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There Still Is No Hierarchy Of Oppression

Above Photo: Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images.

On The Betrayal Of Transgender Citizens.

In 1983, Poet and philosopher Audrey Lorde published a short essay  called “There is no hierarchy of oppression.” In it, she lays out a maxim that is elegant in its simplicity and profound in its meaning. She asserted that people experience various oppressions simultaneously, so we are obligated to fight all oppression wherever it exists. She wrote, “I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only. I cannot afford to believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to destroy me. And when they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you.” Yet, there are those who claim the mantle of intersectionality and social justice who dismiss Lorde’s wisdom. There are many examples of this happening today but what I am referring to and is the subject of this essay is the issue of transgender rights.

First and foremost, in the interest of intellectual honesty and common human decency, it must be stated plainly that there is no trans menace seeking to impose its will on cisgender America. There are only trans people demanding that cisgender people and the state respect their rights as human beings and as citizens of the United States and those, such as trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), transphobic theocrats, morally bankrupt politicians, and bigoted Hoteps, who seek to deny trans people both their human and civil rights.

The assertions made by transphobes about transgender people are matters of simple bigotry and remain simple bigotry even when they try to make it respectable by appropriating feminism, concerns about the Black community, or God. Transgender people are not a new phenomenon in human history; they have always been one of the many diverse ways that humans live. The controversy lies in some cisgender people’s struggle or outright refusal to accept that the concept of gender as a biological certainty they were taught in school and society was not historically, social scientifically, or biologically true, and that trans people have become more visible in American society in the last few decades.

I’m a cisgender man, meaning that my gender identity is that same-gender identity that was assumed at birth, so some readers may be wondering why I have chosen to write an essay on transgender identity, meaning those whose gender identity is different from the gender they were assumed to be at birth, rights and ask how I can speak to an existence that I will never live. They are correct. I will never know what it is to be subject to anti-transgender bigotry. That is my privilege as a cisgender person in America. Ultimately, transgender people are the final authority on what is and what is not anti-transgender discrimination and harassment because it is the sole prerogative of marginalized communities to describe the various oppressions that impact their daily lives.

The Roman African playwright Publius Terentius Afer wrote “humani nihil a me alienum puto” which translates as I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me. I do not believe this is true in all things as intersectionality means there are human experiences that I can never fully understand because I do not occupy that intersection; I do not live that life.

This essay is not meant to speak for trans people but rather to speak in defense of transgender people to cisgender bigots and those who weakly support transgender rights because while I can never truly understand the transgender experience, I do recognize human suffering when I see it. I recognize that transgender people in the United States are being made to suffer in all communities including my own African American culture. This is morally repulsive to me because I refuse, unlike some of the undoubtedly upset critics of this essay freely engage in, to deny recognizing the humanity of transgender people because their humanity is my humanity, and their rights are my rights. Allow me to unpack what I mean.

I adhere to the maxim that the reason that any group is marginalized is that a critical mass of people either directly participate in their marginalization or are tolerant of their marginalization although they are not active in its perpetuation which makes them complicit in the acts. In this sense, the reason that transgender people are marginalized in American society is because a critical mass of cisgender people is either active in or complicit in this marginalization.

I also adhere to the maxim that, like all forms of bigotry, the hatred of transgender people is a moral catastrophe that contorts the morality of cisgender people who engage in this group think madness and devastates reason.

It is important to think of anti-trans bigotry like any form of bigotry as a moral catastrophe that happens at the individual, communal and cultural level. A parent who is anti-trans is incapable of the unconditional love required to be a parent because they will reject their own child for being trans and be cruel to their cisgender child for associating with trans people. An anti-trans bigot will physically attack transgender people on sight with stunning ferocity. Communities infected with anti-transgender animus will allow people to suffer simply because they are different. They allow transgender people to be murdered and never investigate the crime or only pay paltry attention to it. A culture infected with anti-transgender animus will pass laws against transgender people simply trying to live their lives and deny them equal opportunity. They will erase them from the larger narratives of the culture as if they do not exist and never have existed; this is how for example in the black community individuals can sit there and say with a straight face about how LGBTQIA people get immediate redress of their grievances while black people don’t as if black LGBTQIA people didn’t exist; they are so deeply embedded in their bigotry, they don’t even notice the erasure.

