Widgets Magazine


A call to action in the wake of transgender death

The first two months of 2015 have been grim for members of the transgender community. In the United States alone, at least seven transgender women or transfeminine individuals have been murdered in the last 10 weeks, most of them transgender women of color. In 2014, the Transgender Murder Monitoring project reported 226 murders of transgender persons – and this data is already skewed toward murders reported in English-speaking countries, with the true statistics almost undoubtedly higher. In addition, the suicides of transgender youth like Leelah Alcorn,  Zander Mahaffrey and just last Thursday, Ash Haffner, are sobering reminders of what XOJane writer Kai Cheng Thom calls a “traumatized story…[which we] relive over and over many times before we actually die.” Transgender people are being collectively murdered by society.

On Facebook, I have seen and shared article after article of murder and suicide week after week since the start of winter quarter. I have received support and sympathy in response to the anguish these deaths have caused. But this cycle – death, grief and coping, repeated every week – is a method of survival, not a solution to deeply rooted societal problems. Unfortunately, survival isn’t easy to multitask with; it becomes crushingly difficult to organize or fight against injustice when getting up each morning itself is a victory, when mundane tasks like buying groceries or going to class are forays into a world that wants us silenced or dead.

But relegating the monumental task of changing society to a few bright figures in our community – the Janet Mocks and Laverne Coxes of the world – ignores the reality that societal change is fueled by the actions of many. It’s time for us to step up.

When I say “us,” I don’t mean just the transgender community in the world or on campus. This is a call to action for cisgender people, for you who are reading this, to care about our lives – not just our deaths. We are not animals you can point at behind safety glass and feel sorry for, ignored until every few days, another one of us dies because of the danger in our world. Your world.

So what is there to do? The 2011 study “Injustice at Every Turn,” with a sample size of nearly 6,500 transgender individuals in the U.S., is a comprehensive compilation of the realities faced by transgender individuals, and is a starting point in understanding what must be done. In education, for example, 78 percent of us face harassment, 35 percent of us face physical assault and 12 percent of us face sexual violence. Fifteen percent of us leave our high schools and colleges in the face of mistreatment from peers and teaching staff.

In the face of these numbers, explicit solutions are needed. Transgender students need mandated and enforced anti-discrimination clauses in school policies nationwide. We need frequent and comprehensive education on transgender identity and experiences, and policies guaranteeing us protection in bathrooms, on sports teams, in classrooms. It is the responsibility of cisgender individuals to help us reach this reality.

On the job, 90 percent of transgender individuals experience harassment, mistreatment or discrimination, with 71 percent of participants in this study being forced to hide their own gender identities for their own safety. Transgender individuals experience nearly double the unemployment of cisgender people and quadruple the rate if they are transgender people of color.

All states must pass comprehensive legislation mandating and enforcing workplace anti-discrimination laws for transgender individuals, including clear policies for individuals who transition on the job. Binary-gendered dress codes, bathrooms and social spaces, which often exclude transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals, must be removed. Employers should be held accountable for eliminating hiring bias and explicitly making their workplaces safe spaces for transgender employees to work. Again, the responsibility lies in cisgender people to help us make this vision real.

The report goes on. Housing discrimination, exclusion from homeless shelters and low rates of homeownership are other realities that demand solutions; rates of police abuse, incarceration, refusal of medical care and drug abuse demand others. This is our responsibility to change. Do not be the politician in 10 years whom I find myself lobbying against for the right to live. Do not be the doctor who refuses me service, the EMT who looks on as I am beaten on the streets, the police officer who arrests me for simply walking in public.

Even on Stanford’s campus, we are not insulated from the systemic failure to recognize transgender lives. Why are there so few transgender students on campus? Why does research done by students and tenured faculty alike erase our existence? Why are inaccurate and often hurtful terms like “tranny,” “transgenders,” “biological sex,” “(fe)male-bodied” and “chicks with dicks” normalized in daily conversation?

This is a call to action for the Stanford community, on campus and beyond. This is a call to action for those who have cared about our deaths in the past to begin caring about our lives.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Lily Zheng

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!
  • Leslie Gray

    Thank you Lily. That was an amazing article. What is so hard about understanding that it is not alright to oppress an entire class of people merely for the condition of their birth?

  • PR Parent

    Thank you from Indian Trail, NC. #DoItForAsh

  • Confused

    “Why does research done by students and tenured faculty alike erase our existence? ” Kind of confused here, but want to learn more. Could you please elaborate on this claim?

