The Letterbox: Stealth vs Non-Stealth and Trans Rights
I want to share some of my extended thoughts on your idea that the goal of trans rights should be reasonable accommodation, not validation from society (Wish vs Reality: A Trans Perspective, Feb 15). It sometimes really feels like the way trans rights is being argued for today is all about seeking validation from others. I agree that makes our case weaker. After all, marriage equality was about equal civil rights rather than validation. Gay people were already proudly existing and living their lives, and that was very respectable.
However, if we look at the history of trans rights reforms, it was neither about accommodation (in the sense we think of today), nor about validation. It was instead often about enabling stealth, i.e. allowing trans people to live in society as if they were never trans to begin with. Hence, systems were often geared towards the goal of 'fully transitioned' people being able to deny being trans, essentially. Following the recent debates on Self-ID made me realize this, and also that it's a stumbling block for trans rights.
For example, in many places, trans people have long been not only able to amend their birth certificates and other documents, but also in many cases, the old documents could become sealed and inaccessible. Similarly, some laws state that trans people who have had their birth certificates amended this way are always to be treated the same as cis women, almost without exception or flexibility. Of course, this was often only available to trans people who have had certain surgeries, so they could already (at least theoretically) deny being trans if not for the documentation change. The documentation is only the 'last step'. As you can see, the whole system is built around an assumption of trans non-acceptance in all levels of society. It is clearly not what trans people want today.
On the other hand, what many of us want today is to be able to blend into and function in society, without needing to be stealth, without needing to deny our transness. Hence, we still need to be able to change our documents, for example. We will still need legal accommodation and recognition. If this is limited to trans people who meet certain very restrictive criteria, e.g. those who have had certain surgeries, it would indeed be cruel to the vast majority of trans people, many of whom can't afford those surgeries or are on a long waiting list. Not being able to work leads to not being able to afford surgeries, which via the documentation problem leads back to not being able to work, in a vicious cycle. This is why less restrictive criteria like Self-ID have been proposed. However, some have raised the concern that, if the whole package of the old, stealth-based system is retained with Self-ID, there could be a lot of inflexibility around how to best accommodate the needs of trans people and other people at the same time.
Hence, what is stopping Self-ID is essentially the 'stealth package'. The 'stealth package', as it exists, is all or none, so if people aren't comfortable with allowing more trans people to have it, no reforms will be done. On the other hand, I suggest that we should actively explore moving to other models of recognition that are less 'stealth' and more suited to the needs of most contemporary trans people. For example, I think many of us don't care if our old birth certificates are 'sealed', or that we are unconditionally allowed in all women-only spaces, but we still need the right documentation to find work, and the legal protection that comes with legal recognition. We shouldn't have to be held up by the all or none 'stealth package'. I personally wouldn't mind a two-tier system, where to gain the 'stealth' privileges (I don't need anyway) one would need to fulfill more stringent criteria, as long as I can have what I need.
The letterbox publishes selected letters in response to pieces in The TaraElla Project. The aim of the whole project is to advance the discussion around trans issues in a productive way, to break the current stalemate.