I place no value in hearing the reasoning of anti-trans people because bigotry is devoid of reason. Bigotry is the death of reason and I place no value in hearing the moral justifications that anti-trans people present to justify their bigotry because bigotry is profoundly immoral and is therefore incapable of moral reasoning or justification. There are no good faith arguments coming from those who oppose the rights of transgender people because there is no such thing as a good faith argument in favor of denying people their rights. I recognize the anti-trans polemics for what they are- attempts to dress up simple bigotry as intellectual thought, philosophical endeavors, and theorizing about human complexities. It is bigotry that fuels a politics of cruelty; nothing more.

All bigoted discourse is a pantomime of real deliberation and thought because a bigot, by virtue of choosing to be a bigot or remain a bigot have surrendered their ability to think. All that remains is empty platitudes and pitiful attempts at “inquiry”. For example, anti-trans bigots invoke “nature” as a justification for their hatred but they know little about nature, biological sex, or gender.

In the real world, sex and gender are different concepts. Sex is biological. Gender is social. One is born into a sex. One decides for themselves how they will perform gender. Contrary to the often taught sex binary we were all taught in school, biological sex itself is a spectrum that includes male, female, and intersex persons where, according to Claire Ainsworth writing) for Nature that was republished in the Scientific American, “Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary —their ( individuals) sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another.” Gender itself is a cultural set of norms and performances that signal gender. There are as many genders as a culture creates, performs, and blends.

These are simply facts but none of this will matter to a bigot because bigotry destroys reason.

Anti-transgender bigotry is so profound that it has people advocating denying transgender people their human and civil rights but in the next breath, these same people pivot to demanding that their own rights be respected. They claim, without hesitancy, that their own lives matter but trans lives do not.

To be clear, it is unadulterated hypocrisy to say that one supports human rights and civil rights except in the case of transgender people. This is the sort of morally devastated reasoning that considers some people more human than others and that the protections of citizenship should be a privilege rather than a right given to all.

As a member of the Black community, I find bigotry towards transgender people especially egregious considering that the plan to end Jim Crow was devised by noted legal scholar Pauli Murray, who today would be considered gender fluid. This is to say that every Black person in America owes every civil right they enjoy to a person who did not fit into America’s gender binary of masculine vs feminine, yet there are those among us who wish to debate the rights of members of our own community. One cannot say that “Black Lives Matter, except for the trans ones” and claim that they are pro-Black. Anti-trans hatred is anti-blackness; it is a profound act of self-loathing. This anti-Blackness has led to the murder of over 50 and over 40 transwomen in 2021 and 2020, respectively. Many of the murdered were Black and brown; some were murdered by strangers and others were murdered by those who desired them but whose bigotry twisted that into a violent rage. These transwomen were victims of a bigotry that is too often allowed to go unchecked and undenounced because to confront it requires the community to examine femininity, masculinity, sexuality, and religion; but the Black community cannot truly state that we believe that our lives matter if we do not confront this hatred that robs us of Black trans lives. If a cultural reckoning is what is required for the community to finally be free, then let the reckoning begin.

Of course, Anti-transgender bigotry is not limited to the Black community because anti-transgender hatred is not limited to the Black community. It is an internal hatred that makes it self-loathing.  Anti-Transgender hatred is a philosophical malady is found in every race, ethnicity, religion, class, and sexual orientation in the United States and it is always foolishness.If bigotry can be described as the emperor of insanities, then the hatred of transgender people is one of its high priests.

One of the truly egregious realities of anti-transgender bigotry among the cisgender population is that in their hatred, the bigoted cisgender debase their own human and civil rights. And there is a difference between human and civil rights where the former applies to the rights all humans have and the latter applies to the rights given by a government.

Cisgender people must accept that trans rights are human and civil rights. This is not only a slogan but also a fact. Both human and civil rights can be metaphorically understood as a chain made up of individual interconnected links. Each link is a particular classification of people who have had to have their rights enumerated in law. Race is a link, and it is connected to sex, religion, ethnicity, language, and disability. Gender identity is a link in this chain. If one link is weak or absent, the entire chain of human rights and the chain of civil rights is weakened and, therefore, negotiable.

For cisgender people to deny transgender people their civil rights ultimately undermine cisgender people’s human and civil rights because they would have already conceded the argument that only certain classes of people have full rights as human beings and citizens while other classes have fewer rights; the only debate, then, is who has less rights.

