By Lyman Gamberton, PhD candidate


The COVID-19 pandemic has seen an international explosion of non-contingent but non-coincidental anti-transgender sentiment being elevated to the level of law.

On April 1st, the Republican-controlled state legislature of Idaho officially banned transgender athletes from participating in high school or varsity athletics as their identified gender, mandating that all athletes must be entered according to their ‘biological sex assigned at birth’. A day later, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán submitted a draft bill to Parliament that included a proposal to reverse the country’s policy on gender recognition, which currently allows transgender Hungarians to change the gender listed on certificates of births, marriages, and deaths. Orbán’s proposal would mandate all such certificates to list ‘sex at birth’, which could no longer be changed after social/medical transition. In the United Kingdom, the Tory government has announced that potential proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act will be tabled indefinitely, claiming that coronavirus preparedness must take priority.


I wrote the above paragraph two weeks ago. Last week, it got worse: not content to merely delay the promised review of the GRA, Liz Truss, the Equality Minister for the United Kingdom, announced a set of proposed reforms to transgender healthcare access. These would completely ban medical transition (including the use of reversible, temporary puberty blockers) for anyone under 18; introduce new gatekeeping restrictions on medical transition in adulthood; and potentially remove transgender people’s already-existing rights of access to single-sex or sex-specific services.


For trans people in the UK who are dependent on the National Health Service for medical transition, the waiting times are already averaging three years between GP referral and first appointment at a Gender Identity Clinic (GIC); all elective procedures, including gender confirmation surgeries, have been cancelled. There is a further shortage of certain hormone replacement medications, particularly estrogen, leading GPs to alert their transgender patients that key elements of their care may become suddenly unavailable.  This will undoubtedly exacerbate the already-existing mental health crisis amongst trans people who are in the early stages of referral, and/or are dependent on the NHS. This crisis of mental health, to be clear, is due to dysphoria-induced depression, transphobic harassment, social exclusion and precarity – not because trans status is itself a mental pathology. 


People will die from this and we can’t even go out in the street for them like we did for Lucy Meadows in 2013, like we do every year on November 20th, with battery-operated tea lights in our cupped hands and people holding each other up in knots of twos and threes while they cry. Consent is manufactured for our erasure from public life: who will count one body too many in a plague pit? How many suicides will be folded into the death toll like a sheet over a corpse? Trans people are already dying in Hungary now that the change in legislation throttling any change to birth certificates has passed from threat to settled law.  In the time between the first and third drafts of this piece, two Black trans people have been murdered in America: Nina Pop in Missouri; Tony McDade in Tallahassee. There is no editorialising I can add to this.


 LGBTQ people are a known vulnerable population in terms of general healthcare, refugee status, disaster aftermath, and other critical circumstances. Within the broader LGBTQ population, transgender people are also uniquely vulnerable to the structural violence committed both by private actors (though hate crimes, social exclusion, sexual/gender-based harassment, etc.) and by mechanisms of the state, which gatekeep access to medical care (trans people in England and Wales cannot self-refer to a GIC and are dependent on a referral from their GP); legal personhood (many states or countries forbid changing the sex listed on a birth certificate); the right to reproduction and family life (Holland, Finland, and Japan, amongst other countries, require sterilisation as a precondition for recognising a trans person’s gender in law); and other transition-related needs. Spade (2011) and Davis (2017) have written extensively on the administrative nature of violence against transgender people and the to-date relative futility of traditional civil rights frameworks in protecting trans communities. 


A headline on Slate reads: “If I Catch COVID-19, Don’t Tell My Doctor That I’m Trans“. Friends in the UK report sudden discontinuation of necessary HRT medications; surgeries infinitely delayed; surges in calls to the Lesbian and Gay Switchboard. Fellow trans academics are frantically sending out information on impending closures of the GIC services in Leeds and Glasgow. 


Despite the fact that LGBTQ precarity in healthcare provision and crisis situations is a known quantity, LGBTQ-specific needs and the necessity of culturally-competent care and support are routinely overlooked, ignored, or dismissed as irrelevant, or unconnected to the nature of the particular unfolding catastrophe du jour. To take one example: transgender survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake and meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011 reported challenges and shortcomings in the disaster responses they experienced, including a lack of access to essential medication, being forced to use gendered facilities according to birth sex, misgendering by emergency personnel, and other issues.


There are more than two dozen books written by cisgender writers on my bibliography, bridging ethnomethodology, Gender Studies, Japanese Area Studies, ethnographies, literary commentaries, and book reviews. Not even one single text stretches to the correct terminology. Transgendered. Transgendered males. Male-to-female transgendered individuals. Deep sympathy with the transgendered condition. Transgendering persons. It would be appropriate to refer to someone as ‘a transgender’. The topic of transgender. The ‘true transsexual’. What can ordinarily be borne with an eye-roll and a petty ‘[sic]’ now makes me feel like my skin is two sizes too tight. I consider hyperlinking one particularly egregious quote to a scene from the 2016 cult horror classic The Babadook, in which a distraught Toni Collette screams “Why can’t you just be normal?!” at her traumatised son. I delete the hyperlink. But I keep the tab open so I can hit REPLAY from time to time.


The fact that so many different municipalities worldwide have used the opportunity of COVID-19 to enshrine anti-trans animus in law, or to propose its enforcement, or to prolong its effects, is not accidental. While trans lives and communities worldwide are rich in their diversity of experiences, an unfortunate international constant is that we have very few allies in positions of political influence. For people who live at the intersections of trans and other minority identities (disabled trans people; trans migrants and refugees; Black/Indigenous trans people, and other trans People of Colour; trans people living below the poverty line, or experiencing homelessness; etc.) the precarity, and thereby the danger, they face is amplified. This was true before the pandemic began: it has been thrown into pointed relief by the current surge in anti-trans legislation. This raises the question of why now?


Schrödinger’s Transitioner: 

1. Too small and hysterical a minority to take seriously. 

2. A grave and existential risk to the health of the body public.


I believe that what we are seeing in action is assorted efforts at ontological securitisation by right-wing governments and legislating bodies. That is: selective emotional and political mobilisation against trans people is being used as distraction to make life seem safer for majority populations who are feeling threatened by the unchecked spread of COVID-19. It goes without saying that restricting the rights of trans people has no effect in curbing the effects of the novel coronavirus. Nor indeed is it intended to. The purpose of such ‘security theatre’ is to assuage public anxiety by offering a form of reassurance and a show of protective strength on the part of the State. (It is perhaps worth noting that, at time of current writing, the number of openly transgender high school and varsity athletes in the state of Idaho remains steady at zero). 

Transgender people make easy targets for ontological securitisation in a time of medical crisis: enshrining a binary model of gender (and with it, all too often, ‘complementarian’ gender roles) in law serves as a ‘common-sense reaffirmation’ of conservative, traditional social values. Additionally, the appeal to the supposed objectivity of ‘scientific’ models of sex and gender (using language such as ‘biological sex’, ‘sex based on chromosomes’, etc.) provides a veneer of medical authority: it may not be aimed at the right targets, but it strikes the right note in a worried populace. I suggest it will prove wise to keep a close watch for other anti-trans political developments as the pandemic evolves, and to resist them whenever and wherever they spring up.

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