The role of family rejection in anti-trans violence

In 2013, in response to the murder of Islan Nettles, I talked about how a saner approach to sexual relationships between men and trans women, and between men and other men, would do a lot to reduce the number of murders of trans women, particularly poor trans women of color. There was another trans woman killed in the area that year whose story was a bit different, and pointed to another factor that makes a big difference.

Almost two years ago, Eyricka Morgan was killed in a boarding house in New Brunswick, New Jersey. News reports say that she was arguing with a man who also lived in the boarding house, and when the argument got heated he stabbed her in the neck with a butcher knife. Unlike the case of Islan Nettles, there is no mention of any sexual attraction between her and the suspect. It may have just been one of the many kinds of arguments that happen between any two people who live in the same house.

The question I had was why this argument turned violent. There is nothing in the reports to suggest a reason, other than that this was the second fatal stabbing of 2013 in New Brunswick. It may not have had anything to do with the fact that she was trans. These things happen to non-trans people – a point that deserves its own blog post.

Still I wondered whether things would have been different if Morgan’s living situation had been different. What if she had lived in a different neighborhood? What if she had had her own apartment, or shared a house with people she knew and trusted?

It seems likely that Morgan lived in the same boarding house with that murderous young man because she couldn’t afford a safer living arrangement. To understand why that might be, listen to Morgan herself (Part I, 25:30) describing why she left her family home in Newark at the age of fourteen or fifteen: she was regularly beaten by her grandparents and uncles. Later in the panel (Part II, 25:28) she said, “I missed a lot of years of my youth due to something that I did, so I wasn’t really around for my youth years.” If I understand her correctly, she’s saying she spent time in juvenile detention.

So what might Morgan’s life have been like if she had felt safe in her own home as a teenager? Being homeless is a huge drain on a person’s time and energy, and being incarcerated is a huge setback. What could she have accomplished if she hadn’t had to deal with that during those critical teenage years? Would she have been able to finish college on time? Would she have been better prepared for the adult job market?

We know that connections are very valuable when building a career. What might have happened if Morgan had not been cut off from all her family connections? Could her grandmother and her uncles have connected her with jobs if they hadn’t driven her away?

Many parents believe that it is part of their job to police the gender expression of their children, to make sure the boys grow up to be men and the girls grow up to be women. This probably comes from ancient tribal anxieties. The prescription is usually “tough love,” in the form of corporal punishment or verbal abuse.

Can we all agree now that this “tough love” doesn’t work? I’ve met trans people, and gay men, who’ve grown up with it. They didn’t stop being trans or gay. Some of them left home, like Morgan. Others just learned how to hide it. The “best” were able to suppress it. None of them could have “given it up” however badly they wanted to.

If we want to prevent murders like Eyricka Morgan’s, we need to stop parents and grandparents rejecting their kids for being trans or gay. We can fund homeless shelters and outreach programs; I’m sure they help a lot. But Morgan had outreach programs; they’re not enough.

Somewhere along the line, Morgan’s grandmother was taught that if you have a “boy” who wants to act or dress feminine, you should beat the kid, and if they still do it then it’s okay to let them run away and sleep on the streets. She passed that message on to her children – Morgan’s uncles.

In contrast, the first thing my parents did was to make sure I knew that they would always love me, and that I always had a place to stay, no matter what I wore or how I talked.

We need to stop sending parents and caregivers the message that a girly boy is something to be ashamed of. We need to support parents and grandparents who support their kids. That is something we can do to stop people murdering trans people.

We need support to decide whether to transition

As I’ve said before, trans people who have made up their minds to transition should be allowed to change their legal names and gender classifications, and modify their bodies with medically approved hormones or surgery, with no “conversion” or “reparative” therapy required, and legally protected against harassment and discrimination on the basis of trans status. They deserve access to emotional and psychological support services to help them cope with the immense stresses of transition.

Trans people like me who have made up our minds not to transition don’t need to change our bodies, legal names or gender classifications, but we still need to be protected against harassment and discrimination. And as I’ve written before, we need plenty of emotional and psychological support. This includes professional help, fully paid by insurance, but in my experience the professionals tend to be as clueless as everyone else, so non-professional peer support is also necessary.

But those are people who have made their decisions, one way or another. Trans people need help to make their decisions as well. That includes the initial decision to transition or not, and cases where someone changes their mind. Right now, people are just fumbling, and the therapists

Some people experiment with gender presentation. They often say that it’s to try out what it’s like to live as the other gender, but a lot of times it seems to me like simple wish fulfillment, and other times like desperate flailing. I’ve heard of therapists encouraging this kind of experimentation without regard to the ways that experimentation can change a person, putting a thumb on the scales and making it impossible to draw any reasonable conclusions about whether to transition. (This is a whole blog post in itself.)

From what I’ve seen, what passes for “support” for transition decisions on the Internet these days goes like this:

Q: I think I might be trans. I have trans feelings.
A: If you have trans feelings, you’re trans.
Q: I guess I’m trans, then. What do I do now?
A: Every trans person I know eventually transitions.
Q: I guess I’m transitioning, then! Where do I get hormones?
A: Here’s where I got them.

This is what Natalie Reed once told me she saw as her mission in the world. It’s bullshit, and it’s a bait-and-switch, and it needs to stop.

For the past several years, Zinnia Jones has been telling everyone to try hormones for a few weeks, and if they feel much happier then it means they’re Really Trans and should go ahead and transition. The evidence she based this advice on was pathetically scanty, and that alone should be enough to get her skeptic card revoked.

Support for people who decided not to transition and later reconsider is much the same. Once they decide not to transition, they are immediately classified as “not really trans,” and when they reconsider it’s the same Q and A as above.

Several detransitioners, both on the masculine and feminine spectrum, have said that they get virtually no support. As soon as they declare their detransitions they’re kicked out of the trans community (if they were ever accepted). It’s not too surprising that some detransitioned trans men convert to radical feminism after they detransition. It’s one of the few communities that will take them in. We don’t have anything like that on the feminine spectrum.

What I would like to see is trans people making a thorough examination and visioning of all the possibilities we can imagine, including what life might be like when we’re no longer young and pretty, then weighing them to find which one would be most satisfying. That’s what I did, but I don’t see anyone else doing it.

I’ve gotten a lot of email and blog comments from people who tell me how happy they are to find something beyond the usual dogma and flamewars. I do what I can, but nobody’s paying me to do this. I’m not a mental health professional. There should really be a group with a staff and a budget for this, but there isn’t.

As I said above, the principle that Experimentation Changes You deserves a whole blog post, maybe more than one. I’m working on one now.