Opinion | Evanston can be a model for pro-trans policies


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Right now, the state of trans politics seems apocalyptic. As Republicans lost power on the federal level, they began to rely on pushing wedge issues at local and state levels to reinvigorate their base to get votes for the 2022 midterm elections. Besides an attack on basic anti-racist education that has bordered on obsession, anti-trans legislation has been the other main leg for this strategy. Over 250 anti-trans bills have been passed on a state level across the country, the majority of which target minors’ ability to compete as their gender identity in sports or gain access to life-saving medication that affirms their gender identity.  

While it may be tempting to think of these problems as only affecting the unfortunate few trans people who live in red states, that is simply not reality. While Illinois has fairly progressive policies when it comes to gender identity, there are still policy challenges. To change your name in Illinois, you have to have been verified “by the affidavit of some credible person.” (aka a gender therapist that might charge hundreds of dollars per hour) and then, if you are lucky, you get to navigate a three-month long bureaucratic nightmare. It is also important to point out that convicted felons cannot change their name, which is highly problematic as Illinois has a history of criminalizing trans and gender-nonconforming people.

Even if we ignore explicitly anti-trans policies, both Illinois and Evanston are not immune from the broader economic discrimination that disproportionately affects trans people. According to research conducted by the National Center for Trans Equality, one in 10 trans people face eviction for their identity, one in four trans people have faced homelessness at some point in their lives, the pre-pandemic trans unemployment rate was 33 percent and the underemployment rate was 44 percent—and that number likely went up during the pandemic. These disparities are especially problematic when it comes to access to health insurance. Trans people are 63 percent more likely than cisgender people to be uninsured. This is extremely humbling, as without access to health insurance, medically transitioning can cost a fortune, and, without insurance, gender confirmation surgery can cost up to $25,000 while the long-term use of hormone replacement therapy can cost over $100,000. These treatments are often necessary; for some trans people, they are the only way to meaningfully lessen gender dysphoria.

Despite the fact that there are real and ever-present material obstacles that trans people face, they never seemed to be talked about. For example, when asked about the discourse surrounding the rates of trans homelessness, senior Alex Krepsik said, “That it is interesting that it’s not talked about” and another senior Lucy Garcia said that “I don’t know much because of [social media] algorithms.”  Most of the discourse on trans issues is centered around cis people’s perception of those issues. The major events in trans people’s lives that have gotten the attention of the discourse recently has not been the poverty that we disportionately face, but a comedy special and a BBC article that cites members of a hate group and Twitter polls with 80 participants. This may be due to sensationalism, the fact that the media is a business that chases clicks and viewers, but it is a mistake to forget that the enemies of trans people have much more media influence than trans people do. All TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Femininist) have to do to get into the mainstream is to manufacture a controversy and then, in the name of “impartiality,” they get their voices represented. Dave Chappelle is literally paid millions of dollars to spread his transphobic talking points. All the while, trans voices have to fight tooth and nail to get our voices represented. This stacks the deck in favor of trans people’s political enemies. When we constantly have to defend, we can’t go on the offensive for our issues: we can’t talk about homelessness, poverty or uninsurance rates. We are stuck on their court.

So how can we make change if the media is by and large against us? We have to think local. While mainstream narratives may cement anti-trans sentiment, proximity to real life trans people can overpower those narratives. What that means is that, if organizations can provide accessible education about trans and queer issues, we will have more allies when we try to mobilize. This is the mission of the Evanston non-profit Evanston Pride. They provide free seminars simplifying topics that might seem controversial or frightening to larger cisgender and heterosexual audiences.  

But we can do more than just education. We could pressure Evanston to pass effective ordinances that not only deal with the material conditions of trans people. Evanston could institute a ‘Just Cause for Eviction’ ordinance that sets out a set list for reasons that a landlord could evict someone or impose rent control policies that have a proven track record of stopping housing discrimination in cities like Seattle. We could further fund the Evanston Department of Health and Human Services, which funds access to physical and mental healthcare and requires them to provide free trans healthcare. We could create a city-wide job guarantee, making sure no one who wants to work and support themselves is fired because of their identity.

What unites these policies is their scope and their focus. Instead of being national, and getting drowned out by more powerful voices, they are local, demanding to be heard. Instead of being cultural, they are tangible, helping real people now, making sure people have a roof over their head, access to a doctor and a job that gives them security. If we, trans people and cis allies, can mobilize and make specific demands, we can make Evanston a model for the U.S. and make trans people in our community safer.

What this means is that we have to know where our aldermen and Mayor Biss stand on the issues we propose, we have to know when their elections are and we have to know if, at the end of the day, they are with us or against us.

This should not and does not mean that we just have to wait around for election season. In fact, elections are not even the best way to influence the actions of our elected officials. We have to do two things. First, we need to build and maintain networks where the community provides the necessities that the city won’t. What this looks like is supporting temporary housing units, where trans people can set up shop if they find themselves homeless. The second way we should operate in between elections is by supporting and volunteering with activist organizations like Equality Illinois that support and lobby for government programs that help the material needs of trans people.

It’s crucial that we focus on the now, that we resist pessimism and that we embrace local action. While it may be tempting to count our losses and retreat, we don’t have anywhere to run. We are forced to stay here and fight, so because of that, let’s at least win.