Racial marginalization among MTFs

Sel Julian Hwahng, research investigator at National Development and Research Institutes, Inc. in New York City, conducted an ethnographic study from January-December 2005 entitled Marginalization and HIV vulnerabilities among male-to-female transgendered comunities. From the research, Hwahng, a female-to-male transgendered person, concluded that although economic resources were a high priority for all MTF (male-to-female transgendered) communities, it was racial stratification that was actually the organizing principle that determined access to institutions and resources. “So if a given MTF community was comprised of members who occupied the bottom of the racial hierarchy in the U.S., then that community would have definitely been impacted by that racial marginalization”, he says in the following interview.

The research methods consisted of 15 qualitative interviews, 120 hours of participant-observation, and a review of data from 440 surveys collected from an quantitative study on this same transgender population in New York City that he is also affiliated with.

Graduated from New York University in the department of Performance Studies with an emphasis in Cultural Studies, Sel Julian Hwahng, Ph.D., is a research investigator with the Transgender Project, Institute for Treatment and Services Research, National Development and Research Institutes, Inc., in New York City, U.S.A. He is also a Visiting Scholar and Adjunct Professor at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. He is a Consultant for the South Korean NGO The Korean Council for Girls and Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum and is on the Board of Directors of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC).

The MTF (male-to-female transgendered) communities are impacted by stigmatizations, according to one of you conclusions. What determinant stigmas could you identify in your research?

From my research I concluded that although economic resources were a high priority for all MTF (male-to-female transgendered) communities, it was racial stratification that was actually the organizing principle that determined access to institutions and resources. So if a given MTF community was comprised of members who occupied the bottom of the racial hierarchy in the U.S., then that community would have definitely been impacted by that racial marginalization.

Being called trangendered people is an issue/a question to these community members? Why is that?

It is important to use terms that in anthropology would be considered emic—that is how members of a given community refer to themselves, which also refer to the internal structural or functional elements of a particular community system. To begin with, most of the MTF communities in New York City were low-income, people of color (that is, non-White), and often were immigrants. Most of these communities did not use “transgendered,” they used other terms that had developed in their communities over time and/or may have been English translations of terms that fit closest to the terms they were accustomed to using in their countries of origin.

The term “transgendered” in the U.S. actually arose from White, economically privileged academic and scientific contexts, so it makes sense that most of these MTF communities who do not have access to these social and economic networks would not be using the same terms. I actually discovered other terms that were used such as fem queens, nu women, transvestites, t-girls, drags, entertainers, queens, girls, etc. However, I acknowledge that I will use “transgendered” when communicating with certain scientific and academic audiences because this is a term these audiences comprehend. And I will be using this term in this interview, because I am presuming a similar kind of audience here. However, I would not necessarily use this term if I was to communicate to specific MTF communities.

What is an interesting phenomenon developing in the U.S./North America is that many lawyers, legal scholars, activists, and advocates that work with transgendered people are now often using the term “transwomen” to refer to people who are MTF. From what I understand, many advocates for MTFs who are in the prison system, for instance, are trying to change the court and prison systems so that MTFs would serve time in the women’s prisons instead of the men’s prisons, because in the men’s prisons they are often brutally harassed, raped, and sometimes killed. These advocates thus feel that using “transwomen” has more strategic power by emphasizing that these people identify as female or women, at least some of the time, and so should be placed in women’s instead of men’s prisons.

For those of us involved in public health and social scientific research, however, using “transwomen” could be problematic. I have found, for instance, that there were some members in all the MTF communities I have studied so far who identified as male and/or men some of the time, even if they also identified as female and/or women at other times. Of course, there were also members in some of these same communities who identified as female and/or women all the time. But it was not so clear-cut and it seems that in many communities there were often both types of people involved in the same social network, and that what unified them may not necessarily have been if they identified full-time or part-time as female and/or women but were often structured around shared race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, immigration status, and that they all identified somewhere along the MTF spectrum.

This is why I prefer the term “MTF” rather than “transwoman”. Although neither “transwoman” nor “MTF” was used by members of these communities, I feel like “MTF” at least captured the spectrum of identities and behaviors that I observed, and thus relates to the internal structural and functional elements of these community systems. But perhaps the ideal is to get away from using a “catch-all” term and to instead use the diversity of terms that these communities used.

