Being yourself shouldn’t be a privilege

Recently, I attended a panel discussion at Duke Law School about the recent repeal of HB 2 and its implications for the trans community and a guest lecture by Khaled Beydoun, a professor at Detroit Mercy School of Law, regarding his research on Islamophobia. I found a central theme in both lectures of the pressure marginalized groups face to change or conceal factors of their identity in order to avoid discrimination and even death.

Both discussions mentioned that pieces of legislation, which ostensibly seemed to protect the “greater good”, also generated an atmosphere of fearmongering. Panelists Ames Simmons, the Director for Transgender Policy at Equality NC and Chris Brook, the Legal Director at ACLU NC stated that legislators passed HB 2 to give the appearance of helping their constituents, as some proponents of HB 2 advocated that it would protect women and children from sexual violence and predatory behavior.  One provision in the bill mandated that an individual can only use a restroom correlating with the sex listed on their birth certificate. Amanda Ashley, a community organizer, activist and a trans woman of color, shared that she felt that through this provision, the state “had placed a target on her identity.” Ashley recognized that she had “passing privilege” or an advantage of having a stereotypically female outer appearance.  Other members of the trans community, she explained, experienced much more discrimination if their outer appearances did not readily match their gender identity.

I drew a connection between HB 2 and the PATRIOT Act and NSEERS (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System), two pieces of legislation that Beydoun noted gave the appearance of protecting the general welfare of the public, but at the same time helped spread Islamophobia.  Beydoun shared that some Muslim individuals are shedding visible aspects of their identity in order to side-step possible persecution.  In a recent Guardian article, Beydoun writes, “This is illustrated by the scores of Muslim women ‘afraid to wear the headscarf…’ men shaving their beards to diminish detection that they are in fact Muslims, job-seekers changing their Muslim names on résumés to increase the prospect of a job interview.” After learning that Muslim individuals were shedding visible aspects of their identity, I thought it was similar to the value of having passing privilege in the trans- community.

As Beydoun and Ashley argued, the importance of “acting as a “good” Muslim” or passing as a cis-gendered individual, runs deeper than avoiding a weird glance in a public restroom or a derogatory slur on the street, it can be essential for mere survival. Simmons articulated that trans women of color are murdered at an alarming rate and Beydoun mentioned that the recent murder of the three students from North Carolina, two of whom wore the traditional hijab, reflects the atmosphere of Islamophobia.

I wondered if the relative lack of media attention concerning crimes against both the trans and Muslim community is also indicative of a societal apathy concerning these two groups.  I also realized that both the trans and Muslim communities deviate from what I believe to be established societal “norms” and I wondered if that is perhaps one the root reasons for hatred.  Indeed, the trans community challenges our engrained conception of gender matching one’s biological sex and the Muslim community challenges the upholding of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  If so, then I find it paradoxical that despite our firm belief in freedom of religion and expression, we have a tenacious hold on these restrictive “norms” and are suspicious of and even persecute those who are merely expressing their constitutionally granted rights.