On October 8, 2015, Malaysia criminalized transgender women based on their appearance in public spaces through judicial ruling. The ruling was a devastating blow to transgender women in Malaysia, as the lower Court of Appeal deemed the law, section 66, unconstitutional on November 14, 2014.
In response to the ruling, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Office issued a statement that calls into question the understanding of transgender issues on every level of government. The UN Human Rights Office headlined the article by stating that they are “concerned by [the] criminalization of transgender women in Malaysia.” This response reveals the political violence engendered in our human rights discourse. The matter of criminalizing transgender women is not a mere matter of concern – it directly endangers their lives and well-being. The article does begin to analyze the reality of the situation, but stops short of discussing the violent consequences of the law.
““This law infringes the rights of transgender women, including the right to live with dignity, to freedom of movement, the right to work, to equality before the law and to freedom from discrimination and freedom of expression,” said Matilda Bogner, the Regional Representative of OHCHR’s Southeast Asia office.”
Such phrases as “the right to live with dignity,” “equality before the law,” and “freedom from discrimination” are all buzzwords that have lost their meaning in the violent struggle against oppression that renders certain lives less than human.
In the United States in particular, these phrases are discursive methods that neutralize the violence experienced by transgender people. These phrases have come to be blanket statements to rally for the “rights” of marginalized people, though they are used with an implication that the group will be normalized as a means to secure those rights. On October 6, 2015, the 20th transgender woman of color was killed in the United States since the start of the year. Institutionalized racism and sexism fatally intersect with homophobia and transphobia in this country regularly, making transgender women of color targets for violence from the personal level to the federal level.
In the United States, 28 states lack legislation that protects transgender people from discrimination, while two have legislation that actively overrule any protections local governments may pass. In addition, 41 states have no legislation for transgender-inclusive health care insurance protection, while 37 states criminalize exposure and/or transmission of HIV. In most states with these problems, there is not legislation that actively names transgender people as a way to deprive them of their rights; rather, the lack of protections is a passive method for allowing discriminatory acts to take place. Transgender Americans are living in a country that criminalizes their very existence through the absence and codification of laws designed to strip them of their rights, safety, dignity, and resources to survive and thrive as citizens.
Encoding discrimination is an act of political violence, and leads to the necessary dehumanization that precedes acts of personal violence.
Transgender people are living in a state of emergency across the globe, but there is a false sense of security being touted through the passive discourse of governments and institutions claiming to uphold human rights. The indifference of American citizens to issues that do not concern their being is a difficult barrier to overcome, as the ideologies of rugged individualism and American exceptionalism engender a sense of stability that is detrimental to oppressed groups. These deceptive ideologies have been internalized by cisgender and transgender Americans alike, manifesting in detrimental ways. We have been raised in a society with a heteronormative discourse that marginalizes non-normative identities in political spaces. This forces transgender and queer people to: communicate in ways created and deemed respectable by cisgender people when their lives are constantly at risk, exercise the right to vote by conforming to a false gender binary or by upholding a false identity, and seek safety through solitude in a criminal justice system that endangers them through a denial of their identities, among other coping mechanisms. As the Human Rights Commission (HRC) aptly states, we are “in a national crisis,” but the various barriers facing transgender people “cannot – and must not – be an excuse for inaction.”
Reacting with passive language dismisses the active violence against transgender people. This language trivializes their experiences, placing the onus of the acts on the victim, rather than naming the offender through the action. While a discussion of language may seem insignificant to the life and death matter at hand, it is a critical tool in reimagining a discourse that dignifies transgender people. A shift in language will convey the severity of the situation to those who are not yet active in protecting this marginalized group, and will give transgender people the discursive power to seek justice in a system – or rather, a cistem – that has been constructed on the oppression of non-normative identities.
Political discourse that validates the lived experiences of transgender people is necessary to construct an American identity that truly upholds the values of freedom and liberty for all. If we are to reduce political violence against transgender people, we must recognize and respect their identities; only then can we create a political community with the discursive tools for transgender and queer people to seek justice. In light of this knowledge, we must ask ourselves: Are we to accept the docile language of diplomats in such grave circumstances? Or can we invigorate our discourse to reveal the hostile and deadly world in which transgender people, specifically transgender women of color, live? Most importantly, can we activate our political discourse to reduce political violence, strengthen our commitment to universal human rights, and uphold the dignity of all human beings?
I believe we can, and it starts by reacting in kind to the criminalization of transgender people in Malaysia: We are appalled; we are disgusted; we are horrified; we are furious that human beings are being treated with such malice, and we recognize that protecting transgender people from this fatal crisis in our own country is the first step to stopping the extreme violence that is stripping transgender people of their dignity across the globe.