  • Ashley

    I think she’s referring to research where people talk about “women’s health” and just ignore that some women have penises, or sociology stuff that splits humans straight into “men and women” instead of mentioning non-binary people. Honestly, most research does that, if they mention gender… which I bet most research does mention.

    So that call makes sense to me in the context of this article.

  • Also confused

    Would labeling this kind of research cis-gender research solve the issue? Some kinds of women’s health studies can are only relevant to cis-gender women. I think the language “research done by students and tenured faculty alike erase our existence” seems hyperbolic.

  • Lily Zheng

    That might be an interesting start to a solution, but would nevertheless need to be followed up by more financial and institutional support for research in all departments focusing on the lives/experiences/needs of trans and nonbinary people. We need more of this research on campus (and in academia), period.

  • Cole Manley

    Thanks, Lily, for this call to action. I hope we can wake up and become better allies. Peace and justice.

  • Tulio O

    I really appreciate this article, Lily. We need more transgender voices on this campus and more cisgender folk helping to make that a reality.

  • forreal

    How are “transgenders” and “biological sex” hurtful terms?

  • Lily Zheng

    “transgenders” is the plural form of “transgender” as a noun, which it isn’t. There are transgender people, not transgenders. By essentializing our existences into one identity, that language erases the rest of our personhood. It’s the same reason why you don’t point at a tall person and say “look, a tall!”

    “Biological sex” is a term that ignores how people’s genitalia, biology, and identity vary — by assuming that the social construction of “sex” is physical distinction between “male” or “female” genitalia or chromosomes, the term ignores the fact that neither chromosomes nor genitalia can be easily split into a binary “male/female” distinction.


  • Also Confused

    I’ll admit that I’m confused about the explanation. We often refer to racial groups as for example Blacks and Whites when speaking about them generally. How is the case different for referring to trans-identified individuals?

    I’m also confused about “biological sex.” I was under the impression that gender was a social construction, and sex was a scientific distinction based solely upon how an individuals reproductive system operates. I had also thought that intersex individuals, although they often have traits from both sexes, could still often be determined from one or the other.

    I may be very wrong in these regards, as I don’t study them much.

  • Lily Zheng

    Referring to any group of people as being boiled down to one identity is reductionist and unhelpful, especially when we are tackling widespread social change that is often complex. By saying, for example, that “blacks do thing X”, we homogenize the entirety of all black experience and identity, wiping out experiences of gender, religion, class, socioeconomic status, sexuality, and ability. I oppose the usage of “transgenders” for the same reason — additionally, I will restate that this reductionist language is dehumanizing. “Transgender” as a noun is often used by cisgender writers who don’t understand or do not want to understand the experiences of trans people — I can attach examples if you’d like them.

    Regarding “biological sex,” we need to understand that our “sex” is not something that is based on chromosomes (which vary widely beyond XX or XY) or hormone levels (which vary widely even among our binary distinctions of “men” and “women”). Neither is it determined by the presence of a uterus or fallopian tubes (and there are many women without those two who we quite unquestioningly call women, without a problem) but in fact is assigned to us based on genitalia at birth. “Sex” is designated by doctors after a quick look between our legs. Genitalia are not binary. Many people have ambiguous genitalia at birth, and in fact, many doctors mutilate and physically change genitalia at birth (often without the consent of parents) in order to make the “sex” less ambiguous.

    Biology is often an excuse to misgender trans people — but there is nothing inherently “male” about penises, body hair, testosterone, XY chromosomes, muscle mass, etc, and nothing inherently “female” about vaginas, breasts, estrogen, XX chromosomes, narrow shoulders, etc. There is more variation within our categories of “sex” than between them.

  • forreal

    But it’s not a “social construct” it’s a literal biological distinction that can most certainly be split pretty unambiguously 99% of the time, and the whole notion of genders stems from that fact. Intersex people are the exception to that distinction, as there are exceptions to most things in biology. If you disagree with that then there are a few biologists that would like a word with you. Let’s not politicize science.

  • Lily Zheng

    I think the notion that science is immune from politicization is the root of an overwhelming amount of transmisogyny in academia, public policy, and other areas. I do, in fact, disagree with your argument that “the whole notion of genders stems from that fact…that [sex] is a biological distinction that can most certainly be split … 99% of the time.”

    How do you, as an individual, know your “sex?” Have you paid hundreds to thousands of dollars of testing to determine your karyotype? Most likely, you looked between your legs and made a value judgment that what you saw was either a “penis” or “vagina.”

    Do men with penises who are castrated lose their “sex?” Do they become “sexless?” Do assigned female at birth people without uteruses become sexless as well?

