Those who are committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion work do four things well. They do their own work, create space for differing narratives, fully embrace a variety of ways of knowing and contributing, and acknowledge and rectify power imbalances. Each of these four steps must be prioritized and constantly and consistently pursued. Success at EDI depends on making a committed, sustained effort to work on each step over time and at multiple levels (e.g., personal, professional, and community). As the world changes, new perspectives are shared and become cultural norms. As this change occurs, we must invest personally by building awareness and adjusting to new concepts and experiences. It’s humbling work, but it is the only way to build intercultural competence.
I am doing this work, too. For example, transgender identity is a topic that is new to me. At this point, I could go on about how many people I know who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and questioning. I could explain that I know people who identify as non-binary or non-gender conforming in dress and appearance. I could mention that I know people who sometimes dress in drag. But that’s not “the work.” Work, by definition, is labor. Listing people is not labor; it is a shortcut. Just as a politician’s statement that “some of my best friends are Black” does little to help race relations, mentioning the number of LGBTQ people in my circle does little to honor people or advance an important struggle. It’s a false attempt to paint oneself as an ally while doing little or nothing to examine one’s privilege. So, this is not the work we must do.
As I mention in my e-courses, the work we need begins with personal reflection. I like to begin by reflecting on the experiences I’ve had, the stories I’ve been told, the stories I’ve told others, and the behaviors that are part of my daily practice. Personally, though I’ve tried to be an ally to many marginalized groups over many years, I know few transgender people. In fact, until quite recently, I had not spoken openly about this fact to anyone with that lived experience. Without that interaction, how will my mental processes be challenged? How will my perspectives be broadened?
While interactions are key to building intercultural competence, those with privilege must be extremely careful not to place marginalized people in the awkward position of teaching us how to behave. Recently, I met a trans woman who welcomed me into conversation about her experience, but only with the caveat that I first begin by doing my own work. She quite directly asked me to not put the additional burden of my ignorance on her shoulders. She told me to do some research on violence in the transgender community and then revisit our conversation. Here’s what I found:
Sadly, violence against trans persons is an international epidemic. According to Transgender Europe (TE), from 2008 to 2017, 2,609 transgender and gender non-conforming persons in 71 nations were murdered. Even worse, this number increased from 2016 to 2017. Unfortunately, the numbers may be higher, as many countries do not collect data on crimes against the trans community. Moreover, not all attacks result in death. A leading LGBT advocacy group found that one out of eight transgender employees in the U.K. had been physically attacked by a co-worker or customer in the past year.
While transphobia spans the globe, some might be shocked to learn that according to TE, the U.S. ranks third in violent crimes against transgender persons. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) reports that in 2017, 29 transgender people were fatally attacked —the most ever recorded. Worse, the HRC reports that thus far in 2018, 22 transgender people have been shot or killed by other violent means. USA Today reported that violence against the trans community in 2018 is on track to match or surpass the previous record.
As startling as these numbers are, adding race and gender to the equation makes them worse. According to the HRC, trans women of color are far more likely than other members of the LGBT community to be the victims of violent crimes. As the HRC notes, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia conspire to create a world that makes trans women of color particularly vulnerable.
Though physical violence is awful, trans persons face other challenges in their daily lives. Like people of color, trans people must confront daily microaggressions that rob them of their dignity. The TE report also found that nearly a third of transgender individuals in Britain had experienced discrimination at cafes, bars, and restaurants. So, even when their lives are not directly threatened, trans persons struggle for the right to simply be themselves in public spaces.
The statistics above should alarm any person with an ounce of empathy. While these numbers are awful, they should not shock us into complacency. Against this horrifying backdrop, we must resolve to fight. We must fight to end oppression wherever it exists, because, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Of course, each of us will fight in a different way. Researchers and academics may fight by working to bring equity to the way scholarship is produced, evaluated and disseminated. Educators may fight by creating space for young people to develop their voices and ability to navigate different cultures. Social justice warriors may fight by shedding light on policies and laws that harm disenfranchised groups. Business leaders may fight by creating workplaces that reflect corporate values of equity and inclusion. There are any number of options one can take to create more equity in the world. The point is, everyone should do something. Choosing to do nothing in the face of the violence and other inequities transgender persons face is unconscionable.
Of course, any job is easier when you have the proper tools. My colleagues and I have developed several courses designed to provide people with the tools to become better allies to trans people or other marginalized groups. But you already own the most important tool of all: a mirror. Look at yourself critically. Ask yourself what you believe about trans people and other members of the LGBT community. Identify any negative thoughts. Then work to end these and introduce new, equitable thought patterns. More importantly, make intentional choices to behave in ways that reflect your espoused values—show up in the world in way that speaks about your character. Evaluating yourself may seem like a small step, but as more people change their minds and hearts, the world will become a kinder, safer place for trans persons, other marginalized persons, and ultimately, for everyone.