We must continue fighting against misconceptions about transgender people

Molly Moss 28 February 2017

On February 22nd, the Trump administration announced its plans to withdraw the imposition of federal guidelines across all states regarding the rights of students to use whichever bathroom they preferred, aimed at accommodating the needs of transgender and non-binary students. However, Trumps’ backtracking of the federal guidelines is not a ‘wake-up call’ for the LGBTQ+ community in the way that some people may expect. While it is undoubtedly disheartening, this setback does not tell us that, as a product of the Trump administration and the satisfaction of those who elected him, we should be prepared to accept that continued progress towards recognition to our rights is on halt. It points to the dishearteningly pervading power of misconceptions which have been long rooted in our society regarding transgender people, misconceptions which we must (and can) seek out to eradicate.

While the overruling of these guidelines may seem like one of what are felt to be many inevitably regressive results of Trump’s election, the decision is not simply representative of the President’s own bigotry. That is not to say that his own prejudices have no role in this – indeed, figuring out the persuasions behind Trump’s decisions is often a bewildering task at best – but that it is also a result of a sense that expecting states to adhere to the guidelines will end largely in failure. This expectation of failure stems from the intensity of uncertainty regarding the promotion of transgender and non-binary rights within individual states, felt to be too strong for change to happen without serious backlash. The suggestion of Trump’s press secretary that such a ‘contentious’ issue was “not best dealt with at the federal level” as well as the response of thirteen states to immediately challenge the guidelines even when they were first announced (The Economist) indicates as such – that there is a heavy barrier in society within itself towards accepting that transgender and non-binary people deserve to have their rights recognised, which is embodied in popular rhetoric that allowing them to have a choice of which bathroom they use is a threat to others.

This rhetoric within which the uncertainty about transgender peoples’ rights manifests itself reveals common underlying assumptions about them. The idea that a transgender woman, or non-binary trans person, is merely a man who aims to use a female-gendered space to inflict sexual violence on women has a firm footing in the subconscious of not only citizens of many American states but in our own society too. Yet these fears seem somewhat misplaced when, in fact, at least 50% of transgender people in the United States have themselves been a victim of sexual assault (Rape Response Services). The assumption of the link between transgender women and a tendency towards sexual violence against other women in bathrooms also comes from an underlying assumption of their sexuality. Sexuality has no link to gender, and although far away from the US, we can draw from our own experiences of Glitterbomb in Cambridge’s Kuda (where gay men regularly and freely share the women’s bathroom) to note that there is no sense of a ‘threat’ if the men in the bathroom do not see women as sexual conquests. So, why is it that transgender women in particular, who may also not be romantically or sexually inclined to other women, and who themselves are extremely aware of the threat of sexual assault towards themselves, are assumed to be threats to others? The answer lies in flawed, presumptive ideas about some kind of unavoidable, biological urge to treat women as sexual objects, formed deeply in the fabric of their chromosome arrangement, which pushes transgender women under an umbrella of what can be seen as a ‘threat’ along with heterosexual, cisgender men. However, the desire to sexually assault women is not a biological urge of any kind – as we have established, it is reliant on not only sexuality but also a result of a socialised desire to emotionally and physically subjugate others, a kind of treatment which transgender people are often subject to rather than at the head of.

If we can establish that sexual violence against women is a socialised problem which results from teaching heterosexual men that they are not only entitled to using others in a way that prioritises their sexual needs, but that they also must assert their dominance and masculinity over them in such ways, we can begin to clear the misconception that sexual violence has some kind of ‘biological link’, and, by extension, that transgender people (in particular, transgender women) are inherently likely to be ‘sexual predators’ of some kind. Then we can begin to establish that the forced separation of people into bathrooms based merely on their chromosomes (as opposed to greater awareness about the socialisation of sexually violent tendencies to women within men) will do nothing to solve the problem of sexual violence that is often feared in allowing people to use whichever bathroom they please.

It would, of course, be unrealistic to say that the abolition of the federal guidelines allowing students to use whichever bathroom they prefer does not feel like a push back for the LGBTQ+ community. It is constantly frustrating and upsetting to see the importance of policies that protect our rights be undermined rather than reinforced. But we have been redirected to think about where the problem of intolerance begins: not just in Trump and his administration, or in fact within the prejudices of any authoritative institution, but in the misconceptions about transgender people that are rampant among citizens of both American society as well as our own.