Privilege Made Felt: How New York’s Landmark Bill Humbled Me
Right from the start, I was glad I didn’t come out in America. The place is an uncertain wasteland where people seem to manage, but struggle needlessly. My home state of New Hampshire seemed reasonably ok on the surface, but, like most states, it doesn’t guarantee fundamental rights. The UK is far from perfect on that score, but at least the guarantee is there. Watching my friends in New York celebrate their government’s guarantee of civil rights on last week (the 15th January) really slammed home how privileged I am.
That’s not to say that transgender rights in the UK are by any means certain. The guarantees are there, but very few have been tested in the courts. Many ignore, misunderstand or oppose the guarantees in place. The support of law enforcement is precarious. Still, in a world where nowhere is safe, it’s plain that the UK is safer than most places, including the US.
The fact that I’ve even made this analysis is evidence that my rights aren’t secure. This exploration of where I have the right to exist came about because I had to on a personal level. I never had to do that before; human rights violations were things that happened to other people. I was sensitive to it; vulnerable to the many microaggressions towards women despite my perceived identity — indeed, exposed to far more explicit threat because of how people perceived me. This is not an academic interest and my appreciation of the rights I enjoy comes from an acute understanding of how precarious my status makes me.
But I never had to deal with simply having no rights. Even the most hardened TERFs in this country are arguing for a ‘separate but equal’ type nightmare; nobody is seriously suggesting we get refused health care or be forced to detransition. Those that are suggesting these things aren’t being taken seriously, either. It gets quite scary in places like prisons where transgender people are regularly placed in inappropriate facilities, but even they have mechanisms to allow for basic prisoner needs. The uncertainty of our status is most pronounced in those spaces, but there are still rules.
So when my phone lit up with texts from friends in New York State jubilantly announcing that they had civil rights, I had to take a minute and let that sink in. One friend spent a significant time crying into her phone talking to me before we both poured ourselves a drink and celebrated remotely. They have gender expression protections in New York now. My friends have civil rights. They didn’t have that before.
"I’M ACCUSTOMED TO HEARING ABOUT TRANSGENDER PEOPLE BEING HORRIBLY MISTREATED BY INSTITUTIONS AND INDIVIDUALS."
I’m accustomed to hearing about transgender people being horribly mistreated by institutions and individuals. In the case of the Arab world, such things are enacted by governments. One close friend in Cairo has made that pointedly clear: transgender people are targets for torture. I have reports from New York about transgender people being refused medical treatment, another in the Midwest having severe health problems and companies continuing to refuse their care despite the threat: it rose from a transgender health issue. Anecdotal, yes, but the anxiety is palpable.
What I’m not accustomed to is hearing transgender people celebrate having some protection from their horrible mistreatment. Distance drinking with a friend drove it hope more than the stories about the evils of the world. It was the good deed that punctuated the plight of transgender people everywhere.
"WHEN NEW YORK GUARANTEED THE HUMAN RIGHTS OF TRANSGENDER PEOPLE, THEY GUARANTEED THE HUMAN RIGHTS OF EVERYONE."
Of course, protecting gender expression protects everybody. Over the past few months we’ve had many reports of cisgender people, particularly women, being persecuted because they weren’t cisnormative enough. When New York guaranteed the human rights of transgender people, they guaranteed the human rights of everyone. Like all prejudice, transphobia functions on stereotypes and suppositions: those that fall into the stereotype are punished regardless of their heritage or status.
A regular at the pub told a story of rocking up to his local convenience shop unshaven in his dressing gown over his pyjamas. The man behind the desk told him off for looking so. “You give us all a bad name,” the clerk said, but once it was explained that the regular was not actually Algerian he backed off and told him to do as he pleased.
This story is quite funny but it illustrates how prejudice functions: privileged person is uncaring about his appearance, oppressed group member becomes afraid because perceived group member is reinforcing a stereotype; they are afraid oppressors will cause harm. We can see this scene played out in transgender groups the world over: it’s essentially the passing discussion for Algerians.
What the regular fails to mention in this story, probably because he’s telling it as a joke, is that if an Algerian man could think the regular was Algerian, so could anyone else. That actually, the Algerian guy telling him to crack on is still harmful to the perception of Algerians in the area because this regular, at that moment, passed as Algerian. And that’s why cisgender people are concerned with being cis passing, whether or not they are aware.
Passing isn’t just for transgender people. It’s for anyone who is part of an oppressed group or anyone who is in a privileged group that happens to fall into the stereotype of an oppressed group. Everyone wants to pass as something. By protecting our gender expression, government is lessening the investment in passing to avoid persecution. Everyone can relax a little.
Guaranteeing rights by law is a big step forward, but it is only a step. Winning the hearts and minds of people will take much longer; the guarantees have been forming here in the UK for nearly twenty years and that battle is far from over. But without those guarantees, we can’t begin the process of normalising our existence. My friends in New York can finally start the long slog to normality.