It’s that time of year again when Transgender Day of Visibility is happening on March 31st. For some, they have made the whole month of March about transgender visibility. This year a question rises in me again, made more poignant by what I’m reading in news, the actions of politicians, and the behaviour of organisations that claim to be supportive allies of transgender and gender diverse people. On April first is our visibility just making us into fools?
The argument for being visible makes a lot of sense. When we are out and visible in the world our stories and realities can be heard. People notice us and may think about their own actions. Being visible helps lead to changes in human rights legislation and access to services. When we are visible in the world people get to know us, and interpersonal engagement helps many to see us as human, as people, rather than some distant freak show. In many ways, I agree with this. I’m quite visible myself. At the same time, I see how being visible leads to problems, particularly with organisations that purport to be allies and purport to support transgender people.
Many transgender people are visible in large part because they don’t pass as cisgender in daily living. Many are visible because they choose not to be stealth. For many transgender people, visibility is a continuum and a spectrum that depends on one’s current context and who one is dealing with. For organisations, visible transgender people make for great publicity and photo opportunities. Transgender people can be trotted out when they want to raise money or improve public relations. But, what happens when below the veneer of public relations and fundraising?
Far too many organisations across North America pay lip service to the needs of transgender people and then do not have adequate services for transgender people. We look great on the posters, but when we need support and services they are not to be found. I have seen this in multiple cities. Further, when services are offered they tend to be limited. Or, even worse, they only have services that are for one or two segments of the transgender population. A major agency in Toronto, for example, has some programming for all transgender people, more programming for trans masculine people, but no programming specifically for trans feminine people. I have seen this outside of Toronto as well. We are visible in the advertising, but invisible when it comes to the services offered.
Looking for transgender people on staff at organisations can also show a distinct lack of visibility, particularly in management and decision making roles. Where there is representation by transgender people it is often dominated by trans masculine people. I have heard from multiple sources about LGBT organisations in Ontario that, despite human rights legislation, have or have had unwritten policies not to hire transgender women. These are only allegations and are extremely difficult to prove before a tribunal or court. Yet, I still hear of it happening. Further, when transgender people are hired they often don’t get adequate hours of work. Again, this disproportionately seems to happen to transgender women. Where is the visibility in staffing at LGBT organisations that claim to want to address the needs of transgender people?
When these things happen in organisations that provide education and support to LGBT people, speak in schools, organise conferences, and have major public events it is even more troubling. When they include transgender or gender diversity in the name of the organisation, yet misgender staff, have speakers who spout transphobic statements, and do not adequately pay transgender speakers the problem is in many ways worse. It becomes very clear to the community that we are only visible in terms of our ability to bring in money.
If a transgender person chooses to be visible and speak up about the injustices, lack of services, and the discrimination they are then pushed aside. They are not being visible in the ‘right way’. Transgender people are shut down by those in positions of power, some of whom may be transgender themselves, when they speak up. Responses can be anywhere from a mild rebuke to legal threats. Transgender people are told, in essence, that we are supposed to sit down, shut up, and be grateful for the crumbs that these organisations choose to send our way.
What can be done?
First, I encourage anyone who sees any of this behaviour to speak up about it if they are able. Often the people in the situation are not able to speak up because they fear active retribution. It is, therefore, incumbent on those of us outside the situation to speak up on their behalf.
Second, if you are part of an organisation, especially in a decision-making capacity, examine the practices, policies, and programming. Is there transgender representation on staff? In management? In effective decision making roles? Do they influence and have a real impact on day-to-day operations? Is the programming inclusive of all transgender people, or is it weighted in favour of one particular group that is already overrepresented? Are there trans feminine people in decision making and not just trans masculine? If the answer to any of these is “no”, ask yourself why and seek to remedy the situation.
Third, listen to and believe transgender and gender diverse people in LGBT organisations when they point out that there are problems in the organisation. Do not try to shut them down. Further, do not exacerbate the problem by stating that the organisation can’t be transphobic or discriminatory because they happen to have a person who identifies as non-binary in a significant decision-making role. Or, they cannot be because they have a transgender friend. Believe the people who are being harmed. Back them up, and speak up in support.
Many transgender people are visible, yet at the same time, we are erased in what ought to be our own communities. Transgender Day of Visibility is a day when we speak up. We are visible and do not intend to remain invisible in our own communities. We will not be fools on April first.