By Danielle M. Bergan
When MauiTime asked me to write an article on trans-rights and transphobia, it sent thoughts racing through my head at light speed. There’s so much happening in and to our Trans community in the summer of 2017 and most of it is a clear and present danger to who we are not just as citizens, but as human beings.
Backtracking a bit, when I began my transition 10 years ago I set up Google alerts to send me transgender news daily. I might receive three to five emails a week. Now, I average 20 to 25 emails daily. This is because our presence as a community has grown, as well as our acceptance. Yet, it is still an uphill battle because a great deal of these news stories I receive are filled with sadness, prejudice, rejection and violence (including murder). Last year there were 26 murders nationally of Transgender people, mostly Trans women of color. We’re on track this year to surpass this number.
So please believe me when I say that transphobic America is not just confined in the conservative, right wing, red states of our country (although it’s more pronounced there). It exists right in our own backyard here in Hawaii.
In this article, I want to break down what I see as the attack on all sides that we as transgender Americans are facing today; from the segregated bathroom bills of Texas; to the ban on transgender service in the military by President Donald Trump; to loss of protections under Title VII; to lack of acceptance in Hawaii. By the end of this article I hope you’ll see how our community is in need of your compassion, your love and your assistance as a supporter and an ally to our future.
TRANSPHOBIA IN THE BATHROOM
Just last summer, a fear swelled throughout Hawaii when the state Department of Education (DOE) announced their Transgender Guidance policy on transgender students. I had friends who are parents suddenly posting in social media their fear for their daughters that men would now be able to come into the girl’s rooms if they felt like they were a girl on any particular day.
This is the modus operandi of fear that’s used most commonly against our transgender community, implying that being transgender is similar to a choice you make like, “Do I have cereal or eggs for breakfast?” The only choice involved is resolving to live in the gender that you know you were born as in your mind, heart and soul. The fear also implied that actual trans Male to Female (MTF) students were just boys in girls clothing, which is absolutely wrong!
This policy went into effect at the onset of the 2016 school year. In fact, Kauai School Superintendent Bill Arakaki was quoted in The Garden Island last January as saying, “Our students have been great. They really understand their classmates and what they’re going through and they really work together on campus. The community and students accept their peers and what each person says. We’re in Hawaii; we’re in a melting pot.”
On the other side of the coin, on Oahu, a transgender teacher (whose name I will keep anonymous at their request) felt not enough has been done yet.
“Some schools have not really implemented the policies and there is no accountability,” the teacher said. “While students seem to be able to use the bathroom of their presenting gender, I think there needs to be a task force that reviews all schools and keeps them accountable to the guidelines.”
While our state is working in a positive direction to assist our trans youth, Texas seeks to isolate and potentially harm them. Led by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, the Texas legislature was called back into special session after the regular legislative session failed to pass Senate Bill 6. The essence of this bill is to require transgender individuals to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities based on, “biological sex.” The measure would also preempt local nondiscrimination ordinances that allow transgender Texans to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
Despite passionate testimony from several trans-adults, children and parents of transgender children, the bill was passed in the Texas Senate 21-10 and is currently being discussed in the state House.
A strange ally to the Texas transgender community is big business. As we know, money talks in America and major companies such as Shell, Exxon, Apple, Microsoft, American Airlines and IBM, to name a few are against the bill. Their fears are well documented as North Carolina’s HB2 (a similar transgender bathroom ban cost the state millions in revenue) which included PayPal canceling plans for a $2.6 billion facility, NCAA and NBA cancellations of playoff games and the All-Star games and several conventions and concerts were additionally cancelled. If Texas passes the ban, the estimated economic cost (according to the Texas Association of Business) will be $8.5 billion in GDP and an estimated 185,000 jobs.
Personally, I feel if the bill becomes law I’d love to see transgender men (female to male, FTM), with birth certificate in hand, go as a group into the women’s rooms to use the bathroom. This would prove the ridiculousness of this legislation to all concern.
Yet the real loss, in my eyes, is to the transgender children themselves. They will suffer from rejection, bullying and possibly death by suicide. This is the real danger substantiated by a 2016 study by the National Institute of Mental Health. They found that suicidal thoughts and attempts by trans-children were significantly related to, “Perceived burdensomeness and thwarted belongingness.” It’s no wonder that our nation’s transphobia has led to a 40 percent suicide attempt rate (the national average) of transgender individuals.
TRANSGENDER IN THE MILITARY
On July 26 of this year, Trump tweeted, “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow…… .Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming….. victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”
This backlash against our 15,000 transgender military service men and women set off a firestorm of outspoken anger and frustration from military personnel followed by great support from allies. Hawaii Attorney General Douglas Chin led the way on July 27 with a letter to the U.S. Senate and House Armed Services Committees, supported by 18 other attorneys general, that expresses opposition to Trump’s ban. “The decision to oust honorable, well-trained, and patriotic service members based on nothing but their gender identity is undiluted discrimination and therefore indefensible,” states the letter. “We urge this newly announced policy be immediately reversed.”
U.S. Senator John McCain, R–Arizona and Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, rejected Trump’s statement. “There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train, and deploy to leave the military–regardless of their gender identity,” he said. “We should all be guided by the principle that any American who wants to serve our country and is able to meet the standards should have the opportunity to do so.”
In regards to the tremendous costs that the President was referring to, it amounts to about $8.4 million a year, or roughly 0.017 percent of the nation’s defense budget. It’s well documented that the military spends five times that amount on Viagra. I suppose the only real “hard on” here is against trans-personnel by Trump himself.
