If you dig into debates about transgender rights and experiences in media, harmful themes about trans identities stand out: trans women must constantly push back on the idea that they’re sexual predators, nonbinary people struggle to convince people that they aren’t putting on an act for attention, trans men have to draw attention to the fact that they exist at all, and any mentions of trans and nonbinary Black, Indigenous, and people of color are purely focused on their trauma. While trans people do struggle with these issues, they’re often framed as the sum total of all trans experiences. When media and cis-hetero-centric society flattens down our experiences to a single narrative that’s more palatable for them to consume, those of us who are most marginalized fall through the cracks.
While many allies want to take part in the fight for transgender rights, their focus is often on high-visibility issues at the expense of many of our most pressing day-to-day concerns. Political debates rage about whether transfeminine people should be able to use women’s restrooms or participate in women’s sports, but little is said about our disproportionately high unemployment rate due to workplace discrimination; our frequent inability to access even basic health care; the high rates of domestic abuse and transphobic violence we experience; and the difficulty we face obtaining accurate identification to allow us to open a bank account, attend work or school, or vote in elections. Additionally, the needs of queer trans people, disabled trans people, and trans people of color are often ignored or even completely erased.
The way mainstream discussions tend to generalize the lives of trans people overlooks how our gender and life experiences mean that we can navigate completely different obstacles. For example, trans women often deal with harassment and bullying before coming out for not conforming to male gender norms, and then face intense transmisogyny after coming out. While transphobes will claim that trans women’s “male socialization” gives them an advantage over cisgender women, the reality is that trans women are usually subjected to far greater levels of discrimination, harassment, and assault—not less.
People often assume this means trans men must have the opposite experience, coasting through life with male privilege. This is untrue. Trans men face misogyny both before and after coming out, on top of being denied access to scholarships, networking opportunities, and safe spaces set up for women and nonbinary people. This is especially true for trans men who come out later in life. Even those who live “stealth” and keep their trans status a secret commonly struggle with issues like access to basic preventative and reproductive care.
Nonbinary people are often not taken seriously or treated as their professed gender, and seen as androgynous women making a political statement. Masculine nonbinary people rarely have our existence acknowledged at all. Updating one’s identity documents is already a long and complex process, but in most of the U.S., nonbinary people aren’t able to apply for accurate identification at all. Even in states that allow the option, legal forms and state programs rarely acknowledge the nonbinary IDs they have issued.
All of these challenges require very different solutions so that trans people can live everyday lives. However, few efforts to empower transgender people address any of these issues with nuance, consideration, or input from affected communities about what supports and resources they really need. For example, transgender men fleeing from domestic violence are often unable to find any help or resources unless they are willing and able to go back into the closet. Insurance does not always cover gender-affirming care, or care associated with the “opposite” sex (for example, prostate exams for trans women). While transgender health care is supposed to be covered nationwide, it’s not uncommon for trans people to encounter denials of care that require time, resources, and legal counsel to appeal—privileges not every member of the community has. Even when insurance does cover gender-affirming care, the costs can be substantial—leaving BIPOC, disabled, and housing insecure trans people scrambling to try to fundraise thousands of dollars out of pocket.
Trans people who are neurodivergent or mentally ill can find their mental health diagnoses weaponized against them by the medical system. Transmasculine BIPOC are subject to the same kind of police violence that threatens cis men of color. Trans women of color, particularly Black trans women, tend to experience the worst outcomes of all, experiencing disproportionately high rates of unemployment, homelessness, abuse, and death due to institutional discrimination and a lack of access to resources. For many members of the trans community, debates about public restrooms and women’s sports do not even begin to address the systemic barriers that affect our lives.
Unfortunately, those barriers also manifest within trans communities. Simply being trans does not on its own counteract the deeply ingrained biases that everyone absorbs growing up in the modern world: white supremacy, ableism, misogyny, and so many other harmful viewpoints. Transmedicalists believe that trans identities must be subject to intense medical gatekeeping and generally believe nonbinary people are only pretending to be trans for attention, even though nonbinary people are also targets of legislative attacks against trans people. Some trans men buy into toxic masculinity in an attempt to fit in with cisgender men and attack trans women to deflect attention away from themselves. And white trans people frequently dismiss the experiences of trans people of color and enforce colonialist attitudes about gender on people from cultures that have always recognized identities beyond the binary.
While most trans people engage in more self-reflection than your average cisgender person as part of their gender journey, unlearning these toxic beliefs takes time and conscious effort, and not everyone is willing to invest in that work. Some transgender people still believe in respectability politics and believe their best protection lies not in solidarity with other trans people, but in gaining favor with those who would deny their rights by lashing out at trans people who are less concerned with blending in and assimilating to cisgender norms, or simply unable to. It’s the reason you see trans Trump supporters like Caitlyn Jenner, or trans activists like Buck Angel, who calls his own identity a mental disorder, even though their embrace of false, fearmongering, transphobic rhetoric won’t do much to protect them in the long run.
It’s precisely because the experiences and needs of trans communities are so diverse that the only path to safety and security for all transgender people is for everyone to embrace complete queer liberation. That means accepting everyone’s professed gender, even if it doesn’t make sense to you, or you disagree with them. It means using the pronouns and names people ask, even if you dislike the person. This also means following a wide variety of transgender voices. Listen to the experiences we are trying to share with you. Seek out those of us who are not white, able-bodied, gender conforming, or neurotypical. Become familiar with the divides within the trans community so that you can identify bad faith actors, and resist the urge to only listen to trans people who you can relate to.
Remember, strict gender norms and laws limiting bodily autonomy may have the most dramatic effect on the trans community. But upholding toxic gender norms and expectations hurts everyone—even cisgender people.