But this metaphor is overly clean. Intersectionality, or the fact that we occupy multiple links in the chain simultaneously, is the lived reality of all people. So, Black human and civil rights cannot be secure if trans rights are insecure because there are trans Black people, and denying them their full rights means that the human and civil rights of the entire Black community are insecure. This is the case for any group that can be named: white, Hispanic, Jewish, atheist, able-bodied, those with both visible and invisible disabilities, the old, and the young.

What does the denial of transgender human rights look like? I can only speak to what is evident from the perspective of a cisgender man that is not subject to this bigotry, so what I describe is limited. What is evident to all that look is that the denial of transgender human rights is truly a spectrum of cruelties that ranges from denying transgender people the dignity of addressing them by their chosen names and pronouns to the routine murder of transgender people, especially trans women of color. The Williams Center at UCLA stated in a 2021 report that,

  • Transgender people (16+) are victimized over four times more often than cisgender people. In 2017-2018, transgender people experienced 86.2 victimizations per 1,000 people compared to 21.7 victimizations per 1,000 people for cisgender people.
  • Transgender women and men had higher rates of violent victimization (86.1 and 107.5 per 1,000 people, respectively) than cisgender women and men (23.7 and 19.8 per 1,000 people, respectively).
  • One in four transgender women who were victimized thought the incident was a hate crime compared to less than one in ten cisgender women.
  • In 2017-2018, transgender households had higher rates of property victimization (214.1 per 1,000 households) than cisgender households (108 per 1,000 households).
  • About half of all violent victimizations were not reported to police. Transgender people were as likely as cisgender people to report violence to police.

What does the denial of transgender civil rights look like? Like human rights, it is a spectrum that includes such affronts to civil rights like the “trans panic defense”, which are “”seek to partially or completely excuse crimes such as murder and assault on the grounds that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction” according to the American Bar Association, not being prohibited which is the case in 35 states and 5 territories according to the Movement Advancement Project.

And then there is the stunning cruelty of anti-transgender legislation targeting elementary and high schools and the recent Governor’s letter in Texas that calls on teachers and doctors to report parents of transgender children that seek out gender-affirming care for child abuse. These bills target students, which is another way of saying that they target children, while the letter targets families for destruction.

The anti-transgender legislation and other measures erupting like prickly heat across the country are a special case of how anti-transgender bigotry is a moral catastrophe. Any political ideology, social ideology, or philosophy that can justify harming children on any level but especially in law is profoundly morally devastated. The persecution and attempted persecution of transgender youth by lawmakers exposes how deep moral depravity inherent to bigotry really is.

Just as Jim Crow education was State-sanctioned abuse of children of color, the same is true of these anti-transgender laws in regard to trans children. And it must be emphasized that these are children being subjected to the stunning cruelty of adults perfectly content in watching their suffering. The adult crafters, supporters, and advocates of these laws are firmly aware of the harm they are inflicting. They simply do not care because the inflicting of suffering upon those they have determined are deviant is more than politically expedient. For them, it is morally required.

All of this cruelty dressed up as concern and philosophy, in the mind of transphobic bigots, is morally required. Social justice does not allow for this. Feminism does not allow for this. Afro-Centrism does not allow for this. Human rights do not allow for this. Civil rights do not allow for this. Only bigotry allows for this. This is why transphobia is incompatible with any concept of democracy or community. Bigotry and any concern for humanity are incompatible because bigotry seeks to destroy humanity. Audrey Lorde was right when she said that there was no hierarchy of oppression; only bigots seem unable to understand that this was not a mere suggestion. It was the maxim by which social justice and intersectionality exist.

Trans activist Marsha P. Johnson said that “You never completely have your rights, one person, until you all have your rights.” Her sentiment was shared by Maya Angelou, and Emma Lazarus. This sentiment was also shared by Martin Luther King, Jr. In his seminal Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This is both wisdom and warning from one of the most, if not the most, important American social and political thinkers the country has ever produced. The human and civil rights of the cisgender and the transgender are not intertwined; they are the same rights. By securing transgender rights, we secure the rights of all Americans to be who they are without fear of persecution. Cisgender people must not look away. We must stare, condemn, and act not because it is politically expedient, but because it is the right thing to do.

Marsha P Johnson asked, “How many years has it taken people to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race?” The answer is too many. We must either accept her wisdom as truth and live in peace, or we will die with a lie on our lips and hatred in our hearts.

Social justice, like any form of justice, is a choice and the time for choosing is now. Either you believe there is no hierarchy of oppression, or you do not. Either you believe in social justice, or you do not.

Choose. The world is watching.

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