If the consensus of the most respected institutions of health around the world is to be taken seriously, then human rights and social determinants of health are not merely accessory, but integral, to public health. One of the greatest tragedies of modern public discourse is the politicization of issues at the core of public health. The Oxford Dictionary defines public health as “the health of the population as a whole, especially as the subject of government regulation and support.” And yet the government does not support the population as a whole.
The U.S. is home to roughly 15% of the entire world’s nonprofits at 1.5 million organizations—ordinary citizens taking on the work of caring for the public health of the communities they serve because many of our nation’s most deadly social inequities are codified in state and federal law.
Today, the part of our population most flagrantly attacked by the government in the name of political grandstanding are trans people. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which maintains an up-to-date list of every piece of legislation being created to target trans rights, is currently following 321 separate bills across the U.S., including 31 in Missouri alone. “When you are a nonbinary person in this country in this time, there is an imposter syndrome for being alive, because people don’t think that we should exist,” said Alok Vaid-Menon, a Stanford graduate and transfeminine advocate, as a special guest on the podcast Man Enough. “Every day, I have to remind myself they’re wrong because I’m breathing. They’re wrong because I’m speaking.”
Central to many anti-trans arguments is the idea that trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people are a new phenomenon or a passing phase. As a vocal advocate for de-gendering the fashion industry, Vaid-Menon addressed the notion by turning the central question on its head: how long have our modern ideas of gender actually been the standard? Heels, for example, were invented in Persia in the 10th century to make it easier for shoes to stay securely in stirrups while riding horses. From there, heels emerged in European fashion in the 17th century as a signal of male aristocracy. “So in the 17th, 18th centuries in France, red heels are the sign of extreme, bourgeois masculinity. And in fact, women get mocked for wearing heels in the 17th century because it’s associated with male aristocracy,” said Vaid-Menon. “So women began to actually wear articles of clothing that are associated with men and are getting ridiculed—sounds about right when we think about history. And what happens is in the late 18th and early 19th century, clothing becomes extremely gendered in this binary way. So things that we now associate with femininity, like makeup, jewelry, adornment, wigs, leggings, heels, that only becomes gendered as feminine in the late 18th and early 19th century as part of a political project of making up the gender binary.” Pink, famously, is an even more recent addition to the western idea of feminine fashion. Early 20th century publications recommended pink for boys and blue for girls.
Although fashion is the grounds on which many gender norms are enforced and performed, heavily-distorted ideas of ‘biology’ and science are the grounds on which they are often justified. This rhetoric insists that gender is a simple product of XX or XY chromosomes. In addition to completely ignoring intersex people and the frequency of XY chromosome variations, this rationale is a direct echo of the medieval practice of physiognomy and recurring excuses for eugenics. “So often, people talk about trans issues as if it’s unprecedented. The exact same tactics that they’re doing against trans people, they did against Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color in this country in the early 20th century,” Vaid-Menon said. “They always made it about anatomy. They would measure the size of people’s skulls. They would measure the length of their nose. They would say, ‘Because you have these features, this means you lead to this behavior.’ This was especially the case around Black and Indigenous people. What’s dangerous to me is that we’re not learning from that history. We’re using the exact same tactics, the exact same pseudoscience, the exact same sheen of scientific respectability to sanction what is just discrimination.”
Racism and sexism both make frequent use of these false claims of scientific validity to reinforce and justify their declarations of inequality. “Men used the rhetoric of biology to oppress women for hundreds of years,” Vaid-Menon said. “In fact, men denied women access to education because they would say that it would disrupt your ‘vital nerve energies’ to learn that had to be solely devoted to reproduction. ‘If you go to school, you won’t be able to be a mother!’”
Even as some people outright attack trans rights, including the right to exist at all, many other would-be allies balk at the idea of lending real support to efforts to protect trans people from persecution, protesting that they simply don’t understand. “Why do you need to understand me to say that I shouldn’t be experiencing violence?” Vaid-Menon asked. “‘I don’t get it’ becomes a shield to say ‘I’m okay with you experiencing violence.’ It’s never been about comprehension, it’s been about compassion.
Because here’s the thing: You suddenly have the time to learn the things that you prioritize. But when it comes to gender-nonconforming people, it’s, ‘I don’t really have the time. That takes too much time.’ You don’t have the compassion. Let’s be honest about it. When people get upset, they say, ‘There’s so many new words that are being created around gender and sexuality. Why weren’t you taking a more public stance on the Oxford comma? You didn’t care about grammar then. You only care about grammar when it comes about they/them pronouns,” Vaid-Menon said. “If anyone else who looks different than me or thinks differently than me belongs, it’s a zero-sum thinking that means I must go. But what I want to offer the world is that there’s enough space for all of us. When you step into your power, that just encourages me to step into mine. That’s not a conflict. Trans rights get positioned as an antagonistic force against tradition, against culture. Actually, trans rights accelerate freedom for all people.”
Despite all the misinformation created to spread fear that nonbinary people want to force everyone to be nonbinary, Vaid-Menon said, trans rights are a matter of freeing everyone, including and especially men and women, to live and express their gender however they see fit. “What we’re saying is that man and woman are two of potentially infinite. And that man and woman are like two stars in the sky, and that they don’t actually require diminishing one another’s shine. Man doesn’t have to mean not woman, woman doesn’t have to mean not man. Masculine doesn’t have to mean not feminine. Feminine doesn’t have to mean not masculine. We’re saying that there’s potentially as many ways to be a man as there are men. There’s as many ways to be a woman as there are women. And you get to tell me what man and woman means to you. So it’s not about erasing your ability to be a man or woman, it’s about asking you, who are you?”
Although change is desperately needed to stop the epidemic of violence against trans people, everyone was taught the gender norms that govern society today, so everyone will have to take the time to unlearn them. “I was not born with gender literacy. I was born hating myself, and hunting myself, and I had to learn, too,” Vaid-Menon said. That learning, that commitment to have compassion without comprehension and to strive to do better for one another, is just another part of what it means to be human. “Love means I will never understand you, but I will keep on coming back. Love means I will listen to you tell the same story over and over again because the way that you tell it is different. Love means I love you because you are different. Love means I love you even if I don’t understand you. I’m going to keep on trying, and we’re going to struggle together to make it work. […] And that’s why the antidote to trauma is compassion. Trans people can actually teach the world transition is possible. Not just between genders, between paradigms. It’s so possible to learn.”
Read more of Vaid-Menon’s work here.