Gwen Araujo - All We Need to Know about Gender
[SAN FRANCISCO, CA] - The recent murder of Gwen Araujo, part of a national epidemic of violence against transgender people, presents an opportunity for all of us to examine our attitudes about gender, gender expectations, discrimination based on gender identity and individual and institutional responsibility.
The San Francisco Human Rights Commission, the municipal department that enforces the city's anti-discrimination ordinances, played a significant role in the passage of the gender identity discrimination law in 1994. It has enforced that law since it took effect in January 1995 and has assisted hundreds of transgender people who have alleged discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. Additionally, we have worked with employers,
businesses, government and nonprofit agencies and the media to educate them about transgender rights and concerns.
The complex issues arising from the news of Gwen Araujo's murder start with one basic, simple fact: Gwen Araujo was a young woman. In teenage parlance, she was a girl. Articles and reports in the media refer to a "boy" named "Eddie," which are references to Gwen's sex at birth and her given name. But according to our understanding of who Gwen was, she was trying to make it clear to her family, friends, schoolmates and others in her life that she was female. She dressed in women's clothes, wore makeup, tried on different female names (settling finally on Gwen), presented in every way as female, and spoke of yearning for physical transformation, including surgery.
It is not necessary, and indeed in most cases it's offensive, to rely on a person's birth name or what you think you know about his or her sex at birth, when deciding what name and which pronouns to use in reference to them. In fact, it matters less than knowing a person's gender identity.
Virtually all non-transgender people would be extremely offended and agitated if they were referred to and spoken to as if they were a different gender. Why is it that transgender people have to suffer such indignity, even in death?
If the Gwens of the world say to us that they are female, that's all we need to know. We don't need to know if they've had gender confirmation surgery or not. And once we know that they are female (as we do with Gwen Araujo) then we must, if we are to be fair and respectful, speak and write of a girl or woman named Gwen, not a boy named Eddie, and we must speak and write of what she went through in life and what happened to her.
Similarly, if we write of someone named Jack who we know to be a transgender male (female to male) we write of a boy or man, what he went through in life and what happened to him.
The majority of gender identity discrimination cases filed with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission allege improper use of names and pronouns. If the commission finds that employers, landlords, city personnel or places of public accommodation deliberately use improper names and pronouns, we'll write findings against them.
It is time for all of us who are not transgender to extend to transgender people the standard we demand for ourselves -- call me by my name (even if it's not my birth name), refer to me as the gender that conforms to my identity and use pronouns in reference to me that match my gender identity.
Let's stop being hung up on anatomy and birth certificates -- transgender people are entitled to be seen as who they are, not how others want to see them.
Larry Brinkin is a senior contract compliance officer with San Francisco's Human Rights Commission.