by Zoe Samudzi
Despite obviously flimsy campaign promises, President Donald Trump is presently in the process of rolling back the rights-based gains made by transgender communities during the Obama administration. A joint letter from the Justice Department and Department of Education decried the previous administration’s trans-protective policies, including those that protect trans kids from discrimination and harassment at schools. The letter claimed the directive was devised “without due regard for the primary role of the states and local school districts in establishing educational policy”: in short, the policies constituted a federal overreach.
At the heart of this anti-trans rights rollback are bathroom policies, which are not simply about bathrooms, but rather the right for trans kids, and the trans community at large, to exist safely and freely in public. In a survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 31% of the over 27,000 respondents reported that, in the past year, they had avoided eating or drinking so they would not have to use the restroom. Further, 59% of respondents said they had avoided public restrooms to avoid potential confrontation, and 12% had actually been harassed, attacked, or sexually assaulted in a public restroom. There is no empirical justification for these bathroom policies , but rather transphobic—and more specifically, a transmisogynistic—contempt and the desire to not only regulate gendered use of public spaces, but gender itself.
On February 2nd, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) kicked off its inaugural American conference. It was a gathering of clinicians, academics, service providers, advocates, and trans community members discussing community-relevant research. There were dozens of presentations about a whole host of needs ranging from incarceration to mental health provision to surgeries to gender-affirming health services to care options for pre-pubescent trans kids. And it is this last set of presentations that caused controversy, because one of the clinicians presenting on care for trans kids was Dr. Kenneth Zucker.
Zucker’s name might sound familiar because despite being a member of the American Psychological Association Taskforce on Gender Identity, Gender Variance, and Intersex Conditions and the chair of a number of workgroups for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the manual providing classification and diagnostic criteria for psychological-psychiatric conditions and mental disorders), he is a noted proponent of reparative therapy and has been since he began his work in the mid-1970s. These “therapeutic interventions” espoused by Zucker violate WPATH’s Standards of Care, yet he was invited to present these views in ways that ultimately validate both his academic and clinical work. This is particularly egregious in the wake of the results of the independent review that, in large part, led to the closure of his Youth and Family Gender Identity Clinic at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
During Zucker’s first panel, Luna Salemme disrupted the moderator’s introduction of the panel and addressed the audience about Zucker’s unproblematized presence. She later said: “it would be a mistake to see Kenneth Zucker’s presence within this year’s WPATH conference as exceptional within the history of trans healthcare in the United States.” In actuality, “it is par for the course in a long history of the field’s commitment to holding alleged ‘expertise’ of openly transphobic clinicians and researchers above the knowledge and expertise that trans people hold about their own bodies and needs.”
As Luna noted, WPATH’s behavior hardly exists in a vacuum. Vice President Mike Pence, the most powerful Christian supremacist in the United States is a proponent of reparative therapy, as are Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, anti-trans sentiments affirmed by their support for policy rollbacks. President Trump’s neo-Nazi chief advisor Steve Bannon founded Breitbart, a popular far-right platform that has frequently endorsed anti-trans views, and Milo Yiannopuolos has used his tour as an opportunity to propagate transphobia and repeatedly harass trans university students. As history has demonstrated, fascistic politics have a particular obsession with purity, whether it be racialized, gendered, or sexual purity. And as cisnormative discourses have demonstrated, much of the resistance to accepting trans people emerges from the perception that they are an aberration of gendered “normalcy,” an “annihilation of man as image of God,” even: they are confused or mentally unwell people who ultimately need fixing—enter Christian fundamentalist and other non-religious “conversion” therapies and cisnormative healthcare provisions often acting with similar intention.
The willingness to extend Zucker a platform is also a reflection of the deep liberal cowardice inherent in refusing to take a stance against all forms of violence-inciting and bigoted speech, and the active participation in violence that is volunteering platforms as a sounding board for transphobia à la Bill Maher. While Luna calmly explained the problematic politics involved in allowing Zucker to present at the conference, a number of people yelled “Let him speak!” Response to Luna’s disruption as both a trans woman and a community service provider exemplifies the ways in which cisnormative clinical and academic institutions purport to be in service to trans people, but ultimately seek to perpetuate dominant and ultimately cis-privileging knowledges and gendered ways of being.
Despite writing an op-ed vehemently opposing conversion therapy for trans kids following the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, WPATH board member Dr. Dan Karasic (a cis man) not only allowed Zucker to present at the conference, but also shared panel space in the first presentation and was set to moderate Zucker’s second panel. The panel was canceled at the unwavering insistence of the trans community in attendance, and the cowardice and accountability-dodging of the WPATH board was laid bare. Luna further noted that “the struggle to center WPATH’s activity on the healthcare expertise and needs of the trans community and especially on the knowledge of trans people of color is one battle for our liberation in a long struggle ahead.” Particularly because of the ways the “struggle against institutional anti-black violence, anti-immigrant policy, Islamophobic violence, and attacks on reproductive rights in this country continue to disproportionately affect the most vulnerable members of the trans community.”
On February 9th, the formal apology made to the trans community—which, after community pressure, included a dedication to greater community representation on the board, efforts towards greater conference accessibility, and other structural reforms around inclusivity, as well as an apology for security threatening to call the police on a small group of trans people congregating outside of the presentation—was quietly removed from the WPATH website.
As cisgender people who purport to care, we have an obligation to not only ensure that trans people are able to enjoy access to housing, healthcare, and other essential material resources, but also the same gender self-determination that we cis people do. It is often easier for us to rally behind trans kids because of how we equate children’s innocence and youth with perfect victimhood (it is also worth noting how black and brown children are precluded from youth and innocence). But our support for trans kids means very little if we are not prepared to mobilize in support of trans adults. Too frequently, respect for and even acknowledgement of trans lives does not come until after they are gone. And even then, they are still often misgendered in death: Keke Collier was murdered in Chicago on February 21st and JoJo Striker was killed in Toledo at the beginning of February, and both of them were misgendered by the media. A resistance to this neo-fascist moment means a resistance to the marginalizing structures that make so many communities vulnerable across the board: resistance to Trump’s administration necessarily means that we properly hold ourselves accountable for the trans-antagonisms of which we are both complicit and beneficiaries.
Zoe is an doctoral student in Sociology living in Oakland. She studies whiteness and structural violence as they both drive poor health outcomes in ethnic and gender minority communities.
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