Binary,” eloquently addresses these souls who push gender boundaries.
But in lived day-to-day experience, surely the place of persistence is the body, no matter what theory drives the imagination. So, sometimes too, I recall the simplicity of a five year old’s description of a sibling—perhaps apocryphal, though I hope otherwise—“She used to be a boy but she didn’t feel good. So now she just takes medicine and it helps her to be a girl. She feels better.” (Italics are my emphasis.)
Willa France, I was born William France to parents who were Wisconsin mink farmers. I lived there and throughout the western United States before moving to New York in 1968. In 1972, I graduated with a B.S. in naval architecture and marine engineering from a nearby college. After employment for several years as a naval architect, I attended and graduated law school in 1977. From 1977 until my firm’s dissolution in 2006, I practiced maritime law as an associate and then a partner in downtown Manhattan. Shortly before my firm dissolved I began my gender transition.
I have written poetry since 1981 and have participated in numerous workshops and tutorials. My poetry has been published in several small-press magazines. My novel in verse, Incunabulum, was self-published in late 2007. I am currently at work on a story of my transition. I have recently been accepted for training at a psychoanalytic institute in Manhattan beginning in the fall of 2019. On completion I will be certified to practice as a psychoanalyst.
I live with my wife of 46 years in East Harlem. This has been our home since 1985. We have one son, recently married, and more recently we have become grandparents.