February 17, 2023

BERNSTEIN | On Transphobia and Brianna Ghey

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Content warning: This article has mentions of transphobia and death.

On Saturday, Feb. 11, a transgender girl in the United Kingdom named Brianna Ghey was stabbed to death in a park. She was 16. She was a loved and loving daughter, granddaughter and sister. Her social media account spread positivity to other young trans people. Two 15 year-old assailants have been charged with her murder and are under investigation for committing a hate crime. This tragedy is shocking — in the way that it stops you in your tracks and shakes you to your core. It was not, however, shocking in the way that it couldn’t have been predicted.

British lawyer and trans discrimination barrister Robin Moira White called what happened to Brianna “a tragedy waiting to happen” in her recent column in The Independent. She writes that hatred toward trans people was building to this moment. “Debate” over the existence and lives of trans people, schools refusing to teach that hating transgender people is wrong, lack of spaces where transgender individuals can feel safe, constant platforming of transphobic comedians who bemoan that “you just can’t make jokes about anything anymore” or transphobic pundits like Ann Coulter, who visited Cornell in November — the fire of transphobia today is stoked well, and this past weekend it burned strongly enough to take the life of a young girl.

There are so many spaces where trans people aren’t welcome and where their very existence is put into question. In the aftermath of Brianna’s death, it’s easy to say that “no one would have wanted this.” But is that true of people who denied her and still deny other trans people their right to exist? People who ignore her reality and close their doors to her? What else could those who push “anti-transgender” policies, ideas or agendas — and those who platform them — really want? 

When the fire of transphobia is allowed to burn, those who wish to eliminate transness see their wish come true. 

At the heart of any fire is the kindling. In this case, the kindling is the spaces where trans and genderqueer individuals or anyone who doesn’t otherwise fit into traditional gender roles can’t feel that they belong.

At least, that’s what I think it is. I am a cisgender straight man who operates heavily in some of these often unwelcoming spaces — mainly Greek Life and varsity athletics. 

Greek Life as a system perpetuates the gender binary, traditional gender roles and heteronormativity. From peers in Greek Life, I’ve heard stupid jokes about pronouns and defenses of outwardly transphobic comedians. Meanwhile, in athletics across the country, trans people — trans women in particular — are actively shunned or banned. Trans athletes are constantly villainized and made the subject of debate.

I can’t speak to the thoughts, trepidations and tribulations of a trans person who may or may not ever feel comfortable in these spaces — but I can say that I know transphobia persists within them.

The fire must be extinguished. From its littlest belittlements to its highest crests of hatred and vitriol, transphobia must be ousted entirely — or else we run the risk of letting what happened to Brianna happen again elsewhere.

Since I first read about Brianna’s death, I’ve struggled to think about anything else. The thought that it was both predictable and in fact the ultimate goal of those who promote or platform transphobia has been inescapable. Constantly, I’ve been asking myself about what could have  been done, and what can be done in the future. How can I be a better ally? How can this tragedy be prevented?

The first step, I think, is to be introspective about transphobia at Cornell and in the spaces — classes, clubs, extracurriculars, teams or what have you — I operate. Why are places where I feel comfortable — like a fraternity or a football team — so often unwelcoming to trans people? How does prejudice pervade these places, and how can it be eliminated?

The second step is to take necessary action to promote inclusivity within those spaces and beyond. This means to wholeheartedly condemn transphobia wherever it’s seen and to be actively inviting to all. The platforming of transphobes and the entertainment of “debates” about trans people must cease.

The third step is to join in on the broader dialogue about transphobia across campus. Where this dialogue already exists, in safe spaces, it must be amplified; where it does not, in spaces that may not always be safe, it must be initiated.

I know that as a cisgender writer, I have a responsibility in this article to boost the voices of those I seek to empower. Trans voices at Cornell and in Ithaca should be listened to and supported. I hope that the promotion of the following organizations can serve towards that amplification:

Trans Resources at Cornell can be found on the Student and Campus Life website along with information about health benefits, housing issues, resource center contact information and other frequently asked questions. Ithaca Transgender Group is a confidential peer-led support group for anyone in Ithaca who identifies as transgender, genderqueer or anywhere else on the gender spectrum. On campus, student groups such as Transitioning at Cornell and others can be found for student-led support. Cornell’s Mental Health Resources for the LGBTQ+ Community are available through the Weill Cornell website. Lastly, a GoFundMe campaign in Brianna Ghey’s name in support of her family is available and has already raised over $100,000.

Brianna’s death should strike us all as horrifying, tragic and unnecessary. She shouldn’t have to be a martyr — and neither should any other trans person. In this moment, however, we have to come together to stomp out the fire of transphobia.

Daniel Bernstein (he/him) is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Feel the Bern runs alternate Thursdays this semester.