There’s been a lot of talk about Caitlyn Jenner recently.
And while it’s great to acknowledge Jenner for the autonomy and bravery that she displayed in making her public transformation, it’s just as important to acknowledge the context in which she did it.
A celebrated Olympian turned realty television star, Jenner holds a degree of privilege that most of us could only dream about. Her wealth, notoriety, and power allowed her to name herself and unveil herself on the cover of a prestigious magazine, with a team of professional photographers, celebrity stylists, make-up artists, and hairdressers behind her.
It goes without saying that the struggle for recognition, acceptance, and respect is not so easily won for all. Caitlyn Jenner represents the one percent of the one percent. As compelling and inspiring as her journey may be, it is not likely to ring true for the vast majority of trans people in Canada.
Trans people are some of the most marginalized people in society. Often the victims of harassment, violence, and discrimination, they are targeted simply for being themselves.
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs tracks the violence and harassment targeted at the LGBT community in the United States. Its most recent report indicates that violence crime against trans people has actually gone up in recent years, reaching an all time high in 2011. It also confirms that trans people, and particularly trans women, are disproportionally impacted by violent crime, including sexual assault and murder.
But this problem isn’t limited to the United States.
Vancouver’s own police department was recently in hot water over their transphobic treatment of an in-custody trans woman. The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ordered the VPD to pay the victim $15,000 for injuries to her dignity, feelings, and self-respect after they refused to address her with female pronouns or provide her post-surgery care.
In addition to being more frequent subjects of police brutality, trans people are also more at risk for poverty, unemployment, and homelessness. They experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Over 77 percent of trans respondents in a recent Ontario-based study had indicated that they considered suicide in the past, while 45 percent had made actual suicide attempts. These grim realities are reflective of living in a society where trans people are routinely dismissed, harassed, discriminated against, and attacked.
It is also important to recognize that trans women occupy a particularly precarious space in our patriarchal society. After all, they are subject to discrimination both as trans people and as women. In order to understand the intersectional discrimination that these women face, we must be able to identify gender-based violence as both anti-trans and anti-woman.
Consider the case of Kimberly Nixon and Vancouver Rape Relief. A trans woman, Nixon suffered a sexual assault and a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with a male partner. She therefore sought help at a not-for-profit support centre. Her positive experience at the centre inspired her to become a volunteer at Rape Relief. However, she was denied this opportunity on the sole basis that she was born in a male body.
Nixon filed a human rights complaint on the basis of sex, which was successful. However, Rape Relief appealed the decision and both the B.C. Supreme Court and the B.C. Court of Appeal found in their favour, ruling that because the organization is a nonprofit service provider, it is exempt from the Human Rights Code altogether. In essence, because of their nonprofit designation, this self-proclaimed “feminist” organization is allowed to make their own determinations about who is—or who is not—a woman, and exclude them accordingly. This means that they are allowed to discriminate against trans women. As a feminist and an ally to the trans community, I find this extraordinarily disturbing.
Even more disturbing is that this example is largely illustrative of trans women’s lived experiences.
That fact is that we have a long way to go. Although it’s nice to look ahead, we also have to remember where we came from. Brave individuals, like Kimberly Nixon and countless others, have paved the path towards equality and Caitlyn Jenner has helped further the popular discourse—but the journey is far from over. I look forward to a day when all trans people, regardless of race, age, socio-economic class, sexual orientation, gender, and ability, are celebrated as full and valued members of our community.
Until that day comes, we should continue on, in solidarity and in struggle.