    Please define for me the rules and standards of this “biological distinction” you talk about.

  • PRParent

    If anyone can or wants to help out:

    Support the “Time Out Youth” program in Charlotte NC, as requested in Ash Haffner’s obit:

    Donate to help Ash’s family with funeral expanses:

  • forreal

    Yeah, I looked between my legs and assumed I was male because it is extremely likely that I have an XY gene, and very likely that I have other physical characteristics of males. In the overwhelming majority of times there is little ambiguity. I’m not going to describe it as an obligatory split for all people not aknowledging there are intersex cases in between, but the fact that almost always the gene matches with a certain genitilia and other physical characteristics is just that, plain fact.

  • Lily Zheng

    Let’s put it this way: the population of the United Kingdom is 64 million. The population of the world is 7.125 billion — the UK’s population is less than .9% of the world’s. By comparison, the percentage of all births where genitalia is ambiguous ranges from 1.7% to around 3%.

    Looking at a random person in a random room, it’s very, very, very, very likely that they’re not British. Super likely. It’s also quite likely that they’re not intersex.

    But I think when people say things like “in the overwhelming majority of times there is little ambiguity,” they forget things like the population of the human race, and the sheer numbers of people that are being systematically excluded by this type of language and thinking. Physically disabled people make up 6.2% of the workforce. Muslims make up .8% of the US population.

    Our own discomfort with identities that are not our own, when mixed in with uncritical science, has potential to do a lot of harm. We can’t let our own bigotry and fear of difference fuel injustice in the name of science.

  • Alli Martin

    I appreciate you so much, Lily. Thank you for writing this, and more importantly, thank you for being you.

  • forreal

    The total number is not my point. My point is that the notion of “biological sex”, i.e. the biological tendancies of the human body with an XY gene or an XX gene, holds very clearly in most cases. The fact that there are exceptions to a phenomena does not deny the phenomena.

  • Lily Zheng

    Okay, maybe another analogy then. If you have 99 white people in a room and one black person, saying “everyone in this room is white” is plain wrong. Acknowledging that difference exists and modifying our language accordingly, even if that difference is by some arbitrary level “especially low,” is our responsibility. Sure it takes extra time to acknowledge that difference. Sure it takes some modifying of language.

    But ultimately, using gender-affirming language does NOT hurt those people whose gender identity, sex assigned at birth, and gender presentation all match up. What it does do is empower those people who have been left behind.

    I’m hearing this conversation just as a refusal to modify language in an incredibly minor way in response to the stated needs of a community. In the end, I’m not here to convince you of something you don’t want to believe. I am telling you that transgender and gender-nonconforming people are asking that cisgender people act in ways that affirm our existence. We are telling you that it hurts us.

    I can’t force you to do anything in response — I’m just telling you what our communities need. Your refusal is yours to take responsibility for.

  • Fellow ally

    Please try to Google these questions before draining my dear friend, Lily. She is only one person who is often called on to be the spokesperson for transwomen of color, and I can only imagine how exhausting it is. We have so many great resources at the tips of our fingers with the Internet. Let’s utilize it.

  • A friend

    Sending love and support to you. Thank you for your patience with these commenters, but please take care of yourself first. They can Google their questions.

  • forreal

    Let me go with another analogy then. The term “nationality” is a valid one, even though there exists stateless people. The fact that some people have mixed characteristics of the two biological sexes, and thus don’t have a particular biological sex, doesn’t mean that biological sexes don’t exist.
    This is not an attack on intersex or transgendered people. Offensive words should always be taken out, but in this case you have a problem with the term itself, i.e. the meaning itself, not the word. And since the term as I’ve said is a legitimate and accurate one there’s nothing wrong with using it.

  • Lily Zheng

    I am telling you politely that language like “biological sex,” “male/female-bodied,” and, in fact, “transgendered” have been used to perpetuate decades and decades of suffering on our communities, leading to systemic mistreatment at the hands of governments, the media, and institutions.

    I am telling you this as a member of these communities. I am telling you this as a person. We just want to stop being misgendered. Your refusal is yours to take responsibility for.

  • forreal

    But this is not a case where the problem is with the word, you have a problem with the whole notion of a biological sex, even if we invent some other word. A notion that is applicable is true regardless of how it is used or abused. What is true is already so whether anyone likes it or not, and whether its used for good or opression. Denying it doesn’t make it go away. What I’m objecting to isn’t a rejection of a word, it’s a rejection of a factual phenomena.

