Understanding the Stigma Faced by Transgender Women

Discrimination Isn't Based on Evidence, but Moral Panic

Multi gender bathroom signage in airport
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Transgender men and women face an incredible burden of discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives. Based on a comprehensive survey of transgender discrimination published in 2016, the statistics are frightening. More than half of youth perceived as transgender have been harassed at school, with a quarter being physically attacked. Ten percent of all transgender individuals responding to the survey had been sexually assaulted in the previous year.

More than fifty percent had been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.

Transgender people report discrimination in every setting you can imagine. They are harassed or discriminated against at home, at school, at work, and even in doctor's offices. They are at enormous risk of suicide and depression. They suffer from disproportionate rates of various disease, including HIV. These burdens are even more intense for transgender people of color.

Unfortunately, most people's awareness of transgender issues is not the discrimination they face. There is far more discussion about the perceived "threat" to non-transgender people of giving transgender individuals equal rights and protection under the law.

Bathroom Bills and Gender Panic

In recent years, one of the ways that anti-transgender discrimination has become more visible is in public opposition to what are colloquially known as "bathroom bills." Bathroom bills, more correctly called equal accommodation laws, are designed to allow transgender individuals to access the bathroom concordant with their gender identity.

Transgender women can use the women's bathroom. Transgender men can use the men's bathroom.

Unfortunately, many people are deeply opposed to these laws. Opposition is often said to be based on unfounded fears around sexual victimization. However, the reality is that it is more likely based in moral panic.

Most stated concerns about equal access focus on the sexual and moral danger to women posited to occur when male-bodied women are allowed into traditionally women’s-only spaces. That's why groups opposed to these laws often advocate by trying to  increase what some researchers refer to as gender panic.

Gender panic refers to the threat that many people believe exists when transgender women, who may still maintain their male genitalia, are allowed to enter women’s only spaces such as bathrooms. Rarely or never are similar concerns expressed about transgender men accessing men’s only spaces. This is presumably because women are seen as weak and vulnerable to being taken advantage of in a way that men are not. Similarly, transgender men are not seen as potential predators in the same way as transgender women, due to their early life female socialization.

These concerns are fundamentally based in how our society talks about sex and gender. Our cultural norms assume that men are naturally disposed to being sexually aggressive and even predatory. They also assume that women have little ability to resist. That's why one way to address this sort of gender panic is to educate people that having a penis does not make someone into either a man or into a sexual threat.

Transgender women are women, whether or not they happen to have a penis. They are far more likely to experience sexual assault than commit it. In fact, their rates of sexual victimization are much higher than those of cis women. (Cis women are women who are assigned female at birth.) 

Did you know: Some activists use the term cis-gender to refer to people whose gender identity matches their assigned sex at birth. Others prefer to say non-transgender. The first group has a stated goal of getting rid of a "transgender vs. normal" dichotomy that has a long history of discussion. The second believes that it is more useful for people whose gender is the same as their assigned sex at birth to be categorized by what they're not.

They're not transgender. 

Rape Culture and Trans Misogyny

Rape culture can make the presence of a penis in a historically female space seem dangerous, even if that penis is attached to another woman. Ironically, the way that femininity is associated with sexual vulnerability in American culture means that the very transgender women who are being framed as a threat by anti-accommodation activists are themselves often afraid of sexual victimization once they’ve transitioned and are living as women 

The problematic assumptions are components of what is often called rape culture. Fortunately, they can be addressed  through education and changing cultural norms. Society must do a better job of teaching that just because someone is raised as male, they will not necessarily be sexually predatory. We must also do a better job of teaching that women have both power and agency in their own sexuality. Doing both these things would not only be helpful for society at large. It could also potentially reduce the perceived threat associated with transgender women who may or may not still retain the visible sexual anatomy of a masculine body and are presumed unable to shed the psychological history of a masculine birth. Cultural education about gender identity could also help with these fears, as could explicit discussions of the fact that it is not the presence or absence of a penis that makes someone a man. 

Equal Access and Accommodation

Equal accommodation laws are beneficial to the transgender population without posing significant financial or other difficulties to the population as a whole. Although opposition is vocal, concerns are based in moral panic rather than on the evidence. Fortunately, history suggests that the best way to deal with discrimination based in moral panic is to reduce the legal acceptance of discrimination and segregation rather than enabling or tolerating it. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the majority of Americans find the notion of overt racial segregation unacceptable. With the proposed equal access legislation in place, gender identity based intolerance and discomfort will hopefully go away as well.

Sources:

James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.

Nuttbrock, L., Bockting, W., Rosenblum, A., Hwahng, S., Mason, M., Macri, M., & Becker, J.  (2013). Gender Abuse and Major Depression Among Transgender Women: A Prospective Study of Vulnerability and Resilience. American Journal of Public Health. e-View Ahead of Print.

Zerubavel, N. & Messman-Moore, T.L.  (2013) Sexual Victimization, Fear of Sexual Powerlessness, and Cognitive Emotion Dysregulation as Barriers to Sexual Assertiveness in College Women. Violence Against Women, 19 (12), 1518-1537.

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