Addressing readiness to perform and serve, perhaps the president should know transgender troops have been serving since the Revolutionary War. Robert Shirtliff served with the Continental Army and was wounded in battle on multiple occasions. While being medically treated for a wound in battle, it was discovered that Robert was really Deborah Sampson, and was thus discharged. Eventually she received a military pension, and her readiness for combat was never at question.
Furthermore, Trump’s own military commanders were caught off guard by the announcement. The Pentagon was still investigating the impact of trans service readiness, which was not due out until December. In fact, the Rand Corporation had already reported in a study that transgender military personnel posed no threat to our military readiness. Additionally, 56 retired generals, admirals and senior military officers signed a letter sent to the president stating a transgender ban would be disruptive and degrade the readiness of all troops.
In the polls, 58 percent of Americans are against the ban. Those who are in favor of it buy into the false notion of stigma, as Trump does, that a transgender individual is somehow lesser than a normal military service person. This is simply not true. Trans military personnel are as well-trained, well-disciplined and ready for combat as anyone else in their unit. Transgender service members fill several critical military positions and retaining these individuals is not a weakness to our military readiness.
While I never served in the military, Robyn Walters, a transgender woman from Kihei has. Walters is a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy and a retired Lt. Commander. “There is no time for bigotry in today’s Armed Services,” she said. “Transgender service members should not have to hide and lie, but should be able to freely serve our country.”
It’s my hope that Trump’s ignorance and bigotry will lead to further understanding of our community as patriots and Americans who are just as willing and able to serve their country as anyone else is.
TITLE VII PROTECTIONS
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act “prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.” For years, LGBTQ employees lost cases trying to cite this protection under the definition of “sex.” Then in 2012, a transitioning transgender woman changed the game.
Presented as a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the case of Macy vs Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) determined that Mia Macy was discriminated against because she was transgender. According to the EEOC, “as used in Title VII, the term ‘sex’ ‘encompasses both sex–that is, the biological differences between men and women–and gender.’ As the Eleventh Circuit noted… Title VII barred ‘not just discrimination because of biological sex, but also gender stereotyping–failing to act and appear according to expectations defined by gender.’ As such, the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are often used interchangeably to describe the discrimination prohibited by Title VII. That Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination proscribes gender discrimination, and not just discrimination on the basis of biological sex, is important. If Title VII proscribed only discrimination on the basis of biological sex, the only gender-based disparate treatment would be when an employer prefers a man over a woman, or vice versa. But the statute’s protections sweep far broader than that, in part because the term ‘gender’ encompasses not only a person’s biological sex but also the cultural and social aspects associated with masculinity and femininity.”
Based on this ruling, transgender individuals have won many discrimination cases in the public sector. It also led to a 2015 EEOC ruling that made clear that discrimination based on sexual discrimination is illegal. But now, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said–on the same day Trump announced his transgender military ban, in fact–that Title VII does not protect employees based sexual discrimination.
Clearly, this is yet another battlefront arising from prejudice and stigma. It’s especially distressing because President Barack Obama was such a forward thinker and man of compassion for American citizens. It further denigrates us as second class citizens, in the same other forms of discrimination did to other Americans over our nation’s history.
TRANSGENDER IN HAWAII
Those of us who are Mahu (historically a third gender designation in Hawaiian culture, now used as slang for transgender) in Hawaii face may challenges and stereotypes in regards to acceptance. I love it on Maui because Hawaii is more forgiving and progressive towards us because of the Aloha spirit, but we’re still not always accepted by family, friends, classmates, co-workers and clergy.
I want to share with you the perspective from some fellow trans sisters and brothers. I asked each of them to share with me their biggest concerns in regards to being Mahu in Hawaii. Their answers are honest, candid and sadly true:
[Social worker at the Maui Aids Foundation]
“We’re lucky to live in Hawaii where we have good transgender healthcare in place. Also being trans here is more accepting because we are more liberal, culturally diverse and culturally competent to many walks of life. The majority of Polynesian people know that transgender people thrived and lived peacefully long before Western contact came to Hawaii.
“Trans women are challenged to find substantial employment here and many are finding quick funds in the sex industry. Not only are there dangers to contracting HIV and STDs, the threat of violence can be real and fatal.
“What we need nationally are laws to protect transgender people. We’re lucky in Hawaii because we do have more protections than most states. What’s sad to me is that we should be celebrating life and that our freedoms are being decided by people who have no real understanding of culture and diversity.”
[Transgender teacher and advocate]
“We have about 1.4 million transgender people in America with 9,000 in Hawaii (number one per capita). I think that the bathroom bills that disallow transpersons to use the bathroom that aligns with their presenting gender puts thousands of people at risk for being harmed, especially trans women.
“I also feel that discrimination that student athletes face is also horrible. Student athletes should be allowed to compete in athletics that align with their gender identity.”
Punahele Marie Ho‘opi‘i
[Social worker with the Judiciary]
“My biggest fear is that my son will grow up ashamed of me because of how society perceives Mahuwahine.”
In closing, I want to ask all of you in our Maui community to support our transgender population on Maui and in Hawaii, especially the children. They are the bravest and the most susceptible of all of us in regards to lack of acceptance and potential for bullying or harm. It has been my experience in my 40 years here on Maui that we have some very wonderful and accepting folks who live here.
I know many social service agencies and have worked with several of them personally. They are supporting our transgender community. To the rest of you, I ask that you do not sit on the sidelines in the face of discrimination–stand up and be counted! Remember, an idle bystander can be just as dangerous as a bully.
If you’re a transgender youth and want a connection, please contact Empowered Maui LGBTQ Youth Group (808-242-1900 ext. 229) or Maui Pride (Mauipride.org). You can also call Summer Solt, a gender therapist on Maui, at 808-419-7957.
Danielle Bergan is the author of It’s Always Okay To Be Me.
Cover design: Darris Hurst