  • Lily Zheng

    It IS the rejection of a word. There exist other terms — Designated Female at Birth (DFAB) and Designated Male at Birth (DMAB), or Male/Female Assigned at Birth (MAAB/FAAB) that acknowledge the fact that biophysical differences exist. These words are a directly acknowledgement that sex is assigned at birth by a doctor, and is a way of challenging concepts that essentialize this physicality.

    Let me use myself as an example. I was designated male at birth. I have a penis and testes, and if I really wanted to, I could grow a pretty decent beard. But I also identify as pretty darn feminine, use she/her pronouns, and am treated like a woman in every single space I find myself in. And rightly so.

    Now, are you going to say that I am “male” just because of what’s between my legs? Are you going to erase my entire gendered history into whether or not I can reproduce? (Which I can’t, by the way. Sterile.)

    I have no desire to hide the fact that I was designated male at birth. That is a “factual phenomena.” But don’t you *dare* use that reality to support the essentialized, reductionist concept of “biological sex.”

  • forreal

    I’m saying your biological sex is male, yes. By saying that I’m literally just saying you have a penis, testes, could grow a pretty decent beard, etc. It’s not just a designation a doctor made, you’re literally male-bodied, i.e. have the biological tendencies of people with XY chromosome. I’ve made no claim on your gender, your identity, your gendered history, or the way people treat you.
    It is literally a description of the body, which can be pretty distinct in meaning from MAAB/FAAB when you account intersex people and people who went through SRS. The term itself shouldn’t be problematic, equating it with gender is problematic, but you’re the one implying that here not me.

  • Lily Zheng

    I’m sorry that none of my words have gotten through to you. For my own good, I’ll be ending my replies to this conversation.

  • Leslie Gray

    Part of the issue here is that you are trying to equate physical sex with gender identity and to use demeaning clinical labeling where it is unneeded. Being born with a penis does not make a person male. And at the same time, the same circumstances of birth do not guarantee that the individual in question will even have an XY chromosome set.

    I was born with male genitals, yet I do not have male chromosomes. I don’t even have true male physiology, other than my apparent outward male attributes, and the related damage done to my body from not ever having proper medical care for my condition of birth. I am in every other sense of the word a woman. Yet, I fathered three children, and lived as a man for over 50 years. I have even been gifted with 9 grandchildren.

    I fail to see the importance of defending the use of terms that are known to be highly insulting to the people those terms are used against. “Transgenders” as a term lumps us together as though we were some kind of aggregate commodity. “Transgendered” implies that we had being trans inflicted on us after the fact of our birth. Would you refer to a Black person as blackened? I doubt it, but you do it to us when you use that ugly term.

    The mere fact that our outward physical sex differs from our actual gender does not give anyone license to dehumanize any one of us by making an attempt to forcefully relabel us. We are people learning to deal with a catastrophic medical condition, not some chosen “lifestyle”. We have no need or desire to be labeled, however clinically correct those labels may be in the minds of those that would insist on doing so, for no other reason than the clinical neatness of it.

    What we need is for people to care enough to allow us to define our own lives the same way everyone else gets to define their lives. We are not freaks to be displayed with clinical labels that dehumanize us. We are living breathing human beings that bleed when the same colour as anyone else when we get shot.

  • forreal

    I am not trying to equate physical sex with gender identity. This is the exact opposite of what I’m saying. I never argued for the words “transgenders” or “transgendered”, or that intersex people should be force-labeled as male/female.
    What I am saying is that you didn’t say anything wrong when you said “physical sex” in your first sentence. You literally just used the term I’m saying can be used.
    In other words, I completely agree with everything you said and the language you said it in, and that’s my exact point.

  • Leslie Gray

    Spin this however you need to feel comfortable. But the point remains. Just because a person is born with the genitals of a given sex, does not make that person the same gender as what is between their legs. In essence, you are claiming that because I was born with male genitals, I am a man. You are making an overly broad and rather insulting generalization.

    “I never argued for the words “transgenders” or “transgendered”, or that intersex people should be force-labeled as male/female.” But, you did use at least one of those abusive terms. Just the fact that you’re defending the use of them is bad enough.

  • forreal

    “In essence, you are claiming that because I was born with male genitals, I am a man” No, this is exactly what I’m not saying. I did not say anything about a person’s gender, and I specifically said that a person’s gender is separate from their biological/physical sex (which is something you certainly agree with). I am responsible for exactly what I say, not what you understand.
    And again, I never argued for the words “transgenders” or “transgendered”, I am not defending the use of them. I used one of them once before being told that it’s offensive.

    If you want to keep arguing against claims I did not make it’s not gonna go anywhere. So, unless you have anything productive to say, I’ll just end this conversation.