Your Identities Are Built on the Bodies of our Dead Loved Ones

By Greta Gustava Martela and Christina DiEdoardo

The fallacy which underlines Elinor Burkett’s op-ed in the June 6, 2015 edition of the New York Times is at the core of why transphobia continues to exist in this country. Too many cis people like Burkett see us only as a canvas on which to expound their bigoted theories of feminism and gender. In truth, these “theories” are written using our blood as ink and our battered bodies as the page. And Trans people have had enough.

When Burkett takes an ugly and disingenuous swipe at Caitlyn Jenner she also strikes every closeted trans child who is unfortunate enough to have parents who read the New York Times. She beats down every trans woman who is struggling to simply exist.

Burkett posits a false “conflict” between Trans women and “feminists”, by which she apparently means, “feminists born with magic vulvas”. In truth, most Trans women identify, by and large, as feminists because the issues feminists care about the most directly affect Trans women. Trans women, being able to walk down the street without being afraid we are going to be assaulted, battered or worse by a man who is upset that we are ignoring his advances is a very real concern. Trans women like us frequently experience a double-whammy of discrimination in the workplace — we’re often paid less for the same job for being women, assuming the employer doesn’t choose to deny us the job because we’re Trans. Like our cis sisters, we fight every day for access to appropriate medical care and the right to exercise dominion over our own bodies — something cis men take for granted.

This should be a place of coalition and sisterhood for cis and Trans women to work together. Instead, people like Burkett virtually (and in some cases, literally) call for our extermination.

What is it about transgender identities that is so threatening that the only way to deal with them is to destroy them, to render them invalid, to deny them altogether?

Burkett argues that Caitlyn Jenner is somehow deficient and less of a woman because her path to womanhood was different than the road Burkett traveled. It was painful for me to read what she wrote, treating another person’s identity and coming out as an opportunity for Burkett to try to rehash some of the most discredited ideas about Second-Wave feminism.

If the consequences of her words were not so serious, the irony of her position would be comical. Burkett claims she has fought her entire life against “men” defining women, yet she appoints herself as the arbiter of Jenner’s gender without even a second thought.

We can’t speak to Caitlyn Jenner’s experience but consider this from Greta’s experience growing up trans: “I have the life experiences of a Trans woman. I grew up trying to hide my femininity because every time I let it slip the people in my life came down on me hard. I endured queer bashings even though at the time I identified as straight. I came home from grade school every day crying from the bullying I endured. I had a Trans woman’s experience. It is a specific experience of womanhood, one in which everyone is telling you that you can’t be what you are. One that is paid for in blood and bruises, hospitalizations and panic attacks.”

The consequences of musings like Burkett are apparent every day in the work we do with Trans Lifeline. Trans Lifeline is the first crisis and suicide hotline to focus on serving the Trans and gender nonconforming community in the United States and Canada which is staffed by all Trans volunteers. The lifeline receives several hundred hours of calls every month from Trans people who want to end their lives because of the bigotry supported by people like Burkett and publications like the New York Times — and it’s our job to do our best to talk our Trans sisters and brothers back from the edge of that abyss.

A recent presentation Greta attended by Dr. Rylan Testa and Colt Keo-Meier listed four major factors contributing to suicidal ideation among Trans people. Of these, the most critical was the invalidation of Trans identities — exactly what Burkett does when she effectively declares womanhood off-limits to anyone not born with a magic vulva.

We are sorry if the existence of transgender people is inconvenient to Burkett’s theories. But it’s axiomatic in science, whether it be a physical or social discipline, that when the theory does not match the data, the theory must yield. In this case, Burkett’s theories have not only been discredited, but are dangerous in the same way that snake-oil claims about the “dangers” of vaccination are harmful. Leaving a child unvaccinated renders them vulnerable to diseases which might kill them. Exposure to Burkett’s views makes her readers susceptible to bigotry and transphobia. In either example, it’s the innocent — either the unvaccinated child or the Trans person who is beaten and murdered by bigots — who pay the price.

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