Gender Theory: Beyond Academic Listening
Our Real Worlds
Carrie Davis, MSW, Director of Adult Services, The LGBT Community Center
On October 3, 2003 Gwen Araujo was murdered during a party in Newark, California. She was brutally punched, beaten and then strangled. Her four killers then buried her finally lifeless body in a shallow grave near the Sierra foothills, 150 miles away.
They claimed she deceived them about who she was.
Gwen Araujo was a 17-year old transgender woman of color. She had been living openly as a woman for a year and a half. Her killers did not understand her new identity, and as a result, she was perceived as a threat to them. This is not an isolated incident; trans-people are acutely aware they live in a violent and non-approving culture, one that punishes expression of gender difference harshly.
Gwen Smith’s Remembering Our Dead web site documents that two to three trans-people have been killed nationwide each month since 2000. Advocates such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s, Dean Spade, and the San Francisco Human Rights Commission’s, Marcus Arana, estimate trans-people are seven to 16 times more likely to be murdered than the average, non-trans person, while statistics compiled by Nat Smith and Eric Stanley suggest that at least 65 percent of trans-women have been incarcerated in the United States.
These acts of violence highlight a conflict of knowledge — a powerful clash in understanding. In his 1971 poem, “Numbers, Letters,” Amiri Baraka writes, “I can’t say who I am unless you agree I’m real.”
Gwen’s killers did not agree she was real. They reconfigured her identity and then erased her in a final act of violence.
Most of us have been exposed to powerful social and cultural beliefs about gender, succinctly summarized by author and self-described “young, religious leader” Hans Zeiger, a writer for World Net Daily, who notes: “There is no orientation but one, and there are no gender identities but two; Men are meant to be men and women to be women.”
The traditional mental health care system also views trans-persons from this perspective, one in which our identities are perceived as a pathological or non-normative condition — and diagnosed through the lens of pseudo-pathologies, or what are termed the Gender Identity Disorders. It is essential to bear in mind this is the same system that classified homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder until 30 years ago. These beliefs authorize acts of violence, subverting the authentic understanding trans-people have of themselves, instead of defining them as gender transgressors and aggressors.
This is not an academic exercise. Erasing the complexity of Gwen Ajuajo’s life and death perpetuates an oppression maintained by a culture steeped in gender-related violence. In this process, the identities of transgender and gender non-conforming people are redefined as mentally ill, delusional, illegitimate and illegal; regulated as freaks and pornographic objects of sexuality and desire; and reconstructed with labels such as She-Males, He/Shes, FTMs, MTFs, Pre-Ops, Post-Ops, Transsexuals and Transvestites. This course of subjugation authorizes powerful acts of violence, discrimination and subjugation toward the trans-communities.
Similarly, just as it was expedient to portray Gwen Araujo as deviant or “unreal,” her killers were similarly portrayed as criminally deviant, as “bashers” or “mad dogs.” This prevailing attitude is just one component in a culture whereby those who act out and perpetuate violence and social oppression against trans-people do so without understanding the source of their anger or their place in a systemic subjugation. In this manner, the people who murdered Gwen are acting as unknowing proxies and scapegoats in the interest of those with more power and privilege, those that stand to gain the most from gender-based oppression.
The death of Gwen Araujo suggests that her gender identity is a deception, however, perceptions about her identity are really lodged between two systems, both to herself and to others. In her short narrative a conflict develops between two knowledges: a global knowledge purporting to know universal truths, and a second local knowledge, scaled to the individual and to the community.
Social workers are not innocent bystanders in this process, and we often look to global knowledge to help validate our professional status. The acquisition of professional respectability through an accumulation of supposedly incontestable, global knowledge conflicts with and limits social work’s ability to question that same knowledge base.
If we, as social workers are to intervene, we need to make lasting space and connections for trans-people within our communities. We need to fashion strategies to help build healthy relationships and tackle the risk and trauma created by transphobia and gender-bias in the culture rather than further isolating transgender and gender non-conforming people.
Social workers need to work to disentangle, rather than blur these issues, so we can more effectively understand and respond to the concerns of transgender people. Speaking the truth by naming these relationships is essential to healing. By focusing our energy on those who are scapegoated by our culture as aggressors, we are simply colluding with the dominant forces that generate gender-based violence and oppression. In contrast, strength and health lay in growth, in seeking life in our relationships within each other and within the community.
To address trans-people in connection with each other and help normalize the trans-self concept, projects like the Gender Identity Project at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Community Center offer counseling, groups and community events for trans-people, trans-partners, trans-amorous people and trans-families. When seen as normative, the adaptive strengths trans-people accumulate, the families and communities we create, and our different sense of fit become valued components in a cohesive sense of identity.