Fighting For The Rights of Trans & Queer Students at Laney College
|Written by La Voz de los Trabajadores|
|Friday, 06 May 2011 20:13
|Confronting Structural Oppression On Campus & Ignorance, Indifference, & Homo/Trans phobia Within The Left.
When, for the first time this semester, a transgender student came forward to publicly expose and denounce the harassment, discrimination and threats that he had been experiencing on a daily basis at Laney College in Oakland, his story starkly captured the lived reality for many transgender, queer and gender non-conforming students, faculty and staff and his experiences became a rallying point for a serious fight back on campus.
The situation of homo and trans phobic harassment on campus can be summarized as operating on four levels:
· the restrooms: the need for single stall gender neutral restrooms where all people feel safe from harassment and physical violence regardless of their gender identity / expression
· the administration indifference to the needs of the campus transgender / queer / gender non-conforming population: the need for mandatory, compensated workshops for the administration, faculty, and staff about the realities and needs of this community and how to relate to them in ways that are not belittling, humiliating or traumatic
· the slashing of key resources due to budget cuts that the entire student body, especially its most vulnerable, marginalized and precarious communities, rely on including mental and physical health services, academic counseling and tutoring, child care, and educational opportunities programs and services
· the general ignorance, intolerance and homo / trans-phobia of the student population due to the low level of education and politicization around this issue
Confronting Ignorance, Indifference & Homo / Trans-phobia Within The Movement
As soon as we began mobilizing and organizing for action, a fifth level emerged, this time within the movement itself. Students and organizations that had been central to the movement against budget cuts and for public education, as well as groups involved in community struggles around issues of race and class, both openly and privately moved to abstain from taking a stand in solidarity with the queer community.
Further, when queer students brought their demands to the organizing spaces of the education struggle – a fight which queer students have played a leading role in, though never before as a self-organized community – arguing for the need to incorporate demands against oppression into a real fighting program to unite the struggles and confront the assault on education, we were met with ignorance and indifference: a disturbing “color and gender-blind” refusal to address the problems with our educational system beyond the economics of the cuts, on the one hand, and outright homo and trans-phobia on the other.
The experience showed that there is a serious lack of understanding of how oppressed communities are affected by the cuts. Changing this situation is a challenge for the movement as a whole. This consciousness does not develop spontaneously – that is, without serious political education and organization to go beyond the “we are all sharing the pain” myth, to expose the reality of the cuts – precisely because we are being told by the government, the media and in the classroom everyday that we are all sharing equally in the cuts.
The reality is that the budget cuts are not being applied evenly. In fact, the cuts always target disproportionately the most vulnerable and marginalized communities: the working class, immigrants, and students of color, women, the disabled, and the LGBTQQI populations.
Oppression: Its Structural to the Capitalist System
The newly released report “Injustice At Every Turn”, compiled the experiences of 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming people from every part of the United States. The report results reveal acute levels of institutionalized discrimination in practically every facet of life, from employment, housing, access to public accommodations, official identity recognition and documentation, police interactions, and incarceration to health, family life, and education. Overwhelmingly, the trans and gender non-conforming population is experiencing poverty, social immobility, physical and sexual abuse, lack of access to medical care, homelessness, ghettoization in the underground economy, housing discrimination and criminalization at shockingly disproportionate rates.
The study exposes the blatant climate of impunity within which the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming populations are systematically violated. Further, the data demonstrates the ways in which the realities of class and race operate to exacerbate exposure to trauma and abuse and to impose prohibitive limitations on working class transgender and gender non-conforming folks capacities to recover from and overcome structural barriers and continuous oppression.
Here is an overview of some of the study’s most important findings:
· On poverty and economic marginalization: Study participants were 4 times more likely to live in extreme poverty (a household surviving on less than $10,000/year) than the general population and of those in this economic bracket, 24% had a bachelor’s degree or higher, indicating acute barriers to employment. The transgender and gender non-conforming population has unemployment rates that are double those of the general population.
