Understanding the Stigma Faced by Transgender Women

Multi gender bathroom signage in airport
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Transgender people face an incredible burden of discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives. Despite increased representation in media and the fact that three in 10 U.S. adults personally know a person who is trans, discrimination again trans individuals is still prevalent.

Based on a comprehensive survey of transgender discrimination published in 2016:

  • More than half of youth perceived as transgender have been harassed at school.
  • A quarter of transgender youth had been physically attacked.
  • 10% had been sexually assaulted in the previous year.More than 50% had been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes

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Transgender Discrimination

Transgender people report discrimination in every setting you can imagine. They are harassed or discriminated against at home, at school, at work, and even in doctor's offices. They also face an increased risk of suicide and depression.

They also experience disproportionate rates of various diseases, including HIV. These burdens are even more intense for transgender people of color. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of transgender issues and the discrimination they face.

Some places where transgender women face stigma and discrimination include:

Healthcare

People who are transgender often face challenges that make it difficult to access the healthcare services that they need to support physical and emotional well-being. This includes:

  • Lack of insurance coverage to provide gender-affirming care
  • Low knowledge of transgender issues among healthcare providers
  • Denial of care
  • Interpersonal stigma
  • Mistreatment 
  • Refusal to use the preferred name or pronouns

In one national survey of more than 6,000 transgender individuals, 19% had experienced being refused care. The results also indicated that 28% had been harassed and 2% had experienced violence while in a medical setting.

Public Accommodations

Transgender people are often targeted by discriminatory legislation. For example, while there has been a push for equal accommodation laws, many people are unfortunately deeply opposed to these laws.

Equal accommodation laws are designed to allow transgender individuals to access the bathroom concordant with their gender identity. This means that transgender women can use the women's bathroom and transgender men can use the men's bathroom.

Access to Services

Transgender women also face stigma and discrimination when accessing social services. For example, research suggests that only 30% of women's shelters in the U.S. are willing to accept and house trans women.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) passed an Equal Access Rule to ensure that all HUD-assisted programs were open to all individuals regardless of their gender identity. In 2020, however, a proposed change would have allowed sex-segregated shelters to discriminate against transgender people. 

This places vulnerable women in danger because trans women are also at a higher risk of unemployment and homelessness due to trans discrimination.

Why Trans Women Face Stimga

While all transgender people face stigma, research suggests that trans women experience such discrimination at higher rates. For example, one study found that trans women tend to experience greater social stigma than trans men and that this stigma largely stems from cisgender men.

Some explanations for this stigma include:

Gender Panic

Gender panic refers to the threat that many people believe exists when transgender women are allowed to enter women’s-only spaces such as bathrooms. Rarely or never are similar concerns expressed about transgender men accessing men’s-only spaces.

This is presumably because women are considered to be more vulnerable to being taken advantage of in a way that men are not. Similarly, transgender men are not seen as potential predators in the same way as transgender women, due to their early life female socialization.

These concerns are fundamentally based on how our society talks about sex and gender. Our cultural norms assume that cis men are naturally disposed to being sexually aggressive and predatory. They also assume that cis women have little ability to resist.

Transgender women are women. They are also far more likely to experience sexual assault than commit it. In fact, their rates of sexual victimization are much higher than those of cis women. (Cis women are women who are assigned female at birth.)

Rape Culture and Trans Misogyny

The way that femininity is associated with sexual vulnerability in American culture means that the transgender women who are being framed as a threat by anti-accommodation activists are themselves often afraid of sexual victimization once they’ve transitioned and are living as women.

The problematic assumptions are components of what is often called rape culture. Fortunately, they can be addressed through education and changing cultural norms.

Society must do a better job of teaching that just because someone is raised as male, they will not necessarily be sexually predatory. We must also do a better job of teaching that women have both power and agency in their own sexuality.

Doing both these things would not only be helpful for society at large. It could also potentially reduce the perceived threat associated with transgender women who may be presumed unable to shed the psychological history of a masculine birth. Cultural education about gender identity could also help with these fears.

A Word From Verywell

Equal accommodation laws are beneficial to the transgender population without posing significant financial or other difficulties to the population as a whole. Fortunately, history suggests that the best way to deal with discrimination based on moral panic is to reduce the legal acceptance of discrimination and segregation rather than enabling or tolerating it.

Research also suggests that social and peer support as well as constructive coping skills could help combat some of the effects of stigma transgender people face.

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Article Sources
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  1. Pew Research Center. 5. Vast majority of Americans know someone who is gay, fewer know someone who is transgender. Published September 28, 2016.

  2. James SE, Herman JL, Rankin S, Keisling M, Mottet L, Anafi M. The report of the 2015 U.S. transgender survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality; 2016.

  3. Nuttbrock L, Bockting W, Rosenblum A, et al. Gender abuse and major depression among transgender women: A prospective study of vulnerability and resilience. Am J Public Health. 2014;104(11):2191-8. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2013.301545

  4. Grant JM, Mottet LA, Tanis J, Harrison J, Herman JL, Keisling M. Injustice at every turn: A report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; 2011.

  5. Center for American Progress. Discrimination against transgender women seeking access to homeless shelters. Published January 7, 2016.

  6. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Making admission or placement determinations based on sex in facilities under community planning and development housing programsFederal Register 85 (143) (2020): 44811–44818; 2020.

  7. Verbeek MJA, Hommes MA, Stutterheim SE, van Lankveld JJDM, Bos AER. Experiences with stigmatization among transgender individuals after transition: A qualitative study in the NetherlandsInternational Journal of Transgender Health. 2020;21(2):220-233. doi:10.1080/26895269.2020.1750529

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