When I saw that Republican state Representative Debbie Riddle had mocked the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s new policy — which makes it easier for transgender and intersex people who are incarcerated to access medically necessary treatment — my initial response was to dismiss it as her usual mean-spirited inanity.
She told Breitbart Texas, in part: “I suggest [their] confusion could be ended with a quick look in the mirror after a shower. Then, what they see, is what they are. End of story.”
Riddle both completely erases the experience of intersex people (who may or may not be trans-identified), and dismisses transgender people’s experience as imaginary in one callous soundbite. Although she’s focusing on incarcerated people with this attack, her suggestion that trans and intersex people in general just need a mirror and self-awareness is exactly the kind of tiresome bullying that I’ve come to expect from her.
After all, this is the same Debbie Riddle who introduced two bills targeting transgender people’s access to bathrooms that she couldn’t get out of committee this past session. This is the same Texas legislator who believes undocumented people have “anchor babies” with the intent of committing acts of terrorism. Back in 2003, she said that the concept of free public education comes out of the “pit of hell” (or, apparently, Russia). From her record and public comments, it is clear that she has no intention of making policy guided by facts, or a desire to even listen to all of her constituents, let alone make thoughtful policy recommendations that consider their needs.The suggestion that trans people should simply look in the mirror is particularly galling to me, as my own experience as a trans woman prior to transition made every mirror seem a painful funhouse distortion. It’s hard to describe this feeling of “wrongness” to people who aren’t trans, but think about this: you are probably very certain that you aren’t trans. You don’t need to look in a mirror to confirm your gender, nor would you feel differently if you simply wore different clothes. As a trans woman, I feel that same exact certainty, but my gender simply isn’t the one I was assigned at birth. Another helpful analogy is to think about how it feels to be told to write with your non-dominant hand — although this lacks the level of anguish I felt when trying to perform “maleness,” there’s still an innate sense of certainty about which hand is dominant and which is not.
But, as the defeat of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in Houston showed us, letting extremist views like hers slide without a response allows those who do have an interest in evidence, and who care for their communities, to be misled by people with an agenda that doesn’t include truth. Despite the wide range of people who would have benefitted from HERO, which offered protections for people based on veteran status, race and 13 other characteristics, the opposition was able to turn the discussion almost completely into a debate on trans people’s access to bathrooms. The decision to largely ignore the anti-trans rhetoric because it was so absurd was a mistake, and actually ended up strengthening the transphobic attacks’ perceived validity. It’s for this reason that we need to confront this kind of hate-driven rhetoric each time it’s parroted. It seems that any change in policy regarding the needs of people who are incarcerated is seen, by those who object to it, as providing comfort or even luxury to people whose actions have not earned any such benevolence. But protection from cruel and unusual punishment is one of the oldest founding principles of our nation. Lawmakers like Riddle, who bloviate incessantly about patriotism and tradition, are taking a clearly un-American stance when they try to deny people access to medical care during incarceration.
The language used by opponents of these types of protections for trans people is telling. Feminists and others who care about reproductive rights are familiar with anti-choice advocates refusing to use even basic medical terms such as “abortion,” and instead choosing stigmatizing and violent terms like “murder” and “baby-killing.” In the case of trans people, instead of using “gender dysphoria,” which is established in the DSM-V as the appropriate medical term, people like Debbie Riddle go for outdated and/or pejorative terms like “sex change,” “gender confusion,” or simply invent pseudo-medical slang like “gender disordered.” This language is used intentionally to dehumanize transgender people. And intersex people aren’t even afforded an acknowledgement of their existence.
Trans people already compose a particularly vulnerable population of our society, and many of us live at the intersections of different forms of oppression, facing racism, economic inequity and targeted police profiling, to name a few. This translates into a disproportionate number of trans people being incarcerated, and once in prison, a disproportionate experience of further harm. For instance, a 2013 study of California prison populations found that a stunning 59 percent of transgender inmates reported sexual assault, compared to 4.4 percent overall. What possible benefit to our society is there from causing more harm — by depriving access to needed medical care — to an already marginalized group?
As a white trans woman with income and access to medical care, I don’t think I fear for my safety any more than other white queer women in Austin (which is to say, it’s always there, but doesn’t dominate my thoughts). But I still use the clichéd “waiter rule” when on a date with someone I don’t know well — if she’s nice to me but treats our server poorly, I immediately take this as a warning sign of someone who is comfortable being cruel when a power dynamic favors her. I see Riddle’s focus on a vulnerable population in a similar light. When she focuses her platform and power on harming people with relatively little power of their own, her lack of character is visible for all to see.