Most weeks, the night before my San José Human Services Commission meeting, I see my friend M. M is part of group of friends of mine that gets dinner mosts weeks, loves trashy space opera as much as I do, is a budding Java programmer, and is nonbinary. M is private about their gender because it’s not safe for them to be out to their family, so I’ll be clear here that the letter M exists nowhere in M’s name.
M is not my first nonbinary friend, but I know not all of my readers and fellow residents might not know anyone who is living a gender different from the one on their birth certificate. So in this post, when I write about making sure people outside of the gender binary are counted and served by our local laws, think about M: M who gave me a shy, big hug, when they heard one of my poems will be getting published this summer; M who ate a massive slice of my celebratory rum cake along with their corndogs, and was not sorry about it at all; M, who deserves to have their human rights protected because those rights are inalienable for everyone.
About 8 weeks ago, when I was first looking into how to best support the implementation of San José’s Women’s Bill of Rights (our local implementation of the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women or CEDAW), a member of Together We Will – San José posted a reply to a post I started, and what she said stuck with me:
Posted with permission. At the time, I replied:
Good point! As a queer woman, including our genderqueer and non-binary brothers and sisters is important to me as well. Would you be willing to speak to the commission about including more than M/F options in the gender analysis next month if I can get it on the agenda? I think we could propose to city council that they amend the Women’s Bill of Rights to include non-binary and genderqueer people; also, to modify the language in the Duties and Powers section to consistently refer to gender, rather than switching to sex halfway through like they were synonyms. Here’s the text of the bill: http://sanjoseca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/74224
[Quick update here: when I posted the language above I noticed I’d used not-great language for being inclusive of non-binary people and I wanted to remind myself to be accountable; this left some readers confused, since I didn’t actually point out that between writing this comment on Facebook and posting this blog post this weekend, I’ve gotten better (I hope) at using inclusive language. Regular readers will remember the many discussions of how much our language set around gender is evolving and this is a solid example of where I can do better. I should have said: “non-binary siblings” or “non-binary brothers, sisters, and siblings,” since I know some non-binary folks who are femme non-binary or masc non-binary and wouldn’t object to the gendered family language. Ok, back to the original post.]
And then I started asking around — our local CEDAW task force, other cities, our county. No one had heard of a local implementation of CEDAW that explicitly included transwomen and nonbinary people. That changes today.
After spending the evening reading through all 38 cities’ CEDAW ordinances, I found that Pittsburgh, PA’s language seems to be as inclusive as I could hope for. I’m going to spend the next few weeks shopping it around to see if there are ways to make it better, but unless I’ve very much mistaken, I think following Pittsburgh’s example in this bill language would solve the important problem highlighted on that Facebook thread and that’s been bothering me ever since.
Still a Women’s Bill of Rights?
Now, I believe there is value in highlighting cis and transgender women’s rights within the overall human rights conversation. This post isn’t about how to turn a Women’s Bill of Rights into an Everyone’s Bill of Rights (that already exists and has since 1948, or 1791, or 1215, depending on your definition of “everyone”); this post is about making sure that the gender analysis portion of a local implementation of CEDAW isn’t a missed opportunity to include the needs of nonbinary and transgender people. There is a lot of potential for it to be a missed opportunity, because most of the bill language I found refers exclusively to “women” and “men” as if the entire Venn diagram of human existence could be fit between those poles.
What’s the Harm in the Current Language?
Now, this may all sound very abstract. But we can’t track — and we can’t fix — what we don’t count. Here is an example of where counting nonbinary people’s experiences could have revealed important information for local policymakers and service providers. This is a quote from the University City, Missouri CEDAW resolution:
WHEREAS, in Missouri, just over nine percent of seniors are in poverty, two-thirds of whom are women, and overall the gap between elderly men and women in poverty is 3.7 percent, but in some counties this increases to 8.0 percent; and
What is the gap between cisgender men and nonbinary people? Between cisgender women and transgender women? From how this is framed, no one knows; that that should bother all of us, whether we’re cis or trans, identify as men, women, or use another term entirely, because our governments should serve their residents, not just those of us who fit into dueling check-boxes.
Another from Miami Dade County’s implementation of CEDAW (I’m sorry for the cruddy resolution and even sorrier for the fact that this bill was posted in an unsearchable format):
Another example, this one from San Francisco’s groundbreaking CEDAW ordinance, from the definitions section:
(e) “Gender” shall mean the way society constructs the difference between women and men, focusing on their different roles, responsibilities, opportunities and needs, rather than their biological differences.
This language assumes that gender is a binary, when for it is really more of a bimododal distribution:
An image of a bimodal distribution — I did not color this pink and blue; Wikipedia did.
[Note: a reader pointed out that between some and many non-binary folks do not consider gender a graphable distribution at all; I do, which is why I wrote this post this way, but I wanted to give space to that view here.]
If you’d like sources on this, that gender isn’t as simple as tab-A or slot-B, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll drop you some of the excellent studies and stories; or just take this as a premise and go out into the world tomorrow and test it yourself; or just think about M, and about whether you think it would be ok for anyone in our community to be uncounted because of their identity.
- I used this list of all 38 US cities with a CEDAW ordinance in the United States, using the Cities for CEDAW list.
- I searched those bills for the following terms: “binary,” “trans,” and “queer,” (because I wasn’t sure whether people would spell “nonbinary” and “transgender” and “genderqueer” the same way I would, because as I’ve mentioned before, the terminology in this space is still evolving.
- About half of the cities’ ordinances and resolutions were posted in a non-searchable form (like Kentucky’s example at the top), so I read through them with my own two eyes, looking for language inclusive of transgender and nonbinary people.
Below is a spreadsheet with links to each ordinance and resolution I reviewed, courtesy of Cities for CEDAW. I found only 2 that mentioned transgender or nonbinary people, and only one city has that language in the operative part of the ordinance, as opposed to an executive office directive or unfunded resolution:
- Pittsburgh, PA has inclusive language in their resolution
- The Mayor’s Office in Los Angeles has inclusive language in the executive directive, but none in their actual city ordinance.
A Quick Note on Blame
I’m not listing these cities to shame them. Many of these cities — including San Francisco most notably — passed their version of CEDAW decades ago; not before trans and nonbinary people existed, since trans and nonbinary people have always existed, but before trans and nonbinary people had voices in most halls of power, had someone in the room making sure they were included. If you’ve found this post because your city is listed here, a great next step would be amending your local ordinance to match Pittsburgh’s solid language and then get to work implementing those changes at home.
Full Summary of CEDAW Ordinances in the US and Whether They Explicitly Include Transgender and Nonbinary People
Note: in reading through these, I found that Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center proposed doing Miami Dade County’s Gender analysis for $18,270; Cincinnati set-aside $8,000; which is in the low-end of the range I’ve heard but is another good datapoint from back in 2015.
I’m going to be shopping this language around to see where we can improve it; if you have ways you would like to see it changed, please let me know!