Transgender issues have received more sympathetic media attention in the past few months than ever before. While so many people are paying attention to trans issues for the first time, this seems like an important moment to draw attention to an issue that’s at the heart of many of the challenges trans* people face in the world: most trans people are poor.
The improvement in media coverage has been celebrated by trans advocates and allies as a welcome relief from the often inaccurate and offensive coverage we’re used to. Misrepresentation of trans people in media has been a significant hurdle for trans rights organizing: It legitimizes violence and disrespect toward trans people, and displaces trans people’s own voices in representing ourselves.
The shift we’re seeing is important, and may ease the way for trans rights work. But while we acknowledge this victory, let’s not lose sight of just how small it is, and of the work that’s yet to come. Misrepresentation in media has never been the only problem, or even the main problem, facing trans communities. Class and race inequality are the primary factors that limit trans people’s self-determination and survival.
The vastly unequal distribution of wealth in the U.S. and in the world means that most people are poor, including most trans people. (If it seems like many well-known trans people are white and/or upper-middle class, it’s not because that’s true of most trans people, but rather because race and class privilege make it easier to become well-known.) Just like in the population as a whole, the majority of trans people are struggling. Of course, this is even more true for trans people of color and trans people who grew up poor and/or otherwise marginalized.
In addition, many trans people experience downward mobility as a result of oppression based on their trans status (sometimes called cissexism). Even trans people whose families have class privilege often end up poor. Factors that contribute to this downward mobility include:
o Family rejection. 57% of trans people experience significant family rejection, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Report (NTDR). In addition to taking an emotional toll, family rejection can limit trans people’s access to familial financial resources and connections, making it even harder to “make it” in a competitive job market in which success is largely based on who you know.
o Job discrimination. Many trans people have been fired, demoted, or denied a promotion based on their gender identity or gender expression. Many experience harassment on the job. Trans people are about twice as likely to be unemployed as the general population, and many more are employed below their skill level.
o Loss of professional networks. Even when there’s no direct discrimination, simple interpersonal transphobia can interrupt trans people’s ability to get a job. When I worked as a job search counselor with trans job seekers. one of the common barriers our clients faced was having to rebuild a professional reputation and network, after former colleagues rejected them upon learning of their gender transition. Job seekers who had successful careers pre-transition had no one to call on as a reference who would attest to their skills without outing them and making them (even more) vulnerable to discrimination.
o Discrimination in safety net services. Trans people who need help face many barriers to getting it, including outright discrimination and difficulty finding a safe place in gendered systems like shelters, foster care, in-patient detox programs and other group housing. For example, a trans woman might be told she can only stay in the men’s shelter even though it would be inappropriate and unsafe for her, or might be deemed ineligible for either the women’s or men’s services.
o Lack of appropriate identification documents. Only about one fifth of trans people are able to update all their id documents and records to match their current gender identity. Carrying id documents that don’t match our identity puts us at risk any time we show id. Many people experience harassment and discrimination triggered by id mismatches in situations like routine traffic stops, security checks in airports and public buildings, and using a credit card.
o Criminalization, false arrest, and disproportionate imprisonment. In addition to the risk of arrest for lacking appropriate id, many trans people – especially trans women, especially trans women of color – are at risk of arrest for criminalized work such as sex work. 16% of trans people say they have been compelled to work in the underground economy to make ends meet, and the numbers are staggeringly higher for trans people of color specifically. Trans women are often profiled and arrested simply for “looking like” sex workers even when they are not involved in sex work, leading to high rates of incarceration. Having a criminal record, especially one that includes a “sex crime” like solicitation, makes it incredibly difficult to find housing or employment later on, which can lead to a cycle of continuing homelessness, involvement in criminalized work, and incarceration.
o Discrimination in healthcare. 19% of trans people have been denied healthcare outright based on their trans status. Many more have received sub-standard care or had to put up with harassment in order to receive care. Even without such overt discrimination, healthcare systems are gendered in a way that doesn’t account for trans people’s existence. For example, some health insurance providers won’t approve routine cervical cancer screening for someone whose legal gender is male, even though many trans men have a cervix and should receive screening. For those trans people who seek medical transition services ( listed below**), most insurance programs do not cover them, so trans people who need those services often have to pay for them out of pocket, or make do without them at the expense of their physical and mental health.
These factors and others make it overwhelmingly likely that trans people will have less financial stability than our cisgender (non-trans) peers.
The solution to trans peoples’ marginalization and disempowerment isn’t only to gain approval in the ‘public eye’, or even to make discrimination illegal. Those changes are not nothing, but they’re not enough. Our marginalization and disempowerment as trans people occurs through the same systems that marginalize and disempower all poor people: the police and criminal enforcement system, the system of employment based on social capital and status rather than skill and aptitude, and the tax and property system that prioritizes intergenerational accumulation of wealth for a few over meeting basic needs for most. To work effectively for trans communities, we need to be working in coalitions that center the needs of the most marginalized to really transform these systems through which trans people and so many others are oppressed.
For a much deeper look at this issue, check out Dean Spade’s “Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Radical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law.” To learn more about organizations doing excellent intersectional work around trans people and poverty, check out: Sylvia Rivera Law Center, FIERCE, TGIJP, Transgender Law Center, Mass Trans Political Coalition, and others.
*For definitions of trans-related terms used in this article, see here.
** Medical transition services can include psychotherapy, hormone replacement therapy, voice training, body hair removal, and a variety of gender confirmation surgeries ranging from minor outpatient procedures to major surgeries. Trans people have different needs and desires around medical transition. A trans person may choose to access all, some or none of the relevant procedures depending on their specific identity and situation.
Davey Shlasko is a trainer with Class Action and founder and lead facilitator at Think Again Training and Consultation. Check out his most recent publications, “Trans* Ally Workbook: Getting Pronouns Right and What it Teaches Us About Gender,” and “The State of Trans* and Intersex Organizing: A case for increased support for growing but underfunded movements for human rights.”