It’s not been fun to be a trans person this year, and it’s been unusually bad in America, where anti-transgender sentiment has become the latest battlefield in the American right’s ongoing political culture war. While right-wing politics have never been particularly trans-friendly, this year has seen everything from a wave of anti-transgender legislation, to attacks by Proud Boys on drag events at public libraries. For trans people, it’s easy to despair. It seems like at every turn, more and more hate is rising against us, and our allies now, as ever, are rarely rising to our defense.
Despite the wave of hate, or rather, because of the wave of hate, it’s more important than ever to keep some context. Things are bad, yes. But things have never exactly been good. Despair is an ugly emotion. Despair robs us of joy and denies us freedom. It locks us into a belief that because things have gotten bad, they are destined to get worse, and that we are powerless to swim against the current. In the worst cases, despair can lead to the worst, and steal one’s very will to live.
The latest round of in-community fear mongering has been a devastatingly harmful article by Vice, titled “Some Trans People Are Preparing to Flee the US and Seek Asylum Abroad”. The subtext of the article is that it’s high time for trans people to begin exit planning from the United States. Hey, I get that. I’m down with that. I emigrated America in 2018 and have lived a life of remarkable privilege in Germany. I’ve been saying for years that trans folks should work on language skills, get name changes on passports and other documents, and make connections overseas. I’m very supportive of the idea of trans migration.
When I moved to Germany, it was the hardest thing I had ever done, and I had survived a terrorist attack only half a year prior. Migration drains you; you don’t understand the culture or the language, simple things become devastatingly impossible, like how to buy ibuprofen or how to get a bus pass. Migration nearly bankrupted me, and for the first time in my life I had to beg for money. It is devastatingly hard to move overseas.
But the article does not simply talk about trans migration, it specifically references asylum. This is a dangerous and misleading word. Asylum has a specific meaning, and applying for asylum is a specific path to migration. Among all paths, it’s perhaps the hardest and most brutal. It’s tempting to read international law and believe it applies to you. It’s especially easy when you think things are as bad as they can get at home. But unfortunately, asylum seeking is one of the most shocking affronts to human rights we have in the developed world.
Consider Germany, where asylum seekers must live in an Ankunftzentrum, or AnKER Center. Consider this page in the Asylum Information Database published by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, an alliance of over 100 European NGOs:
A typical room in an initial reception centre has between 2 and 4 beds, there are chairs and a table and each resident has a locker for herself or himself. Size of rooms may vary, but rooms with a single bed are highly exceptional… Bath and toilet facilities usually consist of shower rooms and toilets which people have to share. Where guidelines are available, it is recommended that one shower should be available for 10 to 12 persons, but in some reception centres the ratio is worse than that, particularly in situations of overcrowding. Cleaning of shared space (halls, corridors) as well as of sanitary facilities is carried out by external companies in the initial reception centres
in AnkER centres, for instance, cooking is not allowed. Refrigerators for the use of asylum seekers are available in some initial reception centres, but this seems to be the exception. In some centres, the management does not allow hot water boilers for asylum seekers as this would be forbidden by fire regulations. This poses an obstacle to mothers with infants.
According to statistics compiled by NGOs, the number of attacks on reception centres during 2020 was significantly higher – namely 992 attacks on facilities, including 6 arson attacks, compared to 93 attacks including 3 arson attacks in 2019.
The duration of stay in initial reception centres has been generally set at a maximum of 18 months following the reform in 2019 (see Freedom of Movement). Following the initial reception period, a stay in other collective accommodation centres is also obligatory, until a final decision on the asylum application is reached. This often takes several years since the obligation applies to appeal procedures as well.
Or in the Freedom of Movement page linked there above, consider:
The freedom of movement of asylum seekers is restricted and they have no right to choose their place of residence. According to the Asylum Act, their right to remain on the territory under a permission to stay (Aufenthaltsgestattung) is generally limited to the district of the foreigners’ authority in which the responsible reception centre is located. This “residence obligation” (Residenzpflicht), legally called “geographical restriction” (räumliche Beschränkung), means that asylum seekers are not allowed to leave that area even for short periods of time without permission of the BAMF.
