Approaches to Transgender Politics and Inequality in Political Science

By Zein Murib

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North Carolina’s HB2, which was recently signed into law, criminalizes transgender and gender nonconforming people for using restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identities. The rapid passage of the bill in just 24-hours that didn’t allow for public comment or debate, as well as the claim that HB2 legislates discrimination against people who are trans and gender nonconforming, has drawn widespread scrutiny from across North Carolina and the U.S. An unlikely chorus of voices have come together to call for repeal, including interest groups, activists, governors, mayors, universities, and big business as well as an informal cultural ban that has resulted in Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr cancelling upcoming performances in North Carolina.

Although most of the media attention has been directed to North Carolina, legislation such as HB2 is not singular. Similar “bathroom bills” have been introduced or debated in a growing list of states that include Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, all of which seek to specify in varying ways that – in the language of North Carolina’s HB2 – people can only use facilities corresponding to their “biological sex as on a person’s birth certificate.”

I have written elsewhere about the implications of these bills for people who are transgender and gender nonconforming. Here, I address two different questions: What are these “bathroom bills” and how can we, as political scientists, use these contemporary political developments to teach about transgender politics and inequality in our courses?

An Incomplete Picture of Issues Facing Trans and Gender Non-Conforming People

In brief, North Carolina’s HB2 legally mandates that people use a sex-segregated bathroom or locker room corresponding to the sex documented on their birth certificates. Much like the campaign against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance this past November, the political actors behind NC’s HB2 mobilized support for the bill by scapegoating transgender women, who are cast as complicit in enabling sexual assaults of women and young girls in bathrooms.

These fears over an increase in sexual assaults, however, fail to stand up to the fact that there has never been an instance of a transgender woman perpetrating a sexual assault in a bathroom or locker room. ACLU staff attorney Chase Strangio points out that, by logical conclusion, local non-discrimination ordinances have never been used as a defense for somebody accused of perpetrating assault in a rest room or locker room. In fact, as legal scholar Dean Spade explains in the documentary, “Toilet Training,” it is actually the case that trans people themselves – especially trans people of color – who face disproportionate rates of assault and violence while using public restrooms and locker rooms.

Trans activists and political organizations have necessarily channeled efforts into not only repealing laws like the one in North Carolina, but also reframing the ways that transgender and gender nonconforming people are talked about by journalists and in the media. A recent video produced by Media Matters for America, for example, explains to journalists how and why they must debunk pernicious myths about trans people. These responses, however, portray only a very limited understanding of the issues and goals that mobilize the many different movements that together can be understood as “transgender politics.” 

Critical Interventions by Trans Activists and Scholars

The focus on political strategies that pursue state recognition for trans people as well as inclusion of trans people in non-discrimination ordinances and hate crimes protections elides the critical contributions of activists as well as scholars in the field of Trans Studies, many of whom argue that it is most often the state’s codification of difference that is responsible for the daily violence that trans and gender nonconforming people face. For instance, the possibility to update sex (male/female) as documented on birth certificates, which carries implications for driver’s licenses and passports, is an administratively onerous and expensive process that is only available in a handful of states. The perceived mismatch between documented sex and gender presentation results in intensified police scrutiny that has severe consequences for trans people in public spaces, especially trans people of color.

As such, these activists and scholars advocate to shift the focus towards changing and disrupting the conditions fostered by the law and institutions that make binary gender normal, natural, and assumed. These institutions include sex-segregated rest rooms, locker rooms, dormitories, prisons, and sports as well as the documentation of sex on drivers licenses, college identification cards, passports, and in employment applications.

These activists and scholars thus argue for a rethinking of gender to sever it from its presumed biological roots in sex or sex markers, such as chromosomes or physical traits.

Returning to the example of HB2, then, the solution advocated for under the political agenda put forth by trans activists and scholars would not be the introduction of more gender neutral bathrooms, but the complete elimination of all sex-segregated bathrooms in favor of single occupancy restrooms.

The politics imagined by trans activists as well as scholars in Trans Studies thus challenge legal recognition and inclusion as goals because these do little address or change the unique vulnerabilities and material conditions that shape the lives of people who are trans or gender nonconforming.

Teaching Trans Politics in the Classroom

In addition to providing tools and frameworks to better address contemporary political developments that impact people who are transgender and gender nonconforming, the inclusion of Trans Studies scholarship in political science undergraduate courses provides opportunities for instructors to introduce critical frameworks for understanding inequality and marginalization in two deeply connected ways.

First, the call to devote attention to the ways that laws and institutions maintain and reinforce rigid conceptualizations of binary gender directs students to develop more robust understandings of inequality and marginalization, particularly as these interact to shape the lives of all people, not just people who are trans.

Second, and most importantly for developing deeper understandings of inequality and marginalization, the critical frameworks from Trans Studies shift analysis away from the idea that identities naturally inhere in bodies and directs students to consider the ways that identities are mediated by political, social, and legal institutions.

To these ends, I have developed a syllabus of Trans Studies scholarship that aims to be of use to political scientists looking to learn more about transgender politics. It is a work in progress and by no means complete, but will hopefully serve as a starting point for those who are interested in including trans scholarship on syllabi or doing background reading for research.

Syllabus available here.

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,” was published in 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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