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Are the Transgendered the Mine Shaft Canaries of Urban Areas?

March 19, 2001 by Administrator in March/April 2001

By Petra L. Doan

In coal mining country it is common knowledge that canaries are highly sensitive to noxious methane gas sometimes found in mines. Miners used to carry a caged canary into the mine as an early warning device; when the canary keeled over, it was time to get out fast.

In some ways transgendered people serve as canaries for the other sexual minorities. Because many trans people visibly challenge gender stereotypes, they often attract the bulk of the hatred and rage reserved for people who are perceived as queer or in any way different from the norm. The hatred serves as a signal and warning to the entire queer community.

The lethal effects of this hatred have been devastating. The National Transgender Advocacy Coalition estimates that since 1990 approximately one transgendered person was killed each month, and in the year 2000 the number was closer to two per month. (See the NTAC web site at and the site called “Remembering Our Dead” at www.gender.org/remember.)

Throughout history and in many cultures transgendered people have played visible and useful social roles. In the aftermath of the Stonewall rebellion, which jump-started the Gay Liberation movement, there was a tendency for gay rights activists to disavow any connections with the rowdy and activist “street queens” who tore up parking meters and led the rebellion. While there have been enormous advances in the tolerance of diversity in urban areas as a result, problems still remain. Although gays and lesbians have been “out of the closet” and demanding their rights in public for the past several decades, transgendered people have been slower to “come out” and risk controversy and possible physical harm.

Accurate estimates of the prevalence of transgendered individuals are highly variable. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) estimates that approximately one in 30,000 men and one in 100,000 women will undergo sexual reassignment surgery. These statistics however have been questioned by more recent studies showing much higher numbers of transsexuals. In the Netherlands, where transgender status is less highly stigmatized, the prevalence is approximately 1 per 11,900 males and 1 per 30,400 females. In Singapore the ratios are even higher, with 1 per 9,000 males and 1 per 27,000 females. There are no accurate estimates of the remainder of the transgendered population who do not opt to have surgery, but may choose to live either full time or part time in a gender role different from their apparent sex at birth.

Queer and Trans Issues in Planning

The recent creation of Gays and Lesbians in Planning (GALIP), a division of the American Planning Association, was for some an acknowledgment that “queer” issues have “arrived” in mainstream planning. This positive step forward reflects our society’s increasing willingness to embrace diverse populations. But many unresolved issues remain which will continue to challenge planning professionals. Indeed, the out-pouring of outraged letters to the editor of Planning Magazine at the announcement of GALIP suggests that within the planning community there is much resistance to this arrival.

But will transgendered people again be the canaries in the mines? The inclusion of transgendered people under the broad umbrella of LGBT issues remains controversial. Adding the “T” for transgendered to the LGB (Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual) community was a difficult struggle for the gay liberation movement, but it has by now been fairly widely accepted. The City of San Francisco has recognized the important issue of anti-transgender discrimination and adopted full protections for trans people. There are still pockets of resistance, however. One gay lobbying group, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), has fought to keep transgendered people from benefiting from protection under “sexual orientation” anti-discrimination clauses. Congressman Barney Frank, an outspoken advocate of gay rights, has repeatedly stated that including the transgendered on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would ensure its failure. He has argued repeatedly that trans issues are too controversial for inclusion at this time.

Many people evidently agree with him. Transgendered people have become a sort of bogeyman used by the right wing to scare the bejeebers out of elected officials. Why else would Jesse Helms have insisted on excluding transgendered people from the Americans with Disabilities Act? At the local level the same tactics are used. During a recent Leon County (FL) Commission hearing on extending “fair housing” protections to include sexual orientation, local activists lobbied for the inclusion of gender orientation. The State of Minnesota has successfully used this terminology to extend protections to the entire LGBT community. However, the discussion at the Leon County Commission hearings inspired a series of shocked letters and unfavorable comments arguing that such an interpretation would force landlords to open their doors to “men in dresses” and other “perversions.” Although sexual orientation was added to the anti-discrimination ordinance, the Commission shied away from clearly defining the meaning of sexual orientation (and whether gender identity was included). Questions about the inclusion of trans people force many people, including those gays and lesbians who would prefer to simply assimilate into the status quo, to reexamine some of their basic values about diversity and discrimination.

Safety Issues

Perhaps the most critical argument for giving trans issues greater visibility is the issue of personal safety. There is an established stream of planning research that looks at safety issues for vulnerable populations within urban areas. Such populations are usually identified on the basis of gender, race, ethnic status, or disability. Rising violence against these groups has encouraged state legislatures to pass special legislation designed to discourage acts of violence motivated by hatred. However, transgender is systematically left out of most of this legislation. Minnesota is the only state that includes transgendered people in anti-discrimination clauses, though a number of municipalities have also done so. Like driving while black (DWB), walking while gender variant (WWGV) is like waving a red flag in a bull ring with often fatal consequences for the trans person.

