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Teddy Quinlivan on transgender rights in America

Model and transgender advocate Teddy Quinlivan discusses Trump's dangerous new draft proposal to redefine sex, and what it could mean for trans people

Teddy Quinlivan she is reluctantly packing her bags to return to New York City. She is reluctant because she has been living in Paris for a few months, “away from all the craziness that’s been happening in America”, and using her time there to reflect on the next steps of her career, after a busy year of walking dozens of runways, becoming the face of Margiela fragrance Mutiny and being, as ever, an outspoken and passionate advocate for transgender rights.

The ‘craziness’ in America that she is referring to is the news that broke on the weekend, via a report published in The New York Times that revealed a draft of a plan put forward by the Trump Administration to legally redefine sex as "a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth.” Under Obama’s government, it was widely accepted that gender and sex were not the same thing, and laws were put in place to protect transgender people in the U.S. from discrimination. However, the new proposal could mean that those protections are rolled back, exposing transgender people to discrimination in education, work and healthcare. It could also prevent transgender or people born with intersex traits from legally changing their gender. It sends out a loud and clear message that transgender people’s rights are not a priority in Trump’s America.

Below, Teddy shares her thoughts on the news, what it could mean for trans people, and how to remain hopeful and helpful in such a frightening climate.

Would you mind explaining, for anyone who doesn't know, what happened in the news this week? And what that actually means?
Teddy Quinlivan: Donald Trump. The New York Times attained a draft of a plan that the Trump administration is putting forward. Basically, making it so that the legal and federal definition of "gender" is specifically and narrowly defined by the organs you received at birth, whether that be a penis or a vagina. It's one or the other – that's basically it. There's also a piece of the plan that would include genetic testing to determine what your birth sex was. For anybody, like myself, who has changed their legal documents to specify the gender that they identity as, this would completely negate that.

That's almost the most terrifying part – the thought of actual genetic testing.
Teddy Quinlivan: It's very dystopian. It's very similar to the technique that the Nazis used, not necessarily genetic testing, but verifying what race or religion you were born into.

You posted on Instagram when you heard the news about the draft plan, about how this had wider impacts on the way we conceive of gender in society… how so?
Teddy Quinlivan: This idea that gender is narrowly limited to just what kind of organs you have at birth, and purely based off of the physical, completely neglects the experience of gender. So, in my opinion, in the opinion of most scientific communities, and in gender studies, it's believed that gender is much more than the sum of our parts, it's much more than whether we were born with a penis, or whether we were born with a vagina. Gender has a lot to do with experience and psychology. For example, I psychologically identify with being female, and that's something I've absolutely never questioned, despite having been born with a penis.

I didn't ask to receive any of the body parts I received. When I was born, I didn't know how tall I was going to be for example, or my eye colour. My hair colour wasn't chosen, my skin tone wasn't chosen. We don't get a choice in the body parts and the physical traits that we receive, or how they match up to how we feel.

As a society, we are coming to accept that just because somebody was born with a vagina, it doesn't necessarily mean that they want to wear dresses every day, and pink is their favourite colour. And just because somebody was born with a penis doesn't mean that they love sports, and want to grow a beard. Yet the Trump administration are putting gender into this very, very, very small box when it's really so much broader than that.

"Gender is much more cerebral than just our chromosomes and our body parts. It's how we live our lives" – Teddy Quinlivan

Where do you think this thinking is coming from?
Teddy Quinlivan: It's really disappointing for me as a transgender woman to see this lack of understanding and this lack of empathy. But I get where people are coming from when they think that gender is this predetermined thing that can't be changed. I get it. There are a lot of people who don't understand what it means to be transgender, who have no experience with transgender people outside of the conservative media and have never met a transgender person. Maybe they don't understand the science, maybe they haven't taken the extra moments to do the research, or to try to educate themselves. For decades and decades, we've been told that gender is either one or the other and anything in between is a freak show or a mental illness. Everything is gendered, down to the way we walk, to the way we smell, to the way we interact with one another, to what we wear, to the length of our hair, to whether we choose to wear a skirt or wear pants, wear make-up or not wear make-up, and in most Latin languages you define objects as "le" or "la", masculine or feminine.... but this also shows that gender is much more cerebral than just our chromosomes and our body parts. It's how we live our lives. Throughout time we have been able to challenge some of these stereotypes of gender, but unfortunately, some change moves very, very slowly, and people don't always necessarily catch up with the progression. For every one person that is empathetic to a social situation, there are probably two more people who don't understand.

It definitely feels like there’s almost this double-edged sword about visibility: the more liberal or progressive attitudes become, the more likely there is to be a backlash.
Teddy Quinlivan: Absolutely. This kind of backlash has occurred through LGBTQ history. In the past, gay people were fighting for acceptance, because being gay was thought of as an illness. You were treated in psychiatric facilities. We evolved on from that. But then it became ‘gay people don’t deserve the same rights as straight people in terms of marriage’. And then, there is also the prejudice against race. People said: “if we grant these people freedom it’s going to be infringing on the moral fabric of our society” – which obviously isn’t true. This tends to be the argument from the religious, right-wing people whenever a marginalised group of people are seeking equality. It’s a very unfortunate situation that we find ourselves in again and again.