· Discrimination in the workplace: 50% of study respondents had experienced harassment and discrimination on the job, 47% had been denied a position or a promotion because of their gender identity / expression, and 26% had been fired. As a result of this situation, 16% of the transgender and gender non-conforming people interviewed had been forced into the underground economy (sex work or selling drugs) in search of work.
· On emotional health and stability: While only 1.6% of the general population have tried to kill themselves, 41% of the study participants had, and that number jumps to 51% for those who are harassed and bullied in school and 61% for those in the low income bracket or who have experienced physical or sexual assault .
· On police and the prison system: 46% of the survey participants feel uncomfortable seeking police assistance. And on top of having much higher incarceration rates than the general population, trans and gender non-conforming folks face serious problems with physical and sexual assault in the prisons – 16% and 15% respectively.
The University: A Safe Space?
In the education sector, from elementary through grad school, the survey results confirmed that the experiences of trans and gender non-conforming students at Laney College were far from isolated:
A shocking 78% of respondents had experienced harassment at the K-12 level, with those from low income backgrounds suffering the worst abuse. For 35%, that included physical assault and 12% experienced sexual assault. Not surprisingly facing this situation, 15% of respondents had chosen to drop out of school or university entirely because of the harassment. Others took other measures to avoid harassment, including opting to take only online classes.
Rather than acting as allies in the fight for increased tolerance and safety for the trans community, campus administrators and even faculty seem to be central to the problem and often even the perpetrators of abuse and trauma. In fact, 6% of respondents revealed that they were expelled from school by their campus administrations because of their gender identity or expression. And of those who experienced harassment at the K-12 level, 31% said it was perpetrated by teachers or staff. Of those, 5% were physically assaulted and 3% were sexually assaulted not by their classmates but by academic officials who should have been protecting them.
Beyond harassment, financial problems are a huge barrier to access and achievement in school, first with trans and gender non-conforming students experiencing unique difficulties in finding and retaining jobs due to discrimination, and second with structural barriers to accessing scholarships and financial aid. 15% of respondents left school because of financial problems related to transitioning from one gender to another. 11% lost or could not access financial aid or scholarships because of their gender expression. Once in school, many were denied access to essential gender-appropriate facilities, including restrooms (26%) and housing (19%).
What these results show is just how structurally embedded experiences of harassment, a climate of impunity for homo and trans-phobia, and unique barriers to academic access and achievement are, across the nation, and how little is being done about it. And the impact of this situation is imposing devastating consequences on the trans and gender non-conforming population that reach into and are entangled with every other area of their lives.
A Program To Fight: The Only Path To Queer Liberation
Gender and sexual oppression in our society is an expression of a capitalist economic structure built on private property and the hetero-normative, patriarchal nuclear family. The ignorance and prejudice we are exposed to everyday, in our families, on the job, on the street, in the classroom, are the reflection of this structure.
Our liberation will not be achieved until the roots of our oppression are destroyed. We must fight knowing that we will not be free until we have destroyed the structure of our oppression, capitalism, and all the mechanisms through which our oppression operates, whether they be racial, sexual, social or cultural. These projects are inseparably bound together.
Some Important Terms:
Gender Expression: How a person presents or expresses his or her gender identity to others, often through manner, clothing, hairstyles, voice or body characteristics.
Gender Identity: In general, this refers to an individual’s internal sense of gender. Since gender identity is internal, one’s gender identity is not necessarily perceived by or visible to others.
Transgender: Generally, a term for those whose gender identity or expression is different than that typically associated with their assigned sex at birth, including transsexuals, androgynous people, cross-dressers, gender queers, and other gender non-conforming people who identify as transgender. Some, but not all of these individuals desire to transition gender; and some, but not all desire medical changes to their bodies as part of this process.
Queer: A term used to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender people or the LGBT community. For some, the term is useful to assert a strong sense of identity and community across sexual orientations and gender identities. For others, it refers to the lesbian/gay/bisexual part of the community. Used as a reclaimed epithet for empowerment by many, it is still considered by some to be a derogatory term.