Differently gendered people are some of the most vulnerable within an urban area because of their visibility. Gender variance is sometimes assumed by the straight world as a marker for homosexuality, and nearly always is considered a flagrant transgression of the fundamental dichotomy of gender which is the underpinning of social and moral order. This violation of what has been called the apartheid of sex incites a virulent and usually violent response. Not all gender variant people are transgendered; butch lesbians and effeminate gay men are also highly visible and likely to be “bashed.” However, transgendered people, especially during their transitional stage, are often more obviously gender variant. Male to female individuals are likely to be taller, have deeper voices, larger hands, and prominent adam’s apples compared to most women. Female to male individuals are likely to be shorter, have smaller hands, and at least initially have higher voices than most men. These and other markers raise transgender visibility and make them one of the most vulnerable and least protected communities in social space.

There is another element that nearly all transgendered people share with lesbians and bisexual women. They have direct experience with what it means to be a woman in an urban space. Female to Male individuals (FtM, or trans men) taking male hormones are quickly “passable” as men. However their early socialization as girls makes them acutely aware of the swift retribution which would be their lot if they are discovered as a trans. Male to Female individuals (MtF, or trans women), although originally socialized as boys, quickly learn about their vulnerability within the city. Trans women who live full time as women have the same potential to be treated as targets for harassment, abuse, and street crime. Trans people who do not live full time as one or another gender are often less likely to “pass” and are thus even more visible as transgendered and may evoke an even harsher reaction.

Urban safety issues have often been catalysts for the women’s movement and have stimulated a variety of activist responses including Take Back the Night marches, lobbying for more police protection, better lighting, and more humane treatment for female victims of rape and abuse. Although the transgendered are equally vulnerable to these forms of violence, protecting this uniquely vulnerable population is rarely on anyone’s political agenda.

Planning Implications

Because transgendered populations are widely dispersed, it is not likely that there would ever be enough trans people in one city to establish an enclave similar to established gay and lesbian areas such as in The Castro (San Francisco), Boys Town (Chicago), West Hollywood (California), or Northampton (Massachusetts). However, in the past ten years many doors have opened for trans people with the internet. Virtual neighborhoods have brought together trans people who might otherwise have never communicated with each other. Ensuring relatively easy access to the internet can thus be enormously helpful for trans people. While some transgendered people are doctors, lawyers, university professors, and even city planners, many are members of different social classes. The cost of sexual reassignment surgery alone is enough to wipe out all of someone’s savings, leaving very little for the purchase of a computer and subscription to an internet server. Because of prejudice against even post-operative transsexuals, many find it difficult to find gainful employment, which further limits their ability to pay for internet services. Many other low-income urban residents face this situation, but because of their isolation trans people may have no community other than the on-line community with which to associate. Policies to ensure widespread, free access to the internet through libraries and other public facilities could be enormously beneficial to this community.

All the discrimination issues related to housing and other basic services apply to trans people. There are no legal protections for trans people. If someone does not wish to rent to a trans person, they can refuse to do so. If an employer wishes to fire a transgendered employee, they may do so with impunity. Because of their need to save for surgery, trans people often share apartments with others like themselves. In urban areas with limitations on the number of unrelated adults who can live in a single unit, trans people may be adversely affected.

Although there is a slowly increasing tolerance for more visibly identifiable gay and lesbian couples within many cities, acceptance of visible trans people is lagging far behind. If public spaces, parks, streets, and shopping areas do not feel safe to one segment of society how can that space be truly safe for other minorities?

The financial burden on trans people (primarily the cost of therapy, hormones, electrolysis, and surgery) may drive some less affluent trans people to seek positions as sex workers. People who have been so stigmatized and marginalized by society often feel that there is no other option for them than to sell their bodies for money. Areas like the Tenderloin in San Francisco often become a focal point for down and out trans folks, who often work as prostitutes. Policies intended to regulate or eradicate such sex districts may have a powerful and negative influence on these highly marginalized individuals, for whom other employment opportunities are limited.

Planners should not, however, fall into the common misconception that all trans people are sex workers. Transgendered people come in every shape and size and are drawn from nearly every segment of society. Because of their uniquely gendered position they are often highly vulnerable to the same kinds of discrimination that oppress other minorities, but because of their visibility they are likely to be like lightning rods for bigotry — or canaries in a mine shaft. Progressive planners should make extra efforts to understand this segment of the population. Ensuring their safety will make the city a safer place for all minorities.


Petra L. Doan teaches at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Florida State University.

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