If you’ve been reading the NY Times for the past month, you’d be forgiven for believing that transgender people have been living in North Korea instead of in America. There has been little or no mention of the numerous transgender people who are doctors, teachers or professors living solid upper middle-class lives with little distinction from the lives they lived prior to their sex change. The poster girl the Times picked for their nearly full-page editorial - “The Struggle of Transgender Workers,” (july 9th) is a masculine Puerto Rican man dressed as a woman in what looks like a Halloween fright wig and a dreadful dress. The Times mentions that Elaine Mendus, as she calls herself, studied at Indiana University in Pennsylvania but not that she has a degree, so the fact that she has difficulty in finding a job is understandable on many levels. If a hetero man without a college degree chose to wear a tee shirt and jeans when he went for job interviews, we wouldn’t classify his failure to get hired as discrimination. Similarly, a man who has not begun any medical transitioning, dressed as weird-looking woman might not be hired even by a transgender employer who took pride in her own appearance and that of her employees. An employment coach gave Ms. Mendus good advice to go on interviews as a man using the name that corresponded with her other papers; somehow this is reported as if it showed a lack of insight instead of a constructive attempt to be helpful.
The Times editorial reminds me of the very old joke about the stutterer who complains of prejudice because he can’t get hired as a radio announcer. In describing Ms. Mendus’ plight, the writer reveals that applying for a job at Duane Reade she used her birth name on her application and her trans name on another I.D. and seemed offended when “the guy looked at me like I had three heads.” It would seem that Ms. Mendus is confused about more than her gender and is a poor example for suggesting that discrimination is the reason she isn’t being hired.
There are many other minorities among us who have difficulty finding work and gaining acceptance: people with Down Syndrome, physical or mental handicaps or physical disfigurement; veterans with PTSD; homeless people or those with illegal status - to name some of the more obvious categories. Transgenders constitute less than 1% of our population yet their prominence throughout the media right now makes it seem as if theirs are the biggest problems of all. One of the issues that the Times ignores is that transgenders who have had sexual re-assignment surgery have a 20% higher suicide rate than non-transgenders, indicating that their problems are deeper than changing their bodies to conform to their subjective self-images. The notion that this is primarily an issue about civil rights is a facile reduction of complex psychological disorders into a question of how welcoming society should be of abnormality. Many decades ago, Senator Pat Moynihan presciently warned of the dangers of “defining deviancy down” - the transgender issue is a prime example. We are far from the place where we know for certain the best way to deal with this phenomenon but until we understand it better, we should avoid the knee jerk response of calling for more regulation and blaming it on a society that is insufficiently tolerant.
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