Visibility without acceptance: the transgender people of colour dilemma

As we celebrate the TGDoV this 31st March, in 2021 already at least 15 transgender person of colour have been killed. The 2019 marked the deadliest year with 331 trans and gender diverse people death.[i] This number is likely to be much higher because in most countries, data on murdered trans and gender-diverse people are not systematically recorded. Transgender women of colour are murdered at a horrifying rate globally with sexist masculinity, racism and transphobia causes the direct perpetration of violence against trans women.

Trans tipping point does not equate to trans liberation

Trans visibility means nothing if we are not liberating transgender people on a social, economy and legal level. Surely, we have trans millionaire, celebrities and we have more trans people on television than ever before but does this visibility reflect trans liberation in general? If anything, this corporate consumerism and media pink-washing has given a false narrative on the issues of trans people while deflecting their struggles all together. It gives us an illusion of a hollow “equality” because in reality, not much seems to have changed for the majority of trans community. Trans teenagers remain extremely homeless and trans people have four times more suicidal thought and attempt than their cisgender counterparts and are twice as likely to attempt suicide than LGB people[ii]. Trans women from black, brown background and trans sex workers continue to be attacked and murdered on a regular basis. Similarly, the discrimination and anti- trans legislation in sport, civil and religion has only had insignificant change, if not has remained unchanged. Thousands of transwomen all over the world are still fleeing their motherlands to seek refuge in other country. Contrary to popular belief, trans refugees are still struggling for their rights even after they have been granted a protection in the country they assigned to. Recently, a transwoman Syrian refugee has been left bedridden since 16th of March in Turkey after a male violent acid attack perpetuated by her ex-boyfriend, leaving her face and eyes disfigured and blind while her body covered in third-degree burn[iii].

On the left: Asya Cevahir poses to the camera. On the right: Asya Cevahir lies in a hospital bed covered in bandages
Asya Cevahir was splashed with acid by her ex-boyfriend. (Screen captures via Twitter)

In Australia, after a lot of pressure from human right activists, a judge finally admit that he made a mistake in giving a light sentence (to serve out an Intensive Correction Order in the community instead of imprisonment term) for a man who confessed killing his trans migrant girlfriend of three weeks during a sex act turned manslaughter[iv]. There is a colonial patriarchy dimension to this March 2021 sentence that reflects to an unfair legal system where a trans migrant woman death is not considered a grievous violation of a human right. A white imperialism that reminds us of the atrocious injustices and systemic violence that trans women of colour continue to face, as the judge said; and I quote: “there was no issue or concern as far as public safety” in passing such a lenient sentence. Even after a revised sentence, the 22 months’ imprisonment with a non-parole period of 12 months does not reflect the level of dangerousness of the conduct by the perpetrator and the need for general deterrence for such homicide case. In his defence, the judge claimed that the perpetrator has enough “issue of post-traumatic stress and will require assistance in reintegration into the community”, therefore his decision is justified. For crying out loud, a trans woman’s life has been taken away unlawfully by a man in an act of sexual violence. It reminds me of “he’s having a bad day” white male exceptionalism argument in the recent violent racism and sexism mass shooting at a massage parlour in the USA this month. This court decision will continuously perpetuate the dangerous pattern that allows violence against transgender women to be treated with impunity and further entrenches discriminatory attitudes towards transgender women. 

Furthermore, prosecution by the religious authority is one of many forms of discrimination and prejudice faced by transwomen of colour on top of being force to fight for their right to exist. The recent prosecution of a transwoman influencer and entrepreneur Nur Sajat Kamaruzzaman by the Malaysian authorities is considered nonsensical and outrageous.  Her crime? She failed to turn up at a Shariah High Court hearing to address her “misconduct” for dressing in traditional Malay Muslim women’s attire at an event as part of her Islamic charity work.[v] The Selangor Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) has since mobilised 122 personnel to arrest her, while the state police are offering help to track her down. A month before the witch hunt started, a video of her appearing in distress in religious police custody was circulated online. If this is not a violation of human rights by the religious authority, what is it then?  Imagine being criminalized and treated like a terrorist for simply wearing a traditional dress. Imagine the state wasting such resources just to keep bullying and harassing a woman. Imagine living in 2021 and people are still using religion to justify hatred and animosity towards others instead of trying to understand and appreciate the differences that we all possess. 

Sajat, wearing a headscarf at the event, an action for which she has been charged. Photo taken from here Instagram account: NurSajat23/Instagram

Neo-liberalism normalisation vs trans revolutionary agenda 

 So how does trans people remain extremely oppressed on every legal and social level despite endless debate and discourse on trans identity in the media? The social system that we live in today has conditioned us to see profit before human rights as it is deeply entrenched in advanced, rotten capitalism and colonization. Neoliberalism is the force that hampers the spirit of trans liberation. For as long as neo-liberalism exist, the mainstream media empowered by capitalism will continue to pink-wash the narrative of trans liberation, focusing on neo liberalism agenda that primarily served the interests of white, middle-class and cisgender gays and lesbians. They are more interested in discussing the right for LGBTQIA people to have Pride celebration rather than trying to understand the history behind it, or for LGBTQIA people to have access to sports and beauty pageant, or marriage equality, adopting children, or the right to serve in the military and to work in prestigious professions. For neo-liberalists, trans liberation is achieved when some white trans folks become millionaires and win an award, or when they have their own reality tv show, or when they are represented in fashion magazine and catwalk. By their logic, all other trans folks need to get famous too and just like that, trans discrimination should be over. Whereas transitioning has turned into glorifying cis gender hetero western beauty standard where mainstream media outlets prefer to feature the stories of trans kids who transition young; often the majority are represented as privileged white children, blonde, middle class and exceptionally passable.

Whereas, the issue of trans refugee rights, religions’ discrimination on transgender people, discrimination in health care settings, the anti-poverty and anti-homelessness, and pro–sex work activism are often pushed back to an abyss of irrelevancy by the mainstream media.  Frequently, the mainstream LGBTQ groups moved away from the discussion of trans inclusivity or police brutality in the Pride history of Stonewall and Sydney Mardi Grass. In Australia, Pride in Protest (PiP), a collective of activists who campaign for Mardi Gras’ to return to its grassroots protest and political action has highlighted that the celebration has merely turned into a corporate street party while glamourizing LGBTQIA existence for profit.  At Sydney Mardi Gras this year, ‘Pride in Protest’ had a split-off rally attended by thousands with a slogan “no cops, no corporations, no conservatives” as they fight for a removal of the police from the parade. Today, the police institution is continually oppressing the Indigenous Australians, sex workers, homeless people and many other minorities. In conclusion, we need a revolution for trans liberation movement to progress and not neo liberalism assimilation that protects the neoliberal interest where the rich remains rich and the poor remains poor. What does trans visibility mean when only a handful of trans celebrities make millions of dollars while many of trans are still living in poverty and facing stigma, violence and discrimination? Without a doubt, there is no integrity in visibility without trans liberation and certainly visibility without full acceptance does not equate to equality. 

* Aisya A. Zaharin is a revolutionary socialist and an intersectional feminist. She sits as one of the Board Directors of Forcibly Displaced People Network (FDPN) while doing her PhD. She also serves in Australian GLBTQ Multicultural Council (AGMC), as a committee member. Her research includes extensive field in the area of political science and history, decolonisation to LGBTQI+ and Islam with a focus on improving social inequality, promoting cultural relativism and social responsibility concepts.

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