Being transgender anywhere in the world can be difficult. As a population, trans people face discrimination at much higher rates than any other group, they are often maligned or mocked in mainstream culture, and violence committed against them occurs with alarming frequency. They also have higher incidences of mental health issues , including suicide — much of which is brought about by abuse and bigotry. But what exactly does it mean to be trans in the United States and be treated as a second-class citizen in a nation where everybody is supposed to be treated equally?
To begin with, we need to define what being transgender means. When many Americans here the term they picture somebody like Caitlyn Jenner — someone who lived as a man for many years before transitioning to being a woman. But that is actually a very small portion of transgender people, as most realize at an early age that they do not fit neatly into the “male” or “female” box society has prescribed for them.
For many, this can mean being born with male genitalia but wishing they had been born female, and vice versa. This typically manifests at an early age, when gender norms are starting to be thrust upon them. This can be as simple as not wanting to play with traditionally “boy” or “girl” toys, or it can be just flat-out rejecting all customs associated with one gender or the other. In many cases, this can mean adopting the gender customs of the opposite sex, but for many others it can mean occupying a middle ground or even opting out entirely of the gender constructs of society. In other words, “transgender” is something of an umbrella term that can include not only transwomen and transmen, but also nonbinary, agender, genderfluid (they may slide back and forth on the scale) and many other groups who are not either super manly burly men or super dainty ladies.
There are some 1.4 million people in the country who identify as transgender in one form or another, and millions more who are either closeted or who are non-binary and either don’t identify as such or identify another way. Estimates range from anywhere between one and ten percent of the population, depending on who you ask. For the most part, they present as the gender they most feel comfortable with, and much of the goal is to “pass” as if they were born cisgender (born the same-sex as their gender). For many others, presenting is a means of expressing themselves, passing is secondary to simply feeling right.
Opponents of transgender rights fall into a few categories. Most are simply people who don’t understand it: likening it to gender dysmorphia and mental illness. Being and identifying as the same gender they were born with gives them limited perspective, and many are fearful to learn about it out of bigotry or simple ignorance. It is as difficult for them to imagine somebody being transgender as it is for a dog to imagine what it’s like to be a lamp: It’s so foreign to them that they can’t grasp it.
Others are flat-out bigots. They are typically of a religious background, arguing that their God created two genders, and that he does not make mistakes. Putting the latter argument aside for another day as this topic is more theological than not, these people somehow think that the role of government is to enforce their interpretation of their religious texts. Of course, the United States is not, nor has it ever been, a theocracy, and infringing on the rights of a minority for religious purposes is illegal, immoral, unconstitutional, and flat out wrong.
Unfortunately for the members of the trans community, members of this theocratic class have significant political power at the moment. President Donald Trump’s recent call to unilaterally legalize discrimination within the armed forces has been met with massive blowback not only by civil rights advocates but also by those within his own party, as it appears to have been motivated by simple mean-spirited bigotry and a desire to distract from his own flailing presidency.
Being transgender is not a choice either, as many believe. The willfully ignorant among us will often crack jokes about male soldiers running across the battlefield in high heels or some other such nonsense. Besides the fact that wars are not really fought that way, the assumption that somehow the military would make uniform exceptions for people based on gender identity is ludicrous — and it was the same argument misogynists used when attempting to keep women out.
The other old argument being dredged up from the days of yore is that allowing transgender people into the military will negatively impact unit cohesion. This ignores the fact that there are an estimated 15,000 trans people already serving, and likely several thousand more still closeted. But the most telling thing about this argument is that it was the identical one used when attempting to keep the military segregated by race — they don’t even bother to change it up, it is a word-for-word rehash.
This type of discrimination and bigotry isn’t limited to the military — in fact, being an arm of the government it is actually less discriminatory than much of the private sector. Trans people are often denied jobs, harassed and assaulted in the streets, and even prevented from taking a piss in a public restroom. In a nation where one’s private life is their own and where equal rights are supposed to be guaranteed, we still have a long ways to go when it comes to the issue of transgender rights. And the fact that bigots seems to be at the head of the nation right now, we may have more ground to make up yet once they are out.