Post submitted by The Rev. David Chatel
Transgender inequality. What does it mean? The fact that this phrase has come to the forefront of our vocabulary in recent years is both good and bad. It’s good because inequality of any kind needs visibility in order to be understood and changed, but it’s bad that we need to use the phrase at all. Across the U.S., state governments are introducing and passing a wave of legislation that seeks to limit or take away the rights and choices of transgender individuals in relation to health care, social and educational inclusion and a host of other issues. To get at the root of what “transgender inequality” means, it’s helpful to take a closer look at inequality in general.
Understanding inequality seems simple enough on the surface, but the term itself is surprisingly multi-layered. Inequality is not a particularly modern or postmodern problem. There has been a struggle for equality since there have been people who were able to realize that inequality existed. In North America, we’ve been familiar with inequitable social practices since the beginning of recorded European interference. The Indigenous inhabitants of this continent have taken their place in the history of discrimination and were some of the original faces of inequality in the direct history of the United States.
In ways similar to the rest of the world, our society suffers from rampant discrimination positioned on a backdrop of racial privilege, inequitable wealth distribution and land ownership established through historically unjust acquisition. Drawing energy from these roots, inequality spreads out across the social spectrum in predictable ways that have been seen for thousands of years in thousands of places. In our time, Indigenous populations, ethnic minority populations, the poor, those lacking access to education, women and those existing outside traditional sexual and gender binaries can clearly be seen experiencing unequal and discriminatory treatment. This happens both on an interpersonal level between individuals, and at the macro level of social and governmental interaction.
Our Constitution states that the equality of all people is a self-evident truth which is part of the nature of our humanity, having been created by God. This is a faith-based statement, but even if your own personal perspective is not through a lens of any religious faith, the self-evident truths of equality and inalienable rights are still concepts that hold deep significance. Whether or not you believe in a divine force at the center of reality, it is profoundly important to recognize that our founding fathers established the concepts of equality and self-evident human rights as essential to the governing principles of our country. They established a standard that provides a societal basis for objective truth that is not based on opinion, even if they themselves sometimes ignored this in their treatment of others.
Self-evident truth is not the most popular concept in our day and age. Truth has become something rooted in subjectivity and largely defined by personal opinion. While finding and living your own truth can be a liberating, therapeutic and positive experience, subjective truth can also be dangerous, especially when it comes to issues of human rights and who deserves them. Subjective truth (based on opinion) is a part of the supporting structure that keeps inequality alive and functioning.
As a Christian, it’s always confusing for me to note how someone is able to claim agreement with the teachings of Jesus and also be selective about the relegation of human rights and equality. Often, it seems the façade of objective (or absolute) truth is used as a disguise for one’s subjective truth (opinion). Their resulting “absolute opinion” then functions as a gate to determine who does or does not deserve equitable treatment, both personally and under the law. Ironically, absolute objective truths are not absolute or objective unless they apply to all people, regardless of our opinion of or agreement with them. Equal rights, ethical treatment and human rights as a whole belong to all of humanity, not simply to people who are deemed worthy by those in power. It is unconstitutional, unethical and wrong to withhold or limit things like supportive and affirming health care from trans individuals because trans individuals are humans. When I think about transgender inequality, I think of it as nothing less than a denial of the full humanity of people of trans expression. If this sounds familiar, it is because this sort of denial has often been at the root of major discriminatory practices throughout history. It can be clearly seen in the treatment of First Nations peoples, Americans of African descent, women and members of the LGBTQ community.
I believe that the origin of equality and human rights is Divine. I believe that these rights require protection and enforcement if they are to be realized and enjoyed by all people. I believe it is the responsibility of our government and our legislators to protect and enforce those rights for all if they are to be truly experienced by any. I believe that the subjective application of human rights is a not only a violation of the constitution, but also a basic disagreement with the tenets of Christianity and a denial of the Divine origin of human rights to begin with.
Aside from all the sociological and theological issues surrounding trans inequality, I don’t want to overlook the simple importance of building relationships when it comes to developing trans awareness and an understanding of what life is like as a trans individual. In my experience, one of the only paths to true change and transformation in individuals and in groups is the development of authentic relationships between people who live differing realities. Dealing with concepts and ideas is important, but without the development of real relationships between those who disagree, we may never realize the power of a changed heart rather than a changed mind. Sadly, it is far too easy to keep others at arms length because of differences in belief and opinion.
History has taught us that inequality and discrimination will always be a part of the human experience. We can also learn lessons from countless sociopolitical situations that improved because diverse people cared enough to sit down and listen to each other with kindness, respect and courage. It is important to understand that a commitment to equality and human rights is more of a challenge than it might first appear. Jesus, one of the original human rights activists, calls those who follow his teachings to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. One of the side effects of believing that trans rights are human rights, and that human rights are for everyone, is that everyone also includes those who may hate you for who you are and what you stand for. The hard news is that in order to have a chance for a change of heart and mind in those who don’t recognize your gender or rights as a transgender individual, it is necessary to develop a relationship with them. Is it fair? No. Is it the right thing to do? I believe it is. The balance between progress and love, even in the face of ignorance and hate, is found in relationships. Standing up for those whose rights are threatened and showing respect for the rights of those who disagree is something that happens in many ways, but the most important and fruitful way it happens is face to face. If we come to know each other, it is harder to hate each other.
About the Author
David Chatel is an Episcopal Priest in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast and Rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Brewton, Alabama. Called to the intersection of contemplative spirituality and social justice, he and his family split their time between Brewton and their hometown of Mobile, Alabama, where they enjoy the company of friends and family, making music and wrangling their Border Collie, Kevin.