On Tuesday, June 3, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally followed up on his so-called Women's Equality Act (WEA) legislation, which aims to "end discrimination and inequality based on gender" across the state. The legislation features a 10-point plan to address gender-based discrimination and includes measures to:
- Achieve pay equity (in New York women earn 16-percent less than men in similar or equal positions)
- End sexual harassment in all New York workplaces (currently, sexual harassment is not prohibited in workplaces with three or fewer employees -- seriously -- and women accounted for 75 percent of all sexual harassment claims in 2011
- Stop source-of-income discrimination (women in New York account for 76 percent of all housing voucher recipients, yet many landlords can refuse to rent to recipients who use these vouchers, greatly harming women)
- Stop housing discrimination for domestic violence victims (currently, women account for 85 percents of the state's domestic violence victims, yet under current law, domestic violence victims are not protected against housing discrimination)
While the Women's Equality Act certainly aims to remedy a portion of the wrongs that women still face, the legislation completely neglects to address the vulnerability of transgender women.
Trans women -- and the transgender population as a whole -- face significant levels of discrimination and violence in their daily lives and need the same type of protections that are outlined in the WEA. Indeed, as shown in the 2013 report "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and HIV-Affected Hate Violence in 2012," transgender women are "2.14 times as likely" to experience discrimination, threats/harassment, or intimidation as cisgender individuals, and this rate is even higher for trans women of color.
What's more, according to the report, the greatest perpetrators of discrimination, threats, and intimidation against trans women continue to be landlords and employers. (Police officers also continue to be frequent perpetrators of violence against trans women and the transgender community as a whole, though I will have to address this in a subsequent post.) These alarming figures are also detailed in the report "Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey," disputing any notion that trans women still occupy a space of male privilege. Clearly, when people have the power to extend or rescind job offers, or have the power to confirm or deny housing to a person because of her gender, something is wrong.
But despite these vulnerabilities, transgender women and their concerns are completely absent from the Women's Equality Act.
I recognize that are some who don't recognize trans women as "true" or "real" women and argue that transgender issues, such as ENDA (the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act) and GENDA (New York's Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act), aren't women's issues, drawing a thick line behind trans women and so-called "women-born women." This gender policing has most recently been seen in the ongoing war surrounding the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival and its continued exclusion of trans women.
Though the music festival's struggle has been heavily documented elsewhere, I bring it up here to address the central issue at hand: the policing of womanness. This politics of exclusion that aims to separate "women-born women" from transgender women reminds me of the scene in Star Wars: A New Hope where Princess Leia tells Gov. Tarkin, "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers."
Perhaps the same can be said about this tightening around what -- or who -- constitutes a woman. The more we try to control it, the more we realize it is an identity without boundaries. Womanness has been precariously defined by everything from skin color (African-American women, for example, were not considered women under the law during the antebellum South), occupation, clothing, and sexuality. Let's not forget that lesbians -- particularly lesbians of color -- were fiercely excluded from the second-wave feminist movement because they were seen as a perverse, antithetical presence to true women's rights (the "lavender menace," for the history buffs). That's right: Once upon a time, lesbians were not deemed to be "real" women either.
The exclusion of trans women echoes this same misjudgment about womanhood and ironically misses the point behind the music festival's respelling of "women": that only an individual can self-define her gender and her relationship to herself, society, and other women. Any political formation that seeks to define womanness for -- or against -- another woman may find itself more preoccupied with policing impossible, porous boundaries than working toward a more progressive, diverse, and inclusive society.
Cuomo's fight for women's equality cannot afford to overlook transgender women, who are especially vulnerable to violence, harassment, and discrimination in housing, employment, and health care. I hope that the Women's Equality Coalition will recognize the vulnerability of all women and join the call for ensuring that all women are included in the Women's Equality Act.