Transgender Visibility and Political Inclusion

By Zein Murib

photo by Armando Trull

photo by Armando Trull

The invitation to write for this blog arrived the night before two major news stories pertaining to transgender people broke. First, Caitlyn Jenner’s long-awaited acceptance of the Arthur Ash Award at the ESPYs, and the issuance of an 18-page memorandum from Immigration Custody and Enforcement (ICE) to guide the care of transgender detainees. While the sudden explosion of media attention for transgender people hardly makes the publication of these news stories unique, I highlight two specific articles covering these transgender events below in order to foreground some of the contentions I make about transgender political identity in my forthcoming Politics, Groups, and Identities piece (available online here). I do so with two goals in mind. The first is to offer a primer for political scientists interested in learning about transgender as an identity category. The second is to briefly call attention to the marginalization that occurs within the transgender category, especially in light of the significant gains made by some transgender people in the public spotlight.

Caitlyn Jenner’s ESPY speech

Last week, NY Daily News published the transcript of Caitlyn Jenner’s speech at the ESPY (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award) ceremony. In the speech, Jenner reflects on her recent public transition and the state of acceptance for transgender people:

If there is one thing I do know about my life, it is the power of the spotlight….I know I am clear with my responsibility going forward, to tell my story the right way – for me, to keep learning, to do whatever I can to reshape the landscape of how trans issues are viewed, how trans people are treated. And then more broadly to promote a very simple idea: accepting people for who they are. Accepting people’s differences.

Taking this mandate to use her new public platform to hopefully change hearts and minds by exposing the stigmas that trans people face, Jenner then goes on to mention the brutal murder of a transgender woman in Mississippi and the suicide of a transgender boy in Michigan. She concludes with a message of hope, highlighting the impending changes to include transgender people from the military as, “a great idea” and celebrating the young trans-identified athletes currently competing in sports.

ICE guidelines for the care of transgender detainees

In an editorial piece published on Truthout, Chase Strangio reviews the revised ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) guidelines for the care of transgender detainees in custody. While foregrounding the new policy of placing transgender-identified men and women in the sex-segregated detention facility that aligns with their gender identification, Strangio points out that the issue of trans detainees merits further scrutiny on two fronts. First, the new policies are unlikely to result in detainees being housed appropriately, if only because the new guidelines do not mandate or provide any mechanisms for its enforcement, but merely require that any requests to be housed in a specific facility be respected. This allows individual ICE officers to make decisions according to their own criteria. Second, while these ICE changes might go far in helping to mitigate sexual assault of transgender women (transgender women make up a very small percentage of detainees, but comprise 20% of reported sexual assaults while in detention), the recommendations do little to alleviate the violence of detention itself. A 2010 New York Times article, for example, reported that 107 deaths had occurred in ICE detention facilities since 2003, including a trans woman, Victoria Arellano, who died in ICE custody when she was denied medical care.

Visibility for whom?

Both pieces highlight the continuing importance of trans efforts to fight for social and political visibility in public life. Visibility, in fact, has been a site of political contention in transgender, lesbian, gay, and bisexual activism for decades. As I show in my exploration of transgender political identity in the 1990s, activists and scholars pursued the goal of increased visibility for transgender people as a way to combat the erasure of gender non-normativity that was imposed by doctors and psychiatrists in the US since the 1950s (see historian Joanne Meyerowitz’s How Sex Changed). These calls for people to publicly identify as transgender were coupled with the introduction of trans-identified people in politics to advocate for rights and protections in a new coalition with lesbian, gay, and bisexual-identified people.

For Jenner, visibility is a responsibility. She uses her new platform to regularly draw attention to the violence directed to trans women of color at the same time that she offers humble reflections on her transition being facilitated by her substantial wealth. Visibility for Jenner cumulates in her oft-repeated remarks on inclusion in the military and sport, which suggests a tight relationship between visibility, recognition, and inclusion that is typical in rights-based liberal paradigms often touted by LGBT interest groups like the HRC (Human Rights Campaign).

Strangio, however, draws out some of the subtle tensions entailed in the politics of visibility and inclusion. For undocumented trans-identified people, visibility at the intersection of race and perceived gender identity invites increased state scrutiny that might lead to deportation, detainment, and harassment. Considering visibility in this light reveals political scientist Paisley Currah’s contention that:

For any particular state apparatus at a given moment, the apparently minor issue of the criteria for sex classification might be supporting more weight than we might imagine; calling for its reform might involve more changes than we had anticipated, and consequently engender more resistance than initially seems reasonable. So it’s important to understand in each particular context, no matter how apparently mundane, what sex is doing and how that doing is imbricated with other systems of social stratification.

As Currah suggests here, the revised federal guidelines for the treatment of transgender detainees by ICE stands to buttress the practices of deportation and detainment, not challenge them. Enhanced visibility, in this view, thus carries severe consequences for undocumented transgender people currently living and working in the US, particularly when activists like Jannicet Guiterrez, who attracted attention for her protest at a White House pride celebration, have called for ICE detention a system of “torture and abuse” for transgender people.=

Thus, the visibility so movingly advocated for by Jenner, resplendent on stage in a white Versace gown, could very well place other transgender-identified people in positions of precarity. Visibility, acceptance, and inclusion, in other words, have been foreclosed for some trans-identified people at the very same time that visibility, recognition, and acceptance have been opened up for others.

Visibility is an ongoing important goal, but as I hope I have shown above, public visibility should not be confused with public inclusion. Similarly, visibility or inclusion in institutions should not be confused with producing reforms that will ultimately benefit all transgender-identified people the same ways. As Heath Fogg Davis concludes in a 2014 Perspectives on Politics piece, “Gender-identity laws can help spark self-reflection and guide our actions by reminding us to consider the potential impact of our words and actions on those whose race-sex appearances challenge our imagined ideals of what ‘real’ men and women should look, sound, and behave like.” In other words, the visibility drawn by these administrative reforms provides an opportunity to rethink sex-based segregation and documentation in important and fruitful ways that contain the potential to minimize violence and political consequences for all people, not just those who identify as transgender.

Zein Murib is a PhD candidate at University of Minnesota. Zein’s latest publication, “Transgender: Examining an Emerging Political Identity Category Using Three Political Processes,” is available, free to everyone, in the Virtual Special Issue from Politics, Groups, and Identities. Additional scholarship by Zein was published last year in Transgender Studies Quarterly; check out that article, “LGBT.”

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