Is trans anti discrimination a path to liberation?
by Vidhya Aravind, We the People-MI Learning Director
Learning social justice is a lifelong process of unlearning oppressive programming, sown deep within us through constant exposure to dominant narratives and messaging. We can only spot these lessons to be learned if we practice recognizing contradiction; what are you observing that doesn’t line up with your worldview, and what’s the possible explanation? Here’s a contradiction I’m working through in my Ypsi and greater trans/queer communities.
Earlier this week the supreme court ruled 6–3 that employment discrimination against trans people is illegal and unconstitutional. It was a monumental decision, and many people in my community celebrated it. None of us expected this win in a court dominated by centrist and right wing justices, and it’s particularly meaningful locally because the plaintiff, Aimee Stephens, was a Detroiter who couldn’t live to see the results.
My Black trans sisters have always been on the frontlines of this moment of demanding justice and freedom from the criminal justice system, and demanding that we recognize the violence and murder that they face constantly as a community. They shouldn’t have to be on the frontlines, because they already face the most risk from police and from the greater public due to transmisogynoir (a blend of transmisogyny and misogynoir, and worse than the sum of its parts). But they continually move to the front because they very rightly believe based on past experiences that no one else will stand up for them.
As a non-Black trans woman, I necessarily participate in anti-Blackness, because my success and existence in our anti-Black society is contingent on this participation. My access to income, housing, healthcare, love, community, etc is the end result of years of systemic anti-Black oppression. Even without drawing direct historical lines, I know our society today sprang from our society yesterday, and without having to go back all that far (or going back at all, to be honest) we can find exploitation of Black people. There’s no reversing time and undoing the ills of chattel slavery and Jim Crow; I can only do my best to recognize anti-Blackness in my own life, change my behavior, repair the harms done, and participate in my community to erase the harmful impacts of it. Because I am racialized as non-Black, I uphold the very systems that are killing my sisters and forcing them in the streets to fight back.
The same day the supreme court passed this, they passed a judgment 7–2 allowing a massive 600 mile natural gas pipeline to be built under the Appalachian trail. My social media feeds are as radical as they come and I saw nary a mention of this, despite Black people suffering the brunt of the impacts of environmental racism and injustice. Of course individual social media shares aren’t central to the work of the movement, but our attention and what news stories get elevated reflect our cultural values. Why are we conditioned to treat a small bureaucratic win against corporations as more worth our time than a large, even if indirect, harm from corporations that targets specific communities? How were these two judgements, one ostensibly progressive, one obviously regressive, able to come from the same court with the same justices who have the same politics across cases?
Out of the people I saw celebrating this decision, the vast majority are white. Many working class trans women of color know the truth of anti-discrimination law: it only benefits the most privileged of us. Only rich white trans women, or those lucky enough to get picked up by the ACLU for newsworthy cases, can afford to file lawsuits. Most states in this country, including Michigan, have “at will” employment laws, which means they can fire us for being trans and just not mention it. This judgment got lauded by queer media because it represented a monumental shift in interpretation of laws, but I was left struggling thinking about who laws exist to serve. They’re certainly not for me.
Yet at the end of the day, the supreme court upheld trans life as discursively meaningful. They could have very well voted this down and better enable codified discrimination against us. And this decision does materially impact the trans folks able to file these suits. And this decision sends a strong message to those who don’t believe in the validity and sacredness of my trans community. It’s also absolutely indicative of systemic oppressive forced ignorance of the traumas Black communities face.
So how do I resolve this contradiction? I celebrate it as a tiny win. I celebrate the shifts in conversation over the past decade that both led to this moment and led to my being able to transition instead of die. And I recognize there’s always much more to fight for. We can’t uphold this as a monumental victory and leave our Black, working class, and disabled trans sisters behind in the streets screaming for justice. We have to be right there with them, because none of us are free until all of us are free. There are many more struggles for worker’s rights, racial justice, trans affirmation, and abolition to go, and we have to measure this win by the impact it truly has on our liberation.