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Transgender Visibility and Renewed Transphobia

Mar. 21, 2017
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The past several years have been marked by a gradual progress towards universal understanding of transgender issues and an embrace of trans equality. Trans individuals from Alexandra Chandler (U.S. Naval Intelligence security analyst) to entertainer Chaz Bono have contributed to greater trans visibility and acceptance. Not surprisingly, even the infamous bathroom debate for trans people seems to be less consequential: A recent study indicates most Americans have no issue with transgender people using the bathroom of their choice.

Locally, strides in trans equality are palpable. The LGBT Community Center now has a transgender resource specialist on staff. Christina Kahrl, sportswriter and ESPN editor, spoke at last year’s Cream City Foundation (CCF) Business Lunch. The president of Lesbian Alliance is a transwoman. FORGE, the national transgender anti-violence organization is based in Milwaukee. It’s been on the forefront of trans advocacy and education for more than 20 years. Last year “For Good” Photography, in partnership with CCF, created an exhibit of several dozen black-and-white images of transgender individuals. Entitled “Our TRANS Family,” it depicts the transgender world as one of everyday moments just like everyone else’s. The show opened in November 2016 at the Peck School of the Arts gallery. The collection’s next showing will be at the Shorewood Library on Wednesday, March 29 at 6:30 p.m.

This year, however, trans advances have suffered setbacks. And it’s not just anti-trans state bills, the usual militant feminists decrying the recognition of transwomen as women or the anti-trans tirades of the now fallen-from-grace GOP gay provocateur. Last November’s presidential election has given traction to those once dead-end counterattacks beginning with the rollback of President Barack Obama’s transgender protections. Even the gay Log Cabin Republicans voiced their “disappointment,” and their transgender cheerleader, Caitlyn Jenner, called it a “disaster.” It seems Republican politicians are again using trans people as a lever to instill fear in their base. It’s part of their overall strategy of divide and conquer and provides distraction from the real needs of the nation such as jobs, infrastructure and health care.

So it should have been of no surprise to UW-Milwaukee’s director of its LGBT studies program, Professor Cary Costello, who is trans, when he received a notice from the Wisconsin Employee Trust Fund (ETF). It advised him of new criteria for recognition of trans state employees. The ETF now requires more proof of gender identity, like specific medical documentation, to qualify for benefits trans employees already receive. Costello likened it to married state employees being required to take DNA tests to prove they are not related to their spouses. Apparently, until such proof is provided to the ETF, trans employees would no longer be entitled to certain health and retirement benefits. According to Costello, it is a de facto registry of trans employees.

Another acquaintance expressed her fear for her safety in light of this development and the general empowerment of bigotry since November. “They’ve released the dogs,” she said, adding, “I’m going into reclusive mode. We’re now targets.” Ironically, the International Day of Transgender Visibility is on Friday, March 31. For some, it may be a private celebration.

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