It sounds like you weren’t surprised when you heard the news...
Teddy Quinlivan: I wasn’t surprised in any shape or form. I knew Donald Trump’s track record on transgender issues – in regards to transgender people serving in the military and fighting for our country. Somehow he believes that, because you're transgender, you’re mentally unstable and unfit to fight for our country and rights, which is ludicrous. I think Donald Trump is pandering to his influence and to his base. I think the timing of this is important. It’s one to two weeks to the Midterm Elections and so, it’s a rallying cry to his base to get out and vote for Republican values, which are to not grant transgender people the same rights as cisgender people. The timing plays a huge role in it. 

As a trans-person, how did you feel personally?
Teddy Quinlivan: Let down by the government and the system, especially after Obama’s Administration had taken so many steps to try to guarantee transgender people equality and safe places to exist. One issue that gets brought up a lot – and it’s an issue that has been really important to conservative voters – is the bathroom bill. This idea that in our schools and public places people should be able to go to the bathroom in the place where they identify and feel most comfortable in. I think for conservative people who are uneducated or hold bigoted beliefs about gender identity as a whole, they see this as a personal attack on their safety, which statistics don’t support. There aren’t any examples of people identifying as trans and going to bathrooms to be sexually violent towards cisgender people. Most of the time when people go into the bathroom, they’re just using the bathroom. It’s just to poop. Unfortunately, the idea of the bathroom as this secret, gendered place – this comes from a very ingrained, systematic belief that you can’t trust people of the opposite sex. This also goes back to the general misunderstanding of what transgender people are in the first place; they’re considered to be mentally ill, unstable, to have this malicious, promiscuous sexual intent. It’s very dark.

This idea of transgender people being a danger was implied in what Trump said when he responded to the news this week. He said he was “protecting everyone” with this proposed plan. But we don’t need to protect people from transgender people.
Teddy: Yeah. This has been the argument. It's meant to be a broader scale of protection but really it’s bigotry. They say that they’re rolling back people’s freedom and liberties for your safety. There’s just no evidence or data to back up that claim that transgender people are unsafe in the first place.

We have been having similar debates around trans' people's rights and access to certain spaces here in the U.K around the GRA reform vote this weekend. It just got so nasty in the press here. We have less of a Christian right. We have more self-proclaimed feminists calling trans people a danger to women.
Teddy Quinlivan: There’s also a population of feminists here who believe that in order to be a feminist and a woman you have to be born with a vagina. That’s such a narrow-minded view. What this really stems from is this idea that trans people are, in general, not to be trusted. I think a lot of people, particularly feminists, are really misinformed on the whole issue. They’re not using enough critical thinking. They need to understand that gender is significantly broader than what organs you’re born with. Being a woman or being a man is more than what you have in your pants. We shouldn’t equate masculinity to the size of someone’s penis or femininity to the size of somebody’s breasts. Yet, our society widely does. People, particularly feminists, need to be our friend because it starts with transgender people and as soon as the rights are ruled back for one marginalised group then they just go to the next one and the next one until you’re left with straight, white cis-genderism. It's turning the clock back. Visibility has really shed a light on people who are marginalised and people who are minorities, and Obama’s Administration changed the law quickly. But the progression has happened so fast that I think it has made a lot of heads spin. People can’t quite catch up to the times – especially in the United States.

You mentioned how we need to be better allies. What are the practical things that people can do to help?
Teddy Quinlivan: First and foremost, whether you’re an ally or not, if you want to participate in the conversation you have to do your due diligence. You have to do your research. Educate yourself on transgender issues and what it means to be transgender. It’s critical to understand where we’re coming from. You have to be informed. Go on YouTube and watch some videos. Read some interviews with transgender people. Take those necessary steps to understand where we are coming from on this issue and why we believe we deserve the same rights and freedoms as everyone else.

If you are transgender and you haven’t come out yet, this might be a very good moment to come out because the more voices this movement has, the more people will understand that a transgender person isn’t just a man in a dress or a woman in pants. It’s more than appearances. It could be the person serving you coffee. If could be someone sitting next to you on the train. It could be a friend, a co-worker, a colleague. Even a family member who hasn’t come out yet. So I think this is a really important time for transgender people to share their humanity with the world and to fight for our place. It’s a long, difficult fight but if you don’t use the initiative to act, then we won’t get the progress that we need.

And finally, as we’re in a first world, democratic country in America, we also have the responsibility to use our right to vote. It doesn’t matter how much money you make or what social or economic class you’re in if you’re in the United States – regards of sexuality or race – you have the right to vote. And so, exercising that right is going to be extremely important going forward – make your voice heard. Who we elect into office and who we elect to represent us is going to be extremely important going forward, as this last election cycle has proven already. There are a lot of people who don’t participate in politics and don’t necessarily understand. This transgender issue doesn’t directly affect people who are cis-gendered – like why should they care? It’s really important to give a shit. We may be a very small population of the world but nonetheless, we’re in the millions and so we deserve the same rights and recognition as anybody else does.