Disability and Transfolk (aka "Am I disabled?")
The transgender community: Are they disabled? Is being transgender a disability? That depends on who is speaking; many transgender people likely have many different answers. I’m not going to speak for them. Today, I’m going to speak for myself.
Do I identify as trans? Yes. I’m not a man, but I’m also not really a woman. Because the gender binary system doesn’t work for me, I identify as trans. Because I’m trans, am I disabled, and do I have a disability? I’m going to pull the philosophy major card and reply, “That all depends on your definitions of disabled and disability.” As far as the Merriam-Webster online dictionary’s definition is concerned (Figure 2), I am definitely not disabled. Being trans is neither an illness, nor an impairment. I am not “damaged.” As far as disability goes, it becomes a little bit trickier. I’m still not disabled or impaired, which takes care of the first definition (Figure 1). “Lack of legal qualification to do something” (Figure 1)? Hmm, that might be arguable. Definition 3--“a disqualification, restriction, or disadvantage” (Figure 1)--this, I might be able to work with. Is it a disadvantage to be transgender? In today’s society, it definitely is.
Now, I’m not saying that there is some kind of inherent disadvantage, some kind of intrinsic bad thing, to being transgender; that’s pretty much the last argument I would make. But with society as it is, being trans is a disadvantage. This is society’s fault. Were the world a wonderful, loving, accepting place that truly celebrated diversity and didn’t attempt to force an unrealistic binary gender system on everyone, being transgender would be no disadvantage and certainly no disability. However, the world is not like that. Not yet, anyway. And while some parts of the world may be better than other parts, the United States, at least, has a long way to go.
Keep in mind that when I speak of being trans, I’m speaking of myself. Other transfolk might see things differently. If I had been born in the wrong body, if I had been determined female at birth and yet knew that I was really male, or vice versa, maybe I would view that as an impairment or an injury. I am not attempting to speak for all people or to cast judgments on others; I am simply trying to puzzle my way through the concepts of disability and being trans for myself.
In terms of being a disadvantage, being transgender is a disability. There have been questions, thus, about whether transgender people should attempt to use state civil rights laws in order to gain anti-discrimination rights on the basis of disability. In their article “Pursuing Protection for Transgender People through Disability Laws,” Jennifer L. Levi and Bennett H. Klein argue that the transgender community should indeed use this legislation to gain valuable rights. They recognize that many people worry that “using the legal category of disability to secure legal protections for transgender people will perpetuate social myths and stereotypes that transgender people are sick, abnormal, or inferior” (74). However, Levi and Klein go on to say that that “concern stems largely from the stigma still associated with the term disability, which in its colloquial sense is all too often misunderstood to mean physical infirmity, debilitation, or inability to work” (74). Levi and Klein quote Crossley, from “Disability Kaleidoscope,” in saying that according to the modern view of civil rights, “‘disadvantaged status of person with disabilities is [viewed as] the product of a hostile (or at least inhospitable) social environment’” (79).
By this new definition of being disadvantaged due to a negative social environment, can being transgender be considered a disability? In at least some cases, absolutely. People can still be fired for being transgender. Although a small number of states consider gender identity a protected class in terms of discrimination in employment, there are no current federal laws protecting transgender people from employment discrimination (Lambda Legal). Public restrooms are also a huge issue for many transgender people; most restrooms are clearly marked “men” or “women,” and people can be harassed verbally, physically harmed, or even arrested for entering a restroom that others deem to be the “wrong” one for them, based on their physical appearance and presentation.
Transgender people can also be subject to violence based on their gender identity and/or gender expression. In 1995, a transwoman named Tyra Hunter died because transphobia; when she was in a car crash, the firefighters who appeared at the scene ridiculed her instead of working to save her; when she finally arrived at a hospital, a doctor refused to treat her (TransGriot). In Trans Liberation, Leslie Feinberg describes nearly dying because of being denied treatment due to hir masculine gender expression. Feinberg was dying of endocarditis; ze had dangerously high fevers and went to a hospital to figure out what was wrong. Upon discovering that Feinberg is anatomically female, the doctor told hir to leave the hospital and never return and said, “‘You have a fever because you are a very troubled person’” (2). According to the HRC (Human Rights Campaign), only Washington, D.C., and twelve of the fifty states in the U.S. have laws that address hate crimes based on gender identity (HRC).
Even something as basic as getting from place to place can be a huge challenge for transgender people. SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) requires that the (ironically named) transpass must have an M or F sticker, which causes issues for people for whom that sticker doesn’t clearly match their gender presentations (Philadelphia Weekly). This either outs the people who attempt to use transpasses, exposing them to potential harm, or it penalizes them financially by causing them to simply buy individual tickets and forgoing the passes. TSA, the Transportation Security Administration, recently started a program requiring that all people must provide their gender when making a ticket reservation (NYTimes). Aside from forcing people into the gender binary, this causes large problems for people whose gender expression or presentation does not match the gender stated on their legal documents.
There are numerous other ways in which society disadvantages people for transgressing gender norms, not fitting into the gender binary, or otherwise being transgender. There are little linguistic details, like the lack of properly recognized gender-neutral pronouns and the lack of a gender-neutral appellation. “Mr.” and “Ms.” are gendered (for some, uncomfortably so), and titles such as “Dr.” only work for those who have, in fact, earned those titles. The rest of us are just basically left out. Surveys and applications typically include gender (or sex, I’ve never quite figured out whether the little “M” and “F” boxes actually refer to “male” and “female” in terms of biological sex, or whether the people who create the forms conflated sex and gender and mean “man” or “woman”), and on the internet, forms often will not allow one to continue until a box has been marked.
In the sense that society disadvantages one for being transgender, in this narrow and connotation-free definition, I personally believe that being transgender is a disability. Society’s insistence that people be the gender they were raised to be harms many people, and I find it stifling how fixated society is on placing everyone into a neat little gendered box.
There is a sense in which visibility affects how much of a disability being transgender is. There is an amount of privilege that comes both with being more visibly transgender and less visibly transgender. Although I identify as trans, I generally look like what society would deem a woman, and thus I can pass very easily as a non-trans woman. Therefore, I escape the harassment, discrimination, and violence that I might face, were I less able to pass. I do not deny that this gives me a great deal of privilege. I can choose when to come out, and I can also choose not to come out in order to protect myself. At the same time, there are definite disadvantages to this privilege. Because I am not generally taken to be trans, I am assumed to be a woman. I am invisible. It is difficult to claim my trans identity because people are less likely to take me seriously if they cannot visibly see what I am saying. People will dismiss me.
Being trans is likely less of a disadvantage to me than it is to others because I have the option to pass, to hide, to stay in the closet. I will admit that I have a lot of privilege, for a variety of reasons, the most relevant being my ability to blend in as a woman. I am not trying to compare my life to anyone else’s life, or to make light of anyone’s struggles, particularly those transgender people who cannot hide in the ways that I can. However, there are times when I wish I were more visibly trans, for lack of a better phrase. I know who I am, and I do not need anyone else’s recognition in order to be trans. And yet, it is frustrating that the legitimacy of my identity is questioned because I do not appear to be trans “enough.” I am not ashamed to be trans. I am proud to be who I am. I do not want to be invisible.
Feinberg, Leslie. Trans Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
Levi, Jennifer L. and Bennett H. Klein. “Pursuing Protection for Transgender People through Disability Laws.” Transgender Rights. Ed. Paisley Currah, Richard M. Juang, and Shannon Price Minter. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. 74-92.