There’s no disputing the fact that transgender people, like other gender nonconforming groups, are mistreated and the targets of high levels of discrimination, prejudice, and violence, although the discrimination shown towards them looks more like homophobia and degradation of femininity (misogyny) than it does some unique construct of “transphobia.”
Nevertheless, there is something here that cannot be ignored, a finding that is perplexing under the assumption that transgenderism is really, deep down, a progressive movement for gender equality. It seems to be the case that transgenderism has widespread support in places one would least expect it. Some of the most patriarchal, sexist institutions and spaces are the most endorsing of transsexualism.
I first started thinking about this while perusing Reddit, specifically a subreddit called TumblrInAction. It’s a subforum on Reddit for mocking social justice activists, specifically those on Tumblr. It ridicules a whole range of ideas, from otherkin and “transethnic” to more legitimate concepts, like feminism, ableism, and male privilege. On the page’s sidebar, it mentions these as tags to watch out for, along with “genderfluid” and “genderqueer.” Transgenderism is given the green light in a distinctively anti-feminist space, where white privilege is laughed at and “misandry” is said with a straight face.
Of course, this isn’t limited to just the internet.
There isn’t a lot of data on opinions of transgenderism, largely because trans acceptance is a relatively recent movement compared to POC, women, and gay rights’ movements, and much of the existing activism is intertwined with gay rights activism. Relative to its newness and size, the trans movement has taken off with surprising speed and power.
In one of the few nationwide polls on attitudes toward transgender people, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that “approximately 9-in-10 (89%) Americans agree that transgender people deserve the same rights and protections as other Americans. Compare this to recent Gallup polls indicating that just 53% of the population endorses same-sex marriage, a number slightly higher than the percentage of people who are pro-choice (49%). The PRRI poll also reported that about three quarters of Americans said Congress should pass laws to protect transgender people from job discrimination, including 55% of Republicans. On a related note, you may recall how Romney handled a question about the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a law put in place to ensure pay equality for women. Poorly. He handled it poorly.
I found it interesting that such a high percentage of people endorsed rights for transgender people when such a low number endorsed same sex marriage. It got me thinking about the legal recognition of gender transition versus the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Gays, lesbians, and allies have been fighting for same-sex marriage for decades. It has been a hot topic for major elections and lobbies on both sides have poured millions of dollars into making their stance on the issue heard. Despite all this, less than half of states offer same-sex unions; only 9 recognize same-sex marriage.
On the other hand, all states legally recognize gender transition in some form. Forty-seven states will alter the sex listed on one’s birth certificate. Additionally, not all states require genital surgery for alteration of legal documents. From Wikipedia:
This all means that in 47 states, two males or two females can get married, provided that only one of them “wears the pants,” so to speak. Art of Transliness writes that while it is theoretically possible, it’s extremely unlikely for marriages involving transgender people to be invalidated.
On its face, it might seem bizarre that the U.S. sooner recognizes sex transition than same-sex marriage. Legal recognition of marriage is dependent on the sexes of the partners, yet sex is apparently not so sacred that it cannot be changed. The U.S. is not an anomaly in this regard; a number of countries recognize gender transition but not same-sex marriage.
In Iran, homosexuality is a criminal offense punishable by death. Wikipedia reports that cross-dressing is also illegal. On the other hand, next to Thailand, Iran does more sex change operations than any other country in the world.
There is not a lot of data on perceptions and attitudes toward transgender people, in large part because the transgender population is small and the trans activism movement is fairly new. Despite little independent activism (relative to that of other groups), public perceptions appear to show a great deal of support for transgender people, even by groups we otherwise consider to be conservative, sexist, or racist. In the U.S. and in many other countries, sex changes are legally recognized while gay marriage, which is dependent on the partners’ sexes, is not.
The major question we are faced with is the “why” question. Why is transgenderism gaining so much acceptance, despite being a relatively recent movement? If it is because society is becoming increasingly progressive, why is a sex change recognized, but a union between two people of the same sex not? In addition, why are so many sex change surgeries being performed in countries where it is otherwise to illegal to do so much as dress as the opposite sex?
The answer to this is a topic for another day, but I’ll give you a hint: It has nothing to do with progressive values.