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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Windows into the Lives of Transgender People

Popular discourse has circulated the acronym LGBT very well, yet most of my friends only know the meaning of the first three letters mean—Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual. The last is transgender, and when asked, most of my friends would know nearly nothing about this group. It could be because there are so few transgenders compared to homosexuals and bisexuals. I, however, think that the silence about transgender people reveals society’s ideological project of gender essentialism, and that the rare news articles about this minority act as counterdisourses against the prevalent gender mythology.
In the January 5th, 2010, article, “First Transgender Presidential Appointee Fears Being Labeled ‘Token,’” Russell Goldman wrote about President Obama’s new technical adviser for the U.S. Commerce Department, Amanda Simpson, the first openly transgender person to hold such a high position of government. A major concern for many in the LGBT community about this appointment is it may be a token. Simpson fears people will view her like one and second guess her qualifications. However, as Goldman reports, Mara Keiling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), believes that the appointment was not in order to “fill a transgender spot” because Simpson is also very qualified. Keiling may be more sympathetic towards Simpson’s fears because Simpson served on the board of directors of the NCTE for three years, a fact which Goldman notes at the very end of his article.
In another article written about a year later, the Associated Press (AP) explains how marginalization presents major difficulties in addressing the problem of life-long societal and institutional discrimination of transgenders. This article, titled “Transgender Activists Face Multiple Challenges,” begins by pointing out a correlation between “transgender Americans [facing] intolerance in almost every aspect of their lives, contributing to high levels of homelessness, unemployment and despair.” The AP responded to and reports on a recent “comprehensive” survey of 6,450 transgender people by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality. Before looking into the survey data, it brings up the well-publicized repeal of the policy Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), pointing out a much overlooked fact: While gay-rights groups celebrate the legislative victory, the military still may discriminate against transgenders. Next, the article discusses other legislative blocking of policy that deals with gender identity and then moves to the distressing statistics, especially of black transgender people. Addressing the perception transgender people have of their relation with the LGBT community, the AP quotes the transgender aide of U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, Diego Sanchez as saying that many transgender people feel as if the “‘T’ [in LGBT] instead meant ‘token’” and like they are “‘a minority inside of a minority.’” The article ends on a positive note, quoting optimistic statements from Keiling about the progress made with the help of the gays and lesbian activists at decreasing hate and increasing transgender awareness.
Though the two articles were published a little over a year apart from each other, they share key characteristics. Both refer to tokens, specifically transgender people feeling like tokens. Both present the frustration transgenders feel towards Obama and the way transgenders are treated by the federal government. The articles reveal within that continuity of furstration with the Obama administration for many transgender activists against the military’s discriminatory practices even after Congress repealed DADT. Both articles only quote transgender people and information provided or gathered by LGBT organizations. Among their quotes, the articles cite Mara Keiling of the NCTE giving more positive interpretations of the event in question than many of her peers. Both articles also report mention difficulties faced by transgender people in the work environment.
In interpreting the articles, one might reasonably conclude that transgenders face more marginalization because they are a ‘minority within a minority’. Both articles deal with the small numbers of transgender people in their own respective ways. Simpson is the first openly transgender person to a position her importance in U.S. government. As the Associated Press article quotes, Keiling believes that “the LGBT movement—by sheer force of numbers and financial support—was inevitably going to focus on the agenda of gays and lesbians rather than transgender people.”
While transgender people make up only very small demographic, an important variable in addressing discrimination, this interpretation fails to account for the immense effect societal notions of gender has on discourse. While Congress allows lesbian, gays, and bisexual activists debate in over legislation, Congress bars transgender people from it. The title of the survey that the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality is “Injustice at Every Turn,” alluding to domination throughout society of discriminatory practices towards transgenders. Because of the wide-spread ideology of gender essentialism, society has refused to show, as the black trans woman Ja’briel Walthour of Hinesville, Georgia, put it, “an ounce of empathy or compassion for individuals who may be displaying atypical gender roles.” , In other words, not only is society silent, it is silencing, and these articles acts as windows into lives and perspectives of this usually silent minority.
Understanding that news articles about transgenders tend to act as windows, one can expect other articles about transgenders to cite similar people, events, and statistics in order to provide a similar look into this minority. For example, Susan Donaldson James’ article, “Transgender Ridicule: Models to ‘Saturday Night Live’ Sketches”, follows the same discourse. It starts with a story about workplace discrimination of a trans man, shifts to the same survey cited in the Associated Press article, and ends with a story about LGBT groups asking for an apology for a “Saturday Night Live” sketch which ridicules trans women. Knowing that ABC News published this only a few days before the Associated Press article also provides an explanation for why the same survey is cited. Of the relatively hard to find articles about transgender people in the news, they generally provide the same counterdiscourse towards a predominant gender essentialist ideology.

Works Cited
The Associated Press. Transgender Activists Face Multiple Challenges. Rep. CBS News, 4 Feb. 2011. Web. 7 Feb. 2011. .
Goldman, Russel. First Transgender Presidential Appointee Fears Being Labelled "Token' Rep. ABC News, 5 Jan. 2010. Web. 7 Feb. 2011. .
James, Susan D. Transgender Ridicule: Models to 'Saturday Night Live' Sketches. Rep. ABC News, 1 Feb. 2011. Web. 7 Feb. 2011. .

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