Cisters, make today your starting point

Today is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHT). As with all awareness-raising days, it is only one day amid a sea of others on which we tend to be more indifferent to the oppressions and systems of power that we play a role in perpetuating. However, IDAHT and other efforts like it can be useful for people who are in the early stages of coming to terms with their privilege as a straight and/or cis person. People like the person writing this post.

I have never harboured any negativity, discomfort, or dismissive attitudes toward people who don’t share my sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. For a long time I felt like that was enough. Recently I have begun to swallow the fact that there is much I don’t know about the experience of being a person in this world who is gay, a lesbian, trans*, bi, queer, two-spirited, or gender-queer. To be an active part of the solution, I need to educate myself (and, as I develop greater knowledge and perspective, educate other cis and straight people) on what these lived experiences are like and how they differ from my own.

I owe much of my (admittedly limited, but growing) recent understanding to a new friend named Sophia Banks, an immensely talented freelance wedding photographer who has seen a 90% reduction in business since coming out as a trans woman. Via her Twitter account, Sophia candidly and generously shares the anger and pain inflicted upon her and her fellow trans* people (trans women in particular) by cisnormativity and transphobia. I highly recommend you follow her if you are a Twitter user, especially if you are cis. Sophia has explicitly professed that her goal is to build understanding among cis people. Since it is no trans* person’s “job” to provide these insights to cis folks like myself, I am very grateful to her for expending her time and energy in doing so.

Many of the experiences and impacts of transphobia that Sophia has shared are things that I understood before on some cold and abstract level. However, hearing personal stories of how transphobia plays out in people’s lives adds a punch-in-the-gut vividness and urgency. A key example that comes to mind is the scope of transphobia’s economic impacts on trans* people. As we all know (I hope!), lack of income security often spills over to impact other aspects of life including mental health, housing stability, and experiences of violence at the hands of individuals or the state.

Sophia is self-employed, and her billings have seen a steep decline since she came out as a trans woman. Her once-booming business (I mean, look at those gorgeous photos!) has slowed to a trickle and she is hovering dangerously close to eviction. She is concerned that if she continues to work as a woman (i.e. as herself), she will be homeless. No person should have to erase themselves in order to make a living and keep a roof over their head. I Storified some of her evocative tweets about this, please check it out to read it in her own voice.

Ontario recently added discrimination based on gender identity and expression as grounds for a complaint to the Human Rights Commission – an important victory. However, what’s to stop an employer from simply ascribing a more innocuous reason to their choice to not select a trans* job candidate or proposal from a trans* contractor? “If the interviewer is transphobic, it’s hopeless,” says Sophia. The new Human Rights Code, while undoubtedly important, doesn’t seem to deter many employers from expressing and/or condoning harmful and exclusionary attitudes. If you’re cis this next part may shock you (it did me), though I imagine trans* readers may relate: Sophia told me one prospective employer asked her which genitals she had in a job interview. WTFFFFFFFFF

In addition to facing discrimination from employers and clients, the costs can be enormous if a trans* person opts for sex reassignment surgery (SRS) or other medical supports to align physicality with identity. Financial costs for trans women are especially high – $25K isn’t unheard of. Yet for many trans* people, SRS is not an elective surgery but vital. Not to mention the fact that in a cissexist society, aligning your physical sex characteristics with your identity is often the only way to convince people that you’re a Real Woman or Real Man (ugh), despite the fact that the vast majority of people will never encounter your genitals!

Take trans* people’s access to limited resources, couple it with the high levels of post-secondary education required for social work positions these days, and you get a lot of cis people delivering social services to trans* people whose life experiences are unfamiliar to them. For a person experiencing little income security, precarious housing, and/or lack of acceptance (or outright hostility) from family, friends and colleagues, effective and empathetic mental health support and other social services are crucial. And yet, Sophia has struggled to find support groups for trans women that are actually facilitated by one. “I asked why trans women were not facilitating the groups and they said they can’t find any with the qualifications,” she says. “How can any trans woman afford to go to school for an MSW [Master of Social Work] while transitioning?”

Considering these factors, it is perhaps unsurprising that over 40% of trans people attempt suicide. Considering these factors, it is perhaps unsurprising that, when a video game site editor outed a trans woman on Twitter this week mere hours after she had attempted suicide, people were pissed – though not enough cis people by any stretch. Many cis people who I know harbour no ill will toward trans people were not part of the broader discussion around this incident. Shamefully enough, I probably only heard about it because it happened in the gaming community, in which many of the people I follow are active.

I’m sure for every cis person who participated in that discussion, there were a few sitting on the sidelines feeling perturbed by the whole debacle, but uncertain of what to say or how to contribute. I can relate. I want to do right by trans* people. As a well-meaning but relatively clueless cis person, I don’t want to say the wrong thing unwittingly or ask too many questions and end up causing additional hurt, anger or exhaustion.

If you’re a well-meaning but relatively clueless cis person (it’s okay to admit it if you’re willing to do something to change it), IDAHT is one day out of the year, but you can make it your starting point. Today, take some time to learn more about how to best support trans* people, and how to best participate in the fight for justice across the gender spectrum. Here are some places to start, and I definitely encourage you to post any resources you find useful (either as a cis or trans* person) in the comments.