Last month, Central Piedmont Community College student Andraya Williams was interrogated by a female security guard after she exited a women's restroom on campus. The guard wanted "proof" that Williams was a woman. When Williams provided her student I.D. as verification, not only did the guard refuse the I.D. as proof, but she laughed at Williams before calling additional security as backup and having Williams escorted off school grounds.
Williams' harassment allegedly did not end there, however. CPCC's administration informed her that she has "no legal rights" as a trans person, and that her suspension remains in effect until she agrees to use only gender neutral restrooms.
Williams' case sparked protests and was publicized by GLAAD and other similar organizations. The speed of the backlash directed towards Central Piedmont Community College's transgender policies is indicative of something that's rarely discussed in the mainstream media: the growing power of grassroots transgender activism in America.
In the aftermath of her run-in, Williams impressed many with her appearance on Huffington Post Live where she discussed her preferred resolution: Instead of withdrawing from school, she would like the to CPCC adopt more inclusive policies to make the campus safer for her and other students.
"I would like training for staff members, and I would like to feel safer on my campus," she told Huffington Post Live host Josh Zepps. "To be told that I can't go to the female restroom and I'm a female — that's a very awkward feeling to have to go to a totally different restroom."
A Change.org petition has also been created by Campus Pride calling for the college's administrators to issue a formal apology and demand that they adopt active measures to secure the safety of trans and gender nonconforming individuals on campus.
Image Credit: Change.org
As more people speak out on Williams' behalf, it's important to note that this young woman's struggle is similar to that of many trans men and women across America. The trans community, and particularly the trans women of color community, faces the most harassment and discrimination out of any LGBT group. Just days after Williams' incident, another trans woman of color was fired from her job, allegedly for using the woman's restroom in Arkansas.
These incidents are systemic manifestations of the policing of bodies, and of female bodies in particular — a 2011 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) announced that 45% of hate murders were against trans women. This violence extends to the criminal justice system as well, with CeCe McDonald's imprisonment being an especially egregious case of alleged transgender discrimination.
According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 16% of transgender adults, compared to 2.7% of all U.S. adults, have been in prison or jail. Transgender people, especially the poor and trans people of color, also report facing harassment, discriminatory arrests and assault by police at disturbing rates.
It may seem to outsiders that the activism surrounding the Williams case is reactionary — that the impetus to organize in protest occurs only in the aftermath of an antagonizing incident. Indeed, the rally occurred after her suspension; Change.org petitions are created only after the events that precipitated their demand. But many of these protests in response to acts of violence are actually flash points signifying larger cultural injustices within the fabric of a nation.
The notion that these acts of protests are reactionary can be and has been challenged before, famously by Angela Davis in an interview included in the Black Power Mixtape. Successful political movements are never conceived of as consisting solely of reactionary events, but that they also require sustained action.
This will be the challenge for the trans rights movement going forward — to sustain this momentum in order to affect both cultural and legislative change. Still in its incipient years, the trans rights movement is by all accounts immensely successful. In large part, as Thomas McBee observed in his exposition on "How Trans Rights Became the Civil Rights Struggle of Our Generation," this success is grounded upon one basic strategy: controlling the narrative.
This is done through online petitions posted on sites such as Change.org or organized protests, but also through the trans community's widespread media presence. The combined efforts of a plethora of intelligent and articulate individuals like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Geena Rocero and Carman Carrera, as well as radically influential nonprofits like the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Transgender Law Center and GLAAD has allowed the trans community to create and dictate its own narrative. Cox's amazing shutdown of Katie Couric's incessant fascination and fetishization of trans "plumbing" is case in point.
For their part, the mainstream media is, more and more, allowing the trans community to claim and define space for itself. The New York Times's feature "In Their Own Terms" bespeaks the movement's efficaciousness in establishing control of its own narrative — and to have other people listen. Andraya Williams' refusal to quit school and her self-representation in a variety of media over the past couple of weeks is just the most recent testament to the trans rights movement's continued success.