Or, perhaps consider a similar report in Spain:
The LGTBI+ group Lambda in Valencia reported three attacks in one month against its office. Homophobic incidents have been reported in Melilla, where a Moroccan boy was brutally assaulted, and in Valencia, where a transsexual person was insulted and harassed. A transphobic graffiti was drawn in Huelva, and one against the trans law at the office of the LGTBI+ group COGAM in Madrid was also reported. The NGO Kifkif’s office in Madrid was vandalised, with excrement being left at its the entrance. The rise of homophobic assaults and incidents gave origin to many demonstrations across Spain, aimed at denouncing the raise hate crimes against the in LGTBI+ population, and at urging the Government to adopt measures against LGTBI+ phobia. A police raid in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Alicante at the end of January 2022 led to the dismantlement of a neo-Nazi group who disseminated hate messages and also attacked a LGTBI+ office near Alicante… The NGO Accem expressed concerns about the multiple obstacle and the discrimination faced by LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in Spain, affecting in particular transsexual women.
European frameworks rarely consider Americans as at-risk for needing asylum. An American asylum seeker will need to prove that the entire country is off-limits, and that will be a big challenge in a country built on top of 50+ different legal systems. The migration office will ask why you chose a European country over a blue state. Being a victim of a crime is not enough. Having some transphobic legislation is not enough, particularly when Europe itself is hardly something to brag about regarding transgender rights. Asylum didn’t work for Danni Askini, who did not seem to have a good time in the several months she spent in Sweden. Planning for asylum can even be a strike against your asylum claim, if a court feels that you are “creating the conditions for obtaining asylum status."
Asylum seekers in Europe are people who have spent their entire life savings to make a devastatingly treacherous journey, often across the sea, to find safety. As bad as trans hate in America is now, it is nothing compared to what these brave souls have endured.
It’s ok to be concerned over the state of anti-transgender legislation in America. In 2022, over 300 anti-trans bills were introduced, the worst year on record. But it’s important in this analysis to keep things in context. In 2017, the ACLU counted more than 200 anti-LGBT bills. Of these, some 50 targeted trans people. In 2018, the story was much the same, where the HRC tracked 113 such bills.
Yet a closer look at the history of this proposed legislation shows that the vast majority of it does not succeed, few even make it out of their committees. Those that do are likely to be immediately challenged in court, and many have little chance of surviving a protracted legal battle. It’s easy to by cynical, but also don’t forget: in 2020, even a conservative-majority Supreme Court voted to affirm trans rights are protected by Title VII.
One should moreover remember that alongside these scores of hateful bills are even more pro-civil rights laws. Per the HRC’s report above, 2018’s 113 anti-LGBT bills were countered by 178 pro-equality drafts. The state of trans rights is stronger now than it was ten years ago; Grimm v. Gloucester County, Obergefell v. Hodges, and Bostok v. Clayton County set strong precedents that will be hard to undo, even by a court that committed the Dobbs tragedy: the Gloucester County School Board was denied its writ of certiorari only 18 months ago, and Bostok is less than three years old.
When we “spread awareness” of these anti-trans bills, it’s critical to remember that shouting does very little. What is the intent with this scaremongering? Where is the call to action? Sure: contact your representative, if you feel that matters. But also, we can find who funds these bigoted politicians. We can find their corporate donors. We can protest outside their homes. We can fund legal aid groups. We can organize. We can fight back.
There is a lot to fear as a trans person in America. There are still places I don’t go when I am back home. I’ve been targeted by neo-Nazis and beaten by a mob. I know firsthand how violent it can be, and that’s why I left. But fear cannot lead us to panic. There’s nothing to gain with today’s breathless jamming of anti-trans content across our social media feeds. Trans people tend to follow lots of other trans people, and when some of us are worked up, and feeling like the situation is hopeless, it’s easy for the rest of us to feel that way, too.
That can have deadly consequences. Sharing far-right content legitimizes far-right content. Sharing worst-case scenarios leads to despair, and despair can lead to dark places. We have to be better than to share only fear and no hope. Sometimes hope looks like fighting back, and sometimes hope looks like a safer haven overseas. But if you do want to flee, please, consult an immigration attorney in the country you want to flee to. America has the 7th most powerful passport in the world. Explore your many visa options. Consider Albania, a beautiful country where you can live up to a year (but not work) visa free, or a nomad visa in Malta. Are you an artist? Berlin has a special artist visa.
Trans hate is rising worldwide, but so is our ability to fight it. We have more tools now than at any point in history. The worst thing we can do is spread panic and push people to irrational, reckless, life-altering decisions. We can and must do better. Speak to the experts. Listen to people who have been through this before. We can win, and we will win.