Toward Comprehensive Protection for Trans Rights

People hold a giant transgender flag during a gay parade on Istiklal Street, the main shopping corridor in Istanbul, on June
People hold a giant transgender flag during a gay parade on Istiklal Street, the main shopping corridor in Istanbul, on June 22, 2014, during the Trans Pride Parade as part of the Trans Pride Week 2014, which is organized by Istanbul's 'Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transvestites and Transsexuals' (LGBTT) solidarity organization. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

In many ways, 2015 may be the year that marked a transgender glasnost, awakening America to the experiences of some of its most oppressed citizens. Diane Sawyer's prime-time interview with Caitlyn Jenner brought the transition of a major public figure to living rooms across the country and led to sustained media attention throughout the year. Trans trailblazers of all ages -- from Youtube star Jazz Jennings to policy advisor Diego Miguel Sanchez -- have emerged as potent voices on the cultural landscape.

However, the increased awareness of trans identity has not brought a commensurate increase in safety for trans individuals: the past year also saw the highest number of trans women murdered on record. Nearly two-thirds of trans Americans are victims of violence, and over forty percent attempt suicide at some point in their lives. Indeed, one of the most agonizing realities of living as trans in America is living under a constant specter of violence -- expressive and physical -- in both intimate and public spaces.

Acclaimed actress Laverne Cox summed up the reality trans women confront everywhere in America, regardless of their social status or place of residence, in a painfully honest statement last year: "I am still sometimes afraid to leave my apartment... I often do not feel safe. I wake up and think, 'Will today be the day that I am a victim, a survivor? What if I don't survive?" Sadly, these are the thoughts of hundreds of thousands of trans individuals across the country every time they leave their homes. Far too many don't survive.

The challenges for those committed to trans equality are immense, and require a steady resolve to alter the societal views and legal strictures that jointly imprison trans Americans. No citizen in a modern democracy should be required to accept conditions on her basic autonomy and dignity, or have them subjected to majoritarian whims. The movement for trans rights must move out of the defendant's dock and indict society and its institutions for the humanitarian crisis facing the transgender community in America today. There is an urgent need to put in place a framework that protects trans Americans not only from violence, but also from discrimination in employment, education and housing, in access to healthcare and public accommodations and in homes and intimate spaces.

The sheer lack of safety trans people live with should be a source of national shame. There are too many cases like that of Islan Nettles, the young trans woman beaten to death on the streets of Manhattan by men who catcalled her, and then attacked her upon realizing she was transgender; or Leelah Alcorn, the transgender teenager who took her own life after enduring traumatic conversion therapy imposed by her parents who rejected her gender identity; or Jennifer Laude, the Filipina woman strangled and drowned in a toilet bowl by an American soldier who went to a hotel with her and discovered she had male genitals. In its failure to protect the victims of these and countless similar crimes against trans individuals, society has reneged on its most basic obligations.

Given this, and the more general refusal to grant trans individuals the civil and economic rights most people take for granted, the imperative to act should be evident. The real question is what form such action should take. Some may consider it politically expedient to settle for ambiguous and often humiliating concessions to trans people, such as segregated changing rooms for trans children or policies granting trans people rights based on their ability to "pass" for their true gender -- but one must beware of such halfway measures. Here we should take note of a central lesson of other civil rights movements of the past century: that in the struggle for equality, halfway measures may hold a dangerous appeal, often promising far more than they are able to deliver.

For example, as the country continues to grapple with racism and institutional violence against African Americans, it is becoming increasingly obvious that despite the dramatic alleviatory impacts of the the hard-won civil rights measures enacted over a period of many decades, they have fallen short in several ways. Though America has elected a black president, the plight of African Americans is everywhere apparent in the wide income gaps, the stark differences in life expectancy and the unacceptably high numbers of black victims of gun violence and police brutality. The same is true for the other key civil rights movements, notably for gender equality and gay rights: wage gaps, public and private discrimination, hate crimes and domestic violence, sexual assault on campus and threats to reproductive rights, to name a few, are battles still being waged today, despite decades' worth of patchwork lawmaking at the state, federal and local levels. The glacial pace of legislative reform, granting marginalized groups rights drop by excruciating drop, may well constitute a large part of the problem. Legislatures have not only disappointed the groups they intended to protect, but also the fearless activists who gave everything, often even their lives, in pursuit of civil rights. This is a mistake that should not be repeated in the struggle for trans equality.

Abandoning a piecemeal approach would mean seeking a whole greater than the sum of it parts -- a comprehensive program of legislation responsive to the multiple dimensions of trans suffering, from the interwoven challenges trans children face to the harsh realities of transgender adult life and death in America. There must be measures to effectively protect trans Americans from discrimination and violence -- with concrete provisions for recourse for victims of transphobia and serious consequences for the perpetrators.

Such a comprehensive approach offers marked advantages over gradualist, piecemeal alternatives. For example, it does little to help the overall condition of trans Americans if we pass a law protecting them from being denied employment at an establishment, while at the same time authorizing that establishment to refuse service to trans customers -- as is the case in many parts of the country. Such selective legislation sends mixed messages and legitimates continued prejudice. To take another example, without unequivocal protection for people to use gendered facilities and accommodations corresponding to their authentic internal gender identity, there will be the continued threat of violence for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in these spaces. People who deviate from received gender norms should not be forced to wonder whether they are safe in this locale or that facility. Furthermore, protracted civil rights struggles tend to ossify the positions of opposing camps and make basic human dignity a political football, inflicting further wounds on already vulnerable groups for whom the healing process can take generations.

Another hard truth is the too-common indifference of the majority to the plight of minorities, a fact nowhere more apparent than in the case of police violence toward African Americans. The recent refusal to charge the killer of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, accompanied by the deafening silence of much of the American public, is only the latest demonstration that large segments of our society are willing to tolerate ruthless violence directed at the most defenseless among us, violence against which the pressures of public opinion offer scant protection indeed.

Should this prompt soul-searching on the part of a society that cares so little about its weaker citizens? Of course. However, self-examination is no substitute for concrete legislation with effective enforcement instruments. Trans children forced into homelessness and prostitution, trans women of color assaulted and murdered at epidemic rates and trans people living lonely lives of unemployment and abject poverty should not have to await the gradual evolution of public willingness to treat them with the basic respect to which they are entitled. Appeals to conscience alone are futile in a society inured to such brutality and senseless victimization of its citizens; with increasing urgency, we need potent legal mechanisms.

Which is not to deny the importance of public conversation and consciousness-raising. There is much work to do in adjusting the terms of debate on the issue of trans equality. The widespread focus on society's perceptions of trans identity -- and on explaining trans experience to those who do not share it -- has coopted the discussion, in the process making trans individuals little more than objects of curiosity. The debate needs to shift from the voyeuristic and toward the substantive, with appropriate attention to relieving the suffering of trans individuals and according them the protections they deserve.

Occasionally, somewhere between the histrionics over trans women in bathrooms and the titillating media snippets about Caitlyn Jenner, brief glimpses of the harrowing lives and deaths of trans Americans have come through, only to disappear again like so many ephemeral subatomic particles. There should be greater resolve to seize on those glimpses, to bring them full-blown into the public eye, and to draw upon the reserves of basic humanity in our democracy. It is time for America to stop denying trans Americans their basic rights and freedoms, and to begin the long-overdue process of instituting a comprehensive set of legal protections for them.