Photo credit: Omi Tanaka
It’s been years since I’ve cried over my son being transgender. Years since I’ve lost sleep over thoughts of his future. We’re the lucky ones.
On November 22, 2018, I woke up, checked the news: “clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable”; and was snatched back to a place I hadn’t been in years. Essentially, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is planning to redefine “sex” in order to exclude transgender, nonbinary, and intersex people from federal nondiscrimination protections — erasing the legitimacy of gender variance and in doing so endangering the lives of all those who aren’t cisgender. We’re talking millions of people.
Let’s look at it this way: First, consider that the estimated adult trans population in American is about 1.4 million (6% of the overall adult population). Plus, approximately another 417,312 are trans youth (1% of the overall youth population). Also consider that 20% of millennials identify as LGBTQ (including gender-nonconforming, intersex, and genderqueer). These numbers come from the Williams Institute and equate to a few million “out” transgender and gender-nonconforming Americans. Those who are stealth aren’t included in those numbers.
Now think of the existing quality of life for those millions of Americans. Fifty-one percent of trans teens attempt suicide. Twenty-nine trans POC were murdered in 2017. Seventy-five percent of trans youth feel unsafe at school. Nineteen percent of non-cisgender people are refused medical care. One in five trans people have experienced homelessness. Thirty-nine percent of trans women and thirty-one percent of trans men have traded sex for food, shelter, or money. Trans people are four times more likely to live in extreme poverty.
Now imagine diminished protections, social validation, access to community services, education, healthcare, income, food, and shelter for this community. By legally erasing trans people, we can expect to see despair in clear and tangible ways for millions of Americans. Racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, transphobia and now genderism will all go down as part of America’s bloody history.
It matters to me how this world protects my son.
My family is part of the LGBTQAI community. We’re a mix of transgender, genderqueer, cisgender, straight, and gay. We’re Black Southern, West African, Swiss German, Vietnamese, and Canadian. We’re not stealth. We’re middle class, educated, and with strong community support. I consider Janet Mock
, Tiq Milan
, and Nick Teich, three of the most visible trans advocates, personal friends who have taught me to be proud of my son Penelope. I work closely with the Human Rights Campaign and the Gender & Family Project, two of the best organizations that help dismantle transphobia. My family doesn’t live in fear.
Our LGBTQAI life isn’t necessarily the norm. We’ve never felt any bias at our church in Harlem. We live in Brooklyn, and have never been physically threatened. We go to school and work each day amongst support from our peers. We’ve never slept on the street, or traded sex for money, food, or shelter. Statistically speaking, my Black trans son is lucky to be alive, lucky to be an A student, class president, competitive athlete, caring sibling, world traveler. Penelope is a thriving 11-year-old who happens to be transgender.
Trump wants to change that. If Trump proceeds and people are prevented from changing their gender markers to match their self-determined identities, potentially nullifying documents that have already been changed, it will imply that Penelopes don’t exist. Transgender, genderqueer, gender-nonconforming, and intersex identities are all unrealities according to Trump. But in reality, we’ve witnessed decades of historical research proving the existence of gender variance. Hijra
in South Asia date back thousands of years; consider also the Two Spirit in North America, I’ll Femminiello
in Naples, and Elagabalus of Rome. In 2017, Teen Vogue
published a great article entitled "Gender Variance Around the World Over Time." Today, in both public and private schools, administrators are using the GenderBread diagram to help clarify the difference between how one looks (sex/genitalia) and how one thinks (identity/gender), and how one loves (attraction) and how one expresses (clothing). Trump is so very out of touch.
My son reminds me that our roots determine us. Our hearts, minds, and spirits are what matter most. Not the form of the body. Not the appendages. It matters only how we treat people and how we show up for people. It matters to me how this world protects my son, who is transgender, and doesn’t fit into the status quo.
The direct goal of this law is to take back nonbinary people’s rights. Perhaps most hard-hitting is that this is all being pushed through SCOTUS — ultimately blocking relief from the federal government. The deeper ramifications are that, as protections lessen for nonbinary people, life will become more hostile for them in schools, hospitals, housing, and offices. When life for millions of Americans becomes hostile, everyone feels that hostility. We don’t need statistics to understand cause and effect.
If this administration uses bogus scientific jargon to pull back the rights of some Americans, I bet that it will eventually turn that same jargon on all Americans deemed different — women, POC, non-Christians — anyone who doesn’t fit into a narrow box (box subject to change at the sole discretion of management).
The story of nonbinary people is shaping up to be very similar to the story of women, of Blacks, of people of color all over the world, of all marginalized people. The story where some try to rewrite the identities of others to serve their own needs. We can do better. The government has an obligation to protect each of us. America simply needs to accept that trans, gender-nonconforming, intersex, and all nonbinary people exist. We may not agree on the topic of gender (in my own house we don’t agree). But we must accept. Acceptance is protection. Next subject.
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is a social activist, entrepreneur, and writer. She has been lauded for her activist work by Hillary Clinton, The Advocate, Family Circle, Essence, Cosmopolitan
, and Yahoo!, among others. She sits on the board of a number of gender/family/human rights organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, and is a sought-after public speaker addressing a wide range of audiences about identity, gender, beauty, and entrepreneurship. Patterson was appointed by the United Nations as a Champion of Change and, perhaps most impressively, she is a former circus acrobat who performed in the Big Apple Circus. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she coparents her five children with love, education, and family solidarity. The Bold World
is her first book.