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Rhode Island College Chaplain the Rev. Dante Tavolaro

About 1.4 million people – 0.6 percent of adults in the United States – identify as trans, according to a 2016 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, the most recent demographics available regarding the group. Rhode Island College Chaplain the Rev. Dante Tavolaro ’11 counts himself among that number.

“Equal rights for the trans community should be important for all Americans because everybody deserves the right to feel safe when they leave their homes,” Tavolaro said. Trans is short for transsexual, which means someone whose identity or expression differs from their biological sex or from assigned strict male/female identities.

According to a report from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), at least 22 trans and gender non-conforming people were killed nationally in 2019. That marked the fifth year in a row that at least 20 trans people were killed, the HRC said.

Rhode Island College Professor of Anthopology Elijah Edelman, who also identifies as a trans man, said trans people have become lightning rods for hate, for whatever reasons.

“When I started out two decades ago researching LGBTQ and trans communities of color in the U.S., people didn’t separate trans issues from queer issues,” Edelman said. “Now that certain things in the gay world have become more socially acceptable, trans people have turned into these weird outliers who are scapegoated at any given time.”

Edelman said trans women of color are targeted the most. “They embody so much of what we’re told to hate in America,” he said. 

Tavolaro called the deaths among trans women of color “a convergence of racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia.”

He said the violence towards trans people parallels the type of hate that African-Americans and women have endured during their fights for equality.

“The more progress is made, the more people who are against that progress lash out; that’s what I think we’re seeing in the trans community today,” Tavolaro said. “There are places of acceptance, there are places of progress, and yet each year is deadlier for trans people than the year prior.” 

Tavolaro explained that violence against trans people is rooted in fear.

“There’s fear that the trans and non-conforming community is changing the narrative that we’ve been taught regarding men being men and women being women,” he said. “Being a man or being a woman is not strictly defined solely by genitalia. As the trans and gender non-conforming community moves more into the mainstream of society, it requires a reconsideration of how we define human identity and expression. For some, that change is scary and leads to a place of lashing out against trans.”

Trans have faced opposition from religious groups like the 15-million member Southern Baptist Convention, an evangelical body that holds that trans identities are invalid, and that men and women have different spiritual gifts, which makes them suited to different social and religious roles. Furthermore, other far-right Christian groups such as the Family Research Council – whose mission is to advance faith, family and freedom in public policy from a biblical worldview – argues that the “truth about sexual differences is objectively knowable and that redefining it will be harmful.”

Tavolaro said such talk is disrespectful to the plight of the trans community.

“When any group of people are talked about and demeaned as other, as not worthy of full inclusion and protection, it does harm to that marginalized community and to the general population because it fosters fear and hate,” he said. “It also doesn’t help with the emotional, mental and spiritual formation of a person to hear from the dominant culture that their identity is a threat from which the population must be protected.”