Lots of people are talking about the New York Times opinion piece, “My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She’s a Tomboy.” by Lisa Selin Davis and the responses to it. I was particularly frustrated with a Medium piece from Chase Strangio. Strangio attacks Davis and her argument from several angles, but the worst is when he privilege-shames her and essentially accuses her of inciting trans murders.
But connecting [questioning gender expression] to the affirmation of trans young people in their genders is reckless and dangerous and wrong. Trans youth are dying because society is telling them, telling us, that we are fake. Trans women and femmes of color are being murdered because the impulse is to believe that trans-ness is fraudulent, that our bodies are threats.
Strangio is a white trans man, not a trans woman or a femme of color, so it’s disingenuous right off the bat for him to refer to “our bodies.” It is not typically bodies like his – or even bodies like mine – that threaten people so much they kill.
Strangio is technically correct that some trans women have been murdered because people thought they were being deceitful, but to simplify the cause of violence against black and latina trans women to accusations of fraud is a gross distortion of the problem. This violence is intersectional: it is mostly directed at people who are seen as nonwhite, poor, immigrant, transgender, feminine, “gay,” and sex workers. Nonwhite poor immigrant feminine gay sex workers who aren’t seen as trans face a level of violence that is barely distinguishable from that faced by those who are trans.
Nonwhite trans women are more likely to be poor and sex workers. Not because they’re seen as deceivers, but because many of them are already in financially precarious positions, and then their families tend to throw them out for wearing women’s clothes. This drives them deeper into poverty and forces them to choose between sex work and hunger.
When a john accuses a transgender sex worker of “being a man,” he’s not just accusing her of romantic deception (if even that), he’s accusing her of fraudulent business practices. Sex workers get killed based on smaller accusations.
Poor communities in the United States tend to be less accepting of homosexual relationships than middle-class ones, which puts pressure on anyone who might be seen being involved with a trans woman. If a man is seen as gay, that can lead to loss of social standing, osfracism and harassment. And if he’s seen interacting with a trans woman, people in those communities will label him as gay. Some courageous men stand up to that kind of attack, but many others will take it out on the trans woman.
Strangio comes to this with an agenda: he wants himself and every trans person to be able to assert a gender without being questioned. I too want to be able to wear a dress without someone shouting “you’re a man!” at me – or even targeting me with microaggressions.
But let’s assume we could bring about Strangio’s vision of the world, where everyone could simply state their gender and receive title to all the roles, spaces and relationships associated with it. Who’s to say that all the dissatisfied johns and intolerant parents out there wouldn’t just move the goalposts and say that it’s okay to beat or kill a sex worker who doesn’t advertise that she has a penis, or to cast out a child who abruptly asserts a new gender without asking?
Still, let’s assume that somehow by legislating acceptance of gender declarations we can somehow prevent nonwhite, poor and immigrant teenagers from being thrown out of their family homes and killed for being feminine and trans. They still may wind up as sex workers because they’re poor, and they still may wind up getting killed because they’re poor, nonwhite and/or immigrants. Strangio seems to hint that questioning people’s gender is tied up in white supremacy, but he doesn’t explain how.
This lecture on privilege was written by a white lawyer with a large readership working for a nationally renowned nonprofit, and widely shared even as he laments that his Medium page is “lesser-read” than the New York Times. If Strangio had really wanted to center the challenges faced by poor, nonwhite trans women, why didn’t he just link to a post by a poor, nonwhite trans woman? If he couldn’t find anything written in response to the article by poor, nonwhite trans women, why didn’t he encourage some of his nonwhite transfeminine friends to write responses and then promote them?
Davis’s article is not about nonwhite trans women, so why bring them up? My feeling is that Strangio finds the article threatening for any number of reasons, so he fights back by saying one of the worst things you can say in his circles: privilege. But here’s the problem: Strangio is a white professional man criticizing a woman, which is one of the most privileged positions you can be in. His trans background is not really enough to overcome the gender difference, and he knows it. So he invokes the sufferings of black and latina trans women.
Can we please not do this? We should absolutely be talking about the murders of trans women and femmes, and what we can do to prevent them. And on this issue we should be letting the people most affected speak, and listening to what they say, as much as possible. But we should not be dragging this issue into an argument between two assigned-female white professionals over a white assigned-female child.