When I attended the 11th World Congress on Public Health/8th Brazilian Congress on Collective Health conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2006, I heard researchers invoking four terms for different groups of MTFs—travestis, transvestites, transgendered, and transsexual. I wonder what the differences are among these terms within a Brazilian context, and if there are also other terms that transgender communities use in Brazil?

You studied three different ethnocultural communities. What important differences could you spot among them?

I discovered 6 MTF communities but at this time have conducted research mostly on 3 of them, which were the following: a low-income, non-immigrant Black (African American and Caribbean American) and Latina/o House Ball community; a low-income, immigrant and often undocumented (that is, illegally staying in the U.S.) Asian sex worker community; and a middle-class, non-immigrant White crossdressers community.

The most obvious differences were that each community was racially, culturally, and economically different. And also each community occupied and circulated within different geographic locales in New York City. I also observed that some or all of the members in each of these 3 communities participated in sex work. The House Ball and Asian sex worker communities participated in survival sex work whereas the White crossdressers participated in recreational sex work. This was to be expected given the class differences between the low-income versus the middle-class communities.

What was really interesting to me, however, was the difference in privilege between the House Ball and Asian sex workers communities. I found that although the Asian sex workers were immigrants and also were often undocumented—which if you can surmise in the post-9/11 U.S. climate is a rather precarious position to be in—they actually exhibited more privilege than the House Ball community members who were non-immigrant and at least on paper would be recognized as U.S. citizens with all the rights associated with citizenship. I thus realized that among certain low-socioeconomic MTF communities racial privilege sometimes trumped citizenship privilege. This is probably due in part to the particular stigmas associated with MTF (male-to-female) transgenderism, which I contend are often far greater than stigmas associated with FTM (female-to-male) transgenderism. So that the House Ball community members comprised of the most marginalized races and ethnicities, such as African American, Puerto Rican, and Dominican ethnicities, often engaged in street solicitation and exhibited higher HIV vulnerabilities than the Asian sex worker community members.

The Asian sex worker community was comprised of Thai, Filipina/o, Malaysian, and Chinese and other Asian ethnicities that were somewhat marginalized but not as marginalized as the races and ethnicities of the House Ball community. The Asian sex workers demonstrated more privilege by engaging in club and online solicitation and never engaged in street solicitation, and exhibited moderate HIV vulnerabilities.

How different were they in terms of social inequities/income and education?

There were vast social inequities and differences in income. The White crossdressers displayed the greatest economic capital because they participated in sex work as a recreational/leisure activity instead of as a way to pay for food, shelter, basic necessities, etc. Most of the White crossdressers I met had jobs in the legal economy. Both the Asian sex workers and House Ball members engaged in sex work to pay for food, shelter, basic necessities, bodily modification expenses, etc. but several Asian sex workers emphatically stated that they were paid more per client than Black or Latina/o MTF sex workers. This leads me to believe that Asian sex workers may have been generating more income than House Ball members, although I was not able to validate this since I was not privy to comparing actual incomes.

As far as education, the White crossdressers certainly appeared to be the most educated, most of them with some higher education (that is, college or university level), and often with college degrees. Many of the House Ball members had not completed high school. The Asian sex workers seemed to have at least all completed high school but the process of immigration may be selecting an already privileged group.

What I mean by this is that the ability to emigrate into the U.S. from Asia may have presented innumerable barriers for Asian MTFs and I thus wonder if having some education may have helped tremendously in assisting an MTF from Asia to emigrate to the U.S. Perhaps Asian MTFs who have not completed high school may not even get a chance to emigrate to the U.S. because the combination of low-socioeconomic status and MTF stigma is too great to overcome the geographic distance. I believe this may also be true for Latina/o MTFs but the relatively closer geographic distance between Latin America and the U.S. may allow more Latina/o MTFs of low-socioeconomic status, including less education, to emigrate to the U.S. I write this because in several Asian countries there appear to be extensive MTF sex worker networks often comprised of Asian MTFs of low-socioeconomic status with less education, but I have not seen this necessarily replicated in the U.S.

Which of them had a higher negotiating power with clients (such as condom use)? Do this affect the rates of HIV soroprevalence among the communities members?

