Why Transgender Rights Are Women’s RightsMay 08, 2012
Late last month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued an important decision protecting workers from sex discrimination in the workplace — but you may not have recognized it as such. On April 20, the EEOC released an opinion that said gender-identity discrimination is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the provision that has been the legal foundation for fighting sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination at work.
This opinion builds off of legal precedents from the 1980s and 1990s in cases where a woman was passed up for a job opportunity because she didn’t act or look feminine enough and where a man was sexually harassed and threatened by other men at work. This legal history drives home the fact that discrimination against the women who tend to be the key players in women’s activism — professional, heterosexual women who aren’t trans — is inextricably linked to the gender discrimination that other people face, including trans folks. Whether an employer tells a man that he shouldn’t act like a sissy, a woman that she shouldn’t wear revealing clothing if she doesn’t want to get hit on, or trans folk that they can’t or shouldn’t identify however they choose, workplace sex discrimination is about having to conform to the gender performance that your boss or colleagues prefer. As workers, we have the right to deviate from the gender norm that others want to enforce on us without sacrificing our livelihoods.
Thus, as a community of women’s activists, we should celebrate the EEOC’s opinion on Title VII, which will make it easier for trans folks to bring claims to EEOC offices across the country and make it easier to file suit against discriminatory employers. But we shouldn’t stop at celebrating. Though the EEOC’s decision will reverberate in federal courts, we need to be vigilant to ensure that more, stronger protections build on top of this decision by supporting legislation like the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (S. 811/H.R. 1397).
Protecting trans folks’ rights makes the workplace safer for everyone, but it also starts a cultural conversation about gender identity and raises awareness about not just the discrimination but also the threat of bodily harm that trans folks face when using bathrooms or just going out in public. Sadly, we’ve seen how grave this problem really is in the recent spate of assaults and murders of trans people.
Transgender issues are hard for many women and feminists to wrap their heads around, in some ways even more than the lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues that are often politically related to trans politics. And incorporating intersectional differences like sexuality, gender identity, race, class, disability, and others is a serious challenge in political organizing. In the women’s movement, this tension goes way back — from the suffragette split over whether to support the 15th Amendment to the “threat” of associating with radical lesbians that some women’s libbers dubbed the “lavender menace.” In hindsight, we know that feminism can and must incorporate difference to stay alive, to stay effective, and to stay honest.
In its simplest terms, we have to incorporate trans activism into our women’s activism because it affects women — whether they’re transitioning or not, whether they were born near the female end of the spectrum or the male, and whether they’re transitioning away from or toward womanhood. Trans issues are women’s issues, and feminists should support protecting all people from both sex and gender discrimination.