To focus on us in exclusively extreme circumstances reinforces our marginal status.
o assert that our nation is in crisis seems simultaneously banal and something of an understatement. From the blitzkrieg of deplorable EOs and inhumane legislative and budget proposals coming out of DC to the new POTUS’s itchy Twitter finger, the executive branch has come to seem, in the eyes of many Americans, like an existential threat to the nation – and to more than a few, even to life on the planet. One of the potential casualties of this situation is our capacity for empathy. When there are so many battles raging at once, how many can we reasonably follow, let alone join? How to stave off rage fatigue? How to avoid slumping into cynicism, or mere indifference?
For those of us who find ourselves on the front lines of the new régime’s assaults by virtue of our membership in one or more vulnerable minorities, both fatigue and cynicism are real dangers. We don’t have the luxury of indifference, however, or of allowing others to be indifferent to us. If we’re to combat the far-right push to further marginalize or even extinguish us as groups, we must remain a pressing concern to our allies (existing and potential) amidst the chaos.
The plight of trans Americans, the minority I belong to, is particularly difficult in the current climate. As a group, we’re relatively small, though not as small as was long thought. We’re also relative newcomers to mainstream public discourse, and our very existence is contested by many. In trying to get people to keep, let alone start caring about us, then, we have additional hurdles to overcome that are less of (or not) an issue for many other minority groups.
I’ve been arguing pretty much since I started blogging for HuffPost a year ago that our widespread acceptance by the cis majority is ultimately contingent on our being recognized as fully human. Though it may seem like a perfectly obvious point to make, it’s only when we’re seen first and foremost as friends and neighbors, and not victims (or deviants), that our plight ceases to be a sideshow and becomes for them what mainstream media organs like Time and The New York Times have declared it to be, a full blown civil rights issue.
In part because of lingering perceptions (and prejudices), though, and in part because of the prominent role that sensationalism and spectacle play in the media, the dominant narrative about us is still the sideshow one. In terms of airtime, the two main storylines about trans folks in the U.S. at present remain: (1) Our role as political scapegoats of the far right, most notably in the ongoing efforts by red-state lawmakers to pass discriminatory “bathroom bills,” and (2) Our status as victims of myriad forms of violence, in particular murder. I’ve written a lot about the first of these; I’d now like to consider the latter.
It comes as no surprise that outside academia, the lion’s share of discussion about violence against trans folks appears in the liberal media and blogosphere – the right evidently having little interest in (or stomach for) delving into the challenges facing a group that their loudest members are intent on demonizing. And it’s not all that surprising that while the violence plaguing the trans community assumes a wide range of forms – from snide looks and other microaggressions to verbal harassment to physical assaults – murders feature prominently, even disproportionately, in this discussion. Indeed, murder is often talked about as if it’s the only form of anti-trans violence that matters, even by those who should know better.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any upsides to this coverage. For trans advocates and allies, stories about murders serve a couple of purposes. In the first place, they’re effective shorthand for the high incidence of violence visited on us as a community, and in particular on trans women of color (who represent all eight reported victims so far this year). Second, and more basically, murder is an easy way to keep trans folks on people’s radar. Headlines like “At least 7 transgender women have been killed in 2017” and “Four Transgender Murders in a Week ‘Alarming Trend’” are good journalistic eye candy. These stories also confer on the victims a couple of things historically denied to trans folks: visibility and dignity. By moving beyond bare-bones, Dragnet-style summaries of the climactic event to include pictures and brief bios, they present the victims as more than mere crime statistics, in a real sense serving as obituaries for them. Additionally, they often correct other reporting on the incidents, since local news outlets frequently ignore the victims’ declared, lived identities, and deadname and/or misgender them (more than occasionally, following the lead of law enforcement and other state agencies in doing so).