Tthere was a differential — White crossdressers had the most negotiating power, followed by Asian sex workers, and the House Ball members had the lowest negotiating power. Negotiating power with clients does correlate with HIV seroprevalence in these communities but this may not be a direct cause and effect situation. For instance, other studies on MTF sex workers have shown that HIV-positive MTF sex workers were actually most often infected with HIV from their primary non-paying partners, not necessarily from clients. However, an MTF community that generally exhibits low negotiating power with clients may be indicative of community members who exhibit low self-esteem in general, so that these members may have low negotiating power in all types of relationships and transactions, including non-paying relationships with primary partners. This low self-esteem may translate into non-condom use and engaging in situations where these MTFs are more vulnerable to violence and rape by both primary partners and clients.

How strong is the racial stratification among them? What other disparities and discrepancies should be analyzed?

Racial stratification was a central organizing principle of these communities. MTF transgender stigma, specifically, should also be analyzed in conjunction with racial stratification, along with immigration status, class, education, age, etc. I am currently developing a paradigm based on Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Karen Glover’s model of the tri-racial stratification system in the U.S. comprised of three hierarchical strata—Whites, Honorary Whites, and Collective Black. I think this model was at least partially based on the Brazilian racial stratification of blancos, pardos, and negros. Within each stratum there are also hierarchies and so different racial and ethnic groups may be constantly competing against each other for higher echelons within a given stratum. I have actually re-named the strata as Whites, Stratified Privileged Subordinated, and Collective Black, and am very interested in how a transgender-inflected tri-racial stratification system operates with regard to transgendered communities in the U.S.

For instance, I placed both the House Ball and Asian sex worker communities within the Collective Black stratum, but the Asian sex workers occupied that stratum because they were MTF. If they were non-transgendered and heterosexual, they may very well have been included within the Stratified Privileged Subordinated stratum as they assimilated into the U.S. But because they were MTFs, they were in the Collective Black stratum, and I don’t think this group could have entered a more privileged stratum no matter how long they assimilated in the U.S. because of the MTF stigma they experienced. Because of relative racial privilege, however, the Asian sex workers occupied a higher echelon than the House Ball community within the Collective Black stratum, which did manifest in differential HIV vulnerabilities between the two communities.

I also found that the majority of clients in all 3 communities were White, middle-class, non-transgendered men. (A non-transgendered man is someone who was assigned male at birth, grew up as a boy, and now identifies as male and/or man. This is to distinguish from a transgendered man who was assigned female at birth but now identifies as male and/or man.) It thus appeared that the marginalization of MTF communities, then, had something to do with protecting the reputations of these non-transgendered men who sexually engaged with MTFs, and the stigmatization of MTF transgenderism actually buttressed White male hegemony.

Anything else would you like to highlight from the results and conclusions of your research?

I would like to emphasize the need for comparative in-depth analysis between transgendered communities. Much public health research on MTFs, for example, has examined racial differences within HIV seroprevalence but these differences are often presented abstractly as quantitative figures. I think it is important to understand how people are organized socially and how they live their lives on a day-to-day basis. What are their thoughts, feelings, fears, and hopes? How do they live their lives in comparison to other transgendered communities within a shared geographic locale? And how do they view other transgendered communities and people? I think this would facilitate the development of more effective public health interventions. And just as importantly, this type of approach would humanize a population that has often experienced great discrimination and dehumanization both historically and currently.

I am also very interested in interventions to connect people and communities who usually have no contact with each other, such as the 3 communities I have described here. To get a little philosophical here, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari discuss the concepts of “destratification” and “deterritorialization” in their work and I am interested in how to destratify the racial territories that have not only been socially hierarchized but also internally hierarchized within many of our psyches. I haven’t come up with any definitive answers to this, although right now I’m examining MTF peer-education and support networks as one possible method for intervention, which is influenced by Paulo Freire’s contributions.

Finally, I’m interested in expanding a comparative analysis to also contrast transgendered communities and racial stratification in different countries. For instance, it appears that in Brazil and South Korea extensive MTF sex worker systems have developed throughout various regions of both countries. It would be interesting to understand why and how these developed, especially in one country that is considered highly racially stratified within its nation-state borders (Brazil) and another country that is racially stratified within a transnational neo-colonial and imperialist framework (South Korea). How do geo-political economies and hegemony operate in these respective countries with regard to MTF gender and sexuality? And can these systems be related to each other and to MTF sex worker systems in the U.S.? Some interesting questions to further explore…