This is the sixth entry in a series of posts in which I answer uncomfortable questions posed by readers. You can learn more about the series, read the other questions, and ask your own here.
Given the fact that proportion of the population (of the United States) that is transgender appears to be 0.5% or lower (http://53eig.ht/1zrIXrs), why does this issue appear to be so dominant within the progressive movement? (Or is that a mistaken impression?)
This question just came in last night, and there are three ahead of it in the queue, so I’ll start by apologizing to the folks I’m neglecting by answering it. But I suspect that it was inspired either by yesterday’s Katha Pollitt essay critiquing trans-inclusive language in the reproductive rights movement or by my subtweeting of that essay that afternoon, so in the interest of timeliness I’m bumping it up.
Okay. So let’s start by saying that we don’t actually know how many trans people there are in the United States. (As indicated by the title of the article you link: Why We Don’t Know the Size of the Transgender Population.) This is true for a bunch of reasons: Trans visibility is still a very recent and contingent thing. The term is fluid enough that it defies simple categorization. Some folks who others would describe as trans may not identify that way, for any of a number of reasons, and vice versa. There are huge risks to declaring oneself to be trans. And so on and on.
Given all that, I’d hesitate to declare 0.5% the upper limit of the trans population, but let’s say that’s the number. Half a percent of the population of the US is still 1.6 million people. That’s more people than live in Philadelphia. Or Dallas. Or Maine. To put it another way, it’s more people than were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
It’s a lot of people, is what I’m saying.
But yes, I take your point. Half a percent of something is a small fraction of that thing. So why so much attention? And — maybe more to the point — why so much attention all of a sudden?
I’ve got a few thoughts on this. Before I start, though, let’s be clear on what we’re talking about. Because while I definitely see the phenomenon you’re seeing, to say that trans issues are “dominant within the progressive movement” strikes me as inaccurate. There are corners of the movement — the corners I assume you have in mind, and the corners I’ll be discussing for the rest of this piece — in which trans issues are increasingly a big deal, but those corners aren’t the whole movement, however defined.
So. Caveat caveat caveat. Back to the question: Why so much attention?
Well, let’s go back over the demographics again. If half a percent of the US population self-identifies as trans, those numbers are likely going to skew much higher among the young, among liberal-left people, and within activist communities.
Assuming that people who identify as trans aren’t evenly distributed throughout the country, they’ll be significantly overrepresented in various progressive circles. And it certainly seems reasonable that progressive cis folks’ priorities would reflect those numbers rather than stats for society as a whole. Speaking personally, I never met someone who I knew to be trans until after I graduated from college. Today? I know lots of folks who are trans, count several among my good friends, and assume that trans people will likely be represented in pretty much any gathering of any significant size that I participate in. It’s not surprising, just on that basis alone, that trans issues are more on my radar than they were back then.
But honestly I don’t think that’s even the central issue. To my mind, there are three other huge factors in why trans issues have the profile they do in the places they do.
First, there’s the fact that trans rights are disputed, even within the progressive community. They’re a focus of discussion because they’re a focus of debate. If someone sees themselves as liberal or left, you can predict from that what they believe on a lot of issues, but trans rights aren’t among them. So there’s more attention because there’s more contention.
Second, and growing out of the above, trans people are embattled. The conditions in which many trans people live are staggeringly challenging. In one sample of more than six thousand, nearly half of all trans people had attempted suicide. More than half had been rejected by family. More than half had experienced harassment at work. Most had experienced physical or sexual violence, and more than two-thirds had been homeless. These numbers are catastrophic, and they compel our attention.
Finally, we’re in a moment of transition as well as crisis. Big fights are being fought right now, and those fights will have big consequences. Laws are being drafted and voted on. Universities and other institutions are setting policies for the future. Priorities and agendas and funding models are being hashed out. Attitudes are being challenged.
Stuff is happening. Folks are saddling up.
And there’s something else going on, too. (I know, I said “finally” in the last graf. Call this a postscript.) We’re grappling, as a culture, with issues of gender in ways we’ve never grappled with them before. Expectations and party lines and ways of thinking are emerging. Attitudes are shifting under our feet. That’s exhilarating for some, horrifying for others, confusing for many more. But compelling, in one way or another, for a really wide swath of people.
And my own intuitive sense is that the current moment is still really fluid — that we’re in the early stages of a transformation in attitudes that’s considerably bigger and more radical than what we’ve experienced so far. I’m not quite sure what I mean by that, even, and not certain at all what this next phase is going to look like, but a lot of the thrashing about that we’re seeing at the moment feels to me like the death throes of a worldview whose successor hasn’t quite been articulated yet.
We’re thinking about all this stuff in new ways, is what I’m saying, and we’re not finished with the newness yet. It’s not surprising that so many of us are weighing in.