I went to an all-boys Catholic high school in Northeast D.C. The school was a decent one. I learned a lot. Made friends. The monks tried to teach us to be kind and gentle. But it was also a hotbed of toxic masculinity. My best friend growing up is now a member of the alt-right. I haven’t spoken to him since coming out, but in one of our last conversations we were in a diner and he said, totally at random, “Hey, we should say we’re girls and go use the women’s bathroom.”
When I think of the Trans Day of Remembrance, I think of my old classmates and of the way that trans women’s bodies evoked an immediate and visceral sense of disgust in them. Somehow trans women are a unique challenge to our society’s codes about masculinity and femininity. As boys, we didn’t learn specifically to hate trans women — our conception of trans women as human beings began and ended with the character of Chandler’s dad on Friends. No, that hatred was an outgrowth of everything we’d learned about masculinity and femininity and desire. It was like the solution to an equation: If all these other things were true — if it was good to be stoic and masculine — then trans women must be disgusting. We didn’t question it, and there would’ve been no way to argue my classmates out of that gut-level reaction.
In this calendar year, 34 trans or gender non-conforming people have been murdered in the US. According to the Human Rights Commission (HRC), that is the most violent year since they began collecting statistics. And that’s just the people we know about. Most of the victims were Black or Latinx trans women. Most were from poorer backgrounds. And almost all were killed by men.
The most visible signs of transphobia and transmisogyny are these murders, but the hatred goes much deeper. I don’t know any trans women who haven’t suffered from assaults, lost jobs and opportunities, sneers and taunts on the street, rejection by family, eviction and homelessness.
And that disgust doesn’t feel like something we can defeat, because it’s not a hatred specifically for trans women, but for what we represent. In our society, women and femininity are devalued, but it’s even worse to be a bad woman. To be fat or old or ugly or non-white. And the ultimate in failed womanhood is to be a woman who’s “really” a man.
I feel it myself, when I look in the mirror. I think, “How can my wife bear to be seen in the street with me? I am a monster.”
And although she and my friends argue me out of that position, most Americans wouldn’t bother. They’d say, “Well, you’re entitled to act however you want, but to my eyes, you are in fact a monster.”
I don’t know. The only answer is that you can’t ask their permission to exist. The truth is, my right to live in this body and to openly claim this identity was purchased with the blood of other trans woman. And oftentimes those women came from society’s poorest and most marginalized groups.
Globally, 62 percent of trans people murdered this year were sex workers. Many were Black trans women like the ones I used to see on a street corner in Baltimore, near where I attended grad school. My classmates sometimes joked about these women, as if they were objects of ridicule, but in truth they were probably some of the bravest people I’ve ever seen.
To exist in a visibly trans body is never frictionless, but to do it on a street corner, without any sort of protection, in a way that directly confronts men’s most angry and complicated feelings about femininity, is unimaginably dangerous. And today is the day we honor those women, and others like them, not just out of pity and sorrow, but out of gratitude. Society didn’t give them permission to exist, but they insisted on doing it anyway. And that refusal to disappear is the foundation of any freedoms that trans or gender non-conforming people might have.